Friday, January 6, 2017


It's half past six on a Saturday morning in January. The sun is soon to rise and the streets repose in slumber. I have an ominous feeling, since the shift began, that I'm fixing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel bad for leasing a taxi on Sabbath, the day to be in touch with a less limited reality. 

Stopped at a light in the Village, scanning 360 degrees for a fare, a meaty-looking young man in a suit steps out of a cab across the street and glances around for an alternate ride (often meaning the other driver refused an outer-borough or out-of-town destination). I am howbeit always up for geographical and financial challenges, and changes in scenery. Along with a mandatory 5-Boro street map, I carry maps of surrounding suburbs and even regional maps, in case of a jackpot fare to New England or Philadelphia.

I give my horn a few light taps and eagerly wave my hand out to him. He runs over and gets  in, catches his breath and politely asks if I could do him a huge favor. To chauffeur him around for a couple hours so he can run errands. He generously offers to a pay a flat rate in advance. His voice indicates he's slightly inebriated. I size up a wealthy corporate executive in his early thirties, seeking a patient and personable professionalism that has disappeared from this taxi industry. Since there isn't much to do until 9 or 10, except burn gas circling empty blocks, I accept gladly.

He borrows my phone to call up a friend in the neighborhood because his cellular died. His next request is that I manually enter a flat fare of 50 on the meter. The meter consistently regresses to its default setting, after 3 attempts to manually enter the requested amount. If a passenger is going to Kennedy from anywhere in Manhattan, by law they must only be charged a flat rate of 45. The last resort is to punch in this airport fare, which he's fine with.

Credit card readers have become a requirement in all local yellow cabs, and only the passenger can execute this transaction because the screen and swipe machine are located in the back seat. His card instantly goes through, once he tacks on a 100% tip. Surprised at the sheer bulk and immediacy of the transaction, I tell him this would be more than enough for his entire time in the cab. The last thing I want is my client to think is that I'm gouging the price. Laid back and carefree, he says he's not worried about it.

His first stop is just around the block to a spot where 4 men are hanging out on the corner. One of them steps in and they mingle inaudibly. After a minute, the door opens, but not before my beefy passenger remarks to his scrawny friend, "I saw Jesus Christ with the stuff you gave me last time. I hope this is just as good.” I knew then that he'd bought some sort of meditation medication (common for passengers on their weekend homebound journeys).

He then has me up in the Theatre District, waiting curbside, while he disappears into 2 different DVD porn shops for a half hour each, to "sell surplus laptops" on behalf of the company he's employed with. He offers me a job with them, taking pictures of merchandise and typing up descriptions, claiming I could make my own hours in between taxi shifts. His explanations are eloquently articulated and downright believable, despite his paltry intoxication. I always mention to clients that I'm helping my sister thru college, and he offers to "hook me up" with gift cards his company "hands out", so I can buy her textbooks. I sit still behind the wheel, engine off, pondering these offers while reading my book. His next stop is cigarettes and bottled water from a drug store.

Up until now his stories make enough sense for me to lend him a basic level of trust. He thanks me kindly for waiting and proceeds to pay me again with another of his credit cards. Any other driver would have kicked him out of their cab already for earlier reasons. But for me, the first true red flags are only now sinking in. As odd as it sounds not to flinch over a 90 minute spree of apparent porn patronage, used laptop vending, and illicit drug acquisitions, none of it had elements I hadn't previously encountered in 3 years of cab driving (anything goes in New York). You can expect every kind of human being, any age and of any background, engaging in any range of activities. That's part of what gives this city that inexplicably, perpetually energetic dynamic. So long as 2 personal rules of mine remain intact, I rarely get between my passengers and their agendas.
1. Nobody in my cab physically or verbally abuses anyone (save for narcissistic motorists). 
2. I'm paid fairly for my services as an efficient operator of a taxicab.

So the guy insists on another big-hearted credit card transaction because he had just "won seven grand in off-track horse race betting" and wanted to share some with "such a friendly cabbie." He then asks a wonky favor of me, which should have been the absolute deal breaker. He needs 50 dollars back in cash because his bank isn't open and his ATM card is malfunctioning. Are you serious?

Sir, these credit cards you're using in my cab are yours, right?”
Of course they are, what do you take me for?”

Thought bubble: don't want this businessman to have the TLC punish me for refusing to provide service and accusing him of theft. On the other hand, I don't want to be misconstrued as an accomplice if in fact....

I believe you sir, but just to ease my mind, show me those cards and your photo ID?”
OK, no problem. Hold on, lemme get them for you.”

He shuffles through a hefty variety of cards inside a small box until he finds the ones. Cardholder name matches on all 4 cards and although the picture's faded and scratched, it looks like him maybe 5-10 years ago. I take cash out from my bank and he enters 100 dollars into another successful, yet dubiously benevolent credit transaction. I feel extremely uncomfortable with him at this point. He borrows my phone a few more times and gets hold of a friend who agrees to come pick him up on the Bowery. His final request is to wait inside my cab cause it's cold out.

Meanwhile he pulls out a business card and uses a pen to scratch out the print, replacing it with his 'current' cellphone number and hands it to me. He still confides in me, even after my open suspicion. He says if I ever need anything, he's glad to help. This gives me a glimmer of hope that he is indeed who he claims to be. His ride pulls up and he hops in-- a sparkling new, pimped out SUV with all tinted windows and fancy rims, driven by a man whose face is almost entirely hidden behind a thick hoodie. When he screeches and peels out of there, I can't help but feel something's terribly wrong. I jot down the plate and almost follow after, but instead I park at the nearest gas station because my bladder's bursting.

Upon return, I check the backseat for rubbish (which I always do). I find a relatively massive mound of miscellaneous paper scrap, used plastic bags, empty wrappers and a tiny little discovery that will ultimately help detectives crack an ongoing case of pattern burglary. It's a business card, identical to the one he handed me, but with the original print. Nothing scratched out. Gut instinct says call that number just to see who might answer.

Are you so and so {name on the card(s)}? You weren't in my cab 5 minutes ago, right?"
Yes that is my name, and I've been home all morning, no taxi rides....”

Palpitating heart bubble: I have to tell this kid that I just met and lost his identity thief.

Your credit cards, ID and business cards were just utilized in my cab and I have the plate number of the vehicle they took off in. They may still be in the neighborhood. Call the cops right away. Let them know I intend to assist to the furthest capacity”.

