“Hey there, where to?”
“53 and 6, right?”
“Is there any other?”
In the midst of all the fares that I’ve taken around New York, there have been a few instances where someone’s gotten into my Taxi and asked to be taken here. Not on the way to somewhere else, but just to “the cart”. All of us who drive a yellow vehicle for a living need to eat at some point during a shift and quite often, this is where we put our ride into park, get out, and have our dinners.
Even at my garage, this was a place we talked about fairly often. Once in a while, I’d catch a whiff of this when I got back after a long night out. Someone would get their dinner here, load it up with sauce, and then come back to eat once their ride was fueled up and parked on the lot. What is about this place that people were drawn to, whether they were workers, nightcrawlers, or anyone in between?
When I first started driving, I didn’t eat during my shift. I’m used going long distances and times between things in my life, mostly because how I focus and think. I almost always have a zillion thoughts and tasks going and I bounce around between them but once I’m in the driver’s seat, that all changes. Work *is* my focus, even if I’m in a deep conversation with someone in the back seat. More times than I can count, my passengers comment on how I don’t have the radio on or a bluetooth in my ear that I’m using to argue with someone and even in the wee hours of the morning, I tend to keep things pretty quiet as I’m cruising around. It’s only when nature calls and I can’t keep her on hold any more do I venture outside of it and back into the real world. Over time, I found my favorite spots – for walking, relieving myself, checking my phone, and eating; and when it came to the latter, there was no better locale in all of the Big Apple than the set of carts scattered around the corner of 6 Ave. and 53 St. in the middle of Midtown.
During the day, this is no-man’s land for cabdrivers. I say that jokingly because everyone is seemingly there when the workday ends for the rat racers and more times than I can count, I’ve ended up having to drop someone near this spot right in the midst of the madness. Just like a rainy day, a fare is easy to find near here in the midst of the rush but hard to move around, because of the proximity of this locale. With Central Park north of it, Times Square to the west, 5 Ave to the east, and 42 St to the south, there is no easy escape from New York’s most prominent hotel and street-food eatery when the masses are still out and about.
At night, it’s a different story.
Because of its width and timing of the traffic lights, 6 Ave is my preferred way to get uptown if I’m not taking one of the arteries on Manhattan’s periphery. Even when I have to get up to the 59 St. Bridge, I love taking 6 up and entering the corporate canyon that the XYZ Buildings of the 1960’s helped to create. Everything goes by so fast when you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle during the overnight hours but the exact opposite feeling takes hold once I park it and step out, seeing the monoliths that frame the plaza where The Halal Guys set up shop every day.
It’s such an odd location given the number of suits that pass by it but it’s easy for the tourists to each and there’s plenty of room to sit down and enjoy the creature comforts of a good chicken and lamb platter. One fellow driver told me that the New York Hilton offered them 7 figures to move but just as is the case with the companies surrounding them, the guys who work that corner know that it’s all about location, location, and location.
Or should I say, locations?
It was in the news a few weeks back that The Halal Guys are expanding and will soon be available to millions more potential customers around the United States. This is noteworthy for a few reasons, the most obvious being that street food in New York is big business and not a passing fad, even when it’s not hot dog and pretzels. In addition, the main location in Midtown is not enough for New Yorkers, as they can now go down to 14 St. to get their fix for a good platter. Anyone who’s ever eaten from a food truck and watched it move from parking space to parking space can vouch that having it at one spot is a good thign and draws life and vitality to sidewalks, even if restaurant owners feel that it’s direct competition. Last but not least, the ethnicity of America is changing and it will probably come to pass that we’ll see a national chain of Halal fast-food joints within the next 20 years, just as Taco Bell became the first one to serve Mexican food in such a manner from coast to coast.
For me, I’m happy with the original location. The only Nathan’s hot dog I’ve ever eaten was on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Ave’s in Coney Island and the only Shake Shack burger I’ve ever enjoyed was in Madison Square Park (after waiting on line forever, of course). Part of what makes food appealing to me is what makes so any other aspects of my life appealing as well, and that’s where I get it from. When it comes to sounds, colors, smells, books I’ve read, and the people that I’m lucky to have come across, what seals the deal for me is where the interaction took place. Years after a particular event happened or a building that I love has been torn down, I go by and fondly recall what took occurred there. Smelling pretzels from a street vendor takes me back to the ’80’s when I didn’t go into New York often and I thought that 5 Ave. was the most exclusive street on the planet (which is up for a bit of a debate in today’s global economy).
Things change at an ever-increasing speed but for a sentimentalist like me, so much of what I come across in this world has been stuck in time, even if it’s only in my mind. I love my other mobile vendors to eat from in New York, like the Taco Truck on 14 St. just off 8 Ave. or the trucks on Bedford Ave. on my way back to my garage but there nothing like the spots that I keep coming back for a slice of comfort away from home. Years from now, the Halal Guys may be an empire on the level of the one Ray Kroc founded over 6 decades ago and I may be eating their dishes in a state or city far away from the bright lights of Manhattan. Nobody will ask me to take me there and I probably won’t be having my dinner at 3 in the morning when that day finally arrives, but it’ll be easy to think back to the times where I put everything on hold for a few minutes and savored the best that a plate of chicken, lamb, rice, lettuce, and sauce had to offer.
For this cabbie, the old saying doesn’t apply: You *can* take it with you, by memories if nothing else.