Articles by

<Adam Bonislawski>

07/20/09 10:06am

Years ago when I was traveling in Spain, I went on a road trip to a small Costa Blanca beach town with a carful of dyspeptic British ex-pats. One night we were driving on a quiet road in the hills above the town when, apropos of nothing in particular, one of my backseat companions pointed out her window at the full moon overhead and said, “I know it’s a horrible cliché and all, but does anyone else ever look at the moon and think, my god, people have stood on that?”

And for a moment the car went silent as we all stopped complaining about our hotel or bitching about the meal we’d just had or whatever it was we’d been doing, and thought to ourselves “wow, she’s right, that’s really something.

You couldn’t do this with Mars. It’s too hard to see. Had someone tried there would have just been some squinting, a bit of confused pointing perhaps, and maybe some arguing about which direction was south. Then we all would have shrugged and gone back to fiddling with the car radio.

Nonetheless, with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing now upon us, it’s only natural to wonder when we might get around to paying the Red Planet a visit. The last time the notion of a mission to Mars made widespread headlines was in 2004 when President Bush, perhaps sensing that his gambit to remake the Middle East wasn’t shaking out so well, announced “a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.” This plan became “Constellation” — NASA’s current human spaceflight program, which calls for the development of new spacecraft and booster vehicles to replace the space shuttle (set to be decommissioned in 2010) and for manned trips to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

“Eventually,” however, can be a tricky deadline to pin down. For instance, in 1989 (on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing), Bush pere made his own Mars headlines, announcing a goal of landing astronauts on the planet by 2019. Shortly thereafter, though, NASA came to him with an estimated $400 billion price tag for the project, and, well, suddenly everyone was a little less excited about the idea than they’d been before.

The current timeline puts a Mars landing at about 25 years out, an estimate that probably sits on the reliability spectrum somewhere between Amy Winehouse and a weekend F train. Interestingly (at least for a naif like myself for whom the idea of a trip to Mars still seems more Buck Rogers than potential reality), the issue isn’t technology, or even money really. It’s essentially just a matter of priorities and politics.

06/24/09 4:00am

Two Fridays ago, before the riots and the
demonstrations and the millions in the streets, before the killings and
the burning buses and the black-clad stormtroopers clubbing women from
atop their motorcycles, before Facebook went green and Twitter usurped
, before the protests and then the counter-protests, the first,
fraudulent vote count and then the likely just as fraudulent recounts,
before the house arrests and the dorm-room beatings, before the tear
gas and the sniper bullets and the rooftop rallies and the bonfires,
members of New York’s Iranian ex-pat community gathered in a small
meeting room on the second floor of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown
Manhattan to cast their ballots in their country’s presidential

There was no question as to the local favorite. Green dominated the
room. There were green scarves and green sweaters and green socks;
green t-shirts, green tank-tops, green rugbies, green ties; green
polos, green pants, green trenchcoats (one); green handbags, green
sportcoats; a green pork-pie hat.

“Green is for peace, I think,” said a man sitting at a table in the
hallway chatting with a pair of women. “Green is the slogan of this
candidate.” The man himself was dressed in brown. He had lived in New
York for 16 years, he said, but he’d never in that time voted in an
Iranian election. Mir-Hossein Mousavi had drawn him to the polls.

“I think he is a Barack Obama of Iran,” he said. “He can tie the
Iranian nation to the western world. It’s about time for Iran to have
close ties to the United States.”

It was a common theme about the room.

“There’s no reason to struggle, because now there is Obama,” said a
young woman with a green scarf tied around her neck. She had come from
Iran two months ago to study International Relations at Syracuse.

“Ahmadinejad destroyed everything,” she said. “We need someone to
rebuild ties with the UN, with the world.”

Downstairs, a group of ex-pats embraced each other as they passed in
the lobby. A man and a woman, both clad in bright green t-shirts, were
looking around for directions to the polls. “I wonder what it will be
like,” the woman said as they made their way up the escalator. They,
too, had never voted before.

“We just wanted to support it,” said the man. “I just wanted to come
to do my part.”

Two NYU students in headscarves (a relative rarity among those
gathered) stood in line to get their ballots. One recorded the other
with her digital camera as she gave her fingerprint to a volunteer
manning the desk. “Look more excited!” she directed. They disappeared
together behind the potted plants marking off the voting booths at the
southern side of the room. Moments later they emerged smiling broadly,
stopping in front of the ballot box to pose, index fingers held aloft,
for several of the photographers roaming the floor.