I was burglarized 3 days ago and canceled my credit cards immediately. I've been in touch with local precinct detectives assigned to my investigation. It seems there may be several victims by now. I'll call the squad immediately and let them know you can help out.”

Turns out the police didn't find it useful to track down that vehicle right away. They were fixated on meeting to talk to me. I show up at the victim's place first, since his address is on the business card. He gives me a tour of what had unfolded in his apartment while he was in the shower. This guy had knocked on his door, claiming to be maintenance personnel, and the housekeeper had let him in. He'd gone upstairs and taken the college kid's wallet and laptop from his bedroom, and fled in a yellow cab, which seems to have been waiting for him. Not good for our reputation as a community of yellow colleagues.

This kid wasn't as emotionally distraught about his cash or credit cards as he was about all the coursework on his laptop that he might never see again. My heart ached on his behalf because I could just imagine how devastated my sister would be if it was her. She's also a college student in the city and among those I care most about in this world. I felt enormous guilt and self-disappointment over having let the perpetrator get away. I kept wishing I would have followed the intuitive impulses I'd felt throughout the fare. To pull up to any cop on the street and somehow relay the odd ongoing situation. But in later talks with detectives it was made clear to me that this would probably have sabotaged the final outcome, and the perp would have still been on the loose, stealing identities. Mind you I've never used the term "PERP" until I spent a whole day around cop jargon.

That morning my shift had begun at 5. My first hour of business had been excruciatingly slow. Only 2 fares of no more than 7 bucks each. The burglar was my 3rd and final passenger of the day. I reluctantly spent the remaining three fourths of my shift working alongside a squad of police detectives, polite and appreciative of my self-driven efforts. From the backseat of an unmarked car, I retraced the footsteps of the perpetrator, as we cruised along that morning's godforsaken route. The 2 detectives up front took notes, asked store clerks questions and requested still frames from surveillance cameras printed out. Sure enough it was him in the shots, matching up perfectly with estimates I had provided of times and locations.

Though by now I forget most of the parlance these detectives spewed out, I remember how fascinating it was to lend an ear to that hidden world and the way it made me empathize, perhaps for the first time in my life, with a police department. They proved to be plain simple everyday people who in fact had a heart under all that bravado. Until then, I had been exposed only to injustices by bully rookie cops with pounds of brainless beef.

By 1600 we return to the precinct and they order coffee and a burrito for me. We must wait for the crime scene evidence unit to show up and take swab samples of taxi door handles, since he was the last passenger in the cab. They swab the inside of my cheek too, so as to rule out any DNA that's mine, since I'd gone back there to clean out the trash. As 1700 approaches the detectives advise me to call my garage dispatcher and let him know the cab may not leave the precinct for another while.

“Yeah whatever, try to hurry up” (perhaps not believing the extent of it) is their response at the fleet. But between 17 and 1800 they call at least a dozen times, demanding the cab be brought back immediately, so that the outraged night shift driver can start his shift. One of the sleuths gets on the phone and chews them out right back. “Listen carefully, we could have this taxi quarantined for a week if you like! Just hold your horses (horse-hiring) and we'll get this guy (horse) homebound as soon as we're done, ok?” Taxi dispatch backs off and gives me no hassles upon a 100 minute late arrival. Night driver is a frustrated veteran of the avenues who expresses to me that he'd gone through far worse scenarios in previous decades of hacking (a token of empathy??).

Three nights later the top detective calls to ask if I can come in and look at more mug shots and try calling the perp at the number he had provided. It sends a chill down my spine, but I don't hesitate one second. He wants to meet in the morning. I plan to drive a shift, and he leaves our meet-up time up to me, so I said, “I'll be there shortly after 10a.m.. That way I can work the busy morning rush”. I end up not being given a cab the next day cause the queue of hacks (with seniority) is out the door when I arrive. Still, it turns out to be quite an eventful day in the land of gumshoe legwork.

I use the detective's landline to try the perp. Plan is to remind him of the ride on Saturday and the gift card offer for my sister's textbooks. Two tries and no answer. I'm thanked for my willingness and sent home until further notice. It seems so anti-climactic, as I had hoped to wrap up this investigation right then. I take a train back to Brooklyn and stop by my friend's apartment to pick up a collaborative art journal we'd been filling in. Three hours later I'm on a subway platform again (luckily overground this time) when the sergeant scout calls again. In the most absolutely urgent, yet utterly collected voice tone I'd ever heard: 

“Gil, Gil! We need you now! Where are you? Can we pick you up? Can you be here in 10? Catch a cab, I'll pay for it. I called the perp myself and he answered. I pretended to be you and asked if he'd hook up my sister with a gift card. It took him a minute to recall the cab ride, but he agreed to meet you in half an hour at... (a busy lower Manhattan intersection).”

I happen to be standing on an inbound subway platform, 3 stops out in Brooklyn. Train bound for Manhattan's approaching this second. I'll be on the LES in 15 max.” 

My heart's pumping and the short train ride feels like eternity, and a movie. I call the squad soon as I surface. I'm instructed to run in the direction they're driving from. Strobe lights spin and a siren screams as they run red lights toward me. Three ferocious undercover cops, fully tattooed and seemingly on steroids, sit in passenger seats while the detective steers the wheel. They barely make me enough room to sit down and we're off, strobes and sirens still blaring. Black, fully tinted Lincoln Town Car.

At first we drive right up to the block where he said he'd be. We roll down our windows and mix in with traffic flow, while scanning sidewalks up and down for him. Each cop in that testosterone-infested car must have asked “is that him?” about half a dozen times, all answered with my blunt “no, not him.” They jokingly name this "White Guy Wednesday" cause most of their cases so far today have involved white perps. I tremble with fear, not only of him, but of these rough plainclothes mobster cops. I look diligently at each of a hundred different faces on the street in a span of seconds, but none of them are his. The other problem is the detective kept losing him on the phone. Unclear whether poor reception or the man's own paranoia's to blame.

