New York Taxis: no English required

Latka in taxi

Years ago, I was helping someone move apartments and we took a cab. We were calling for gypsy cabs as this was in uptown Manhattan where it was difficult to hail a cab. The driver had zero English. Even when my friend wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he thought he was going to 124th Street because the number of the building address was 124. He called his dispatcher on his cell phone and him interpret this address.

We don’t expect everyone to speak the King’s English in New York—what native New Yorkers speak is far from the King’s English—but driving a cab or working with the public in this town in any official capacity should require English and until recently that was the case for having a license to drive a cab (colloquially known as a “hack license.”)

New York City taxi drivers are no longer required to pass an English language proficiency test. This regulation had been on the books for a while but not stringently enforced. Ask any New Yorker who has taken cabs in the city regularly and they have had drivers with little or no English. Now it’s just official.

And it’s a bad idea. We don’t have a lot of things that hold us together here in New York or America anymore for that matter. If we’re going to perish in a suicidal cultural bouillabaisse, then I guess descending into a hellish Babel is part of the deal. But the interest of public safety can’t be abandoned so quickly and recklessly.

What’s motivating this in New York is not a lack of drivers who are willing to learn English, but the medallion cab companies losing drivers to startup hailing app companies like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a matter of public policy or politicians’ hearts breaking for destitute non-English speakers, but the cold hard cash that fuels what remains of our “democracy.”

It’s amazing that you can get a driver’s license in the U.S.A. without knowing English, but at least let make sure that those who drive other people professionally know the language. New Yorkers come from every part of the globe and whatever your opinions of our current immigration question, most people agree that people who live and work together need to know the same language.

Technology that’s shaking up the taxi industry will enable drivers who are restricted in language to only deal with clientele they can communicate with. Since you can order any kind of vehicle to pick you up with a ride-sharing mobile application, you can also specify that language proficiency of your driver. Thus the balkanization of the U.S. is advanced further, and all in the name of helping and fairness.

I have never been a frequent user of cabs but in my days of hard drinking and late nights that became early mornings, I would take a cab. Since most cab drivers in New York are from other countries, I enjoyed speaking to them about where they were from and learning about what was going on in the world from people who had a closer connection to it.

New York has survived for hundreds of years in part because people have learned to work with one another despite enormous differences. A common language makes that possible.

Finding some Olympic spirit

Olympic tattoo

Though I normally don’t follow the Olympics or sports in general outside of watching the Georgia Bulldogs every fall, this summer’s games have proven a pleasing distraction.

There was a lot of negative news going into this year’s Olympic Games. Rio was woefully under prepared and is internationally known as a haven of high crime (it still is). A significant portion of the Russian team was disqualified due to doping charges. This had all the makings of a miserable time.

But the achievements of the athletes have given us here in the U.S.A. a welcome distraction from the bad news of the world that has been flooding us for the past several months. American Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time and won a gold medal at what will likely be his very last Olympic Games as an athlete.

I have been enjoying watching many of the women’s sports at home. My three young daughters can be inspired by the female athletes, I can ogle the young Olympians without looking like an obvious pervert in front of my wife, and we bring support to women’s athletics when we watch at home on television, or at least I tell myself that.

I’m determined to show my daughters popular female role models because most of what our culture serves us is pure garbage. That’s not feminism, that’s just trying to be a good parent. Female athletics have advanced enough that we now have stars that are trash-talking sore losers. It took male Olympic athletes nearly 100 years to become that obnoxious.

Like the World Cup, New York is a place where you can find any international population that exists in the world watching and cheering on their compatriots. I have one friend who is setting out on a mission to tour as many bars as possible and watch as many games with different international crowds as his Metrocard and his ability to walk straight will allow. If that’s not the Olympic spirit, nothing is.

