Hold On

The start of my shift from the start of it all last July

Last week was not unlike many of the others that I’ve had lately. Lots of tourists from overseas flocked to the Big Apple and helped cabdrivers like yours truly out. There was a Taxi Worker’s Alliance meeting late at night to celebrate our hard-fought raise that goes into effect in the beginning of September. Someone on Friday night even stood in the middle of Broadway and stopped my cab, opening the shotgun door and demanding to go to the heart of the Lower East Side. Of course, my passenger in the back freaked out and I soon gave the drunkard a verbal tongue-lashing before he slammed the door and continued to make an ass out of himself with the other Taxis heading downtown. Once I brought my wheels back to the garage at around 6 yesterday morning, someone else happened: I hit the one-year mark as a New York City cabdriver.

Of course, there wasn’t any fanfare. My new hack license came in the mail two weeks ago and I filled out everything way ahead of time, to avoid the possibility of bureaucracy giving me an unplanned vacation in the middle of the summer. As I’ve alluded to earlier on here, one half of Taxi drivers don’t last a year and another half of them don’t make it to two years. When I started, I had no idea how long I was going to last because of circumstances that were beyond my control. I switched my major enough times during my two stints in college and the question that I’m asked most often as I navigate my way through the city streets is what I want to do with my life.

Besides strangling the necks of the passengers that get their jollies out of playing “20 questions” with me, I never have a definitive answer to that. 15 years ago, I would have said that I’d be an engineer. 10 years ago, I would have wanted to be an architect. 5 years ago, an economist. 3 years ago, an urban planner. Now, I just want survive this long enough to pay my student loans off. There have been too many articles lately stating that America is largely becoming a nation of dependents. Kids dependent on overbearing parents that don’t give them any room for creativity or free, unstructured time. Aging baby boomers dependent on younger generations to provide them with care. Migrants to this country dependent on the government to provide them with social services that will last until the grave comes calling and who can forget the jobless, looking in the mail every month until the unemployment checks come and tie them over for another few weeks.

I refuse to be a part of any of that. Sure, it’s not easy telling people what I do for a living, even when I’m imbibing during another social gathering with my fellow Columbia alums. It would be even harder for me to let go of my proverbial bootstraps and throw the towel in. One thing I have to remind my passengers is that I do *not* work for the garage that maintains and dispatches my vehicle. It’s a crude form of an independent business that myself, and the other drivers, run when we head out onto the streets and attempt to better our situation. Many of us sacrifice what’s important in order to drive and that would of course be free time.

There have been several weeks lately where I’ve spent more time in the Empire State than the Garden State and I don’t even work 7 days a week like many of my fellow drivers. One of my running jokes with my passengers is that they don’t step into my ride for the night but rather, into my office. I don’t have a desk but like so many who live on wheels, most of what I need to function comes with me every time I head out for a shift. I nearly lost it all last winter when someone at a high-end apartment building on the East Side took my bag out of my trunk along with the luggage of the passenger that I dropped off there. Thankfully, the doorman was first class and was able to find my information in my bag and contact me, saving me the time and expense of having to piece my vocational supplies back together again.

As much as people think I see X-rated acts and characters out of a Larry David series on a daily basis in the backseat, stories like the one above are much more commonplace for someone in my profession. The door on the side of the Taxi may as well be revolving since people come and go so quickly and as fast as the turnover of passengers is, so is the rate at which we go around the city. I’ll cover every corner of Manhattan and probably half a dozen neighborhoods in the outer Boroughs on a typical night and if someone forgets a phone or has to go back to where they originated from, the city will shrink down to nothing as I’m forced to fly my way across town to remedy the situation. Cities need to be seen on foot to be truly appreciated but in my line of work, the sights outside of the cab are secondary to the lives and interest stories that unfold inside of the vehicle. For the way that each fare begins as similarly to the one before it, the endings are just as varied as the people that live their lives inside of the city limits.

I wish I knew what the next year will bring. There will no doubt be more interesting people who will be fortunate enough to grace my presence after having come out of nowhere, unannounced. The economy will hopefully begin a real recovery once Europe gets its act together and we figure out who will be running America for the next four years. A real set of mayoral candidates should emerge from the sorry state of wannabes that are currently making waves on the airwaves and hopefully, the cranes that are beginning to dot the sky in midtown will make their way west and finally begin to transform Hudson Yards into it’s self-proclaimed “next great neighborhood”. I’m too nostalgic for the New York of my childhood which shaped the mindset that I have today, but only because the city hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be tomorrow. Bike lanes, new neighborhoods in the outer Boroughs, a million freshly-planted trees, and a greener economy will only make a lasting mark if they are successfully used, loved, and integrated with the permanent cityscape that the likes of Moses, Olmsted, and Corbusier have left for us to preserve and improve upon. What my role will be in shaping the Big Apple of tomorrow remains unclear but for now, my job is simple and that is to help the people that live, work, and visit New York partake in the city and help shape it for the inhabitants of tomorrow.

One fare at a time, of course.

The blur of cabdriving

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Get out

Where ejected fares go to die

“Hey there, where to?”

“York and East End.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“York and East End Ave.”

“Sir, that’s impossible. Those streets are parallel.”

“Okay, just give me one second.”