“My mother’s family back home is voting this time, and they haven’t
voted in 30 years — since the Revolution,” one of them said.
“It’s a chance to be a part of something. It’s like a new

“There were kids in Iran on the street demonstrating and dancing,
really pushing the boundaries,” said the man in the bright green
t-shirt. “The only time I can remember people dancing in the street and
not being arrested was after a soccer victory or something.”

“Yay!” said a woman in a t-shirt and blue jeans, waving a brown
passport in the air as she deposited her ballot. “That was easy!” The
line was perhaps 20 people deep now, stretching out the doorway and
into the hall.

05/15/09 4:00am

As you’ll recall from part one of this series, Adam Bonislawski is on a quest to track down the missing Gammators, radioactive teaching devices created in the 1950s and placed in our nation’s high schools. The funny thing is, not all of them have been recalled. This week, Bonislawski goes in search of radioactive waste… in the pages of the Mother Cabrini High School yearbook.

One week and $39.95 later, I am the proud owner of a vintage 1965 Mother Cabrini High School yearbook. I bought it with the vague idea that somewhere in its pages I might find a photo of the elusive Gammator. I did not. The yearbook does feature a relatively lengthy seven-page Science section, though, including a picture of several students crowded around a Geiger Counter — so, you know, we’re in the ballpark here.

Beyond that, there’s something generally delightful about the book, Gammator photo or no. Part of it is simple historical interest — getting a glimpse of life at a New York City Catholic school as it was lived some 43 years ago. Part of it is the section headings, which read like priceless mash-ups of a glowering Mother Superior and an awkwardly dubbed Japanese video game (“Our Senior Dance… We Fulfill Our Capacity for Enjoyment”). Most of all there’s the air of mystery that attaches to such objects. The names and the pictures and the notes combine to sketch the outline of a world that is, in a general sense, perfectly familiar but in specific terms largely unknowable. Looking at the pictures you recognize in them – or, more accurately, project onto them – types and characters and dramas from your own school days. Reading the handwritten notes, you can’t help but concoct in your mind webs of friendships, alliances, rivalries, feuds. There’s no explicit storyline, but there are a million implied. It’s like stumbling upon found fiction of a sort – there’s raw material here for any number of narratives you’d care to imagine.

Of the many great bits in Lolita, one of the best is the passage in which Nabokov lists the names of Dolores’ classmates.

Angel, Grace
Austin, Floyd
Beale, Jack
Beale, Mary
Buck, Daniel
Byron, Marguerite…

Simply by calling role he conjures a menagerie of middle-school types, suggesting with nothing but names a host of characters bustling unseen just offstage. The Mother Cabrini yearbook staffers aren’t quite Nabokov’s match as prose stylists, but there’s a similar ghostly charm to their work.

Also, this – from the acknowledgments section on the back page: “Mr. Sol Stempler, of Paramount Photographers, who always provides us with superlative portrait work, and outstandingly beautiful photographic material, even at great personal sacrifice.” (Emphasis mine) What sort of great personal sacrifices did taking school portraits in the mid-‘60s entail, exactly?

Tune in next week when we join the Mother Cabrini alumni Facebook page and try to get our phone calls returned by the Department of Energy.

05/04/09 1:40pm

In the 1950s and ‘60s the U.S. Department of Energy, under the auspices of the “Atoms for Peace” program, built some 140 gamma irradiator devices which they distributed to schools around the country, the notion being that students might use them to learn about the wonders of nuclear science. Apparently wanting to give these devices the most awesomely terrifying name ever, they called them “Gammators”. Roughly the size of a pony keg, each Gammator weighed about 1,850 pounds and contained 400 curies of cesium-137 – a radioactive isotope that, among others things, has been identified by government analysts as being an especially suitable material for use in a “dirty bomb”.

Which explains why (particularly given our post-9/11 terror concerns) the Department of Energy has been going around to our nation’s high school and university science labs trying to round these things up. Over the last decade or so, crews from Los Alamos have removed Gammators from a number of sites across the country, including several in the New York City area (see page 2 of PDF).

It’s not entirely clear, however, whether or not the government has gotten all of them. Records on the number of devices originally put into circulation seem a bit hazy, with numbers ranging from around 120 to 140 or so. In 2004, Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey asserted that six Gammators had, in fact, gone missing. He released a letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledging that Gammators thought to have been given to “Montville Township High School in NJ, Aberdeen High School in MD, Mother Cabrini High School in New York City, Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY, New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, NY, and an unknown entity named ‘Nippi’ located in either NY or NJ” had yet to be recovered.

