Sunday, March 20, 2016
Low was written and recorded in 1976 during a period when Bowie was attempting to kick cocaine. At the time, his close friend Iggy Pop was in a psychiatric hospital trying to overcome a heroine addiction. Bowie's life was bleak and chaotic and he was obsessed with black magic, the Holy Grail and paranoid delusions. He moved to Berlin and took an apartment above an auto parts store. Written with Brian Eno, Low is a musical exploration of anguish and suffering as Bowie struggled to remain sober. The album became the first of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" (along with Heroes and The Lodger).
As my own teenage moods spiraled downwards, Low became an expression of my internal pain. I identified with Bowie's torment and the music helped me access my own darkness. I played the album over and over, sinking deeper into the abyss with each listen. At one point I could no longer handle the distress. I literally burned the album in a ritual bonfire along with Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate and Lou Reed's Berlin.
Years went by and I discovered meditation, prayer and therapy. Slowly, through God's grace and the passage of time, my depression lifted. My twenties became a decade of growth and self-discovery and my musical choices reflected this shift. I turned to albums that encouraged healing and a return to life. At the top of my list were Peter Gabriel's So, Tears for Fears The Hurting and my favorite, David Bowie's Hunky Dory.
Hunky Dory is a poetic and musical celebration of life. Though written in 1971 before Low, the album celebrates a new outlook for Bowie, one filled with hope, artistic experimentation and the inklings of joy. Starting with the song "Changes," Bowie reflects on the "changes…I'm going through" in a Buddhist-like fashion. He sings, "I watch the ripples change their size but never leave the stream of warm impermanence." He has learned that all things in life are temporary, even suffering. In the song's chorus, he urges us to "turn and face the strange, turn and face the strain." This was a perfect accompaniment to the advice my own therapist was giving me: "face your pain, accept it and let it go."
On the song "Quicksand," Bowie acknowledges his unhealthy obsession with the occult, referencing Aleister Crowley and the frightening image of Himmler and the Third Reich. He sings that "he's torn between the light and dark" and that "he ain't got the power anymore" to avoid "sinking in the quicksand of my thought."
Listening to Bowie's words, I felt as if he were speaking directly to my soul. At the time I was reading books like The Road Less Traveled and the Tao Te Ching. Hunky Dory became the soundtrack for my spiritual journey. Everything in life was teaching me that freedom comes with letting go of the ego (death of the Self) and aligning with universal energy. Buddha spoke about surrendering one's beliefs allowing the mind to move toward release. As Bowie sings on "Quicksand"--"Don't believe in yourself, don't deceive with belief. Knowledge comes with death's release."
The most joyous and life affirming song on Hunky Dory is "Fill Your Heart." Written by comedian Biff Rose (writer for George Carlin) and Paul Williams (songwriter for Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter), "Fill Your Heart" is a paean to peace and comfort. The song promises that the suffering of life can be overcome through the power of love. Bowie tells us, "fill your heart with love today, don't play the game of time. Things that happened in the past only happened in your mind." When he sings, "Happiness is happening, the dragons have been bled," it's as if Bowie is celebrating the future slaying of his own demons of addiction. Buddhist energy runs throughout the song culminating in the lyrics, "Fear's just in your head, so forget your head and you'll be free."
"Fill Your Heart" was clearly sentimental and sugary, but it got me every time. Like Bowie, I'd had enough of pain and misery. I yearned for joy. Being new to the happiness game, my initial forays were a bit simple. But they were earnest. Jesus proclaims in the Gospels, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Bowie helped me become a child again, rediscovering the simple act of smiling. Perhaps this seemed infantile to others. But to me, I was learning to enjoy life. And for this, I am thankful to Mister Bowie. (5" x 7", black ink print)
Monday, February 15, 2016
All Angelenos have stories of witnessing horrific car accidents or being caught in nightmare traffic jams. To live in Los Angeles one must make peace with the freeway. You learn to accept the gridlock and reckless drivers, the ramshackle cars and ever-prowling highway patrol. In a city that clearly delineates the haves from the have-nots, freeways are the last bastion of true democracy. Whether you drive a Rolls-Royce or a broken-down Chevy, all drivers have equal access to the freeway.
