Saturday, May 25, 2013

Oi Oi!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Racial Realities #3: Places

[Friend and fellow blogger Gloria Diaz wrote a personal account of copiloting in the front passenger seat of a taxicab for a Creative Writing course she enrolled in:]

-Every time someone interviews me they want to know when taxis started.
-Well that's the kinda shit people want to know!
-Yea but they have always been around in some sort of fashion. People used to carry people on their backs (and still do)! It's the oldest profession in the world.
-Either way I am not interviewing you. I am just asking you some questions.

I met Avi when he would move my stuff out of my Washington Heights lovely one bedroom to a storage space, as I was in between homes and off to travel. In the warmer months it is his side gig to do small moves and make a little extra . He came recommended to me by a friend who knew I needed help moving. But what Avi really did for money was drive a New York City yellow cab. A few months after my move he would invite me to copilot with him in his taxi and riding with him would become a fairly regular activity for me.

Yellow cabs are a constant of New York. Passengers are variables. The weather, construction and street fairs are variables. The rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the cops are variables. But day in and day out cabbies are the same in this city. You are looking for them and they are looking for your hands outreached in the air, that they speed up and cut each other off to get to.

I join Avi in the cab when I can't sleep, when my soul is unsettled, when I have a lot on my mind, when I miss him and when I need affirmation that I like the company of someone in this city and that someone likes the company of me. Avi is tired and smells like bike chain grease, gasoline, cigarettes, and Polish beer. He has on his fingerless gloves and his eyes dart from one side of the street to the other, seeking out other projectiles, pedestrians, and passengers. He is contained hyperactivity, a swirling ball of energy contained in the driver seat of a yellow cab.  He talks to me in electric surges while rearranging his world to include me in it. Backpack in the trunk, he checks his water bottle, his piss bottle, his ipod, his pockets, his cell phone, his meter, rolls his window up and down to meet some sort of height requirement, adjusts the rear view mirror, adjusts his ass in his seat side to side as it screeches with its leather until he finds his nook. Rests both of his gloved hands at the top of the steering wheel and then finally looks over at me and smiles.

"Excuse me can you turn off the television? Yea- can you turn of the television? Yea just push the button on the screen. Thank you so much! It's just that it repeats the same thing over and over and over again and it's playing right behind my head. It drives us (cabbies) nuts! I'd rather listen to music, wouldn't you? I have over 3,000 songs on my ipod. I have everything! So what would you like to listen to?" 


"The gays, Avi, you gotta have Beyonce for the gays."

"Sorry, no Beyonce! You like Hip Hop? 

Avi has a different cab every time and perhaps I have ridden in the same exact one twice but probably not. It feels the same to me regardless. The front seat is a bench seat and is wide. Wide enough for Avi to put his knee up against his door comfortably and still steer and for me to sit Indian style. Wide enough to provide physical and emotional room for us to escape to our respective corners and sit silently if need be. Normally at the point I enter the cab it is too dark for me to see anything except for the glow of the meter, a portion of Avi's face, and the street tumbling into us, in front of us and for us. The window is like a giant movie screen accentuating these pathways that I have walked down, biked down, or stealthily subwayed under. But in the front seat of a cab all is different. You are low to the ground and moving in a herd of other yellows. Every body on the sidewalk scape is a potential patron and you are looking for that signal, that body language that indicates that they may want to be in your back seat. The skyscrapers of New York, whose tops you largely ignore walking around during the day, are accentuated against the sky and the city seems larger than life. But at the same time cradling you and saying, "I love you," warmly showing you everything it has to offer in one seamless, streaming view.  