In other words, there’s potentially still a fair amount of cesium floating around out there – and much of it, it seems, in the tri-state area. And while we’re not particularly worried about terrorists, say, raiding Montville Township’s science stockroom for dirty bomb material (they’d probably be better off just stockpiling smoke detectors), there’s something undeniably delightful (in a dark, creepy DeLillo-esque sort of way, of course) about knowing that these once-forgotten, now-again-relevant Cold War relics are possibly lurking in the back of a high school’s supply closet just a couple of blocks away.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying we think it could be kind of fun to try to track one of these things down. We’re going to start with Mother Cabrini and see where that leads. We’ll blog as we go, posting updates on our findings or lack thereof. Think of it as a typical magazine story – only done piecemeal, and with all the tedious research parts left in!

02/04/09 12:00am

Always speak in the ‘I’
. This is the First Commandment of the New York Reality TV School.

There are other commandments ­— eight of them, in fact, which school founder Robert Galinsky has compiled in a handout he’ll pass around the class later in the evening. This first one, though, is the most important.
“Speak using the word ‘I’ instead of ‘you’,” Galinsky elaborates, standing in the center of a non-descript Chelsea studio space surrounded by some two dozen pupils and a smattering of camera crews. “If I’m saying ‘you’, I’m telling you what you’re doing. I’m not telling you what I’m doing. I’m not claiming all my power. I want to stand out, so I’m going to speak in the ‘I’.”

It’s tougher than you might think. Even for the kind of hardened egoists like those gathered here this evening. For instance:

“He smells really good,” says a petite black woman about a fellow classmate after having been prompted in an exercise to say something provocative about someone else in the room. “His smell makes you want to move around.”

“Makes who want to move around?” Galinsky asks.

She pauses for a moment, then rephrases.

“Makes me want to move around,” she says.

“Yeah,” says Galinsky. “Now I know what the smell does to you.”

Galinsky (who, as it happens, has no trouble whatsoever speaking in the “I”) is a shortish, forty-something man with dark curly hair and a jaw covered in what appears to be a carefully cultivated layer of stubble. He’s dressed in jeans, a loose-fitting black button-down and a pair of black-frame glasses. He looks, in short, like the sort of guy who’s probably working on a screenplay.

He launched the Reality TV School last June after pet groomer Jorge Bendersky asked for his help in preparing for an upcoming appearance on the new Animal Planet show Groomer Has It. He worked with Bendersky for six weeks, drawing from his years as an acting coach and corporate trainer to put together a program. The groomer finished in the show’s top three (which, as Bendersky notes, essentially makes him “reality TV royalty”), and Galinsky realized he had a potentially hot property on his hands.

Of course, the New York Reality TV School isn’t simply about getting people on reality television. Rather, it’s about Galinsky himself getting on reality television. In a John Barth-meets-Mark Burnett meta-textual twist, about a month or so after the school’s founding some British television producers came across it and decided it would be the perfect setting for a show. A few weeks later, Galinsky was in talks with Roy Bank, head of Merv Griffin Entertainment’s television division. Several weeks after that, they shook hands on a deal.

“The idea is that there are two structures to it,” Galinsky says of the putative show. “The superstructure is the school — that there’s this guy Galinsky who’s been toiling in relative obscurity in New York for 20 years and finally in some ironic way finds his work being effective through the filter of a reality television school. So, one thing that the audience will be watching is the school as a business and how it grows and the staff and all the crazy stuff the staff has to go through in order to make the school work and operate.

“And then the other structure will be following people and watching them go into the school, watching them as they journey to casting calls and put their tapes together and run through the school’s curriculum.”

“It’s just a natural place for drama and story,” Bank says. “The people that go to this school are the same people who are on reality television shows. They’re people willing to expose a raw and real side of themselves to get exposure on television for any number of reasons — whether it’s to win money, become famous, start a career — they all want something, and they’re willing to go on television to get it.”

Not too willing, though. There’s a definite reluctance in the room to cop too readily to reality TV dreams — a self-aware recognition that there’s a certain ridiculousness inherent to the enterprise.

“I’m here as an observer of the human condition,” one student quips when asked what he hopes to take away from the evening. “It’s interesting. You put a bunch of strangers in a room, something always starts.”

“Honestly, I don’t really know what I want out of this,” says a one-time online dildo salesman who refers to himself as “The Poon.” “It’s just always kind of fun being in the spotlight of others.”