Two blocks away (from what was to become yet another personal "Ground Zero" of spots throughout the city where life-altering peak experiences have occurred to me) we go into some sort of Plan B mode. The detective pulls over, steps out into an active lane of traffic, and motions the first yellow cab to stop. Displays his badge and orders the shocked, elder Pakistani owner-operator out of his cab and into the unmarked car I'd just been in. I'm then instructed to get behind the wheel in the commandeered taxi. He only briefly explained to my senior colleague that this was a police investigation and that his taxicab would only be needed for a few minutes. It was among the most awkward moments in my life, begging my yellow grandpa to understand the situation and that I'd take good care of his deep cadmium yellow baby and give it right back. Not like he had a choice in the matter. I just felt embarrassed and horrified, imagining how I'd feel in his shoes that moment.

Detective jumps in the backseat and sinks low below windows while I drive back to agreed meet-up point. Every second is frantic and rushed. I'm instructed to pull a reckless and highly illegal U turn against the traffic light on a very busy street and then carefully running a red light on his command. It's all going down like an action film. I'm both loving and hating every minute of it, not unlike my entire 200 week relationship with NYC in general.

He manages to set up a precise street corner over the phone, where this guy would step into "my" idling cab, in exactly 5 minutes, and sell me a gift card for "half price". He leaves me with vague instructions and runs across the street to hide in another vehicle. Meanwhile, the mob cops hide in their car on yet another corner (with their innocent Pakistani bystander/hostage), blending in with parked commercial vehicles.

All of a sudden I'm alone, sitting in an unfamiliar cab, waiting for a high-stake suspect to show up and step inside. My only guideline is to call detective soon as I can recognize and guarantee it's the right guy, and say, “it's him.” Then hang up. I think to myself, dude will freak out and run before they can get here if he hears me say that on the phone, so I lock the doors and keep my finger on the call button. Out of nowhere he appears backdoor and begins assertively pulling on the handle. He wastes no time looking through the glass, making eye contact, and yanking more feverishly on the handle. The moment I execute the brief phone call, I hang up and unlock the doors. He steps right in, slams the door, and sits there staring at me like what the hell was that all about? I apologize and greet him as cordially as I remember treating him on that solemn Saturday, but my entire body quivers in panic and words don't easily coming off my tongue. He senses something's up.

Making matters worse, right then the elder cabbie walks up to the front passenger window and begins tapping and begging in a thick Urdu accent for me to hand him his cellular, so he can let his granddaughter know he'll be late picking her up from school. Somehow the mob cops must have got so riled up in locker room talk about how they were going to break the perp's nose that they didn't notice the old man walk off. Obviously I comply with his request as quickly, quietly and nonchalantly as possible. He walks away to make his call. 

Perp asks me what in the world was that all about and I answer calmly that he's my taxi partner and we share a phone. I then pull out my wallet and pretend to count my money in preparation for the gift card purchase. Meanwhile, he asks me why I was being so meek and that it was freaking him out. He looks out the window in both directions a few times and tries to hurry me up. Feels like a lifetime since I cued the detective and nothing.

All of a sudden they appear, creeping behind a sidewalk subway stair pit as they try making eye contact for a final confirmation. I turn toward them and nod my head in urgency. Sure enough he looks over and spots them too. That very instant he pushes open the street side door and bolts with his tote bag in hand, dodging oncoming traffic in both directions as he darts across the street. Adrenaline floods my instincts and I give chase, alongside the detective, who is warning me thru a faded, slow motion sound tunnel to stay back (which I slowly acquiesce to). The undercover mandogs run too, but lag behind with their heavy muscles. The perp pulls a few solid football moves, jerking about like an RB on a mission.

Once I see that the cops gain on him, I slow to a stroll and watch it come to a somewhat violent ending. He turns to look behind him and gives up when he realizes how many of them there are. Three more plainclothes cops had shown up out of thin air, and they all tackle him to the ground, before intentionally bashing his cheekbone into the sidewalk. I'm stunned by the brutality, along with hundreds of innocent bystanders walking and driving by all around. Perhaps we were in danger if this guy turned out to have a weapon.

I stand there watching until the detective notices and asks me to move so the perp cannot see me. They search his tote bag and find burglar tools and crack cocaine. My Pakistani senior walks over and is braced by my big bear hug. He freaks out for a moment when he notices that I left his front driver side door wide open unto a lane of traffic. I run over and close it. He takes off shortly thereafter, to pick his granddaughter up from school. Minutes later I'm back at the precinct, receiving verbal high fives from a gang of gumshoes. They egg me on about becoming a dick, but I keep saying I'm too pacifist to carry a gun. Head detective says if I ever need help with anything, I can count on him.

Back to my atypical routines of hackneying I go for the remainder of that week. My girlfriend then gives me a brilliant idea. I call up the sergeant and tell him about a little problem I'm facing in a couple of weeks. To make a long story short, I accumulated 11 points on my civilian driver license during a 15 month period several years ago, early on in my taxi career. Because of this, the TLC summoned me to taxi court, facing a one-year revocation of my taxi license. The past two years, hundreds upon hundreds of fellow cabbies had fallen into the same predicament, thanks to revenue quotas. Even veteran hacks with multiple decades under their belt, who've steered clear of tickets for years.

I've discussed the dirty politics behind this (in detail) on older posts, but the gist is..... due to steep increases in general unemployment, a massive influx of new applicants have saturated the TLC. New applications mean dollar signs. To make room for them, TLC digs deeper through veteran driver records to saturate TLC kangaroo courts. By doling out suspensions and revocations, they vacate the workforce and destabilize what little strength, solidarity, morale, work ethic and pride we had to begin with.

I'd already been tried and dismissed in October, due to the TLC's own clerical errors. Due to the mysterious filing of an internal appeal, I'm scheduled to reappear on the first week of February and my lawyer makes it clear there isn't much hope this time. Since 2006, I put every ounce of skill, innovation, determination, enthusiasm, and human warmth into every single taxi fare, sincerely caring more about my passengers' satisfaction than about my income. TLC's claim that I pose a danger to the riding public is outrageous. To let them snatch my hack license right out from under me for a whole year would have been a deep stab to the heart of what made up my identity during that period in my life. Especially while I tried so hard to save up money for necessary travel. 

This all is what I explained to my detective friend. He didn't hesitate to come testify and uphold my character in taxi court. Hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m., but by the skin of my teeth, I convinced the judge to postpone it for an hour so detective could arrive on time. She and the prosecutor kept poking fun at me, claiming it was simply a mathematical equation of points and timespan. It served no purpose for anyone to speak on my behalf. 

