Bellona

“You think it’s so unlike me
Why did the city change me?
Red sky, my eyes closed
The fire came so slow”

                                                       -“Bellona” – Junior Boys

Metlife Building - Flatiron District

Metlife Building – Flatiron District

“So do you make more money during the day or at night?”

“Well, I’ve never worked a day shift, so I can’t answer that.”

“But you do alright at night, correct?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be out here. I’ve always been a night owl and this fits perfectly. Besides, if ya don’t like being out at night, ya shouldn’t be here to begin with. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be at night than in New York.”

It was 10 years ago this month that the City was plunged into darkness in the first blackout to hit the Big Apple since 1977. I wasn’t working in New York or in school at the time, so I heard all of the accounts on AM radio as I stayed in Jersey for the week. I almost expected a repeat of what happened during the “Summer of Sam” but the widespread riots, looting, and panic were largely absent during this time around. Once the power came back on, it was business as usual and even though my beloved Yankees made the World Series that year, there weren’t any reports of the Bronx Burning as the cameras rolled during the games at the Stadium.

Although it’s been a long time since the last electrical failure in the 5 Boroughs, I think it about it all the time during my nights out on the street. Most of us take modern conveniences for granted until they go out, which is certainly true when a train gets stuck underground or rerouted to another station far away from your original destination. I’m guilty of this too, as I love to push myself to extreme when I’m on duty. It’s easy to do until a tire, headlight, or the on board GPS goes out, and I’m at the mercy of Veriphone or the mechanic on duty at the garage.

One of the best things about my shifts are watching the long day’s journey into night, and seeing how everything changes during and after the sunset. No matter the weather or how many times I work a given week, there’s always an adjustment period as the sky darkens and all of the artificial lighting and kicks in. Not only is it harder to find fares on most nights, but a lot more attention has to be paid to the surrounds as the Taxi is in motion.

For me, it goes a bit deeper than that. Not only do the people and locating those who wish to hail change, but the way that things look and appear also change. Construction sites are barren during the overnight hours unless the temporary lighting stays on but during the day, I will round a corner and see 6-8 floors added onto a building since the last time I was able to check its progress. The lights of Times Square can be seen for blocks away, as the city’s outdoor mall for tourists turns into the set of Blade Runner for those who stick around after shopping and eating at chains that can be found back at home. Because the streets themselves are so clogged, the view down them hardly changes, but that’s not the case throughout most of the rest of the City. It’s amazing to see how the areas around the transit hubs look totally different when the people are gone, and the view and vistas open up down the avenues.

From the top of the Chrysler Building to the view down an industrial street in Bushwick, it’s the way the City looks at night that gets me through the trails and tribulations of my job. Even when 99% of my fares are great, I can stew over the 1% that treated me like a peon, a pawn, a robot, or just inhumanely. Every job I ever had featured at least one person who pushed me around the hell of it, even if it was unintentional. This is the first one where I call the shots and the only person who pushes myself, is myself with the upside being that no one sees me at my worst, after one of the fares that changes your life or demeans me for no reason walks out, leaving me wondering what just happened.

That rarely happens however, and for every moment that nearly leaves me in tears, there are scores that make me cry because they are so fleeting and temporary, and I wish I could hold onto them for the times when the joy in life seems to be lacking. The last month or so has thankfully has seen more than their fair share of those, as the near-perfect nights have led to several instances of me pulling the Taxi over and feeling the breeze as I explore a part of an outer Borough that I rarely get to.

I should be past this stage in my life, as my birthday next week has once again reminded me. When I was younger, everyone said that I would stop staying out so late and settle down when I got older. Since so many of my fares always seem to guess my age incorrectly and think that I’m just as young as they are, especially the drunken trust fund-baby twentysomethings that I take home on the weekends. It’s nice to hear but it also hurts because I know that’s not the case deep down. I don’t think New York is powerful enough to keep me young forever, or to take my physical and emotional aches and pains away as they accumulate over the years. I never got into the City enough when I was growing up, and into the clubs and hot spots that no longer exist except in people’s memories. Making up for lost time now was not what I set out to do when I took this job, but it’s been a pleasant benefit to a job that has consumed much of my waking hours and changed the way I view humanity.

