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

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Wired

Man on Wire

Man on Wire

“You sure must drink a lot of coffee.”

“I haven’t had a drop since I started this job.”

“Wow. How do you do it, then?”

“I’ve never fit in and staying up all night is easy for me. May as well get paid for it.”

I knew from a young age that I never fit in with the other kids. Not only did I sit down in front of Sesame Street but I’d also watch the evening news and The Nightly Business Report when I got a chance. When I was in the library in elementary school, I’d grab whatever reference book or Encyclopedia struck my fancy and go through it until I found something that stood out to me. When my parents got  lost behind the wheel, I was the one who knew where we were and which directions would get us back on track. I was intellectually hungry to know how, where, when, why, and what made people tick. Much of that curiosity was satisfied when I went to New York alone for the first time in early ’94 and drove out to California alone a little over two years later. There were no words to describe what it was like to see the words, pictures, and stories in books and depicted on television come to life right in front of me, as I got to use my knowledge and take my learning to another level by experiencing new places firsthand.

One of the moments I’ll never forget was the first time I drove out at night alone. I had just gotten my license and a pair of wheels (not much else functioned properly on that vehicle) but on a night not much unlike tonight, I took her out for a spin here in town. It may not have seen like much to anyone else but to be out alone with the buildings illuminated by artificial light, with hardly a soul to be seen, and with the top down on a room-temperature night was something that struck me as totally new and totally comforting at the same time. Most of all, I wasn’t tired like so many people were when they had to be out late for work or socializing. I begged to stay up past my bedtime when I was little to watch Sha-na-na or Dance Fever and even though they had been off the air for years by that point, the little boy that resented going to bed early finally got his due and loved every minute of it.

Looking back, it was easy to see why I loved that night and so many others like it since. Every job where I’ve had to be up during the day had been a struggle for me – from getting out of bed, staying awake and alert for the full 8 hours, and conforming to an office environment that never felt quite right, even on the best of days. One thing I learned during the struggles of a daytime vocation was that I had to keep myself stimulated in order to feel alive. No, it didn’t involve illicit substances or death-defying juvenile antics, but I had to read, write, learn, listen, and respond to as much as I could and add it to my base of knowledge, so I could find new fields that explore on my own time.

Even with all the books I have here at the house, all the pages bookmarked on my computer, and all the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit in the other 46 States that I don’t regularly get to, there’s so much more out there that I haven’t been able to have my senses come into contact with. The older I get, the more I realize that what I’ve learned will probably pale in comparison with what still currently remains unknown to me. For example, there’s the World Trade Center and a chapter of its history that I only recently started to inquire about further.

Several times in the 1980’s, I had the chance to go to the observation decks on the 107th and 110 floors. I remember the absolutely massive escalators leading up from the PATH terminus, the elevators having “Welcome” written in several languages for the tourists, photographs of each of the 4 views with the major buildings highlighted for the sightseers, the electric fence around the edge of the outdoor observation deck to thwart jumpers, and an autograph on the northwest corner of the South Tower, with a simple marking on it. Later on, I realized that someone had crossed between the Towers on wire around the time my parents got married, but I never read any further into it.

Three months before I graduated from Columbia, I stumbled into the auditorium at the Student Center where I had reviewed notes for class during many a lazy afternoon. That day, they were screening Man on Wire with a Q and A afterwards with one of the deans. It was free and open to all and even though I missed the first 15 or so minutes of it, I put my books away, sat down, and stayed until the end of the discussion.

I would tell everyone out there reading this to go rent it on DVD and watch it straight through, but that’s not why I’m writing this entry today. For starters, this isn’t a blog about movie recommendations and furthermore, I hadn’t been to a theater in years before watching that documentary; so therefore, I have almost nothing to use as a frame of reference. Most people I know have seen so many movies that they know what they like and don’t like and what they think of the most popular films in recent years. I’m the exact opposite as I have little use for Hollywood right now and spend my free time pursuing other forms of mental stimulation.

All of that is besides my point, however. Like so much else in life, it wasn’t the crossing that was amazing as much as the story behind it. It’s impossible to envision someone being able to freely walk into the construction site down at Ground Zero today once night sets in but Philippe Petit and his assistants did just that when the original World Trade Center was under construction in the 1970’s. The whole operation was so meticulously planned that the details behind the “artistic crime of the century” were nearly amazing as the actual act itself. Mastering the art of tightrope walking, gaining access to the construction site, learning the layout of the towers, and accessing the roof seem difficult enough, not to mention having to breach whatever passed for security back in those days. It may seem like a lot of preparation for an event that may never have happened, but when asked about it afterwards, he had this to say in his defense:

“When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk!”

