Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can You Solve The Mystery of the Union Square Numbers?

In the Union Square area of New York City - on 14th Street between Broadway and 4th Avenue, to be exact - there is a building with a row of fifteen huge numbers brightly illuminated and always on display. The digits on the left and right sides remain relatively constant, but as the eye moves toward the middle of the row, the digits are seen to be moving more and more rapidly from zero to nine in endless repetition.
There is no explanation given for what these numbers mean.
For many years I didn't know what they meant, if anything, and I finally decided out of frustration that it was merely "pretentious art". I thought it was just somebody's idea of a joke - how to drive everyone crazy by putting up randomly moving numbers that meant nothing.
Now it just so happens that if you're driving down Broadway you will inevitably hit red lights at both 17th Street, where Broadway and Union Square East melt into each other, and then again one block further down the road at 16th Street. From both of these vantage points you can easily see the numbers and, if you're a taxi driver, that will mean as years pass by that there will be a significant amount of time spent at both these places with nothing better to do than to look at the numbers until the light turns green.
And I guess that is why I eventually understood what the numbers meant. I wasn't trying to figure it out. It just hit me one day, as if by osmosis, after about ten years. I suddenly saw it and once I saw it there was no denying what it meant. It was indisputable, and it turns out it wasn't pretentious art after all.
Being armed with this revelation, I naturally wondered when stopped at these intersections with passengers in the cab if they knew what the numbers meant. I found that, even with passengers who lived in the general vicinity, that only about one in twenty knew it. And some of the others had completely incorrect assumptions, such as:
--the "national debt". This was a confusion with a different set of numbers that once flashed on a different sign on 6th Avenue around 44th Street. It showed the accumulating total of the national debt (and no one seemed to know exactly what that meant) and, if that didn't depress you enough, it also displayed "your family's share".
--the amount of time that has passed since the beginning of the millenium.
--the number of people in the world who have died of AIDS (not bothering to notice that the number on the building would be higher than the actual number of people in existence in the world).
--and, my favorite, the "amount of records sold in Virgin Records" (which until recently had occupied one of the stores beneath the numbers).
I noticed that passengers I enlightened were often quite grateful to learn the truth about the numbers as this turned out to be something they, too, had wondered about for years. This gratitude often translates into bigger tips, so I've probably made hundreds of dollars from this revelation.
So, you wanna try your luck?
Step right up, take a look at what we've got here. I took a two-minute video of the numbers. It's a little blurry at the beginning, but then it goes into focus and you can observe what the numbers are doing. Hopefully it won't take you ten years to figure it out!
If you give up, click on the "comments" at the bottom of this post. The answer is there.

And while you're wracking your brain, why not take a break to click here for Pictures From A Taxi?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A Message To Soupy

I was really saddened to learn last week of the passing of one of my all-time favorite entertainers, Soupy Sales. If you were an American growing up with a television in the '60s, Soupy Sales was a name you would know. His unique brand of comedy, with its trademark pies in the face, took the country by storm for a few years. I just loved the guy, and if you want to get a taste (pun intended) of his humor, do a video search with his name. You'll be able to see samples of the old tv shows.

Anyway, I have a Soupy Sales story. No, I didn't have him in my cab. But maybe this is the next best thing...

Back in the early '90s I was in the habit of taking a break in my shift every night at about 9 p.m. at a typical New York bagel joint called "Hot Bagels" on 2nd Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets. I liked the place because not only did they have great bagels, but it was in a convenient location and there was always a parking space across the street. Those are important factors in the choice a cabbie makes for where to take his break. I would go into Hot Bagels and get my sesame or poppy seed bagel and a cup of coffee and be back in the cab in five minutes. Time is money in my business.

It's quite common in restaurants and other shops in New York to see autographed head shots of celebrities displayed on the walls like trophies. It's as if to say, "Hey, this isn't just any coffee shop - this is the coffee shop where Liza Minelli comes in to get her rice pudding!". Usually there are many such celebrity photographs on display and I've always found it interesting to check them out.

So the very first time I went into Hot Bagels - I believe it was in 1990 - I noticed right away something quite unusual. This place didn't have numerous celebrity head shots on its walls - it had only one. Staring out at me from his place on the wall directly behind the cash register was the smiling face of Soupy Sales.

I asked the fellow behind the counter why, out of all the celebrities whose pictures might theoretically be on the wall, would Soupy Sales be the one to be so honored. He told me that Soupy lived in the neighborhood and comes in regularly to get his bagels.

Wow! I was impressed. Perhaps it was this even more than the convenient location and easy parking that kept me coming back to Hot Bagels. I started to think about what I would say to Soupy if we should ever be there at the same time. I remembered a particular song he used to sing and I decided to incorporate some of the lyrics in the song into a bagel shop context, just as a personal homage to Soupy, should we ever be there at the same time. But, unfortunately, we never were.

Still, the decision to create this effect on Soupy was active in my universe and intention is senior to the obstacles of the material world, right? So I came up with a new idea. As time went by I had gotten familiar with the fellow behind the counter, a friendly, Moroccan man named Raz. I decided to use Raz as my conduit to get to Soupy.

The song I was fond of was a ridiculous thing called "Bakalafaka" (pronounced ba-ka-LAF-a-ka) that was typical of Soupy's comedy. The lyrics that I remember went like this:

Bakalafaka, bakalafaka,
They whisper it all over Turkey.
Bakalafaka, bakalafaka,
It sounds so romantic and perky...

...and it goes on using this nonsense word, "bakalafaka" throughout the song until the end where it's revealed that no one knows what "bakalafaka" means.

So I told Raz, a cheerful guy, about Soupy and how big he had been in the USA in the '60s. Raz, having grown up in Northern Africa, had no idea that his customer was so famous and seemed quite pleased that a person of this stature would come into his shop. So I knew he would help me with my plan. After a few more bagel stops I laid it on him.

I wanted Raz to tell Soupy that he wanted him to try something that's new in his shop that's delicious and goes great with bagels. It's called "bakalafaka" and it's imported from Turkey! And then watch for Soupy's reaction.

Raz thought this was a great idea and was eager to get it right. I knew the potential stumbling block in this caper would be the word "bakalafaka" itself. For one thing it sounds like the name of a real food that might be available in a bagel shop, "baklava", the Middle Eastern pastry. And for another thing, it's got five syllables, and that's a lot of syllables to remember. Both Raz and I were concerned that he might screw it up, so what Raz did was to write "ba-ka-LAF-a-ka" on the wall. He told me he would rehearse it and when he had it down cold he would lay it on Soupy.

I couldn't wait.

However, the next three or four times I went into Hot Bagels someone else was behind the counter and I began getting worried that maybe Raz had returned to Morocco after humiliating himself in front of an angry American comedian. But finally there he was. He greeted me with a huge smile and great excitement.

"I did it!" he exclaimed.

"You did? Wow! What happened?"

"His eyes opened up, real wide! And then, BIG smile! And then he says, YOU WATCHED THE SHOW!!!"

Ah, Soupy Sales. I loved that guy.

Come back to us, Soupy.

And when you do, don't forget to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.