Charles Bukowski wrote, "When I drive the freeways, I see the soul of humanity of my city and it's ugly, ugly, ugly." The unwritten rule of freeway driving is to drive aggressively. Traditional defensive driving is not enough. To signal before a lane change is to guarantee the car behind you will not let you in. The trick is to quickly change lanes then hit your turn signal as if to say, "That's right man, I just cut you off."
Observing the speed limit is an unforgivable sin. Posted speed limits are simply suggestions and most people drive 10-15 mph over the limit when traffic is flowing. Tailgating is like a religion on LA freeways. It's not uncommon to see drivers riding each other's bumpers at 75 mph knowing that a sudden stop would be fatal. Driving LA freeways is like swimming in the ocean. Everybody does it despite the riptides and sharks and large waves that occasionally claim lives.
Locals refer to the freeways by their route numbers as in "take the 405 to the 101." Each freeway has a distinct character and flavor. The 405 is the busiest freeway in the world known for its unrelenting traffic jams. This was the route OJ took during his infamous white Bronco chase and the freeway subject to the Carmageddon closure in 2011. Driving the 101 is like taking a trek through old Los Angeles. You pass the Hollywood Bowl, the Capital Records building, the iconic Western Exterminator offices and city hall. The 5 links Los Angeles to Orange County and is know for its battered roads, narrow lanes and monster traffic jams.
In total, the LA freeway system spans 528 miles. They are the defining architecture of Los Angeles and as Joan Didion wrote in her novel Play It As It Lays, the freeway is "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."
The history of freeways in the United States is tied to Los Angeles. In 1901, the Pacific Electric Railroad created a public transit system known as "the Red Car." With its bright red streetcars, the Red Car line was the primary means of transport for people getting around Los Angeles. It covered 25% more track mileage than New York City's subway line today.
As automobiles became cheap and plentiful, the Red Car began to lose ridership. Vehicle congestion on local streets became a problem and urban planners spoke about "magic motorways" soaring above and through Los Angeles. Fearing a loss of control over local commerce, the Southern Pacific Railroad (who owned the Pacific Electric Railroad), lobbied hard against freeway construction.
It took the Automobile Club of Southern California releasing the 1937 Traffic Survey to sway political opinion. The Survey recommended extensive motorways with cloverleaf interchanges, on-ramps, off-ramps and elevated highways. Only cars would be allowed though initial plans called for light rail tracks in center lanes. The roads would be called freeways ("free of charge") to distinguish them from "toll ways" that cost money.
The first Los Angeles freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, opened in 1940. The six-lane, eight-mile long road linked Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. The route reduced travel time between the two cities from 27 minutes to 12 minutes. The original speed limit was 45 mph and the road was designed to carry 27,000 cars per day. Today, it carries more than 125,000 cars daily.
LA's second freeway, the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) also opened in 1940. Connecting the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and downtown, the 101 made it easier for people to live in the suburbs and work in the city. Construction required the acquisition and demolition of thousands of homes and buildings via eminent domain. Among the structures destroyed were Rudolph Valentino's house in Whitley Heights and Los Angeles High School near downtown. Rubble and debris were dumped in Chavez Ravine, the future home of Dodger Stadium.
After World War II, pro-freeway sentiment prevailed. In 1947, California passed the Collier-Burns Highway Act that included a 1.5 cent statewide fuel tax for freeway construction. By 1950, the Red Car line was formally disbanded.
In 1953, a four-level interchange was completed where the 101 connects to the 110 (Harbor Freeway). This was the first stack freeway in the world. Los Angeles became the model for freeway development and "the stack" became a symbol of local pride.
