Red Light/Green Light

Waiting for the first domino to fall – Madison Ave.

“Traffic lights restrain your freedom to cross a street whenever you wish.”

-Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

When I was little, I used to be like all the other kids in the suburbs and play games – real games that didn’t involve a Wii console and a connection to my friends in other houses. Much has been written about the demise of outdoor play and surely I miss those innocent days when a backyard and a set of imaginations were all that was needed in order to have some fun and quality time spent with friends. Among the games I miss were Red Rover, Hide and Go Seek, and simple tag .None of them involved hundreds of dollars of prep or waiting on line overnight at the local big box store for the latest edition to be released and when one round was over, another could begin without any hard feelings of serious implications of cheating.

All of those games involved people chasing, evading, or finding one another…which could loosely translate to what I currently do for my job. Even Frogger (which to be fair, was a video game), runs through my mind ever since I’ve had to cross a street in New York City. Anyone who’s ever seen the classic Seinfeld episode will be reminded of George’s effort to dodge traffic at the end, and how seemingly random gameplays end up translating to real life years after one first plays them.

Nowhere was this more true for me than when it came to Red Light/Green Light.

For those of you that never attempted it, the premise was simple. One person would stand facing the wall and yell “Green Light”. All the other kids would start out on a line and run towards the end of the room or playing area. When the caller yelled out “Red Light”, all the runners had to stop by the time the caller turned around and looked. If you were moving, you had to go back a certain number of steps or even to the starting line. First person to cross the end during a “green light” phase became the next caller, and so it went.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very good at it. Oh sure, I could run but when “red light” was called out, I stumbled. Stopping on a dime was never my forte and if I held back, someone would inevitably beat me and take the turn as the next caller. For the record, I did win once in a while…but that was my first realization that even blind squirrels find their nuts every now and again.

Flash forward 20 years and change and now, I get to play those games every day during work. Red Rover and Frogger when I have to maneuver across an Avenue to reach a crosstown street, Hide and Go Seek when I wish to evade the N.Y.P.D., and Red Light/Green light during the day, and evening, and night, and…always.

Objectivists who have read Ayn Ran will cringe at Elsworth Toohey’s above quote since it’s the epitome of his philosophy of selflessness. Much as the TLC is needed to regulate the industry, traffic lights are needed in order to provide sense and order to the chaos that characterizes the city streets. For many years, I was a pedestrian when it came to navigating the city and never gave much thought as to the rhythm and cadence that the tricolored machines imposed on surface travelers but once I took the wheel last summer, all of that changed as fast as a red to green phase.

Most of my fellow drivers probably don’t give much thought to how the lights in New York work but people like me that can’t shut their overactive brains off are always pondering the complexities of life and how to tie seemingly disparate threads together in ways that others can’t visualize. Like some odd form of string theory, what goes on in Midtown can affect the flow of vehicles scores of blocks away.

Don’t believe me? Here’s how.

On the major north-south avenues, each light has a red and a green phase. If a light going uptown turns green, the next one will turn green six seconds later. That’s 10 lights in a minute if you’re taking someone to Harlem from the Lower East Side and since 20 blocks north-south equals one mile, the flow of traffic will be regulated, at 30 miles per hour. Seems like some easy piece of social engineering, right?

After a few weeks of driving, I noticed that loads of lights in the mid-30’s bucked this trend. Big time. There are tunnels on either end of those streets and so the green phases on the avenues crossing those streets was shortened in order to allow for crosstown traffic to flow easier. Diagonal streets like Broadway will also cause havoc when intersecting with two other arteries, as is the case right in front of Lincoln Center. The result? A three-phase intersection that has to accommodate everyone but ends up pleasing no one. This is another reason why I *never* take 81 St coming out of the Central Park Transverse that leads onto it. You could write a book in the time it takes to wait for the light at Columbus Ave. to change, not that I ever entertained the thought. Still following?

I hope so, since neither of these don’t account for the human element.

Somewhere in a city government building, someone (or someones), has the power to change the lights. Actually, it’s a computer that can adjust to stoppages in traffic to let it by adjusting the phases of a light. Two-way section of Third Ave. moving too slow at rush hour? Theaters letting out all at once on matinee night? Rangers game went into double overtime? No sweat. The adjustments will have been made accordingly. Some of my worse nights have been where a street was moving well one hour and an hour later, it was jammed. The effort to stay ahead of the changes failed once a rainstorm started or an event let out too late and for all the tweaks to the traffic control devices and extra police deployed to the streets, the result is always the same:

You’ll end up at a red light at some point.

