Porn This Way

Just to balance this post out

The last few weeks were nothing but a blur both at and away from work. Most of the fares I took had something to do with the holidays, whether it was taking shoppers and their purchases home, picking up workers staying at the offices late, or the occasional Santa who dressed up for the purpose of letting it all go and getting drunk. There were a few exceptions to this and one of them took place a few Mondays ago late at night.

I dropped off someone in the Meatpacking District and decided to turn uptown to see if anyone was still coming out of Penn Station. Someone hailed my cab and after letting him in, things took an unexpected turn:

“Happy Holidays! Where to?”

“East Side, 3 Ave in the 30’s.”

“Sure thing. How’d your night go?”

“Not too bad but you know how it goes. Tried to get my rocks off and that didn’t work. Heading home now.”

I’ve had these types of people before but not on a weeknight and certainly not anyone that came out and stated that right off of the bat. I didn’t even mention my work situation or how I owe a boatload of money on my student loans but out of nowhere, came this question that hit me like a ton of bricks:

“How would you like to make $10,000 tonight?”

“I beg your pardon!”

“I’m being serious. I’m offering you $10,000 in exchange for recording you getting off and I’d only film you from the neck down.”

Go on…

“You see, I’m a producer of porn. Even though I’m gay and you’re cute, you’re not what I’m after. Well, in terms of a romantic relationship. But you’re the kind of person I’m interested in for the market.”

“The what?” I was amazed that I didn’t drive off the street but getting crosstown was never so difficult, even with a light amount of traffic.

“You heard me. Most people think that porn stars have these great bodies and tons of stamina but in reality, what sells now is average. The average body and look. Most people who want to watch others fuck are looking for those that remind them of themselves. That’s what’s popular these days.”

“I see.”

“That’s good. I’m having a hard time fully seeing you but it’s dark out.”

Sure enough, I turned on the dome lights and let him get a good look at me, even though I had no idea what he was thinking. I let about 30 seconds of silence go by before he spoke again:

“So, are you average?”

“Well, I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to.”

“I can already tell that you’re not interested.”

Needless to say, it was at this point that the cop cars and armory vehicles that were forcing me to take a detour because of the Charity: Ball came into play and threw a vehicular monkey wrench into this conversation.

“You’re getting quiet.”

“That’s because 50 cabs are trying to converge in front of the Armory here and I’m trying to get around.”

“It’s alright. I can tell that you’re quite scared to do this.”

“Whatever gave ya that idea?”

“I can see your look through the rear-view mirror. You’re too hesitant even after what I offered you.”

“It’s new to me. What can I say?”

Of course, not much else. Eventually, it was one in a ton of fares that seemed right out of a bad sequel of Scrooged.

And sure, I could have used the money. Would I really do that, and risk my reputation? Have a copy floating around the internet? Start a more lucrative career whoring my body out for anonymous masses to get off to?

You already know the answer, but the people I picked up from the Ball later that night didn’t. They were complete opposites of Mr. Boogie Nights and part of the reason why I couldn’t leave the job I love, even if it would take months before I’d make $10,000.

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Yes Virginia, there is a Staten Island

A Milk Carton sign on Hylan Boulevard. Who knew?

If one didn’t believe in the Big Apple’s outermost hinterland, than one may as well not have believed in the idea of the 5 Boroughs under the Blue, White, and Orange flag. Many New Yorkers have heard of this mythical place which the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, the world’s largest garbage dump reclaimed landfill site, and the “cast” of Jersey Shore call home but few have ever seen it for themselves up close. Heck, even my instructor at the Taxi School had only been here a handful of times in the 12 years or so that he’d been driving. Out of all the questions that I’ve been asked by my passengers who realized that I wasn’t like the other cabdrivers, there was only one that I gave a short answer to:

“Ever take anyone to Staten Island?”

I had no idea if I’d ever get here and actually have someone in my cab at the same time. Like most things in New York, the ride to Staten Island cost a fortune and doesn’t happen instantly, which leads to many people forgoing the journey down the Gowanus and over the Verrazano Bridge. Tolls recently went up on that crossing too and it’s gotten so high that one can’t mention the ride there without it and how much the MTA acts like a troll to the people who wish to leave the island to visit the rest of civilization. The wildly popular Staten Island Ferry that commuters and tourists rely on for scenic views runs to and from Lower Manhattan 24 hours a day, but like so many other forms of late-night transportation, after-hours service can be spotty and infrequent.

