Tuesday, December 29, 2009

FREEGANISM

When I moved to NYC in 2006, some of the first friends I made were part of something called the Freegan movement. I had arrived from Florida with nothing but an old bicycle, a map, a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and a sleeping bag. The first two weeks I spent nights on park benches and cardboard in the nooks of buildings. The second day here I found a job in the Village Voice classifieds. I delivered envelopes and packages on my bicycle for Champion Courier. They paid $3 per item and since all the nice runs were given to seniority, I was averaging around 6/hr. Far below minimum wage, but an exhilarating introduction to life in the Big Apple.

One day I happened to be fixing a flat in the Garment District when these two kids from the Freegan Bicycle Workshop walked by and offered me some donuts they had just scored on the curb around the corner. I followed them back to their space and made friends with all the other little Freegans. I learned some basic bike mechanics, where to look for free food, possibilities for squatting/couch surfing, and a whole lot more.

Through Rachel Sakristan, an artist and good friend from Barcelona, I met a wonderful couple from Andorra and Brazil who were in New York to shoot a short documentary about the so-called "Freegan" movement. They came along in my cab one shift and interviewed me on camera about my views regarding the philosophy behind it. I just saw it for the first time this week. Edu and Priscilla finally emailed me a Quick Time attachment of the clip. They weren't able to complete their documentary due to lack of funds. I must say, I'm not very fond of my barely coherent babbles throughout the 5 minutes. Wish I could have been more eloquent.

Jenine doesn't like the way the word "Freegan" is used now because it originally meant something else and because other words for what it means now have already existed for a long time. She's old-school in some ways and I like that about her. A freegan used to be someone who was a vegan, but would temporarily become vegetarian if the eggs, dairy, or pizza were free. Today the word Freegan has expanded to include anyone who not only eats ANYTHING (including meat) if it's free, but also seeks to find all the other components of life for free. Jenine prefers the older word GLEANER for this definition.

It's similar to my dissatisfaction with the spelling of the word Hanukkah. The 'H' doesn't do the rough guttural sound any justice. And the 'Ch' version already has a different sound in English. My conclusion would be to spell it Khanuqa. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy my expressive hand and finger gestures throughout the clip, because it's the only articulate aspect of the interview (my speech is laughable).
video

Saturday, December 26, 2009

LIFE PARTNER

There she is standing outside my cab, as if a random Union Square passerby. But she is no stranger to me. That graceful lady wearing colorful quilt-like fabric, holding a pink down, and sporting the colossal, ever-evolving glass bead necklace she made, is my significant and beloved other, Jenine Bressner. Soon it will be a year since we met.

I don't know if I ever told you, but it was this blog that facilitated our union. First I saw the charming face and words of what appeared to be a down-to-Earth, multi-ethnic Jew on a friend's wall on Facebook. My entire life I had been waiting patiently to find a soulmate of a special blend of unexpected genes. I sent her a blunt message, inquiring on her ethnic soup. I am well aware this comes off as rude, creepy, and xenophobic.... but I do it with everyone, knowing true to my heart that it comes from a place of admiration and innocent fascination with the overlapping of cultures, customs, and creeds. Her response was curt and more or less impersonal.

I knew then I had one last chance to break the ice and that I had better make it good. I couldn't pester her with too many words. I decided to simply send her a link to my blog. After all, its contents are a raw expression of who I strive to be: a voice of euphoric empathy for the world's wonders found in its people and their demographic spectrum. I had absolutely no expectations, and to my surprise, she did indeed pick up on this vibe. By the way, she is of Eastern European and Filipina backgrounds. And I have Hispanic, Romanian, and Polish roots. You can call us "Ashkephardic". But that is not what this post is about.

It's my opportunity to thank Jenine for helping me fine tune my desire to pursue the crafts of writing and photojournalism, and to proliferate public awareness of its existence. It is also my chance to share with you a few of the methods she utilizes to create new things and inspire humanity towards a more self-actualized sense of empowerment. Above is a picture of what were the blank backsides of her business cards, which she fed into a laser cutter to engrave my name, email, and blog address unto. Originally I had hand written the info unto a thick stash of her cards, one by one, and passed them out in my cab as a form of double sided advertising for us both.