Nor did they really believe an NYPD detective would actually show up to defend some poor (g)runt like me, which next to never happens. Meanwhile, they held countless brief hearings for dozens of other cabbies in the room, each a merciless slaying of a hardworking person's access to hard work and dignity. Still, I held on to the smallest morsel of hope.

Soon as detective arrived, I introduced him to my taxi lawyer, who briefed him on the courtroom atmosphere. Judge saw us next, letting detective give his speech first, so he could subsequently depart the building on other important tasks. It went very much like...

Your honor, on behalf of the residents of New York and the NYPD, I would like to express appreciation for the relentless and self-motivated efforts of this cab driver in bringing a criminal to justice. He came to us out of his own accord and worked with us for several days, volunteering unlimited amounts of information, time, and putting his own safety on the line. We at the squad would like to see more taxi drivers like Gil on the streets of our city, serving and protecting our public to the best of their abilities. It was a pleasure and an honor working with him on an investigation. We could not have done it without him. Thanks, your Honor, for the opportunity to take this floor. That's all I have to share.”

Judge thanked him for commuting to her courtroom of his own accord. Soon as he left the room, an unfoundedly peculiar procedure unfolded. Lawyer began shooting off what few somewhat valid arguments he could scratch. Prosecutor interrupted him and judge allowed it. He and the judge engaged in a private dialogue that lasted several moments. I figured I was done for. Then the prosecutor returned to his chair, raised his head and his voice, and proclaimed that he would like to make an amendment to the summons. His speech was too thick with court jargon for me to comprehend completely, but the gist of what was happening is that the wording in the summons was intentionally twisted around so they could decide that there was no justification in revoking or suspending me. 
This summons has been hereby dismissed. You may pick up the print-out up front”.

Once outside the courtroom, my lawyer quickly claimed credit for this verdict, but I don't see how it could have been anything other than the detective's earnest testimony that got me off the hook. Don't get me wrong, he's the best taxi lawyer in NYC. He's the only taxi lawyer who actually used to drive a cab himself, and defends his clients with all his heart. It's clearly visible in his mannerisms, and if that's not proof enough, he's co-authored books about the adversities of driving yellow. So, for now, I'm still a valid taxicab operator, and all thanks go to a random chain of ghoulish events that turned out to be nothing short of a blessing, perfectly synchronized, as if delivered priority mail from the heavens.

What all this means is that from now on I'm going to drive the cab like a grandpa (most of the time). No more U turns. No more rolling through stop signs, even if it's 3 a.m. on a desolate stretch of road. No more split second lane shifts. No more left turns from right lanes. No more risking it in the "buses only" lane. No more cell phone. No more speeding up to a yellow light. I have no doubt that all this is going to translate into less tips during rush hour, less fares fitting into each shift, more annoyedly tardy passengers, etc. But I'll have the peace of mind that comes with the privilege of having a job no one can fire me from (independent contracting), where I create my own schedule (mostly), and which enables me to serve my beloved city to the best of my abilities.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Oi Oi!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Racial Realities #3: Places

[Friend and fellow blogger Gloria Diaz wrote a personal account of copiloting in the front passenger seat of a taxicab for a Creative Writing course she enrolled in:]

-Every time someone interviews me they want to know when taxis started.
-Well that's the kinda shit people want to know!
-Yea but they have always been around in some sort of fashion. People used to carry people on their backs (and still do)! It's the oldest profession in the world.
-Either way I am not interviewing you. I am just asking you some questions.

I met Avi when he would move my stuff out of my Washington Heights lovely one bedroom to a storage space, as I was in between homes and off to travel. In the warmer months it is his side gig to do small moves and make a little extra . He came recommended to me by a friend who knew I needed help moving. But what Avi really did for money was drive a New York City yellow cab. A few months after my move he would invite me to copilot with him in his taxi and riding with him would become a fairly regular activity for me.

Yellow cabs are a constant of New York. Passengers are variables. The weather, construction and street fairs are variables. The rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the cops are variables. But day in and day out cabbies are the same in this city. You are looking for them and they are looking for your hands outreached in the air, that they speed up and cut each other off to get to.

I join Avi in the cab when I can't sleep, when my soul is unsettled, when I have a lot on my mind, when I miss him and when I need affirmation that I like the company of someone in this city and that someone likes the company of me. Avi is tired and smells like bike chain grease, gasoline, cigarettes, and Polish beer. He has on his fingerless gloves and his eyes dart from one side of the street to the other, seeking out other projectiles, pedestrians, and passengers. He is contained hyperactivity, a swirling ball of energy contained in the driver seat of a yellow cab.  He talks to me in electric surges while rearranging his world to include me in it. Backpack in the trunk, he checks his water bottle, his piss bottle, his ipod, his pockets, his cell phone, his meter, rolls his window up and down to meet some sort of height requirement, adjusts the rear view mirror, adjusts his ass in his seat side to side as it screeches with its leather until he finds his nook. Rests both of his gloved hands at the top of the steering wheel and then finally looks over at me and smiles.

"Excuse me can you turn off the television? Yea- can you turn of the television? Yea just push the button on the screen. Thank you so much! It's just that it repeats the same thing over and over and over again and it's playing right behind my head. It drives us (cabbies) nuts! I'd rather listen to music, wouldn't you? I have over 3,000 songs on my ipod. I have everything! So what would you like to listen to?" 


"The gays, Avi, you gotta have Beyonce for the gays."

"Sorry, no Beyonce! You like Hip Hop? 

Avi has a different cab every time and perhaps I have ridden in the same exact one twice but probably not. It feels the same to me regardless. The front seat is a bench seat and is wide. Wide enough for Avi to put his knee up against his door comfortably and still steer and for me to sit Indian style. Wide enough to provide physical and emotional room for us to escape to our respective corners and sit silently if need be. Normally at the point I enter the cab it is too dark for me to see anything except for the glow of the meter, a portion of Avi's face, and the street tumbling into us, in front of us and for us. The window is like a giant movie screen accentuating these pathways that I have walked down, biked down, or stealthily subwayed under. But in the front seat of a cab all is different. You are low to the ground and moving in a herd of other yellows. Every body on the sidewalk scape is a potential patron and you are looking for that signal, that body language that indicates that they may want to be in your back seat. The skyscrapers of New York, whose tops you largely ignore walking around during the day, are accentuated against the sky and the city seems larger than life. But at the same time cradling you and saying, "I love you," warmly showing you everything it has to offer in one seamless, streaming view.  

