Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Welcome, New Inductees

It takes something really special to make it into the Traffic Jam Hall of Fame. In fact, since its inception in 2007, there has been not a single addition to its ranks. So imagine my astonishment when last week not one, but two candidates showed that they had what it takes to achieve traffic jam immortality and were immediately nominated for admission into the sanctum sanctorum of the Hall. Two in one week!

In New York City traffic jams are a way of life. Veteran New Yorkers have been known to laugh in the face of out-of-towners who think they know anything about what a traffic jam really is. You got stuck on the interstate for fifteen minutes on your way to the mall? Whaddaya kiddin' me? It took me an hour and a half to get from 31st and 2nd to 58th and 9th! And that was on a Sunday!

As common as it is, however, to be trapped in the misery of going nowhere forever, it is not the length of time of the jam up that earns even consideration for admittance into the Hall. Roadwork, an accident, bridge or tunnel delays? No, these are routine. It has to be much more than that. Indeed, it has to be something so outrageous, so unexpected, so never-seen-that-before that one considers writing a letter of recommendation to the Committee.

So I'm happy to report that my two nominees were put on the fast track and, after a late-night session, have been granted admission by the Powers That Be. I present them to you now... trumpets and drums, if you please... our newest members of the Traffic Jam Hall of Fame!

57th and 5th

I was waiting in front of the Apple Store on 5th Avene between 58th and 59th Streets at one a.m. on November 12th, hoping to get a computer geek (or anyone else for that matter) as my next passenger. In true New York style, this store is open 24/7 and has turned out to be a spot where a cabbie can find some business all night long. Sure enough, within five minutes four nerdy type fellows jumped in and asked me to take them to Grand Central Station, a three-minute ride.

I pulled out from the curb to the intersection at 58th Street where the light had just turned red and while we were waiting there I was informed by the guy sitting next to me in the front that they had ten minutes to make their train. Plenty of time, I told him, but to add a bit of tension to the ride he explained that if they didn't make this particular train the next one wouldn't be leaving the station until 6 a.m. Still, I told him, there was nothing to worry about. After all, it was one in the morning and, as we could both plainly see, 5th Avenue was empty in front of us. So relax, I said, there's never any traffic at this time of the night.


There are those who believe you must never say things like that. It's called "tempting fate". There's some kind of Force, you see - call it Fate, God, Zeus, or Google - that overhears everything we say and then, just for sport, starts fucking with us. I should have kept my mouth shut.

The words had barely left my lips when a police car with lights flashing entered the intersection a block down the avenue at 57th Street and just stopped there. This was followed by two more cruisers, lights also ablaze, who did the same. A big cop wearing those knee-high black boots of the Highway Patrol (and the Gestapo) jumped out of one of the vehicles and held his hands over his head, bringing the cars on 57th Street to a halt. A few moments later our own light on 58th turned green and we moved up to 57th where we were greeted by a second cop, also with his hands in the "stop" position.

It looked to me like some V.I.P. motorcade was about to come on through. Perhaps a prime minister from Somewhere Special or a Secretary of State or something. Government big shots who are considered security risks do get this kind of treatment in New York. But at one a.m.? Odd, but possible.

"Probably someone much more important than you or me," I said to my front seat companion with a trace of sarcasm in my voice. I understand the need for security, I guess, but it does interfere with my making a living. You wonder if it's really necessary.

"Do you think it will be long?" he asked, a bit of concern apparent in the tone of his own voice. The sure thing of making the train was appearing to be not such a sure thing anymore.

"Nah, don't worry," I replied. "I'm sure they'll be out of here in no time at all."

Well, "no time at all" becomes magnified when every minute counts. In what was becoming forever, our light at 57th turned red. The cops remained in the intersection and nothing happened. Another thirty seconds ticked by. The light turned green. The cops just stood there, looking down the street. With tension mounting, there was finally activity to our right on 57th Street. Another couple of police cruisers appeared in the intersection and made right turns onto 5th Avenue. And then, at last, we were able to see what the cause of the delay had been.

It was a tree.

Yes, the enormous tree that had been chosen to be the star of the show in Rockefeller Center this Christmas season was making its final leg of a trek from a town in Pennsylvania to its new home in Midtown, New York City. A future of being oohed and ahhed at by millions of tourists lay before it. So why not kick things off with a little traffic jam in the middle of the night on November 12th, just to get things off on the right foot?