Of course we have to endure the over-politicization of the games as the media wants to make everything an emotional epic of one sort or another. But most of us are content to enjoy the games as a chance to see a mastery of craft and hard work rewarded. Competitive sports are a great dose of reality that flies in the face of much of the increasingly infantile culture of the Western world. There is no medal for participation in the Olympics. Everyone competing is an amazing athlete and most of them will go home empty-handed.

Seeing people who excel with hard work and discipline achieve excellence in a difficult challenge is something we ought to see and admire. To see people from around the world compete and leave the politics and strife from the world outside the games for the most part, is a welcome sight in these contentious times.

Even when they are rife with controversy and disappointment, the Olympics still provide plenty of positive inspiration. Take the time to enjoy it while you can.

Preserving your sanity, New York City summer edition

American Flag at GCT

This year is already going down in history as a bitterly unpleasant one. America and the world are in varying states of conflict with no easy resolutions being offered. While the U.S. humiliates itself with the buffoonery of its current political climate, many parts of the world have it much worse. Conflict-rich New York City appears as a calm oasis in the midst of this storm, which speaks volumes about the unfortunate state of our world.

New York City is its own universe at war with itself in so many ways already, it’s hard to get caught up in the Sturm Und Drang of a political season that will be here again in four years anyway. Admittedly, this election has added some excitement and unpredictability, but whatever revolutions were alive in the primaries are over.

This year’s Presidential election is likely the most contentious once since 1968, which saw widespread race riots and the assassination of the leading Democratic candidate. We’ve had nothing of that scale here, at least not yet. And this is the first time since 1944 that both major-party candidates are from New York. We’d have every reason to feel like this is New York’s moment to play an outsized role in the national dialogue. But New York already views itself as the center of human civilization, and the overall disaffection with the choices in this year’s election is felt here as elsewhere. New Yorkers were weary of these candidates long before this year’s election.

So the average New York City resident does little but shake their head at the politics being played out on our televisions and news feeds. We already have things to hate each other for. The city is full of despicable people who come from all ends of the political spectrum. We don’t need to pass judgement on one another’s politics; we’re already judging each other by a myriad of other criteria. People who are not activists are largely, and for their own benefit, disengaged from the process. We’ll hold our noses and vote for someone in November, but until then leave us alone.

The summer is a time when one needs to leave the city in order to preserve one’s sanity. Everything is worse when drenched in heat and humidity, and this summer has been exceedingly hot, with 90+ degree heat for days and weeks at a time. We can’t seem to catch a break. New York magnifies the worst of the oppressive weather, and the dense population make city life a sojourn to Hades in these months.

Lots of people head north at some point. It’s cooler the farther north you get. I dream of living somewhere in the mountains or the woods in reaches hours north of New York by car. I envision a family compound with room for many guests, enough land to hunt on, and a writing office stocked with hunting trophies and miles of books. Then I snap out of this and realize I’ve been dozing off on my feet on the 7 train crammed next to other sullen commuters.

New Yorkers follow the edict that’s used often in the military: “embrace the suck.” We are going to be hot and miserable for several months, so just accept that level of misery for what it is and wait for the fall when New York is much more pleasant.

The kindness of strangers on a bus in Queens

old bus

Living in New York City for a long time can leave you jaded and expecting the worst of humanity. Actually, living anywhere on Earth for a long time can leave you with a pretty dismal view of the world. Sometimes there are times in city life that surprise you and give you some hope for humanity.

My wife was away all day this past Saturday, leaving me alone for the first extended period of time with our three children, all of whom are under three years of age. “Three under three” is apparently a very difficult thing to do. Having three kids in this day and age, especially for employed city dwellers, is a rarity. I have a lot of friends with kids and can only think of three of them that have three. Most have one or two. Raising kids is not easy but I’ll be damned if I don’t do my part. I’m going to keep trying until I get a son or until my wife kills me in my sleep.

