Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was hosting a punk rock show celebrating the birthday of Mike Moosehead, one of the city’s most talented musicians. I was not going to miss it, even though the weather was horrible and the city was slow to plow the roads.
Driving cautiously over roads and highways caked with snow that had been churned by traffic to a grim grey slurry, I eventually found my way to Hank’s. I pulled up to the traffic light outside the hearty saloon and prepared to make a turn to look for parking.
Some young men outside the bar looked towards my truck and I thought I recognized them. One of them at least looked like a guy I know from playing in punk bands. They looked like they recognized me and approached me.
“Uber?” said the young man.
“No, sorry,” I said, feeling stupid, though I’m guessing he felt dumber. The cars that are Uber cars are usually newer and have a very clear and recognizable ‘UBER’ or ‘U’ sign in their window.
“Does Uber have pickup trucks?” I asked. The young man didn’t seem to know.
Uber, the online taxi service that allows users to summon and pay for cabs entirely online and without cash, does have pickup trucks, though they are rare in New York.
Being the resident old man in the office where I work, I do not have the Uber app on my smart phone. My wife has used it to secure a ride for her mother when the weather locked our truck under a sheet of ice a while ago. It’s a useful thing to have because you can take the mystery and risk out of whether or not you’ll get a cab. I rarely take cabs and I don’t trust Uber.
Years ago, when I spent more time drinking into the early hours of the morning in bars far from home, I wound up taking a lot more cabs. I enjoyed talking to the drivers, who are usually from a different part of the world, about where they are from and life in the city. I once met a Muslim driver from Pakistan with a long beard and traditional garb who had become an American citizen. He was heartfelt in his frustration at how extremists had come to define his religion in his adopted home.
The migration to online taxi hailing means trouble for New York’s yellow cabs, and the yellow cab drivers have only themselves to blame. Every New Yorker can recount a litany of horror stories about the difficulty in hailing and getting decent service from yellow cabs.
Yellow cabs will cherry pick who they take. Even though this is illegal, they will drive around with their ‘out of service’ lights on to avoid regulations. I have successfully hailed a yellow cabs only to have them drive away when they thought I had too much luggage. Drivers have been known to overcharge, tamper with meters, and otherwise cheat and nickel and dime their fares.
Online taxi service is a concept whose time is long overdue. We can rent cars online and buy plane and bus tickets online. There’s no reason calling a cab online shouldn’t be commonplace for everyone, and in a few short years I have no doubt it will be standard operating procedure.
Where Uber goes wrong however, is in its pricing. It runs pricing on a strict supply and demand basis and gouges its prices through “surge pricing,” so when demand goes up, pricing can go through the roof. Because the service is not cash-based and is charged to the customer’s credit card, people can be charged exorbitant amounts of money for what would normally be an inexpensive cab ride. Recently Uber quickly raised its prices in Sydney, Australia during a recent terrorist hostage standoff. The fare algorithm that Uber uses does not adjust for human decency.
Like other New York traditions, hailing a taxi on the street is one that is fading. Nostalgia will keep it alive for a good while longer, but technology has found a more reliable way to get people in and out of cabs. Like other New York traditions, there is good and bad about its loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
It is the middle of February and my smart phone tells me that it’s a balmy 13˚F (-10.5˚C) degrees outside with a “real feel” of -17˚F (-27.2˚C). Walking outside was painful today and the wind is howling fiercely. It’s a yearly tradition to have days like these. Winter is not complete without at least one heavy snowfall and several days when the weather chills you to the bone.
We’re getting a true winter in the Northeast this year. No spring-like conditions should be welcome before mid-March. Some of the winter traditions can be done away with. Especially here in New York City, some of the lesser traditions include mountains of polluted snow, deceptive slush, walls of hard-packed plow snow, black ice, and transit mishaps.
The cold makes people tougher. You won’t get any increase in toughness from standing around in the sun. You may get sun-burned and skin cancer, but you’ll not improve yourself at all. The cold can kill you like the heat can, but coming in from the cold leaves you energized and glad for the warmth of the indoors. Coming in from a hot day leaves you slimy with sweat and smelling badly.
Every winter in New York has at least a few periods where the cold is biting and painful. Even for those of us with a high tolerance for the frigid, these times in winter are a step beyond our comfort zone. It’s important not to shrink from that. That’s not to say you should dedicate a few fingers or other bodily extremities to frostbite to truly experience the winter, but get out there and let the wind punch you in the face a few times. You’ll be glad you did.