Flanked by a couple of those cars with "oversized vehicle" warning signs attached to them, the tree made a right turn onto 5th Avenue and proceeded at five miles per hour toward Rockefeller Center at 50th Street. The cops kept us sitting there at 57th for another minute before finally clearing out of the intersection and joining their caravan a couple of blocks down the road.

What had started as a routine little ride to Grand Central Station had now entered crisis management mode. With only five minutes left to make the train, my passengers, who up to now had seemed relatively unconcerned, had become silent and tense. Visions of five hours of camping out in the station were creeping in on them. I put on my Racing Driver hat.

Zipping down to 54th Street, I made a quick decision to take a detour to Park Avenue in order to avoid further delays by the Great Tree Procession in front of us on 5th. With some extra speed and a cautious running of a red light, I got them to Grand Central with three minutes remaining on the clock. After a quick payment of the fare and a thank you, my passengers bolted out of the cab and headed for the entrance to the station, four nerds doing the hundred-yard dash with what should have been just enough time to catch the train.

Now, in my day I've weathered some of the greatest traffic jams in the history of New York City. I've been filibustered by several presidents of the United States. I've been blockaded by Fidel Castro, held hostage by Ahmadinijad. I've been rendered into collateral damage by a Mafia hit in Midtown. I've been stopped in my tracks by the camels, elephants, and zebras of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. And now I've been humbled into submission by something that's not even a member of the animal kingdom.

But it is a member of the Traffic Jam Hall of Fame.

The Entire East Side

My favorite shift of the week is the Sunday night shift. Even though it's usually quite slow after midnight, the passengers on Sundays tend to be friendlier and certainly more sober than any of the other nights of the week. And with a little luck you might get an airport ride early in the shift, say, between 5 and 7 pm - the time when there are tons of flights coming in - and that means a quick turnaround with a new fare, hopefully back to Manhattan. And that means good money. Cha-ching!

And so I was quite pleased to pick up, as my first fare of the night on Sunday, November 13th, two people who were LaGuardia bound. After putting their luggage in the trunk, we had a brief conference to reach agreement on the best route to take. Should it be the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (a $4.80 toll and all highway on the Queens side), the Triboro Bridge (longer, less chance of traffic, also a $4.80 toll, and all highway after the bridge), or the 59th Street Bridge (free, and closest to us from where we were located on 46th Street and 10th Avenue)? Since they said their flight was to leave at 7:00 and it was then 5:00 (plenty of time), the choice was obvious: the 59th Street Bridge. I made a right on 56th and we were on our way.

My passengers were a young, married couple from Sweden who, they said, were living and working in Dublin. They were both cheerful and the fellow was particularly conversational, telling me that part of the reason for their trip to New York was for a surprise reunion with his sister, who lives in California and was in New York herself for the weekend to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. His wife was pleasant, as well, although not as chatty as her husband. She struck me as the more practical of the two, showing some concern about any potential traffic problems that could lie ahead of us. I set her mind at ease by saying that they had wisely left more than enough time to get to LaGuardia, which is normally a twenty-five minute trip, but added that, of course, you never could know for sure what might happen with the traffic in New York City.

"Don't worry, though," I reassured her, while showing my age, "you'll be at LaGuardia so early you'll be playing Ms. PacMan for an hour just to pass the time."

Remember what I said about tempting fate? You would have thought from the previous night's debacle that I would have learned to keep my mouth shut.

We proceeded at a decent pace on 56th Street until we got to Lexington Avenue, two and a half "avenue blocks" from the bridge (in the New York street grid the distance between the avenues is considerably longer than the distance between the streets) and then we hit a wall. The trained eye (mine) can very quickly ascertain the degree of severity of traffic jams in the city and I knew immediately that something was amiss here. Not only was the traffic backed up all the way to the next avenue, 3rd, but it was solid, meaning it was moving forward at a pace of only three of four car lengths for each change of the light. It took us five minutes to get close enough to 3rd Avenue for me to see that the problem on our street was due to massive gridlock in the intersection - our backup on 56th was being caused by an even bigger backup on 3rd Avenue. And this translated to me instantly that there was huge - huge! - traffic on the bridge itself.

