Saturday, December 18, 2010
Always lots to see and do here. some of my favorite things include a 9,335 sq. ft. architectural model of NYC containing every single building constructed before 1992 in all 5 boroughs; a total of 895,000 individual structures. at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Open Wednesday - Sunday: 12 - 6pm. It's always PAY-AS-YOU-WISH!
And the best eatery ever is:
CURRY LEAVES MALAYSIAN RESTAURANT.
135-31 40th Road Flushing, NY (end of 7 train).
Best Meal: CURRY MEE WITH VEGETABLES ($5).
Open daily 6:30 am until 11:00 pm
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
As if the Taxi Entertainment Network hadn't already destroyed the sound mental fabric of taxi drivers in New York, some gas stations, such as the one next to my garage, also come equipped with TV screens, blaring the same advertisements at us, over and over and over, all day, every single day.
The one song that comes on almost immediately, each time I engage the taxi meter is the one shown in the video below. It might be a cute song to hear once, but I'm sure if you play this song next to any NYC cabbie's ear while they're at home asleep, or undergoing hypnosis, beware. Make a run for it while you can. You don't want to hear them screaming at the top of their lungs. Imagine, every time a new passenger steps in, which happens between 25 and 40 times in a 12 hour period. And sometimes, if the fare is longer than say, 10 minutes, this song will come on again during the same job. Most of us (hacks) drive in an urban human beehive at least 60 hours a week. That can't be good for our mental health. Add the perpetual repetition of the same ads, jingles, tunes, dialogues, sound effects, etc. No ill feelings toward Vampire Weekend or Tommy Hilfiger, but honestly, I don't get to see a cut from the benefits you're reaping at my expense.
WARNING: THESE VIDEOS ARE MEANT TO REPLICATE COLLECTIVE NAUSEA. JUST IMAGINE HEARING THESE ADS AND THEIR SONGS RIGHT BEHIND THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD, OVER AND OVER, 12 HOURS A DAY, AND AGAIN AT END WHEN YOU GAS UP. THAT IS A NEW YORK CABBIE'S LIFE! THESE VIDEOS ARE NOT DISPLAYED HERE FOR THE PURPOSE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, ENTERTAINMENT, OR MARKETING.
The car commercial is yet another intrusive ad. This one takes the award for most ridiculous on GSTV (Gas Station TV). How can you say that you'll help save the planet, but only if people start buying more motor vehicles? "....starting today, when you buy a Chevrolet....". Not even one of their ecological-minded Chevrolets. Just, any Chevrolet. Don't spit on me and then tell me it's raining, Chevrolet. You run deep alright. Deep into the point of no return. They will plant a tree to help remedy the shit you put in the air with their car, but only if you buy another one or two of their cars. Please don't tell me we have become so mindless that this ad sounds heartfelt and intelligent to us. But who am I to speak? I burn fossil fuels for a living. I can't cast the first stone.
Friday, November 26, 2010
A few things made me laugh today. A billboard seen from Twelfth Avenue, of an ad for storage units, but in reference to non-bipartisanship. Also, a sign on the back of a delivery truck, common to trucks, but instead of the usual wording, this one had a play on words....
In the span of a day shift in the yellow cab there are many things make me smile, if not burst out in laughter. Some are more profound than others. Wish I could share them all with you. Especially the more profound ones. These are quite dull, I know. But what isn't dull when measured up to current calamities, like massive flooding in Bogota, Colombia. Or tensions between the two Koreas?
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Speaking of films about taxi drivers, here is one I sort of, more or less, recommend. Night on Earth is a movie set in 5 different cities around the world. Each scene is based around one eccentric cabdriver and their even more eccentric passengers. My favorite one is Los Angeles, in which Winona Ryder plays the role of a half jaded, half wide-eyed hack who dreams of becoming a mechanic. There are certain aspects of her character I can certainly relate to. Mostly just the awkward occupational reality of being on both an exciting adventure as well as an endless cycle: 10 to 20 minute slices of the pathetic lives of strangers.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
This past weekend a movie theater in Bay Ridge hosted a little film festival featuring some brand new material from the troubled land of, well, what should I call it? I prefer one of its more ancient, lesser used names, in order not to aggravate anyone. You know, I'm talking about the precious swath of land between the Dead and Mediterranean Seas. Between the northernmost reaches of the Red Sea and the southernmost reaches of Lebanon. How about we call it Canaan for now?
