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.

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