Someone Like You

“We’re having the time of our lives
We’re lost in a cruel paradise”

-New Order

Match-Maker - Times Square

Match-Maker – Times Square

“We’re here. That’ll be $23.”

“I’m not leaving your cab until you kiss me.”

“Um…I’m alright. I have to get back to work and besides, you don’t want to do that. I have cooties.”

Love.

It’s something that supposedly exists in the Big Apple. I’m not referring to how I feel about the city that has become a cratered, frozen wasteland in recent weeks but the actual emotion that two people can feel between each other. Once in a blue moon, I get to see it actually take place in the back seat of my Taxi and no, I’m not talking about those rare instances where couples are getting it on. I mean the real thing – actual love between two people who aren’t exchanging cash for favors as part of the relationship.

It’s not everyday that I feel that New Yorkers are capable of loving each other. The Bible teaches us to do that but hate is so much easier to find on the streets, certainly from behind the wheel. I see enough middle fingers, angry drivers, and pedestrians who are caught up in their own little worlds all the time, to the point where I just brush it off and move on as soon as the light turns green. It even happened on Saturday night when a livery cab driver got pissed off at me as if I ruined his entire evening. Tossing his bottle of water at my windshield may have made his night easier to swallow, but I just turned the wipers on and stared ahead, undeterred by his growing rage.

Gotham can be a form of cruel and unusual punishment underneath the glitz and glamour. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, a vast majority of New Yorkers work hours that put my 12-hour shifts to shame, all the name of building a career, identity, or name for themselves. The upside is that many people leave the city in search of greener (and calmer) pastures once they’ve established their vocational track, as a chef from Austin also reminded me on Saturday night. For all of the exhaustion that I could see and feel emanating from her as we made our way to Bushwick under the El, it was all worth it for her if and when she returned home to the Lone Star State, since she knew that she’d call all the shots once it came time to open a restaurant there.

That’s one of the rare instances where love of someone else has been trumped by a love of self, and I don’t mean that in a selfish way. A career is how every working New Yorker finds identity and self-fulfillment – from the lowly dishwasher to the Lawyer who wants the corner office on the top floor. There’s a reason why I ask my passengers what they do and it goes beyond finding out about people’s occupations or wondering if a certain career track is right for me. It’s because far too many people that I’ve been entrusted to take home or out on the town do nothing but work during their waking hours, and that job ends up becoming their entire existence.

In the process, they lose themselves in that particular field. A certain asexuality takes hold over many New Yorkers as their day becomes nothing more than a means to an end. Leisure time, jaunts on the town, and goofing off disappear completely from a person’s schedule, only to be replaced by overtime and more billable hours. While I do not receive any of the latter perks as part of my job, I certainly know what it’s like to lose yourself in what you do. The old saying of “moonlighting becomes you” implies that that person’s day job has not already become their life while their night job slowly creeps in and crowds out everything else. In New York, the day job has already choked off all other forms of life before that even has a chance to happen.

Naturally, this also includes romantic relationships. There have been many, many instances where the person that’s gotten in the back seat of my Taxi has captivated me – because of that person’s looks, ambitions, position, personality, or je ne sais quoi. More often that not, she has someone that has gone out with her for the night but when she hasn’t, I do my best to get to know her without being overtly forward. While not easy to do while battling traffic, the process of learning about a passenger is almost always sobering at best.

More often than not, that person is tired, stressed, or just uninterested. A smart phone may give her an excuse to ignore me and the outside world but it ends up making the person using it pretty dumb when there’s so much to be gained by looking out onto the streets of the Big Apple and pondering over thoughts with the driver that’s taking that person home. Even if I never speak to her again, I do believe that I have something to offer and something to learn from every passenger that gets in my vehicle and communicates with me, no matter the level of romantic interest. Given how rare it is that I feel a spark with all of the people that I come into contact with on a daily basis, I’m amazed that anyone could find someone to settle down with in New York.

Statistics seem to back that up as well, as the average age of marriage has been creeping up for several decades now. When I was growing up, my parents got married in their early 20’s and they often told me it was because “everyone else did that”. I never thought that they were lemmings but I was well aware that the Baby Boom generation tied the knot young and for the marriages that lasted, quite a few offspring resulted from those celebrating the sacrament of Matrimony fresh out of High School. Hearing that someone is a stay-at-home-Mom or wants to remain in New York to settle down and raise a family seems so foreign to my ears now that I express my amazement during the few instances that I hear that after asking someone what they do for a living or wish to do in the future.

Courtship is a lost art in New York, as evidenced by the utter buffoonery that many males practice when going out on the town and finding someone to take home that night. While I don’t dispense relationship advice unless asked (yeah, it’s not that often), I usually come to an opinion on the couple that gets into the back seat, and not just on Saturday nights. Nearly all of the time, it’s a business relationship and nothing more. People have something that others want, and whether it’s money, sex appeal, an enviable status, or just a superficial return of their infatuation, New Yorkers are good at consummating relationships that disappear as quick as nearby locals on Tinder.