"Glo, you don't talk too much and you don't talk too little. You are the perfect copilot." I do my best to be by paying attention to fare amounts, adding descriptions for his painfully intricate taxi logs. Detailed accounts of each fare, pickup and drop-off location, amount of fare vs. amount given (totaled every few hours), and a brief description of each passenger based on aesthetics or interaction. At first keeping track in his journal caused me anxiety. His handwriting is meticulous, small, and linear. He has clearly developed a system and order to how each fare is entered. There are lines and numbers that are circled and numbers that are bold. I remember trying to frantically figure out this system so I could replicate it. I tried to ask questions and he'd respond, "Gloria just whatever, whatever. I just like it when my copilots write in it and then I see their handwriting and I remember who was in the cab with me that day and it makes me happy!" I eventually grow comfortable with my own style. When potential customers are confused by my presence in the cab I roll down the window at Avi's prompting and yell, "available!" I jump out at requests for Gatorade and Snickers, cigarettes, and cheese pizza slices. His favorite 99 cent slice is on 41st and Ninth. "I want two slices and a Dr. Pepper. No! No, a root beer! I go get slices for us both. Avi is a semi-practicing Kabbalist and eats 'Kosher'. No pork. No dairy and meat in combination (it confuses the soul between death and life).
"This slice of pizza tastes like pork. Doesn't it taste like pork to you?"
"Are you telling me you think they made this pizza with pepperoni and then removed the slices of pepperoni and are now selling a pork flavored cheese pizza? Is that what you're telling me?"
He blushes a little and laughs saying "nooo," but then with a more serious face says, "maybe." We pull to the side and pick up a touristy family headed to---?

-Avi. Remember when we picked up that French family? It was like a year ago. Remember we met up early for that free skin cancer screening and then I did the rest of your shift with you? 
-Yea I vaguely remember that. 
-It's where you can catch the ferry. Battery Park?
- Yeah it was Battery Park. One of two locations from which to catch a ferry over to the statue. The other is in Jersey City from Liberty Park. That's where you can see Lady Liberty's ass across the water". 

The French family is shiny and white. Sneakers and Polo shirts and laughing and smiling at each other as they pile up in the back seat of the cab. Avi practices his French and charms the family. Their love for each other and their excitement for being in New York is contagious. They say "Au revoir." I jump out to dispose our morning pizza waste and back in the cab we move not even half a block before we pick up a handsome old woman. She requests a drive by of Ground Zero if Avi doesn't mind. Anything you want, it's your fare.

Between us and the passengers is the thick plexi glass that postures some ability to protect the cabbie from harm. Behind that is a back seat foreign scape that I don't feel comfortable venturing into when on my trips with Avi. I feel comfortable in our space and no desire to know theirs, out of respect for their privacy. Sometimes the passengers, when feeling a particular need to connect with what is going on in the front seat, will stick their head through the small opening in the middle. Like the drunk Latina full of woe who we picked up Christmas morning by the Port Authority at the border between late night and early morn. When she hopped in the cab I could smell she had no money and would be soon making an attempt to play on Avi's empathetic nature. After Avi agreed to take her up to Washington Heights for almost nothing she put her face to the window, asking us if we were married and Turkish. Not married and Israeli/Colombian and Puerto Rican (mystery browns). She says, "oh but you're not a typical Puerto Rican girl, you're like spiritual and arty." As I debate in my mind if I consider this comment a compliment or kinda fucked up, Avi puts his hand on my knee, "oh Gloria's not the typical anything."

Now when catching a cab on my own I have to resist my own desire to climb in the front with them, follow normal societal etiquette, and pay and get out once we've reached my requested destination. When I am with a party of four and a front seat rider is required, that is where I go. "Look at Gloria so chummy with the driver." Having honed my copiloting skills I try to break the driver with a joke, an entertaining story about my night, with a nod of understanding to the fact my best friend is a cabbie. They usually say, "Oh yeah? Which garage?" and we momentarily taxi bro down. Inevitably they smile at me with warm empathetic eyes because they know I love a cabbie and that I do my best to keep him sane. And they know exactly how sane cabbies are not in the face of their six-day-a-week twelve-hour- shift-lives. When people ask questions about my cab rides they ask about the passengers, drugs, and sexual escapades. They never ask about the most interesting figures, the drivers themselves.

-Since you started driving six years ago what do you think has changed the most?
-The fucking GPS tracking systems and credit card machines! They're always an issue. They don't work. It freezes, then the passenger has no cash, and in the end they blame everything on the driver. 
-Yeah but culturally, do you think there is less respect for cabdrivers?
- There's disrespect but there's a lot of love too. But if you're in New York who do you blame? Mean, ugly, rude, the slime balls, the nobodies. You made all the good cabbies leave cause the whole thing sucks. What self-respecting, intelligent person would stay in this job?