And so he did.

It’s so difficult for me to look at those pictures nearly 40 years later. It’s not because the towers aren’t there anymore, or because the landscape of Lower Manhattan has changed, or the color resolution has changed 1000% for the better, or even because the air of today’s postindustrial Gotham has become cleaner than clean itself. It’s because I keep thinking that he’s absolutely, totally insane for what he did.

But there’s no doubt that he isn’t.

Sitting on the physical edge of 110-story towers as if it was a simple ledge is something that no one else would ever want to do, but he wanted to do it. He had a goal, a way to attain it, and the patience to follow through. Who am I to criticize him? There was a time when picturing machines heavier than air gliding effortlessly around the world, or messages being sent to anyone, anywhere, anytime at the click of the button, or even diseases invisible to the naked eye being wiped off the face of the Earth would have seen eternally impossible but someone had the courage to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries past the known realm to see these ideas become reality.

No matter how preposterous it seemed or how much effort was required to carry out the dream.

From what I have read, some have criticized Petit for what they perceive as his enormous ego. I never thought it was big at all and unless one completely clouds out friends, family, and spirituality, it’s almost impossible to have one’s Freudian impulses out of whack. It was ego that sent explorers across the Atlantic in search of riches, new lands to conquer and ultimately, a new home away from crowded, feudal Europe. Ego led to the writing of a document that separated us from a country intent on plundering our wealth of resources instead of treating us as equals under the law. Years later, ego led to the laying out of the “greatest grid” of streets in the greatest city in the republic which had the courage and daring to break away from the largest colonial power the world had ever seen. A few generations later, ego after ego took part in the greatest race for height of the 20th century, which ended in the construction of two massive towers that were over 95% full on the day they were destroyed at the dawn of the 21st century. Each age of individual gain involved less and less physical space that had to be conquered than the one before it but involved more mental blocks that had to be overcome, as the World became smaller over that time but the contents of it became larger and more complex, and therefore, presented more challenges for those that wish to rise over them.

All of this came to a head on August 8, 1974 as millions watched mesmerized during Petit’s 8 walks back and forth between the towers over a 45 minute span. One Police Officer who watched knew that he’d never see anything like it again but little did he know how utterly prophetic his words were. It was apparent that day that no one would ever string a wire between the towers and use them as a means of crossing the 1,300-plus foot height of their rooflines again. What was not obvious that day was that we’d never push a boundary like that on U.S. soil in anyone’s lifetime.

Sure, new companies have been formed and new inventions have come along that have revolutionized the workplace, the standard of living, and the way people interact with one another, but so much has changed in this country that it’s increasingly hard for one big idea or one big person to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. Groupthink, conformity, increased domestic surveillance, and a security state have all led to a dearth of creativity that will hurt America for generations to come; assuming that the Republic even survives in its current state for that long. Toss in another fiscal collapse similar to what happened 5 years ago and it could be the end our way of life forever.

A few weeks ago, I went into Bryant Park after a night out at work which saw me interact with the usual cast of characters that I come across during a typical shift. None of them measured up to the person I had gone to see in the reading room that day. Vivacious, humorous, and uplifting, the 63 year-old that spoke that sunny afternoon was there to promote his latest book, which dealt with knots. Seems like a simple premise until you realized that the person had been tying and retying knots for decades and that that person was none other than Philippe Petit himself.

It was one of those days that stuck with me for a long time after I paid for Why Knot? and To Reach the Clouds. Once again, something that I had only seem in film and print had come to life before my eyes, much as the places in New York and America had for me during my jaunts away from my cozy suburban abode. The crowd that grew was much larger than anyone had anticipated as those walking by through the park or on their way back to the office after lunch realized who was speaking and how he had everyone’s attention who was in attendance. Most striking of all were how many people that were in the park that day were *not* aware of the speaker at all but rather, were on their phone/Blackberry or idling the time away in the midst of a presentation by one of the most engaging personalities ever to set foot in the Big Apple.

When it came time for me to have the books autographed by him, I mentioned that I was surprised that he wasn’t left-handed. Not only is yours truly sinister in the way my brain is wired, but nearly all of the women that I’ve most admired and have been attracted to over the years and many of the notables that I’ve emulated were in the minority when it came to which hand they’d place a writing utensil in. Philippe mentioned that he was indeed right handed but thought of himself as more ambidextrous than just about anyone else.