So sure enough, last Saturday night was like any other, except that it was during the holiday season. Ask any Cabdriver what a holiday night is like and you’ll probably get some version of the same answer:

“Nuts.”

Of course, mine was too. I’ve probably told a few dozen of my passengers this month that if I spent my entire waking existence in New York, I would have no idea that the rest of the United States is still mired in the aftermath of a recession. There’s been too many times where people have nearly come to blows to get into my taxi and certainly a few weekend revelers have not been shy about stating the amount they spent on a table with bottle service at a popular new club.

I don’t think that this needs to be expressed out loud but I’ll say this for anyone who’s never been there at night:

We hate going through Times Square.

Maybe it’s the turn restrictions that don’t let you go left on 46 and 44 Streets, or the fact that Broadway has been shut down to just about anything with wheels on it, or the Police blocking as much of 7 Ave as they wish, whenever they wish. Or it could be the witching hour when all of the theaters let out and clog up the arteries as far as the eye can see. Some of us can be irked by the tourist with the Southern drawl who is dying to know where the Olive Garden is or who waited for a shot of someone like this:

Naked Cowboy – Times Square

Even though I’m ashamedly guilty of the latter, it was right near this spot that someone hailed me as I made my way back downtown. Now, it’s normally not a great thing when someone sticks his or her head in a cab – whether it’s mine or someone else’s. That usually means that the person is going to an outer Borough or only has a certain amount of money and thinks that we act just like the Livery Cabs that rip so many people off. Of course, you the reader are smarter than that and have an idea where this is going:

“Yo, will you take me to Staten Island?”

“Sure, it’s part of New York City, come on in.”

“Thanks Bro. I just go out of work and I don’t have time to take the 1 Train down to the Ferry, which is another long wait this time of night.”

So I start the meter and fly down 7 Ave, since it’s late and most of the tourists have turned in for the night. I was already excited that this wouldn’t be remotely close to any other run that I’ve had but there was something different about this person. Black leather jacket, reeked of smoke, a thick New York accent, and to top it off, he swore like a sailor.

“So how’d your day go?”

“Bro, I’m exhausted. I just finished up my shift at Carmine’s.”

“Ah. I’ve been there before. Went there earlier this year before I saw Lombardi. Good family style eating there.”

“Yeah, that’s it. They treat us like shit though. Squeezing everybody just like everyone else in this country.”

“I used to bartend and trust me, I know that feeling. What’s your name?”

“Andrew.”

“Nice to meet you.”

And I was right, to a certain extent. This Andrew wasn’t going to break out a dirty nursery rhyme but he was the closest thing I had to reliving every dirty joke I told in 7th grade.

“You’re my first fare to Staten Island. I don’t mind going down there but I figured I would let you know.”

“Bro, that’s fine. Most of the cabdrivers don’t mind taking me but I have to get home and it can’t take all night”

“I know the feeling since I live in New Jersey and it can be a bitch after the last Bus leaves at 12:45. Know how many times I’ve missed it?”

“Enough?”

“Yeah, but I still love this place. It’s funny too, Staten Island should be a part of New Jersey if ya look on a map.”

“Well, New York beat New Jersey in that boat race all those years ago” (Or so everyone says)

How old are ya, if ya don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m 35”

“Me too, and look at me, I’m driving this for a living.”

“Bro, don’t worry about that. I went to school and graduated and now, I’m bartending. It helped pay my student loans off and I don’t have a family, mortgage, or kids like my friends do. It’s not what I want right now and I’m fucking happy with that. Things will come around for you soon enough.”

“I know they will. Do ya like living there?”

“Absolutely. It’s part of the city but it doesn’t look or feel like Manhattan. I grew up there and to me, it’s still home.”

I could see that he hit the nail on the head with that last statement. Even though I had never taken anyone there, there were a few times, when I drove through it on my own to get to other places, and yes, it doesn’t look or feel like Manhattan once you’re away from the St. George Ferry Terminal. Like so many other outer neighborhoods in New York, you don’t realize you’re in New York until you see the street furniture and municipal services – the light fixtures, signs, traffic lights, NYPD cars, and street signs that look so oddly out of place with the Perkins and White Castle that seem to missing a Jersey barrier and jughandle out in front.

