Late one afternoon nearly two decades ago, having made my way down the length of Manhattan’s west side, I met my grandfather at a quaint Italian restaurant in the West Village. He greeted me in the vestibule, gave me a hug, and asked how I’d thought to recommend this particular trattoria. I explained that an old buddy who’d grown up in New York had suggested it, but I quickly added that in the near future neither of us would have to depend on personal recommendations. That same friend had recently offered me a demonstration of Vindigo (a precursor to Yelp, the social networking site that rates local businesses). Once installed on a Palm Pilot (a precursor to the iPhone), the app would list all the restaurants near any given Manhattan intersection, sorted by cuisine. After a user selected the restaurant, Vindigo would offer walking directions.
I’d expected my grandfather to guffaw—oh, the wonders of modern technology! Instead, he frowned. “Marc, when I was a young salesman traveling between hosiery mills in the small towns of North Carolina, I’d get off a train with nothing but a suitcase and make my way over to a friendly looking stranger. ‘Is there a good place to eat around here?’ More often than not, that guy would direct me to a hole in the wall or a diner a few blocks away. With some frequency, we’d strike up a conversation—sometimes he would join me for the meal. He’d tell me when he served in the war and share some of the local folklore. After a few minutes we’d invariably be talking about our families. That’s how I got to understand the world—by talking to strangers.