Surely, who would argue with that?

Before I left to shoot my first rounds of Petanque in weeks, I told him wholeheartedly that he was beloved in New York. While I’m sure he’s been told that more times than I could count, I’m sure it’s something that one would never get tired of hearing. Personally, it would be something I’d want have someone  tell me, though I wouldn’t be sure for exactly what I had done with my life and my God-given talents.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The old Chinese saying is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with single step and for me, the problem is figuring out what direction that, and the thousands of others that come past it, would be in. Years of reading, writing, and schooling have shown me that for all that I know and have codified, that there’s much out there that I have yet to learn and accomplish. Every time I think about how hard it is, I pull up the picture of the view down from the South Tower of the World Trade Center as Petit took his first step and danced among the clouds on that Summer morning decades ago.

I’d give anything to experience that feeling for myself someday.

Man off Wire

Man off Wire

Meet the Met

Dressed to the nines

Dressed to the nines

As many New Yorkers were well aware of, the Metropolitan Museum’s annual gala was held this past Monday. Of course, yours truly worked that night, as has been the case nearly every Monday night for the last year and three-quarters. Given how slow New York tends to be on the first workday of the week, it was a notable event for me since one of my fares needed to get up Madison Ave. at 6:30 that night. Sure enough, I never got my passenger to her destination as the combination of black cars, taxis, buses, and flashing lights combined to bring the thoroughfare to a halt. The person I had in my cab understood the circumstances, asked me to turn down 72 St, and quietly paid her fare.

Once that ended, I was on with my night. It ran like any other Monday with the exception of my way back down 5 Ave. after dropping off a few fares off in the 90’s off of Park. I didn’t know what to expect since I did not work that night of last year’s gala and I wasn’t sure how many black cars would be idling in the street.

Of course, that turned out to be an insanely high number.

Readers of this blog already know of my disdain for the for-higher-vehicles that match the color of night and tend to fly like it as well. Yes, they have an important role in the transportation economy of the City, as any corporate hotshot or celeb will tell you but for the rest of us, they can be hell on wheels. Rarely do I see one get pulled over for a driving infraction or an illegal street hail and even more rare than that will be a ticket issued to one for idling in the street too long and double-parking. There was lots of both of those as I snaked my way downtown and made my way past New York’s premiere social event of the year.

Given how nightlife and society have changed over the years, the Met Gala is arguably the last annual event that draws a red-carpet ambiance to the Big Apple. Awards shows and ceremonies like the Tony’s draw a niche crowd while larger events like the Grammy’s rotate between venues every year. Film premieres will showcase those starring in them as well as other flash-in-the-pan types that are hot at the moment and none of the ones that I drive past or read about in the paper seem to have the pizazz of those during the heyday of the Hollywood Studio system. What we’re left with is a museum hosting the only event left of its kind in New York, but even that has changed over the years.

As the above link succinctly states, the event was originally known as the Metropolitan Museum Fashion Ball. Yes, that’s right – fashion. Not shamu’s begging to attend and showing up in couch retreads, but an actual event attended by society’s elite in gowns that were part of the Museum collection. Patrons were rewarded for their financial generosity and the list of attendees read like a Who’s Who of elite in New York. Most of them were not known by the general public and the event had the appearance of debutante balls and “coming out” events that helped to characterize the gilded age.

And then Anna Wintour entered the picture.

What fun would it be to have the largely-unknown constituents of the upper crust attend the event each year when celebrities that people could identify with more would be a bigger draw and hence, make the event more newsworthy? Just as she changed who appeared on a coveted magazine cover each month, she used her sway to determine who would get one of the exclusive invites each year. Not since Studio 54’s short but brilliant reign as the center of Gotham’s nightlife were socialites, models, designers, singers, dancers, actresses, the affluent, and just plain popular able to come together in one place at one time. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two as I saw throngs of those wearing Halston and Diane Von Furstenberg screaming to get into Rubell’s and Schrager’s haven of hedonism on youtube videos, just as throngs of spectators stood behind metal barricades on Monday night. Some twisted part of me wishes they were rooting me on as I made my way down what is still regarded as New York’s most glamorous avenue, but reality sunk in as yet another vehicle stopped in front of me and threw its flashers on. Those who were waiting for hours outside for a glimpse of those who could care less about them would never see the folly of their ways.