Actors make up about half the students in a typical class, Galinksy estimates. “Authenticity” being the name of the game, however, most of them try to fly under the radar.

“I’m in promotions,” says a thin, goateed man when I ask him what he does as we talk in the hallway between sessions. As the evening draws to a close, though, he approaches with a promo card for a movie in hand. He gives the room a quick sideways glance before slipping it to me.

“Actually,” he says. “I’m an actor. I just wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell you that back there.”
Other, presumably less scandalous, revelations are more freely shared. After a few minutes of stretching exercises, Galinsky rounds his charges into a circle and calls on them one-by-one, asking each in twenty seconds or less to give their name, their occupation, and a secret. A Dutch camera crew moves around the room filming them as they speak, an impossibly cherubic anchor bouncing about the circle like some Reubens rendering of a tabloid television host.

“I have a sexual addiction.”

“I haven’t told my Dad that I’m gay.”

“I once lied and said I was Puerto Rican so I could appear in a Hispanic magazine.”

“I’m moving out of my apartment and my boyfriend doesn’t know.”

“Once I punched a guy in the face at a party because he said that it turned him on.”

“I used to be addicted to cough medicine.”

“I’m obsessed with comic books.”

“I stole a car from my senior prom.”

“I still play with Barbie dolls.”

“At night, I’m out there on the West Side Highway walking with the drag queens.”

“I just had to tear up my entire apartment because of a huge bed bug scare. And I haven’t told any of my neighbors yet.”

“Louder, people!” Galinsky yells.

“This isn’t reality TV. It’s personality TV,” he says. “Whose personality is going to pop? Who’s going to stick in our minds? This is about three things: Confidence. Authenticity. Telling your story.”

It’s about, in other words, figuring out your hustle. And as would befit any serious reality TV aspirant, Galinsky has his hustle down pat. A simple question about his start in the business launches a polished reverie that sounds less like background detail than voiceover narration from an opening credit sequence.

“I drove into the city on December 6th, 1988 with $300 cash and three months paid on a storefront on Ludlow Street…”

His pupils, on the other hand, aren’t quite so ready for primetime.
“So, mine would be called ‘Homeless Homegirl’,” says a manic-seeming blonde, taking the floor to pitch her show idea. She moved to New York three weeks ago, she says. Before that she was sleeping in a van at a campground outside of Denver.

“We’ve got it all figured out. For, like, the marketing, it would be a picture of me in front of the food stamps building over there on Fourteenth. And it would basically… the point of it is to… well, honestly, I need a little help developing it. It’s just that everybody I know who’s been interacting with me is like ‘you should be on a show, you should be on a show!’”

And, well, why not? What would be so wrong with that? It couldn’t be any worse than Big Brother.  And besides, who, these days, can claim to know what people want to watch anyway. As I write, the second most watched video on YouTube is a Scandinavian blonde in a yellow bikini giving grammar lessons while canoodling with her pet Havanese.

“Watch reality TV!” implores casting director and class instructor Risa Tanania. “This is a genre that should be supported. It has offered a space for roles and characters in our community and in our culture that we are otherwise not seeing. I see absolutely no reason why it gets laughed at, mocked.”

Of course, there are quite obvious reasons why reality TV is laughed at and mocked. The business involves a level of spinning and shtick, of self-promotion and self-importance that the average person, looking on from a distance, can’t help but find at least somewhat grotesque. This, in no small part, is why we enjoy it, what draws us to it. It’s a chance to watch our peers make themselves absurd.

And yet, Tanania’s defense of the genre isn’t entirely off-base. At the end of the evening, the class takes part in a Q&A with a panel of reality personalities from shows past, and there’s something undeniably charming about the exchange between the two groups. The reality contestants are treated with a certain deference, no doubt, but it’s a modest, benign sort of thing — the way a couple of college kids might expect to be met upon stopping by their old high school to tell a group of seniors about life after graduation. The fascination isn’t with the strange, fabulous beings they’ve become, but instead with the curious things they’ve done and seen. All things considered, it seems a rather splendidly humane model of celebrity.

And who can honestly say, in this day of webcams and blog confessionals and non-stop Twitter streams, that there’s anything so deviant and bizarre about a person wanting to be on reality TV anyway? Sure, there’s something a bit monstrous about conceiving of yourself as a public character to be played or a message to be promoted or a brand to be marketed, but having been handed the means of production, we don’t seem much able to resist the urge, do we? How much time did you spend last week crafting meticulously phrased Facebook updates? Given the ongoing age of media disaggregation in which we live, you could argue that all Galinsky and his crew are doing is teaching survival skills.

