Honk if you’re Corny

Posted at the garage

“Is it true that you can get a $350 fine for honking?”

“Yeah, and they can give fines for jaywalking as well.”

Lots of people ask me lots of questions when I’m driving them to their destinations. Sure enough, the honking ordinance always seems to come up. I haven’t ever seen anyone get a ticket for it but ask anyone trying to cross a busy Midtown Street at rush hour what he or she hears the most and odds are, it will be the chaotic din of car horns drowning each other out.

Like any big city, New York has so many rules and regulations that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all, even though all drivers (in theory) review the TLC rule book during their time in Taxi School. Quick, guess what the speed limit on a street is? Yup, it’s 30. What must you do if you see a disabled vehicle or someone pulled over on the right lane/shoulder of a highway? Move over to the left and give at least one lane’s worth of cushion as you drive by. Wipers on? Better have your lights on as well, but that always fell under the “Don’t swing on 3-0” type of rule that’s unwritten. Here in New Jersey, “Keep right, pass left” is posted on every major highway as well but let’s face it, do the State Troopers really have time to enforce that one?

Without a doubt, the biggest pet peeve that this cabdriver has when it comes to traffic rules being blatantly disregarded has to be “No turn on red”. In most of America, it’s legal unless a sign is posted at a particular intersection. Of course, that is not the case in the 5 boroughs. One of the first signs you see upon entering the City after the obligatory “Welcome to New York” sign that has the Mayor and Borough President’s name is the sign stating that right turns on red are completely, totally illegal on city streets. Violating that law and getting nailed for it is the equivalent of running a red light.

Since last weekend was a holiday, lots of funny-looking license plates were floating around the city as I ensured that the throng of tourists, overtime workers, and fleet week sailors made their way around during the 3-day holiday. Along with seeing 3 red lights run and a minivan going the wrong way down the middle of 10 Ave over in Hudson yards, there were tons of vehicles turning right on red after stopping. This is the same as standing in Times Square with the subway map totally unfurled as your fanny pack-clad family members crowd around and attempt to figure out the labyrinthine routes while waiting in line for a table at a Riese Restaurant to open up. It’s a dead ringer that you’ve not from around these parts and when I see people tap my window to remind me that “your light isn’t working”, I know that they didn’t bother to brush up on the lay of the land. My passengers and I always get a kick out of that, even when they’re from out of town too and understand how the Taxis in the city operate.

Going back to the horns, it’s almost impossible *not* to honk over the course of a shift. I had one car a few months back that worked fine from top to bottom but the horn fuse was broken the entire time. Was I frustrated? Yes. Flashing my high beams to the Taxi or Livery vehicle in front of me that was dozing off at 3 in the morning just wasn’t the same and every time someone cut around me without a signal or dropped someone off in the most random of spots without using any flashers, I pressed down on the steering wheel where the horn would be. It’s all I could do to take my frustrations out.

Horn honking isn’t a right but it’s something that’s just as ingrained as making late-night food runs or getting in line to wait for someone to come out of work or a nighttime establishment when the streets turn to airport runways. Us drivers have our own odd subculture that I didn’t pick up on until I got behind the wheel of a yellow vehicle for 50 or 60 hours a week. Like anything else, there was a quick adjustment period but some of the customs that once seemed odd to be are now as routine as my 7 A.M. dinner or “pre-game” ritual of cleaning my vehicle out before I hit the road every evening.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to blow my horn. You’re in the way of my next fare!

Don’t Honk – West Side

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Fare deal

The current fare structure

Much was written this week about the proposed rate hike that could go into effect over the summer. Most New Yorkers shudder when they see a service that they frequently use go up in price but many have also noted that there hasn’t been a rate increase since ’06 and an across the board hike since ’04. Although I’ve only been driving since late July, this is welcome news. Usually, I like to ask questions of my passengers, learning about what they do for a living and where they’re from. As soon as I stop, it’s their turn and many of the ones they will ask me will deal with what my shift entails and what I take home at the end of it. I’m taking a wild guess that many people reading this are thinking the same thoughts to themselves, so I may as well go through it on here for clarity’s sake.

