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.

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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

Monster Mash


All Hallows’ Eve morning, after the madness

Sure enough, I drove on Halloween night. I knew this was coming since I’ve been on a Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Wednesday schedule ever since the drivers on vacation came back around Labor Day. During the summer, I had off on Tuesday and the two weekend nights but thankfully, I still got my 4 overnights a week in once everything shifted in September.

Most people think that cabdrivers love working holidays. People are off, traffic is light, and that we get overtime if Federal offices and banks are closed.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I wouldn’t say that I *hate* working holidays but none of that stuff I just mentioned comes into play. Yes, people are off but that just gives them an excuse to drink more and act stupid…as if that doesn’t happen already in New York. Now we have a justification for it, which only magnifies the absurdity by an exponential level.

Traffic? Sure, it’s light in midtown but take a look a some holidays and you can see where problems are:

July 4th: The waterfront. Miles of it.

Thanksgiving: Any major transit hub.

New Year’s: What was that place where the giant ball drops…

And so on.

That brings us to Halloween, and that wonderful tradition of the Parade in the West Village.

Every year, 6 Ave is closed from Canal Street up to 17 St. so anyone and everyone can “march” up the Avenue of the Americas and show off his or her costume. What many people don’t realize is that lots of barricades go up there and the surrounding streets so the crowd doesn’t spill over. Greenwich Street? Check. Varick Street? Check. 5 Ave? Check. The NYPD was out in full force  the night before erecting blocks and blocks of interconnecting metal crowd-controllers, which is an indication of two things to come:

Lots of people and few ways to get them out of the mess.

Fashion Night Out was another example of this. There weren’t any of the dividers put up but in the Madison Ave. retail area, the Garment District, and the Meatpacking District, there were way too many people out in too tight a confined space. No matter how much I “pointed” myself away from them, it was only a matter of time before I got a fare that would suck me into the morass.

And that happened on Halloween too.

Maybe it’s the Euro Debt crisis, but I had lots of Italian tourists in my cab that day. Nice people, eager to be in New York, and they spoke the language beautifully. For those of you here in New Jersey, you probably know how butchered this Romance language can get from all the Snooki’s and Situation’s running around but I liked hearing what was spoken in my Cab enough to turn the radio down. That is, until I got my request:

“Take us to Washington Square Park.”

Of course, I never made it.

I ended up letting them out about 5-6 blocks north of it and even though no traffic was coming from my right, turning left to get back uptown was a disaster. Much of the parade ends up spilling over to the NYU/Cooper Union/St. Mark’s area and to get back uptown, the best way ends up being Park Ave. South. While it’s nice street, left turns are a beast off of it since the intersections don’t have green arrows and the median is about as narrow as any in the City. With that in mind, I ended up making three right turns in a row off of there in the 20’s to make up for one left turn; fully mindful that on my second day, I saw a taxi that did the same and ended up with a car about 6 inches shorter in the front, a victim of someone racing southward from Grand Central.

And so it went. 45 minutes to get from the edge of the Meatpacking District to the Lower East Side. Ditto for getting back uptown to Avenue. Of course, I came prepared for that fare since the worker I took up there was in costume:

“Nice outfit. What would you say if you were out in this growing up?”

“Um, trick or treat?”

“Exactly. Here’s your candy.” I always come prepared!

Amazingly, I only had 4 people total in costume out of 25 or so fares that night. One was an Army Cadet that looked like she was straight out of the South Bronx. She gave me a Kit-Kat bar that I ended up snacking on during my post-shift walk over the Pulaski Bridge.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering about the overtime, it doesn’t exist. A shift is a shift and all the extras on a holiday are in the form of extra stories that money just can’t buy.