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Friday, December 8, 2023

The Robots Can’t Take Taxi-Whistling Away From Me

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When I was 13, I had a counselor who used to taxi-whistle to round up — or shut up — his troops, whenever circumstances dictated. For reasons I no longer recall, if I ever knew them, I became obsessed with learning how to do the whistle myself, and ceaselessly pestered my counselor to teach me. But it’s harder than you might think to learn; weeks passed, yet all I had to show for my efforts was a lot of spittle and a couple of near-fainting episodes. Then one night, as I was lying on my bed huffing and puffing before lights out, it just clicked. It was dumb luck, really. The elements required to pull it off somehow all lined up on one particular try, and from that moment on, I had it.

I sometimes refer to taxi-whistling as the one actually useful skill I possess. That’s partly for comic effect, but it’s also partly true. For one, taxi-whistling can, in fact, be helpful in hailing cabs. My daughter and I were once standing on 11th Avenue and 23rd Street on the West Side of Manhattan, near the Hudson River, on an icy-cold February night. She had just finished gymnastics practice, and we had been waiting for a cab for what seemed like forever (this was before Uber), slowly freezing to death. A handful of blocks uptown, I finally spotted an available hack, but he had flicked on his turn signal and was about to veer off into oblivion without noticing us. Then, “Thuh-WEEEEEET!” I belted one out. The driver shut off his blinker, turned our way and picked us up. Considering how relieved we felt, we might as well have been rescued by a passing ship on a deserted island.

Taxi-whistling has other practical applications. I’ve used it to get people’s attention for a wedding toast, to summon my son to come closer to shore after swimming too far out from the beach and to alert bears to my presence while hiking (it beats “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”). And it’s the thing I cite when forced to play the awful corporate “Tell Us Something About Yourself We Don’t Know” game. For the low-key misanthrope, it’s an answer that’s the right mix of mildly interesting but not the least bit actually revealing. My not-so-super superpower is also a pretty good parlor trick, one that’s especially popular with little kids, nephews and nieces. On summer days, my grandfather used to captivate me and my siblings by lighting cigars with his eyeglasses, employing the Coke-bottle-thick lenses to turn the heat from the sun into actual fire. Taxi-whistling is sort of like that, only not as cool.

As proud as I am of my whistle, though, the truth is that it was never all that useful for hailing cabs, even when it ostensibly was. And someday soon, its nominal function will most likely go the way of the dodo, its demise brought on by ride-sharing apps and the ongoing loss of interest in all things that aren’t internet-enabled.

That’s fine with me. As I see it, the real pleasure of the taxi whistle is its outmodedness; the core of its charm is atavistic. In a world where virtually everything we do is mediated by technology, taxi-whistling is old-fashioned and physical: With just two fingers and one not even very deep breath, you can produce a delightful, if slightly shocking, noise. A loud, compelling statement — “Yo, over here!” — is always at the ready, literally at your fingertips. Nothing needs to be plugged in, charged or connected to a network. Not a single password (no passwords!) or two-factor authentication is required.

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