Saturday, September 19, 2009

Taxi Confidential is released - it includes stories about my fellow Hacks and myself

Just finished a radio show on Cab Driving on WBAI 99.5 fm and we talked about Taxi Confidential. Anyone can listen on go to archive
and look for Radio Free Eireann 9-19-09

Speaking with Amy Braunschwieger at Word bookstore in Greenpoint Brooklyn

Group shot of fellow cab drives and author at Word. Below is the New York Times coverage of this event.

Taxi Drivers Turn Around and Share Their World
By Sarah Maslin Nir

Amy Braunschweiger compiled taxicab drivers’ stories for her new book.
We usually see only the backs of their heads, so it was a refreshing change when five New York City cabdrivers faced the audience from a small stage in a bookshop basement in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on Wednesday evening, at a release party for the book “Taxi Confidential: Life, Death and 3 A.M. Revelations in New York City.”

Cabbies, though their work facilitates many a New Yorker’s daily life, are often overlooked, known to their passengers only as a snapshot on a license floating in the upper left corner of the cab’s backseat plexiglass divider.

The event, in a small room under Word, a bookstore on Franklin Street, and the book, by Amy Braunschweiger, offer glimpses into the universe of the taxicab, with stories from both drivers and passengers interspersed with facts and statistics.

Ms. Braunschweiger said she hoped to “present a cab-eye-view,” of New York. Readers, she hopes, will develop “renewed respect for cabdrivers, and fall in love with New York City.”

Ms. Braunschweiger is a freelance writer whose work for the Village Voice on such topics as the High Line, four years before its slick makeover, and travels in the city’s bowels in the Pratt Institute’s subterranean steam tunnels inspired an “obsession with all things industrial and abandoned,” she said — “how a city ticks, but is often overlooked.”

According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the governing body for the city’s cabs, there are 48,000 licensed yellow cabs and perhaps 50,000 other for-hire vehicles, including black cars and livery cars.

Only 1 percent of all drivers are female. Representing that tiny minority Wednesday evening was Aura Bobadilla, 34, who until recently drove a cab for Northside Car Service in Brooklyn. Ms. Bobadilla told her story in Ms. Braunschweiger’s book and on stage to the roughly three dozen attendees.

When Ms Bobadilla, who began driving in 1998, took to the stage, she scanned the crowd and stopped. “I remember her,” she said, pointing to a woman in the audience. “You’re a teacher.” The woman in the audience confirmed that she been Ms. Bobadilla’s passenger more than a year ago, when she was running late for school.

The flexibility of driving, Ms. Bobadilla said, made it an ideal job for a woman with young children; constantly meeting new people also suited her personality. It seems to run in the family. Ms. Bobadilla has since let her mother, Nancy Barias, 60, take the wheel, she said. “She’s addicted, she loves it,” Ms. Bobadilla said. “It’s a problem. She is addicted to the job.”

The drivers who spoke were self-effacing, almost to a fault. “I’m the only Jew in New York without ambition,” Seth Golden, a taxi driver for 25 years, said by way of introduction when he stepped in front of the crowd. Mr. Golden’s story was about picking up his personal hero, Mel Brooks, whom he described as “the King of the Jews,” and from whom during the ride, he said, he gleaned deep nuggets of wisdom. “Now that’s a Jew that we haven’t seen since Jesus,” he said.

Another driver, John McDonagh, told about how he founded a group called Cabbies Against Bush during the Republican National Convention in 2004, passing out fliers offering delegates free rides back to Kennedy International Airport. Though none took him up on his offer, he said, the stunt landed him a segment on Fox News.

David Pollack, a driver and founder of the Committee for Taxi Safety, a group that facilitates the leasing of taxicabs, also had a brush with the news media. He was chosen to switch places with the “Today” show host Matt Lauer when Mr. Lauer tried being a driver for a day. “How many people in America can say they’ve hosted the ‘Today’ show?” he asked.

Mr. Pollack’s favorite memory was driving a mariachi quartet in full regalia to the airport. When he asked why they were oddly without luggage, they revealed that a wealthy tourist to Mexico had heard and enjoyed their music and had flown them to play a party in Manhattan, and sent them home by airplane that same day.