Jenine was recently chosen to participate in the worldwide Fab Academy. She's been learning to operate various machinery to produce almost anything one's imagination can take on. She has come up with some marvelous results. Formulating ideas and following through with delicate, time-consuming precision on computers.

You can see pictures and read the details on her blog, along with everything else she's made over the years with an endless inventory of tools and materials. The list is as replete with ingenuity as a cluster of colleges. Berkeley or Beantown, minus pretense and ulterior motives. It's as diverse as the Queens neighborhood of Elmhurst and its nationalities, only more integrated. It is as well-informed as the walking Wikipedia that Jenine herself is, only more accurate than a lot of what's been put on the web. It's as meticulously and anomalously crafted as Mohandas himself must have been by the environment that shaped his gumption.

Jenine lives in Providence and adds daily to its already distinct flavor of artistry, via flame worked glass, intricate embroideries for practical uses, unconventional sculpting, stitching, soldering, milling, forging, serging, vinyl cuttings, air brushing, homemade lip balm, hand bound books, immaculate pen drawings, wall prints, textile earrings, ruffle beards, dolls, pom poms, fabric anemones, recycled shoes, museum quality jewelry, heat set metallic textures, continuously refined D.I.Y. clothing and culinary contraptions, efficient scavenging of discarded items that become effective studio components, and all this is just the beginning.

Now let me tell you how she's used her skills to encourage my endeavors. Above you can see the vinyl cut stickers she produced, which I placed on my lap top, but could eventually scatter about the city on bumpers and stop signs. My blog address in yellow impact stencil font, since I regard taxi driving to be a (nonviolent) military discipline of sorts. My name in an blue arabesque font, since I've an affinity to the Middle East.

Jenine sets aside time to proofread, edit, and revise most every new article I type. Her suggestions are priceless. When visiting me in New York, she offers to sit in the front seat of the taxicab so I don't miss a shift. She mingles with my fares, resulting in larger tips. The rides seem to take half the time to accomplish, which brings smiles from both the backseat and from behind the wheel.

Sometimes we'll park the cab for a gastronomical pit stop and she always has a list of eateries she's been researching, where independent shop owners strive to make it a genuine experience. We also explore museums and other cultural attractions together. She never fails to leave my mind saturated with her acute attention to particularities among all the art and D.I.Y. experiments around us. This in turn enables my fluidity of envisioning my own potential, both artistically and practically, and of course the marriage of each. That precise fusion is to me what"JB Fireworks" is all about. As she herself puts it, "There are no boundaries in my life".

Above is a picture at Kenny's place, inside Essex Market. He is to her an example of what she values most: independent thought and skilled craft (which you can see in both his book and thedocumentary about him). He is however a bonafide jerk, which is only valuable if applied in moderation and interspersed with kindness. He's a cook. He should know that recipe. Even the most NEW YORK of New Yorkers know that.

I make myself available every time she needs help transporting her art to an exhibition and I'm humbled that she trusts me enough to hold down her booth while she walks around as a living showcase and self-marketer. Much like my overhead (shift lease and gas total), she has to pay the promoter a flat rate for a table and then work her way toward breaking into the black. I can very much relate to this. However, the economy has rocked the sale of craft work much worse than it has the taxi driving industry in NYC, which manages to stay afloat due to it being seen as more of a necessary service. In most other cities, though, the state of hackneying is in just as bad a rut. The picture above is of Jenine setting up her booth at the most recent Bizarre Bazaar in Boston.

As she wrote in her blog most recently, she plans to slowly veer away from the under-appreciated labor of amassing stock and traveling to display it around the country. I too seek to move on from my own dead-end form of self employment, not toward the other extreme (wage and schedule slavery), but rather in the direction of realizing all my bigger potentials in the world. Together we will support and uplift one another into ever-higher levels of both financial and spiritual contentment.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

LATE NIGHT GALLERY


GUESS WHERE THESE SHOTS WERE SHOT. ANSWERS ARE BELOW.