“I don’t care if you’re the best singer on American Idol, he says, standing in the center the class. “I don’t care if you lose the most weight on The Biggest Loser.

“All I care about is that some way, some how, you’re noticed and remembered.”
And if everyone manages to get a little screen-time out of the arrangement, well then, so much the better.

09/03/08 12:00am

As it turns out, good intentions alone aren’t quite enough to carry a novel. If they were, though, Stuart Archer Cohen’s new book, The Army of the Republic, would presently be entering the canon as a modern classic.

It’s the future, but a contemporary one — perhaps a few years post-Bush — and America resembles nothing so much as a Naomi Klein fever-dream. The entire country has been privatized, with corporations, backed by paramilitaries and propagandists, controlling formerly public goods like highways, national forests and reservoirs. The federal government, meanwhile, has taken to rigging the vote, and the national media sits cozily in the establishment’s pocket. Against this dystopian backdrop, bands of revolutionaries have popped up around the county, waging a guerrilla war of sorts against the aforementioned interests. Foremost among them is Lando, the handsome, espresso-swilling leader of “The Army of the Republic”, a Seattle-based cell that’s planning an attack on a new private pipeline owned by corporate overlord James Sands — a shady water company exec who also just happens to be (SPOILER ALERT!) Lando’s estranged father.

Essentially, Republic is the sort of book you might get were you to set Tom Clancy to work rewriting the World Socialist Website. Which is to say, a thriller, with all the hackneyed plotting, sawdust-stuffed characters and thinly veiled twists the genre typically entails. On the other hand, the narrative, obvious though it may be, does keep pulling a person along — and what more can you really ask from such a book than that? In fact, if anything, the story could have benefited from a bit more Clancy-fication. Cohen’s prose and ideas are too dully earnest for the novel to work as a particularly engaging polemic. When he spends time with the details of the revolutionary lifestyle, on the other hand, things become a little more lively. Who doesn’t want to know how to properly decorate a safe house, how to organize a hotel room hit on a notorious corporate raider, how to maintain anonymity while dating a movement hottie from the political action group down the block? After all, democracy is fine and good, but we want some entertainment.

St. Martin’s
Available now

07/30/08 12:00am

In honor of our Best of New York Issue, we sent our intrepid writer, Adam Bonislawski, on a daylong walk down this city’s great thoroughfare, the one and only Broadway, to see what he could see. Call it 21st-century psychogeography or 19th-century flânerie, sometimes a long walk is the best way to get a little perspective.

Broadway enters the island modestly enough, slipping from the Bronx over the Harlem River and into Inwood, just above 220th Street. A stream of commuters flow with it across the Broadway bridge heading downtown. The 1 train rolls overhead in the opposite direction, subway cars dissolving in the morning drizzle. The sidewalks are quiet still, but here and there ground-floor doors swing open and residents pop out clad in office attire — umbrella and coffee in hand — like figurines in some colossal neighborhood cuckoo clock. At 212th Street, a park employee hits a pair of passersby with a cloud of debris from her leaf blower. And a good morning to you! Small crowds are beginning to form at the bus stops.

To the right is Fort Tryon Park, dark and silent and leafy, with terraced pathways climbing up into the trees. This far north, the street still somewhat resembles the Algonquin hunting trail it once was. It follows the landscape, passively wending its way along the ridges and valleys in a manner that seems strange for a major Manhattan thoroughfare. The park is empty save for a man walking his pit bull and an elderly woman sitting on bench smoking a cigar. Down Sherman Avenue you can see the Bronx, brown and industrial across the water.

The island rises here from Broadway on both sides. To the west a wall of granite shoots up from the street and concrete stairs built into the slope lead up to apartments atop the river bluff. To the east, clusters of buildings sprout from the hillside, casually stacked one atop the other. For a few lovely blocks Manhattan could almost be an overgrown Mediterranean hill town. A narrow basketball court sits just off the street, tucked below car-level in a space carved out between a trio of apartment buildings. The smell of fresh bread drifts from the bakery next door. A man is setting up his fruit stand on 193rd Street, hauling boxes of papayas and coconuts from the back of his van. The road winds southward with an almost suburban indirectness.

