Sunday, September 30, 2007

Running The Gamut

You know, one of the truly great things about driving a cab in New York City is that on any given night you will encounter individuals who are from totally opposite ends of the social spectrum. People sort of carry their own worlds around with them, so a taxi driver has this opportunity to get up close and personal with people who are so dissimilar, one from the other, that they might as well be from different planets.

To illustrate my point, I had these two fares a few days ago in the same night...

At 11 pm I was hailed by a blonde at 64th and West End Avenue. She said she wanted to go to a building that was somewhere in the 30s on 1st Avenue, so I went up to 65th Street and we headed across the Central Park transverse to the East Side. She was talking to someone on her cell phone and I wasn't really paying too much attention to her, but then when her conversation ended she suddenly says, "Hey, could you tell me something? How do you spell 'first'?"

"You mean like, first, second, third...?"

"Yeah, is it f-r-i-s-t or f-i-r-s-t?"

"You know, I charge extra for consultations."

"Ha, ha, come on!"

"Okay. It's f-i-r-s-t."

"Thanks!"

Why she needed to know how to spell a word in the middle of a cab ride I did not know, but I liked her easygoing attitude. No airs here. Just a friendly person who was grammatically challenged. I guess she was a little embarrassed by her inability to spell a simple word because she then admitted that she wasn't the brightest starfish in the sea.

"You weren't cut out to be one of those nerdy kids in a spelling bee, huh?" I said.

"Nah, but I'll tell you something - they may know how to spell but they don't know how to fuck."

Whoa. If she didn't have it already, she now had my full attention. There are only three ways a female would ever say that to a cab driver: 1) she's with two or three other girls and she's showing off by trying to create an effect, 2) she's totally shitfaced, or 3) she's a professional. My passenger was alone and she wasn't drunk, so it had to be number 3.

I was trying to figure out a way of asking her about this, but as it turned out the answer was given to me in the most unlikely of ways. She had found out from the person she was talking to on her cell phone that the building she was going to was on the corner of 33rd and 1st and then for some reason added that this person who lived there made great chicken soup.

33rd and 1st... chicken soup... It rang a bell.

"Hey, wait a minute," I said, "I once picked up a woman coming from that building who told me she had gone there to see her friend because she was sick and her friend made great chicken soup."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, it was on New Year's Eve. "

"I wonder if I know her."

"She told me she was an adult film performer," I said, carefully glancing in the mirror to catch her reaction.

"Oh, I must know her!"

"She was in her thirties, I think, with blonde hair. She said she was going to LA to be in a film the next day and had to get better because she couldn't give blow jobs with a stuffed nose."

"Oh, I know who it was! Her name is Houston!"

When she said it, it totally clicked in my mind. That was her name. I had actually written about this person in a post. (Here.)

"So you're in the same business?" I asked.

"Well, kind of," she said with a smile. "I've done some porn but now I'm mostly working on my own."

"You mean, like, as an escort?" An "escort", of course, is another word for "hooker".

"Uh-huhhh..." she replied, the tone of her voice suggesting that now we both shared in her little secret.

Now I'm not an expert on the subject, but I have observed over the years that there seem to be two broad categories of hookers (pun intended). There are the street hookers ("hos") and there are the indoor "call girls" or "escorts". The street hookers, who have almost disappeared from the streets of New York over the last ten years, by the way, are usually drug addicts and are desperate and pathetic. But the call girls, who are frequently ex-strippers, tend to be smart, witty, and charmingly candid about what they do for a living.

So what followed with my passenger was an informative conversation about her life and her profession. She had gone to L.A. after finishing high school in Texas, with the idea of becoming an actress. She wound up working in strip clubs, then did some porno movies, and now is an escort. She travels around the country building up a list of clients using a website (eros.com) and a cell phone. A cell phone which rang several times during our ride together.

One of the calls she ignored. It was from someone she described as a "stalker". Another one was from a steady client from Argentina whom she had to sadly inform that she wasn't available tonight but that tomorrow a little after 1 pm would be good.

"I like foreign men," she confided. "They don't want to talk."

"How many calls do you get per day on the average?" I asked.

"Around seventy."

"Seventy!"

"Yeah, but when they find out how much I charge, they're usually not interested."

"How much do you charge?"

"$350 for half an hour."