Moving to a place where they don’t have a real winter is a bit of cop-out at life. We who live through the winters are better for it. There’s no reason to surrender toughness for the soft ease of the tropics. The sun-drenched climes have their place, but to not really experience all the seasons is not experiencing all of life. New York is lucky because it has all four seasons. There’s no weather that the earth can throw at the city that it has not survived. New York has survived hurricanes and snow blizzards and heat waves, sometimes all in the same year. And it will do it again, guaranteed.
States that are colder tend to have populations with higher IQs, research has shown. Those nations with consistently colder climates over the past few thousand years have produced some of the world’s most peaceful and democratic societies. Do you know what country has the longest-serving democratic parliament? Iceland. What country is doing better right now: Norway or Nigeria? Canada or Brazil?
Enjoy the cold weather because in a few short months it is going to be hot and miserable. Much of the Northeast that endures a frigid winter is not spared the humid suffering of summer. The cold will make you stronger. The cold kills off the weak and gives strength to the strong. Embrace the cold because you embrace life itself.
Years ago, before I returned to New York, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had no real plan and to be honest my ambitions have languished at various times. But it’s long overdue that I stepped up my efforts to make waves in the world of fiction as I have long planned, and my effort comes at a time when more writers than ever are fighting to reclaim literature for the real world.
Like other parts of the art world, what is considered literature is often the judgment of a well-heeled clique of self-dealing academics. They feed on the dreams of earnest young writers and take them to the cleaners after convincing them that they need a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to be considered a serious writer.
The MFA programs churn out many hopeful and aspiring writers, and many of them are excellent. But when I look back on the great writers that I admire, none of them made their bones in an academic program, but by scrapping out a living in the real world. The academic journals and programs have a choke-hold on what gets considered literature at the moment, though history will offer a different opinion.
Either way, the current system of academic literature has never been in greater need of a hard kick in its well-powdered derriere. And getting books published at all often requires knowing the right people and getting the right agent.
The Internet has helped writers working outside of this established universe to be heard and even make some money off of their writing. I am honored to know people like Darren Pillsbury, who has more courage than just about anyone I know and moved to California to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He wound up excelling in online publishing and is best known for his ‘Peter and the Vampire’ series. He gave me some great advice on how to publish things online. I probably violated plenty of his advice when I put a short story on Amazon and charged too much money for it, but I did it to figure out how to do it.
I’ve been too long avoiding pursuing literary ambitions in earnest because I’ve busied myself with other creative things. In some way they’ve all made me a better writer and a better person. Being in a punk rock band demonstrated that a key to any success is finding good creative people to join you. No one wants to listen to me play bass lines on my own, but I was lucky enough to have excellent collaborators in Blackout Shoppers. Doing comedy showed how not all audiences will respond the same way to the same material. A joke that kills at one gig bombs at another. The key is remembering you have the microphone and pressing on.
The right niche for success likely lies in the more comic short stories that I write. I love writing them and people enjoy reading them. I don’t know how marketable that is. Short fiction doesn’t make much money these days, but so what? I’ve mastered the art of excelling at art forms that are money losers at their core. As one of my excellent musician friends said, “We are middle-aged men with an expensive hobby.”
For a long time I attempted to write what I thought would be what literary types wanted to read, but in reality even moody literary types want to read something interesting. My stories feature people shitting themselves to death, loaning a family member’s corpse out to necrophiliacs, and taking part in operations to kill Islamic militants with Ebola on their toast. I have not done any of these things, but they are more compelling subject matter than most of what passes for literature today. I think I manage to make these stories into literature that will stand the test of time, but even if you don’t think it is art, at least it’s damn interesting.
Too many people, in art and in life, do what they think they are supposed to be doing instead of what is right for them to do. It’s not right for me to try to write weepy sensitive stories about people coming to terms with their emotions. I’d rather write about people saving White Castle from terrorists or punk rock bands doing battle with crack head zombies.
So Monday, Feb. 16 I will be reading a short story at the debut Short Story Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn. It is hosted by my good friend Phill Lentz, who lives the mad literary life of music art, blood, sweat and tears. I am honored to be the featured reader.
The reading is a competition. Writers pay $5 and the winner gets the whole pot. The crowd gets to vote on their favorite writer, with drink tickets being used for votes. You could rig the whole thing if you bring enough hard-drinking friends, but it’s still a more fair literary competition than what the academic journals are offering.
So if you have a short story that you can read aloud in five minutes or less, join us at The Cobra Club and put your work out there on the line. You will be living a truly literary life. Be bold.