Friday, January 4, 2019

Three-Wheeling Around Manhattan As A Pedicab Driver

Tony Mangia  

(Reprinted from 2005)

You see them hauling people all over Manhattan these days, but unlike yellow taxis and horse-drawn carriages, these quiet rolling forms of transit are people powered. I’m talking about pedicabs. Yeah, those ubiquitous tricycles with a two-seat bench for a rear-end. Make no mistake these trikes (Some costing upwards of $5000) are here to stay and the fast growing industry may soon hog the lanes of every traffic jam and backgrounds of city movie scenes everywhere.

I always wanted to find out who drove these contraptions and discover if it was as feasible a way to earn money as people were saying. So after a chance spotting of an old barroom buddy Rodney — whom I knew as Rock — being chaperoned down 46th Street on the back of one, I gave him a call. I remembered a conversation a couple of years earlier, while knocking down beers at Rudy’s Bar, he mentioned he was going to invest in a few of these newfangled pedicabs. Idle bar talk I thought, until someone later told me Rock and a partner owned seven of the buggies, which they run out of an old horse stable on West 52nd Street.

Over the phone, Rock gives me the okay to go out one night in one of the electric-assist pedicabs for a fifty dollar leasing fee. So I met up with him on a warm October afternoon, only to find out one of his brand new electric-assist pedicabs was stolen the night before and I’d have to wait until later when one of his drivers brought back another cab and after he took care of filing a police report. While I cooled my heels outside the stable, I convinced myself that I might be good at this sort of work. I’m in fairly good shape, mountain bike regularly in the summer and those two years of driving a yellow cab during my college days had to give me an edge over other pedicabbers.

Man, was I in for a shock.

Rock finally returned and we entered the three-story former equine storage space. Even years after it had its last hooves inside, the building still had a hay, straw and horse bun stench. In addition to that fragrance, three levels of horse urine had drained into the basement where we were standing and, I think, still dampened the floor. Outside, Rock gave me a crash course — and I literally mean crash — on steering, but — thankfully — far enough away from the fetid odor.

Like giant training wheels, the two tires in back make it awkward at first, but after a little wrangling I seemed to get used to the extended turning arcs. He reminds me that the rear is over three-feet wider than the front and, believe me, it’s easy to forget when you are used to riding a regular two-wheeler your whole life. After nearly bumping into a few parked cars on a test drive in the street, Rock tells me not to go “all gangsta” and try and squeeze through traffic or race around corners. 

“I want my pedicab back in one piece,” he said with a serious face.

“Oh, and one other thing,” he added. “The electric-assist motor doesn’t work on this one.”

I shrugged.

“Alright,” he said — sort of rolling his eyes.

“How much do I charge?” I asked.

“Whatever you want, but never under twenty dollars,” he stressed. “The other drivers won’t like it if you undercut their price.”

Well, that was my whole lesson. I was now a qualified New York City pedicab operator. That’s one of the perks of being a pedicab driver — no regulations, and basically no rules. They don’t even have to be insured, although Rock’s fleet is. Other benefits include not having to pay taxi commissions or get hassled by any animal rights groups. You are your own boss. It’s basically street anarchy!

It is a gorgeous night. The sunset had left a cloudy fire over the Hudson River. I’m wearing a tank-top in the middle of October. I take a deep breath and exhale it into a warm autumn breeze blowing down Eleventh Avenue. I have no idea what I’m doing or where to even go look for customers. I don’t get very far when two young girls sharing a bicycle ram into me at 53rd and Eleventh. I barely went one block and already had an accident. I look around to see if Rock is still watching me because I’m so close to the stable I can still smell it. The girls laugh at my clumsiness, ride off, and I’m in the clear.

I hearken back to my taxi driving days while studying at St. John’s University and figure not too much could have changed in those twenty years, so I head down 57th Street towards Fifth Avenue looking for a pick-up. I peddle along and keep assuring myself that this isn’t difficult. That hill on Eleventh was pretty easy. Just pace yourself. This is going to be a piece of cake. After a few close calls with taxis and a couple of choice words from commuters (They apparently don't like being stuck behind me), I reach my destination —  the Plaza Hotel.

Oops, I forget it’s closed for renovations and there aren’t to many people hanging around so I head to Rockefeller Center where it’s bound to be filled with tourists or at least some on-the-town Jersey girls. It’s quiet, just bunches of harried workers in too much of a rush for a leisurely pedicab ride. Maybe the Yankees playoff game has something to do with it? I get rousted out of the promenade by security and wait by the NBC Studios entrance where I run into some real-life pedicab drivers. Ronaldo, an ex-soccer coach from Brazil, tells me he’s been doing this for a few months while he’s in between jobs and wants to write a book about his pedicab experiences. But when I ask him for a good pedicab story, he has none. I shrug and figure he’s saving all his great exploits for the book and doesn’t want anyone to steal them. I talk with another driver, Mahmet from Turkey. He’s been driving a pedi about six months now and — surprisingly — likes to peddle around in the rain. 