Anyway, I could not sit inside with my children all day. It’s important to get kids out and about to see and experience the world lest they become agoraphobic sociopaths who play video games or spend all day on social media. So I bought tickets online to see The Cat Came Back: Stories and Songs with A Jazzy Twist at Flushing Town Hall, which is about a half mile from our home.

Too far to make toddlers walk and not blessed with a large enough parking lot to make driving an option, the best method of getting there was by bus.

In New York City, bus travel is at the lowest end of the social totem pole. It’s a deal breaker for many residents, which is why apartments are still somewhat affordable in our neighborhood and why our slice of the city hasn’t been hit with the same level of gentrification as those closer to the subway. Bus travel gives you all the crowded unpleasantness of a packed subway with the lurching frustration of sitting in city traffic.

But my two two-year-olds don’t mind the bus. My older (by one minute) daughter enjoys taking the bus and is downright disappointed and angry if we drive by car. The bus is an adventure and seeing new people and things. It means not being strapped into a car seat and being able to turn around in her set and look out the window. While to most adults it’s a confining mode of transit that makes you feel like a loser, to a little kid used to the constraints of our safety-conscious society, the public bus is a respite from the constricted life.

So I put our infant daughter in a baby carrier and walked across the street from our building to wait for the bus to take us to Flushing Town Hall. After waiting a while, a Q20 arrived. We were first in line but were waiting for a Q34. I mentioned this as I waived people ahead of us, and a fellow passenger told me that the Q34 doesn’t run on the weekends.

We got on the bus and people were very deferential and offered me their seat so I could sit next to our two twin girls, who are two and a half. I preferred to stand anyway, and tried to join the girls in “The Wheels on the Bus,” but they were too interested in looking at the world outside the bus to join me in much singing.

The bus driver was very nice to us, and made sure I didn’t miss my stop. At one point he left the back door open and said, “That door is for you!” but he wasn’t talking to me, but rather a fare beater who had snuck in the back at the stop. Anyway, people on the bus moved to let me sit even though I told them I didn’t want to. As long as the girls have a place to sit I’m fine. I prefer to stand on public transportation anyway.

The concert at Flushing Town Hall was good and the girls were patient for most of the show. By the time they got really restless and needed to be taken home, the show was winding down. It was a nice time and even though a lot of the folk tales were over the girls’ heads, it’s always good to expose children to culture and the arts.

On the bus back home, people were again very generous and helpful. Even though one old lady was crabby and told a man he didn’t belong in the elderly/handicapped seat next to her, people were nice to the guy herding three kids around. I emerged from what is usually a transit hell with a sense that human beings can be decent once in a while, at least towards small children.

RAMONES and the quest for Queens’ artistic respect

Ramones exhibit Queens museum

The Queens Museum is a site of pilgrimage for punk rock fans from all over the area thanks to its Ramones exhibit, which is open until July 31.

I made it there not long ago one weekend after seeing friends posting photos of their visits there over social media for the last several months. It is a fine exhibit, one long overdue in the borough that gave the pioneering punk rock band to the world. I made a point to wear my Norman Bates & The Showerheads t-shirt when I visited, because one great Queens punk band deserves another.

The exhibit is colorful and brief. It’s only two modest-sized rooms and a screening room. I went there with my family, which means that a good deal of our time was spent stopping our two and half year old twin girls from banging Tommy Ramone’s snare drum. We didn’t have time to really take all of it in, maybe we should have gotten a sitter.

But as rushed as our walk through the exhibit was, it was important to be there. Queens is often overlooked in the pantheon of New York City artistic greatness. But Queens has given the world not only the Ramones but Johnny Thunders, Run-DMC, Simon & Garfunkel and more. Queens doesn’t get the respect it deserves – all the outer boroughs carry with it that basic desire to poke their finger in the eye of the city being defined as Manhattan.

