“I thought I found the connector – it’s just a reflektor”
“Hey there, where to?”
“505 W. 37.”
“How’d your you day go?”
“Sorry to hear that. At least it’s over now.”
I have something closely resembling this conversation 5 times every week, for nearly every week since I started my current occupation. It’s never enjoyable to feel like that life has been reduced to a routine straight out of Groundhog Day but for the late-night cabbie, that turns out the be the case more often than not. *Twice* on Monday alone did I have someone come into my cab and utter nearly the same words:
“Didn’t I have you before?”
Sure enough, both of those people did.
One of them was a restaurant owner that I had to take to his establishment in the West Village. A month or two ago, I took him and his S.O. home to Jackson Heights in Queens, right over the Willy B. and onto the BQE before briefly becoming reacquainted with Northern Boulevard. The other fare was one of my many late-night wait-in-line types, which happens outside of a Midtown box housing professional office drones or a club housing those fortunate enough to have money and time to blow on bottles service on a weeknight. Cruising the streets has its advantages since many of my most interesting fares were found in the middle of nothing during a time where nothing seemed possible. It can also be extremely hypnotic once the familiar pattern of hitting the proverbial and actual cruise control kick in and the City become reduced to a museum best viewed at 30 M.P.H.
The real issue comes in finding people, and I mean people in the sense that they are personalities and not clones of the ones that I picked up earlier in the night, or the week, or even previously past that. I always want to push the edge of what I know, what I learn, what I experience, and what challenges me to the point where I have to re-evaluate my intellectual hierarchy and update it with what I’ve recently taken on. Many of my best fares have been interesting enough to where I completely kept quiet and just let them talk – endlessly, incessantly, and with abandon. One I feel like I’ve already heard what they have to say, they’ve lost me, even if I’m not lost in a physical or metaphorical sense.
Recent census estimates have put the population of the Big Apple at 8.4 million people and according to “The Naked City”, everyone in New York had a story. That quote was famous during a time where New York had not quite yet become the world’s Capital and could actually claim to have grit, toughness, and a setting made for any film noir that wanted to set itself there. This was reflected in the built environment in the cornices, alleys, Belgian block streets, and abodes leftover from pre-consolidation New York could still be found. The world’s tallest building could easily be found in New York but so could Hell’s Kitchen, waterfront piers dominated by Teamsters, and clotheslines behind every tenement that covered the edges of the gilded center of Gotham. There was contrast, clash, and class divides that allowed for anyone and everyone to take part in the land that epitomized the siren emanating from Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Over the years, that changed. The zoning revisions of 1961 allowed for bonuses for creating plazas and combined with changes in design, resulted in a place that took the best of international style modernism and replicated it for for the masses while simultaneously dumbing it down. When Lever House and the Seagram Building were first erected, they won accolades for their minimalism replicated on such a fine scale. The design may have been elementary but as Daniel Burnham once stated, “God is in the details”.
And were they ever in those buildings.
Bronze-tinted glass, window-washing equipment built into the mullions, public plazas, perfectly proportioned columns, setbacks, and plazas allowed for the City to open up. Not just when it came to space and flow, but in order. Now, there was room to relax, unwind, see the sun…
Which is exactly what happened.
Whatever intellectual stimulation was brought upon by the changes in these buildings’ design was outdone by the changes on the physical landscape that resulted from their groundbreaking design. America was triumphant, prosperous, and fully confident in its destiny as much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins but at the same time, it was full of what led to its currently-visible downfall:
Arrogance and hubris.
The atom may have been a proponent for peace but it was the epitome of what the mentality was in the Cold War era – technology over art, rationality over intuition, and economics over aesthetics. We could design whatever we wanted with whatever new materials, style, and engineering would allow but there wasn’t any sense of heart or soul in the end result. Frank Lloyd Wright brought an organic, prairie style of architecture to a nation that had largely found inspiration from the Old Word but at the same time of his death, the country turned to a bunch of modernists from that Old World to produce a language and even a vernacular for the second half of the 20th Century.
What resulted was absolutely devastating.
The 1961 Zoning law allowed for bonuses should a development include space for a public plaza or arcade. More importantly, it allowed for an unlimited rise without setbacks, unlike the Zoning Law of 1916. Buildings erected after that was enacted into law could rise uninterrupted but only after they were reduced to 1/4 of the total base. What was a city of “waterfalls” and “wedding cakes” soon turned into a bunch of shoeboxes with barren, windswept plazas at street level. They may have been great for lunch but they were terrible for street life and amazingly, even worse when it came to to their facade. The reason for this was simple:
Masonry was the preferred choice of exterior for so many buildings in Gotham’s history but as technology and design changed, so did the means to express that change. Load-bearing walls were no longer needed as steel became strong enough to fully bear the load of a tower. This was true by the time of the building boom of the 1920’s but it wasn’t after WWII that changes in design and aesthetics caught up with the progress of the underlying engineering.