Well, anyhow, this post is about the one film I had the pleasure of seeing. It's called Laila's Birthday and it's about a character I can very much identify with, as he goes through one long day of absurdities and tribulations as an overqualified taxi driver in Ramallah. I think most taxi drivers anywhere in the world can empathize with his frustrations, regardless of whether they live in an occupied territory or not. I definitely can, as a NYC cabbie. It's the privilege of life without having to bend over backwards for some basic dignity that is occupied, not necessarily the land, in and of itself, per se.
After the film I got to meet Mohammad Bakri in person, a renowned Israeli Arab actor and director who traveled all the way to Brooklyn just to answer questions from the audience after his movies' screenings. What an honest, gentle, and perpetually optimistic man, despite all of the uncomfortable experiences in his own life. It was an honor for me to shake his hand.
Unfortunately, he's currently being blacklisted, banned, and sued for an older documentary he made about the Jenin invasion. It's too bad not many people showed up to Palestinian Spotlight. I think its location on the very edge of Brooklyn, so far from Manhattan, might have played a role. This is its first year. I happened to stumble across it by way of wheat-pasted posters on a wall in Boerum Hill.
Here are a couple other, more profound depictions of the film, Laila's Birthday:
Monday, November 15, 2010
A COP ORDERING AT A HALAL FOOD TRUCK ON FOURTH AVENUE SAID (IN A THICK NY ACCENT): ".... and, um, the white sauce, everywhere, all over the place, don't miss a spot." (THAT IS FOR ME A NEW YORK MOMENT)
photo credit: http://www.mightysweet.com/mesohungry/tag/street-meat/
Friday, November 12, 2010
I've been intensely reading this book called "The Thirteenth Tribe" by Arthur Koestler. It's about the history of Eurasia since medieval times, in regards to the emergence and geographical movement of Jews, or at least people who consider themselves as such, and everyone else who came into contact with them. The book is an anthropological gold mine. It adds a lesser known dimension to all the theories concerning our ethnic origins.
Then again, there is the simple fact that human beings are 99.9% genetically identical and .1% diverse. So what's all the fuss about the .1%? Well, in my opinion, our external differences really don't matter, and I'd even dare to call myself an avid xenophile. But as a Jew, or at least someone raised secularly, yet informed their entire lives both by maternal and paternal relatives that they are in fact a Jew, I find it necessary to ask, "how so?" No doubt I feel Jewish and most would say I "look Jewish." Still the question remains. Where did my ancestors live throughout the centuries and with whom did they commingle?
All I know is that my dad's side is entirely Romanian, as far back as we can trace, and my mom's side is a mix of Polish and Ukranian, with the exception of my mom's mom's mom. She's a Colombian hybrid of mostly Spaniard Catholic roots, with a dab of Mestizo (indigenous Amerindian), and she's about a century old (still alive.) She married a Jew who escaped from the Bolshevik Revolution in the Ukraine and somehow landed in Colombia, hence she become one of the first ever, fully-certified Colombian converts to Judaism. Since that was like three generations ago, and the family has remained closely tied with the rabbinical community in Bogota and Medellin, it is safe for me to presume that this crucial ingredient to my Jewry is valid.
Mind you I'm paying lip service to some orthodox notion, which brings me back to the book I'm reading. It declares that in the 8th century a Shamanistic (Turkic) empire that sat between the Black and Caspian seas converted to Judaism in order to gain equal respect from its two Abrahamic neighbors (the Muslim Caliphate and the Christian Byzantium), and that the Ashkenazim of today are mostly their descendants, as opposed to the almost mythical pure-bred Semitic lineage. The truth is none of this really even matters because to be a Jew is something from deep down inside. It's a soul thing, not an ethnic (or religious) one.
