The future arrives on 52nd street

We were standing on Sixth Avenue in the middle of Manhattan the other day, trying to hail a cab. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper and barely moving, and the cabs all had “off-duty” signs lit up, their drivers chattering on cell phones as they inched along.

We were about to give up and join the hordes on the sidewalk for a 20-block hike, when a pedicab rolled up next to us. The man pedaling the bicycle motioned to an open, raised divan he was pulling and urged us to get in. He told us he would take us to 52nd street for $12.

We stepped up into this bizarre chariot and sat on the mini-loveseat, which was surprisingly comfortable. Our “engine” pumped his legs, and we began a quiet, serene roll up Sixth Avenue.

Soon we were rolling briskly past all of the cars alongside us, who seemed like they were barely moving at all. Cab drivers gave us dirty looks. Pedestrians gawked in disbelief with what seemed like wonderment laced with jealously etched in their faces. We sat high above the street, refreshed by a mild breeze, admiring the chiseled cornices at the tops of the old buildings and the open sky.

With no meter to monitor and no driver to distract us with a phone call to his cousin in Yemen, our thoughts soon drifted.

We thought about the recent announcement from OPEC that it is powerless to stop the rising price of oil, now nearing $140 per barrel.

We thought about the news report which told us that the U.S. military, which consumes 340,000 barrels of oil each day, is sending up a B-1 stealth bomber filled with synthetic fuel on a test flight to see if it is possible to break the sound barrier using the fake stuff.

We thought about the TV interview with a guy from Japan Airlines, who said the carrier was switching to lighter plastic spoons in a desperate effort to save fuel on its jets. Another aircraft exec told the TV reporter that his company would soon start charging passengers $15 for each piece of checked luggage.

We thought about the gas station owner in Oklahoma, who was trying to adjust the price on his pumps to $4.06 per gallon only to discover that the pricing dials in the pump had not been built to go higher than $3.99.

A stretch limousine loomed ahead to our right. It seemed to be about 40 feet long. As we easily rolled passed, we could see some well-dressed passengers in the back seat. They were pointing at us and yelling at the driver. Probably something about paying $150 for a ride and getting clocked by an old man on a bicycle and a guy in a rumpled business suit who was laughing at them.

As we approached the next intersection, filled with gridlock, our human-powered vehicle easily glided between the stalled cars, our navigator happily ignoring the meaningless red traffic light.

We looked back over our shoulder. The stretch limo was motionless three blocks behind. As we rolled forward, it seemed to be going backward.

Our pedicab pulled up to the curb at 52nd street, less than 15 minutes after we had climbed aboard, but in what now seemed to us to be a different century. We handed the man $20. He smiled as he unzipped a leather pouch that was stuffed with cash and pushed our bill into the middle. He didn’t say anything, but he gave us a knowing and amused look, as if he had just given us a gift that he knew would surprise and please us.

His smile said: “I am the future, and I am already here.”

And then he pedaled away, looking for his next customer. A blaring car horn interrupted our reverie. It was the limo driver, demanding that we get out of his way.