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. The law authorized $25 billion for construction of a nationwide interstate highway system. LA freeway construction took off and soon the city had the 405 (1960), the 134 (1960) and the 605 (1964). Plans also called for a Beverly Hills Freeway linking the 10 to the 101 via La Cienega and Laurel Canyon. Wealthy locals protested and killed the idea. In contrast, freeway construction through Latino neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, East LA and Lincoln Heights displaced more than a quarter-million people.
The 1973 oil crisis raised fuel prices and increased interest in mass transit. Popular opinion turned against new freeway construction. Proposition 13 enacted in 1978 further reduced available freeway funds. The last new freeway to be built in Los Angeles was the 105 (Century Freeway) opening in 1993.
In 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported about bizarre items found on local freeways. These included $7,000 in quarters on the 101 in 1982; thousands of pounds of M&M's on the 57 (Orange Freeway) in 1986; 14,000 pounds of salsa on the 5 in 1987; and a body from the back of a coroner's van on the 101 in 1989.
In 1969, chickens began appearing on the side of the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios. Apparently, a poultry truck overturned and freed thousands of birds. Passing motorists killed many of the hens but a colony survived and made homes in the roadside shrubbery. In the late 70's, the Department of Animal Regulation corralled more than 100 chickens and shipped them to a Simi Valley ranch. A few chickens eluded capture. The so-called "Hollywood freeway chickens" can still be seen on the 101 today. (7" x 9", black ink print)
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
To many Twain scholars, Huck Finn exposed the hypocrisy of slavery in a democratic republic while humanizing the slave Jim. Twain's critics claim Huck Finn depicts Jim as a minstrel stereotype prone to superstitious and ignorant beliefs. In 1957, the NAACP accused Huck Finn of containing "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." In 2009, a Washington state high school teacher called for the removal of Huck Finn from the school's curriculum.
Twain himself was nonplussed by public reception. He said, "I wrote Huck Finn for adults exclusively and it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience and to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."
Twain claimed the character Huck was inspired by his childhood friend Tom Blankenship whose father was a drunk and the model for Pap Finn. But in many ways Huck was inspired by Twain himself. Like Huck, Twain grew up in the pre-Civil War South. Twain's home state of Missouri was a slave state and Twain's uncle owned 20 slaves. In his autobiography, Twain wrote, "I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another…awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen."
As he matured, Twain's attitudes toward slavery evolved. Twain married into an abolitionist family and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who at one point housed Frederick Douglass. Commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation, Twain wrote, "Lincoln's Proclamation…not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also."
Amazingly, Huck Finn almost never came to be. Twain started the book in 1876 and wrote 400 pages that he liked "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. Twain stopped the story about the time Huck and Jim exited the river. He went on to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. Seven years later, after taking a steamboat ride down the Mississippi, Twain was inspired to complete the novel.
Many have complained about the final portion of Huck Finn. Through their journey down the river, Huck experiences Jim's humanity and a true friendship develops. But when the character Tom Sawyer enters the novel, Huck becomes passive and does nothing when Jim is captured. All turns out well since Jim was already freed by his owner and Huck's pap is dead. But the happy ending seems tacked on and is inconsistent with the complexity of the novel. Hemingway wrote of Huck Finn, "If you read it, you must stop where…Jim is stolen from the boys. This is the real end. The rest is just cheating." (6" x 7", black ink print)
Friday, October 23, 2015
I love sitting by a rushing river and contemplating the passing currents. Ocean waves crashing atop rocks fill me with infinite joy. Even a stagnant puddle in a post-rain parking lot brings happiness to my soul.
We are born in water. We are made of water. When we die, we rejoin the great ocean from where we all came. (4" x 6", black ink print)
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois in 1927. He grew up during the Depression and his parents were unemployed and broke. In 1935, the family took a trip to Los Angeles. They drove to Hal Roach Studios in Culver City and visited the Our Gang Cafe just outside the studio gates. Carl and his brother Harold began singing and dancing in the cafe and in classic Hollywood fashion, they were immediately signed by the studio.