However, I still hold on to this general inquiry about universal Jewish identity because I have always sensed a sort of racialist hypocrisy in the way many European Jews tend to view the Jews of Arab nations, and indeed their view of Arabs in general (not to mention gentiles in general.) Whatever happened to the integrity and definition of the word "semitic"? And I'm not even delving into all the other directions and amalgamations occurring throughout Jewish history, which are all mentioned in the book. All I know is this: a chosen people are a people chosen by the creator to carry out the responsibility of improving the world on behalf of all humanity, not for self-serving interests and in the name of exclusivity.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
At the crack of dawn, on the last day of August, I arrived at the International Bus Terminal in Vienna and immediately proceeded to help a Nigerian musician (off the bus) carry his hefty baggage across the street, up the staircase, and unto the U-Bahn. In exchange, though not keeping count, he orientated me on how to use the system and which line I needed. Less than an hour later I was walking up Rembrandtstrasse, on the northwest edge of town, ringing a young Austrian couple's doorbell I'd met briefly on their first visit to NY a couple years ago. I was amazed at how cold it already was. In NY it doesn't get that cool until the later parts of October.
Amadeo and Ruth had been referred to my front-seat, on-duty taxi tours by Melanie, an old friend of mine who they'd met in Berlin. They each enjoyed a cab ride and I promised to visit when I came to Europe. Life was now much different for them with the advent of a child, but they were still very much holding on to their sociopolitical ideals and to showing me around on bikes.
I only spent two days and two nights in the Austrian capital, and I didn't venture into the rest of the country, which is quite different, with its dramatic Alpine topography. I wasn't expecting too much from Vienna, and I didn't find much either. As everyone says, it's got a lot of historical architecture and an air of sophistication, but perhaps it was the incessant rain that put a dent on my outlook. The only thing I felt awed by were the miles and miles of high quality graffiti murals along the banks of the river.
One pit stop on our bicycle tour was an abandoned horse racing track, the seating all tossed around into heaps of decay. We also stopped at a monument erected by the Soviet Union, commemorating its liberation of the city in 1945.
On my final night in town my friends invited me to an interesting little activist center that doubles as a pay-what-you-wish gourmet restaurant named after the famed Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first earthling in space. There is a sign by the entrance offering shelter from racist assaults in German, English, Turkish, and French. Another sign in a bathroom stall reads something like "no shops with the Iranian regime. now under review."
After a delicious meal we walked back home, me in charge of pushing the baby stroller in as erratic, taxicab-like ways as possible, honking incessantly at his half-stiff parents and at all the imaginary vehicles in my path. I got a few good laughs out of the kid. At home we laid him to sleep and made ourselves cozy on the couch to watch 'Mary and Max,' off the living room wall, using Ruth's awesome projector. I highly recommend this film animation about two complete strangers on opposite sides of the world who become lifelong pen pals. It was way late after the screening, yet Amadeo convinced me to go explore the Augarten across the street, a 52 hectare Baroque garden from the 18th century, walled and gated at night (we had to jump.) It was real spooky to stroll through, especially in the nearly pitch darkness, with ominous war towers looming over us, whose Wikipedic description says it all:
Toward the end of WWII war strategists selected the strategically-placed Augarten as a site for the construction of several massive flak towers to protect the city center from Allied air raids. In the summer of 1944 the construction of one battle tower with a height of 55 meters (roughly 180 feet) and a leader tower with a height of 51 meters (roughly 167 feet) was begun, their bizarre appearance in the middle of the park having since become an integrate part of the Augarten. The construction associated with the building of the towers (16 lines of rail track, large barracks for construction workers, etc.) took a serious toll on the landscaping of the park. Also during the war hundreds of cubic meters of rubble were dumped on the site while armored vehicles criss-crossed the garden and supposed mass graves were dug in which hundreds of war victims were buried. However, except for the virtually indestructible flak towers and the bunker (in which a restaurant is housed) nothing from this period remains.
