Saturday, November 22, 2008

cartophilic cabbie(s)

A few who read my blog tell me that it's fragmented to a fault. Spits and chunks of thoughts splattered across loosely knit amalgams (paragraphs). Pardon me if this style of writing is less than articulate to sift through, but I don't plan on modifying it. And frankly, there happens to be a common thread if you sit in my boxers while you read. Letting you in on the world through my eyes. So let me sit in your boxers for a change. Write an update on your life and share it. I would like to read it. I have a harrowing handful of friends who have fallen off the face of my planet.

above picture from mdcassano's photostream

Wooster is my favorite street to jostle and clatter down. It's one of the bumpiest stretches in all of Manhattan. Got that 3rd world charm. Barranquilla in the heart of SoHo. A mixed moonscape of parched cobblestone, half replaced with lumps of asphalt, and further degenerated into clusters of bottomless potholes. But when the other streets get too plain and polished, I must look elsewhere for that besmirched inspiration to give me another electrifying reminder to live fully.

If I had to pick one luminary, it would be Sarah Chayes. I first learned of her one night in 2003. I'm allergic to television, except when PBS is on. So I joined my house mates, who were watching. Nightline was covering Sarah's newfound
purpose, living in Afghanistan and serving all of humanity by helping people on the ground rebuild their war torn lives. She had been a well respected journalist on behalf of NPR for years, but had now decided to not just report on social injustices, but actually do something about them. She joined the efforts of an aid organization, and more recently founded an agricultural cooperative to produce viable Opium alternatives. Bill Moyers interviewed her this year and I am still as starstruck as ever.

I can again return to intensely appreciating life for all it's worth. Every drop of water that bathes and hydrates my viscera. Every watt of light that illuminates my journal at night. Every potent rumination that comes into sight. Every split second hand eye thigh tarsal auricular excremental coordination. And most importantly, my innate doggedness. Sarah herself said, "I don't think that hope is relevant. I think determination is all that counts. You just have to try. It doesn't matter if you hope you're going to succeed or not. You have to keep trying." Is it OK for a 27 year old taxi driver to have a crush on a 46 year old foreign aid correspondent?

Mikey, a close pal of mine here in Nu Yo, happens to be a cabdriver too (turned him on to it). We both have a NYC Parks and Recreation Department membership and visit the gym biweekly to work out and shoot hoops, as a way to combat taxi dystrophy. Afterwards we engage in map buffing activities, like brainstorming mnemonics for museum mile. Running along Fifth Ave, across from Central Park, is a long string of cultural hubs that cabbies ought to know by heart. So we came up with funny phrases to address the code A-B-C-J-H-N-M-F, which lists them in order from north to south....
1. Museum for African Art
2. El Museo del Barrio
3. Museum of the City of New York
4. Jewish Museum
5. Hewitt National Design museum
6. Guggenheim
7. Neue Galerie
8. Metropolitan Museum of Art
9. Frick Collection.
His was "Any boy could jump high given no more friction."
Carly's (GF) was "Always be careful just have God nearby mother fu%#ers."
Mine was "After Bartholomew captured Jerusalem he got New Mexico fast."

A pair of Upper West Side moms and their boisterous children got in across from Rockefeller. Returning home from a birthday party, the kids slapped their little
stickers all over my windows. Minutes later the moms paused their convulsive flapdoodle and reprimanded the kids, ordering them to peel the stickers back off. I immediately looked up from my chimerical road gaze and said, "oh, that's alright, let them leave it. I love (anarchic) decorations."
"You are just the nicest cabdriver I ever met."
Terminus (after 2 separate stops): $2 tip on a $12.50 fare.
That's a 16% tip. But they paid with credit card (cabbie is charged %5 fee).
That's 73 cents taken off my income. I get $13.77 instead of $14.50, which might sound like pocket change to you, but try calculating these losses across hundreds of transactions. It pays to be a nice cabbie. At least my garage doesn't care if I bring the cab back with minor scratches, dents, cracks, or sticker littered windows.

It's one of those rare moments when the taxi stand on 8 Avenue is depleted of cabs. I pull into the lane that I would have otherwise driven right past. Two garbage truck drivers step in on route to Chelsea's NYCHA. My only efficient option is to hover near the crosswalk until the timing is right (red signal) and then swiftly turn left unto 33rd from that 5th and furthest lane. The instant I perform this trick the two men break into loud jubilation. "He just pulled a triple cutoff!"

Hastily I check my mirrors, misinterpreting their words to mean we're in the midst of getting pulled over. "Relax broth-a, we were just enjoying your dexterity back there cause we do it ALL the time. We drive (and collect rubbish) that way all over the outer boroughs. That's how we get our runs done." They turn out to be better tippers than most a suit and tie out there. And for the remainder of that shift I didn't rub eyeballs with any other jehus for lane seniority. Not from the realm of sanitation, nor deliveries. Just your common cadmium yellow torpedoes and one anomaly. A gang of pugnacious Harleys refused to allow me past their gastropodous entourage. Finally someone on the road with a bigger ego than mine (exception: NYPD).