What I was most grateful for on this run was not seeing a part of New York that I never get to, but how easy it was to get to at night. There are few places that are tough to reach after hours but that’s only if the person in the back seat is sober and coherent. There’s been too many times where I had to stop the Taxi as soon as I got off the highway or out in the middle of nowhere and had to wake up a snoozing passenger so he could help me on the last 3 miles of my fare. That wasn’t the case last Saturday.

What stuck in my mind in the wee hours was how much Andrew reminded me of myself in terms of his upbringing and his life story. No matter how many types of people I give rides to every day, there’s so much that unites everyone in the city as diverse as New York. Everyone who calls the Big Apple home seems to have it all together, with the sky-high rents and grind-it-out jobs that come with city living. Take it from me – everyone does NOT have it together and even though most people don’t lie, New Yorkers are better at hiding their flaws and insecurities than anyone else. Many will bear them to people like me since it may be their only chance to open up in a given day and for me, that’s alright. Along with the traveling, the food, and the knowledge I gained of what’s what and where in the Big Apple, that’s why I took this job. I may not ever win a lifetime achievement award or work my way to the top of my field, but I love helping brighten people’s day just a little bit; as terribly cheesy as that probably comes across on here.

“That will be $51.50, including the toll and the state surcharges.”

“Here. This includes that and your tip. Thanks for the ride and keep your chin up. Hylan Boulevard will get you back to the end of the Expressway.”

The rest of the night was fairly uneventful, with the usual assortment of clubgoers and resident drunks hopping in and out of my cab as if I had revolving doors on the sides of the vehicle. At I parked the cab for the last time as the sun was coming up, I was thankful that I had passengers that could show me the most real things in this world, unseen by both children and men.

Unoccupied Wall Street

Zuccotti Park – After the storm

It rained like mad on Wednesday – to the point where another in a string of endless flood watches was issued here in New Jersey and the streets of the Big Apple turned into a paste that only the most grizzled of drivers could successfully navigate. My third fare that day took me to Maspeth, Queens and rather than turn around and brave the L.I.E. and Queensboro Bridge coming back into Manhattan, yours truly took the back way to J.F.K. in order to pick up his next fare. Normally, the wait at the dispatch line there can be well over a half and hour but since Taxis would be in high demand that day, I zipped through in 10 seconds and grabbed my ticket.

It was at Terminal 7 that I picked up my next fare. She was nice lady from Down Under who had a conference to go to at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square. Thankfully, she didn’t mind paying the toll for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and aside from the usual 20 questions (Do you own this cab? What nights do you work? etc…), I had no problem engaging in a meaningful conversation as we headed towards the crowds on matinee night. After receiving three $20’s in my hand upon arrival, the dispatcher at the hotel led my next fare into my Taxi, amazingly with a smile and a good attitude.They were a nuclear family from the city of Brotherly Love who were in town visiting relatives.

Me – “Hey there, where to?”

Mom – “The Strand Bookstore on Broadway”

Me – “I know it well. Spent many a day there and it’s the best in the city”

Mom – “Glad to hear.”

Me – “Mind if we take 9 Ave down? The traffic in Times Square and by Penn Station has been horrid tonight and I don’t have to loop around either”

Dad – “You’re the boss and you make the call.”

So I made the call and after a few minutes stuck at lights behind tourists and buses, we were on our way.

Me – “So what you seeing while you’re in town?”

Mom – “Well, last year when we were here, it was really bad out. This year, we’re hoping to see the tree and the holiday displays. Whatever happened to all of the activity down by Wall Street?”

Me – “Oh, those protestors? They were down there for a while until Bloomberg and Ray Kelly kicked them out a few weeks back.”

Mom – “So where are they now?”

Me – “They don’t have really have a home. They pop up in various spots and last week, they had a march with one of labor unions uptown.”

Son – “It’s all a bunch of mamby-pamby anyway!”

Mom – “Watch what you’re saying!”

Surely, Norman Rockwell would not have been offended by what I heard but the couple I had that night repeated the question I’ve heard the most over the last two months that didn’t have to do with my job. Even with the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, UN week, the NBA lockout, the bike lanes, the mild November, the President being in town, and the shitty economy, there wasn’t anything that came up more often than the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Hell, I’ve called this area home since the late 70’s and I had *never* heard of Zuccotti Park until a bunch of disenfranchised people decided to set up shop there and became angry with the world. A simple wikipedia search gave me all the info on it but that was all I needed to know and cared about until my second fare a few months back:

“I need to go to Broadway and Wall Street.”