When I was 5, I had my tonsils taken out and spent a few days in the Hospital. I was scared to death at the time and looking back on it years later, I realized that it was one of the last times I ever saw my parents together and happy to be around each other. One of the toys I ended up playing with while I was recovering was a miniature cityscape with streets on it that had traffic lights on every corner. A magnet placed underneath the toy could change them from red to green, simply by rotating it. I loved being able to control the streets at will and make the cars move to their destinations in an orderly fashion, along with creating the occasional “accident”.

Today, I have my own car to control but that’s where the similarities end. On a number of occasions, I’ve had the experience of giving the gentility of the Upper East Side a ride home:

“Hey there, where to?”

“3 Ave. and 86 St.”

“Sure thing, all of the lights move well up 3 Ave. so we should zip there once we’re past the bridge.”

“That’s nice, but I prefer Park Ave. It’s a much more scenic ride.”

Oh well…at least I’ll have much to ponder at the red lights that I’ll hit every 8 blocks.

Red, yellow, and green – Garment District

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Yellow with NV

Not to be confused with the Taxi of Tomorrow

“Hey there, where to?”

“Nice cab you have here!”

“It’s not mine, but thank you.”

“This must be that Taxi of the Future that I keep reading about. It looks so European.”

“I’ve never been to Europe so I can’t vouch for that but you’re incorrect. This is a new Taxi but not the “new” new Taxi – that’s not going to be out for a year and change.”

“So this isn’t the one that one the citywide competition?”

“Nope, that’s a Nissan. This is a Ford Transit Connect.”

“A Ford what?”

“Transit Connect.”

“What kind of a name is that and how did a foreign model get the contract for New York?”

“Lady, I’m not from Dearborn and I don’t know the Mayor personally. You can seek them out if you wish to know.”

And so it goes.

I’ve had at least 50 variations of this conversation over the last month, ever since I was given the long, round key to the above model vehicle and asked if I wanted to let ‘er loose on the on the streets of the Big Apple. Now, I don’t have any kids (as far as I know) so driving “the van” was a bit of an odd concept to me at first. Thankfully, it hasn’t been difficult to navigate and it’s nice to be noticed by New Yorkers, instead of just having them dart out in front of me at all hours of the night.

Eventually, the topic that always arose during this exchange was about the new model of Taxi. Was there really a citywide competition? Would it be ADA compliant? Most importantly, would there be a day where *all* the yellow cabs in the citywide fleet would be identical?

Yes, yes, and if the TLC gets its way, yes.

A little background first for those of you unfamiliar with the vehicles that transport people from points A to B in the 5 Boroughs. Most of what you currently see on the street are the last of the workhorses known as the Ford Crown Victoria. At one point, it WAS the only model in the city fleet and if you were pulled over by a police officer of rented a car at a major airport, odds are that the vehicle in that fleet was also a Crown Vic, as we refer to them. Popula , durable, and fast, they were a staple across the land for decades and could handle the wear and tear that millions placed on them over the years. Unfortunately, they had one big drawback:

They were lousy on gas.

I drove a Mustang for years, so I’ll admit that I have a bias for the automaker that started out making mobility available for the masses. It had a big engine and wasn’t the best on fuel economy but I didn’t spent a majority of my time on thoroughfares that could double as logging trail pathways. Eventually, the price of gas spiked up and greenies became powerful enough to change the vehicles found in Taxi fleets.

Enter the change.

Soon enough, the Toyota Prius, Ford Expedition, and a whole host of other models entered the mix and could be found on the streets of New York. One of the questions that I was often asked when driving the vehicle pictured above is whether it cost more for the passenger since it was “ADA compliant and all that”. No, it was the same as all the other Taxis but when I saw people choose the Crown Victoria over that when we both pulled up to a hailing passenger, I knew there was a problem with how people perceived it. I still laugh at the rich bitch on the Upper West Side two weeks ago who “couldn’t slide the door open” and gave up after one halfhearted attempt to enter my wheels on that night. The point to remember is that Taxis are yellow and have the same rate for one reason:

Standardization.