Many people come to the Big Apple bright-eyed and busy tailed, expecting to change the City and hit it big there. Most of them will fail to some extent since few will make it to the top of their chosen profession. What the migrants to the Big Apple fail to realize is that the City *will* change them, even if it’s gradual and over time. It’s not so much an assimilation as it’s a change in mentality that makes anyone become a New Yorker, even if the accent never fully kicks in.

Over the last two years, that’s what’s happened to me, and I know for a fact that I’m all the better for it.

Chrysler Building vista - Bushwick

Chrysler Building vista – Bushwick

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Who’ll kill the electric cab?

Nissan LEAF - West Side

Nissan Leaf – West Side

“Nice Taxi you have here!”

“Thanks, but it’s not mine. I just keep it clean as possible.”

“It runs so quiet, it must be an electric or hybrid vehicle.”

“No it’s not. The engines are nowhere as big as those in the Crown Vic’s, although this does run on gasoline. Some of the SUV’s and the Prius Taxi’s are hybrids but we don’t have anymore of the former at the garage I work out of.”

“What about the Taxi of Tomorrow? Isn’t that supposed to run on electric power?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Now that we’re down to T minus 70 days and counting until the Taxi of Tomorrow hits the streets of the Big Apple, there’s been a lot more talk about it’s rollout, both in the news and by my passengers. As I wrote in an earlier post, many people incorrectly think that the Ford Transit Connect is the Taxi of Tomorrow but even though some of those have been on the streets for nearly two years now, none will be active as a yellow cab at the end of the decade should the full implementation of the Nissan NV-200 take place. It did lose out to it in the competition to be the exclusive yellow cab for the City of New York, but since the Crown Victoria is no longer being made by Ford, other models have taken the place of those that have reached the end of their life cycle, and the Transit Connect happens to be one of the more popular choices to replace the cars that have hit retirement age.

Come October, that all changes as the first of the NV-200’s will roll out. New Yorkers will have a custom-built Taxi designed for comfort, safety, stability, and durability (or so we’ve been told) that has been thoroughly tested and ready for the daily wear and tear that the streets will inevitably put on them. Since no one in the general public had been inside of one and none of the drivers currently employed in New York has driven one, the jury is out on whether the grandiose promises that the TLC and the Mayor have made about this new Taxi will be kept. One aspect about them remains in flux however:

What will they run on?

One of the questions I get the most by my passengers is how the cost of fuel is borne at the end of the shift. Many incorrectly think that the garage pays for whatever we use while we’re on-duty, but if you’ve kept up with my musings on here, you know better than that. Just like a rental car, the Taxis we drive have to be returned in the condition we took them out in – clean, ding-free, and full.

Of gas, that is.

Thankfully, my garage has a home station nearby that also serves as a de facto AAA emergency roadside service. The tow trucks that will take us back in case we break down are not based near my garage but in case of a flat tire, a dead battery, or other small problems that arise from time to time, one of the guys who works at the station will take the old taxi that’s been converted to a Saint Bernard on wheels and help us out. It’s a lifesaver since getting towed is time-consuming and as anyone is well aware of, time is money. To take that a step further, time lost during a shift is money lost.

The day drivers have it rough when it comes to getting gas since getting in and out of the Station at rush hour is one knock-’em, sock-’em game of musical chairs with everyone else who is trying to get in and out at the same time. At 4:50 in the morning, the streets are empty and the only thing I can count on is that I’ll see the same 5 or 10 guys out of my garage who are finishing their shift at the same time. We almost always agree on how good or bad it was out on the streets that night and we’ll trade barbs on what we went through during the previous 12 hours. In a field where it’s pretty much every driver for him or herself, it’s the only time where I feel like I can bond with those that put in the same hours and working conditions that I do.