"Glo, you don't talk too much and you don't talk too little. You are the perfect copilot." I do my best to be by paying attention to fare amounts, adding descriptions for his painfully intricate taxi logs. Detailed accounts of each fare, pickup and drop-off location, amount of fare vs. amount given (totaled every few hours), and a brief description of each passenger based on aesthetics or interaction. At first keeping track in his journal caused me anxiety. His handwriting is meticulous, small, and linear. He has clearly developed a system and order to how each fare is entered. There are lines and numbers that are circled and numbers that are bold. I remember trying to frantically figure out this system so I could replicate it. I tried to ask questions and he'd respond, "Gloria just whatever, whatever. I just like it when my copilots write in it and then I see their handwriting and I remember who was in the cab with me that day and it makes me happy!" I eventually grow comfortable with my own style. When potential customers are confused by my presence in the cab I roll down the window at Avi's prompting and yell, "available!" I jump out at requests for Gatorade and Snickers, cigarettes, and cheese pizza slices. His favorite 99 cent slice is on 41st and Ninth. "I want two slices and a Dr. Pepper. No! No, a root beer! I go get slices for us both. Avi is a semi-practicing Kabbalist and eats 'Kosher'. No pork. No dairy and meat in combination (it confuses the soul between death and life).
"This slice of pizza tastes like pork. Doesn't it taste like pork to you?"
"Are you telling me you think they made this pizza with pepperoni and then removed the slices of pepperoni and are now selling a pork flavored cheese pizza? Is that what you're telling me?"
He blushes a little and laughs saying "nooo," but then with a more serious face says, "maybe." We pull to the side and pick up a touristy family headed to---?

-Avi. Remember when we picked up that French family? It was like a year ago. Remember we met up early for that free skin cancer screening and then I did the rest of your shift with you? 
-Yea I vaguely remember that. 
-It's where you can catch the ferry. Battery Park?
- Yeah it was Battery Park. One of two locations from which to catch a ferry over to the statue. The other is in Jersey City from Liberty Park. That's where you can see Lady Liberty's ass across the water". 

The French family is shiny and white. Sneakers and Polo shirts and laughing and smiling at each other as they pile up in the back seat of the cab. Avi practices his French and charms the family. Their love for each other and their excitement for being in New York is contagious. They say "Au revoir." I jump out to dispose our morning pizza waste and back in the cab we move not even half a block before we pick up a handsome old woman. She requests a drive by of Ground Zero if Avi doesn't mind. Anything you want, it's your fare.

Between us and the passengers is the thick plexi glass that postures some ability to protect the cabbie from harm. Behind that is a back seat foreign scape that I don't feel comfortable venturing into when on my trips with Avi. I feel comfortable in our space and no desire to know theirs, out of respect for their privacy. Sometimes the passengers, when feeling a particular need to connect with what is going on in the front seat, will stick their head through the small opening in the middle. Like the drunk Latina full of woe who we picked up Christmas morning by the Port Authority at the border between late night and early morn. When she hopped in the cab I could smell she had no money and would be soon making an attempt to play on Avi's empathetic nature. After Avi agreed to take her up to Washington Heights for almost nothing she put her face to the window, asking us if we were married and Turkish. Not married and Israeli/Colombian and Puerto Rican (mystery browns). She says, "oh but you're not a typical Puerto Rican girl, you're like spiritual and arty." As I debate in my mind if I consider this comment a compliment or kinda fucked up, Avi puts his hand on my knee, "oh Gloria's not the typical anything."

Now when catching a cab on my own I have to resist my own desire to climb in the front with them, follow normal societal etiquette, and pay and get out once we've reached my requested destination. When I am with a party of four and a front seat rider is required, that is where I go. "Look at Gloria so chummy with the driver." Having honed my copiloting skills I try to break the driver with a joke, an entertaining story about my night, with a nod of understanding to the fact my best friend is a cabbie. They usually say, "Oh yeah? Which garage?" and we momentarily taxi bro down. Inevitably they smile at me with warm empathetic eyes because they know I love a cabbie and that I do my best to keep him sane. And they know exactly how sane cabbies are not in the face of their six-day-a-week twelve-hour- shift-lives. When people ask questions about my cab rides they ask about the passengers, drugs, and sexual escapades. They never ask about the most interesting figures, the drivers themselves.

-Since you started driving six years ago what do you think has changed the most?
-The fucking GPS tracking systems and credit card machines! They're always an issue. They don't work. It freezes, then the passenger has no cash, and in the end they blame everything on the driver. 
-Yeah but culturally, do you think there is less respect for cabdrivers?
- There's disrespect but there's a lot of love too. But if you're in New York who do you blame? Mean, ugly, rude, the slime balls, the nobodies. You made all the good cabbies leave cause the whole thing sucks. What self-respecting, intelligent person would stay in this job?

Friday, January 11, 2013

मैं नस्लवादी नहीं हूँ. मैं सीधा हूँ

Rust Street, Maspeth, Queens
Hello to the new cycle on the Mayan calendar. My affair with box trucks ended on the eve of Christmas Eve. Taxicabs aren't the jealous type so I came back without a hitch. I am mad at myself for not making time to go out and help volunteer at Respond and Rebuild in the Rockaways since the hurricane hit.

First passenger in eight months asks me how I'm doing and I respond with frankness. I must find a way to make more money and become more spiritual. It's a cliche and in my rare attempt to redefine myself I forget. She sighs, as if I were lost, and tells me not to fall into the human trap of needing something to believe in. Rich people think god is money. You should learn to be content with what you make. She concludes her sermon with an 8% tip.

80% of Mexicans in the Apple come from Puebla. One of them graces my cab from work in Billyburg to his unlikely neighborhood of Steinway, an Arab district in Astoria. He says of Colombians que somos muy cultos. We're cultured people. I say the same of Poblanos, but neither of us are willing to accept a compliment, each critical of his own. Around the corner I happen upon a gracious resident of Crown Heights who is black and gay. I bolt him home on the BQE and he leaves a 30% tip (to all you xenophobes who'll never serve the outer boroughs like I do).