The answer that I resent the most when I ask a passenger if they happen to have a route preference is "whichever way's faster". As if I plan on milking the meter when they answer no. But whenever I contemplate a policy of just keeping shut mouthed with internalized navigation, memories of refreshingly symbiotic brainstorms with effusive riders keep me from giving up on the immense potential of communication. Mixing the ample yet ultimately abridged wisdom of a hack with the commuter's knowledge of patterns in their circuits of routine is a recipe for immaculate cab excursions. But even then something can go terribly wrong.

Last week I was on the Prospect Expressway with a pleasant passenger who was headed home from the Flatiron to Kensington (BK) at 3:30 am. Our lovely Crown Vic workhorse of a space shuttle suddenly started shaking violently and the steering wheel became nearly unnegotiable. Slowing it down to a stop on the shoulder felt like trying to land an airliner with its landing gear paralyzed. The lady was really cool about it all as I made a 360 degree inspection of our overworked mule. No flat tires, no unevenness in the suspension, no external symptoms of anything. We agreed to coast the last couple miles with hazards blinking. The car would start out normal, but every 1/4 minute the vicious trembling would resume, even as we kept around 10 mph. Coming to a full stop was its only pacification. She was racking her brain for a round-the-clock repair shop, but I explained that the garage from which I lease it was solely authorized and responsible.

We made it to her place and the tip revealed mammoth compassion. She tried convincing me to just have my garage summon a tow truck, which was an option. But the whole thing would take well over two hours and I had to get back in business. So I crawled cautiously all the way up Bedford and over the Pulaski. Those last few feet to the hydraulic lifts a mechanic took over and his dramatic signature pedal jerk finally made the front wheel fold on itself. He literally dragged the front end forward by sheer acceleration, but he had the whole problem cured in 45 minutes. Unfortunately though, these mechanics are so jaded and aloof that they have no interest indoctrinating me with the process of troubleshooting, which I'd sponge up in a heartbeat if only he were into Mohandas Gandhi. Learn as if you were to live forever and teach as if you were to die tomorrow (I bent it a bit).

ps: My big Bob Dylan revelation this week: It's 'lay lady lay' (not 'lady DeLane').

Beware of the $115 for box blocking having recently become a non moving violation. The meter maids on E37th St. are busy handing these out to everyone stuck crosstown inside the intersection as you crawl through Park Avenue. My passenger's comment: 'That is such a cheap shot'. I've seen this activity in one other spot: 3 Avenue crossing E56th Street. The two rightmost lanes get jammed with those headed to the Queensboro. The meter maids have a field day here.

1AV across 63rd: red light cam (although i never seen it flash) This link contains a long list of
some other spots

Friday, November 14, 2008

To travel on a shoestring.....
 the ultimate purpose in life. Or at least the best way to discover its meaning. I am devastatingly disappointed when I look at this map. By now I should have seen at least 50% of the world. Daily I have fleeting thoughts of just running away from NYC with nothing but a toothbrush, a journal, and a change of clothes in my backpack. One of these days. Perhaps when my DMV points reach their limit and my license gets suspended. I'll simply pack up and walk the docks in search of a ship that would allow me to cross the ocean in exchange for keeping the bathrooms clean or something. And once I get there it'll be nothing but hitch hiking, scavenging, odd jobs, and couch surfing through as many countries as humanly possible.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


An azimuthal equidistant projection, centered at the North Pole, between two olive branches. That is the flag of the UN. What I wonder though is: who raises all the other flags every morning. Each time I drive past the complex, I can't decide if each nation has someone in charge of this daily ceremony, or if an anonymous team of blue collars is dealt the task. Is it done in unison, all 192 member states along the colorful corridor of flagpoles? I always forget to ask when a foreign delegate gets in my cab.

This week I picked up a book that I had given up trying to read years ago, because of time constraints and random circumstances. Now I feel bad for having neglected Jay Griffith's magnanimously omniscient writing. Some of my favorite chunks so far have been these:
"Time is not measured in hours but in experience."
"Only those who live not in time but in the present are happy."
"Sea Horses mate at full moon and it's the male that gets pregnant."
"Modernity knows the strut and the fret but not the hour."
"Time is highly political."