So I did. I remember making the turn off of Broadway to start heading uptown shortly after taking this fare in. As usual, throngs of amateurs were out on that Saturday night, desperately waving for a ride in a vehicle such as mine while I had to make sense of a person who apparently had none of his own.

“Any idea where you’re going sir?”

“York and East End.”

“Maybe ya didn’t understand me the first time. I need a real address, or a building name, or a street number, or something I can pinpoint.”

‘Please, just give me a few more moments.”

Which the next red right gave me. Once I made the left turn past The Alamo it was time to straighten this out:

“Last time – where am I taking ya?”

“I know it’s on York and East End…”

“Get out.”

“What?”

“Ya heard me.”

“What about the meter? I owe you money.”

“I don’t care. It’s obvious that you’re on something and ya don’t know where in the hell you’re going. Just get out.”

“But…”

“GET OUT!”

And so he went…

I’m a nice guy. Really. I am. For all the crap we put up with week in and week out, it takes a lot of to get me red in the face. I don’t even like kicking people out of my cab and it can be incredibly difficult to do, given that we cannot physically pull anyone out of the back seat and that it’s easy for a passenger to file a complaint against a rude or uncourteous driver. There have been countless instances where I’ve had to deal with rich bitches, oblivious hipsters, clueless tourists, and those who pull the average IQ of an American down a notch or two but one thing I have to remind myself over and over again is that “All this too shall pass” and the high turnover rate of a typical shift will soon render an ignominious fare into a memory.

Then there are a few fares which continue to stick out for the wrong reasons. With apologies to Emma Lazarus, the city has continued to give me it’s tired, poor, heartless, strung-out, moronic, and just plain stupid, all in an attempt to get somewhere while ultimately going nowhere in the end:

“Hey there, where to?”

“Penn Station.”

“Alrighty. We’ll jump onto the Henry Hudson and get off somewhere in the 30’s. Do you have a preference as to which entrance you want me to drop ya off at?”

“I’m not sure, I’m supposed to meet someone down there.”

“Oh, is it a friend?”

“Yeah, he has the money I need.”

“What?”

“I was in a cab before and ended up here. I didn’t have enough to pay the driver so he kicked me out here on 125 St.”

“So you’re not taking a train from Penn Station?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t know where your friend is down there?”

“Yes.”

“And let me get this straight, you got into a cab and expected the driver to take you all the way down to Penn Station but you don’t have any money to pay him with?”

“Actually, could you help a brother out and spare me a dollar? I don’t have…”

“Get out.”

“Just…”

“GET OUT! For God’s sake, PLEASE don’t pull something like this on your driver again…”

“Okay!”

And off I went back downtown…

It’s incredibly difficult at times to figure out which fares have “disaster” written on them before they come into my Taxi. There are parts of town and times of the the day that lend themselves to finding characters that are more shady, but some of the best people I’ve ever picked up were standing all alone in the most desolate and forlorn areas of the city, grateful that someone had come out of nowhere and stopped to take them home at the most forsaken hours of the night. What bothers me is that many of the people that I regretted picking up were in the midst of others who were hailing at the time, beating them out for the privilege of testing my patience.

Thankfully, that’s the only saving grace from these horror stories. As so many people do with the dating scene in New York, it’s easy to dump someone and move onto the next one when it comes to fares. For every person I’ve wanted to toss, there have been scores that I’ve wanted to have for an extended period of time. There’s nothing like talking economics with a financial whiz, current events with a city government employee, or hearing a designer, planner, or scientist talk about what he or she is working on and when the project will be complete. It’s hard enough to concentrate on the street ahead of me sometimes but it just be just as difficult to find out as much as possible from a fascinating passenger in a 5-minute span, choosing what I want to ask and soaking up as much as I can from what the person is saying. If Einstein was a cabdriver, even he’d be amazed at how quick most fares went while the few stinkers seemed to take up a disproportionally long time to resolve.

When I first started, I had no idea that so many New Yorkers would brighten up my day week in and week out. I figured that half would be decent to take to their destination and that I’d be able to stomach the rest. Two weeks in, I knew that 85% of them were a pleasure to deal with, 10% were rough, but bearable, and that 5% needed a real good smack where it counted. All these months later, that ratio hasn’t changed; only the way I’ve dealt with them has.

Last Saturday was one that seemed relatively typical for the summer. The air was on most of the night, lots of locals were out on vacation, and tourists could be found everywhere until the wee hours of the morning. If you consider the bridge and tunnel type to be one of them, then this is how one of them proceeded to treat me:

“Hey there, where to?”

“Yo, I’m going back to New Jersey. I just saw the new Batman movie!”

“Okay, where in Jersey?”

“I’ll give you $100, look my name is even Bruce Wayne! Hold my Red Bull for me…”

“Um…”

“I’m serious! Where’s the light in this thing?”

“Where in New Jersey are you heading home to? I have to enter it in before we pull out…”

“I’m Bruce Wayne, you have to take me!”

“Here, take your drink and…”

“I’ll give you $200, just take me home.”

“Sorry Bruce.”

“What?”

“Get out.”

“But I…”

“GET OUT!”

“Okay, okay!”