On the topic of tips, it is important for people from unaware backgrounds to adapt to those cultural norms that hardworking people depend on for a livelihood. I'm not trying to single anyone out, but Indian Americans have a bad rep for this. I've witnessed it for myself innumerable times, while working in both the residential moving industry and the taxicab. I make it a point to provide them extra mile treatment, since kindness is the best antidote to negativity, but it often has no affect. In many countries it's uncommon and even insulting to tip. A service position somewhere with incomparably lower living costs may be able to get by on a pre-arranged wage (if one exists). Some people were born here but were raised in unintentional ignorance. Perhaps you're a recent immigrant and feel a need to conserve your resources (not applicable to recipients of affluence allergic to strap hanging). You may have been treated poorly by people who automatically assumed you wouldn't tip, and so you tipped according to their behavior, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of misunderstanding. Let's each take a step towards ending this by providing great service and appreciative gratuities that are not contingent on pre-conceived notions of one another.

That said, thank you Hanna, the South African girl from India (whose favorite song's music video is shot near where she lives) for dignifying my efforts with a 25% tip. You'd be proud to know that Amina Cachalia was being interviewed on BBC radio the moment you disappeared into Kennedy's terminal 4.

On the prelude to a later airport run, I had parked the cab in the Village and walked into three establishments before being allowed the dignity of #1. This one said no at first and then reluctantly shooed me toward the bathroom while stating,"is what it is, the boss is here." (boss reprimands humanistic instincts of his employees). Do not be flabbergasted to find a bottle of/for urine lurking in the front seat of a cab. Why can't there be a system where we show our hack license? When I came out to the sidewalk I saw a lady with a suitcase at the curb beginning to raise her hand. I sprinted over to her. "Need a cab? Mine's parked right over there. I'll carry this (luggage) over for you."
An Arab cabbie walked up to my cab in line at JFK and lovingly inquired if I knew of any 24 hour shift possibilities. I'm pleasantly taken aback every time I'm spoken to in Arabic. There couldn't possibly be a Jew driving a cab out in this godforsaken industry, except for those that pass for Arabs, a few leftover Schizoids, and one Mizraphrenic.

I picked up a newly wed guy on Wythe Avenue who was picking up a large picture of his spouse's that he'd snuck out to be framed at a frame shop as a surprise. We agreed to make a round trip out of it with the meter running and I'd like to thank him again for the 30% tip, and for aligning time and space to yield my next fare, a Japanese family to a Ramen place on Smith in Boerum, via BQE. I'd like to thank them for a 33% tip. No thanks to the following fare though. A NoLita numbskull, homebound for the holidays, to LGA in a firm flotsam flash, with an insulting 7% tip. From there I drove empty to Greenpoint and found a pleasant young man heading to Queens Center Mall to get his mom and sister gift cards for Christmas, and something for himself. He had that New York brand of mojo. The kind that's tough without being insolent, and he even volunteered to jump out on Woodhaven so I could turn again and break free from a gridlock of lethargic shoppers.

That allowed me to enter Queens Boulevard further down in Rego Park, where I instantly found a couple late to a reunion in Crown Heights. I gave them an estimate of $30 to 40. It came out to $28.50. Sadly I got a 5% tip. I feel like most cabbies wouldn't have accepted the inter-borough fare in fear of wasting time and money. I feel like my fare knew this and went from acting desperate for a ride to playing stupid with the tip. I did get a LGA out of it though, in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was an awkward trip with siblings from rural South Carolina who've been ever so slowly adjusting to the NY state of mind, and were on their way home-for-the-holidays. We agreed on not serving religion, in order to be of service to the creator. Unto Northern Boulevard after dropping them off and two Colombianas ran over in a rush to see Mary Poppins at Times Square, so I took some back streets and flew over the East River for these Judias Samarias from another socioeconomic planet.    

I gave an Gujarati cabbie commuting to his parked cab on Varick Street (from his home in Chinatown like me) a 50% discount. It was the only moment in the entire ride his face turned from a frown to a smile. He's been a driver for "not long." Twelve years actually. So modest, yet so disgruntled. Not happy living among "those people" (Chinese). They're "not good." I responded by silently forcing on his shoes. You can't understand someone's thoughts unless you walk in them. He has several children and a wife in a small space though.

A tall, lavish Norwegian woman hailed me at a hotel in Midtown just after experiencing a peak emotional moment in her life. She immediately got busy elaborately recounting a history she's had with the Jewish son of Moroccan and Russian parents (who had as many loose screws as her), while I drove her to Saks Fifth. Decades ago she lived in New York and dated him intensely on and off. She eventually moved to London, married a cold, robotic German, and raised children. While briefly in the Apple once she ran into her first love, and he begged her to stay, but she couldn't. Years later and divorced, she returned to find him (today), but this time he couldn't, and for no better reason than that his passion questing had dried up and he was now a rational middle-aged (Jewish) man. She laughed and cried and barely let me concentrate on driving. All along I thought she had this idea (not unlike my theory) that if one needs an on-the-spot shrink, one simply steps into a taxi and promptly begins their therapy with the driver, until she explained that the reason I was hearing this earful was because my Ashkizrahi eyes reminded her of him.    

Two elderly Jewish ladies amble in on Madison and unapologetically change their Upper East Side destination a couple of times. It's fine though because I remember them being mostly pleasant about it. Besides, I have no use for apologies. Their 60% more than makes up for any inconvenience. Mind you it is not common for old women on the Upper East Side to be anything but verbally harsh to a cabbie and tipping beyond 15% is unheard of. Upon arrival, I hop out, open their door, and help them out. The eye contact between us is that of oh, look at that.... we seem to both be Jewish. And with that exchange an awkward utterance of "happy holidays."   

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Târziu și Dracului

Newtown Creek, Hunters Point, Queens
Stories and photos from autumn's Americas border bouncing bonanza await assortment, while those from years past remain incomplete. The home base life lived in between these journeys accounts for much longer swaths of time, offering material equally worthy of documentation, that remains just as unassorted.

Laboring in various sectors of the transportation industry while helping out with family finances and mental health issues requires an amount of energy that leaves little for blogging, let alone other artistic and altruistic endeavors. I don't have my own children so I can't complain. The age of excuses and self pity is coming to an end. It's becoming now or never, more than ever. I lasted the better part of a year at the art handling job (driving box trucks). It was fun and fulfilling until the distress of chaotic mismanagement took over and it stopped being educational. Around the holidays the art handling world took a nap, but the bills didn't. That was my opportunity to play career musical chairs again.  