Of course, that was out the window once competition entered the Taxi marketplace. While I don’t buy and sell medallions like owners do, drivers like me *are* the public face of the industry so when I’m on duty, I see enough to know what works and what doesn’t.

A month or so after the Transit Connect entered the rotation of vehicles dispatched to the nightly drivers at my garage, there was a big hullabaloo about the coming attraction at this year’s New York Auto Show. No, it wasn’t an electric car or a roadster from a famous movie. Of course, it was this…

Soon coming to a street near you

Ladies and gentleman, this is it – your Taxi of Tomorrow. It was tucked way into the corner of the exhibition space and was only found by me since as usual, yellow wasn’t a popular choice of exterior colors on next year’s models. You’ll also notice the glass around the edges, so I wasn’t able to sit inside of ‘er and see how well it felt for the person who might actually have to drive it.

Once the initial amazement wore off, it was time to give this model a good inspection. Press releases for the vehicle touted its accessibility, large sunroof-like window for sightseeing landmarks around the city, and recycled tires used in the floor mats. As a sign of the times, it has USB ports for charging electrical devices too and a built-in GPS and meter which does show some input from the driver’s perspective. A few shots of the promo video that accompanied the vehicle featured it in locales such as Times Square, seamlessly fitting in with the traffic and neighborhoods that it will inevitably have to pick up and discharge passengers in. While models and renderings are always pleasing, the Taxi will be just like me when it finally comes down to hard labor and brass tacks since real test will come once the key is turned and the grind of 12-hour shifts takes its toll.

Nearly every model of cab has its drawbacks from what I’ve experienced firsthand. The Crown Vic is a fuel hog and has a turning radius the size of a 747. The Prius? I’ve seen a few at JFK take two pieces of luggage before the passengers took them out and found a cab that was up for the task of transporting international arrivals home without feeling like a sardine can. The SUVs? Guess what – they’re small on room too, once they carry 4 people. Hybrids are great too but God forbid you’re deaf or blind – you’ll be next to one and have no idea that it’s actually moving until you find it or it finds you. Oh, and that Transit Connect pictured way at the top? The one I drove two Saturdays ago had to go in for brake service halfway through my shift, and it had an astounding 14,000 miles on it.

The city is taking a *huge* risk by standardizing the Taxi model with an unproven design that might not be ready for the wear and tear of the streets of New York. Yes, a standard model is the best way to go but to make it fuel efficient, modern, stylish, made in the U.S.A. (I was informed that Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee will be manufacturing all the NV 200’s for the Big Apple), and durable would not be an easy task for anyone. To do all of that and make it ADA-compliant would inevitably result in something like this:

The tank, a.k.a. the MV-1

Thank God I don’t have to explain this to my passengers…yet.

Tag! You’re it.

Knickerbocker Ave – Bushwick

Graffiti. It’s a form of communication as old as cities themselves and coincidentally, there’s no shortage of it in the Big Apple. One of the things I wondered when I started my job was how much of it was still existed this far into the 21st century. Now, all of you hipsters and millennials might be surprised to know that graffiti was once one of the biggest problems in the city, right up there with crumbling housing, Subways that walked instead of ran, and fiscal insolvency. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.

Flash back to 1981. Ed Koch is running for re-election, the Iranian Hostages return home from 444 days in captivity, and President Reagan comes a stone’s throw away from being assassinated by a Jodie Foster-loving psychopath. In the midst of all of this, 4 1/2 year old Pat attends his first Yankee game which naturally involves a car ride over an extremely clogged George Washington Bridge. I had no idea that I’d be in college before the team I was about to cheer on would play in October or how close to the stratosphere our seats would be nor did I have any idea of what I was about to witness as our car made it’s way through the Bronx to find an open place to park. Most importantly, miniaturization had yet to take place, resulting in film being a scarce commodity. Had I had the digital camera and iPhone that I currently bring with me on every shift in my hands on that fateful day, I would have recorded every aspect of that ride, from the filtered sunlight illuminating the leaded auto exhaust underneath the apartments on the Trans-Manhattan Expressway to the archaic El over Jerome Ave that rumbled as we waited for the light to change. Most importantly, I would have snapped the graffiti provided the most color to be seen on that fateful day.

After all, that shit was everywhere.

