“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:
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
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
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.”
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.”
I waited and the next thing I knew…:
“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.”
“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:
“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.