The George Washington Bridge, then, arrives as something of a shock. Here, after an early morning spent wandering the sedate upper reaches of the borough, is the city. Traffic streams down the hill and across the river. A line of cars moving opposite pours out into the streets, flowing in all directions. A pair of dump trucks go grunting by on 179th, climbing uphill past the bus station toward the bridge — the elegant gray latticework hanging in the distance, from this vantage point, seemingly, supported by nothing but sky. Heading onward Broadway climbs out of the valley and up a ridge, the sidestreets now falling away toward the water.  A drug store two blocks down has taken as its name the “St. Jesus Pharmacy”. This seems like something of a demotion.

Umbrellas are up outside New York Presbyterian. Middle-aged women fiddle with the sheets of plastic covering their hair. The street has widened to a boulevard here, meeting with St. Nicholas Avenue. A thin strip of trees and flowers and benches runs down the median. Hospital buildings — a benignly bland mix of sleek and stately — loom off to the sides. At 165th, Midtown’s towers come into view for the first time. The skyline is a pale silhouette far in the distance. There’s something of The Wizard of Oz in the way the buildings rise out of the plain. It’s Broadway as Yellow Brick Road.

Then downhill, out of the Heights. Nail salons, grocery stores, seafood markets, barber shops, dentists, banks, churches, bodegas. Beautiful brick buildings with elaborate cornices and bay windows protruding over the sidewalk. A cemetery to the right bounded by a wrought-iron fence. A woman in a burka arranging baseball caps on a folding table. A shopkeeper taking a break to smoke a cigarette underneath his awning. Up ahead a man in a suit guides a younger man in jeans and a t-shirt. He’s pointing up at an apartment, drawing his attention to some detail or other. Rain or no rain, the real estate business must carry on.

And besides, the sky is clearing now. And with the sun, come Columbia students. A twenty-something woman wearing a university hoodie walks by at 140th Street. The 1 train pops back above ground five blocks later. A Grayline tour bus drives by, passengers still wrapped like mummies in white plastic ponchos. The street dips downhill, bottoming out beneath the subway tracks, a shady tangle of asphalt choked with trucks, cars, grime, rust; horns honking, smoke billowing, trains clattering. Up the street a tweed-jacketed professorial sort escorts a young co-ed across an intersection. Construction workers sit against a stone wall eating their lunches. Three yellow cement trucks stand in a line, tumblers rolling. An enormous red crane reaches into the sky, menacing passing pedestrians from its perch atop a broad black scaffolding. Caps and gowns mingle on the sidewalk. Police direct traffic. Parents snap pictures. A hidden orchestra plays behind the tall metal gates.

In the 90s the high-rises begin. A few glassy condo towers signaling the arrival of a more typical Manhattan landscape. There’s a certain faded glory to this stretch of the city. Lovely old apartment buildings line the street, grand block-long structures with sprawling courtyards stretching out behind massive stone entranceways. At a glance, they seem the very embodiment of old-monied comfort. Look up to the windows, however, and there will be cardboard taped here and there to plug holes in the glass, old air conditioners resting haphazardly atop ledges, an ancient, dirty pair of red velvet curtains blotting out the sun. There’s an air about these of an old WASP family fallen on hard times — out of cash and getting by on good bones and past reputations. And the new money is definitely coming — everywhere you look there’s another blue construction fence. Cranes, men, tape, trucks. A foundation being laid on every sidestreet.

What Broadway brings the West Side is a bit of texture. After running more or less with the grid for several dozen blocks, the street breaks out at 79th and begins slanting eastward, cutting across the avenues. It interrupts Amsterdam at 72nd, then Columbus at 65th, and Central Park West at Columbus Circle. At each such intersection the streets open up into broad knots of space, the delightful geometry of their convergence making way for tree-lined parks on triangular islands and long, low-slung subway stations done up in pale brick and copper trim. It breaks up the city, these plazas like calm pools between rapids on a river. A gang of teenage girls with big duffel bags and water bottles walks by outside Juilliard. The off-white cubes of Lincoln Center look like birch trees along the Taconic.

And now we’re into it for real. The afternoon rush is gearing up at Columbus Circle. An older woman rides past in her Rascal with a velvet equestrian helmet atop her head. Buses battle cars battle cabs battle bikers battle pedestrians around the round-about. Columbus himself stands high on his pedestal, looking a touch lost and forlorn amidst the glassy towers that surround him. Across the street Central Park is pregnant with mystery.