“You get more fares because people are desperate when they can’t get a yellow cab,” he explains.

Well, it is a business.

I’ve been cruising around for over two hours by now — and without a single fare during rush hour. How do these guys make a living? It costs fifty bucks a day to lease the pedicab and most of the drivers go out four of five times a week, so somebody must be hiring these things!

I aimlessly cruise the streets and end up back on the West Side where a man and two large boys wearing red baseball caps (Real-life Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, I giggled to myself) approach me for a ride. I am so excited that I blurt out “Ten dollars!” when he asks me how much for a ride from 43rd and Eighth Avenue to Rockefeller Center and back again. My first fare and I’ve already broken Rule No. 1. Rock’s voice keeps echoing in my head, “Never charge less than twenty dollars!” A fare’s a fare I reason and I take off with my new charges.

I head up Eighth Avenue and encounter a slight, and I mean slight, incline. Any plans for small talk with my passengers like I did driving a yellow cab fly right out into the suddenly hot night. Already I can feel my legs tightening and my breath getting shorter. 

What have I gotten myself into, I scream to myself. 

I’ve only gone one block with my first passengers and I’m having a coronary. 

Sweat is pouring down my face. I start to panic and look back at my passengers through the rear view mirror. The two boys must sense I'm fading. They both have sadistic smirks on their chubby faces and the father has this god awful look of disdain on his face. I think about quitting and refunding their money. I’m suddenly parched. I need hydration. How embarrassing!

Where’s that giant bottle of water I stashed? Oh great, it rolled behind the 500 pounds of passengers in the back seat. How’s it gonna look if I pull over after only three blocks and pounce on that bottle of Poland Spring with one hand, clutching my chest with the other?

The man looks at me funny and I go to ask him to hand me the water bottle. Nothing comes out of my mouth — only some grotesque dry hacking noise from my throat — while I keep peddling. He looks at me like I'm possessed, then picks up the bottle which I quickly snatch from his hand. We make it to Rockefeller Center thirty minutes later.

“There it is,” I gasp, pointing upward at the ring of international flags circling the closed ice rink while almost collapsing out of my seat.

They barely get a glimpse of old Prometheus before I start peddling back to Times Square. The ride back was a little better. I think my body’s initial shock to the physicality of hauling a quarter ton of people had worn off. I began purposely riding in traffic — a good reason to slow down and catch my breath. It still felt like my chest was about to explode. And talk about cardio. I made a mental note to never get into a street fight with an experienced pedicab driver — they’ll always outlast you.

I slowly peddled around bustling Times Square — mostly to keep my legs from cramping — thinking what life on a functioning electric assist pedicab would be like. While I wasn’t too anxious to get my second fare quite yet, I had to acknowledge that I had only made ten dollars after three hours on the job. Then, when I got my second wind, lo and behold, outside the Broadway show, “Beauty and the Beast,” the mother lode. There must have been twenty pedicabs waiting for the show to end. All those tourists and their little princesses just waiting for their magical carriages to whisk them away on three wheels. I head over just as two large white stretch-limos pull up and a couple of cops shoo away all the pedicabs to make room. I quickly circle the block, but when I return all the princesses are gone. No Belle. No LeFou. Not even Cogsworth.

I park and talk with Bernard, who has been driving for a while. He’s a plumber by trade, but says he makes more some days pedicabbing. I have to stifle a laugh when I hear that. He tells me that before 9/11 the city was talking about testing and licensing the pedicabs, but afterward the issue seemed to be put on the back burner. That’s good news to Bernard and probably most of the other drivers. Who really wants the city over-legislating something else?

At 45th and Eighth, a middle-aged couple want to go to St. Mark’s and First Avenue after seeing a show. This time I ask for twenty dollars with kind of a guilty smile before they hop in. I plot a course in my head and try and remember if there any hills on the way to the East Village. They are a nice artsy pair and don’t complain when I plow into some big potholes near Macy’s. It’s nearing midnight, I haven’t eaten and my blood sugar must be getting low. I think my passengers suspect I’m tiring and offer to take a cab from 14th Street. No, I’m proving something to myself and on a mission now. I refuse. Then the conversation turns into pleasant discussion about how much the East Village has changed since they moved there in the early 70’s and the early 80s when I was there. Time flies and twenty minutes later we arrive at their appointed destination. They give me 20 bucks and a ten-spot as a tip. I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of this thing.

I decide to book straight back to the stable and call it a night. I’ve done construction and worked in a truck garage, but this was the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. I actually lost ten dollars — and maybe a few gallons of sweat — on the night, but saw the city in a different perspective — not to mention get a workout Lance Armstrong might admire.

There’s a good chance I might even call Rock for another night behind the handlebars again. But only if he has that newfangled electric-assist pedicab in working order.

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