Your average cabdriver will *not* own his medallion, for starters. As I’ve stated on here before, the cost of one has gone up dramatically in recent years. The typical one will now fetch well over 3/4 a million dollars and even with a down payment and financing backed by the revenue generated during shifts, it’s still out of reach for most drivers. Therefore, a majority of drivers (like myself) lease their cabs. Shifts are simple – 5 ’til 5 and even though we don’t have to keep the cabs for a full 12 hours, lots of us do to maximize our earning potential. As I work my way down 2 Ave. in the later hours, there are hordes of empty Taxis making their way over the Queensboro Bridge to go back to their respective garages, which is my way of getting a handle on how much the activity in Manhattan has tailed off for that particular night.

Leases involve a fee or as so many of my passengers put it, it’s what I pay in rent every night. It averages between $110 and $130 for the night drivers at my garage with the ones who work during the day paying slightly less for the privilege of driving a Taxi. All of the surcharges that go to the State and the MTA are added in automatically to each fare depending on the time and the destination and of course, we never see a dollar of them when the numbers are totaled up. Then there’s a $4.77 tax or as I look at it, another 1/2 fare deducted from my night’s take and finally, there’s the big misconception that so many people have about our industry:

You don’t pay for your own gas, right?

Don’t I wish!

The last thing I do at the end of a shift, right as the sun starts to come up, is top the tank off across the street from the garage. I’ll toss my extra receipts out, take my license out of the holder, and clean up if need be while I’m filling up, and then dig in to my take for the night to shell out the amount that it took to get around the city for 12 hours. If I’m driving a Crown Vic, it averages out to $53. Transit Connect? $35. The Hybrid SUV? Only $22. The vehicle I drive makes a big difference as to how my night goes since it’s found money if I can save on gas or be behind the wheel of something that will help me do the job more cheaply. Along with the Times, AMNY, Metro, and Crain’s, I almost always read the Economist, if for no other reason to see how the oil market is faring. Gas peaked at a notch over $4 a gallon a few weeks back but thankfully, it has slowly retreated as the summer driving season has started to take shape.

Most people have no idea of the little things that we also have to shell out for all the time. Dirty vehicle? Congratulations, a visit to the car wash is in order. I’m reimbursed $4 for each one but some cost more than that and yes, I do tip the workers who dry it off afterwards. Speaking of tipping, dispatchers and gas station attendants get some from us too. I don’t know and I don’t care what they make but handling the game of musical chairs that takes place around changeover time every day is much more stressful than anyone unfamiliar with the industry would ever realize. Taxis break down, need minor repairs and fluid changes, have broken meters, are regularly due for inspection, and the people who drive them are also prone to lateness and calling out. Not all taxis come back in the same order in which they leave so whatever is dispatched out depends on what’s on the lot and what needs to get off of it first. Only steady drivers get the same car every shift, which can be a pain when a certain driver is late getting back to the garage for the switch-off at changeover time.

Sure enough, I’ve had my unexpected surprises in the months that I’ve been behind the wheel. Broken ball joints, flat tires, a dead battery, and a ticket for having a headlight out have all thrown monkey wrenches into various nights that were running smoothly before the incidents took place. There’s no worse feeling than having to head back to the garage for repairs, knowing that the time lost can never be regained back and as the old saying goes, time is indeed money. Everything will average out over the long run but so many of us tend to look at what we make per night and forget that the big picture is what counts when earning a living as a driver.

Going back to the issue at hand, I’m in favor of a hike as long as a few stipulations are met. The first is obvious, and that’s whether the Mayor and TLC Chair are in favor of it. Last I heard, Bloomberg and Yassky were on board with this because of the rising costs of gas and lease fees the last few years that we’ve had to fully eat. Second is whether those lease fees will also concurrently go up as well. If the garage and medallion owners take out too much of a chunk of the increased revenue, then there isn’t a benefit for those who drive at all. Owners were up in arms when the Outer-Borough Taxi’s were formally introduced recently and should the plan go through, they will have the right to take street hails anywhere in the city outside of Manhattan below Central Park North. Since that’s expected to cut into medallion revenue, the owners were bitterly against this plan when it was proposed and now that seems to be coming into fruition, they will need to come up with a way to make up for the lost income…which naturally, would have to come out of our pockets somehow. It’s an endless battle that will only intensify once these apple green-hued cars hit the streets in the not-so-distant future.

Finally, there’s a meeting this week. This bleary-eyed driver will probably drag himself into the city and down to Beaver Street to see what the city, drivers, and any passengers who bother to make it in will have to say about the changes. There’s a chance that I’ll speak, if for no other reason than to toss my two cents in for the drivers who won’t even bother to make it or do anything about their salary. Even though many of my “coworkers” could use a few more lessons in etiquette and civility, I know a ton who work their asses off to earn a living and only want the best for themselves and their families. Hopefully, this hike will be a first step into making it easier for us hacks who provide so much for a city that isn’t always grateful to us in return.