When I was growing up, New York was romantic. Fred and Ginger danced in fancy supper clubs, Art Deco made a nice revival in the 1970’s, Woody Allen’s Manhattan provided the soundtrack to anyone’s romantic dreams in the era of Municipal Bankruptcy, and even The Wiz soulfully asked us to Ease on Down the Road, right toward the Chrysler Building. Like so much of New York yesteryear, those dreamy scenes and scores have been replaced by the almighty dollar. Tourism may have helped the city reach new highs but it’s brought about an economy based on comfort, accommodation, and familiarity.

And we all know what that breeds.

Unbeknownst to anyone, the rebound in the city’s economy along with the gradual depreciation in manufacturing only made matters worse for those who provided the labor in the postindustrial economy. Housing prices skyrocketed, job requirements became more strict, and white-collar industries rose in prominence. All of those combined to make standards of living increase but the correlating rise in life expectancy came with a heavy price:

Longer working hours.

And with it, the fall of romance in New York.

I can see it in my job – in the faces of those who put in grueling hours, year after year. Driving a Taxi wasn’t always a 12-hour shift and the older guys in my garage and in the business always talk about how they used to do well financially driving a cab and how they had free time during their shift to eat and take breaks. For me, it’s a big game of beat-the-clock once I pull out of my garage and fly over one of the East River crossings to start another night of fare-finding. Too many times, I have to stop and look up when I get to a red light or sit in traffic.

At the buildings.

At the skyline.

At the people going by.

And at the proverbial sand in the hourglass of my life going from the top to the bottom.

I’d always hoped that everything that I put in would be worth it – that one day, someone would come into my Taxi and fulfill the promise that I’ve heard for so many years; that that person would be the one that I’d spend the rest of my life with, that that person would make me feel that I’d always known her, and would make me forget about every heartache, breakup, and rejection that I’ve endured time and time again. That she’d make me forget about every ticket, pothole, fender-bender, nonpaying fare, and ungrateful passenger that has made me want to turn the meter off and pull back into the garage for the last time and most of all, for all the tears that I shed for those who exited my life far, far too soon.

To this day, I’m still hoping to come across her.

For now, I hold out hope – that New Yorkers will not be so jaded that they cannot see the beauty in the architecture, natural world, and people around them and will take the time out to stop and smell the roses in the midst of their packed-to-the-gills schedule that they live day in and day out. While a cabdriver like me cannot force them to put their phones and Blackberry’s down for a moment, it is possible to get them to slow down for a while, unplug from the potential to land another client or make another sale, and just take some time out to get to know someone on a personal level. It’s a futile task but during the rare instances where I make a connection, it’s worth all of the frustration and effort that went in to brightening someone’s day.

And that’s the part of my job that I love the most.

Love - Midtown

Love – Midtown

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Stupor Bowl

Super Bowl Ticket - East Side

Super Bowl Ticket – East Side

“What happened?”

“What do you mean? Are you not taking passengers at the time?”

“No, your team. What happened? You guys realize that you had a game to play and had to show up for it today, right?”

“Oh, just take us to our garage – 40 St and 2 Ave.”

“No problem.”

That was the scene between me and the gentleman pictured above and his friend. One flew in Denver and the other from Omaha (no, I’m not making that up) and they were quite despondent after the beatdown that their Broncos were on the wrong end of a few hours beforehand. They didn’t even make it to Penn until nearly Midnight and I had to feel sorry that they were subjected to the cattle car that their experience on New Jersey Transit had turned into.

That, and many more like it, were all a part of the 48th rendition of the game formerly known as the AFL-NFL World Championship, which was played in my home state last Sunday. For all the hype, pomp, pageantry, buildup, and excitement over it, the contest turned out to be colossal letdown – unless you were one of the people I saw walking around with a green and blue mohawk. Even though it paled in comparison to the some of the more exciting finishes to the NFL season that have taken place in recent years, the week leading up to it was also a dud in some regards. Ticket prices had to be slashed because the face values were set too high, hotels and motels on this side of the Hudson didn’t full up as many had predicted, and of course, the governor of my home state was given a nice big Bronx cheer when introduced on Super Bowl Boulevard during the week leading up to the game.

Then there was the multiplier effect…or lack thereof. Traditionally, the two worst times of the year to be driving a yellow vehicle around the streets of New York are the dog days of summer and the dead of winter and as anyone up here can still attest too, this year’s ranks with the worst that New York has seen in quite some time. Once the confetti and streamers were cleaned up from the ball drop, it’s usually 2 to 2 1/2 months of sleepy weeknights and relaxed weekends, until the equinox and shamrocks come into view. This year would be different though, since throngs of fans from the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, and lots of places in between would descend upon the Big Apple, eager to participate in the first Super Bowl played in a outdoor, cold-weather site.