My passengers had remained calm and cheerful. Time was on their side and a five-minute delay on the crowded 56th Street wasn't enough to raise an eyebrow. But in my mind a little alarm clock was ringing. Something was wrong here - you just never see this kind of traffic at this particular place and at this particular time - but I couldn't imagine what it could be. However, I did know the 59th Street Bridge was no longer an option.

"Listen," I announced, "Something's really bad on the bridge. I'm gonna take the Midtown Tunnel. I know it's $4.80 more for the toll, but it's the best thing to do with this kind of traffic. God knows how long we might be sitting in it."

They were fine with it. So when it was finally my turn to zigzag around the cars jamming up the intersection, I went straight on 56th toward 2nd Avenue instead of making the left onto 3rd, which had been my original intention. 56th was relatively clear on that block, and that was a good thing, but when we reached 2nd Avenue I saw that our traffic problems were not only behind us, but ahead of us as well: 2nd Avenue, which should have been free-flowing, was also a solid wall of barely moving vehicles.

So now we were stuck in whatever it was. The entrance to the Midtown Tunnel is at 2nd Avenue and 36th Street, exactly one mile from where we were. To get to the third possible route, the Triboro Bridge, would mean circling back in the direction of the 59th Street Bridge traffic. I decided our best bet was to just stick with 2nd Avenue, even though it was a river of brake lights as far as the eye could see.

We plunged into it.

Well, the conversation quickly changed from how a couple of Swedes wound up in Dublin to, gee, do you think we're going to make our plane? I told them they probably had enough time to walk to LaGuardia and still make the plane but secretly, since I had no idea what was causing this mess, I was wondering the same thing. For the next ten minutes we moved so slowly on 2nd Avenue - not even one block for each change of the light - that the possibility of missing the flight was becoming less and less remote.

More than anything, though, I was dying of curiosity to know what was causing the problem. It had to be something huge. An accident? No, couldn't be, accidents only tie up traffic for just a few blocks. A fire? No, fires cause only small delays and detours, never anything like this. I decided it had to be a disaster - something like a plane crash, a building collapse, or a terrorist attack. Yeah, it had to be on that order of magnitude. I turned the radio on to the news station and within a couple of minutes I had my answer...

...the Upper Level of the 59th Street Bridge was closed in both directions.

Yes, it immediately fit. That would do it. The 59th Street Bridge is the busiest passageway in New York City. It takes, by far, more vehicular traffic than any other bridge or tunnel. Close down half of it and you have an automatic traffic disaster. It explained both slowdowns: the gridlock on 3rd Avenue was from cars trying to get onto the bridge; the inch-by-inch on 2nd Avenue were the cars doing what we were trying to do - get away from the bridge and get to the Midtown Tunnel instead.

So the mystery was solved, except for one thing: why? Why in the world would they do such a thing? It had to be an incident of cataclysmic proportions.

Now I will tell you why it happened, but before I do, let me remind you that it is not merely the size of the traffic nightmare that earns one consideration for entrance into the Hall. It has to be something special, something that makes it a champion. It's like professional athletes. Sure, you have to be damned good to even make it to the pros, but we don't place laurels on the heads of the average players. We bestow immortality only on those who have proven to be the best of the best. And so it is with the Traffic Jam Hall of Fame.

So without further ado, here it is. Here is why the entire East Side of Manhattan was brought to a standstill for the entire afternoon (as I later found out): they were filming a scene from the latest Batman movie!

Yes, a movie company paid, I assume, a large amount of money to get permission from certain city officials who, in the "let them eat cake" style of our current mayor, chose to close down our most traveled bridge for several hours in the middle of the day. How many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people suffered for this? How many lost an hour out of their day? How many missed the first act of the Broadway show they were trying to get to? How many missed their train? How many missed their plane?

Fortunately my own passengers did make it to LaGuardia before their flight left without them. But not before it took them forty-five minutes to travel one mile on 2nd Avenue in a taxicab which cost them an extra $17 in waiting time and another $4.80 for a toll they shouldn't have had to pay.

As outraged as I am about this latest concession to materialism (our bridges are now for lease), it would be unfair to take it out on the jam itself. Just as certain athletes who were known for being antisocial sons of bitches off the field are nevertheless honored for their achievements on the field, proper acknowledgement must not be denied when it has been earned, regardless of how the damned thing was brought into the world.

And so, in the spirit of fair play, I now open wide the portals to our newest member. Welcome, The Batman Jam, to the Traffic Jam Hall of Fame!


And I welcome you to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.