Needless to say, I never figured out if Bruce, his Red Bull, or his teenage friends ever successfully made it out of Gotham. The real hero of the night had other people to help home, even if his crusade was only for sanity in a maddening city.

Storm the Bastille Day

2011 Bastille Day Finale – Cobble Hill

“Do you hear a loud boom? I think I just heard another one.”

“I don’t hear anything. Oh wait, look at that!”

“It looks like fireworks coming from the Park.”

“I wonder why they’re shooting them off from Central Park.”

“Who knows? Maybe it’s for Bastille Day.”

Sure enough, it was fireworks coming from the direction of the Sheep Meadow. After I dropped off this passenger, I soon found out from my next fare that the Philharmonic was playing in the park that night and as an attempt to draw more patrons in, a post-concert pyrotechnics display concluded the night’s festivities. Although it paled in comparison to the show that Macy’s put on two weeks earlier, it was certainly enough to get my attention as well as everyone else’s who happened to be shooting crosstown on 57 St.

With so much going on in the Big Apple, I incorrectly guessed the reason for the visual and aural display. Every week, there’s another parade, festival, or commemoration for a person, anniversary, or country and one of the perks of working in the Big Apple is that every nation on Earth gets its moment in the sun at least once a year. It may be overkill at times and a pain when major streets in the city get blocked off, but they all serve as reminders that we’re a nation of immigrants that came here in search of a better life.

Obviously, I was off the mark in the conversation above and it shouldn’t come as any surprise as I’ll admit that I’m not the least bit French. Not by birth, not by association, and certainly not by marriage. While I do have a craving for Brie and Moet, those are not the types of food and drink that I tend to imbibe on and I can’t speak a word of the language, even though French is similar to the Latin that kept me up many a night in Butler Library. With this in mind, I write today in celebration of the one French custom that has helped me through many an off day and night that has dragged on for far longer than a typical shift:

Petanque.

Loosely translated, it means “feet grounded” and is a game similar to bocce; except that it’s not. I only started playing two years ago and like so many others in New York that take up a sport as a form of recreation, I picked it up off of the street…er, park.

Bryant Park, that is.

Long before I stopped cursing at Yellow cabs and actually drove one for a living, I passed through Bryant Park. I didn’t recall what it was like in the 1980’s since like Times Square, it was an area to be avoided at all costs. However, the 1992 renovation brought new life to the space and the inclusion of a reading room, public restroom, and great lawn made the place ideal for passing through at all times of the day. Every time I left the Bus Terminal, I passed through it to reach most of Midtown; even if I had to go a little bit out of my way. Over the years, it became the start of many of my pavement-pounding days and it eventually became the nexus of my outdoor time in New York. The grid that had defined the street layout in New York was continued inside the park, as the rows of trees, pathways, and a centrally-placed fountain brought out the best in French landscape architecture, while allowing for lots of fauna to fill in the spaces and throw in just a hint of disorder to the regimented layout.

Of course, what would suit a place like this better than a game that was French in origin?

The few times I saw players partaking in it, they were old and looked like the bowlers that were in my leagues back in the day here in Jersey. For years, I was called “kid” every time I burned the other team or made 6 spares in a row and that’s how I felt here, watching the seasoned veterans battle each other out boule after boule. Like so much in life, I decided to give it a go one day, when the sun was shining bright and I didn’t have the weight of the academic world at Columbia weighing me down anymore. I walked over, signed up for a free lesson, and started tossing the metal balls at the jack one at a time, when it was my turn.

As as they say, the rest was history.

Like so much in life, it quietly grew on me. One session turned into a few weekly practices and eventually, I joined LBNY. For someone who didn’t have a home in New York until I drove one figuratively on wheels, the game gave me a reprieve from the City that turned out to be one of cold shoulders, instead of big ones. To be fair, many of the players were French and had the game ingrained in their blood but over time, I found out that the diversity of the players was as great as the city itself. Young, old, working, retired, near, and far – it didn’t make a difference. The game quickly became greater than the sum of its parts players and soon enough, I found myself with boules in tow going around the city for a bunch of tournaments.

None of which was greater than those clustered around Bastille Day.

Bastille Day Tournament – TriBeCa

My textbooks at school taught me that the Bastille was a French prison that was stormed in 1789 and set off the waves of revolutions that led to the modern-day republic. The tournaments I attended did have a guillotine for display purposes but focused more on modern culture and French-inspired jazz that has been overlooked in this country. To be fair, I knew that I was a neophyte at the game and a majority of the players who excelled at it spoke French and exhibited the customs of it during the games.

Sure enough, that rubbed off on me too.

For all of its similarities to lawn bowling, Petanque is indeed an egalitarian game. What’s in? What’s out? You moved! I did not. My boule is closer! Oh yeah?

Just like cabdriving, it’s a mindset that seemed so alien to me until I played competitively and started to act like everyone else. New York excels at taking people from all corners of the globe and making them assimilate with their peers, if they choose not to self-segregate and not selectively associate with others of their own race or background. Since I grew up in such a homogenous place, it was easy for me to adapt to my surroundings when I left here, since I never really had a tie to where I came from. It’s probably why I’ve always liked seeing new neighborhoods and places when I was on wheels, even though I stuck out like a sore thumb quite often.