1) Bowery and Houston Streets
2) Bowery and E. 6th
3) Hudson and Canal Streets
4) 11th and 48 Avenue (Hunters Point)
5) THE VERY HEART OF PRESENT-DAY WILLIAMSBURG
6) South Street under the FDR. I forgot the exact cross street.
7) Bedford and Atlantic Ave. (southwestern Bed Stuyvesant).
8) Same as last.
9) I don't remember.

Friday, December 11, 2009

BUSY WALLS OF THE HOLDING LOT

Most of my airport passengers mistakenly think the taxicabs that pulled up to the long line at the terminal simply just ventured in freely off the streets or directly from having dropped someone off at departures. They have no clue that there are enormous "holding lots" with dozens of rows where cabdrivers must park in the order they arrive and idle (engine off) for anywhere from 1 to 4 hours, before being dispatched into a specific terminal with a little paper pass that either prints out of a machine or is handed to them by personnel.

Both La Guardia and Kennedy's taxi holding lots have either a cafeteria or a snack kiosk that are almost as expensive as the food courts inside the terminals. It's a captive audience either way. Another thing these unknown taxi holds have in common is that the walls around their restrooms are completely covered in ads made crudely by drivers offering and requesting the lease or purchase of a taxicab. Owner-operators looking for partners to split shifts with. Garage drivers tired of dealing with massive depersonalized fleets. And every now and then a bulletin board style photocopy of some information relevant and dire to all hacks.








SOME THOUGHTS ON THE SCRIBBLES ABOVE:
1) PROBASHIBARTA: A Bangladeshi community newspaper.
2) Where is the name 'Miboun' native to? My guess: Tunisia.
3) Available in Hicksville? How many NYC hacks live in Nassau?
4) You want to BUY a taxi. Not a Bay State Taxi. Massholes.
5) "CAB FOR SALL?" Sall already has a cab. Put it up for sale.

Below is a call to action about this past Halloween's assault on a cabbie by 4 masked men in Staten Island. It demands we get the same protection granted to Metropolitan Transit Authority workers. A sign on the partition, just as on the trains and buses, that says it is a felony and a federal offense to assault a cabdriver. You can click on the picture to zoom in.

The requested upgrade reminds me of New Yorkers that tell me they used to be able to threaten parking ticket cops with violence until it became so prevalent that they were made an official part of the NYPD. It also reminds me of last night's passenger's account of what she witnessed while sitting on her porch, on Hemlock Street and Jamaica Avenue in East NY. A Chinese food delivery guy on a bicycle stopped to check an address. Four teen boys attacked him from every direction. They punched his face, kicked his guts, took his food, and stole his bike.

Monday, December 7, 2009

AWAITING DISPATCH

I show up at the drivers' lounge between 2 and 3 am, in order to be first in line among the 'non-steady hacks'. I wait until 5 am or so, to be assigned a cab by the dispatcher. I read, write, and take naps while the night hacks crawl in from their shifts. I'm not a "steady driver", which means I'm not on the garage's weekly schedule. I like to keep my routine flexible, but that means I'm not always guaranteed a cab. I have to wait for one of the steadies to call off, and they often wait until the last second, or even until the dispatcher calls them. Most 'steadies' have been with the garage for so many years that seniority allows them to get away with letting taxicabs sit idle in the lot well into daybreak, while they take their sweet time, or not show up at all. These days the only way a garage will secure you a cab is if you agree to slave away 6 days a week. That's 12 hours a shift. That's 72 hours.