Super Bowl Bus - Weekhawken

Super Bowl Bus – Weehawken

Like so many other promises that come with big-time sporting events, this one also didn’t live up to the hype. It should have come as no surprise that earlier in the day, both Punxatawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck saw their respective shadows, ensuring that according to lore, that there would be six more weeks of winter. While the weather turned out to be relatively mild that day, their harbingers were correct in the sense that the windfall that many in my profession hoped to see never fully materialized. Monday and Tuesday of that week were some of the worst weeknights that I had experienced in months and it wasn’t until the night before the game that I felt like I was running around at full steam. That’s how most of my Summer nights play out, regardless of the day of the week. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the seeds that failed to grow into a financial bloom were sown months before the game, however.

Super Bowl Boulevard - Garment District

Super Bowl Boulevard – Garment District

The TLC and the city DOT had made it pretty clear that this was to be a “mass transit” Super Bowl. Traffic would be bad! Get there early! Don’t even *think* of driving to the game! These phrases and anything of the like were drilled ad nauseum for weeks. Forget dropping off anyone, anywhere near the Stadium, as passenger vehicles weren’t even allowed into the lot for parking and tailgating. Of course, plenty of shuttles were available for those who would fork out 3 or 4 times the normal going rate for a Giants or Jets game. Traffic? There was tons of that too as Super Bowl Boulevard closed off Broadway from 47 St down to Macy’s. Most Taxis have no use for what’s left of the Great White Way but the extra pedestrians that crowded it for the rides and attractions made getting around Midtown hellish at times. This was especially the case when the theaters were open and compounding the problem was the brilliant idea of scheduling “Broadway Week” in the midst of the 5-ring circus. Not only did I have to hear the ad for that in the back of my Taxi, but I had to laugh at the city’s attempt to counter the throngs of sports fans roaming around and to lift up sales during a weak time of the year, by having this promotion at the same time that the Super Bowl festivities were in full swing.

Super Bowl Pocket Guide

Super Bowl Pocket Guide

I still had to work as much as I could that week, since Mother Nature has done her best to keep me home as much as possible this winter. Even if I didn’t have an uptick in business, it was a chance to soak in all that was done to build up attention for the game. The four metrocards shown below were randomly distributed to Subway stations around Manhattan, and while most New Yorkers didn’t think twice about them, I managed to snag all four after some intrepid scouring. There was also a handy map that was handed out for free outside many of the stations and on the Boulevard itself and while I have enough subway and rail maps here to satisfy any transit buff, it was nice to finally see one that showed all of the regional rail links on one page, with helvetica to boot. Billboards, ads on other Taxis, bags, shirts, a countdown clock in Times Square and yes, even the stadium that I have to pass twice a day during my commute, were all done up with large roman numerals to drive the point home.

Super Bowl Metrocards

Super Bowl Metrocards

Naturally, I ended up working the night of the Super Bowl. A few of my passengers noted that I missed the game but I countered that I also missed the chance to tack on two or three pounds in a day. More importantly, I knew that the West Side would be hopping throughout much of the night and since the “mass transit” Super Bowl turned into a mass headache for so many like the Broncos fans I mentioned above, it ended up working out in my favor. I normally keep the radio off during work and given that the game was seemingly in Seattle’s hands from the first play onward, it was nice to ride around in peace for much of the night.

No one has any idea if the final contest of the NFL season will ever return to New York. The owners will meet in the off-season to discuss league issues, rule changes, and potential Super Bowl sites starting with the first open date four years from now. Chicago, New England, and Washington have all expressed interest in hosting the game and since the weather cooperated this year, that remains a possibility should the league decide to give it another go. In a place like New York, even the Super Bowl isn’t enough to stop the city in its tracks. Fashion Week, Restaurant Week, New Year’s, the Dog Show, UN Week, and other annual events may bring parts of town to a standstill but in the Outer Boroughs or even on the Upper East Side, one would hardly know that anything was going on unless someone brought up current events. It’s a testament to how large and diverse New York is that one can get away from the madness without having to get far out of town and during Super Bowl Week, at least a third of my passengers didn’t express any interest in the game or had the slightest clue which two teams were vying for the privilege to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl Trophy - Times Square

Super Bowl Trophy – Times Square

“Hey there, where to?”

“Front St. in Dumbo.”

“Sure thing – I’m going to cut over to Broadway to get over to the Manhattan Bridge since the area by Greenhouse and the Holland Tunnel is a zoo tonight.”

“Is it all because of the game?”

“A lot of is, for sure.”