Last week was the one where all of this year’s Bastille Tournaments took place and of course, I hung up my keys for a few days and reacquainted myself with tossing the boules on sand. I said “fromage”, puckered up for some Ricard, and to be fair, did my fair share of arguing and belting out our point total in French after enough hard-fought rounds. It was hard to believe that I was on streets that I had passed through time and time again after dropping fares off, only because I was on the other end of the street closings that harden both the urban and my physical arteries when the days get long. No matter – there weren’t any trophies in it for me this year but once the games were over, any animosity I felt towards any players went by the wayside and my next shift at work was just that much easier to handle once I pulled out of the garage.

Bastille Day Tournament – Cobble Hill

Speaking of that, I certainly had a night to remember after dragging my burnt and parched body home from Smith Street last week. The hot weather lent itself to a lot of short fares since most people were too drained to walk more than a few blocks. After a pile of runs on the West Side, I took a family from Columbus Circle over to Central Park. Then, another person had to go uptown to the Park since her previous cabdriver didn’t know what he was doing. My next fare turned out to be a couple going their separate ways and after I dropped off the wife, I turned around to ask the gentleman where he was going:

“Where to?”

“53 W 35 St.”

“Oh, that’s right by Macy’s. We’ll stay on Lex and take it down unless the traffic slows down too much by the hotels.”

“Sounds good.”

Sure enough it did, considering that those words came from Al Roker’s mouth.

After dropping off the Today show weatherman, I had a few more fares and loops around midtown before making a left turn into Times Square and braving the downtown traffic. A couple that looked inebriated stuck their hands out and naturally, I took them:

“Hey there, where to?”

“Going home to Chelsea. 7 Ave. between 24 and 25 St.”

“Sure thing, I think that’s the building with the Whole Foods in it. Looks like you two had a good time tonight.”

“We did and you know what? Bloomberg didn’t have to tell us how much to drink. Can you believe he’s trying to regulate soda here in the city now?”

“I believe it even though I don’t agree with it.”

“Well, fuck that. You know what happened when they tried that with alcohol?”

“Yeah, prohibition. It didn’t work out too well.”

“Exactly! Well, unless you were the mafia. They’ll love it if this goes through too.”

“Of course.”

Yeah, the husband was slammed and a few minutes later, made a fairly typical request:

“I need to stop at a liquor store. Pull around to the one on 8 Ave. and wait for me there.”

“Alrighty, the meter will be on while you’re in there but I can wait.”

“Do you want anything?”

“Me? Um, well…I like my Bombay Sapphire or Saint Germain.”

“Okay.”

I waited and the next thing I knew…:

“Aaugh!”

“I didn’t mean to startle you. Seriously, I didn’t. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry!”

“It’s ok miss, it’s not every day that someone puts her head through the partition and has her hair up against my arm.”

“Pat, please. I just wanted to say hi.”

“Hi.”

“I never see the front of a cab.”

“Well, you have.”

“I”m just so fucking drunk right now and you’re so nice.”

“It’s alright – hey, what the…”

Fittingly, this was dropped through the shotgun window of my Taxi:

No wrapping required

“We’re right around the corner in the building where Katie Holmes is stuck in but don’t worry. We’re not scientologists and we’re entering through the side door.”

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Take a Hike

Soon to be a bit more likely

Well, it’s official: I’m getting a raise.

I shouldn’t put it in a traditional sense, since all of us who drive a yellow cab in New York are getting one too. The vote passed yesterday and once the end of September comes, it will take effect across the board.

Lots of people have asked me about it and had I not had previous commitments the last two days, I would have gone to the rally and meeting down in Lower Manhattan to watch the process continue to unfold but regardless of time constraints, it’s been an issue I’ve kept up with over the last few months.

Personally, I’m completely in favor of this. A lot of the comments on various publications covering this story were from irate people who were tired of the garbage that they put up with in Taxis – rude drivers, talking on the phone, aggressiveness on the streets, a lack of knowledge of city landmarks and geography, and an unwillingness to take anyone who required a crossing over or under a body of water. While this is true to some extent, I’ve said time and time again that not all of us are like that and a great deal of drivers take care of their passengers and only want the best for them, even if it’s easier said than done during the peak periods of traffic.

For all the legitimate gripes about the lack of raises over the years and silent erosion of our pay via inflation, it’s ultimately about the passenger; as it should be with any business. No one has to take a Taxi in a place that’s so well-covered by mass transit as New York but tens of thousands still do every day, even with all of the other options out there competing for their money. To drive a cab in New York is to run your own business in a sense. No, there aren’t any employees under my watch and I don’t have to pay for land and raw materials but in theory, how well I run it should determine how well I do and how long I can keep my head above water for. Because of the medallion system and the limited barriers of entry for owners, it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds and the high turnover rate among drivers is proof that it takes a bit more than elbow grease and an understanding of the city to make it in the long-term.

Will it help that my average fare will go up by $2 and the ride to JFK will increase by $7? Sure. I have no idea whether Taxi plan for the outer Boroughs will go through or if the extra medallions will be sold and on the streets, nor what the price of gas will be in two years. In spite of the (amazingly) good intentions of the TLC and the Mayor, there’s only so much that is in our control when it comes to this profession. So many have fought hard for our rights and a fair share of the revenue that flows into the coffers of the owners and operators. Now that we have a victory under our belts, we still need to remember that the fight for fair treatment and respect from all parties is still far from over.