It was almost 5 am on Water and Pine when an Irish bartender stumbled out into the street. Nearly choking on his own drool he just barely sputtered directions at me. "Brooklyn Bridge. BQE to Maurice Ave." We got off the highway in Maspeth (Queens) and he kept saying, "left here". But there was no left to make. "You mean right?" He just got louder with his left rant. So I pointed to the right at the last second and asked, "this way?". He agreed buoyantly, fading in and out of consciousness. When we stopped at his duplex he opened the door and literally fell out unto the curb. The red flags inside my head had begun to tatter in the wind. I walked around and got in his face with an outstretched open palm. You owe me 24 dollars. "Alright, alright don't be a prick about it." He only had 11 in cash, 7 ketchup packets, a wad of napkins, a set of keys, and no CC.

After checking his emptied pockets 5 more times he had me follow him inside. When he turned on the lights his girlfriend laid half asleep on the couch and the dog had ripped apart countless random objects that were strewn about the floor. He made her go into the back and get money. This entire scenario reminds me of the time I tried to help my phlebotomist crawl out of her depression. An impromptu camping trip to the beach ended up inside a pitch black trailer home littered with mounds of dog shit that I got all over myself while trying to sneak out.

Five ladies from the UK giggled and gawked at my traffic maneuvers, all the way from Le Parker Meridian to TGIF. Just like their hotel's motto, they are "uptown but not uptight". And it was TGI Sunday to them. And it's true.... not all of Great Britain is cheap. These ladies tipped handsomely.

Out of the blue, my mother began screaming at me from inside her bedroom. I ran over to see her watching ABC news. She scolded me for always offering to make sure people's unwanted electronics end up away from the landfill. I try to be some sort of quasi eco-warrior but today the TV is saying that electronic recycling has a very dark side. It all ends up smuggled to China, where people in slums melt it down in exchange for $2 a day and a slew of ailments. Once again, the only true solution is reducing rampant consumerism and not being so naive all the time.

At the age of 14, my dad and I were traversing a darkened parking lot after our tennis match in the lit courts of a park in a suburb of Houston. A light in the night sky caught our attention. We watched it for a quarter hour as it made extraterrestrial movements. Hovering, then shooting across in a straight line, then shifting directions at unbelievable angles. It was too far away to reveal any structural detail. Just a white blob, slightly larger than that of a visible planet. Nothing is impossible to me. I used to borrow UFO books from the nonfiction section of the library as a teenager. The whole topic's been put on the shelf for years now though.

I didn't always have a job that I felt belonged to me and I to it. Being a yellow cabbie in NYC has indeed been my longest lasting and favorite source of employment. But it's only been that way for 25 months. Before that I had been a truck driver for a residential moving company in New Jersey, a bicycle messenger on the streets of Manhattan, a produce van deliveryman for a warehouse in Miami, a remodelation debris grunt (manual laborer) on oceanfront condos, a shelver/page at a public library, a graveyard shift custodian at my own university, a pedicab peddler (bike taxi) in West Palm Beach, a helper electrician digging trenches, assistant to a wheelchair bound nursery/metal shop owner, a nursing home companion, a silk fabric art exhibitionist's assistant, and last (and least)..... when I turned 16, my first job ever was at McDonald's. I've come a long way from $5.25 an hour.

CAUTION to NYC taxicabs:
new rule: no left on 40th off broadway.
new red lite camera: 9 av crossing 26th

Take a moment to sign the petition at
and prevent telemarketing calls on your cellular by dialing 888.382.1222.
Follow the automated prompt for your 10 digits, or just get rid of the damn device.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Member FDIC don't mean jack squat. The car wash restroom on W24th has a sign that says "This bathroom is available to all who need it". You must always put a dollar in there to help maintain the cleanliness. And they do a commendable job of it. It's the most community oriented thing in all of Chelsea. Aside from the gracious proliferation of public relief zones (star bux), an accessible non profit restroom in Manhattan means jack squat and much more.

Not flossing greatens my risk of heart disease, but my arm wrestling match against languorous apathy itself is dwindling in most aspects of my life, aside from the fact that I militantly pour heart health Emergen-C powder into every glass. Lycopene and mineral ascorbates to counter poor hygiene and lack of exercise? Atrophy from perpetual operation of a yellow cab.

Don't go one inch past the white line when approaching Avenue of the Americas while westbound along Canal unless you want a 5000 cent postcard in the mail. If you encounter a street hail, esp. an individual standing snobbishly smack dab in the middle of the street and not budging over as you angle and decelerate, then ever so slowly coast right past them as they follow frantic until snuggly curbside. They have no right to obstruct the flow of traffic for self-absorbe
d purposes. And half the time they will turn their head and hail the next taxi.
Which weeds out those who have no cognizance of public safety and most likely no appreciation for any driver. Move on, they aren't worth the hassle.