If you're a steady day shift, you have no choice but to work weekends too. If you're a steady night shift you have no choice but to also work the least lucrative weeknights (Sunday and Monday). If you're on that weekly contract, and you decide to (or must) take a day off, you're supposed to call the dispatcher before the start of your shift. Regardless, you're held responsible for the shift lease unless a part-time driver (like me) picks up the shift . Funny thing is that I often do about 4 shifts a week when I'm in town. 4 x 12 is 48 hours. That's a whole 'normal workday' more than in a 'normal full-time position'. And yet I fall into the category of "part-time driver." There is absolutely NO SUCH THING as overtime in the taxi industry. We're independent contractors! Another funny thing is that my garage couldn't give me a steady schedule, even if I WANTED one. The entire industry is over-saturated with drivers.

The ugliest thing about it is that everyday hundreds of people go through a 500 or so dollar process to become licensed cabdrivers, led on by a governing body that is well aware of the unfair ratio of actual cabs available for lease. To make matters worse, garages will gladly take $2oo deposits from new drivers, and then consistently turn them down when they call or come in. Imagine that! You 're hurting so bad economically that you decide to take a risk and put $700 down to get your foot in the door of possible employment (not to mention its daunting tasks), only to learn that it is in fact all but impossible to even get started, beyond the time and money spent on licensing. Knowingly leading people on when they're most vulnerable is unethical and heartbreaking to witness.

The weekend day shifts are easiest to get. I usually don't have a problem scoring two or so weekday or weeknight shifts either, if I wait patiently at the lounge, but not without being sent home on one or two other occasions. Dispatchers have a great deal of respect for someone who never whines. It seems it's either that or bribery. When I first started out as a hack I was on one of those brutal, previously mentioned schedules. Sunday through Friday, like a good Jew (but a bad Jew for earning my money in such a goyish manner). 288 hours a month, for months on end. Those were my days of serious mental and physical imbalance, in which my only purpose in life was to supply my sister with her college needs. My health has improved greatly since I took myself off that schedule. Sometimes I'm just simply out of town for week(s) and I don't have to answer to any dispatcher. I have time for a life!

Michael Duffer, my cabdriving comrade, taking a nap at the lounge. He's been working weekend mornings for a long time. Surprisingly enough, he was sent home cabless last Saturday. OK, so it's the highly taxied holiday season and everything, but give the good cabbies of NYC a break, will ya? He shows up earlier than anyone, pays his lease, never scratches or bumps the fiberglass, and provides our city with excellent service. Stop selling his well-deserved spot to higher bidders.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Signs of Infant Hack Infiltration

I hate to be that cranky veteran worker complaining about newbies saturating the field. I don't want to sound like an intolerant 'native' whining about minorities stealing employment. I happen to be Colombian and Jewish myself. The fact of the matter is that I've only been a cabdriver for 3 years. Still, I feel as though the Taxi and Limo Commission should be more careful in its campaign to exterminate experienced drivers to make room for unemployed newcomers and their application fees. It's no wonder that after Parking Violations, the TLC rakes in the most revenue. And do they not see that by doing this they further disintegrate our already abhorrent reputation on the streets?

How can you be proud of your city when its taxicabs are more lost and clueless than its tourists?
Here are two memorable examples out of dozens I've witnessed lately:

#1) I was at a red light on Houston and Chrystie. A minivan cabdriver with a family of petrified Asian out-of-towners looked over and asked if I knew where Allen was. "Allen and what?" I asked, with a hint of irritation in my voice.
"Canal," he responded, with a more petrified look than his passengers'.
"Make a right at the next light, that's Allen. Go 4 or 5 lights down and you'll see Canal."
His trajectory should have been an absolute no-brainer to any professional driver in NYC.
It's like a cabbie on Great Smith and Victoria Streets in London asking for directions to Buckingham Palace Road. Or a cabbie on the corner of Paseo de La Reforma and Insurgentes in Mexico City asking for directions to Chapultepec and Sonora. Or a cabbie at the intersection of Ramses and Kobry Ghamra in Cairo asking for directions to Maamal Eltakrir and Elsaboun.