Life Underground

A typical week on the Subway in New York

“Hey there, where to?”

“Orchard and Rivington, on the Lower East Side.”

“It might take a while, there’s quite a bit of traffic. Someone got pushed onto the L train tracks.”

“Well, that’s not going to mess things up on a Saturday night, is it?”

“Nope, it’s just you and half the city trying to get across the Willy B. at this hour.”

You might find it unusual that a Taxi driver would want to think about, let alone write, an entry about an alternative form of transportation in New York. I find it odd that I’ve gone this long and haven’t elaborated on the real lifeblood of the Big Apple. For all the ranting and raving that I do about my job, there’s no doubt that the trains that run under (and over) the streets of the city are just worthy of my attention. The two forms of transit have an intertwined existence that most people don’t know about up front, but becomes more readily apparent when looked at underneath the surface.

First off, there’s the state surcharge that gets tacked onto every fare. Heading anywhere in the 5 Boroughs or surrounding New York Counties? You’re paying 5o cents extra to the MTA. It’s a subsidy that the (mostly) richer Taxi passengers pay to help those who have to take public transportation and it continues the tradition set up in 1968 when the Triborough Bridge Authority was absorbed into the region’s crumbling mass transit system. It marked the end of Robert Moses’s rule as head of various city and state transportation, housing, and parks agencies but more importantly, it set the stage for the rebuilding of the region’s infrastructure and the return of its economic competitiveness. Even though most cabdrivers prefer to take free crossings over those with a toll, there’s no doubt that the MTA Bridges and Tunnels today are the ones that are maintained the best in New York. Many older drivers will probably wince in pain at the thought of the lower East River crossings being completely shut down for emergency repairs but such was the case in the late 1980’s when there were proposals to tear down the Williamsburg Bridge in favor of a more modern cable-stayed span. Fortunately, the turn-of-the-century crossings were kept at the expense of years of repairs and closed lanes. Yes, the MTA crossings are newer but the work has been kept up on them over the years and there’s never been any talk of a new span replacing the Triborough or Verrazano Bridges.

Then there’s the hole in the ground on the Upper East Side and by that, I’m referring to the Second Ave. Subway. It’s the most ambitious public works project in New York in generations and promises to revolutionize transportation and Real Estate values across large swaths of Manhattan. Whether it will or not remains to be seen but as in so many other instances, the project is behind schedule and over budget. Even if I didn’t know or care a damn about the tubes being bored up to 96 St., it would be impossible to dismiss since the chaos that it has caused on the neighborhood is unavoidable. I’ve had enough fares specifically request not to cross or go down 2 Ave. in spots and there have been countless stories written about the disruptions to residents along the future route and the businesses that have barely made ends meet due to the decreased foot traffic. Yes, a completed transit line would result in less Taxi fares in the area and better air quality but the inconveniences in the meantime have made many feel that the construction is not worth the long-term benefits to the neighborhood and City at large.

No discussion of the Subway would be complete without mentioning the Transport Workers Union. Arguably the most powerful in the city, they brought the region to its knees twice – once in 1966, again in 1980, and 25 years later in a strike that defied legalistic orders. In every case, the finger-pointing got nasty as both sides accused the other of not acting in good faith. The labor dispute in the Lindsay Administration has been cited as the cause of Union President Mike Quill’s untimely demise but it was enough to push a City that had a skyrocketing crime rate and lowering quality-of-life over the edge. Yes, there were not blackouts or garbage strikes in the later labor impasse’s but when the trains and buses weren’t running, it reflected poorly on all levels of Government to properly serve the people of New York.

Time and time again in recent months, I have been asked about the proposed fare hikes and rate increases for the yellow cabs of New York. Many people are shocked to find out that drivers such as myself are not part of a union, do not receive overtime when we surpass 40 hours in a week, and do not pay into a 401(k) or health insurance program. For the majority of us, we do this job for the money and the chance of steady work and if we love what we do, that’s just an intangible bonus. It is so difficult to feel sympathy for bus and train operators that can retire with a full pension and are nearly untouchable when it comes to passenger complaints and grievances. I am NOT talking about those who have been assaulted but rather, those who have had valid complaints brought against them by a riding public tired of fare hikes, service cuts, and rude employees. When it comes to our job, we do not have the luxury of a Union to protect us and a pension system to help us out of problems that may arise. Should we have to go to Taxi court down on Beaver Street, odds are we will lose, even if the problem brought into question is not our fault. To be a cabdriver in New York is to truly stake out on your own, in a legal as well as an occupational sense.

When I drive passengers around the City, I admit that I do not know all the streets, restaurants, and landmarks. I do my best to learn them all as well as the fastest way to get around. Much of what I accumulated in knowledge over the years was not because I was a local, as I have never truly called any neighborhood in the Big Apple home. Rather, it was because I took the Subway to as many places as I humanly could. Because New York’s system is so extensive and transfer-friendly, it was relatively easy to plunk down change for a token and take off for a neighborhood that was begging to be explored. I even went so far as to ride the entire system on one fare when the original Contract 1 Line turned 100 back in 2004. For someone in their late teens exploring a place that was just pulling out of the dark days of the 70’s and 80’s, the Subway was an outlet to much of the city that was otherwise inaccessible on the cheap.

