The Rickshaws of New York
By Antonio Graceffo
I took my feet off the pedals, to get my composure back, and stepped right in a fresh pile of horse manure.
Two grooms, who were currying a carriage horse laughed at me. "What a clown." They said, in Spanish.
Pedi cabs, horses, Spanish grooms, manure, and carriages it was hard to believe I was in the middle of Hells Kitchen, New York City.
Picture the busy streets of midtown Manhattan jammed with rush hour traffic. A solid mass of frantic pedestrians rushes past the paralyzed cars. They are busy New Yorkers in business clothes in a hurry to catch the train, in a hurry to get to a meeting, in a hurry to get to dinner reservations. New Yorkers are always in a hurry to get somewhere. But how can you get across town fast when traffic is at a stand still and walking is just too slow?
The surprising answer is, take a bicycle taxi. Now, the city that never sleeps is finding a new use for an age-old concept. New York lives and dies by the stock market, and sets global trend for fashion, bagels, and pizza. It is the last place you would expect to find bicycle taxis, but currently, there are 400 of the innovative vehicles operating in five or six major zones of Manhattan, with that number expected to more than double by the end of 2007.
A bicycle taxi, also called a pedi cab, is a three wheeled bicycle, with a large bench seat in the back, for up to three passengers. The driver sits up front, on a normal bicycle saddle, and earns his living, pedaling customers to their destinations. The taxies have been winning recognition as an environmentally friendly alternative to automobiles, which pollute the air and choke passersby. But for New Yorkers, the most important advantage of the bicycle taxi is the speed. During rush hour, when traffic grinds to a standstill, the nimble bicycles can create their own lanes, slipping in between or beside cars, covering the distance in less than half the time. At other times, when traffic is moving well, the big advantage of the bicycle taxi is that you can actually get one. Every New York has had the experience of standing on a street corner, with his arm up in the air to signal a yellow cab, which never comes. At times the entire city seems to be a sea of yellow taxis with only one passenger. But the bicycle taxis are always willing to stop.
I spent a day in New York, driving one of the taxis, pedaling around behind my friend Tomer, a young, motivated immigrant, who taught me the ropes of bicycle taxi driving.
"I came to America eleven months ago." Said the twenty-seven year old, Tomer. "The minimum wage is only $5.25 per hour. So, working at a McDonalds or something, you could earn about $900 per month. But a basic apartment cost over $1,000 a month. So, how can you live on that?"
Tomer looked for an interesting job, which would pay a livable wage.
"This is New York. On TV in my country, we always see the horse drawn carriages in Central Park. So, I thought, my family would think I was very American if I got that job."
Tomer found his way to the horse stables, on 12^th Avenue and 52^nd St.
"They said with the horses you could earn $45 for taking people around Central Park once. But how many trips could you make in a day? And what about when it rains? And then, you had to pay rent on the coach, food for the horse, and stable fees. It didn’t look like a good deal."
While he was in the stables, Tomer noticed the strange bicycle taxis. "They kept them right there, next to the coaches." He said. "So, I asked how it worked."
Basically, the drivers rent the bicycle taxis from one of about seven companies. The rents vary, but they generally run about $200 per week. The bicycle is reserved for them all week. They are free to work as much or as little as they want. Once the rent is paid, they can keep all the money they take in.
"Two hundred is for the rent for twenty four hours a day, seven days a week." Explained Tomer. "But I only work nights, so I split the rent with a guy who works days. Now we only pay $100 a week, each."
In general, bicycle taxis are more expensive than regular taxis. Unlike taxis, which are strictly regulated in New York City, bicycle taxi drivers are free to charge what they want.
"Everyone does it a little different." he said. " I charge a dollar per passenger, per block. But, if I think the people will pay more, I charge more. If they bargain, sometimes I let them have it for less."
On a good day, Tomer can earn $300 in fares and tips. *His average day is about $200, which is about what a McDonald’s worker earns for an entire week*.
Tomer’s story was pretty typical of the other drivers I met, hanging around Central Park. They came from all over the world, with a lot of Russians, Israelis and some Latinos. Most of the American drivers were actors or models who liked the flexibility of the working hours, which allowed them to go on auditions. No matter where they came from, the pedi cab drivers had one thing in common, they saw driving a pedi cab as the first step toward achieving the American Dream. Not so long ago, my relatives came over on the boat from Italy. They had to take the lowest jobs, working their way up from the rags of the ethnic ghetto to the respectability of a house on Long Island. I loved everyone of these hardworking young people, who represented the new wave of immigration to the USA, and who proved that the American Dream was still alive.
Tomer took me along to show me how his night shift business worked.
"I pick up the bike around four o’clock. Then I start making circles from 57^th street down to 42^nd , from Broadway to Madison Avenue."
This is an area in New York City which has a lot of office buildings. Tomer would pick up a lot of business people, in suits and ties, and take them to the trains at Grand Central Station or Penn Station. This area also includes Rockafella Center, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and Times Square.
"So I get a lot of tourists as well."
For tourists, ridding the bicycle taxi is excellent. During normal traffic conditions, the bicycle taxi moves slower than a car, and it is wide open. So the tourists can get a good look at the city, and make excellent photos. From the back seat of a bicycle taxi, you can cock your head back and stare straight up at the mountainous skyscrapers. You feel as though you are at the bottom of a deep canyon, peering up to the sky.
Rush hour lasts till about six thirty or seven, when Tomer shifts his attention to Times Square, where he picks up tourists and takes them sightseeing. Around eight or nine o’clock Tomer takes a break and eats dinner. He goes back to work at ten, when the theaters let out.
