Sunday, October 31, 2010

Almost Jacked

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

Euro Part III: PL to AU

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.
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.

The people of Oswiecim (pronounced "oshvichim") are tired of being known only for the atrocities their neighboring nation chose to commit in their backyard, and their welcome sign proudly announces that the town has over 800 years of history, not just 60 something.

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.


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?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Expanding Horizons

After making nearly 700 dollars over the span of the last 3 shifts, sleep deprivation caught up with me this morning. It was almost 6 am when I woke up. That's major lateness in my world. I called up the dispatcher, apologized, and said I'd be there shortly. He told me not to worry about it. All the cabs had already gone out anyhow. He had even had to send some guys home.

I'm always the first driver to show up and wait for the first available cab back from the night shift. Sometimes as early as 1 am. I'm also the first one back from the day shift in the afternoon, which enables the early bird night drivers to get out quicker too. It's called "staggering the shifts" and it's what New Yorkers have always desired wishfully. So it took my 36 hours of urban driving to make 7 benjamins. And I had my own life in between. That doesn't add up to all that much sleep.

A driver must call his dispatcher before the shift begins, to warn he won't be leasing a cab today, thereby releasing the reservation, so the cab can be used by another driver. I had slept right through that task, so I was at risk of being placed on the "no show" list, a.k.a. the management's "shit list." These are driver whom the garage has deemed untrustworthy and apathetic. Luckily I have a very sound relationship with my dispatcher, who protects me from the management's wrath.

My mother and I took a long stroll through our neighborhood today. It was nice to be out and about with her on such a perfect autumn day, and not cooped up in a yellow chunk of fiberglass. We stopped by at the Metropolitan Pool and Fitness Center, where I renewed my recreational membership card, and got her one too. Since she's 56 years old, hers was only $10 for the entire year.

My father will be turning 55 on January 1st, so then he'll get the same discount. The place has a swimming pool, cardiovascular workout room, weight room, lockers, and showers. Other branches have even more amenities, like all kinds of free yoga and tai chi classes. I'm proud of the prospect that my mother might be exercising more regularly. Not to mention myself.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


The Gusberto Gilgulim Award
for Most Unique Park in NY goes to...
COLUMBUS PARK Chinatown (but only when it's filled to the brim with people and all their oddities). It sits on the same spot as the legendary 1800's immigrant slum (Five Points), bordered by Worth, Baxter, Mulberry, and Bayard Streets. On most days, you can find hundreds of people milling about in this tiny green space for a spectrum of purpose.... Tai Chi, table games (like Chess), live traditional Chinese music, relaxing on enormous rocks or with caged birds, sports, festivals, outdoor events, public assemblies, etc. It's a cacophany of human spirit, secretly tucked away behind the neighborhood, but every so often a tourist or two will stumble in and sit down in awe.

THAT WAS THEN (painting by George Catlin)
[picture by Gastrodamus (flickr)]

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Since Sesame Street played a significant role in my upbringing, and Pakistani culture contributed to my adolescent understanding of the world (my best friend in middle school was from there), and since the combining of cultures, styles, idioms, etc. is a favorite pastime of mine, I present to you this hilarious little music video of Grover grooving to a 1970s Pakistani film song.

I come across such fascinating eccentricities as the clip above thanks to good friends who know what sorts of ethno-meshing make my day, and take the time to send me the links. The same thoughtful ally sent me the audio-clip below, which is from WNYC radio. It's a short interview with the official borough historian of Queens, who answers questions like how Flushing really got its name. I love history as it relates to ethnology and geography.


In other news, a drunk tourist from the U.K. pissed in the backseat of my cab, a while back. I wanted to share this event with you right away, but of course I got caught up in other endeavors.

He hailed me outside of Southside night club in SoHo and asked me to follow the minivan cab in front of me, which had just picked up four women. I didn't know if they were together, but it all seemed odd to me from the start. I made a left and another left, trailing right behind the other cab. As soon as we stopped at the first red light I began hearing the sound of a liquid stream behind me. I asked him what that noise was and he replied that it was his beer and he apologized for accidently spilling it. That's a common occurrence late weekend nights as people pile into taxis. I went back to silent driving concentration.

At the second red light the stream of liquid resumed and I became certain it was urination, though I was in utter disbelief. I turned my entire body around and peeked over the bottom of my partition to see him holding his penis out toward the floorboard and an arch ending in a puddle, and splattering on the seat cushion, partition, and TV screen.

He immediately flung back in embarrassment, zipped up his pants, and begged for forgiveness. I yelled at him and threatened to drive him straight over to the first cops I could find. I would have to clean up that mess. I interrogated him as to why he didn't just ask me to stop somewhere so he could go. "Cause I didn't wanna lose that cab with the pretty girls in it."
The cab had already disappeared ahead anyhow, and he offered me twenty extra dollars if I would just pull over right there and let him go. I snatched the cash from his fingers and told him to scram. Then I spent 10 minutes wiping everything down with Lysol and continued my shift.

The way to bring about the messiah (codeword for immortality and a few other goodies), according to Kabbalah, is to be happy for no good reason at all. The music video up top and otherworldly quirks like it give me that feeling of happiness for no reason. Just smile, dance, laugh, hug, care... just because. The opposite would be the usual human condition known as "hatred for no reason." That, I'd like to add, is not how I feel about the silly Londoner who thought he could get away with pissing in my cab. As inconsiderate as his actions were, they really weren't the end of the world. They were probably just hidden little blessings. Perhaps it happened so that I'd stop following the other taxi with girls who probably didn't want anything to do with him. Anyhow, I didn't stay mad at him for long at all. He sort of just made me laugh inside. I giggle every time I picture the scene in my head.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Obscure Flags

#1) This is the un-agreed upon flag of the Roma people. Not to be confused with the Italian capital, nor the Romanian nation. The Roma are an ethnic group, originally of a South Asian origin, who have led semi-nomadic lives over the span of centuries, and have spread throughout the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. They tend to reside in "depressed squatter communities (isolated ghetto-like settlements)" and are known for their unparalleled musicianship. They often scavenge their sustenance from dumpsters and the like. I admire these people as free spirits. I guess their nickname as "gypsies" has a bad connotation, but to me they are nothing short of unadulterated human goodness.

#2) The ancient Indian spiritual path of Jainism has also its own emblem. The swastika has existed as a symbol of good fortune in the Indosphere for a very long, long time. Long before the Nazis perverted its meaning, and still today. Jainists pursue self-effort and extreme non-violence.

#3) This flag, known as the Wiphala, represents the Aymara people, an indigenous ethnic group in the Andean region. Its most recent exposure to the world came minutes ago when it was flown by a relative of one of the trapped miners in Chile who has been rescued. He is the only Bolivian that was down there. In 2009 the Bolivian government declared a new constitution, which added this as a national flag, alongside the other.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This man, ex-governor of New York state, hailed my cab on Columbus Day. He was only going about 20 blocks down Fifth Avenue and I didn't utter a word. I didn't want to embarrass him. Then again, I've been told he's over the whole scandal and that he now has his own CNN show. I just want people to feel comfortable in my taxi. If celebrities want to get noticed, they go to L.A.. If they want to feel anonymous, they stay in New York City. So you're Eliot Spitzer. So what?

What's ironic is that the man who took his place, Governor Patterson, has vetoed the amendment that was passed by both congress and senate, making it a felony to assault a taxi driver. He thought the legislation was too complicated. WTF? I wonder if Spitzer would have vetoed it too. I didn't feel much warmth from the guy anyway.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Dream Home Among Many

I would love to live in one of these, some of the time.
My ex-partner wanted to help me build one.