Which just shows you the relative worth to society of the services I offer compared to the services she offers. Not that her business doesn't have its pitfalls. She told me that screening out crazies is a definite skill. And that there is always the possibility that someone who appears to be a client is actually a police officer. But the solution to that, she said, was to have a good lawyer. "For five thousand dollars the only thing you're found guilty of is jaywalking."

As she departed the cab on 33rd Street, I suddenly realized I had a question that she would surely know the answer to. "What does MILF stand for?" I called out to her. This was an acronym I'd seen on certain websites but I'd never had a definition for it. I knew it had something to do with "older" women.

"Mothers I'd Like to Fuck!" she called back with a smile.

So we were even. I told her how to spell "first" and she told me this. I guess we all have our own areas of expertise.


Now compare her to the passenger I picked up at 2:45 am...


He was a middle-aged man in a business suit, no tie, well-groomed, standing on the corner of 8th Avenue and 55th Street. He had the appearance of someone who is considered to be "successful" in our world. His clothing, haircut, and demeanor all would give the casual observer the impression that here was someone who was a professional at something and was doing well in life.

Now I'm not saying that to lead you into discovering that he actually was not what he seemed to be. He was quite successful, as it turned out. But he was also quite drunk. Not incoherently drunk. But rambling on and on drunk. A happy and very overly talkative drunk.

What I normally do with drunks, once I realize that that's what they are, is to patronize them. I agree with almost anything they say, listen to their tales, and acknowledge them so they know that they have actually been heard. There's no sense in arguing or originating my own ideas to them. Because they are in digression mode.

The first thing we had to handle was where he was going. Did I know the location of such and such a bar, he asked. I did not. Then, after a bit more deliberation, he decided he might as well go home. And he gave me his address, a very prestigious apartment building on Central Park South.

As I headed in that direction, he began his dissertation. It was the kind of thing in which he was going to talk half to me and half to himself or to whomever he mentally conceived might be there with him. But I was free to jump into the conversation at any time. The truth was I wasn't really paying that much attention to exactly what he was saying until he said this...

"...and the call comes through early in the morning and I'm still in my bloody pajamas and they tell me he wants me! So what the hell am I supposed to do, I've got to get up and get my ass out the door, because the man wants me!"

It aroused my curiosity. "Who wanted you?" I asked.

"The president!"

"The president of what?"

He looked at me like I should have understood. "Of the United States!"

"Bush?"

"Yes!"

"Wanted you?"

"Yes!"

"For what?"

It turned out that the inebriated gentleman in the back seat was a deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. President Bush had been in the city that day to address the General Assembly of the U.N. and apparently the protocol calls for a high-ranking official there to act as a host for visiting dignitaries. He said he had served in that capacity on one other occasion for President Bush and it turned out Bush remembered him, liked him, and requested him. So he had spent the day kind of hanging out with the President of the United States.

"So what kind of guy is President Bush?" I asked.

"He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with," my passenger said, "but, you know, it's kind of like you're leading a child around."

"Yeah, I think I know what you mean," I chimed in. "I've always thought he was probably a nice guy on a personal level but that when it comes to being the president he's in way over his head."

"Yeah, now take Clinton," he said, "there's a guy who knows what he's doing."

We soon finished the short ride by arriving in front of his building on Central Park South. As he staggered out of the cab he told me what a wonderful cab driver I was, but then he had some trouble finding his money. Finally he yanked some bills out of his pocket and handed them to me and I was on my way. When I got to the traffic light and counted them I found he had neglected to give me a tip on the five dollar fare. But that was all right. It wasn't a mean or a cheap thing, it was a drunk thing.

Later on in the night I reflected on the diversity of these two memorable rides and what different worlds these two people came from. A woman who had spent the day having sex with people for money and a man who had spent the day playing host to the President of the United States.

Why, I wondered, did she get to be the lucky one?




And you can get to be the lucky one, too, by clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Politics and Taxicabs

The so-called "strike" has been over for more than a week now and I've got to say that any way I look at it I'm kind of disgusted at the way the whole thing went down. I will attempt to analyze it and give you some perspective that I'm pretty sure you haven't heard anywhere else.

