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.


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....
zucchini squash
<------ ------->

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

Winona as L.A. Cabbie

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

Palestinian Spotlight

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)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Modern Khazaria

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

Euro Part IV: Wien

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.



A call to NYC cabbies who like to share their lives with others: get in touch! Oral Histories of New York City Taxi Drivers (By Margaret Fraser + Samantha Gibson)

Taxicabs undoubtedly constitute one of the most enduring symbols of New York City and we would argue that, like the image of the yellow cab, the city’s cab drivers also represent a unique and valuable facet of the New York City experience. Over the next nine months, we will research, plan, and create a project in which we will record and preserve oral histories of New York City taxi drivers. In the course of this process, we will create a research-based funding and institutional partnership proposal and, ultimately, a website through which we will foster dynamic and accessible public engagement with our oral history collection. As such, our project will constitute a bridge between oral history, digital history, and grassroots documentation of New York City.

Through full length oral history interviews with a diverse body of taxi drivers, we hope to capture some of the ways in which race, nationality, gender, class, and religion shape the cab driver’s experience. We anticipate that our oral histories may also reflect such pressing concerns as immigration processes, labor issues, and the intricacies of the taxi industry. Thus, we are at once interested in the individual life histories of our subjects as well as in the unique perspectives that cab drivers may shed on the landscape, character and people of New York City.

As we are fully aware that an institutional affiliation would bolster the credibility and sustainability of our project, we have decided to propose our project to three different institutional partners: Brooklyn Historical Society, City Lore, and NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. We are confident that we can design our project to align with the missions and institutional values of each of these institutions without losing our focus on the lives and personal narratives of our interviewees. As we craft alternate interpretive angles for our final project, we will reach out to a range of advisers, including oral historians, labor organizers, public historians, and archivists in order to create a project that is as valuable to our audience as possible.