In the spring I had vowed not to drive a taxi again for as long as I could. On the winter solstice I not only returned, but with the same intense sense of honor and joy towards it as I had when I first got my hack license in 2006. I remain mindful, however, of the undignified reasons behind the temporal career swap, and vow to limit the amount of shifts I drive to a minimum.  In fact, I plan to leave New York all together for a little while, so I can focus on things besides the rat race. It won't be easy unplugging from this city though. I currently live in Chinatown, my favorite neighborhood in all of the Apple. I share an apartment with my sister and two roommates, which makes the rent reasonable, but I find it difficult to concentrate on creative pursuits. Houston, TX and Lake Worth, FL are both calling my name, each for more reasons than one. The first breathless blurb from recent taxi shifts in almost a year is in the works, along with every other jammed particle awaiting colonic therapy, metaphorically and then some.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas, Mero Centro, D.F.
The adventures of the past decade have led me through much of North and most of South America. In the past year I decided that before crossing the ocean (again), I would first link the missing autohemispherical gap: Mesoamerica! So, over the past few months I've bucked up to pay off debts and save up in spite of Big Apple living costs. I found a flight to Mexico D.F. for $180 and one from Bogota to New York for $278. I then rounded up $1680 to last me 55 days (maximum average $30 per day) by land and boat through 8 countries. On the 2nd at 6:40 I departed from JFK with my co-traveler Glo Diaz. A brief layover in Phoenix and by 15:00 we were in modern Tenochtitlan, dividing everything by 12.5 (USD to MXN).

By divine intervention, close to a year ago, the great Sarah Hope introduced me to Cintia, a good friend she'd met during her time as a Chilanga. Cintia was a guest at my apartment for a weekend and went above and beyond returning the hospitality this week, sharing her lovely home and exceptional novio with Glo and I. On our first full day she offered me a translating gig at the Indian embassy, but the corporate atmosphere scared me off before the meeting even started. Instead, I met up with Glo and we walked across downtown twofold, from la Ribera to the edge of el Bosque, to the historic core and back. Standing beside the massive Zocalo raised my hairs, while bountiful signs of disparity enraged me to near tears. We took an elevator up to the top of Torre Latino (just before sunset) to watch the densely inhabited basin shift to night. Make sure you learn the days of the week in Spanish before reading on.

El martes we experienced our first ride on the extensive and extremely inexpensive subterranean phenomenon known as Sistema de Transporte Colectivo. If we had more time here I'd make an entire day of just hopping on and off at every station (on a 3 peso fare) and exploring the vast network of vendors and informative displays that exist down there. We rode Linea 3 to Coyoacan, to check out La Casa Azul de Frida Kalho, filled with her fascinating works and personal items. My favorites were the intricate little 'exvotos' and a comprehensive diagram of the stages of pregnancy she kept on her wall. We then traversed the verdantly cobbled path to San Angel. Our hosts, Pablo y Cintia, met us at Plaza Hidalgo for some coffee shop 'socialism' and we all made the nearly two ("rush") hour trek home via Metrobus, along the longest continuous urban avenue in the world: Insurgentes!

All of miercoles we spent en el Museo de Antropologia and we still didn't manage to see all the rooms, which carefully detail the innumerable prehispanic cultures of Mexico and the Americas. The Mayan 'codices' (preserved journals) and those 'xantiles' with the widest eyes and familiar bodily gestures intrigued me the most. On our walk home we passed by the Kabbalah Centre in Polanco and marveled at the boisterous crowd mingling out front. As always, I was too chicken to go inside.    
El jueves tomamos un camion (bus) from Terminal del Norte to see the ruins of ancient Teotihuacan and its two piramides, placed in mathematical relation and reverence to the two most influential celestial bodies. The one we revolve around and the one that revolves around us. In the evening we had a delicious pozole and one of the numerous quality local beers we've enjoyed without the cost of import. Otherwise, we've mostly been alimenting ourselves at delectable (supposed dogmeat) taco street stalls and devouring tlacoyos, chiles rellenos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, quesadillas, huaraches, you name it. All washed down with sangria soda, Boing!, and aguas frescas de guayaba, jamaica, y tamarindo. La Michoacana's endless ice cream flavors and out of this world flan for dessert. In reality we've been so busy walking, journaling, and jumping aboard half- moving microbuses that we've neglected nourishment for large swaths of each day.

El viernes fuimos a Xochimilco, an awesome gridwork of shallow canals [much like before the uncivilized (to say the least) Cortes arrived], along which colorful wooden rowboats take reveling passengers (mostly teenagers) around. These joyride boats are continuously and adoringly solicited by smaller vessels carrying lively Mariachi and Nortenio bands, floating Pulque labs, and more. This city has so many more enchantments (21+ million of the most genuine human beings) than we could ever witness in 5 days, but it's time to tend to the insatiable wanderlust and head on south. Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Huehuetenango, Xela, Atitlan, Antigua, San Salvador, Managua, Ometepe, and in San Jose (on the 28th) we shall intercept co-traveler #3, Big Spoon, a medic from California and good friend of mine. The three of us will cross from Panama to Colombia by boat and bus it between Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona, Medellin, la Zona Cafetera, Huila and Bogota.

The next update will come from somewhere in Cental America. If there are people and places not far off the panamerican highway you can recommend, bien pueda! I'll post more pictures on something public soon. I'm not sure what to use yet. May this missive find you in good spirits. Xoxo, Gusberto Austerinero            

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Months Don't Ask For Permission to Fast Forward

Life's been an especially nonstop whirlwind of struggles lately. Not in a bad way, but nonetheless hectic. Many changes happening all at once. Lots of tiring tasks, close calls, and near misses, hour by hour, day after day, week after week. Moved out of Richmond Hill, Queens. Staying with a generous friend. Gloria! Stored belongings in a another's basement. Mikey! Paid the income taxes. Taking serious shots at my disappearing credit debt. Helping my kindred friend Loren maintain a positive stride amid all of his hurdles and demons. Still helping my folks stay afloat in their everlasting adversity. Got an apartment lined up in Ridgewood for next month. Haven't driven a taxicab in almost a couple of months now, with the exception of one shift to film the clip on the previous entry.