A shoplifter caught on 58th Street — the security guard stripped down to his undershirt, the thief a well-groomed young man in a sports coat and loafers, a pair of sunglasses pushed back on his head. Letterman fans press against the doors of the Ed Sullivan Theater. The sun is soft above Times Square. Looking downhill the street disappears, washed away in the neon tide. A sea of heads covers the sidewalk. A pair of tourists pick at an overpriced meal in the window of an overcrowded restaurant. Ticket salesmen yell into the passing crowds. Then across 42nd — shot back out into the city. The masses dissipate, the lights fade. People have gathered after work at café tables in Herald Square. Cars stream past heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Street vendors are pulling their carts off corners. Cabs cruise by with “off-duty” lights on. The city never stops, but it does pause for the occasional costume change. From six blocks north, the Flatiron Building is perhaps the most elegant-looking thing on earth.

The line at the Shake Shack is about 100 people deep. Bicyclists and police are chatting at the northern end of Union Square. At the south of the park four guys are playing volleyball — surprisingly competitive given that they don’t have a net. To the west, the sun is turning orange over Jersey. The streets are fully in shadow now. At 10th Street the Woolworth Building appears, a few squares of yellow light glowing in the top half of the building. A parade of drag queens passes by on 9th — whooping, singing, beating on drums. Thirty seconds later a procession of Hare Krishnas marches past in the opposite direction.

Soho is dark, and lovely, of course — tall, willowy ensembles of legs and cheek bones stepping in and out of spare white boutiques. Music drifts over the cobblestones. At Lispenard, just below Canal, some two-dozen vendors wait beneath a street lamp for rides to take them home. They’ve packed their wares into giant rolling suitcases. A few kneel on prayer mats spread out over the sidewalk. Two city workers sit eating hamburgers on a bench nearby. It’s quiet this far south. Broadway is empty save for the occasional jogger or dog walker or straggling tourist making their way uptown. Taxis honk in the distance. City Hall appears between the trees. Fireflies float above the blue-green lawn. A quarter mile south Ground Zero glows beneath untold rigs of bright white sodium light. From a street over, it looks like a football stadium, or perhaps some sort of alien landing pad.

And then, a few blocks later, it’s done. There is the Canyon of Heroes (a plaque to one Lt. General Withers A. Burgess kicking off the procession) and from there the street slopes downhill toward the harbor, curves left of the Wall Street bull at Bowling Green, and then, without further ado, becomes Whitehall. After having walked the length of it, the anti-climax is rather unforeseen. Which is, perhaps, perfectly appropriate. More than anything, what Broadway has to recommend it is an ability to surprise. A structural feature, essentially — the happy result of its frequent twists and turns, of the drunken, open-field style of its run down Manhattan’s otherwise orderly grid. Look along a typical Manhattan avenue and you can see for miles before the pavement eventually narrows to a point and disappears over the horizon in a wash of pink. Look down Broadway, on the other hand, and most likely you’ll see for just a few blocks before the street bends out of sight, leaving you to wonder what might lie ahead. And so it draws you, on and on. 

06/18/08 12:00am

Well, it wasn’t very far, but it sure as hell took long enough. We grabbed a taxi in the East Village needing to get to Penn Station real quick, and the cabbie decided to take us uptown on Park Avenue and across town on 27th Street. We totally missed our train. And all the trains the next day. And basically the rest of our lives.
Where I hailed him:
West Village
Where he hails from: Brooklyn
Years as a cabbie: 7
Previous profession: Delivery boy
I guess just going up and down the island. [Manhattan?] Yeah. I can’t really think of anything besides that. A lot of times, especially around the holidays, you get the Wall Street guys who take a cab from the Financial District up to the Upper East Side. Depending on traffic and whatnot, that can seem like a long ways.
Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: Niger
Years as a cabbie: 4
Previous profession: Mover
Probably have to be one of the times I took someone to or from the airport. JFK and LaGuardia are far out there, and most people who have hotels or something have them in Manhattan, so it’s a distance. I’d guess that’d be it. I can’t think of anything else.

Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: Israel
Years as a cabbie: 5
Previous profession: Street vendor
Far out into Queens, I guess. I don’t like to go too far, because the tips aren’t much better for higher fares, and it’s hard to get other customers out there, far away from the city. You don’t want to drive back empty and waste all your gas.
Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: Bangladesh
Years as a cabbie: 7
Previous profession: Electrical engineer
The farthest I’ve ever gone is Long Island. You get people asking to go out there sometimes. I forget what exit was the farthest I ever took them, but it was about a $150 fare. Usually it’s people from Manhattan wanting to go out there. You’ll get about a $20 tip for a ride like that.
Where I hailed him: Midtown West
Where he hails from: Pakistan
Years as a cabbie: 16
Previous profession: Construction worker
The farthest I ever go, really, is JFK. You go to Jersey a lot of times, especially at night, but that’s not very far, just across the river. Last week I took someone up to Westchester, but that’s not really that far — it’s actually about the same distance to Westchester as it is to JFK.