Carl was cast as Alfalfa and appeared in his first Our Gang film "Beginner's Luck" in 1936. (Harold became an extra.) With his ill-fitting suit, freckles and high cowlick, Alfalfa quickly became a star. According to co-star Darla Hood, "Alfalfa was once mobbed by fans outside the studio while Clark Gable stood by unnoticed."
Alfalfa's shtick included an off-key singing voice and ongoing efforts to woo love interest Darla while fending off the local bully Butch. On camera, Alfalfa was charming and likable. But off screen, Carl Switzer was an obnoxious bully hated by cast and crew.
Switzer developed a reputation as a mean prankster. He loved to put lit firecrackers into crew member's pockets and tacks on people's chairs. On one occasion he hid fishhooks in Spanky's back pocket. When Spanky sat down, he cut himself so badly he had to get stitches. Another time he put an open switchblade in his pocket and convinced Darla to put her hand in his pocket telling her he had a Crackerjack ring for her. She nearly lost her fingers.
George "Spanky" McFarland spoke about Switzer's most memorable prank. "We were filming and they were taking a long time to set up so Alfie decided to pee on the thousand watt bulbs. The lights exploded and filled the studio with a tremendous stench. Everyone had to be taken off set as the crew cleaned up the mess Alfalfa created."
Another time Switzer spread a large wad of chewing gum around the gears inside the camera. According to Tommy Bond who played "Butch," the cameraman became furious and yelled at Switzer, "When you turn 21 I'm gonna find you and beat the shit out of you."
The child actors were required to attend three hours a day of on-set school. Switzer was typically late and refused to do his lessons. He was often kept after class causing expensive delays in production. Years later at an Our Gang reunion, Switzer encountered his old on-set teacher Mrs. Carter. According to Darla, Switzer screamed and cursed at the woman and accused her of ruining his life.
In 1938, MGM purchased the Our Gang comedy rights. Without Roach's guidance, the shorts lost their popularity. Alfalfa appeared in his last Our Gang film in 1940 when he was 12. With more than 60 films behind him, Switzer's career as a Little Rascal was over.
Like many child performers, Switzer yearned to make the transition to adult actor. He appeared in Frank Capra's classic It's A Wonderful Life playing Donna Reed's date in the famous dance floor turned swimming pool scene. He also had supporting roles in the Bing Crosby film Going My Way and the John Wayne film Island In The Sky. In 1946, Switzer reprised his Alfalfa character as a teenager in "Gas House Kids" but the film was a flop. He played a slave in Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments and made his final on screen performance in Stanley Kramer's 1958 film noir The Defiant Ones.
In 1954, Switzer married the heiress of a grain elevator empire. He and his wife moved to her family's farm in Kansas and had one son before divorcing in 1957. Switzer moved back to Los Angeles and took a series of odd jobs including bartender, shoeshine boy and hunting guide. Struggling for money, he began drinking heavily. In 1958 he was shot in the arm outside a bar in Studio City. His injuries were minor and the assailant was never caught. No reason was given for the shooting. A year later, Switzer was arrested for cutting down 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest that he intended to sell as Christmas trees. He was a sentenced to a year probation and fined $225.
In early 1959, Switzer agreed to train a hunting dog for his friend Bud Stiltz. The dog ran away and Switzer posted a reward for $35. Someone returned the dog and Switzer bought the man a few drinks and paid him the reward. All told, Switzer was out fifty dollars.
Switzer spent several days drinking and began to believe the dog's owner owed him the money. He went to Stiltz's house in North Hollywood and demanded to be repaid the fifty dollars. Stiltz refused. According to Stiltz, Switzer pulled out a knife and lunged at Stiltz. Stiltz retrieved a gun and after a short struggle, he shot Switzer in the stomach. By the time the ambulance arrived, Switzer had bled to death.