Could all of this change in the near future? A few months back, Nissan helped launch 6 electric LEAF Taxis to join the 13,000+ gasoline and hybrid vehicles that currently make up the fleet in New York. All of them look like the one pictured above and have the same fare structure as the other Taxis. The real reason for their usage however, is to see whether they can pass muster and handle the day-to-day grind that will take its toll on them. Eventually, the city wants 1/3 of the fleet to be electric by the end of the decade.

Of course, that will have to coincide with the NV-200 being the exclusive model of Taxi by that time, even though none of the ones set to hit the street this year are slated to run via a charger and battery.

This brings up a host of problems that will have to be addressed. For starters, there are only a limited number of charging stations currently in the 5 Boroughs. Garages are expected to have the stations first before they become more widely available but for now, an app is needed to locate them.

Then there’s the time factor. Most of the Taxis in the overall fleet are on the road at least 20 hours a day, nearly every day of the week. Steady cars get traded off between partners and the others are dispatched out to the daily or nightly drivers. It’s not uncommon for a Taxi to rack up well over 300,000 miles during its 6-year lifespan on the streets before it hits retirement age and is decommissioned. Charging, for all the advances made in it in the last few years, still takes a while and has to be done on vehicles that are not on the road for two shifts a day. Once the time to fully recharge a battery drops, this can change and then can an electric cab can be on-duty for nearly the entire day (or night).

Last but not least, there’s the issue of the battery. Ask anyone who’s had to pay for a new one in a hybrid vehicle and you’ll probably get sighs and groans as a response. They’re not cheap and their replacement can easily wipe out the savings in gas in a heartbeat. The cars currently on the road haven’t had to go through that yet but eventually, they will and the cost will have to be borne by someone in order to keep them running. Their range between charges isn’t terribly far either and for someone like me who drives nearly the entire time in a 12-hour shift, 140-150 miles will be the minimum needed to ensure a safe and stress-free night at work.

No one ever seems to mention that for all the gas that an electric Taxi will save, it will still need an energy source. A plug may not give off carbon dioxide but the source of the power that feeds into it probably will. Given that Indian Point’s days are numbered and that a majority of the power that New York consumes today is from fossil fuels, how much greenhouse gases are electric vehicles really keeping out of the atmosphere? To me, it’s a shell game that everyone is in favor of without thinking everything through from start to finish.

Ultimately, the big issue that this will come down to is going to be the same one that affects so much of what New York’s future depends on, which is infrastructure. Charging stations will have to be widespread, do the job quickly, and be built to last. If 1/3 of the 13,000+ yellow cabs (which could number nearly 15,000 by decade’s end) are to be electric, they will have to withstand the wear and tear that the job will place on them, as well as repeated charges on a near-daily basis. There’s nothing wrong with pushing the edge of what’s technologically possible as a means of efficiency and to help provide better environment for all but when it comes down to nuts and bolts, what matters is whether the person on the street hailing a cab will get into an electric one over a model that’s more familiar and reliable.

Usage will dictate what ultimately fails and succeeds. The Second Avenue Subway will cost billions to construct but after years of delays, it will be worth it when tens of thousands of passengers patronize the line once it’s finally open for revenue service. Water Tunnel #3 will be in near-constant use when it comes online in the next few years and any of the new parks along the East and Hudson Rivers will be worth the cost once the attendance numbers and rise in surrounding real estate values are taken into consideration. If the new cabs are up and running at decades end and the average passenger can’t discern between those that run via the pump versus those that run via the charge, than the plan will be a success and New York will be looked at as a leader in alternative energy for the vehicles that service the riding public.

Until then, we can only hope that the vast amount of time and money spent on this new technology will not be seen as a wasted opportunity, unlike the ill-fated Chevy Volt. The taxpayers and Taxi riders of Gotham do not deserve a boondoggle, repeated on such a massive scale.

iPhone26 056Charging station – New Jersey

The Big Apples

Original home run apple - Citi Field

Original home run apple – Citi Field

“So why is New York called the Big Apple anyways?”