Ask anyone who was alive then what it was like and their eyes will probably light up upon recollection of how marred open surfaces were. Concrete, brick, and wood were no match for the onslaught of Krylon and sharpies that descended upon the city. It was enough for the MTA to declare a war on it that didn’t end until the last stainless-steel Subway car was eradicated of the markings in 1989. Burgeoning gangs in the Bronx would hop the fence at the Subway yards at night to leave their colors and names on the side of anything on wheels that was parked, so the whole city would see their names and tags on their way to work the next morning. What rose out of the ashes of the decaying slums was more than an crude artistic movement, but the beginnings of hip-hop itself. It’s nearly impossible today to hear The Message from Grandmaster Flash or Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks and not picture an Adidas-wearing DJ blaring out the sampling beats on a pair of Technic 1200’s as a Graffiti-covered train rumbled by in the background.

7 Train view – Long Island City

President Carter might have gone down Charlotte Street in the Bronx and vowed to rebuild but the real seeds that sown the destruction of graffiti was what killed off much of the edge of the city, and that was gentrification. Graffiti was, and still is, a form of rebellion set to art. There are no guidelines, no schools for it, and it’s not done in public in broad daylight. Much like vermin that scurry when the lights are turned on, the artists themselves had wished to remain as anonymous as possible, resorting to nicknames like “Plug” and “Shadow” as a moniker. Any validation of this could be seen in the artist that most exemplified the tumultuous decade of the 1980’s:

Keith Haring.

I loved Haring when I was growing up. So many playgrounds, walls, and published art collections in that decade featured his work but what amazed me the most was how beginning which of course, was on theSsubways. One man, one marker, and one crazy style (when combined) was enough to start a movement that led all the way to the art galleries of SoHo and the face of the AIDS epidemic that was inescapable shortly after bursting on the scene. What seemed like an innocent collection of dancing men and animals contained tons of erotic and societal references when looked at closely but the bigger message was the rebellion that so many artists felt against a society that made them outcasts, which was also shared by Haring. Coming out was not the same as it was in today’s era of DOMA and Ellen Degeneres and as I’ve mentioned before on here, Haring was like Madonna in that he exemplified a time when those from more conservative parts of the country could migrate to Manhattan, crash on someone’s couch, and express artistically the change and issues that America was facing Homophobia and corporate greed might have been topics that many were afraid to speak out about but Haring unwillingly jumped on the bandwagon that came to exemplify New York in the 1980’s.

Yuppies.

I’m not saying that he drove a Beamer, moved into a downtown Loft, or spent his zillions on Cocaine but no other artist of his age went from scrawling on blank transit system billboards to having his own gallery exhibitions so fast as Haring. Real artists do their work even when they starve but he hit it big in a short span, like so many others who were upwardly mobile in the 1980’s. Just as fast as he shot to fame, he lost his life when the disease that took out so many in his community cut his life short in 1990. I remember where I was when I heard the news, since it was around the time when Ryan White passed on . Although I never knew anyone who perished from the disease, I still remember what it was like to hear it on the news all the time and to see people that made their mark on society and my youth, so suddenly taken away before they should have exited the stage.

The forces that moved Haring into superstardom and eradicated Graffiti have reached their apex today. Large amounts of capital infusion have cleaned up the Bronx, to the point where chain stores and a $1 billion home for the Yankees have replaced abandoned autos and rubble-strewn lots as symbols that the Borough projects out to passerby. Most of the markings that exist today are found in high-end museums (A Haring retrospective of his early years is currently being featured at the Brooklyn Museum), expensive *Chelsea* galleries, and on rooftops out of cleanup’s way on street level. Like so much of New York’s past, it has been commodified and put up for sale to the highest bidder, to the point that seeing a wall covered in art has become a rare treat in the city where an ad for a Disney production on Broadway is more likely to be spotted. As long as there is angst, there will be those who rebel against the “system” and perceived injustices. With a lingering recession and a Mayoral election next year with no clear-cut front runner, there may be a chance for a new movement of artwork to appear on surfaces around the 5 Boroughs, as the disenfranchised tire of taking over parks and plazas for months on end.

Some of the images that will emerge will cover up the old but like those tags and images of yesteryear, today’s art will be reflecting a City and society that has still failed to accommodate the basic needs of all.

Tags – Lower East Side