Can't afford to do that, you say? Hard time fishing for passengers as it is? Well, I have a formula that works for me, any hour and anywhere in Manhattan, and parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Just go straight ahead until 2 or more vacant taxis are cruising in front of you. Once you spot a plurality of lit roof lights, turn off at the next street. If someone on that block is coming out of their building, you'll be the first available cab. Otherwise just turn again on that following avenue, which often gets you dibs on that block as well. Repeat step one and two over and over. This gets the goods. Believe me. There's nothing more detrimental to a cabdriver's income than to sit in an ocean of empty cabs. Avoid drag race chicken fights. Make the dough and get the hell home. We don't burn fossil fuels for the fun
of it. And it ain't just for the hell of it that I'm adamantly against splitting atoms and creating other high level waste.

Regionalism can get sort of silly sometimes. This week Katy Couric corrected her guest on the pronunciation of 'Nevada'. She made him say it like 'vast', not 'far'. I looked into it and discovered that folks out west believe Katy's correction to be appropriate. I doubt any Nevadans will read this, but 'nevada' happens to be in Spanish (Espanol). It means covered in snow. Hence, the Sierra Nevada (mountain range in California) literally means 'snow-covered hills'. And Nevada is pronounced like Dada (art cultural movement), not rat or mad hatter.

I really do try to withhold from judging others, especially when they're passengers in my cab. People have their reasons for tipping the way they do. But with every new fare, I automatically begin to compile a picture of their socioeconomic status and personal value system out of what I piece together from a conversation, the rear view mirror, or the price tag for an event I'm taking them to. Last week I brought several groups of people to the convention center and back, so they could pick up their runner numbers to put on their abdomen during the NYC marathon. I learned that it costs $177 ($232 for foreigners) to register in the race. Based on that, I'd say the Californians were generous tippers, but the Englishwomen were cheap scoundrels. It's not like these ladies came from London's east end and have spent their entire lives saving up for this.

I just finished reading a fabulous zine:
It features an article called YOU DON'T DESERVE BRAIN CANCER.
ngton reveals cell phone industry secrets and makes a connection between it and the endless civil war in the Congo. This was published in 2003 and since then the violence in that country has all but disappeared from the news. Ironically, only days after I read the zine, this unique slice of human misery reemerges in the mass media.

I had a recent rider from Albania whose name (Fiutra) means butterfly in Shqip (her old Balkan language). She's especially memorable because she said that when she tells people that she's Albanian, they say oh you're from the state capital (Albany). Another conspicuous rider was a Scotsman in a suit who's traveled to all the Central Asian nations on behalf of the beer industry. He's having difficulty resolving his visa here because his passport contains stamps from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghystan.

DHS don't like the fact that he's tasted authentic home brews around the world. And in yet a third illustrious fare, the Jennifer Aniston lookalike had you stop by a sidewalk cart so she could buy her 15 month old a hot dog and got one for you too. That never happens. Who ever wonders if the cabdriver is hungry? Then there was the German couple who just disembarked a cruise ship. Their only 48 hours in NYC were looking very pluvial. I came up with the most cliche idea for that: MUSEUMS?. "Boring", they murmured defiantly. Right then I had a clairvoyant moment. I knew exactly what they'd like to hear. "Did you know we have a MUSEUM OF SEX in NYC?" Their eyes lit up as they pulled out a pen to write down the address. That tip that would manifest into another pleasant tip as we pulled into their hotel.

As a cabdriver it's alarming to discover how little people actually know about the miseries that entail our profession. $110 to lease the cab for a day and another $40 (way less than a couple months ago) for gasoline. Roughly half the shift goes by before we actually begin earning an income. We drive anywhere from 12 to 17 hours a pop, in circles, through some of the most temerarious traffic on the planet. The odds stacked against us are twice as tall as the Empire State Building, and still we manage to make due.

If a passenger shows interest, I'll speak their godforsaken ear off about it all, as they lay there in astonishment, wide eyed and open mouthed. More questions flood their heads and the answers keep churning. God bless us, the yellow children of Gotham. I think the exact number of human faces we see in a year's time is greater than any other line of work, simply just from ceaselessly scanning crowded streets with eagle eyes while maintaining a thirty mile an hour peripatetic.

There's quite often a speed trap on the FDR North, just before you go under the Brooklyn Bridge. If you enter where South Street ends or off the 9A underpass (tunnel), do not go a single MPH over 40. Everyone floors it here because it's the
very beginning of the highway. A cop stands in the shoulder just over the hill. Only other radar gun trap I've seen in NYC is SB on Cross Bay Blvd. as you enter the residential zone of Broad Channel the limit plummets to 30 MPH and an unmarked hides in the median. On the opposite side of Queens, when WB on Astoria Blvd do not make a left on Crescent St. from 7 to 10 am. One of those little golf cart-like interceptors is busy around the corner. And in Manhattan, I'm pretty sure what I witnessed had to do with that far left lane on Broadway as you're about to cross 14th. It says on a sign and on the ground that you MUST turn left. Taxis break this rule 50 times a minute. Well, I saw folks getting pulled over systematically on that southeast corner one day last week. Must've been that rule being enforced. That's all for now.