“Beats me, but I can’t imagine any other nickname appropriate for this place.”

Two and half weeks ago, the 84th Major League Baseball All-Star game was played in Citi Field out in Flushing, Queens. For months, I did what I could to get a ticket to an event that will probably not take place again in New York for at least 20 years. The Mets website was the first place I looked back when there was still snow on the ground, but they wanted anyone who was interested in attending the Midsummer Classic to also buy season tickets for the Amazin’s 2013 campaign. No one in my Taxi was able to hook me up and even though I knew someone who worked the Fanfest at the Javits Center, there was still no word of a $600 or $800 chance to take off for a night and ride the #7 train out that night to see Baseball’s best slug it out. I ended up not working that night but thankfully, was able to come home and watch Mariano shut down the side and earned a well-deserved MVP in his final All-Star appearance.

All-Star apple and train - Citi Field

All-Star apple and train – Citi Field

Once in a while, I get that question posted at the top of this entry tossed at me. As I’ve alluded to many times, my passengers love to ask me question after question after question after…well, you get it. It’s bad enough that it’s usually the same variations of what I’ve already answered that night (Do you own this Taxi? How late are you out here? Anyone ever get it on back here? etc…) but the one up top is one of the few that I haven’t gotten around to looking up the answer to yet. Time and time again, I’ve referred to the city that I work in by its nickname, even though I don’t hear or see it as much as when I was growing up. Like graffiti, down-on-their luck starving artists, the Broadway font, and Milton Glaser’s I Love New York ad campaign being sung in the background, The Big Apple seemed to be depicted a lot more in the waning decades of the 20th Century. Heck, even the ball in Times Square was an apple for a period during the 1980’s, before returning back to it’s more familiar form. Yet throughout all of this, the nickname for New York has stuck.

But why not The Big banana, or even enchilada?

There isn’t one answer but whether it’s because of horses, jazz clubs, or even a brothel, there isn’t a soul that sets foot in the 5 Boroughs today that doesn’t know the link between apples and the City that has adopted them as an official moniker. The bond has become so synonymous that in 1980, the Mets even came up with a way to use the apple for themselves. Milwaukee may have Bernie Brewer taking a slide into a vat of beer and the south side of Chicago had an exploding scoreboard but after every home run hit by a Met, a giant Apple would pop out of a hat on the other side of the outfield wall. It was with that in mind that Major League Baseball decided to celebrate this year’s All-Star game by putting – what else – apples, all over the city. Lots of ’em, with the logos of the 30 Major League clubs and a few other designs tossed in for good measure. Why am I even putting this in here?

Because yours truly tracked all 35 of them down the week before the big game.

Mets apple and Taxi - Midtown

Mets apple and Taxi – Midtown

5 years ago, something similar was done for the Yankees. The House that Ruth Built up in the Bronx was hosting the All-Star game that year and during (the first) Yankee Stadium’s 86th and final season. As part of the festivities leading up to that 15-inning classic, a bunch of Statues of Liberty were put on parade around the City, as well as on Ellis and Liberty Islands. Being such a rabid baseball fan, I hunted every single one of these down, snapped a picture of it, and posted them all up online before I took off for the Summer to watch a bunch of Minor-League games on the road. I didn’t have a chance to buy any tickets for the game in the Bronx, but I’ll never forget turning on the radio in my Mustang and listening to the latter innings on AM radio in the wee hours of the morning, underneath the stars.

Washington Nationals apple - West Side

Washington Nationals apple – West Side

That was not the case this year but thankfully, I was able to visit firsthand all of the apples that were spread out and about. I had seen a few while driving around during my shift and on my off days, I took out the map that was printed in the paper and proceeded to find every one and cross it off, before pounding the pavement and moving onto the next. The hardest part was getting a nice shot of one without any distractions and given that so many were placed in high-traffic areas, that was easier said than done.