But first I want to thank Melissa Plaut for including an excerpt from my post, "Taxi Strike", in her own New York Hack blog last week in a post she called "Strike!". Melissa, of course, is the Queen of the Taxi Bloggers and by doing this she introduced my blog to a much wider audience, for which I am grateful. If you haven't heard, she has just had a book published which is a must-read for anyone interested in taxi drivers, New York City, or human beings. You can order it online by going to her blog and clicking where you're supposed to click. It's easy.
I attended a reading and book signing Melissa did at a Barnes & Noble in the Village on Tuesday night which was standing-room only (I stood). The whole thing was a great affair but what I liked best was observing the pride that showed on the faces of her mother and father and family members. If you're a parent, it just doesn't get any better than this.
And now, about the strike...
What It Was
It was a two-day work stoppage, which in reality is a type of protest. It shouldn't have been called a strike at all. A real strike is open-ended - it doesn't end until there's a settlement between labor and management. This was never the intention the Taxi Workers Alliance, which called for the action, nor was it within their capabilities.

How Many Cabs Were Out?
It was interesting to hear various groups and individuals give their opinions on this. The TWA was saying 90% were out. The mayor was saying the effect of the strike was minimal. The media commentators I heard were saying that the lines for taxis at train stations and airports were longer than usual, but not too bad. The truth is there is no way of knowing for sure because taxicabs are spread out all over the city, all the time. They are never in any kind of central location, so how can you count them?
Nevertheless, I have my own estimate. The only reliable information I received came from the night dispatcher at my garage who told me on the second day that only 30% of his cabs were not working. I think it would be safe to say that the owner/drivers, who will have to pay the high costs of the GPS systems themselves, were observing the work stoppage in larger numbers. So my estimate is that 50% of the drivers, at best, did not work on those two days.
So I was wrong in my post when I predicted that it would be like 1998 when a one-day stoppage was indeed observed by 90% of the cabbies and a significant impact was made on the city. I think it's sad that so many cab drivers chose to work on those two days. No, it's worse than sad. It's disgusting.
I'm sorry. I don't buy the excuse I kept hearing from drivers who were interviewed on TV that "I have a family to feed," or "I can't afford to miss any work." Bullshit. The drivers who rent cabs by the week don't work all seven days. They all take at least one day off. So taking off two days on this one particular week was too much to ask? And for the drivers who rent cabs by the day all it meant was switching their work days around on this one particular week. That is so impossible?
No. The only reason cabbies who chose to work did so was because they knew they'd have great business on those two days due to reduced competition and a lucrative pricing system that was implemented by the city. Plus they don't think of taxi driving as really being their career so there's no reason for them to make a commitment to it.
I worked the night shift on the night before the work stoppage was scheduled to begin. As I brought my cab back to the garage, I encountered a veteran cabbie whom I have known for several years and for whom I used to have respect. He was waiting to be assigned to a cab for the upcoming day shift. In other words, he was about to become a scab.
I confronted him in a firm, but nonthreatening, way. I was truly shocked that he was working and I told him so. His reply was, "There's no union!"
Now this is a guy who about eight months ago started losing his teeth. He is now almost toothless. He epitomizes for me the individuated mindset of many New York cab drivers. It doesn't occur to him that the reason he hasn't been able to replace his teeth is that he is underpaid and has no dental plan because there is no union and that a demonstration of some unity would be at least something that could be done to improve his very obvious problem. It was pathetic.
What Was Accomplished?
From what I can see the only thing that might be considered a victory for the taxi drivers is that their complaints are far better known to the general public and to the city government than they were before. The work stoppage received a lot of publicity locally.
Unfortunately the whole thing clearly showed how weak the drivers are as a group. I mean, if you can't get drivers to agree to stay home from work for two lousy days, you certainly can't get them to do more than that. So if anyone in City Hall had any serious concerns that taxi drivers had to be dealt with - or else! - well, they don't have those concerns anymore.
I contend that when the system we operate under was created in 1937 it was intentionally designed to be unorganizable. If all the city's taxicabs could be located at two, or five, or even twenty different garages, it could be done. But when you have 11,787 medallion taxis - the number in 1937 - consisting of about 5,000 individual owner/operators and the rest divided up among something like 50 different garages, I'm afraid it cannot.