At the subsequent trial, Stiltz was determined to have acted in self-defense and was cleared of all charges. Switzer's death received little television or newspaper coverage since filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille died the same day. Switzer was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to Paramount Studios. In a strange addendum, Bud Stiltz received a Christmas card every year signed "Alfie" until his death in 1984. He never discovered who sent him the cards. (5" x 6", black ink print)
Thursday, March 5, 2015
Before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was an ambitious young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky. He won a boxing gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome then quickly turned pro, winning his first 19 fights. The heavyweight champion of the day was Sonny Liston, a tough ex-con with a menacing reputation. In 1963, Liston agreed to a title defense against the young Clay.
Liston had a massive chest, huge shoulders and a thick neck. He overwhelmed opponents with a fierce left jab and a devastating hook. In 36 bouts he had 25 knockouts. He was known to knock out sparring partners and rip open sand-filled heavy bags with his punches. In his only defeat, Liston made it to the end of the fight despite suffering a broken jaw.
As a teenager, Liston was arrested for a series of assaults and armed robberies. He served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary where he learned to box. Upon his release in 1952, he turned pro. He supplemented his fight income by working as an enforcer for the Philadelphia mob. In 1956, Liston assaulted a police officer earning him another six months in jail.
Liston earned the heavyweight title by twice defeating former champion Floyd Patterson. Despite his success, the public perceived him as a monster. African-Americans shunned him, feeling Liston's reputation hurt the civil rights movement.
Few believed Clay had a chance against Liston. In a pre-fight poll, 43 of 46 sportswriters picked Liston to win by knockout while bookmakers made Liston a 7-1 favorite. Liston was a traditional fighter with an impressive 84-inch reach while Clay broke the basic rules of boxing fundamentals. Clay kept his hands too low and leaned away from punches instead of slipping them. He avoided punching the body and his hook and uppercut were considered average. Clay also had a "soft chin" having been knocked down in two recent fights.
Prior to training, Clay consulted Eddie Machen, a former opponent of Liston. Machen told Clay the key to victory was to make Liston lose his temper. Clay undertook a public relations campaign to humiliate Liston. He interrupted Liston's workouts and hurled insults at him. He showed up at Liston's Denver home at 2:00 am (with the media present) and taunted the champion from the street below. He called Liston "a big ugly bear" and told interviewers, "If you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny."
On February 25, 1964 at the official weigh-in the morning of the fight, Clay wore a denim jacket with the words "bear huntin'" on the back. He entered the room shouting, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He screamed and lunged at Liston like a lunatic. Sportswriters thought Clay had lost his mind. But Clay's trainer Angelo Dundee knew it was all an act. "Tough guys are afraid of guys that are a little goofy, guys that fly over the cuckoo's nest," Dundee said. "Tough guys don't know where to go with that and Liston was a tough guy."
By taking the initiative at the weigh-in, Clay neutralized Liston's aura of intimidation. He took the fight to the bully.
At the opening bell, Liston sprung forth like a bull, in attack mode. Clay danced, easily avoiding Liston's wild punches. Halfway through Round 1, Liston landed a heavy right to Clay's body. Clay used his elbows to block further punches and his foot speed to avoid Liston's hooks. With 45 seconds left in the round, Clay hit Liston with a flurry of combinations and hooks to the face. Clay was proving he had the power and speed to frustrate Liston.
In Round 2, Liston landed a left hook, hurting Clay. Clay responded with a series of jabs keeping Liston at bay. In Round 3, Clay took control. He hit Liston with a combination that opened a cut under Liston's left eye. At one point Liston's knees buckled and he nearly fell. Liston became enraged and unleashed hammer blows to Clay's body and jaw. Clay held on to Liston's shoulders and made it to the end of the round.