And so it began…

I didn’t give a crap that I had to go to Lower Manhattan, even though the streets are narrow, bumpy, and have been under constant construction sine the World Trade Center Towers became dust. As you’re well aware of, we’re supposed to take people anywhere in the 5 Boroughs and that I did. What sucked about it was the massive police presence, the endless traffic that worsened as Broadway narrowed, and the noise that the protestors made – constantly, no less. The Canyon of Heroes that was home to so many parades honoring those that pushed the boundaries of the possible and championship sports teams became nothing more than a glorified cattle chute and even the people I took home that day commented on how much the protestors stunk, literally. Much was made about the lack of facilities for them down there, to the point where the heaters for them were deemed a fire hazard.

Invariably, many of my passengers would comment on what was taking place. Some were nonchalant but many had an opinion on it and thankfully, they had someone in the front seat of their Taxi who would be happy to listen as he navigated his was through the streets of New York. A few even asked me what I thought of the mess, aside from having to pass by it when dropping people home.

Every time that came up, I quoted Emma Lazarus’ sonnet with is engraved on the bottom of the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled…”

which led to:

“…dirty, unkept, disenfranchised, angry, bitter, disillusioned masses looking for an easy way…”

And off I went.

Most passengers seemed to agree with me that things got way out of hand. I had no problem with the intent of the original dissenters. The First Amendment gave them the right to assemble and petition their grievances and after the bailouts that Citi and AIG received, they had every reason to be upset. Hell, I did too. Columbia, and the rest of society have let me down to some extent since I ended up driving a cab upon my graduation.

But I never let my anger get the best of me.

When people couldn’t get out of the Subway downtown, or go to the Deli for milk or bread, or patronize their favorite restaurant because of the never-ending three-ring circus, that’s where the line should have been drawn. Bloomberg lacked the fortitude of his predecessor until he finally got the gumption and called in the choppers a few weeks back. Why the Protestors were upset was beyond me.

Take it from your cabdriver who has given these 1 Percenters a ride home every now and then:

They don’t give a fuck about you.

They work in those towers high above the streets, and then they go home, which tends not to be anywhere near the Financial District.

The people who live down there are part of the 99% that you claimed to have represented, even though there was never a popular election. Not all of them agreed with your intentions and nearly all of them were inconvenienced by your inconsiderate actions.

Those you were railing against were merely playing in the rules, however unfair they may have been. If you weren’t happy with it, that’s fine…but you were stupid to be protesting that 240 miles northeast of where your anger could have been channeled into something better.

Sadly enough, every time I was down there and yelled out my Taxi window for a list of demands, I was given silence in return. Even Thomas Paine was smart enough to hand out his Common Sense pamphlet during the days of British oppression before the revolution. Amazingly, I didn’t see any common sense or pamphlets being handed out in Lower Manhattan, not even when Michael Moore or Susan Surandon were looking for their photo ops.

Now, I read about how the movement will grow and change, sowing its gospel throughout the land. Sure, the City probably overstepped its bounds when it came to how several demonstrators were treated upon arrest but as I always say, get in line.

Lots of us have had a lot of shit to put up with in life.

The night I went down to Zuccotti Park was relatively nondescript. There were barricades up and Police watching over everything and even the food trucks across the street were conducting business as usual. Noguchi’s sculpture at 140 Broadway looked just as home as ever and for all the muss and fuss, I finally got a chance to walk through the place and see firsthand what I had been missing. More importantly, it was at the end of a long shift that reminded me of all the others I had worked, serving as further proof of how little things had really changed.

Me – “Well, here we are Broadway and 10 St…right by that bend I told you about where the Church is. The Strand’s a block back.”

Dad – “Thank you. Keep the change (of a $20).”

Me – Thank you too and God Bless. Oh – and kid,you were right before when talking to your Mom. Watch out for those mamby-pamby’s – they could arise at any time and they sure don’t represent me of most of the other 99%, even if I’m not happy with where our country is heading.”

With that, I was off into the night, hoping to change things for the better one fare at a time.