Friday, January 11, 2013

मैं नस्लवादी नहीं हूँ. मैं सीधा हूँ

Rust Street, Maspeth, Queens
Hello to the new cycle on the Mayan calendar. My affair with box trucks ended on the eve of Christmas Eve. Taxicabs aren't the jealous type so I came back without a hitch. I am mad at myself for not making time to go out and help volunteer at Respond and Rebuild in the Rockaways since the hurricane hit.

First passenger in eight months asks me how I'm doing and I respond with frankness. I must find a way to make more money and become more spiritual. It's a cliche and in my rare attempt to redefine myself I forget. She sighs, as if I were lost, and tells me not to fall into the human trap of needing something to believe in. Rich people think god is money. You should learn to be content with what you make. She concludes her sermon with an 8% tip.

80% of Mexicans in the Apple come from Puebla. One of them graces my cab from work in Billyburg to his unlikely neighborhood of Steinway, an Arab district in Astoria. He says of Colombians que somos muy cultos. We're cultured people. I say the same of Poblanos, but neither of us are willing to accept a compliment, each critical of his own. Around the corner I happen upon a gracious resident of Crown Heights who is black and gay. I bolt him home on the BQE and he leaves a 30% tip (to all you xenophobes who'll never serve the outer boroughs like I do).

On the topic of tips, it is important for people from unaware backgrounds to adapt to those cultural norms that hardworking people depend on for a livelihood. I'm not trying to single anyone out, but Indian Americans have a bad rep for this. I've witnessed it for myself innumerable times, while working in both the residential moving industry and the taxicab. I make it a point to provide them extra mile treatment, since kindness is the best antidote to negativity, but it often has no affect. In many countries it's uncommon and even insulting to tip. A service position somewhere with incomparably lower living costs may be able to get by on a pre-arranged wage (if one exists). Some people were born here but were raised in unintentional ignorance. Perhaps you're a recent immigrant and feel a need to conserve your resources (not applicable to recipients of affluence allergic to strap hanging). You may have been treated poorly by people who automatically assumed you wouldn't tip, and so you tipped according to their behavior, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of misunderstanding. Let's each take a step towards ending this by providing great service and appreciative gratuities that are not contingent on pre-conceived notions of one another.

That said, thank you Hanna, the South African girl from India (whose favorite song's music video is shot near where she lives) for dignifying my efforts with a 25% tip. You'd be proud to know that Amina Cachalia was being interviewed on BBC radio the moment you disappeared into Kennedy's terminal 4.

On the prelude to a later airport run, I had parked the cab in the Village and walked into three establishments before being allowed the dignity of #1. This one said no at first and then reluctantly shooed me toward the bathroom while stating,"is what it is, the boss is here." (boss reprimands humanistic instincts of his employees). Do not be flabbergasted to find a bottle of/for urine lurking in the front seat of a cab. Why can't there be a system where we show our hack license? When I came out to the sidewalk I saw a lady with a suitcase at the curb beginning to raise her hand. I sprinted over to her. "Need a cab? Mine's parked right over there. I'll carry this (luggage) over for you."
An Arab cabbie walked up to my cab in line at JFK and lovingly inquired if I knew of any 24 hour shift possibilities. I'm pleasantly taken aback every time I'm spoken to in Arabic. There couldn't possibly be a Jew driving a cab out in this godforsaken industry, except for those that pass for Arabs, a few leftover Schizoids, and one Mizraphrenic.

I picked up a newly wed guy on Wythe Avenue who was picking up a large picture of his spouse's that he'd snuck out to be framed at a frame shop as a surprise. We agreed to make a round trip out of it with the meter running and I'd like to thank him again for the 30% tip, and for aligning time and space to yield my next fare, a Japanese family to a Ramen place on Smith in Boerum, via BQE. I'd like to thank them for a 33% tip. No thanks to the following fare though. A NoLita numbskull, homebound for the holidays, to LGA in a firm flotsam flash, with an insulting 7% tip. From there I drove empty to Greenpoint and found a pleasant young man heading to Queens Center Mall to get his mom and sister gift cards for Christmas, and something for himself. He had that New York brand of mojo. The kind that's tough without being insolent, and he even volunteered to jump out on Woodhaven so I could turn again and break free from a gridlock of lethargic shoppers.