In Round 4, Clay danced around the ring, keeping his distance. He continued his sharp jabs, reopening the cut under Liston's eye. When the round ended, Clay was blinking his eyes furiously. He complained to Dundee that there was something burning in his eyes and he couldn't see.
"I didn't know what was going on," Dundee later said. Dundee put his pinkie in Clay's eye then into his own eye. "It burned like hell," Dundee said. "There was something caustic."
Clay was convinced that Liston was using an illegal chemical on his gloves. He yelled at Dundee to stop the fight. "Cut the gloves off. I want to prove to the world there's dirty work afoot," Clay screamed. Dundee poured water in Clay's eyes then told him, "Back up, baby. This is for the title. This is the big apple. What are you doing?" As the bell rang to start Round 5, Dundee gave Clay a one-word instruction. "Run!"
Clay later said he could only see a faint shadow of Liston for most of Round 5. Clay bobbed and weaved and did his best to avoid Liston's punches. At one point, Liston landed 16 consecutive blows to Clay's body. Clay held out his left arm to keep Liston away while using his right glove to clear his eyes. Finally, Clay's vision returned. He began punching back and as the round ended Liston's chance at victory had passed.
Some have theorized that Liston intentionally had his corner man put an astringent on his gloves that Liston then rubbed in Clay's face. Dundee believed that Liston's trainer used Monsel's solution on the cut beneath Liston's eye. The ferric sulfate combined with Clay's sweat then dripped into Clay's eye.
As Round 6 began, Clay was clear-eyed and furious. He nailed Liston with a right to the jaw followed by a flurry of combinations. Liston tried to fight back but his punches had lost their power. Clay regained control.
Between Round 6 and 7, Liston suddenly told his corner man, "That's it." He claimed he'd injured his shoulder and could no longer lift his arm. As the bell rang, Liston did not come out. Clay lifted his arms and celebrated. He'd beaten the invincible Sonny Liston and was now heavyweight champion. He began yelling at the reporters around the ring, "You were wrong and you were wrong. I'm the Greatest. I shook up the world!"
A team of doctors examined Liston after the fight and verified he'd suffered a torn tendon in his left shoulder. Though Liston had been promised $1.2 million for the fight he received only $13,000. The remainder was deducted by Liston's organized crime associates as a so-called "mob tax." Liston did not complain for fear of being killed.
The day after the fight, Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam. A few weeks later, Nation leader Elijah Muhammad gave Clay a new name: Muhamad Ali. Muhammad meant "worthy of all praises" while Ali meant "most high."
The fighters agreed to a rematch in late 1964. Liston trained hard, desperate to avenge the defeat. Three days before the fight, Ali needed emergency surgery for a hernia. The fight was delayed for six months. Liston became depressed and starting drinking and smoking heavily. His training suffered and as the fight neared he was flabby and out of shape.
The rematch was controversial. Halfway through Round 1, Ali threw a quick right to Liston's chin and Liston fell to the canvas. Liston attempted to get up but was unable. Many in the crowd did not see the punch (it became known as "the phantom punch"). Fans began booing and yelling out "fix." Ali stood over Liston yelling, "Get up and fight, sucker." Chaos ensued as the referee and official timekeeper could not agree if Liston had remained down for a ten-count. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the bout and awarded Ali a first-round knockout.
Many couldn't believe the punch could have knocked out a man like Liston. Announcer Don Dunphy said, "Here was a guy who was in prison and the guards beat him over the head with clubs and couldn't knock him down." Others like Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated called the punch legitimate writing "the blow had so much force it lifted Liston's foot…well off the canvas."
Three months before the fight Malcolm X was murdered. Ali and Malcolm had been close friends and rumors persisted that Nation of Islam assassins were planning on shooting Ali during the fight. Liston feared they might miss and kill him instead.