My passenger and I got to talking and a few minutes later, she had this to say in the midst of our conversation:

“You know, we’re really lucky to be here. I’ve done a ton of traveling overseas and priorities there aren’t like what they are in America. We don’t value what’s important here and instead, we focus on luxuries like the Kardashians or sports.”

“You’re 100% right, and I hate saying this but I’m a bit guilty of this myself.”

Super Bowl Numerals - Times Square

Super Bowl Numerals – Times Square

It would be great if there was a countdown clock in Times Square that gave the hours and minutes until hunger was eradicated in the Big Apple, or until enough apartment units were constructed to house the homeless and those living in overcrowded, subdivided spaces. Landing the Super Bowl three years ago or the failed attempt at the Olympics was the lead story on the local news on that particular night but most New Yorkers have no idea where the Cornell Tech Campus is set to rise in the coming years (It’s Roosevelt Island for anyone interested). Throngs of people waited in line for hours to see the Lombardi Trophy, the Rockettes, or former players but how many New Yorkers have been to a vest pocket park within the last year, or to one of the scores of new museums that are popping up all over town? For all the amazing, wonderful, and diverse people that I see in a given week, too many of them would rather focus on the trivialities of life instead of the arts and sciences that are incubated in the Big Apple. While I love what sports is capable of and the way that it is still the ultimate and purest form of meritocracy in the 21 Century, there’s so much more that needs to be touted in New York. Now that the game is over and things are mostly back to normal for the rest of the winter, nothing would make me smile more than to hear that innovation, sustainability, and affordability will be what New Yorkers demand and ultimately, take pride in as the icy doldrums slowly recede and the new Mayor starts to leave his mark for future generations.

Who knows? Maybe the city will become so desirable that the announcement of the next Super Bowl awarded to the Meadowlands will take a back seat to something much more likely to improve the quality of life for the residents of Gotham.

Super Bowl 50 - East Rutherford

Super Bowl 50 – East Rutherford

Make the Road By Walking

Pedestrians - Times Square

Pedestrians – Times Square

“Sorry about that. I normally don’t slam the brakes but sometimes, I don’t have a choice.”

“It’s not your fault that these people never look.”

“I know, but I have to still be careful. Some of them are my future passengers.”

Pedestrians.

I can’t stand them.

Most of the people in my business would probably say the same thing if they were to be asked about those on foot as well. With tourism at a record high and the economy in the Big Apple in decent shape, there’s never been more of them to contend with during a shift. For the record, I haven’t hit one yet but I’ve had enough close calls that I still haven’t completely mastered the art of dodging them with ease. I don’t mean to bash them – after all, I learned my way around New York by being one for many years as well, since I hardly ever drove in from my humble suburbs of New Jersey. I could count the number of times I brought my vehicle across the Hudson River in the 15+ years between the obtainment of my driver’s license and my hack license. Thankfully, I was able to get a lay of the land via foot before getting behind the wheel for a living on a nightly basis.

The average walker in Gotham has had it better than ever in recent years. While traffic fatalities remain a problem, they are in the news more than ever now and with the new mayoral team set to take office late next week, pedestrian safety already seems like it will move to the forefront of issues that need to be addressed. Yes, there will always be taxis that jump the curb and people racing around way too fast in the wee hours of the morning but the changes that have been implemented lately are already a harbinger of what’s to come.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Great White Way.

For those unfamiliar with the street grid in Manhattan, Broadway is the major exception to the orderly layout of thoroughfares from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. North of Houston Street, there were to be 12 major Avenues running north-south and 155 total Streets running east-west, which was later extended upwards as more of Manhattan became settled. Older thoroughfares like Greenwich Ave. and the Bowery would remain in place but for the most part, the plan that was drawn up was remarkably close to the one that was laid out. Central and Gramercy Parks filled in some of the streets with a superblocked green space and the topography of the northern part of the island dictated that some streets (like 116) would not be able to stretch from river to river. Mother nature also showed some resiliency over mankind’s attempt in impose an order of enlightened rationality, without having to tear apart the existing urban fabric like what was done in Paris by Baron Haussmann. Although part of the Village was indeed demolished to make way for the southern extension of 6 and 7 Ave’s in the early 20th Century, very little changed when it came to the layout of Manhattan’s arteries, unless one takes into the account the reworking of the Avenues into one-way streets in the 1950’s.

That was until Mayor Bloomberg came along.