"After the shows end, it is hard to get a taxi." Tomer explains. "Besides, after seeing a great show, the people don’t want to go straight home. So they take a ride on the bicycle taxi, and watch the lights of Manhattan."
Like all real New Yorkers, I have always had a love affair with my city. I never owned a car in New York, always preferring to ride a bicycle or walk. On a bike, you aren’t driving through the city, you are driving with it. You are tapping into the never-ending heartbeat, driving along with the circulation of blood and money that keeps the city alive. Ridding a bicycle in New York, you get to know the city intimately, which is something most tourists will miss out on, if they are always taking taxis.
Bicycle taxis, or pedicabs, operate all year long. When it is raining or snowing, they put up the top, just like on a horse drawn coach, to keep the guests dry. "I actually make more in bad weather." Explained Tomer. "New Yorkers are impatient anyway. But when it is raining or snowing, no one wants to stand on the corner and wait for a bus or a taxi. So, they ride with me."
Cruising down Fifth Avenue, Tomer picked up his first fare of the night, two businessmen, in a hurry to get to Grand Central Station. "You are on your own now." Tomer told me, as he pedaled off to the East Side.
Now, it was my turn to actually drive and try to make money on the streets I had hustled for most of my life. I had always ridden and raced bicycles on the streets of New York. In fact, when I was younger, I had competed on the Central Park bicycle team. But driving a pedi cab was a new experience for me. The three-wheeled bicycle looked similar to the Chinese rickshaw I had once driven across the Taklamakan Desert, so I expected to do well. But reality doesn’t always meet expectations. First off, the bike was very hard to steer. The heavy bench seat in the back felt like I was driving a bicycle, pulling a gymnasium. I was used to putting my feet down, when I stopped a normal bicycle, but when driving a pedi cab your feet shouldn’t touch the ground at all. For one thing, the bike weighs 150 LBS. Add to that my own body weight of 211 LBS, plus the weight of two customers, and suddenly, I realized I would be pulling somewhere on the order of six or seven hundred pounds. I had to remind myself, no Fred Flintstone stops here. Always use the brakes.
As much as I have chosen to live a life of experience, my pride still felt a twinge as I rode past my old office. On the bike, I could hear the conversations of the suits who walked along the avenue, doing deals. For good or for ill, that was once me.
At the next corner a severely over-weight couple from Italy waved me down. Gingerly, I pulled to the curb. The bike groaned, as I helped them mount. The woman blocked the sun and stressed the seat to the breaking point. The man looked like he could really put away the pasta.
"Dove?" I asked.
"Jolly Hotel." Said the smiling woman, who in spite of taxing my legs to the point of cardiac arrest, had a warm, pleasant smile.
One of my many fears in driving the taxi was that, although I had once known every inch of the city by heart, I had been away for nearly five years. Fortunately, the Jolly hotel was a place I knew well. Once, when I had formed my own corporation, we had used a suite at Jolly Hotel as our headquarters.
On the bike, it became even more apparent to me just how much I loved and missed the greatest city on earth. At the same time, I realized that every address, every location, every nook and cranny held some ghosts from my past, which I would have to deal with.
The lady chatted away with me in Italian, as I struggled to maintain some speed faster than a snail’s pace. I couldn’t decide if I was Alex Reiger or Tony Danza, as I forced myself to be pleasant, in spite of the sweat dripping down my face. The lady asked me where in Italy I was from. When I told her I was Sicilian, she nodded knowingly. "When you first come to America you have to do whatever job you can get." She said.
At the next traffic light, I couldn’t get the bike rolling again. In a panic, I wound up knocking off the chain. While I struggled to fix it, the woman and her husband decided to walk. Given how overweight they were, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for them to walk all the time.
After I fixed the chain, and my hands and clothes were completely covered in thick black grease, I decided that maybe I should practice alone for a while, before taking more customers. So, I began riding big circles, up Sixth Avenue, almost to Central Park, then down Madison, almost to Grand Central Station. After two hours, I was completely done-in. Even ridding the empty bike, with no passengers, was exhausting. Once again, I felt a deep stirring of respect for Tomer and his friends who did this, eight hours per day, six days per week. With recent arguments in USA about immigration, I would like to publicly state, anyone hardworking enough to get up and drive a pedi cab everyday will be an asset to our country.
As my exhaustion overtook me, I began to drive carelessly. The police used their loud speaker to yell at me, when I careened into the bus lane. Next, I broad-sided a limousine. It was actually the second car I had hit, but no one saw me hit the first one, so I had run off. This time, the driver got out to confront me. Luckily, there was no damage done. "What are you, some kind of retard?" he asked. Anywhere else, that would have been an insult, but I got all choked up, because after nearly five years in Asia, he might as well have been saying "Welcome home."
"Be careful next time." he said.
Hoping to escape without getting arrested, sued or killing myself or others, I decided to take the bike back to the stables, and call it a night. I had lasted two hours. It was the second shortest career I had ever had.
If you visit New York, give the pedi cab a chance. The ride will be fun and exciting. You’ll be doing a good dead for the environment. But most importantly, you will be helping to preserve the American ideal that anyone can make here, who is willing to pull himself up by his boot straps. If your driver is an out of work actor, make sure to get his autograph. If he gets famous, you could sell it on Ebay. Who knows, one of those pedi cab drivers might go on to be the next Antonio Graceffo.
Copyright © Antonio Graceffo