As copycats proliferated around the City, Seagram and Lever House became less of an anachronistic anomaly and instead, became the standard that no one could possibly measure up to.
But that didn’t stop SOM, Emery Roth and Sons, Yamasaki, and anyone else prominent enough to earn a commission during the Mad Men-era to design their own glass box on 3, Park, or 6 Ave’s.
By 1970’s, whatever charm lay on the streets of Manhattan’s recently-cleared El’s or grand, landscaped thoroughfare was obliterated in favor of corporate headquarters that were less concerned with civic grandeur and more interested in the bottom line. The people that were housed in these vertical cube farms were increasingly commuting from farther distances and less interested in staying in Manhattan after work. Any proof of this could be seen in their bases, which lacked retail amenities and interaction with the passerby on the street. Worst of all, these skyscrapers ended up turning Manhattan into a fun-house on a scale never seen before.
But there wasn’t anything fun about being trapped in a corporate campus full of mirrored monoliths.
Winston Churchill one said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”. It should have come as no surprise that a few generations after we started to mass produce our houses, workspaces, meals, and cartoons (Hanna-Barbera, anyone?), that the offspring in the ensuing generations turned out to be mass-produced as well.
And there’s where my typical night comes in.
Too many times, the person getting into my cab is a clone of someone I previously had. I can guess their language, destination, thought pattern, or occupation just based on a few cues that don’t even call for an accompanying neon sign. It’s pathetic on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin in explaining it. For starters, New York was always a place where immigrants came to find themselves and enter into America but increasingly, it was a destination for those seeing extreme wealth at all costs. The division of labor espoused by Adam Smith reached it’s zenith in Gotham at one time as nearly every occupation on Earth could be found somewhere within its confines but increasingly, a service sector and knowledge economy came to dominate, headed by a few select fields that weren’t important on the grand scheme of things but had their literal headquarters somewhere on the island of Manhattan. Most of all, New Yorkers was a place where people clashed – not civilizations on Huntington’s scale but classes. Think Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (yes, I know it took place in the Bronx) or Gangs of New York for the vibrancy that resulted when various groups were thrust into a social setting that could only have taken place in Gotham.
But Churchill’s quip came to be reality and as the buildings became more square and transparent, so did the people that inhabited them and eventually, their offspring. Nothing bothers me more than getting someone in the back seat that either works 90 hours a week in finance, is perpetually glued to the phone in his/her hand, or can’t speak without sounding like he/she came from the San Fernando Valley and wanted to be a mallrat. Those people are a dime a dozen and drain all the life and vitality out of a metropolis that should be home to 8 million stories – unique, wild, zany, fascinating and ultimately, colorful stories.
But that’s not the case.
Instead, what I come across pales in comparison to what used to be. I’ve had at least a dozen passengers tell me that their Dad, Uncle, or Grandfather drove a Taxi in New York in the 60’s or 70’s, to which I always say the same thing:
“I would have killed to have done it back then.”
No, I’m not the next Son of Sam but I do wish for a City with edge, gruff, grit, a bit of danger, and most of all, characters.
Most nights, I’m the biggest one of those in my ride, and that’s not saying a whole lot!
What bothers me the most now is that too many people are plugged into the outside word to think, reflect, and create on their own and I know this firsthand because I’m partially guilty of this too. What separates me from them (aside from the fact that I’m up front and behind the wheel) is that I do my best to listen, react, and ask when I come into contact with someone new.
For jobs that I come across all the time, it’s just this:
“Do you like it?”
To which I hear, “Not really…”
When I get someone that is a professional wardrobe stylist, a music promoter, or a short story writer, that’s when the fun begins and I feel like I’m in school all over again.
But sadly, those instances are too few and far between.
Onward, I go. I know I’ll spend more nights ahead watching the soulless masses enter my cab one fare at time, taking in news and information from others but offering so little original thought in return. Once in a while, I will get proven wrong and find a moment of joy in the midst of a sea of bland mediocrity and regurgitation of someone else’s ideas and commands. The division of labor is still dynamic enough in an economy this trepid that new positions are still being created at the expense of the masses that have been laid off in the name of downsizing, reorganization, and offshoring. Thankfully, those in the transportation field don’t have much to worry about, as our ilk will continue to enliven the City until robots come along and the trains, buses, and taxis, are fully automated.
While our positions many not be paramount in the grand scheme of things, no one will ever accuse us of ever being
carbon copies reflections of those who also hold the same position.
Not that I’ve ever had to worry about that during my time in the Big Apple!