That allowed me to enter Queens Boulevard further down in Rego Park, where I instantly found a couple late to a reunion in Crown Heights. I gave them an estimate of $30 to 40. It came out to $28.50. Sadly I got a 5% tip. I feel like most cabbies wouldn't have accepted the inter-borough fare in fear of wasting time and money. I feel like my fare knew this and went from acting desperate for a ride to playing stupid with the tip. I did get a LGA out of it though, in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was an awkward trip with siblings from rural South Carolina who've been ever so slowly adjusting to the NY state of mind, and were on their way home-for-the-holidays. We agreed on not serving religion, in order to be of service to the creator. Unto Northern Boulevard after dropping them off and two Colombianas ran over in a rush to see Mary Poppins at Times Square, so I took some back streets and flew over the East River for these Judias Samarias from another socioeconomic planet.    

I gave an Gujarati cabbie commuting to his parked cab on Varick Street (from his home in Chinatown like me) a 50% discount. It was the only moment in the entire ride his face turned from a frown to a smile. He's been a driver for "not long." Twelve years actually. So modest, yet so disgruntled. Not happy living among "those people" (Chinese). They're "not good." I responded by silently forcing on his shoes. You can't understand someone's thoughts unless you walk in them. He has several children and a wife in a small space though.

A tall, lavish Norwegian woman hailed me at a hotel in Midtown just after experiencing a peak emotional moment in her life. She immediately got busy elaborately recounting a history she's had with the Jewish son of Moroccan and Russian parents (who had as many loose screws as her), while I drove her to Saks Fifth. Decades ago she lived in New York and dated him intensely on and off. She eventually moved to London, married a cold, robotic German, and raised children. While briefly in the Apple once she ran into her first love, and he begged her to stay, but she couldn't. Years later and divorced, she returned to find him (today), but this time he couldn't, and for no better reason than that his passion questing had dried up and he was now a rational middle-aged (Jewish) man. She laughed and cried and barely let me concentrate on driving. All along I thought she had this idea (not unlike my theory) that if one needs an on-the-spot shrink, one simply steps into a taxi and promptly begins their therapy with the driver, until she explained that the reason I was hearing this earful was because my Ashkizrahi eyes reminded her of him.    

Two elderly Jewish ladies amble in on Madison and unapologetically change their Upper East Side destination a couple of times. It's fine though because I remember them being mostly pleasant about it. Besides, I have no use for apologies. Their 60% more than makes up for any inconvenience. Mind you it is not common for old women on the Upper East Side to be anything but verbally harsh to a cabbie and tipping beyond 15% is unheard of. Upon arrival, I hop out, open their door, and help them out. The eye contact between us is that of oh, look at that.... we seem to both be Jewish. And with that exchange an awkward utterance of "happy holidays."   

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Târziu și Dracului

Newtown Creek, Hunters Point, Queens
Stories and photos from autumn's Americas border bouncing bonanza await assortment, while those from years past remain incomplete. The home base life lived in between these journeys accounts for much longer swaths of time, offering material equally worthy of documentation, that remains just as unassorted.

Laboring in various sectors of the transportation industry while helping out with family finances and mental health issues requires an amount of energy that leaves little for blogging, let alone other artistic and altruistic endeavors. I don't have my own children so I can't complain. The age of excuses and self pity is coming to an end. It's becoming now or never, more than ever. I lasted the better part of a year at the art handling job (driving box trucks). It was fun and fulfilling until the distress of chaotic mismanagement took over and it stopped being educational. Around the holidays the art handling world took a nap, but the bills didn't. That was my opportunity to play career musical chairs again.  

In the spring I had vowed not to drive a taxi again for as long as I could. On the winter solstice I not only returned, but with the same intense sense of honor and joy towards it as I had when I first got my hack license in 2006. I remain mindful, however, of the undignified reasons behind the temporal career swap, and vow to limit the amount of shifts I drive to a minimum.  In fact, I plan to leave New York all together for a little while, so I can focus on things besides the rat race. It won't be easy unplugging from this city though. I currently live in Chinatown, my favorite neighborhood in all of the Apple. I share an apartment with my sister and two roommates, which makes the rent reasonable, but I find it difficult to concentrate on creative pursuits. Houston, TX and Lake Worth, FL are both calling my name, each for more reasons than one. The first breathless blurb from recent taxi shifts in almost a year is in the works, along with every other jammed particle awaiting colonic therapy, metaphorically and then some.