Segways and Social Stratification

Segways and Social Stratification

Segways and Social Stratification
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 21 2003 3:40 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Paris. Today's audio: Tad Friend comments on the view from the Eiffel Tower. Today's video: Another day on the Segways takes us to the Eiffel Tower, Paris' premier landmark.

The Arc de Triomphe is clear of traffic only early in the morning
The Arc de Triomphe is clear of traffic only early in the morning
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A cold, rainy day in Paris; this morning Amanda cocked one eye at the window and declined to arise for our Segway trip to the Eiffel Tower. She had, in any case, to exchange a pair of black sandals on rue Mouffetard; both shoes had proved to be for her right foot. When she phoned the store, the salesman denied the mistake and then refused to countenance her suggestions for how they could fix the problem without making her bring the shoes all the way back. "Je suis desolé," he said, and hung up. You hear that a lot here: No, there is no iron in the hotel that works; no, the hotel staff does not know of a manicurist in Paris; yes, we told your caller from the United States that you were not staying at the hotel: Je suis desolé. In theory it means, "I'm sorry," but it is invariably said with a curt shrug that translates as, "I'm sorry that I have allowed you to intrude upon my consciousness for one instant with your ridiculous needs."

Christian and I had gotten advance permission to take our Segways up the Eiffel Tower's elevator to the second platform, 380 feet above the city, but when we arrived we were told that security had been tightened after the terrorist bombings in Casablanca, and so the Segways must remain earthbound. "Je suis desolé," etc., etc. As it turns out, the platform was a gauntlet of girders, staircases, and rain-drenched tourists, so it was just as well that we didn't have them with us. As we looked out on the city, feeling sleepy and aimless and somewhat trapped high in the air, a Nepalese man with a windblown map asked me to point out Notre-Dame, and we fell into conversation.

Indara, a middle-aged clerk with a kind smile and bad teeth, was one of the 15,000 Nepalese who work in Kuwait. He sends money home to his family every month. After 14 years, he had finally saved enough to make his first trip to Europe but not enough for any of his family to join him. He talked eagerly and confidingly about how the Kuwaitis treat all Asian guest workers like animals; how the massacre of the Nepalese royal family was never properly investigated by the government, which is sickeningly corrupt; and how, if you support the government, the Maoist rebels will kill you, but if you support the rebels, the government soldiers will kill you. After 10 minutes, we shook hands, wished each other a safe journey, and parted.

As Christian and I were trudging down the stairs, it occurred to me that Indara would never have approached us if we had been standing on our Segways. All the people who have come up to talk to us about the machines—the hundreds of people, by now—have had the look of being able to afford one, or at least to rent one for a few hours. The poor don't approach. The other day on the rue Mouffetard, a few yards from Dr. Evil's shoe store, we bought two boxes of extremely tasty raspberries from a fruit vendor in his traditional French blue coat. (After eating the first one, Amanda said, "It's like you put a small, furry animal in your mouth that dissolves into a cloud of sweetness.") The vendor eyed our Segways but said nothing, even when other shoppers began to ask questions. After I explained about the gyroscopes and the tilt sensors, he said, "Technologie" in a low voice, as if it were an idea such as "celebrity" or "immortality" that would be forever beyond his grasp, handed me my change, and turned away.

Like cell phones and computers, the Segway will commence its life as a device for the rich. And like those earlier technologies, it will gradually develop an accompanying etiquette. The two hotels we have stayed at here have seemed delighted to have us ride our Segways into the lobby, to park and recharge them for us in their luggage rooms, even to have us ride them in the elevators up to our rooms. Their sensible belief is that the hotel itself shines in the glow of our cosmopolitan style. After Segways become commonplace, they will be viewed by hotel managers not as a branding opportunity but as a burden on physical space and employee time.

When that happens, it is by no means certain that the Segway will continue to be ridden indoors; propriety, for now in bewildered abeyance, may come down against these frolicsome man-chariots. The verdict will occur when we decide—probably at about the same time as we finally come up with a name for the current decade—whether the Segway is at heart a form of aided walking, like a wheelchair, or of regulatable transportation, like a bicycle.

That determination will affect a host of other questions: Where will one park them? How fast should one go on a crowded sidewalk? Should one pass on the left or the right? As the machine has no horn, how will one warn pedestrians of a wish to overtake? Walkers don't respond quickly to an "Excuse me"—they don't expect trouble from the rear—but "Segwaying on your left" is cumbersome and inscrutable, and "Make way, lowly biped!" is probably not quite the thing. One wants to convey apology together with lordly resolve, a tricky combination. Perhaps the French have a phrase that would suit.

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Tad Friend, our mobile correspondent for "Segways in Paris," has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and now writes the magazine's "Letter From California."