One could also make the argument that those they were screaming for were also fools in their own right, as the cost of admittance to the invitation only event was rumored to begin at $5,000. While the cost of admittance was never cheap, it was originally borne by those who had a stake in the Museum and the exhibits that were shown there. The theme of this year’s event was “Punk: Chaos to Culture” , which was perfectly fitting given that the embrace of the grungy, industrial chic that punk espoused has come full circle nearly 30 years after it’s original heyday. Those who actually dressed up in punk outifts for the gala probably weren’t alive in the late 70’s and early 80’s. just as they’re unlikely to visit the museum and see the accompanying exhibit that ties in to the event. That’s not an issue since it’s prestige and fundraising that came first and not the chance to renew ties with those responsible for the exhibits that are curated there.

A few of the yellows that were in crawling in line with me picked up passengers leaving the event but it was a big o-for for me. About 10 blocks down, I picked up someone nicely dressed who was loosely tied to the night’s festivities:

“Hey there, where to?”

“Park and 22nd.”

“Sure thing.”

Once she was off the phone, I chimed in as appropriately as I could:

“I bet you had something to do with that soiree back at the Met.”

“Yeah (laughing), I did. I work for one of the hotels near there and it’s been crazy today. I had to make sure that everything went off without a hitch for J. Lo. Tomorrow begins the real work as I have to write all the press releases for those staying at our hotel. The work never ends…”

Maybe their life isn’t so different from mine, after all.

Lights Out

Still no sign of the Halloween Parade – West Village

“Hey there, where to?”

“Fulton and William.”

“Alrighty. I know the power’s out south of 34 St. Do ya mind if I take the FDR down? The less intersections I have to go through, the better.”

“Do what you have to do and get us as close to home as you can.”

“No problem.”

And so it went. The end of the above conversation was repeated quite a few times last week as many New Yorkers were forced to go home at night, even if they didn’t have much of anything there waiting for them.

Much was written about the Hurricane that the Big Apple bore the onslaught of last week and much more will be penned in the coming weeks and months as the city continues to clean up and get back onto its feet again. There was no doubt that this storm was powerful – enough so to force the cancellation of the Village Halloween Parade, the Marathon, a week of school, early voting for tomorrow’s election, and countless end-of-season festivals, street fairs, and neighborhood events. The common thread that I read about, and to a lesser extent heard in my cab, was how similar this was to 9/11, when it came to shock, awe, and devastation inflicted on New Yorkers. Upon a closer look though, that really wasn’t the case.

I was not in the city on 9/11 but was planning on going in that Tuesday since I turned 25 the day before. I went out to watch the Giants open up Monday Night Football the night of my birthday and anyone who was in the city that day can recall how beautiful and clear the sky was when the planes hit. What most people don’t remember is how it poured that Monday before, and I mean poured as in not letting up for hours on end. It was because of that that my usual trek through the city alone on my birthday had to be postponed for a day, and then for a week.

When the Towers fell, most people thought that we had reached a turning point in American History. Our economic might had already peaked, the economy would dip into a serious recession, Lower Manhattan would never recover, tons of buildings would either fall of have to be torn down in later months, and thousands upon thousands would become the first casualties of what would be dubbed the “War on Terror”. Thankfully, most of those assessments did not come to fruition as most of Lower Manhattan was cleaned up and on the road to recovery by the time the last steel beam was removed from Ground Zero 6 months later. The nation moved on, only the Deustche Bank building had to be razed, and the Battle of Antietam remained the bloodiest day in American History. History proved to be the ultimate judge of what happened on 9/11, even if the toll was still grim in the end.

Sandy turned out to be a completely different beast, as the cancelling of the Marathon proved to New Yorkers. For all of his good intentions, Mayor Bloomberg was wrong to want to go forward with a race less than a week after the city came to a halt. 9/11 was nearly two months before the race and there were only 16 acres directly affected by the planes that struck Manhattan. The last storm was powerful enough to remind New Yorkers of the giant land mass at the western end of the Verrazano Bridge and the beaches on the far side of JFK. For them, life will never be the same and it will bring into question the uneasy relationship between the far-flung reaches of New York and the economic center of the city that receives the lion’s share of money and attention.

This week’s cover of New York served as a hauntingly beautiful reminder of how much of Manhattan was plunged into darkness due to the storm and the clear demarcation line that resulted from the power outage. I had to cross it several times during my shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and it was extremely difficult to imagine that it was not the first time that the lights had gone out there on such a massive scale. Anyone who could recall the blackouts of ’65, ’77, and ’03 will vouch that they were notable in city’s history for different reasons. The causes, and reaction by those stuck in the dark led to changes in infrastructure and policing in the affected areas. Once again, those will be the issues that the next Mayor of New York will have to address when the cleanup is done.