So there is no clout. Taxi drivers will have to continue to depend on whatever sense of fair play the mayor and his appointees have at any particular time. Which, even if the current administration is fair and competent, doesn't mean that the next one will be, too.
What the Mayor Did
Mayor Bloomberg and his team were well-prepared for this action. A contingency plan had already been thought up and was put into motion the moment the work stoppage began. It consisted of a zone pricing system that was more lucrative for the driver than our usual metered rates, a group riding arrangement at the airports that was also more lucrative, extra buses, and the threat of allowing the outer-borough livery cars to accept street hails and do the airport business if there weren't sufficient medallion cabs on the streets.
The mayor took to the airwaves to encourage drivers to come to work and declared to the media that the work stoppage was having no effect at all on getting around in the city. He even had his picture taken sitting behind the wheel of a taxi. He would not meet with the leaders of the TWA to discuss their grievances and offered no willingness to negotiate at all.
Only one commentator that I was aware of, Ron Kuby on WABC radio (although I'm sure there were others), mentioned that the mayor was acting as a union buster and was encouraging workers to scab, something that is not considered fair play in management/labor relations. But again, it shows the weakness of the drivers. Can you imagine what a clamour would have been created if the mayor had refused to negotiate with the Transit Workers Union a year and a half ago when there was a brief subway and bus strike? That is what is meant by "clout". If you haven't got it, this is what you get.
What the Mayor Said
Because I am knowledgeable about the history of these things, I actually found it amusing to hear how the issues of requiring taxis to install expensive GPS tracking systems and passenger information monitors were being sold to the media and the public by the mayor. He said that all he was trying to do was make the taxi-riding experience better for the public. Okay, fine. He further stated that these "technology enhancements" had already been agreed to when we accepted the fare increases of May '04 and November '06, the implication being that by going on strike we were somehow backing out of a deal we had already made.
This logic was swallowed by the NY Times in an editorial in which they said that yes, the drivers may have some valid objections, but they did agree to it when they got the last fare increase, so they should honor that agreement now.
What??
The impression that the mayor seemed to be trying to give was that there is some kind of union and that the drivers all got together and voted to accept the deal. As we have already seen, nothing could be further from the truth. Obviously, there is nothing that can be called a union.
No driver ever voted or was even asked for an opinion about these "technology improvements". The only faction of the taxi industry that was consulted were the owners of the fleets. And they are getting a piece of the action (advertising revenues from the passenger information devices). And they were not in agreement with the work stoppage. In fact, they did everything they could think of to prevent drivers from participating in it.
What the Mayor Did Not Say
In order to illustrate the kind of duplicity that taxi drivers are subjected to, I am going to have to back up a few years and explain a bit of the history of the politics of fare increases. The first thing to understand is that fare increases do not just occur when the mayor or the taxi commissioner say so. They have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic procedure including public hearings and economic studies.
However, in all the years I've been watching this process, since 1977, these hearings and studies have always been merely a formality. Once an announcement is made by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that a fare increase is being considered, it is just a matter of time - within two months or so - that the increase becomes a reality.
By December of 2001 the taxi industry had gone six years since the last fare increase. We were hurting badly. The rate of fare in NYC has always been lower than almost all other major U.S. cities to begin with (in those days the rate was $1.50 per mile and 20 cents for a minute of waiting time), plus we were in the middle of the economic calamity of 9/11. The rate of inflation was about 3 to 4 per cent per year, so the value of our earnings was in the area of 20 per cent less than it had been six years prior. I myself was working four twelve-hour shifts per week (the most my body can endure) and barely had enough to pay for my extremely modest living expenses. Out of desperation I was considering leaving my chosen ( perhaps foolishly chosen) profession.
Then finally - three to four years late in my own opinion - a proposed 26 per cent fare increase was announced by the taxi commissioner, Matthew Daus, in mid-December. My spirits immediately lifted. Thankfully there would soon be relief to what had become a bleak economic scenario.
And then, in the last week of the month and in the last week of his tenure as mayor, Rudy Guiliani, who had been to the taxi drivers what Mussolini had been to Italy, responded to a reporter's question about what he thought about the taxi drivers getting a fare increase. He said he thought they should only get maybe a 10 per cent increase and that should only go to the owners of the "new" cabs.
The "new" cabs in those days were the Crown Vics that were being manufactured by Ford to have extra leg room in the back. They were just becoming available and were beginning to hit the streets with great popularity with both drivers and passengers alike.
Now let me fill you in so you will comprehend the monumental absurdity and mean-spiritedness of Guiliani's comment. If you didn't know any better this might sound like a harsh but not totally unreasonable statement for the former mayor to have made. But here's what the general public would not know. The types of vehicles that appear on the streets are mandated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. They make the rules. We follow them. So the cab owner who purchased one of the "old" Crown Vics did so only because the TLC said that was the vehicle you must have. And, by a new rule that was adopted during Guiliani's administration, they are only permitted to be on the streets for three years, after which time they are automatically retired.