Taxi TV – Lots of revenue but none for the driver

Where you from?

No sleep ’til Brooklyn – regardless of neighborhood

Fashion Night Out. For most New Yorkers, the Thursday on which it falls each year tends to be an occasion to go door-to-door in the Meatpacking or Madison Ave. shopping districts and take a look at the latest styles fresh off of the runway. Two years ago, it fell on my birthday but last year, it was the first major test that didn’t fall on a weekend for yours truly. Saturday night ended up with its own rhythm and cadence, as crushloads of tourists and nightcrawlers made their way out each week until the wee hours of the morning. The second Thursday in September was a different beast though, as throngs of drunken, overdressed, and uninhibited New Yorkers made their way out, clogging certain parts of town without a care in the world. Unfortunately, I still had a job to do, and I sure got anything I had coming to me that night.

One fare wanted to go to the heart of the Upper East Side, right through where Tiffany’s and Cartier call home in the Big Apple. Another one dragged me from Pastis all the way down to Battery Park City, only to realize that she forgot her iphone and *had* to get back uptown for it, freaking out the whole way. I have no idea why the bitch just left my cab on 14 St, only to stick four rumpled $1’s in my hand because “that’s all I have”, as I sat in traffic helplessly wondering why she couldn’t pony up the other $12 and change that I was owed. The area of 6 Ave. in front of Radio City Music Hall was down to one lane because of roadwork and crosstown traffic blocking the street, leading the cop directing traffic to yell “Move the fuck out” when it was my turn to go. All of that paled in comparison to what happened in front of Penn Station.

I dropped a fare off there so he could catch his train back home in the suburbs. Sure enough, the dispatcher in front of the line was out there late that night but with all the horns blaring and people out and about, I wanted to get out of the area ASAP. Sure enough, a red light ensured that that wasn’t the case. As I sat there, he walked over:

“You didn’t hear me”

“I didn’t hear a lot of things, it’s busy out here tonight.”

“Well, I whistled you over and you didn’t come. Are you deaf?”

“I’m listening to you aren’t I?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m writing you a ticket for refusing to enter the dispatch line. Where you from?”

“What? That doesn’t even matter. I’m from New Jersey for your information.”

By now, the couple that had entered my cab and requested to go downtown got a big kick out of this but I sure as hell wasn’t laughing. This wasn’t the NYPD that I was talking to and anyone wearing brown was not on the same level in my book.

“You’re supposed to enter the line and now you’ll be getting a ticket from me.”

Sure enough, he walked right around the cab and entered the medallion number down.

“Great, I’ll know that for next time.”

“You should have known that for this time. Where you from again?”

“What the hell does it matter? It’s New Jersey, alright! I grew up around here and I don’t know what  your problem is with that. I didn’t ask you where you’re from.”

“It doesn’t matter. Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

With that, I went through the light and was on my way to my passenger’s destination.

If there’s one thing that defines New Yorkers more than what they do for a living, it’s where they’re from and just as importantly, where they call home in the five boroughs.

No one would argue that America deserves the moniker of “Melting Pot’ when assigning nicknames and identities to the nations of the world. Ever since the days of the Pilgrims, Vikings, Chinese, or whoever got here first, migrants from faraway lands have come to the shores of America, seeking a better life. Where they ended up became the real crux of the story, as neighborhoods of tightly-bound ethnic and socioeconomic groups formed in New York, only to dissolve upon the inhabitants ascendance up the economic ladder, or voluntary removal upon arrival of a different group.

Little Italy? It may have been home to the Gangs of New York that were so brutally depicted in Scorsese’s film of the same name but now, you’re more likely to find buildings with Mandarin on the signs than anything Italian once you’re away from Mulberry Street. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum calls Orchard Street home but the blue-collar Jews that lived in the squalid conditions shown there are long gone; their slow migration starting as soon as the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903. Across the island, it was the same story. Hell’s Kitchen was once deserving of that moniker as most people would dare not trek west of 8 Ave. unless they had to. Much of the manufacturing and activities on the docks were performed by the Irish, their gangs having been called the Westies. Ultimately, the fate of the West Side was tied in redevelopment of blocks that had become slums, with the nadir of the rebirth having been depicted via musical numbers in West Side Story. Behind the Rumble and the Dance was the undeniable truth that the Puerto Ricans were moving into areas long outside of their Spanish Harlem mainstay, as their numbers swelled in the 1950’s. LBJ’s Immigration Rights Act was signed not too long afterwards, paving the way the “browning of America” that still continues on to this day.