“I’ll never forget,” Mr. Pollack said, “being serenaded the whole drive in four-part harmony with an acoustic guitar.”

Musical instruments became a topic again later that evening, when an audience member, Jessica Seigel, a journalist and amateur violinist, asked why celebrated musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, who famously left his $2.5-million, 266-year-old cello in the back of a taxi (they were reunited) and the Korean violinist Hahn-Bin, who left his $600,000 instrument (also found) in a yellow cab, seemed to be perpetually losing these valuable goods.

Davidson Garrett, a driver who wrote “King Lear of the Taxi: Musings of a New York City Actor/Taxi Driver,” responded. The musicians aren’t just careless, he said: “We are so distracted in New York City just surviving.”

As the evening wound on, the conversation turned toward questions of the ethnicities of today’s taxi drivers, and racism many face from customers. When most of the guest speakers began their driving careers, the demographic makeup of drivers was skewed toward white males.

“Yesterday’s Irish, Jews and Italians,” Mr. Pollack said, referring to the backgrounds of drivers when he began driving more than 20 years ago, “are today’s Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. And they deserve to be respected.”

The audience applauded.

“Driving a taxi for six months,” he added, “should be a prerequisite for life.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

A BANNER DAY 9-11-09

9-11 ON 6TH

I spotted the Fire Truck that was in the New York Times coming up 6th AVE today.

Fire Truck Becomes a Memorial to the Fallen of Ground Zero

Maybe it was because part of his job at ground zero was to gas up the fire trucks. Maybe it was because his life was being consumed by nine months of practically living at the Pit, sleeping nights on the third pew at St. Paul’s Chapel.
Michael Bellone in the fire truck he made into a memorial to ground zero’s fallen firefighters. “I worry every day that we’re already forgetting,” he said.
But sometime between the morning he hopped on a fire truck to head toward the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the day his volunteer work ended the next June, Michael Bellone had an idea.

Why not a New York City fire truck bearing the names, ranks and fire companies of all 343 firefighters who died that day? Would that not be the perfect memorial to their sacrifice? The work finally ended, but the idea never went away.

For those who lost family members or friends, that day will never fade from memory. For many of us, it’s already fading. But for the thousands who were there as workers or witnesses, there is almost a conscious decision to be made. How much to hold fast to memory? How much to move on?

For better or worse, Michael Bellone — now 54, down to 13 percent lung capacity, on permanent disability and living upstate near Syracuse with his wife, whom he met at ground zero — has not given an inch to moving on. He figures, if some people have to keep the memories alive, why not let it be him?

Mr. Bellone was a burly nightclub bouncer from Brooklyn with training as an emergency medical technician when he went down to the Pit. Except for some Saturday nights back at the club where he worked, he said he spent virtually all of the next nine months at ground zero.

Afterward, Mr. Bellone and Bobby Barrett, a firefighter with whom he became friends at ground zero, began speaking to schoolchildren about 9/11. Mr. Bellone founded a group, T. R. A. C. (Trauma Response Assistance for Children) Team, to counsel and to educate kids about violence, trauma, natural disasters and terrorism.

And then there was the truck. He spent years looking for one that had been used in New York City, was still functioning and was large enough for 343 names. After years of checking eBay and auction sales, three years ago he found such a truck in Buffalo, a 38-foot-long 1981 Seagrave with a 100-foot ladder that had been used in Utica and was part of Ladder 36 in Manhattan from 1980 to 1989.

He spent three years fixing it up, hired a local company that did Nascar lettering to paint the names and ranks, the companies and firehouse logos, then took the pictures of the fallen off the Internet and added them, too.

“This is not about me; it’s about them,” he said. “My slogan is ‘Remember the men,’ and I worry every day that we’re already forgetting. So you can read the names, but you see them on a truck, with the rank and station assignment and station logo — that makes it real.”

His friend Mr. Barrett, whose company lost 15 people, said he reached the point where he had to step back and decide between the world of constant remembrance and the world of the living. He chose the latter.