So if the former mayor's comment was to be taken seriously, owners, who had been following the city's own rules when they had purchased a new cab, say, a year ago (and now had almost zero resale value) would have to suddenly take this vehicle off the road and take out a new loan on a new car in order to get a ten per cent rate increase. And then there would be a two-tiered pricing system in effect creating a situation in which the public would never know what rate they would be paying when they hailed a cab (the Crown Vics look identical from the outside).
But Guiliani's comment was not taken seriously. It was a mean-spirited and disingenuous remark made by a lame duck official as a parting shot to the members of an industry he genuinely disliked. Why that was so could be the subject of another post. But I include it here as an example of how politics can effect an industry that has no clout. And as a lead-in to what happened next.
As annoyed as I was when I heard this comment, I knew that in another week Guiliani, thank God, would no longer be mayor and Bloomberg, who as far as I knew had no personal animosity toward taxi drivers, would take over. So I wasn't too concerned. The 26 per cent rate increase had already been proposed by the TLC and it was just a matter of a short time before it would clear the usual bureaucratic hurdles.
Bloomberg became mayor on January 1st, 2002. A month went by and nothing was heard about the rate increase. Another month went by. Nothing. And then another. I became puzzled and worried. It was taking way more time than it ever had in previous years for this proposed rate increase to be approved.
And then one day while driving my own car toward my taxi garage to start a night shift, I heard on the radio the voice of the taxi commissioner, Mr. Daus. He said that new industry data indicates that there are enough drivers at this time so a rate increase is no longer being considered.
Whaaat??!!
You did not want to be anywhere around me at this particular moment. I wound up screaming so loudly at my radio that I had a sore throat for two days.
It made no sense. He might as well have gone on the air and said that from now on taxi drivers will be required to wear their underwear on the outside of their pants. (Old Woody Allen joke from the movie Bananas.) There are enough taxi drivers at this time? Since when did that become the criterion for a rate increase? The reason for the rates to go up is supposed to be that rising costs of living and doing business warrant it. If we are to assume that a sufficient or insufficient number of people currently driving cabs is the criterion, we must also assume that the thinking is that no rate increase will be given until everyone is so poor that they are absolutely forced to quit! And how mean-spirited would that be?
I didn't believe for a minute that this was the real reason for this announcement. Beside the fact that it made no sense, if it was true the commissioner would never have said it. I knew there was some other reason, but I couldn't imagine what it could be. I started considering various conspiracy theories that might explain it. But nothing quite made sense. And months and months and months went by without that desperately needed fare increase becoming a reality.
Then, finally, in February of 2004 - two years later - the TLC announced that the same 26 per cent fare increase was again being considered. The bureaucratic process was put into motion and in early May '04 we did get that increase. (And no mention was made of there now being enough or not enough drivers.)
About a week later I had a realization that was like the proverbial bolt of lightning streaking through the darkness. I suddenly understood why the fare increase had been delayed for two years after it had appeared to be a done deal in 2001. Here's what actually happened...
A few months after Mr. Bloomberg became mayor, the TLC announced that plans were being made to add 900 additional medallions over the course of three years to the streets of New York. (A medallion is a license to own one taxicab. One medallion equals one cab.) This is an occurrence that is a rarity in NYC. It would be only the second time since 1937 that medallions had been added to the fleet, bringing the number from 12,187 to 13,087.
But, like fare increases, this cannot be accomplished by mayoral decree. Thorough environmental impact studies must be done and the whole thing must be passed on by various agencies and committees. It's a long process that would take about a year and a half. But when it does happen, it's a goldmine for the city because these medallions are auctioned off to the highest bidders. And the going price of a medallion at that time was around $250,000.
Mayor Bloomberg is a self-made billionaire who knows how to make money. He realized two things when he heard about the proposed fare increase just after he became mayor. One, that if adding more taxis to the streets could be justified, it would mean a ton of revenue for the city. And two, if the fare increase could be postponed until the new medallions were about to be auctioned, it would mean that much more money for the city because the value of the medallion would go up.
And he was right. The medallions went on auction simultaneously with the rate increase in May '04 and the value of the medallion shot up to around $350,000. And the city made a ton of money. But it was at the expense of the taxi drivers who deserved and were about to get a rate increase in 2002 but did not get one until two years later. That cost the taxi driver of NYC thousands of dollars that he needed badly just to pay for the basic expenses of living.
And that was the real reason for the delay in the rate increase. And that is what the mayor did not say.
Now you may be wondering how I can be so sure about this. Well, I'll tell you. First of all, it's completely logical. But secondly, a couple of months ago I had a passenger in my cab who, through the course of conversation, told me he works as a member of the mayor's staff. He was quite a nice guy and we had a free-flowing discussion, touching on things like how the mayor's office was organized into various functions, the congestion tax (click here for my previous post), and my thoughts about Guiliani. Just to see what he'd say, I mentioned that even though Mayor Bloomberg had intervened to delay the rate increase we were supposed to get in 2002 in order to coincide with the sale of the new medallions in 2004 - and this was something that had cost me thousands of dollars - I still liked him a lot better than Guiliani. Because with Bloomberg it was a business move, and I respect that even if it was at my expense. With Guiliani, it was personal.
And then he confirmed that what I'd just said was true - Mayor Bloomberg had indeed intervened to delay the rate increase.
So ladies and gentlemen, we have a little investigative journalism here with one completely credible witness. That may or may not be good enough for the NY Times, I don't know, but it is good enough for my blog! And as far as I know, this has never been revealed in any other media. So you can say you heard it here first.