One of my perks of my job is that I get to see many parts of the city that I rarely made it too when my preferred mode of transportation was by foot or subway. Both of those can get you far, but certainly not quickly or to underserved areas like Eastern Queens or Alphabet City. Having a set of wheels opened up a lot of new frontiers to me, in a different way then the frontiers of a new neighborhood are opened up for those who sail past the Statue of Liberty and wish to call New York home. Astoria may still have some of the best Greek restaurants and diners in the city but it’s also home to a burgeoning Egyptian population as well now. Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst was the home of Saturday Night Fever but in the 21st Century, you’re much more likely to find Halal food there than someone walking down the street in a Leisure Suit or praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary.The area has changed so much so that I recently had this discussion with one of the senior players with the La Boule New York:

“So how’s work?”

“It’s good. Been at it for over 6 months now. I get to see the city and the money isn’t bad. You’re still in Sunset Park, right?”

“Indeed. Been there a long time too.”

“I drop people off now and then there. Isn’t that area mostly Polish and Hispanic?”

“Used to be. Now, it’s lots of Chinese and the Arabs are coming up from Bay Ridge.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Things change quick in New York.”

And so it goes.

Even Harlem, which has a name of Dutch origin and was once Manhattan’s traditional seat of black culture, is starting to see the minority community there becoming a minority. It hasn’t happened yet, but other ethnic groups searching for cheaper rent, decent subway access, and proximity to Central and Morningside Parks, are moving into the area. Those who have been entrenched are now being forced out, victims of an internal migration from other parts of the city.

And so it goes, again.

Cities, by nature, must be dynamic places in order to survive. When they stagnate, as was the case in the 1960’s, and 1970’s, the spiral of urban decay and decreasing property values takes hold and with it, the loss of the tax base. What New York is going through now is the opposite, as huge areas have become renewed in the last 20 years both by newcomers from areas not traditionally represented in the city’s ethnic composition and from those looking to move away from the suburbs and back to an urban lifestyle that their forefathers had perhaps enjoyed in a previous century. This constant change makes New York unique in the pantheon of America’s urban cores, as many cities are struggling to find prosperity after the collapse of housing prices and loss of a manufacturing base that has decimated population centers from coast to coast in the last few decades.

Thankfully, that’s not the case in Gotham. What was recognizable to me in the 1980’s has become totally different now and will also be the case when future generations return to familiar areas of New York; only to find that the cycle of change has repeated itself once again. It should come as no surprise that the United Nations, formed after the deadliest conflict of the 20th century, was placed in New York after a extensive search for a permanent home. The flags that fly in front of it represent nearly every nation on Earth, as much as the city that surrounds the General Assembly and Secretariat Buildings (the UN is international property and therefore, is not technically considered part of New York City) is also home to immigrants from nearly every corner of the globe. Just as it has been the case since the founding of New Amsterdam, how those groups migrate and settle forms the basis for much of the drama that plays itself out every day across the Big Apple.

A few months ago, I ended up pulling into the driveway of a hotel in Times Square that shall remain nameless. Of course, I was looking for a fare and came across yet another, friendly dispatcher:

“Did I tell you to come in here?”

“No, but I figured that looking for a fare here wouldn’t hurt.”

“I didn’t whistle you in and unless you have someone, don’t drive through here. Where you from?”

“New Jersey. Why do you have to look in my trunk, there’s nothing in there but my bag…”

I popped the trunk and let him have his look, waiting for the relief on his face when he would realize that I didn’t have a bomb with me.

“Well, be on your way and don’t come in here again unless you have someone or one of us calls you in.”

“Duly noted.”

With that, I took a deep breath and was on my way back onto the streets, hoping that my next fare would give me a better insight to the ever-changing mosaic that still characterizes New York.

Rockefeller Center flags

Prince of Broken Hearts

Etan Patz

In an average shift, I’ll put on around 140-170 miles on the particular Taxi that I’m driving that night. Lights and corners eventually melt into runs, which melt into hours, which eventually melt into my 12 hour blocks of work. The chorus of sirens, traffic jams, and human obstructions that I’ll inevitably face will add some hue and tone to the composition of the night but once I turn in around 5 in the morning, it just becomes another pile of transactions on the receipt that adds up my fares and charges for the night.