One thing that the contemporary adoration of the Ramones tends to obscure is that they were grossly underappreciated when they were a functioning group, at least here in the U.S. I remember going to see them in 1989 in Connecticut and they were playing at Toad’s Place in New Haven, an admirable music club but a small venue (it was a 21+ show and I had no fake I.D.). When I finally saw them in late 1995, they were playing a larger venue, but as part of a shitty alternative radio show, headlining but sharing the bill with the unworthy likes of Better than Ezra and Silverchair (the oft-hated Silverchair were actually very good to be honest).

Queens is fully embracing its Ramones fame. Murals of the Ramones now grace Forest Hills. There are plans to rename the intersection next to Forest Hills High School Ramones Way.

The Ramones who moved to the East Village in the 1970s could not afford to live there today. While the Joey Ramone Place street sign is the most stolen in the city, the area looks nothing like it did when the Ramones first played CBGB in 1974. The refrain is a familiar one: New York is no longer affordable to the artists who made New York’s art scene famous. The artists I know don’t talk about New York, they speak of Philadelphia, Buffalo, or Berlin. New York’s East Village is a victim of its own success in a lot of ways. I’m not ready to give up on New York just yet, but it’s easy for me to say that from Flushing.

To be a punk rock fan in New York City means to constantly wrestle with nostalgia. There is a rich history to celebrate, but nostalgia can be a trap as much as a motivator.

New York continues to produce great punk bands. You may have to travel farther away from Manhattan and the trendy parts of Brooklyn to see them, but great local bands, the Ramones of tomorrow, are playing somewhere in Queens today.

Battle of the Queens Night Markets

Karl's Balls

Not too long ago, Friday nights were when I wanted to rage in abominable weekend warrior style and get home in the early hours of dawn after partying harder than Robert Downey Jr. with a 40-pound crack rock. Not so anymore. I’ve become mellowed with age and exhausted by child wrangling and by Friday evening I want nothing more than to sit at home and try to catch up on sleep.

So this past Friday I was reluctant to leave home with our brood to attend Flushing Night Out that was held on the campus of Flushing High School, not far from where we live. I did not want to deal with a large crowd and trying to supervise two active toddlers amid a mob of festivalgoers. But my wife insisted we go support this thing.

The five of us plus my mother-in-law took a bus less than a mile to the corner of Northern Boulevard and Union Street.

Flushing High School is the oldest high school in the city and unlike most city high schools, it sits on a large piece of land that has a nice lawn. That’s where the Flushing Night Out was held.

The event was well attended but not horribly crowded, a welcome relief. It was an overwhelmingly Asian crowd, which was no surprise since it was Flushing, and it was largely Flushing High School students and people active in community events. The mobs of ill-mannered drunks, arrogant thugs, and hipster abominations I feared never materialized, and while the DJ music that was there was aimed at a younger audience and therefore pretty shitty, it wasn’t hard to get away from it. Things sounded much better once the live music started.

The food offerings were impressive and things are usually $5 or less. I had some excellent classic mac and cheese as well as fried mac and cheese from House of Mac, ate a tasty scallion pancake from Seoul Pancake, a seafood and pasta mix that had an Asian name I can’t remember from Teinei Ya and an amazing banana-flavored homemade pastry from Jai NYC Eats. The food booth that caught my attention the easiest was Karl’s Balls. Karl’s balls are delicious octopus balls. Meticulously tended to by the chef, the balls lived up to the hype. I can’t wait to have Karl’s Balls in my mouth again.

There was a $1 dollar All You Can Craft table that allowed us to keep our small children occupied and allowed them to leave with some hand-made jewelry. They also enjoyed painting their own and their grandmother’s arms with paint. Helpful volunteers were incredibly good-natured and patient with rambunctious toddlers who wielded paint brushes like machetes.  Not far away, a vendor used a real machete to slice coconuts for special drinks.

There were also a lot of different vendors selling various inexpensive crafts. There was some seating available and space for people to bring picnic blankets. It was an all-around pleasant evening.