The truth is that the Big Apple is only as good as the conditions of the utility and transportation networks in it. Many historians have cited the Blizzard of 1888 as the catalyst that led to the burying of the electrical system and the creation of what later became the IRT, the city’s first underground rapid-transit system. With a fare hike looming in March, the relationship of the transit system to the patrons who use it will be under increased scrutiny over the winter as the final numbers are worked out. New Yorkers hate having to dig deeper to get on a bus or train for what they feel is a lack of return for the extra money being shelled out. What many of them don’t realize is that the system is so expansive and antiquated that any lack of a fare hike will only hurt in the long run. Having to maintain and expand the mass-transit network will be important in the future as the price of oil will remain high and the policy of developing the waterfront and using ferries to haul passengers between the glistening new towers will have to be looked as closer. Sandy reminded us that New York is quite an expansive locale and all areas will have to be kept in the fray for the city to remain competitive and desirable for those looking to live there. Having the Rockaways cut off from the mainland will not just affect those who live there, but will serve as a black eye on the administration as a whole, showing the world that it cannot afford to provide basic necessities for those on the periphery.

In the coming months, the Macy’s parade will weave its way through the West Side, the tree at Rockefeller Center will be lit, and the ball will drop on New Year’s in Times Square. The people watching these events on TV will undoubtedly be touched by the heartwarming resolve of the people of New York but what they won’t see are the Sandy’s of the future that threaten the Big Apple. Fault lines under upper Manhattan could awaken at any time, rising sea levels would permanently wipe out much of Zone A, and any number of terrorist plots could expose fragile grids and people’s nerves that are still in the process of healing. The real resolve of New Yorkers will not come in getting the next holiday celebration off without a hitch, but whether they have the patience and fortitude to address long term environmental, infrastructural, and sustainability issues before the City gets to the point of no return.

Right PSA, wrong city pictured – Murray Hill

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.

‘Twas the Night

Even though I could have stayed home with family, I chose to work on Christmas Eve. I know it was a while ago, but the 60-hour weeks since then have put a damper on my free time. All of these shots were taken that night, which included a run to New Jersey, a rowdy affair in front of the Highline Ballroom, a long ride out to Sheepshead Bay to drop someone near the Brighton Line, and a jaunt out to Kennedy Airport and back that (literally) went by in a blur. What’s below is posted as they were taken – in chronological order.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

52 Street

A record from another time

Once upon a time, I had two parents. Both living, both married to each other, and both raising me. I can’t recall a whole lot from those days but they had steady jobs, a good disposition, and taste in music. Lots of it. Even though I went to bed early at night and never went out much of anywhere with them, I was lucky enough to listen in on what was spinning at 33 1/3 rpm Not too long after I graduated from a diet of 70 jars of baby food a week, I moved on to such staples as Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits, Endless Summer by the Beach Boys, The Village People’s Macho Men, and of course, The Piano Man’s classic, 52nd Street.

Granted, these weren’t 8-tracks blaring out hard rock or disco but rather, these were on vinyl and the largesse came not in the component that held the music, but in that which played it. We had the most beautiful wood-paneled stereo system that the 70’s could crank out and every time it came on, it let you know that nothing else in the room mattered. I could never see the record spinning away in a halcyon state since I was short but I’ll never forget the album covers or the light that shone against the dots on the side of the revolving turntable. No, I never made it to Studio 54 in it’s heyday but I was lucky enough to have the next best thing at home, along with the most ideal family living situation in my 30something years that I’ve been alive.

Flash forward to the holidays in 2011, long after giant stereo systems were replaced with mp3’s and life turned into an existence between an unstable living and ad-hoc employment situation. Much as records needed to be played faster when shrunken down, so was the case with my day-to-day existence. As the city became smaller and more familiar to me, so the days and pace quickened, to the point where 40+ fares in a 12-hour shift could be pulled out of my back pocket. I had a whole string of these in December until a seemingly innocuous fare turn the most unexpected of turns.

It began, like so much else at the end of the year, in Times Square. A waitress heading home after work slammed the door of the cab in front of me and walked toward my Taxi. This meant that I was going to be making a run to an outer Borough, which I had yet to refuse in nearly 5 months on the job.

“How ya doing? I saw that Taxi reject you up at the light.”