#2) At a red light on Eighth and 34th a woman with two big suitcases approached a vacant taxi. The driver sprang into action, which was nice to see, but it became apparent immediately that this was probably his first day on the job. He gave the entire surface area of his cockpit an agitated massage, but could not find the trunk release. He turned over to see a half dozen of us seasoned hacks watching intently. His hands flew into the air, begging for help. A cacophony of voices spewed out instructions from all around him, and the trunk door popped open just as the light turned green. Sure enough, he was in the second lane from the curb and set to disturb the flow of traffic. I felt bad for the guy, but I also felt embarrassed on behalf of the "world's greatest city."

And how exactly are they getting rid of veteran drivers to make room for new applicants, you ask? Well, by handing out as many traffic violation points as possible for the silliest, most unimportant infractions. The police are shown below twice, busy chipping away at our livelihoods with their cheap shot jackhammers.

Left off 42nd onto Third: too wide a turn for this cop's liking. She proceeded to give him two extra tickets- one of which was for not being able to find the vehicle's registration. That would be the garage's fault, certainly not the fault of the hard working driver who leases the piece of shift from them.


Not coming to a complete stop at Greenwich and Gansevoort. They pack all kinds of meat in this district. Not just cows. Cabdrivers too! We taste good, don't we dear mayor and chairman? Just sprinkle some Cayenne Pepper on us. Red and yellow go good together.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

TAXI BLOGS OF THE WORLD

Taxi bloggers hail from cities all over the world. San Francisco. London. Dublin. Sydney. Melbourne. Canberra. Perth. Edmonton. Madison. Munich. Philadelphia. Boston. DC. Portland. Las Vegas. Bangkok. Porto Alegre. We're a loosely knit network of quasi-sociologists in perpetual motion. We have links to each others' pages on our blog rolls. We read up on each others' tribulations and trials. And when we leave a comment, it's among the most empathetic, because we know what it's like to be toiling on the road with human cargo. It might vary from one metropolis to another, but it's essentially the same. Delivering people from A to B. By way of Z if necessary.

I want to specifically thank and give mad props to the few dedicated cabdrivers of New York City who post entries regularly, especially the ones who make the extra effort of uploading photography they shoot throughout their shifts. Noah Forman, at NYC TAXI PHOTO, refers to them as "SHIFT SHOTS." And so this post is an ode to that style of taxi blogging. My blog, much like theirs, tends to shift, almost capriciously, between stories, pictures, video clips, poetry, and so on. And then there's Gene. This cabbie's fabulous material is split into two blogs. One for tales and one for photos. These can be found at CABS ARE FOR KISSING and PICTURES FROM A TAXI. And there's also the KING OF NEW YORK HACKS, with his unique approach to documenting our beloved city. And I must add the newest addition to our city's taxi blogging community: NYC TAXI BLOG.

Last, but certainly not least, is the one person who was a significant part of my original inspiration for writing down and sharing my taxicab encounters. Her name is Melissa Plaut and her blog, NEW YORK HACK, was transformed into a successful book after being discovered by a publisher. It's called HACK: How I Stopped Worrying About What To Do With My Life And Started Driving A Yellow Cab.

Although there are many more wonderful cabdriving bloggers out there worth checking out (all linked on my blog roll way down below), I must narrow down my favorites to this:

GIL'S PRIZE FOR THE SIX BEST TAXI BLOGS OUTSIDE OF NYC:

#1: DAY CABBIE. She's one of the few female San Francisco hacks and has a truly engaging style of writing.
#2: BOSTON: THE HACK. He's a refugee from the newspaper industry, drives a cab in Beantown, and writes about it with a vengeance.
#3: REAL CAB DRIVER. Stories from the streets of Madison, Wisconsin.
#4: THIS FARE CITY OF PORTLAND. She has a great sense of humor about the job.
#5: CAR 58, WHERE ARE YOU?. Two drivers. One taxi. In the Australian capital.
#6: DUBLIN TAXI. There are more cabs in that town than in NYC. The details are in the pudding.

