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.
Circumstances have smiled upon me and I found myself with new and more gainful employment. I made the move from journalism to “the dark side” of public relations. My days are still filled trying to understand the minutia of financial terms and technological jargon, I’m just writing for a different audience.
The new job is a shorter commute and is in the Flatiron district of New York. It’s less than two blocks from Madison Square Park and only one block away from the 6 train. The office is in a small building on 24th Street. It’s convenient to both a 7-Eleven and a deli, and near a Baruch College building.
The new office is also only a few doors down from some kind of halfway house or rehab center. There’s no sign on the building indicating this, and a cursory web search of the address revealed nothing about its current use. You can tell what it is by the people who congregate outside and can be seen coming and going. Even before I discovered its location, I knew there was some sort of facility in the area because of the skels I would see on the street.
Skel is an antiquated term meaning street criminal but it’s a catch-all word that is used to include any kind of troubled sort given to criminality, and the homeless and mentally ill seemingly fit into this category.
It’s easy to pick out the skels on the street. They are dirty and wrinkled. They are not homeless-level dirty and don’t have the mile-away stink that typical street bums do. They do not carry around excessive luggage or tons of crap in shopping carts; they have a place to live. But street people have a way of standing out, at least in today’s less crime-ridden city. Twenty years ago things were different and many parts of the city were blanketed with homeless and other skels. Today Manhattan does not have too many poverty pastures. There’s still plenty of poor people in New York, but the space allowed for skels has diminished significantly.
When I worked in the lower part of midtown Manhattan about 12 years ago, the area was populated with a lot of street people. There was a methadone clinic across the street from the building where I worked and some kind of halfway house was not far either. One time I was on my way out of a Duane Reade drug store after buying a few things when a man and woman rushed up to the counter. The man was holding a $10 bill.
“I need change right away! I have to pay the taxi!”
“They’re going to send him to jail if he doesn’t pay!” his female companion said.
The clerks behind the counter shook their heads lazily.
There was no cab outside with an angry driver waiting.
Another time I was walking around on my lunch break and I saw a two men approach a man from behind, one flashed a badge and the two plainclothes cops took the man by the arms and pinned him against the building where I worked.
“Where’s the weed?” one of the cops asked him. I didn’t bother to stick around to see how this encounter ended. When I returned from my lunch break, they were gone.
There is both a Taco Bell and a White Castle on that block of 8th Ave. and 36th Street, which is heavenly unless you are so poor you really can’t afford either. I was coming off of more than a year of unemployment and I was so poor that my lunch sometimes consisted of the free snacks that the failing company offered. Still, the kinds of human abominations that frequented the area were seemingly from a different era. A woman complained to her friends about not getting what she needed from the methadone clinic. Random skels shouted their opinions for the world to hear.
Despite the improved conditions in the Big Apple over the last 20-plus years, New York is still famous for its seedy element. Before it was populated with fancy hotels and trendy restaurants, The Bowery was famous for its many flop houses, where people paid low rent to live in rooms no bigger than a jail cell. It was a world-famous refuge for drunks, drug addicts and criminals and there are still some homeless charities left on The Bowery, which is also known for its stores that providing lighting and restaurant supplies.
The residents of the nearby halfway house are easy to spot. They are dirty and disheveled. But even if you cleaned them up and dressed them in tuxedos and ball gowns, they would still stand out because they’ve acquired such gaunt features and acquired the mannerisms of the permanently destitute.
People often wear their desperation outwardly, and for the lifelong criminal and drug addict these are impossible to hide. Despite all of their efforts, you can hear the junkie quavering in their voice, sense the hurting shiftiness in their eyes, and know to avoid them.
Sometimes you can get fooled, but not for long. One time a man in a suit waved to me and held out his hand to shake mine. He looked a lot like someone I knew so I assumed I knew him and that I had forgotten his name, which I do all the time. Once he started talking though, he started blathering on about his wife being somewhere and he needed money for a cab etc. Damn, I got suckered into listening to a panhandler. I didn’t give him any money but felt like a sucker anyway.
No matter how real or sincerely someone may seem, you’re a damn fool if you give one cent to a panhandler. Even the most bleeding-hearted skel lover admits that the overwhelming majority of money you give to panhandlers goes to purchasing drugs and/or alcohol.
For some reason we allow people to live worse than animals on the streets and subways. If a dog looked and smelled like that, they’d be taken away and given shelter. Somehow it’s deemed liberating to watch people wallow in their own filth, but there’s nothing progressive or enlightening about it at all.
Eventually gentrification will continue and the city and private charities will realize they can generate more revenue for their cause by selling the valuable real estate they hold in Manhattan and move their services to less expensive neighborhoods.
There’s a belief among many artists and poets that the destitute and poor some kind of unique insight or soulful legitimacy. Since they are not blessed with American success they are not cursed by it, or so the logic goes. But you’ll find that most bums on the street are just that: bums. They’re every bit as shallow and ignorant as the douchebag financier or the fashionable hipsters we love to hate.
The world will never be rid of street people. New York’s dwindling clans of them are still around, but their roaming grounds have been sharply reduced and can’t support as large a population.
I sat in a room full of very well-behaved financial professionals and analysts wondering why no one was going insane. It was a day like any other and it was a financial conference in Manhattan didn’t suddenly give in to the orgiastic wills of the dozens of assembled people.
Most of us lose our minds at one point or another but almost always too slowly to register to the outside world. We let our own fears and disappointments torture and kill us, carving our minds and souls to shredded pulps.
Given the state of the world, I’m surprised more and more people aren’t dropping out of civilized society by going crazy. Many times I find myself in a situation where people’s acceptance of what’s given to them or the state of their surroundings is maddening and ought to result in a violent outburst of creative violence, but it never happens. And if it did, it would never be contained enough to be justified and righteous.
So even though I sympathize with crazy to the nth degree and feel the temptation to bring that measured and sane violence to our insane world, I can’t stand the people who force their insanity on the world around them.
The people who scream and rave in public, who throw themselves in front of trains or off of buildings, are childish egotists who think they are special enough to force others to notice them and rearrange their lives for them. You have every right to be crazy and are probably right to be insane, but force yourself on others and you’re not better than the rest of the cruel, cruel world, probably worse. That is one reason we have art, music and literature: it’s how we turn the pain of being alive into something worth living for.
You have to embrace your insane rage in the right way. The only worse than letting your insanity kill you is letting it make you an egocentric asshole first.