Liston publicly denied taking a dive. But years later he told sportswriter Mark Kram, "That guy [Ali] was crazy. I didn't want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming. Who needed that? I went down. I wasn't hit."
After the rematch, the lives of the two fighters diverged. While Ali became a boxing legend, Liston slowly faded into obscurity. Liston continued fighting but he was forever linked to mob ties and boxing corruption.
On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead by his wife in his Las Vegas home. Heroin was found in the kitchen but no syringes or needles were discovered. After an investigation, Las Vegas police declared Liston's death a heroin overdose. Knowing Liston was terrified of needles, some of his friends believed he'd been murdered by mobsters for failing to take a dive in his recent fight against Chuck Wepner. Liston was buried in a Las Vegas cemetery. His tombstone bears the epitaph: "A Man." (7" x 9", black ink print)
Sunday, January 4, 2015
A Hack License allows a driver to operate a Yellow Medallion Taxi in the five boroughs of New York. A Medallion identifies a cab as part of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, the governing body of New York taxis. In those days, a Medallion cost $62,000. Today, the cost is over $800,000.
Honig passed the TLC written test, paid $30 and received his Hack License. He joined the ranks of 30,000 fellow cab drivers in the city. Most were American born men aged 40-50. There were a few Caribbean drivers and a large number of immigrant Russians who'd been doctors and lawyers in the old country. Honig, who played in a punk rock band, was among the small percentage of young musicians who drove cabs.
Drivers worked a 12-hour shift starting at 6am or 6pm. On Honig's first day, he arrived in the morning to find a long line outside the Chelsea taxi station. He waited two hours only to be told there were no remaining cabs. The next day, he arrived a half-hour early but again failed to secure a cab. On his third day, a fellow driver told him to "grease" the dispatcher a five-dollar bill. This worked and Honig had his first cab.
Drivers were given two options regarding the lease payment. They could work for 40% of the meter total and the cab company paid for the gas. Or they could pay $62 per day ($82 for a night shift) and pay for their own gas. Most rookies opted for the 40% option and the day shift since it was less intimidating.
"No one tells you what to do," Honig says. "You're given a cab and you just start driving." In his first year, Honig stuck to picking up businessmen. Though they tipped poorly, they were safe and reliable. They also gave the driver specific directions helping Honig quickly learn the Manhattan streets. Honig averaged between $50-$75 a shift his first year. (Today, New York taxi drivers average about $150 a day.) Though the work was relatively easy, Honig found it depressing and stressful. He couldn't believe he'd spent four years in college to become a cab driver.
Honig settled into a routine. He picked up his cab at 6:00 am and headed uptown looking for fares. On a good day, he'd find a businessman on the Upper West Side needing a ride to Wall Street. From there, he'd take a fare to midtown then another passenger downtown. A typical 12-hour shift yielded 40-50 fares and covered 200-250 miles.
Some passengers only traveled a few blocks. To Honig, these short rides were great. Since the meter started at $1.25 and ticked ten cents every 1/8 mile, the total added up quickly. A common misnomer is that cab drivers choose busy streets to jack up the meter. This is not true. Traffic is an enemy to taxi drivers and passengers alike. Time spent in traffic means less fares per day. Smooth sailing streets equate to more money and better tips.
Honig drove a Checker Cab. The Checker line was the most famous cab in America. The hulking sedans fit six people in the back and had a bulletproof partition between driver and passenger. Most of the cars were beat to hell and had no air conditioning, unreliable radios and inadequate shock absorbers. "I remember one car was so trashed, there was a hole in the floorboard," Honig recounts. "Every time I hit the brakes I saw the street flying by."
On slow days, Honig and his fellow Checker cabbies often played demolition derby. "If we saw a driver taking a quick nap, we'd ram the back of his cab to give him a courtesy wake up call. We'd also make sure to knock off any passenger-side mirrors since the missing mirror was considered a badge of honor."