PICTURES FROM VIENNA:
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Just today I realized it, while driving past, that the two sketchy characters i had picked up on Atlantic by Smith a few weeks ago, who pretended to be undercover cops and gave me a hard time, and then got out ever so nonchalantly on a dark, abandoned street behind a housing project in Brownsville and walked away without paying the fare..... had come out of the Brooklyn Detention Center. I had never looked at the big sign on the entrance to that building. I just knew from peripheral vision that it was some sort of government facility. Drivers, please be careful picking people up on that block: Atlantic Avenue between Smith Street and Boerum Place.
These two men looked menacing from the moment they jumped off the curb and into the street, hailing me as I drove up. Of the thousands of street hails I've seen in my four years as a hack, I've only had to avoid and drive past half a dozen or so of them (all together) because I felt immediately threatened or disturbed by the prospect of their presence in my cab. My threshold is high. I pick up most anyone. But these two guys emanated bad vibes, out of their eye balls, facial gestures, and body language. Still, I picked them up because I glanced and there was a cop car in my mirror. I did not want to be stopped for refusal. Though I've had cops tell me some disgusting things I'd never expected from them....
"this is your fault. why do you pick up drunk people?" (in response to a sleeping passenger.)
"you should never pick up people in this part of town"
Anyhow, I had them along for an excruciatingly long 20 minute ride out to the far eastern reaches of Brooklyn and they interrogated me the whole time about some guy named "Jinx" and how I must have some information on him. They said they were on a murder investigation and that once they caught him, he'd never see the light of day again. I grew very afraid that they were being metaphorical about what they planned for me. They also said a lot of really stupid stuff and after the first two minutes of the ride, the tiny little part of me that had believed their purported NYPD role collapsed. I really got scared when I learned they had smelled fear on me."why you so scared, man? what are you scared about?"
For a minute after we had pulled over at their destination, they messed around with me some more. They'd look at me and smirk at each other, as if deciding whether I was worth robbing or not. Finally, one of them lifted up a twenty dollar bill at the partition, and said....
"take this and get the hell out of here. don't blow our cover."
But when I reached for it, he pulled it back quickly, and they stepped out of the taxi, calmly and with an evil little giggle. They walked away ever so slowly, with mad swagger. I sighed with relief and quickly drove away and out of that neighborhood. I felt lucky to be alive at that moment. Sure, a little part of me wanted to go back and run after them with any piece of metal lying around, demanding my money, but that would not be wise at all. It's like instead of getting paid 20 dollars for my service, I paid 20 to keep my life. What a bargain. The rest of my life for only 20 dollars. This is the first time in four years of cab driving that I felt in that much danger.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
August 29th: Katowice to Krakow via Nazi Camps:
The petite and energetic Colombian athlete raced off into the mountains in a taxi, while I stayed back and continued my own journey, but not without his pleading attempts to convince me of joining him up there so I could watch a compatriot compete in this foreign land. He probably also hoped I would just remain by his side for the rest of his trip, as an English mediator in the wide divide between his Spanish and everyone's Polish, as if my own language barrier wasn't tallenough.
Perhaps the creator was calling me to this task as well, not just that of funding the guy's 100 kilometer taxi ride. Alas, I declined, feeling a need to focus on my own needs for once. Next on the original plan was Auschwitz, and I was sticking to my guns. I found a cheap bus to Oswiecim (Polish name for the small town adjacent to the camps), and another more local bus that dropped me off within a few hundred feet of the entrance. I spent the rest of the day touring the two most infamous WWII genocide camps, solemnly by foot under semi-overcast skies.
AMALGAM OF PHOTO CAPTIONS:
The train/bus station in Katowice. Few tourists seem to make it here. A taxi stand across the street in Katowice. All the drivers congregating.
Most people don't walk past this sign with the bicycle because they arrive on a big, organized tour bus, or by family or rental car on a road trip. I am one of the few who got there entirely by mass public transport and foot. I got to see what most ignore on the way here. The faces of the elder Polish locals on the bus who lived through it all, and are still here to see the sort of Disneyland theme park it's become.