Started working for an art handling service called CFL. Driving a tagged box truck all over the place. Wrapping, packaging, crating, and delivering all sorts of artwork, chandeliers, antique and high end furniture between ritzy residences, dusty warehouses, auctioning institutes, restoration shops, art galleries, exhibitions, fairs, etc..

The pay is (by far) more guaranteed and steadier and the job is almost as adventurous, if not more so at times. Instead of leaving work with a fried brain and atrophied muscles, everyday is a balanced physical and mental workout. The days begin at a reasonable hour, not in the middle of the night. The coworkers are phenomenally unique and brotherly. The bosses are such wholehearted characters that they instantly became family. The clients are a mixed bag, as were those in the taxi. Half of them too full of themselves and too empty of others. The other half pleasant and even empathetic.

The freedom perk that that cab driving offered only in theory is now a solid mainstay. I'm asked politely what my daily availability looks like. If I have side jobs lined up or personal errands to run, I can prioritize them without guilt or fear of lost income. CFL doesn't officially stand for anything, but all crew invent their own acronyms. Can't Find Luc (el jefe). Constantly Fcuking Late. Care Free Living. Cheap Fcuking Labor. Etc. I'm really honored to be a part of this team. I now look down at my ex-colleagues in their rented yellow Vics from up in my tall seat with sadness from afar over how poorly compensated their grueling, robot-like days can be. I'll try to always keep my hack license valid as a back up, but my days as a horse with its legs tied up are over. I'm now a horse with its own power, marching to its own gallop.          

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Graffiti Free NYC"

Cute little trucks parked along what I call "Identity Crisis Lane". Heading uptown from the Brooklyn Bridge it starts out as "Centre Street," through the Civic Center and Chinatown. It briefly gets renamed "Cleveland Place" before becoming "Lafayette," through SoHo and some of the Village. All of a sudden it's "Fourth Avenue" from Astor Place to 14th Street, before morphing into "Union Square East" for three blocks, and becoming "Park Avenue South" through Gramercy Park and Murray Hill. Finally, it matures into just plain simple "Park Av" for the rest of its journey through Mid and Uptown. These shots were taken in NoHo between Bond and Great Jones.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

WTF is Going On?

Been listening to WBAI news radio while steaming dinner and washing dishes. All the dire issues I somehow fail to hear about anywhere else have got me in a tizzy. Why is something 35 miles away permanently leaking radiation, threatening my water, and sitting atop a geological fault? Why are ATF agents making monetary gains from arming Mexican paramilitary factions that broaden the bloodbath?

What are intellectual property rights [excuse to push for complete control of the last free range space (infobahn) left] if there really isn't even such a thing as invention, when one humbly acknowledges that parallel microcosmic replicas are all derived from the ultimate parent macrocosm? I mean who do you think you are? And all I hear on other stations is about there being 4 rats for every New Yorker and how most of them live in the subway thanks to commuter food donations.

Back from the trivial and still on the subject of egotistical audacity. How is it that Monsanto is destroying everything and everyone in its path unbridled? And to ensure their profitable path of total annihilation, they have the gall to turn around, accuse, and sue farmers for inadvertently (helplessly) acquiring (by way of wind) the "technology" of contamination that these farmers were in fact trying to offer consumers alternatives to. How do these people live with themselves? How do they sleep at night? How do judges find it fair to empower them? And not that I'm one to count on "the government" for anything, but how do you allow this?

I feel helpless as the world seems to creak into collapse. My tear ducts resemble a dam with a trembling crack in it. To add to my emotional state is the fact that in the last three days, after a clean year, I've been pulled over twice and given tickets for the most absurd reasons. The city has no problem unleashing its human kennels into the streets to intentionally jeopardize the livelihoods of honest, proficient, hardworking cabbies for the sake of, hell, I dunno, revenue? And when I bring the cab back to the garage 4 hours into the 12 hour shift and announce I'm quitting for good, I get a lecture from my Pakistani dispatcher on how bad he had it back when he drove and how much of a cry baby I'm being. Then a lecture from the Bangladeshi cashier on how no matter how difficult life is, I should always thank the maker.

On the way home I scheme out various options. Back to trucking for the moving company in New Jersey? Over to Philadelphia where my friend has his own little indie moving service? To the airport to apply at one of the airlines so I can work towards free flight points? I take a nap in my bed to awaken refreshed and reconciled. Ain't goin' to let a few bully cops and oblivious passengers keep me away from the freedom and independence of a job I love doing well, in the city I serve with pride. Not yet, anyway. Time is coming soon though.

In fact I'm such an upstanding sucker than when two Colombians (well-estabished Manhattanites) at Kennedy step into my cab, having just met each other on the return flight from their monthly sojourn to the homeland, and reveal two distinct destinations deep into the fare, I can't quite bring myself to turn off the meter upon arrival at the first stop (57th and Tenth), in order to collect my flat 45, and turn it on anew for trip #2 up the Henry Hudson Parkway to Washington Heights, all in baseless fear of being labeled a crooked cabbie. I'm entitled to two separate payments, but instead I just hope and pray that she'll take my leniency and the extra distance/time/gas into account. Especially after we establish, in the midst of a friendly en-route chat, that neither of us are entirely sure how the law explains it, but theoretically fare #2 would've been about $20. And besides, I'm a compatriot (born in Colombia). Unfortunately most countries are made of at least two countries. In this case, Colombia of the Haves and Locombia of the Nots.

Says she'll even things out on the credit card tip, by which she means 25% instead of the customary 20%. That makes $56.88, minus the ironical 5% taken out. In reality the whole journey was well worth around $78. By then it seems too late to voice any protest, since it's really my fault for being such a well-mannered, well-meaning sucker in the first place. Between the cops, passengers like this, the great rat race of New York, and the global absurdities i hear about on WBAI, my once entranced soul and spirit is rotting out from the inside. I'm increasingly jaded, angry, frequently prone to bawls, and all but hopeless about the fate of humanity. But the putrefaction will never touch my deepest core, which is made of endless inextinguishable light. I'm back to work tonight. Unshakably yellow, with dirty hands brown in solidarity with farming families still trying to preserve a millenia old tradition of saving unaltered seed, not poisoning their crops, and being gentle with their livestock. At one point in history, 60% of Americans were farmers. Today there are more people incarcerated here than there are farmers.