Led by Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, many thoroughfares were remade into “Complete Streets” during his 12 years as Mayor. Inspired by European cities, autos would no longer gain precedence when it came to deciding how the space on a given street would be utilized. Widening streets would no longer be an option, traffic calming measures would be implemented, and for the second time (the first being under Mayor Koch in 1980), bike lanes would be added to allow for the easier and safer movement of two-wheeled non-motorized vehicles. Hardly a week goes by now where someone at my garage isn’t complaining about bikes flying the wrong way down the lanes, traffic caused by them, or tickets being given out by the NYPD because a passenger wanted to be discharged in a lane and someone had a quota to fill that day. Toss in the addition of protected bus lanes on 1, 2, and Lexington Ave’s and the midtown bus lanes on Madison Ave being expanded from rush hours to all hours, and the ripple effect from the changes ended up affecting more than just those who had to make a living on the same streets that were becoming less and less spacious for motor vehicles.

So where did Broadway fit into all of this?

To put it simply, it didn’t.

North of Union Square, Broadway was a diagonal street that also served as a double-edged sword. When it crossed 5 or 6 Avenue’s, the result was a square that allowed for more sun and air to reach down to the streets, as well as for buildings like the Flatiron that were able to break free of the rectilinear mold that so many others were cast in. Where Broadway messed things up was in the traffic flow, as intersections that were two-phased were now forced to become three-phased. None of the streets were given sufficient time to get all of the traffic through the intersections. This called for some changes to the layout of Broadway and during Bloomberg’s tenure, an extraordinarily bold step was taken:

Broadway would be closed off to all traffic.

This didn’t take place along the entire length of it but through Times and Herald Squares, Broadway would no longer flow through them as it did for generations. There was significant outcry at first as drivers bemoaned the loss of more street space and were fearful of increased traffic on parallel routes. Even though this change was made before I started my current occupation, I could see that some of these fears were justified. Times Square is a complete mess now, as the increased space given for sidewalks has been nowhere near enough to compensate for the massive expansion in retail and office space that recent rezoning has allowed for. It’s torn apart nearly every night and since only one street flows out of it now, backups are quite common well after Midnight on most nights, when most of the rest of the City has quieted down.

As for 6 Ave, it flows better through Herald Square as the green phase on the lights is longer than it was when Broadway still went through it. While it is a plus, most of the rest of the Avenue of the Americas still gets congested during rush hours as the office buildings along it empty out and the buses jockey along the right-hand side of the street to get ahead of each other. Where Broadway still messes up the pulse of the City is in front of Lincoln Center, as it has to content with Columbus Ave and 65 St for valuable green time where they all cross. Since Broadway is a two-direction street north of Columbus Circle, further changes are not likely along it. Where changes will be seen is in how those outside of Manhattan will get from Point A to Point B.

The concept of Select Bus Service, which allows for express buses in dedicated lanes has taken off in the Outer Boroughs in the last few years and will probably be expanded under Bill de Blasio. If it gets people out of their vehicles, that’s great but already there has been an outcry along Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn as only *one* lane can now be used by cars that make their way down it. As New York grows in population and more people move to those Outer Boroughs, the ideas that first took root in Manhattan will branch out down major streets one by one. The difference is that Manhattan has a density seen in only a few other places on the Earth, while the Outer Boroughs have a lot more room to work when it comes to converting the layout of the streets there. Subways and until recently, metered Taxi service are lacking in many commuter and immigrant neighborhoods which has made the expansion of buses the preferred method of mass transit growth throughout much of the City. While many in Manhattan asked for SBS, many outside of it haven’t and it remains to be seen whether complete streets will be opposed more as the program takes off any further. Social engineering was easier in crowded Manhattan but in a less dense environment, would the conversion be met as receptively?

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that as the county known as New York still remains my home base and the one that I’ve gotten to know the best. One of the reasons I loved walking around it when I was still getting to know the layout of neighborhoods was that the traffic was so bad, and this was before the boom in tourism, drop in crime, and growth in people returning to New York from the suburbs led to more vehicles on the streets of the Big Apple. The number of yellow cabs has been capped for years, even though that’s set to change as more Outer Borough Taxis are added to the mix and the 1,500 medallions that were recently sold come online. It’s only a matter of time before Bus and bike lanes are expanded and more turn restrictions are added along the two-way crosstown rues like 23 and 34 Sts. Of course, emergency vehicles and the NYPD can turn wherever they want, but who’s going to ever pull *them* over?

I couldn’t imagine having to learn Manhattan by foot now, as Citi Bikes have permeated into every nearly nook and cranny south of Central Park and the attitudes of those riding them have threatened to make even the most relaxed of cabdrivers want to teach them a lesson or two. The calmness of backwater neighborhoods has been replaced by a frenzy that will only see temporary dips during the next recession, only to grow even further as upzoning results in more people needing to get around with less room to do so.