As you can see, I often start and end my dispatches with a picture taken from the taxi.
Directly above is a view from the inbound upper level of the Queensboro Bridge when traffic entering the city was at a standstill. The picture at the beginning is from the inbound lower level of that same bridge. That wide avenue in the background is probably First. I wish all my fellow taxi bloggers freedom from writers' block, traffic jams, tickets, and sour passengers. Remember, if you drive in NYC, I co author another blog that serves as a more technical, occupational hazards sort of bulletin board. Let me know if you'd like to be added as an author.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Spark of Actor Within

This past weekend I had a few special guests in my taxicab. An indie film crew shot the first part of a 10 episode series about a girl who just emigrated from Spain to New York. Besides driving while incessantly and aloofly on my phone, I played the 30 second, on-camera role of an ill-mannered hack who took a long route from JFK to her newly adopted home of Bushwick.

It's ironic, considering how hard I try to always be accommodating to my passengers and uplift the depressed reputation of taxis in this city. But unfortunately it is realistic. As I see cabbies do several times a day, my character refuses to help unload the trunk, after failing to answer her inquiries as to whether we were in Brooklyn or not. Pictured below from left to right are the director, the videographer, me, the actor, and the editor.


My initial connection to the film shoot was through Edu, the Andorran editor who resides in Barcelona. I met him and his Brazilian partner 2 years ago when they came to shoot a documentary about the Freegan movement in NYC. Our mutual friend and outspoken artist, Raquel Sacristan, introduced us. They interviewed me in a taxicab about my lifestyle and we stopped for curb scores in SoHo. The film never fully developed for lack of funding.

But Edu has renewed his promise to send me copies of both the older segment and this new one, as soon as he returns to Spain. Everyone on the set, except for me and the hip young American director, flew in from the Iberian Penninsula.

I was paid $100 for 3 hours, a good deal for me, considering it took place during the slower part of the shift. I met them in Williamsburg at 9 am. With the director up front and the cameraman and actress in the back, we got on the BQE to the LIE and looped back over the Kosciuszko Bridge via Maurice Avenue. The first scene was her reaction to Midtown's magestic skyline through the window.

The next scene was cruising down Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, to give her the lovely (but false) impression she was moving into a beautiful brownstone neighborhood. As we turned down Myrtle Avenue, the landscape progressively deteriorated until we arrived at her destination, by the JMZ train. Then the camera focused on me collecting the overpriced fare without clear explanation or remorse as to why it was so expensive.

Next, I was filmed as I stepped out "angrily" to close the trunk, after she walked off having intentionally left it open. Below is a shot of the film crew editing the final scene, using furniture on a sidewalk display as their office (after receiving permission from the vendor.) The elephant woman with the big yellow underwear makes for a nice backdrop.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

IMPACTS AND TAXI CATS




This past Sunday I drove the night shift. Around midnight I discovered these two cabs (above) on the corner of Broadway and E 9th. They seem to have been chasing after a potential fare on the curb and ended up on the sidewalk with the building's scaffolding all over them. Sunday nights can get downright ghost town. Especially after Halloween took all the limelight on Friday and Saturday nights. If you hail a taxi during hours in which there is a surplus of vacant cabs and a lack of passengers to transport, always be ready to run for your life if they decide to play chicken over you. Unfortunate, but true.

And ironically, that same night I was taking my friend Wald home, down Queens Blvd., through Sunnyside, and I got dangerously cut off by a minivan cab making a left from the middle lane, directly in front of me. I was on the left lane going straight and he was more interested in his ear piece than his mirrors. Lucky for me my reflexes are nearly immaculate and so I swerved gently and braked swiftly. I proceeded to complete the left turn he had forced me into and then got out to go give him a lecture.

He was completely oblivious to the wreck he had almost caused and even went on to use some obscure, unintelligible explanation about why I was at fault and not him. My friend Wald is my witness. I was driving the speed limit and minding my own lane when this guy made an abrupt 90 degree angle with his vehicle out of the blue. That happened around 1 AM.



The above pictures are of crashed cabs parked at my garage on McGuinness Blvd. and I have no clue what their stories are. And the cat up there is the taxi garage lot cat that meows day and night. I really hope it doesn't perish in the freezing cold this winter.