“Such an a-hole! I’m going home to the Bronx. Right off the Deegan and you can take the Madison Ave. Bridge to get up that way.”

“Sure thing. There shouldn’t be much of any traffic since it’s late and all the work is over on the Wills Ave. Bridge. How’d your night go?”

“Pretty good. Work was busy and the tourists were good to me. How about you?”

“Just the usual holiday rush. Lots of Europeans in my cab tonight, especially Italians. Must be a good exchange rate right now.”

So off we went, crosstown until we got to Madison Ave. where I made the left to start the long journey up to the Bridge. Hardly a soul could be seen until another Taxi pulled up next to me. We rode in near tandem for a few blocks and at 52 Street, we were even at the red light. When it turned green, we were just about to go through when a cab crossed the intersection through the red light, hauntingly.

*Beep*

Nothing.

*BEEEPPPPP*

Still nothing. I was quite scared as both the cab next to me and I laid on our horns, to no avail. The Prius that ran the light did so quietly and ominously and both of us went through the light after him.

*WHAM*

And then a scream…

I threw my car into park and ran out, and so did two other drivers. All of us rounded the corner and halfway down 52 Street towards Park Ave when we saw the cab up against the curb, with the driver unconscious and hunched over the steering wheel, and the fire hydrant that he crashed against knocked over and on the sidewalk.

“Holy shit, just as I thought.”

“I’ll call for help.”

“Let me see if I can flag a cop down. I still can’t believe he went through the light like that.”

I ran back to tell my passenger what happened and looked for an officer heading uptown, but to no avail. 30 seconds later, I called 911 as a secondary precaution.

“911.”

“Yeah, I’m on Madison and 52. Someone in a cab went through a red light and he’s out now.”

“Is he breathing?”

“I don’t think so. Looks like he had a heart attack or stroke. We can’t get in the car either.”

“I’ll call for help. You were on Madison and 57th?”

“No, 52nd. 5-2. He’s on East 52 between Madison and Park now, up against the curb. I don’t think there were any passengers in the vehicle at the time.”

After giving my name, profession, and number, I hung up and ran back to the car. By now, the Police were there and because the doors were locked, the nightstick came out. I could hear the whaps as I ran back to my Taxi.

“I’m sorry for the delay, but I had make sure help was coming. You don’t have to leave since I’ll take you home now and I’m going to turn the meter off early for the time which we sat here.”

“Thank you so much. You did the right thing in calling for help.”

“I had no choice, we’re not allowed to touch others so I had to stay hands off.”

“I understand.”

“I can’t believe out of all the intersections in the city at this hour, he rolled right in front of us. That would have been awful if it happened during the day.”

“I know! At least the help arrived.”

Neither of us spoke as we made our way uptown, over the Harlem River, and eventually onto West Kingsbridge Road. I was white as a ghost the entire right, thinking I had watched someone die in front of me for the first time in my life. As soon as I dropped her off, I flew back down the FDR and made my way back over to the accident scene, parking on Madison Ave. By that time, the car was being loaded onto a flatbed to be towed away, with the street blocked off with yellow Police tape.

“Officer, I was here 45 minutes ago when this happened and I saw the driver out over the steering wheel. Is he alright?”

“Yeah, he had a massive heart attack but the paramedics revived him. He’s in the Hospital now and should recover.”

“Oh my God, that’s great to hear. Thanks for the information.”

“No problem.”

I don’t recall much else from the rest of the night, except for the usual assortment of financial workers, bartenders, and nightcrawlers making their way into my cab for the ride home. I didn’t have to go up Madison Ave until my next shift, but it was never quite the same when I crossed the intersection that the wayward cab crawled through that fateful night. I took the medallion number down and passed it on to the guys at the garage, but they weren’t aware of who the owner or leasing agent was. Inquiries into various print and online news agencies turned up nothing either, but that certainly would not have been the case had the driver passed on.

Years from now, the memories will pass on. Much like the 21 Club or Toots Shor’s, the scene will only stand out for those who were there to witness it for themselves. The location will still exist for any witness who wishes to walk through and think about what took place there, but the pace of life will become so quick that it will be hard to do so; while stepping away from a world that will be incrementally faster than today’s. I don’t know if the Prius, the mp3, the Christmas of 2011, or even the notion of hauling passengers around in yellow vehicles will be outdated in 20 or 30 years, but I do know that some things in life stick with you no matter the pace or scale of change.

Especially the one that took place on 52 Street.

The hydrant, a week later