Someday when I’m not driving anymore, I’ll pick up where I left off in the ’90’s and set to re-explore what I can on foot. It won’t be the same as then, as everyone has their heads buried in their phones now and would rather let their apps be their brains instead of learning in ins and outs of neighborhood nuances on their own. I will fight the good fight and do my best to go where I want when I want, as more plazas, fences, security barriers, and closings will be put into place, all in the name of “security”, “flow”, “throughput”, and “efficiency”. The City I grew up with is still the one I desperately hold onto, even as it’s being remade into a playground for those who are totally unaware of the way things used to be. I know full well that I can’t go back, but I’ll refuse to go go forward without being dragged into the future. I can only hope that the planners and leaders of tomorrow take into account all modes of transit and show consideration for those who need to make a living on the street, no matter how they choose to get around.

“Don’t you think that bikes need some of the street too?”

“Look at this traffic. Do you think that anyone needing an ambulance is going to have one come on two wheels?”

Broadway, interrupted - Herald Square

Broadway, interrupted – Herald Square

Time Squared

The calm before the storm on New Year’s Eve

“Hey there, where to?”

“Times Square. We want to see the Lego store, M & M World, and the Toys R Us there. Do you know where they are?”

“Of course I do, I’m a cabdriver.”

“Great. Our son’s never been to those before and he wants to see them.”

“Well, he’ll have lots of company. I can guarantee you that.”

There is probably not an part of the city that draws more people to it than the area around the convergence of Broadway and 7 Ave., more commonly known as Times Square. Named after the newspaper that was formerly headquartered in the building in the center of the above image, it has undergone more change than any other neighborhood in the city over the course of the 20th Century. When the original Times Building first opened, it was the tallest structure in the vicinity and nowhere near where the other newspapers were based since those were all clustered around City Hall. The IRT changed all of that by beginning the first waves of growth and dispersal of Manhattan’s population but what many don’t realize was that the original Times Square station was a local only stop and didn’t become an express station until the completion of the dual contracts station over a decade later.

Over the following years, the fortune of the neighborhood mirrored that of the City as a whole. Hotels and theaters popped up in the roaring 20’s, V-E and V-J days were celebrated by tens of thousands there during World War II, movie premieres on the east coast took place there in front of throngs of onlooking fans, and as white flight drained the city of vitality and tax revenue, few areas took a worse blow than the neighborhood that was built on performances that were staged indoors and spontaneous outdoors. All one has to do is watch Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, or the opening scene of Shaft to see how far Times Square had fallen into disrepair. When I was growing up, it was something to avoid and I can still remember my Mom forcing me to look straight ahead as we walked back toward the Bus Terminal to head home.

It was around that time where the State and City moved in to take over many of the dilapidated properties and turn the area into a redevelopment zone. The first phase saw such projects as the Marriot Marquis, 750 7 Ave., and 1585 Broadway transform the northern half of the “bowtie” into a corporate canyon and the dot-com boom and growth of new media fueled the construction of the headquarters for Conde Nast and the North American base for Reuters,  among the new towers in the southern half of the Square. Even the New York Times got in on the act, as they moved out of their 43 St. offices and into a brand-new Renzo Piano skyscraper on 8 Ave. in the middle of the last decade. For all of the clamor to clean out the smut and restore it to it’s former glory, a funny thing happened once crime declined and families were able to trek through the area unscathed:

Some locals missed the old Times Square.

Times Towers (clockwise from upper left) –  Ernst & Young, Times Square Tower, Conde Nast, and Reuters

One of the great debates among New Yorkers now is whether they like the 24-hour three ring circus that the crossroads of the world has become. Many are nostalgic for the grime and grit that can no longer be found there. The three-card monte players are a thing of the past, Howard Johnson’s and Nathan’s  are no longer in the neighborhood, and the only women of ill repute can be found coming out of Lace and Flashdancers. Even the video arcades are long gone, as kids like the one who came into my cab last week now have commercials masquerading as stores to separate them from their money.

What New Yorkers complain about the most isn’t the three-dimensional reconstruction that took place over waves of economic booms, but the two-dimensional one whose tentacles have quietly overtaken the city during the great recession. Of course, I’m referring to the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

It’s not the first time the traffic flow has been altered on the streets of Times Square, as any pre-195o’s picture will attest to. It’s hard to imagine now but at one time, the avenues of New York had *two* way traffic. Think it’s bad on 5 Ave. now? Try having oncoming vehicles make a left turn as you cross a busy midtown intersection. In the mid 1950’s, the avenues were converted to one way and even today, I still groan when I have to take 3 Ave. in the East Village and have half of the vehicles in front of me attempt to make a left turn.

The new changes in the flow of people have riled so many because it’s the most visible example of the “us vs. them” battle that has emerged in recent years. Planners vs. users, Bloomberg vs. commonfolk, bicyclists vs. cars, locals vs. tourists. All of them have an agenda and as the neighborhood became more crowded throughout more of the day, space became more of a premium. As more buses hauled more tourists in and the pedicab industry grew, they had to compete with record volumes of traffic in a smaller amount of space, since Broadway was now cut off between 47 and 42 Streets. Locals may have opted for alternate ways to get around but as skyscraping hotels and flagship stores opened up, more people from out of town had more reasons to decamp in Times Square when visiting the Big Apple.

Because so many people eat, shop, and seek entertainment there, it’s only natural that the square is one of the moss-photographed sections of the city. Of course, it also means that I pass through it more than just about any other neighborhood during a typical shift. What was crowded early may thin out a few hours later and then crowd up again later in the night if a demonstration or roadwork clog up 7 Ave. during an off-peak time of the night. There are few other parts of the city where the difference of 20 or 30 minutes can be like night and day, even if the stars in the sky are perpetually blotted out by the bright lights of the signage. The turn restrictions and closing off of Broadway make Times Square nearly impossible to escape from during a jam and with so many people hailing cabs there throughout the night, keeping up with the traffic there is always a game that the driver can’t afford to lose.

The drama still takes place there as it has throughout much of the neighborhood’s history but like so much on TV today, it all seems scripted. The same tourists from the same parts of America will come and see the same Broadway plays that their parents saw or their kids will see in a movie theater. They’ll eat at the same chain restaurants and visit the same stores that they can find near a mall back home. Everyone will want his/her picture taken with the Naked Cowboy and the women who dresses up as the Statue of Liberty and they’ll spend their money on the street”artists” selling the same variations of 10 pictures and cheap t-shirts made overseas. They’ll even comment on the camera store that’s “Going out of Business”, just as it was 20 years ago.

Only the astute cabdriver will be fortunate enough to pass through the same streets and not have the same experience. The people in his cab will be from all corners of the globe, no two of them will want the same take on the homogenized experience as the last person who wanted to go there, and every passage through the Square will be different than the one before it, just as no two boards on Frogger are quite alike. A few sharp-eyed people will notice that the ball that’s dropped on New Year’s Eve is permanently on displayed on top of the old Times Tower, ready for it’s close-up on New Year’s. None of them will think that Groundhog Day (a la the Bill Murray movie) would be more appropriate to celebrate there, since the entire effect of Times Square is that of a shopping mall set in the urban fabric of New York. For a part of the city that many consider to be its heart, the Big Apple deserves more than the pacemaker that it ended up with after all the redevelopment.

No wonder they hate us – Times Square

Yes Virginia, there is a Staten Island

A Milk Carton sign on Hylan Boulevard. Who knew?

If one didn’t believe in the Big Apple’s outermost hinterland, than one may as well not have believed in the idea of the 5 Boroughs under the Blue, White, and Orange flag. Many New Yorkers have heard of this mythical place which the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, the world’s largest garbage dump reclaimed landfill site, and the “cast” of Jersey Shore call home but few have ever seen it for themselves up close. Heck, even my instructor at the Taxi School had only been here a handful of times in the 12 years or so that he’d been driving. Out of all the questions that I’ve been asked by my passengers who realized that I wasn’t like the other cabdrivers, there was only one that I gave a short answer to:

“Ever take anyone to Staten Island?”

I had no idea if I’d ever get here and actually have someone in my cab at the same time. Like most things in New York, the ride to Staten Island cost a fortune and doesn’t happen instantly, which leads to many people forgoing the journey down the Gowanus and over the Verrazano Bridge. Tolls recently went up on that crossing too and it’s gotten so high that one can’t mention the ride there without it and how much the MTA acts like a troll to the people who wish to leave the island to visit the rest of civilization. The wildly popular Staten Island Ferry that commuters and tourists rely on for scenic views runs to and from Lower Manhattan 24 hours a day, but like so many other forms of late-night transportation, after-hours service can be spotty and infrequent.

So sure enough, last Saturday night was like any other, except that it was during the holiday season. Ask any Cabdriver what a holiday night is like and you’ll probably get some version of the same answer:

“Nuts.”

Of course, mine was too. I’ve probably told a few dozen of my passengers this month that if I spent my entire waking existence in New York, I would have no idea that the rest of the United States is still mired in the aftermath of a recession. There’s been too many times where people have nearly come to blows to get into my taxi and certainly a few weekend revelers have not been shy about stating the amount they spent on a table with bottle service at a popular new club.

I don’t think that this needs to be expressed out loud but I’ll say this for anyone who’s never been there at night:

We hate going through Times Square.

Maybe it’s the turn restrictions that don’t let you go left on 46 and 44 Streets, or the fact that Broadway has been shut down to just about anything with wheels on it, or the Police blocking as much of 7 Ave as they wish, whenever they wish. Or it could be the witching hour when all of the theaters let out and clog up the arteries as far as the eye can see. Some of us can be irked by the tourist with the Southern drawl who is dying to know where the Olive Garden is or who waited for a shot of someone like this:

Naked Cowboy – Times Square

Even though I’m ashamedly guilty of the latter, it was right near this spot that someone hailed me as I made my way back downtown. Now, it’s normally not a great thing when someone sticks his or her head in a cab – whether it’s mine or someone else’s. That usually means that the person is going to an outer Borough or only has a certain amount of money and thinks that we act just like the Livery Cabs that rip so many people off. Of course, you the reader are smarter than that and have an idea where this is going:

“Yo, will you take me to Staten Island?”

“Sure, it’s part of New York City, come on in.”

“Thanks Bro. I just go out of work and I don’t have time to take the 1 Train down to the Ferry, which is another long wait this time of night.”

So I start the meter and fly down 7 Ave, since it’s late and most of the tourists have turned in for the night. I was already excited that this wouldn’t be remotely close to any other run that I’ve had but there was something different about this person. Black leather jacket, reeked of smoke, a thick New York accent, and to top it off, he swore like a sailor.

“So how’d your day go?”

“Bro, I’m exhausted. I just finished up my shift at Carmine’s.”

“Ah. I’ve been there before. Went there earlier this year before I saw Lombardi. Good family style eating there.”

“Yeah, that’s it. They treat us like shit though. Squeezing everybody just like everyone else in this country.”

“I used to bartend and trust me, I know that feeling. What’s your name?”

“Andrew.”

“Nice to meet you.”

And I was right, to a certain extent. This Andrew wasn’t going to break out a dirty nursery rhyme but he was the closest thing I had to reliving every dirty joke I told in 7th grade.

“You’re my first fare to Staten Island. I don’t mind going down there but I figured I would let you know.”

“Bro, that’s fine. Most of the cabdrivers don’t mind taking me but I have to get home and it can’t take all night”

“I know the feeling since I live in New Jersey and it can be a bitch after the last Bus leaves at 12:45. Know how many times I’ve missed it?”

“Enough?”

“Yeah, but I still love this place. It’s funny too, Staten Island should be a part of New Jersey if ya look on a map.”

“Well, New York beat New Jersey in that boat race all those years ago” (Or so everyone says)

How old are ya, if ya don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m 35”

“Me too, and look at me, I’m driving this for a living.”

“Bro, don’t worry about that. I went to school and graduated and now, I’m bartending. It helped pay my student loans off and I don’t have a family, mortgage, or kids like my friends do. It’s not what I want right now and I’m fucking happy with that. Things will come around for you soon enough.”

“I know they will. Do ya like living there?”

“Absolutely. It’s part of the city but it doesn’t look or feel like Manhattan. I grew up there and to me, it’s still home.”

I could see that he hit the nail on the head with that last statement. Even though I had never taken anyone there, there were a few times, when I drove through it on my own to get to other places, and yes, it doesn’t look or feel like Manhattan once you’re away from the St. George Ferry Terminal. Like so many other outer neighborhoods in New York, you don’t realize you’re in New York until you see the street furniture and municipal services – the light fixtures, signs, traffic lights, NYPD cars, and street signs that look so oddly out of place with the Perkins and White Castle that seem to missing a Jersey barrier and jughandle out in front.

What I was most grateful for on this run was not seeing a part of New York that I never get to, but how easy it was to get to at night. There are few places that are tough to reach after hours but that’s only if the person in the back seat is sober and coherent. There’s been too many times where I had to stop the Taxi as soon as I got off the highway or out in the middle of nowhere and had to wake up a snoozing passenger so he could help me on the last 3 miles of my fare. That wasn’t the case last Saturday.

What stuck in my mind in the wee hours was how much Andrew reminded me of myself in terms of his upbringing and his life story. No matter how many types of people I give rides to every day, there’s so much that unites everyone in the city as diverse as New York. Everyone who calls the Big Apple home seems to have it all together, with the sky-high rents and grind-it-out jobs that come with city living. Take it from me – everyone does NOT have it together and even though most people don’t lie, New Yorkers are better at hiding their flaws and insecurities than anyone else. Many will bear them to people like me since it may be their only chance to open up in a given day and for me, that’s alright. Along with the traveling, the food, and the knowledge I gained of what’s what and where in the Big Apple, that’s why I took this job. I may not ever win a lifetime achievement award or work my way to the top of my field, but I love helping brighten people’s day just a little bit; as terribly cheesy as that probably comes across on here.

“That will be $51.50, including the toll and the state surcharges.”

“Here. This includes that and your tip. Thanks for the ride and keep your chin up. Hylan Boulevard will get you back to the end of the Expressway.”

The rest of the night was fairly uneventful, with the usual assortment of clubgoers and resident drunks hopping in and out of my cab as if I had revolving doors on the sides of the vehicle. At I parked the cab for the last time as the sun was coming up, I was thankful that I had passengers that could show me the most real things in this world, unseen by both children and men.