So as the price of a typical Taxi fare appears to be on the rise for the first time in years, I tell many of my passengers that the rise in price of a ride on a MTA Bus or Subway has gone up numerous times in the last decade. The next hike appears to be in January followed by one two years after that, since it’s now pegged to the inflation rate. That too will affect us, as future operating deficits many have to be partially covered by increased revenue from the Taxi industry; which will include every driver in the City. It’s a shell game that will eventually screw someone in the end, since there are so many laborers in the transportation field and so much revenue for the pigs to raid in the trough of revenue via future fares.

In the poster above, a typical week’s worth of service diversions are shown in all their complicated glory. I make it a point to remember the ones that will affect me – in both my commute to and from work and the neighborhoods that I most frequent during a typical shift. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve found people who needed to go home late at night but the train that would normally take them there was either not running or rerouted. Whether drivers will ever admit it or not, all forms of transportation in New York are affected by how the others are running, if they’re even operating at all. For those of us that realize that and keep up with the changes, it’s more money in our pockets at the end of the night. More importantly, it’s a realization that so many people in the Big Apple are depending upon the riding public for their livelihoods, in a time where not many other fields are guaranteed steady demand for their services. All of us who drive are in this together, whether we’d like to admit it or not.

Colored bullets over Broadway

Let Freedom (Tower) Ring

Rendering of the new WTC – looking northeast

“Hey there, where to?”

“The 4 of us are going down to Bay Ridge.”

“No problem. Want me to take the Battery Tunnel?”

“That’s fine. We don’t mind paying the toll.”

“I’m gonna take the West Side Highway down, traffic should be good.”

Sure enough, we wove our way through the stilettos and roadwork of the Meatpacking District before flying down the Hudson as the sun descended to the west.

“Wow, is that the Freedom Tower? It looks great.”

“Sure enough, it is. It was topped out a few weeks ago and should be open sometime next year.”

“Wasn’t that supposed to be the World’s Tallest Building?”

“When they first planned it, yes. 1,776 feet isn’t anywhere close to what’s going up in Asia but it will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere when it’s completed.”

“I see. Are they putting up an identical one next to it?”

10 years after 9/11, there’s little doubt that the concept of a pair still rings true in Lower Manhattan, even if what’s going up now hardly resembles what once stood on those hallowed 16 acres.

With the possible exception of the Second Ave Subway, there’s currently nothing under construction in the Big Apple that has captivated and polarized so many New Yorkers as the army of cranes hard at work down at Ground Zero. In the midst of economic imbalance that has New Yorkers working harder than ever to pay rents that are at an all-time high, the sight of Lower Manhattan’s skyline returning to prominence has many optimistic about the future of Lower Manhattan and the office market as a whole.

The old saying that time heals all wounds might not hold more than at the site where the Twin Towers once stood. Shortly after the terrorist attacks that brought the original World Trade Center down, many thought that skyscrapers such at those were a 20th century relic and that the whole 16-acre site should be turned into a memorial for the thousands that perished that day. Rebuilding seemed so far off given the 1.25 million tons of debris that had to be cleared away, the human remains that had to be sorted out and cataloged, and the recession that nation was plunged into around the time of the attacks. Tall buildings were seen as the ultimate sign of hubris and arrogance, and who could forget the sight of innocent office workers leaping to their deaths, unable to reach lower stories and setbacks in a structure that was the epitome of modernism gone cold and impersonal?

If time is the ultimate judge of historical events, the act of War that took place on that September day turned out to not be as bad as was first thought. The thousands that were thought to have their lives ended in the towers was reduced down to 3,000 as more peoples whereabouts became available.  Even though the stock market had a few rough sessions, there wasn’t a second coming of the great depression as a result of the attacks. Additionally, the cleanup defied the odds, as it became the only major construction project in modern Big Apple lore to be completed on time and under budget, as the last steel beam from the foundation was removed in March of the following year. All of positives after that were nowhere to be found, as the real problems arose and lingered for years.

There still isn’t a site in the city limits where so many agencies and egos clash on such a massive scale. The Original World Trade Center was a pet project of David and Nelson Rockefeller (some even gave the towers those nicknames) to help revitalize Lower Manhattan. In the postwar years, Midtown was taking over as the economic and business heart of the city. Newer Towers, a more efficient street layout, and easier access from much of the Metropolitan area allowed new office corridors to spring up on 3, Park, and 6 Aves. While the design of the towers left much to be desired, the resulting corporate canyons resulted in a fundamental shift of the city’s economy from manufacturing to the late 20th century buzzword of FIRE (financial, insurance, and real estate) as well as the competition it gave to the Financial District. The Chase Manhattan Tower of 1960 brought an end to the wedding-cake/ziggurat towers that helped romanticize Lower Manhattan’s skyline but it was a harbinger of things to come. By the time of the late 1960’s, the dominoes had already been set in motion.