Solution
I will say one thing favorable about Mayor Bloomberg. During his term a rule has been created that puts a cap on the leasing fee that can be charged by the garages to the drivers. And most of the money from the '04 rate increase and all of the money from the small '06 rate increase (click here to learn about that) went to the drivers. I think he felt guilty about what he'd done in '02 and wanted to make it up to us. And this shows that he's not an unfair person.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the taxi industry has no clout with City Hall and is therefore subject to the whims, chicaneries, and personal prejudices of whoever happens to be the mayor or those to whom he has delegated authority. And that is an unfair playing field.
The issue that underlies the protest about the mandated installation of the GPS tracking system is money. The city tells us what we can charge for our services, it is not enough, and then we must beg them for rate increases which are usually not forthcoming. If taxi drivers were making a good living, and the cost of the installation of the new system was being passed on to the consumer, it would not be such a big deal. So for real change to occur, the arbitraries need to be removed from the process.
I have an idea.
I think real change that could improve the substandard working conditions of the NYC taxi driver could come not from the executive branch of the city government (the mayor) but from the legislative branch (the City Council). I think a law needs to be created.
In New York City there is a system in place that is used to protect the tenants of rent-stabilized apartments from price gouging. A group called the Rent Guidelines Board studies the economics that affect landlords each year and sets a maximum percentage that rents can be raised. This is the law.
I think a similar law needs to be created regarding taxi fares. The function of examining the costs of being in the taxi business should be an ongoing affair that results in a mandatory adjustment of the rates at a specific time. Like once every two years.
This would take the politics out of the procedure.
And it would be fair and would do a great deal to stabilize the taxi industry.
And I'll tell you something else. It would be acceptable to the riding public. Everyone knows we live in an inflating economy. We accept the idea that as time goes on the prices go up a bit. But what drives passengers crazy is the huge rate increase. A moderate, predictible increase every two years would be tolerable and understandable. And fair.
I think the Taxi Workers Alliance should move its efforts away from the mayor and the TLC and focus on what allies may be found in the City Council. And make this idea the law.
And In Conclusion...
All right, I've said all I want to say about politics and taxis. Hopefully I have shed some light on what actually goes on. And who knows, maybe this idea will take root and do some good.
But in any case this blog will now return to what I have intended it to be - stories about karma vs. coincidence, traffic jams, and drunks who puke in the back seat.
Along with an occasional dog.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The World Trade Center: A Remembrance