It was with somewhat large fanfare a few weeks back that Prince Street in SoHo was blocked off with flashing lights and yellow tape. Most of us in New York were well aware of the reason for the extended investigation that the police and the FBI were conducting. What many were previously unaware of was the story behind the reopening of one of the city’s daunting and saddening cold cases that anyone could remember. Like an old wound that fully refused to heal, anyone that went by Prince Street during that week was reminded of the 6 year old that captured the City’s, and ultimately, the nation’s attention back in 1979.

Etan Patz set out for class on May 25 of that year, like any boy who was looking forward to the end of his school week. It was only a two block walk to his bus on West Broadway but somehow, he never made it to his ride or to school that day. When it was discovered that he hadn’t returned home, a frantic hunt for the child was undertaken, triggering a sizable response that was somewhat reminiscent of the Son of Sam episode nearly two years earlier. Before the internet and social media took hold as forms of communication, the evening news became the go-to source for updates on this story and the hysteria that this caused led to Etan becoming the first child pictured on the side of a milk carton. Kids were missing and exploited long before him but it was his disappearance that changed how society responded to this problem and dealt with it, even if it wasn’t the most prudent or helpful solution possible.

I remember when I was growing up how “Just Say No” was the hot topic for kids both in school and on the news, as everyone from the First Lady on down campaigned to dissuade people from using drugs. What was an anti-drug slogan would ultimately be seen as one of the first sound bites for millions of us that were starting to come of age at the time. Eventually, the people and cases that rocked the city and the country at large in the following decade were reduced down to the victim or the locale in which they took place. Adam Walsh, Bernie Geotz, Howard Beach, Lisa Steinberg, the Preppie Murderer, the Central Park Jogger, Crown Heights, and Rodney King became synonymous with crimes that sensationally became worse than the one that preceded it. Nearly all ended in trials, tears, and piles of finger pointing, with the larger issues of race relations, civil conduct, and respect for fellow man remaining on the back burner throughout all of the ordeals. By the early 90’s, the United States had become a more violent, segregated, and stratified society where certain groups and races were still unable to assimilate and fully participate in the American Dream.

Lost in the midst of all this was Etan Patz.

It was no coincidence that the year in which he disappeared also saw Kramer vs. Kramer win Best Picture. No, Etan’s parents were not divorced but much of the film focused on the fight for the child. By that time, divorce and the breakdown of the postwar nuclear family was already in full effect along with an accompanying rise in the crime rate across the board. At the same time of this malaise, the SoHo that had characterized industrial and commercial New York for generations had been accidentally been preserved thanks to Robert Moses’ unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway. Loads of cast-iron gems were saved from the wrecking ball or from massive alterations due to the state of limbo that the highway was in for a quarter of a century. All of these factors converged at the time of Etan’s disappearance as the area was in a state of rebound, full of artists colonies that produced such seminal creative incubators as The Kitchen. When those became priced out, the Soho of today took hold as Prince Street is now known for such haute couture boutiques as Baby Phat, Miu Miu, and Nicole Miller. The neighborhood at large has become the go-to high end mall when shoppers want to avoid the crowds and tourists that zealously flock to Madison Ave. in the 50’s and 60’s or to the bottom of the High Line. The old industrial buildings lend an air of grittiness to a set of streetscapes that’s clearly targeted for the now-infamous 1% but thankfully, there remained one outlet of the old ‘hood that has withstood the gentrification and upward climb in rents:

Fanelli’s.

Years ago, an ex of mine and I went there for dinner after running a bunch of her errands down on Broadway.The neon sign, old wooden bar, and pressed tin ceiling were a throwback to the restaurants that had once dotted much of the island. As we ate our meal on the red and white checkered tablecloths, I couldn’t help but wonder how much history that place had seen throughout the decades of surrounding change. I still remember the meal of chicken parmesan and our walk to the eatery through a part of town that at the time, I had hardly ever seen foot in but now, it’s obviously a different story. Like so many streets in SoHo, I cut down Prince to avoid the traffic on Houston Street or Broadway when the shoppers are out in full force. The police tape and investigators are long gone and once again, Etan Patz’s disappearance has been relegated to the cold case files as it was for so many years. On my way out to head to the subway with my girlfriend at the time, the thought going through my head that night was the same that I have today, as I yearn for the day when the Patz family can finally learn the truth and move on from their heartbreaking ordeal:

If only those walls could talk.

Prince Street, looking west from Fanelli’s