Enter the Port Authority. Originally created in the 1920’s as an agency to build a freight rail tunnel under the Hudson/Narrows (still not fulfilled to this day), the agency did create a series of spectacular river crossings and port improvements that added to the region’s mobility and economy. They were also the operators of the Hudson and Manhattan tubes, later rechristened as the PATH system. Sure enough, the Lower Manhattan terminus for the line was where else, at Hudson Terminal…which later became the site for the World Trade Center.

Like the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and so many housing complexes around the city, Urban Redevelopment and Eminent Domain were the final piece of the puzzles for the 16-acre Superblock imposed on Lower Manhattan. The old Hudson and Manhattan Terminal, the Syrian Quarter, and Radio Row, along with the streets that ran through the site, were obliterated in order to make way for the 7 Towers and the Vista Hotel that eventually took their place. Minoru Yamasaki’s plan was grand on a scale that nothing in New York had ever seen and it was tragic that like his Pruitt-Igoe complex in Saint Louis, they did not stand the test of time. Although their demises were the result of a different set of circumstances, the imagery of modern architecture failing to accomplish the goal of the betterment of humanity through an international style held sway.

Flash forward to the 21st Century and what we have for the site that formerly housed the Twin Towers called home can be seen above. Even with all the decades and two terrorist attacks since the sites original inception, there are a ton of similarities between the first and current World Trade Center projects. Big tenants will call the site home – Conde Nast has agreed to take space in 1 WTC while Cantor Fitzgerald and Port Authority were the companies that suffered the biggest losses on 9/11. Daniel Libeskind and David Childs were the architects most responsible for the master plan down at Ground Zero and should the site be fully developed, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Rogers, and Lord Norman Foster will be those who leave their imprint on Lower Manhattan. The Rockefellers and the Port Authority will be joined by the victims families, Larry Silverstein, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation as the sides vying for influence over what will ultimately be constructed in Lower Manhattan as well. With so many big shoulders and egos vying for influence in the reconstruction process, it should come as no surprise that the National September 11th Museum, the new PATH terminal, and two of the four major skyscrapers have yet to come to fruition, nearly 11 years after the attacks. The original World Trade Center was complete by 1973, with the exception of the Vista Hotel and 7 WTC Building which were started later and not complete until the 1980’s.

For now, 1 and 4 WTC are like so many other construction projects around New York. They make for interesting conversations between my passengers and I but most New Yorkers don’t think twice and about the larger ramifications of what’s being built around them. I need to admit to myself that people don’t give a second thought to that design of the built environment around them but they need to think about the bigger questions: What do I want to go up where the World Trade Center was? Why aren’t the families of the victims able to go to a museum that commemorates one of the darkest days in American History? Why is the Port Authority allowed to jack up tolls and fees that everyone will ultimately pay for, to cover a project that’s billions over budget and years behind schedule? Do companies need subsidies and tax breaks to move to Lower Manhattan when millions in the city aren’t receiving help for rent and food?

I was not in New York on 9/11 and would have been there the day before on my 25th Birthday, had it not downpoured the entire day. In the days and months after the attack, I read so much on what went into the creation, and ultimately, the destruction, of the World Trade Center. The timeline, sequence of events, and the players involved were each worthy of a story of their own, but when combined, served to write one of the most complex and tragic tales of modern New York. As I see the lights of 1 WTC on each night as I make my way around the city, I can’t help but think that the parties involved and the families who lost loved ones deserve a better narrative than the one that’s being poorly constructed all these years later. For all the glass and glitz being shown to the world, New Yorkers deserve at least a full audit of the finances of all the parties involved in the rebuilding currently taking place.

Anything less would be a slap in the face for those still hurting from the attacks, even after all of this time.

A view down Fulton Street of a red, white, and blue 1 WTC under construction

Sliding Doors

Mind the gap!

“So where do you go when you’re driving this? I”m guessing Manhattan.”

“Well yes, that’s where I spend a majority of my time. Of course, I go wherever my passengers ask me to take them.”

“Which is anywhere in the 5 Boroughs, right?”

“Correct.”

“And you can pick up anywhere in New York as well, right?”

“Correct, that’s what yellow means – licensed to take street hails anywhere in the City of New York.”

“Unlike the Livery Cabs (black cars).”

“That’s also correct, but you don’t want to get me started on them.”

I’ll admit, I don’t go to the movies. Ever. I can’t remember the last time I plopped down $10 of my hard-earned money in order to have the pleasure of sitting in a dark room with sticky floors, random cellphone conversations, and unruly kids. I don’t get a lot of free time during the week and when I do, I tend to be a bit more interactive with the forms of entertainment that I enjoy.

However, I *did* see the movie that is also the title of this posting. Most of you are unaware that I attended Vanderbilt University in the late 90’s before I was unceremoniously asked to leave for academic reasons. During my 3 years in the buckle of the Bible belt, I struggled with many facets of my life, including my studies, my social life, my identity, and dating. On one of the few occasions that I headed off-campus with someone  I was interested in, we went to the movies and of course, the feature we ended up seeing was Sliding Doors.

The premise was simple – Gwyneth Paltrow plays a young Londoner who got fired from her job and had to take the Tube home afterward. The plot splits in two as she made the train in one scene and when it was replayed, she ended up missing it. The concept of a parallel universe came to life as the rest of the film alternated back and forth between the two tales that result from the incident in London’s underground. What started of as an incident that millions of urbanites endure on a daily basis reverberated throughout her life, affecting her image, love life, and vocation following her termination of employment.