After a year, Honig opted for night shifts realizing he could make more money and encounter less traffic. "It was scary at first. There were certain areas you avoided like Harlem, parts of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. But nights were easier and more exciting."
Honig perused high-end restaurants, nightclubs and bars. He found a niche among Japanese businessmen frequenting mahjong gambling parlors in Midtown. Many of the businessmen lived in Westchester County, a coup since once you left the city you could charge double what the meter read.
"One time I was driving two Japanese guys on the Hudson River Parkway when I fell asleep behind the wheel. I was woken by the sound of a loud megaphone screaming, "WAKE UP!" A police car had pulled beside me and noticed I was sleeping while driving 70mph down the highway. They must have had somewhere really important to go because they didn't pull me over. I didn't get much of a tip that night."
Intoxicated passengers were a mixed bag. Sometimes they gave larger tips, sometimes they puked and soiled themselves. "Friday and Saturday nights were crazy. I had couples that had backseat sex, prostitutes who gave blow jobs to customers and junkies who shot up while I was driving. One time I picked up Billy Idol and his posse and we all smoked weed together."
"The first time I was robbed was halfway through my second year of driving. It was about 5:00 am and I'd had a great shift. I was at a red light at 44th and 8th Avenue near Times Square. I had a wad of cash between my legs and I was counting the night's take. My window was open and there was a transvestite prostitute standing nearby. She asked, 'Hey you. Can you tell me what time it is.' As she talked, she walked toward the cab."
"I looked at my watch and she reached into the cab, grabbed all my cash and started running. I got out and ran after her but she had too big a head start. I got back in the cab and drove after her. Unfortunately, I didn't close my door all the way. I chased her up 44th Street and hit the gas to make it through a red light. As I took a tight turn, the door opened and the momentum propelled me out of the cab tumbling into the street. I watched as my cab smashed into the wall of a XXX Theater. The transvestite disappeared into a nearby alley. I limped back to my cab. The bumper was trashed but the engine was still running so I was able to drive to the station. I had to pay back the $250 out of my own pocket."
Honig was robbed several more times in the next few years. One night, he made the mistake of driving a guy to score drugs on the Lower East Side. As he waited for the passenger to return, two Puerto Ricans approached him. They stuck a knife in his face and made him get out of the cab. "Take it easy," one of the men said. "We just want your money. Don't fuck around and you won't get stabbed."
Honig hid his money in a hole in the sun visor. He told the men he had no cash since he was just starting his shift. They didn't believe him. They searched the car, looking in the glove box, underneath the seats, beneath the floor mats. At the last moment, one of the guys slammed the visor and a wad of cash spilled out.
The guy with the knife yelled, "You motherfucker" and stabbed Honig in the stomach. Fortunately the wound was not deep. Honig returned his cab to the station then had a friend drop him at the emergency hospital. He received several stitches and still has a scar to this day.
Honig's worst cabbie experience came in 1981. It was early morning and he was coasting down 7th Avenue when he heard a loud thud on the right side of his car. He stopped the cab and got out. He saw a pile of garbage in the street and figured he'd hit a trashcan. As he approached the garbage, he realized it had eyes. He'd hit a bag lady. The woman appeared to be in her seventies. She was completely motionless and silent.
Honig found a pay phone and called the police. By the time they arrived, the woman was dead. A witness came forth and told police the woman had tried to jump in front of a trash truck and another taxi earlier the same night. The cops told Honig the woman likely committed suicide and he was not to blame. Regardless, Honig was despondent. He took several weeks off before he was ready to drive again.
By 1983, Honig tired of the grind of the continual 12-hour night shifts. "The things that once seemed exciting--the grime, the edge, the seediness--had become depressing. I'd become a vampire and developed some very unhealthy habits. Plus, the city started harassing drivers, making sure we kept proper trip sheets and had up to date paperwork. It took the fun out of the job. Once the fun was gone, being a cabbie was kind of a drag." (5" x 6", black ink print)