When Cycling Became My Job
I graduated from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities after successful completion of the 2011 Fall semester. I rather stumbled into graduation and had nothing lined up in terms of career building work. I guess I wasn't looking too hard, because I already had work as a waiter's assistant at a restaurant in Downtown Minneapolis and I just finished school get off my back, sheesh. I was biking to and from work frequently and living in a very cycle accessible area in Uptown.
Despite the temptation for a blissful temporary stagnancy in beautiful Minneapolis, I had something else pulling at me. I had received a Bachelor's of Science in Urban Studies with a minor in Geography. I spent nearly my entire time in college studying cities. Among the classes I took, we focused on inspecting populations that occupy different cities, the challenges facing cities, and how to improve urban centers. During many of these investigations we looked at the urban morphology of many different cities with critical eyes, attempting to figure out what were the origins and processes for the creation of many current urban realities and urban myths alike.
To be sure, Minneapolis and Saint Paul has an illustrious and interesting urban history marked by much of the same push and pull that other more well known cities experienced. Streetcar tracks were ripped up in favor for buses in cities like Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, just as they were ripped up across the Twin Cities. Soon to be notorious public housing projects were built in Saint Louis, Detroit, and Chicago, just as they were being built in the Twin Cities.
Throughout all of the inspection, reading, and discovery about these cities and their connection to the same types of urban phenomena and policy, none compared to the enormity of it all in New York City. New York was it. I had talked about New York in the same way many others have talked about New York in abstract, but without actual experience in that place, I didn't know what it was really like there. I wanted to be there to experience it all in person and try to see the history come through in special and innocuous ways. I had made this intent somewhat clear to many people in my life, but I never had any concrete plans to make it a reality.
I was in a coffee shop on Lyndale and I was looking for jobs online. This was a fun exercise, because it was a great reason to drink coffee late in the afternoon and appear to be doing something important. I received some sort of correspondence from my friend Dani, I can't remember if she texted me, called me, or Emailed me, but whatever it was urgent. News from the East coast. Dani was taking some time to journey to far away lands and would be gone from New York for a few months. She offered me her shoe box sized room that she had been occupying in a beautiful brownstone on a quiet street near 145th St. in Harlem. She has an urgency in her tone that suggested, take it or leave it, but it wasn't because she totally desperate to find someone to rent her room, but maybe she was. In retrospect, she may have been using the her urgency to get pump up my urgency to follow through on something I had said I want to do, move to New York.
My list of doubts about the move was cap stoned by my parents doubt that this was a good idea. My list of ambiguously feasible possibilities and my highly forgiving budget techniques raised a certain suspicion best characterized by a phrase like "Why the fuck not?". I graduated college in late December, sat in that coffee shop job searching and procrastinating in early January, and moved to New York the first week of February.
I came to New York without my bike. I left it in the Twin Cities with all of my other cycling things that I had gathered over the few years I spent obsessing over my bike, the gear, and the culture. All I brought to New York was the stuff I could fit into one checked back and my carry on for the flight to LaGuardia Airport. I had no job, no obvious job prospects, and a short amount of time to make something happen. I turned to the one thing that I thought I could do well and see the city at the same time. Bike. I became a pedicab driver for pedicab company in Midtown. This began the next chapter of my cycling life.
A pedicab bicycle is called many things elsewhere in the world, but in New York they are called pedicabs most of the time. It is a three wheeled bicycle with the driver, or rider, with a traditional looking bicycle setup up front, but with a two person seat and canopy on the back. The bike weighs a couple hundred pounds, but because of pretty efficient gearing and good maintenance, the ride is very similarly to how a normal bike would ride.
In order to begin pedicabbing in New York, you need to be licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which is the same agency that licenses the street vendors of all kinds, hot water dog vendors, luke-warm meat on a spigot vendors, those guys who just have tables full of gas mask bongs and other pipes, even those guys who hang out on Canal with purses in a trashbag, yes, even they are licensed. Everyone who sells anything on the street is licensed. So, the DCA office in lower Manhattan is kind of like the DMV, but only for street vendors. About 3 weeks later, my DCA license arrived! I was ready to get out there and cycle my way to some money.
The logistics of my day as a pedicab driver were fairly routined. On an average day, I would leave the garage around 4, ride about 15 miles, take in about $150, and arrive back at the garage around 11. I would rent the bike by the week, so I would pay for a week once I made rent in fares for that week. The rent was about ~$100 a week if I am remembering correctly. That rent was manageable as most riders could pull in between $500 to $1000 in revenue each week.
Pedicabs are allowed to troll anywhere in Manhattan, but the popular territory was in Midtown bounded by 34th Street to the South, 72nd street near Central Park to the North, 9th Avenue to the West and Lexington Avenue to the East. In this area, the aim was to snag some rides from tourists out sightseeing or going to a show and from New Yorkers who can't catch a cab during rush hour and need to get to some place fairly close very quickly. My rates were posted as $1 a block and $3 an avenue, with a $5 per person fee. Although the rules are loose for how to charge fares as a pedicab driver and if you don't ask what the rates are you may get a surprise. Although, I was never as advantageous as some of the other riders who were quick to gouge a family of four. Then again, most riders were honest and most customers were aware of the price, as high as it was in some cases.
I loved riding around and being apart of the city in this way. There is a simple pleasure in knowing exactly where you are, and how to get anywhere else, among many who seem so lost or in such a hurry to get the fuck out of here in the chaos of 5th Avenue (see: St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fao Schwartz, Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building) or 7th Avenue (see Times Square, Penn Station).
I was apart of the scene, not an observer of the scene. I was a particle in the grease that helped move the clogged center along. I was among the diverse army of service providers -- Elmo(s), Naked Cowboy, the M&M Store, The Book of Mormon, "Why Lie I Need Money for Weed" Guy, and that gargantuan World's Largest! Applebee's all included -- looking to make a dollar off of any willing participant. The competition was thick and aggressive.
In my life, I had never been a good salesperson. This was the main reason that after a few months of pedicabbing, I began to sour on the prospect on being able to sustain with this profession. I had not been taking enough advantage of my right to charge the price listed on my fare placard and I had been too easy giving people deals, just because they were nice or seemed nice. I was never able to be consistently successful at pitching my service to potential fares. My philosophy was dominated too much by a feeling of "Oh, you don't want my service? Ugh, why not!?" My demeanor needed more "Oh, you don't want my service. Let me tell you why you should."
The luster of riding the city's avenues and streets began to fade quickly. It became the hassle of cabs cutting me off, other riders stealing my rides, and getting hassled by cops. Each and every person on the sidewalk had a dollar sign over their head that signified the increments required to pay my rent and to pay for my subway card. Cycling had become my livelihood and my purpose -- it was no longer my hobby. Even after my Dad had brought my bike out to the City early that Summer, I enjoyed the ability to take the subway home after working. It was air conditioned, as my room in Harlem, and later in Bushwick, were not and it provided time to sit and be transported, after a long day of transporting other people.
After 6 months in New York without finding more substantial work, I had to make a hard, but sensible choice to move back home to Saint Paul. I hadn't turned a profit since I had been in New York and it was time to cut my losses on this gamble. To help pay to ship some of my stuff home and to cut down on the things I would need to bring home, I sold the bike that I had built myself in Minneapolis. I flew home in August and I moved back in with my parents in Saint Paul.
My Dad let me use his bike when I came back.
Stay tuned for the next part of this story. 10 days until January. Happy Holidays!