Flushing Night Out will be held several more Fridays this summer: July 29, August 12 and August 26. They run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. It is a good way to experience Flushing and family friendly too. It’s organized by the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce.

There is also a Queens International Night Market that is held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, on Saturdays. Our family tried to go there once but we drove and there was no parking available. My wife got out and walked through and found that the lines were incredibly long because there were not enough vendors. However, it has improved and my mother-in-law attended a more recent night market there and reported that there were many more vendors and that the crowd situation has improved.

The Brooklyn Night Bazaar was very popular and featured a lot of food vendors, beer, and music. It closed though it appears to be on its way back as its web site says it will be revived this September. Queens doesn’t need to duplicate Brooklyn to prove its worth, but these night markets can be a lot of fun if done right, and the Queens night markets are proving to be successful.

Queens has the most to offer of any borough in the city as far as food and different crafts. If something exists in the world, you can bet someone in Queens can cook it, get it for you, or show you how to make it. Night markets like Flushing Night Out are a good way to discover new foods, restaurants, or other fun things that may already be close by.

 

My friend Poppy, a better New Yorker

Poppy photo

This past weekend, my wife and I took our three girls to the Cradle of Aviation Museum not far outside the New York City border in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. The museum is located on the spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.

The museum is a nice one and wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday. There is a play room for children that our older girls enjoyed as well as plenty of airplane and helicopter cockpits they enjoyed climbing into and pretending to fly.

As we were busy wrangling our children and enjoying the exhibits, I saw people I recognized. I saw my friend Poppy and his son Mike there at the museum. It was a great coincidence.

I worked with Poppy years ago when I first moved back to New York City and worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport. Even though I was only on the job for about two years and left it more than sixteen years ago, it remains the most interesting paying job I’ve ever held.

The immigration service attracted an interesting mix of people, and most of my fellow immigration inspectors were excellent people. Some of them, particularly some of the supervisors, liked to put on airs even though they did little but order people around and make things easy for the airlines. Some people like to inflate themselves or wear needless tactical gear and pull power trips on passengers or other inspectors.

Poppy didn’t have to yell at people or strut around pretending to be tough. He’s a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Army and the New York Police Department. He saw combat in Vietnam and on the streets of New York as a housing cop during some of the most violent times of the city’s history. Rank-and-file inspectors like me respected the retired cops like Poppy because they had real and more impressive law enforcement experience and had no use for the petty politics of the federal bureaucracy. There was nothing that a paper-pushing supervisor could threaten him with that was going to scare him. He’s fought off Vietcong and hardened criminals. He’s seen humanity at its worst, repeatedly, and retained the ability to laugh at it.

His ability to laugh at bullshit that would otherwise drive a normal person insane is one of the qualities makes him so valued. After I left the airport to work in journalism, I worked with Poppy to write a book of funny stories about his time as a police officer. He gave me some recordings of conversations he had with fellow retired officers so I could write them up. I decided to listen to a few minutes one day before heading out, but these stories were so funny that I couldn’t stop listening and sat in my apartment listening to these stories and laughing out loud.

Among all the people I am in touch with from the airport, Poppy is the central figure in our network of friends. He is the one we will plan to meet for dinner months in advance, the one we’ll call when we make our one pilgrimage to a wrestling show for the year, the one we want to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium with. Some of the most memorable dinners I’ve had were with Poppy and other JFK friends at Two Toms Restaurant in Brooklyn.

Poppy has faced his share of troubles. He has faced health problems, his house burned down, and the useless airport bureaucrats held up his retirement paperwork. But despite that he has lost none of his humor or his ability to make you feel like you are one of his crew. My discussion with him and at the museum lasted only a few minutes, but it brightened my entire weekend.

We live in troubling times and we’ve seen New York and America enter difficult times that strain our concept of survival. But I take comfort that our country produces men like my friend Poppy, who is strong enough to face any danger and help you laugh at the absurdities of life.

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