I'm sitting astride a baby-blue rickshaw at the north end of Union Square, too scared to leave the parking lot and commence my maiden journey. Someone taps me on the shoulder, and I whirl around, expecting to see my high-school girlfriend or my cousin the currency trader and thinking how I'll explain myself. Instead, it's a guy named Mike and his 8-year-old son Nick. They want a ride to Duggal on 20th Street and clamber into the backseat. My career as a pedicab driver has begun.
It has been only a few hours since I received my final training session from George Bliss, the founder of Pedicabs of New York. Though he has eight cabs in operation and a deal with the Grand Central Partnership, he views his enterprise as more than a business; to him, it's the first step toward making the city a safer, friendlier place to ride and walk. He personally trains all his drivers, guiding them through an obstacle course, a role-playing session, and a lengthy discussion of rules. And he takes the process very seriously, especially when I nearly sideswipe a Dumpster with him in the back. His cardinal rule: "Love thy passengers."
As I pull into traffic with Mike and Nick, a fire truck screams past us, which makes them nervous. They ask if I've been pedicabbing for a long time. I lie, for their sake. After a few blocks, they forget their fears and start chattering away like a couple of ruling-class Bangladeshis on an outing in downtown Dacca. George Bliss says that people like riding in a pedicab because it's the first time since infancy that anyone's physically carried them. The trip lasts about ten minutes, and I score a $5 tip on top of my prearranged 50-cents-a-minute rate.
I cruise down Fifth Avenue with a dead-ahead stare, trying to do my best Travis Bickle, but I can't maintain the pose. Not when I ring the bell, anyway, as Bliss admonished me to do, in order to "fill the collective unconscious with the happy sound of the happy pedicab driver." The funny thing is, I do feel kind of happy. People -- especially girl people -- are looking at me not with the pity and sadness I expected but with something almost like adoration.
Just two blocks later, I'm hailed by a middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. "The Village," they say. Tourists, I think. I leisurely pedal them down toward Washington Square Park while they try to make polite conversation. "So do you, like, have a job?" the teenager asks me, before handing me another $5 tip.
Before I can say "Objectify me," I'm flagged by Kelly and Janet, two young midwestern dancers. They want to cut through Chinatown, and that means hills. Not big ones, but even the slightest incline can break a pedicabbie's heart. The girls, unfortunately, want to talk. "God, you must get in great shape doing this," Janet says cheerfully. Meanwhile, I'm choking on every cigarette I've ever smoked.
Finally, I reach the flatlands of the Manhattan waterfront. There's only one problem: It's getting cloudy. Cumulonimbi, the pedicabbie's mortal enemies, are piling up in a foreboding way. As my passengers climb out of the cab, Kelly asks what happens when it rains. Yeah, I wonder, what the hell does happen when it rains? I start to feel like Travis Bickle again.