The film itself was interesting and came out at the height of Paltrow’s Shakespeare in Love-induced popularity. While I can’t remember every detail about the movie or the person I was with that day, the idea behind the plot stuck with me. Every day, there are tons of decisions and services that rely on a set schedule that I use to traverse the Big Apple and surrounds. Most of these run like clockwork but in an imperfect world, obstructions and unplanned events always seem to throw a monkey wrench into the best of my intentions.

Then of course, there’s my work environment. From the moment I pull out of the garage and start my shift, there are big decisions to be made. Car Wash? If so, now or later? Queensboro or Willy B. to enter Manhattan? Uptown? Downtown? Should I just follow the traffic and not fight it? Many people think that drivers such as myself have a set pattern that I follow to start my day out but more than any other job that I’ve had, this vocation quickly puts to death the notion of monotony and normalcy.

The conversation that I penned above is one that I have quite often. As I’ve mentioned before, passengers love to ask me questions once they realize that I’m not typical and the ones dealing with where I go when I’m available is one that comes up often. Each day has a different pattern when it comes to human and vehicular traffic. If every person and form of transportation could be tracked, I’m sure that it would be easy to see where everyone went after work, and how the social life in the City proceeds on a given night. In an ideal world, all the cabs would start off in Midtown or Downtown and eventually work their way to the residential and cultural areas before heading to the trendy neighborhoods that people eat, drink, and socialize in.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Nights don’t progress linearly like that. Where my first fare takes me determines where I go pick up my second one, and that one has a hand in determining where my third one will be found, and so on. Since I average 30 fares in a 12-hour span, it’s easy to envision how the beginning of my shift can determine where I’ll end up physically and financially at the end of the night.

Last week, the traffic was some of the worst I had seen since Christmas. 20 minutes and change to cross the Willy B, only to have my first fare hop into my cab and send me back across the bridge to Williamsburg. I had a feeling that I was going to a less-than-desirable locale during the rush, given that the cab in front of me sped away from the couple when they told him where to go. Sure enough, I cut through the narrow grid of lanes that the Lower East Side consists of and 10 minutes later, I dropped them off.

The beauty of all of this was that my next fare was only a block away and wanted to go to the Upper East Side. At that hour, the Queensboro Bridge was starting to free up and since I had very little turnover time and traffic to impede me, I brought my two passengers and their bags up to 1 Ave in decent time. Within an hour, I was flipping my fares over relatively easily and on my way to a solid weekday night.

So many times, I’ve had to take someone that I despise. Too many people have zero patience during the time of day where many of the arteries of the city are clogged up. Now that I’m pushing a year of doing this job, I let most of it slide off but I have to constantly remind myself that everything evens out in the end. For every bad fare or passenger that has absolutely ZERO idea where he or she is going, somebody will come along later in the night to make up for it. What always amazes me is that I hated having the person early on that added to the Hell of Rush Hour but without that first or second domino being pushed, the ride that made me laugh, smile, and think at 2 in the morning would never have fallen into place.

Even when I don’t have someone, there are always decisions to be made that have ramifications. Touching down on Delancey Street from the Willy B brings a plethora of choices when it comes to where to turn. A majority of the vehicles will be headed crosstown to the Holland Tunnel so my objective is to move away, and toward a street without any empty Taxis on it. This is how I work for much of the night – separating myself out from the pack. More often that I first would have guessed at, marching to my own beat has resulted in finding a fare that was so close, and yet so far from the nearest available Taxi. Waiting in line has its benefits late at night but for the most part, avoiding the lemmings pays off in the end.

People think that my job is easy, since Manhattan is just “one big grid” and most of the streets are numbered and logical. To some extent, that’s true. However, what was an open way could have an accident, a parked bus, or a work truck on it the next time I have to go on it. Like a giant maze with movable partitions, the city is always changing. It brings new meaning to the term “rat race” since all of us are always trying to get ahead on a playing field that is constantly testing our memory and patience.

Some of my most memorable rides have come when I had an instinct to turn the corner, wait a minute in front of a busy establishment, or go a certain way just because nobody else was cruising in that direction. Whether it’s fate or divine intervention, those fares often tell me how I came at the right time and how lucky they were to have finally found someone. It’s on those nights when I feel that everything falls into place, and I don’t have to worry about any numbers that I need to hit.

A few years after the movie came out, there was an episode of my favorite show called Sliding Frasiers. Instead of the train, it’s clothing that makes Frasier’s day split into two. One day in the life of Doctor Crane has a wildly divergent sequence of events that are shown in alternating scenes until the end of the episode, when both parallel takes converge into the same end result. For all of the time making a decision and the  effects of it, Frasier still ends up at home, content at the end of the 24 minutes and change. In a way, it’s similar to how my day winds down. Every morning at around 4:55, I end up at the gas station. There, I break down the contents of my cab while filling up and then head over to the garage to cash out for the night. All of the runs around the Big Apple and surrounds, even with the accidents and wild rides tossed in for good measure, still tie up nice and neat when all is said and done.

Like my passengers, I always arrive at my destination safely – even if I never take the same way twice to it.

Stand clear?!?!?!…