White Sox apple - Times Square

White Sox apple – Times Square

Most people would wonder what would lead someone to do such a crazy thing. Yes, I’m a huge fan of our national pastime and, yes, I probably had better things to do during my off days than to chase a bunch of fiberglass apples around New York during the heat of Summer. For me, it was part scavenger hunt, part checklist, and part walking tour. Some of them were in areas that I hadn’t been on foot in in quite a long time and they allowed me to get reacquainted with parts of the City that I was only familiar with from behind the dash. The All-Star apple was out at Citi Field and since I went out to see it when the Mets were away from town, I found the old Shea base paths in the parking lot and re-enacted the last out of the ’06 NLCS.

Shea's home plate - Citi Field lot

Shea’s home plate – Citi Field lot

A few others were on the far East and West Sides of Manhattan, which are practically no-man’s lands for pedestrians unless they’re on the way to somewhere specific in those parts of town. The Houston Astros Apple was in front of the Helmsley on 42 Street, which is where I dropped off National League All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel the night before the game. Several were down in Lower Manhattan, which sadly did not look much different than when I was down there in ’08 (except for 1 WTC being nearly complete the second time around). A big part of the allure of the whole parade was chasing them down on foot, which is how I learned my way around New York for years before I took the current job that I still hold.

Rangers Apple - Financial District

Rangers Apple – Financial District

I’m sure some people reading this will wonder why a 36 year-old Cabdriver even cares this much about a kids game played by overpaid drug addicts and egomaniacs and yes, I’ve often wondered the same thing myself. Given that I’ve seen cops ride on sidewalks, a video being filmed in the middle of 8 Ave. during rush hour traffic, and several fights and arrests while waiting at red lights during my last full week on the job, I realize that sports and recreation is one my ways of escaping the madness that so many of us who drive around New York have to put up with on a daily basis. No, they don’t solve problems, win wars, cure diseases, or make a difference in our day-to-day lives but sports are a big business in this country today and are a diversion during a time where so many of us have so much weighing us down. A nation’s lonely eyes once turned to Joltin’ Joe and for me my eyes will turn to many images, texts, people, and yes, activities when the nights grow long and the outlets are few for me to reach out to.

Time cover - 9/17/90

Time cover – 9/17/90

A little over 20 years ago, Time magazine did a cover story on “The Rotting Apple”. I was in 8th grade and read this issues in the Middle School Library when this came out – murders were at 2,000 a year, the Budget looked like it wouldn’t be balanced, people were once again fleeing for greener, suburban pastures, and race riots dotted many inner-city neighborhoods. Newly-elected major David Dinkins had his hands full and it looked like New York’s best days were in the rear-view mirror once again. Thankfully, that did not turn out to be the case but it took a massive infusion of capital, resources, a political shift in the City’s electorate, and a renewed questioning of New York’s role with the rest of America after 9/11 to bring Gotham back to prominence. No, it’s not a perfect place and much work has to be done to make New York the leader in innovation and immigration in the 21st Century but landing two All-Star games and having a unique form of public art on hand this Summer to make the steamy nights a bit easier for me to handle was another visible sign that the place that I call home during my working hours was on the right track and in much better shape than it was a generation ago.

Orioles apple - Meatpacking District
Orioles apple – Meatpacking District

Of course, the apples are gone now. I’ll still have youtube clips such at this “Big Apple Movie” (the bumper is at 1:50) to remind me of why I fell in love with New York in the pre-internet days, when TV was the only way I found out about the great city to the east of me:

It seems like so long ago and maybe when the next All-Star game is held in New York again in the 2030’s or 2040’s, someone will take out all of the apples out of mothballs and introduce them to a new generation of visitors, many of whom will find it hard to believe that the Big Apple was on the brink of insolvency and irrelevancy during the lifetime of some of its inhabitants.

Another reminder - Midtown

Another reminder – Midtown