Three out of four of my grandparents escaped from homes not far from here, as teenagers. They embarked on boats on both the Baltic and Adriatic seas, and arrived as refugees on foreign lands. I'm glad my grandparents weren't suckers who stuck around to see what might happen. I kind of feel like a sucker sometimes for sitting back and watching while the world around me slowly implodes upon itself.
Since they now require all visitors to sign up with an official guided tour at the first camp (the one with the museum) if you come between noon and 3 pm or so (which costs a hefty chunk of dough), there's a way to bypass that. Just catch the free shuttle bus over to camp #2, also known as Birkenau, or the Vernichtungslager (extermination camp.) It'll take you at least a couple solid hours to traverse the entire place.
It's an enormous field spanning into the horizon, sprinkled with variously-purposed structures, ranging from fully intact to intentionally dynamited (to conceal evidence.) If you take the free shuttle bus back to "base camp" anytime after 15:00, admission becomes free again. It's really self-explanatory and full of descriptive diagrams, like any museum. It was originally the labor camp that coincided with its nearby death camp counterpart. It's hard to truly comprehend all of what there is to feel and how it must have been for the prisoners. May the creator have mercy on all of humanity for all of its (ongoing) mistreatment of its own people and habitat.
Late in the afternoon I caught a ten dollar bus to Poland's second largest city. That night was the only time in the entire two month trip that I crashed at a youth hostel. For ten dollars I got a shower, a bed, three funny roommates from Belgium and New Zealand, and a continental breakfast (coffee and snack.) I enjoyed the vibe there. Not too much of anything and not too little. I went across the street to a corner store and came back with cheap Polish beer for all of us, and we shared a few cross-cultural laughs.
The next day I walked a bridge over the Wisla river from Kazimierz to Podgorze, while imagining what it might have been like to be a Jew in the 1940's, forced to abandon my home in central Krakow, and resettle in cramped quarters behind newly erected walls, fulfilling the dictator's promise of making Krakow the "cleanest" (most Aryan) Polish city under his rule. I even walked past the famed old factory of Oskar Schindler. Not a tear rolled down my face, as is the case with the movie every time (without fail). Only a very unsettling feeling and an almost disbelief about that whole time period. Not to mention ours.
When I called my grandpa to tell him I'd just been to his hometown, his schizophrenic alzheimer response was, "Why did you go there? That's where all of our people were killed. There is nothing to go do over there." Oops. Sorry I said anything.
"ESCAPE THE SHADOWS! LET ME HELP YOU" is what the billboard says. I did in fact witness what I perceived to be quite a bit of depression in the air, at least in the southern quadrant of Poland I passed through. Maybe not so much the younger generations as with the older ones, the latter of which outnumber the former. It seems to me a country stuck between the old left and the new right, or perhaps I'm just politically clueless. It seems very uncomfortable with itself, or maybe I'm just uncomfortable with myself and projecting that unto the innocent Poles.
My overnight bus from Krakow to Vienna, clear across Slovakia, was uneventful. I slept right through it all, arriving in the Austrian capital at daybreak. The next entry will be about the friends I paid a visit, and onward into Magyarorszag (what Hungary calls itself), Serbia, and Romania.
The Slovaks reading this are probably wondering why I dashed right through their country without even opening my eyes. Well, you can't do it all in one trip and I chose to focus on the places where I had contacts and invitations lined up.
HERE ARE SOME PIX FROM LONDON I FORGOT TO POST ON THE UK ENTRY:
AMALGAM OF CAPTIONS FOR ABOVE SHOTS:
My lovely friend Alfie, a Parisian living in London. I met him in Nevada after Burning Man 2009.
My Scottish friend Gregor and his English wife Zoe, who lent me their couch for a night in London. Thanks again you all for making a near-stranger feel like family. Gregor and I met randomly while backpacking through South America in 2007. See the taxi driver sitting in the backseat, reading the paper? He's taking a break on the inner circle at Regent's Park. I told him we have relief stands in NYC where we like to do that. It was a nice moment of international laborer solidarity. New Yorkers can't request an instant text message for the 3 nearest cabs. But Londoners can! What's with the number 3 and taxis in London?