I will have more to say about the taxi strike, but since yesterday was the 6th anniversary of 9/11 I thought it would be appropriate to observe that occasion before delving again into the politics of the taxi industry. So here goes...

It has become an annual event for me, deep in the night of Sept. 11th, to stop driving my cab for awhile and take a reverential break down at Ground Zero. I did so last night.


The area looks different than it did a year ago, and this is a good thing. Construction has finally begun for the new buildings. Numerous cranes are down in "the pit" and the streets all around the place are torn up to make way for new pipelines and God knows what. The rebuilding process is underway at last.


Due to the nature of the current construction, there's not as much space available at Ground Zero itself as there has been in the past for people to display pictures of loved ones lost in the tragedy. In fact, there were not nearly as many mementos in place as there were last year, probably because the commemoration ceremonies took place a couple of blocks south of Ground Zero at Liberty Street this year. But the ones that were there stirred deep emotions in me.

I have found that I cannot let go of 9/11. I cannot dismiss it mentally as something that just happened. The awful significance of the event is too disturbing. And I cannot forget the stories I have heard, and continue to hear, from many passengers in my cab. (To read some of them, click here.)

Also, I miss the towers themselves. I still see them in my mind whenever I drive past Ground Zero. When I get a fare to the nearby residential complex called Battery Park City I still sometimes think of heading over to the North Tower where the Windows of the World restaurant used to be to look for my next ride. I picture the driveway where I used to wait for people who had just dined up in the clouds and I remember how I never tired of stepping out of my cab and just looking up and marveling at the sheer size of the structures.

Perhaps when the new World Trade Center is built I will begin to not care so much that the old one is gone. But perhaps not. Perhaps it's more likely that anyone who had ever been to the Twin Towers will have a permanent bond to the memory of the place.

And having said that, I'd like to share with you some unadulterated nostalgia regarding the World Trade Center, if you will indulge me. It's something that happened in the spring of 1972...

I lived in those days in a dive called the Hadson Hotel on W. 31st Street. It was a less than charming place with shared bathrooms, but for $70 a month it served its purpose, which was to live cheaply, if not well. But I did have a view of Herald Square from my window, plus I knew I would never starve - there were plenty of cockroaches available. So I had no complaints.

One lovely Saturday afternoon in May my friend Judy Huelsman and I decided to take a bike ride from the Hadson down into lower Manhattan along the Hudson River. It was a great day for a ride. Not only was the weather perfect on that particular day, but the city was all but empty. There's nothing like a deserted Manhattan to give the people who didn't leave a sense of entitlement. It's as if the empty buildings belong to you. As it turned out, that would be an understatement for us that afternoon.

We pedaled along enjoying the air and the sights until, about forty minutes into our journey, we came to the area of the sparkling, new World Trade Center on the south side of Vesey Street. This was a brand new and utterly magnificent sight to us, since we lived and worked uptown and never got to the lower end of the island. So we were taking it in with the same awe that tourists would have who were seeing it for the very first time, our jaws dropping, so to speak.

At that time the North Tower had been completed and was partially occupied, but the interior of the South Tower was still under construction and was unoccupied. So since the area was partially in operation, it wasn't closed off to the public as a construction sight normally would be. Thus we were able to park our bikes and wander around without anyone kicking us out. Not that anyone was around who would kick us out. The place was deserted.

We walked along and found ourselves approaching the South Tower. We pulled on the handle of one of the doors. To our surprise, the door opened! We entered the building. We walked around the unfinished lobby. We walked up and down a flight of stairs. After a minute or two we realized that there was no one else around. Apparently we had the entire South Tower all to ourselves!

We reacted like children who had gained control of an amusement park, calling out to each other from one end of the massive lobby to the other and fooling around. And then we found the elevators. We pushed the button. The door opened! We entered and pushed 33. The door closed and... up we went! The elevators were working! What would we see when we got up there? We had no idea.

The door opened and we looked out at what at that time was the 33rd floor of the South Tower. It was bare from one side of the building to the other. The interior walls had not yet been constructed, so we could walk around the entirety of the floor without obstructions. Which we did. But, of course, the coolest thing was simply to look out the windows. Since we were able to move around from one side of the tower to the other, we could view the skyline, the harbor, and the Statue of Liberty - all of New York City - from every conceivable angle.

And when we decided we'd had enough of the 33rd floor, we went back to the elevator and went higher up to get an even better view. And that's how we spent the next hour - riding the elevators (quite a thrill by itself, as the elevators in the WTC had enormous thrust) and getting off and on at whichever floors we desired. And then finally, having other things that needed to be done that day, we rode back down to the lobby, got back on our bikes, and pedaled away.

And we never saw a soul.
For one afternoon in May of 1972, my friend and I had one of the Twin Towers all to ourselves.
It was one of the best days of my life.






And perhaps clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi will make this one of the best days of your life... well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement...