Racing Taxis - Meatpacking District

Whizzing Taxis – Meatpacking District

“Sorry for the delay, “I’m going to turn off of 7 Ave. South and get away from this Holland Tunnel traffic.”

“It’s all good. I still don’t know what we’d do without you guys. You’re the lifeblood of the City.”

“I know most of us don’t see it that way, but thank you for the kind words.”

Ever take your own pulse? I mean, *really* take it? It’s not that easy for someone who hasn’t been trained. Yeah, I suppose I could check my wrist, count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply it by 4. Heck, I don’t even know if it’s the right way to do it but it makes sense to me and should give me an approximation of where I stand. Thankfully, I give blood every 3 months or so and I get a reading of that, my iron, and my cholesterol thrown in for good measure before they stick me and draw some red stuff out for the bank. It’s more than a donation for me, it’s a way to get a small physical of sorts and to figure out where I stand, and what I may need to work on.

Now take 8 million blood-carriers and throw in some tourists, visitors, and undocumenteds for good measure and it’s a much bigger trick. Some people would go straight to the census data from 2010, others would read Crain’s or the New York Times for a week and maybe the superficial would check out the number of derricks in the sky and empty storefronts on the major avenues. The neat thing about my job is that I get to do all of those in a given day for one of the inevitable questions that I’ll get while out at night:

“So how’s business?”

Every winter, there’s a slowdown. How do I know? Because I’ve worked in retail, restaurants, offices, sporting facilities, and the occasional odd job and yes, each one of them saw a downturn after the holidays were over and the champagne bottles were put away. On the street, there are two dead giveaways that you’re in a slow period as a cabdriver, without even having to look at the receipt that I print out at the end of the night:

1) Over night = night’s over

2) Plastic planet

The reason that all of us love to work the weekends is because of the overnight hours and the difference from the same time period during the week. In the midst of all of the app debates that the TLC is dealing with is whether a city as big, as busy, and as street-hail oriented as New York needs a radical change in the way that people find their next ride across town. Rush hours are easy as the amount of traffic on the street and the mad dash of people heading home lead to a 5 or 6 hour period of near-nonstop hails with ability to flip fares easily, just like my tables back from my waiting days. Every night, there’s the time that I call “the wall” where I drop someone off, round a corner, and take a good look up or down one of the major avenues…

…and can see the street again.

The later that point, the better the night for us. Weekends are a different beast, however. There’s a slight lull around 8 or so as New Yorkers are busy home getting ready for the night’s adventures that lie ahead. After that – all bets are off. Last Friday was a perfect example as usual madness was amplified by the first warm day in this area this calendar year. It made for a faster shift since I had everything from interior designers to a bagpiper (yes, he played for me) keep me company and the extra vehicles kept me on my toes as well, filling in nicely for a 3 A.M. snack break.

Going back to the apps, the rationale for their existence is that they would help during slow times, when many of us are cruising the same streets in the same bar districts looking for the same 5 fares. Once in a while, I will turn down a street that looks dead as a doornail, only to find someone standing all by his or herself waiting for a knight in yellow armor to take him or her home safely. While those moments are full of joy and some of my best stories, they’re few and far between.

With an app, that all changes. It becomes much easier to see who’s out there and there they are and would even save us the trouble of waiting in line for people to leave popular establishments and firms that work them to the bone. Most drivers during the week make the exodus out of Manhattan around 1 or so but since I can’t get back to Jersey via mass transit overnight, that’s never an option for me. Knowing where to find people becomes a reality once the City that never sleeps proves that axiom to be partially wrong.

Then there are the payments. Aside from the plethora of late-night holiday parties, the month before Christmas is so beloved by us because people are in a giving mood and aren’t afraid to share the wealth. Of course, they show it to us in the best way possible:

By paying in cash.

I understand that so much has changed when it comes to money in the last few years but one thing that hasn’t is how we wish to receive our fares. Cash is, cold, hard, and instantly usable. If I didn’t have to pay for my own gas and could charge all my expenses and tips on a credit card, I certainly would. After the last fare hike 7 months ago, the percentage of fares that were paid on credit shot up from 50% to well over 60% on most nights, as people couldn’t quite stomach the first across-the-board raise for us in well over 5 years. Once the new year began, that ratio went even higher.

The hangover that many of my passengers had immediately after New Year’s was nothing like the one that they endured in the following months. Some nights, I was lucky to receive 6 or 7 fares in cash out of 25 or 30 total, which barely was enough to pay for my gas and any other expenses. While I always bring change, I never plan on depleting it at the end of the night but I came close a few times. It was obvious that even in a city as affluent as New York, that many locals had stretched their budgets thin and were working hard to cover the difference in their personal finances.

Thankfully, that’s over with now. The ratio has evened out a bit and the amount of vitality in the City late at night has started to pick up again. Even the vital signs are good, as construction, air traffic, Broadway attendance, and hotel occupancy are all healthy levels right now. While there isn’t a direct correlation between those and how much I take home in a given week, any upbeat sign is sure to trickle down to us to some extent.

One way that my health and the health of the City are not inversely related however is something that I’ve mused about time and time again, however:

Clogged arteries.

The last few times I donated blood, my “bad” cholesterol was over 200. Numerous attempts to change my diet, walk more, and get off my butt on off days haven’t made a difference and while it’s not enough to cause me problems, it bears watching as I get older and am more likely to be affected by the buildup. For the City though, clogged arteries are a good sign, as odd as that may sound.

While sitting in traffic may not be fun, seeing it is firsthand proof that things are looking up. Proof that people are out. Proof that people have somewhere to go, Proof that people have money to spend.

And most importantly, proof that New York is moving in the right direction.

Ask anyone in Detroit or Providence how traffic is there and they’ll probably laugh. They’d sign up for New York’s problems in a heartbeat. Traffic, infrastructure that’s bursting at the seams, and high apartment prices are not fun problems to be solved but they’re problems that are the result of a tragedy of the commons, on a different scale. Too many people want to be in New York but there’s not enough room for everyone. Who stays? Who goes? Who gets help from the City?

The next Mayor will have to tackle all of that while not undoing the progress that’s been made since the end of the crack wars and graffiti crises of the 1980’s. While the usual ebb and flow of seasonal volume will continue unabated for time immortal, the body poetic of New York will need plenty of TLC by those entrusted to ethically and honestly watch over the people and finances that they pay into the system. Given recent events that indicate that the opposite has taken place far too often lately, I still believe that the Big Apple is poised for a prosperous and healthy future, bearing that the mistakes of the recent past are not repeated by a new administration next year.

Most people don’t see it this way, but it’s obvious that the vehicle that I drive to earn my living is the lifeblood of Gotham itself. One could argue for the Subway as well but with more lines suffering through shutdowns because of maintenance issues and lack of service in several neighborhoods, the yellow cabs are increasingly the 24-hour option for those who work a nontraditional schedule and are relegated to living far from where they earn their paycheck. Anyone who doesn’t believe me can observe the vehicles making their way across the Queensboro and Williamsburg Bridges every day around 4:30, as the old, tired blood makes its way back to the heart, in exchange for some “oxygen-rich” blood that’s ready to serve the masses until the next changeover.

As odd as it sounds, those yellow cars seem to be in my blood as well, even if it wasn’t what I set out for when I went back to school.

Waiting for the changeover - Greenpont

Waiting for the changeover – Greenpoint

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.