“At one of the memorials, Jimmy Gray’s, his 9-year-old daughter said, ‘Daddy, if I knew you weren’t coming home again, I’d have let you tickle me a little harder,’ ” he said. “And I think, these men gave their lives so we can enjoy ours. If we don’t, what did they die for?”

But Mr. Barrett said he respected what Mr. Bellone was doing, that he was doing it all from the heart, that everyone had to find their own balance between then and now.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bellone and another friend, Jay Rodriguez, who had been an ironworker at ground zero, left home in the fire truck at 9 a.m., cars honking approval as they drove down the highway. They reached the George Washington Bridge at 5:30 p.m.

And there it was, gleaming red: “Never Forget September 11, 2001” on both sides of the ladder, names, ranks and photos in perfect array, even a citation for firefighter fathers who lost firefighter sons.

Mr. Bellone drove over the bridge toward Ladder 36, in Inwood. After that, he plans to take the truck to ground zero, see friends, attend memorials. On Sunday, he’ll drive it home and will occasionally bring it to patriotic parades and fire-related ceremonies.

“It’s not about me. It’s not about the truck,” he said. “It’s about the 343 men. I just want people to remember.”


While people were commemorating 9-11 downtown, I was crossing the 59th street bridge today and remembered another skyscraper that was hit by a plane on a foggy day in 1945.

On the foggy morning of Saturday, July 28, 1945, Lt. Colonel William Smith was piloting a U.S. Army B-25 bomber through New York City. He was on his way to Newark Airport to pick up his commanding officer, but for some reason he showed up over LaGuardia Airport and asked for a weather report. Because of the poor visibility, the LaGuardia tower wanted to him to land, but Smith requested and received permission from the military to continue on to Newark. The last transmission from the LaGuardia tower to the plane was a foreboding warning: "From where I'm sitting, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building.

Confronted with dense fog, Smith dropped the bomber low to regain visibility, where he found himself in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers. At first, the bomber was headed directly for the New York Central Building but at the last minute, Smith was able to bank west and miss it. Unfortunately, this put him in line for another skyscraper. Smith managed to miss several skyscrapers until he was headed for the Empire State Building. At the last minute, Smith tried to get the bomber to climb and twist away, but it was too late.

The Crash
At 9:49 a.m., the ten-ton, B-25 bomber smashed into the north side of the Empire State Building. The majority of the plane hit the 79th floor, creating a hole in the building eighteen feet wide and twenty feet high. The plane's high-octane fuel exploded, hurtling flames down the side of the building and inside through hallways and stairwells all the way down to the 75th floor.

World War II had caused many to shift to a six-day work week; thus there were many people at work in the Empire State Building that Saturday. The plane crashed into the offices of the War Relief Services of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Catherine O'Connor described the crash: The plane exploded within the building. There were five or six seconds - I was tottering on my feet trying to keep my balance - and three-quarters of the office was instantaneously consumed in this sheet of flame. One man was standing inside the flame. I could see him. It was a co-worker, Joe Fountain. His whole body was on fire. I kept calling to him, "Come on, Joe; come on, Joe." He walked out of it.Joe Fountain died several days later. Eleven of the office workers were burned to death, some still sitting at their desks, others while trying to run from the flames.

One of the engines and part of the landing gear hurtled across the 79th floor, through wall partitions and two fire walls, and out the south wall's windows to fall onto a twelve-story building across 33rd Street. The other engine flew into an elevator shaft and landed on an elevator car. The car began to plummet, slowed somewhat by emergency safety devices. Miraculously, when help arrived at the remains of the elevator car in the basement, the two women inside the car were still alive.

Some debris from the crash fell to the streets below, sending pedestrians scurrying for cover, but most fell onto the buildings setbacks at the fifth floor. Still, a bulk of the wreckage remained stuck in the side of the building. After the flames were extinguished and the remains of the victims removed, the rest of the wreckage was removed through the building.

The plane crash killed 14 people (11 office workers and the three crewmen) plus injured 26 others. Though the integrity of the Empire State Building was not affected, the cost of the damage done by the crash was $1 million.