Zuccotti Park looking towards the new World Trade Center

Where the Streets Have No Name

Same view, different night

One of the first thing that drivers are required to do after entering Taxi School is to obtain a 5 Borough Atlas and study the hell out of it. A few of the questions – both open and closed book – are on the exam but as I always tell everyone who asks me, the real test begins when you put the key in the ignition and start taking fares. The rule book is a pain in the butt because, well, it’s a rule book and the odds of ever having to pull it out are slim to none. The most important thing to remember is where drivers are obligated to take people, where it’s illegal to pick up fares, and what to do in case of an accident. Traffic laws should be common knowledge before one decides to pursue this vocation so a violation of some combination of these above rules are what tends to end a lot of driver’s careers.

Streets are another matter. Like most New Yorkers, I had a really good idea of how Manhattan was laid out and worked long before I ever decided to drive a taxi. Even numbered streets went east, odd ones went west, and with rare exception, the Borough was arranged in a logical and orderly fashion. Hizzoner’s recent adjustments to Broadway and Sadik-Khan’s love affair with bike lanes have caused havoc for many of us but like most adjustments in the City, that has softened over time. For all the griping and grunting, those of us who have to navigate thoroughfares on a daily basis get accustomed to them and move on.

What the atlas didn’t tell you is what these streets and neighborhoods look and feel like. That only comes with experience and after all the passengers that I’ve met so far, the biggest learning experience for me is how these arteries function. Metropolitan, Bushwick, Bedford, and Nostrand Ave’s were only Subway stops in my lexicon before I drove them on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. Knowing where they were became secondary to knowing how they were and are evolving into. Restaurants would open weekly and bars that were empty a year or two ago would suddenly emerge as the next hot spot in the neighborhood; and potentially into a social locus.

For all the studying and reviewing what went where, nothing could have prepared me for what I confronted on a daily basis. Queens Boulevard is commonly known as the “Boulevard of Death” because of all the pedestrian fatalities on it in recent years but it was only when I started driving that I understood why it gained that moniker. Fourth Ave. in Brooklyn was mostly garages, gas stations, and industrial buildings but I can see Park Slope continuing it’s westward bleeding into it every time I make the right off of Flatbush Ave. and venture southward. As today’s Huffington Post New York elaborated on, many cabbies still refuse to take people out of Manhattan. Those that do are pathogens in the corpus that is New York, never leaving the heart and making their way to the capillaries that extend all the way to the Big Apple’s edge.

It’s not my business to worry about what other drivers do and don’t do. After Saturday night, it became apparent that I need an attitude adjustment in the other direction. At around 4:30 in the morning, someone in the exact spot pictured above said “Excuse me” and like a good driver that doesn’t mind giving directions (I’ve done it countless times since I started this job), I rolled the window down. Sure enough, it was an ambush and as the 4 punches landed on my face, I could only wonder what the world was in it for the person who assaulted me. The night dispatcher at the garage thought it was part of a gang initiation or an attempt to look tough for friends. A few of the other driver’s thought he was drunk or high on something. I was so shaken up and cleaning up the blood that dripped from my nose that I didn’t care and for the first time since I started work, I called out the next day.

Most victims of an assault are probably reluctant to return to the scene of the crime but in this line of work, the thick skin that eventually forms will prepare you for anything –  including this. I had no problem making the same turn, and taking this shot of the corner from the same viewpoint I had when I foolishly gave the invitation for my assailant to have his way with me. I had a damn good night before then and my two shifts since have been about as smooth as can be. New York in the 70’s probably saw a lot more of these events take place every night and I’m certainly glad that those days are in the rear-view mirror of the city. For all the risk that comes with being out at night, nothing can take away from the feeling I get when I enter a new neighborhood or see a new street for the first time and continue to see the beautiful diversity in people and the structures that they live and work in.

For anyone wondering, the President ate on the same street where this took place, three days later. Like most people who conduct business in the Big Apple, he’ll eventually forget where his meal took place and will only carry the memories of what transpired. The remainder of us who conduct our lives in New York will continue to watch lines and labels on a map come to life and eventually, work their way into our consciousness. We should be thankful to help record the wonderful narrative that is New York, even if most of the scenes aren’t recorded in any medium but our minds.

An anonymous rue in Brooklyn