06/11/08 12:00am

The first car we ever drove was a Trabant Tiger. It was a three-wheeler with a big green racing stripe right down the middle, and if you got it up to a high speed while doing donuts, you could actually get it up onto one wheel. Also, it could talk and sounded like an old German gingerbread man.

Where I hailed him:
Kips Bay
Where he hails from: Rochester
Years as a cabbie: 1
Previous profession: Student
It wasn’t the first I ever drove, but the first one I ever owned was a used Ford Mustang. I bought it off this guy on the street for like $200. It was a piece of shit, but I loved it. I spent all my time working on it… hours under that hood. I must’ve spent thousands on parts for it. [Do you still have it?] Nah, I wish. I had to sell it; I needed the money. But I tell you, if I ever hit the lottery it’s the first thing I’m buying.
Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: India
Years as a cabbie: 7
Previous profession: Gas station attendant
I was in India then, and I drove a Fiat. It was a two-door car with four cylinders. Not too much power compared to the cars here. It was back in 1973-74, and I think the car was from 1970.

Where I hailed him:
Alphabet City
Where he hails from: Pakistan
Years as a cabbie: 6
Previous profession: Always a driver
My parents sent me to a driving school, and I practiced on a car they had. I don’t remember what kind it was. All I remember is that it was old and yellow and smelled terrible. It was covered in dents. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were still using it. God only knows how they kept it running.
Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: Staten Island
Years as a cabbie: 1 1/2
Previous profession: Sanitation worker
Oh god. I’m gonna be 41, so you’re going back to the summer of ‘84. I think it was like a Plymouth. No, wait, it was a Buick — one of those big four-door Buick sedans. Back then in Staten Island there were lots of open roads. I think my stepfather took me out in a big field somewhere and just let me make turns.
Where I hailed him:
Midtown East
Where he hails from: Pakistan
Years as a cabbie: 5
Previous profession: Store clerk
I don’t remember what kind of car it was, but it was old and small. You had to shift it, not like this car. It was very slow going up hills. Not much power.

06/11/08 12:00am

We get a kind of funny feeling sometimes when those big red tourist buses pass by as we’re enjoying a beer al fresco. We feel a little bit like an animal in a safari tour. That’s why we would prefer it if more tourists took cabs and tried to hide themselves from us. Alas, that does not seem to be the case.

Where I hailed him:
Midtown East
Where he hails from: India
Years as a cabbie: 23
Previous profession: Always a driver
It actually gets slow in the summer. A lot of people are out of town, and the tourists don’t generally take that many cabs. You can always tell a tourist because they don’t know how to hail a cab. They just stand there without waving you over. And some of them don’t know what the lights on the top mean, so they’ll try to get in when you have a fare.

Where I hailed him: LES
Where he hails from: Ethiopia
Years as a cabbie: 10

Previous profession:
Business is slow in the summer. And the tourists don’t really take that many cabs. And they are the worst tippers. Well, actually, it depends. The Irish and the Germans are good tippers. The Koreans and the Chinese tourists are the worst tippers. The Japanese are the best. They are very good, very generous.

Where I hailed him:
Where he hails from: Pakistan
Years as a cabbie: 8
Previous profession: Always a driver
Yes and no. Yes during Christmastime. A lot of tourists come then, and it’s cold and they have more bags, so they want a cab. In the summer, though, I think they’re less likely to take a taxi. I mean, God, look at this sunshine! More people are willing to walk places than take a cab now. Unfortunately.

Where I hailed him:
East Village
Where he hails from: Bulgaria
Years as a cabbie: 2
Previous profession: Deliveryman
It doesn’t add that much business. Most of the tourists are in Midtown, so if you go up there you can find them.

Where I hailed him:
Kips Bay
Where he hails from: Israel
Years as a cabbie: 4
Previous profession: Security guard
I can’t tell much of a difference. Seems like when the weather is nice, people are less willing to drive around. Probably tourists would rather save money by going on the subway. I do get tourists in here, though. Most of them are really excited to get in, I think they all consider taxis here a big New York thing to do, and they want to tell all their friends back home they got a ride.