Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Twenty pedicab drivers and two ride thieves

Imagine that you work in an office.  You arrived at work yesterday only to find your office door was locked.  Someone had gotten in and was doing your work.  They sneaked in before you got there, took over your job for the day, kept to themselves, emailed the work out at 5 PM, and finished up.  The person who took over your office for the day then went to your boss and demanded your salary! 

Should the manager pay them, because of the work they did or should you,  the person who was hired for the job, be paid?  This was the position I found myself in yesterday: the position of the manager who has been fooled by someone who usurped the place of the hired worker. 

Yesterday was Monday, July 26.  On May 21 I got a query from a tour operator in Ohio: would I organize a tour of Central Park by twenty pedicabs for July 26?  The gig was to be a full tour of the lower loop of Central Park, followed by a trip south on Seventh, right turn on 47th to the hotel on Eighth Avenue. We corresponded back and forth for the next two months, twenty emails in all, covering the route, pickup and dropoff, customer preferences, payment, timing, etc. 

On my own, I started finding drivers.  This would be tricky.  Monday is the day off for people in the tourism and hospitality trades, including pedicab drivers.

Working within the framework of the NYC Pedicab Owner Association (POA), of which I'm a member, is best.  I hired drivers for the event who either owned their own pedicabs or rented from POA members.  These people have a stake in the pedicab industry and are least likely to get instructions wrong, or to get ticketed while driving with clients.  In a word, they're trustworthy.  It's probable that they're also trained better than drivers from non-POA companies, but that's a matter of opinion. 

The bulk of POA member garages are not in Midtown.  Revolution Rickshaw is down on far West 31st Street; Manhattan Rickshaw, in business since 1995, is way down on Washington near 10th, in the West Village.  But their people are dedicated.  Some of them have been driving at least as long as I have.  I knew they could be counted on to show up, even on a Monday. 

About two weeks from the date of the tour, I started hiring drivers.  Got nine on the first day.  I would be the second-oldest driver.  The eldest was 68.  Between the tour operator in Ohio and myself, we calculated 1.5 hours for the whole tour.  Payment was to be better than average, which made it easier to get people for a Monday gig. 

One driver is 68, as said, and I'm glad to get him any work I can.  Another is a petite woman who just turned 40.  She needed the money for some health-related matters.  Very few pedicabbers have health insurance, so keeping healthy can be very expensive. 

On the morning of the 3:00 PM ride, I group texted all those who were hired: "Say YES if you're ready for this afternoon's ride."  One after another, the YESes came in, though there were a few who couldn't make it.  And one whose phone was turned off.  I hung out here at my desk, getting the numbers of POA members and even nonmembers.  Then I had to arrange with a POA member who owned several pedicabs to make a definite replacement for the missing man.  He also brought another driver on standby, in case one or two of my people wouldn't show up.  As it happened, someone also had a flat tire and nearly missed the gig! 

Twenty pedicabs gathered in the unused parking lot of the once and future Tavern On The Green.  But several pedicabbers not in the gig showed up as well.  Suspecting that I might, after all, need to hire them, I asked them to wait and see how things turned out.  The tour escort had earlier offered to pay on the spot for extras if needed.

But here I made a crucial pair of mistakes.  I didn't think to separate their pedicabs from my guys.  I also didn't think to mark my pedicabs with the name of the tour company, which I really should have done.  I'll always do that from now on.  It turned out badly for me and two other drivers who drove three miles up from Greenwich Village for the gig. 

The customers came in.  I greeted them en masse, then turned to the tour escort and the licensed guide, an old friend, as the customers went and got into pedicabs.  One minute later I turned around.  A few pedicabs had already left!  I had wanted to stagger their departures.  Who pulled out in such a hurry, I wondered to myself? 

As the rest pulled out into the park, it became clear that two of my hired drivers were empty.  I turned to the tour operator and asked, "Did everyone show up?  All forty?"
"Yes, they're all here.  Is everything OK?"
My pedicab was empty, as well as those of two other drivers.
"Something's wrong... it looks like six people got on the wrong bikes." 
Instantly I thought of the standbys.  I thought they had mistakenly gotten mixed up in the ride.  But the important thing from the operator's point of view was that all the customers were getting their tour.  So they and the guide left, and I was left with the two drivers. 

When the tour was over, my spare drivers and I drove down to the hotel.  I had to pay the drivers.  One of them maintained that the two who "mistakenly" picked people up were ride thieves.  When I got there, a few of my drivers whispered and texted to me that the two guys who had come in on their own had hustled customers into their 'cabs and taken off. The two were unaware that I, and not the customers, would pay drivers at the end.

And what is a ride thief?  This is a term peculiar to our industry.  A ride thief insinuates himself into a lineup for a ride, takes off with customers, then demands payment for the work that he did, ignoring the fact that he's shut someone else out of the job. 
As it turned out, my friend's standby driver had mistakenly picked people up.  I apologized to him and gave him $10 out of my own pocket. Then  I talked with one of the ride thieves, explaining that I had NOT told him to pick people up; that I'd asked him to wait.  He was not happy to hear that I couldn't pay him.  At that moment, I believed him to be an honest man who had made a mistake.  A day later, I'm still wondering.  I've always liked the guy. 
But the other guy!  He demanded payment.  "I just worked an hour and a half, and you don't want to give me anything?"  I apologized and explained that I'd asked him to wait.  "I'm waiting!  I'm waiting now!"  He kept on demanding money for the work he'd done, not listening to my explanations.  I got out my Manhattan map and showed him that the driver he's taken the ride from had come in on the train from Queens, walked ten blocks to the garage, and drove three miles up to the park.   And that they would have to go back empty-handed if I paid him for taking their customers. 
I apologized to this guy like fifteen times, but he wasn't having it.  I offered him $10 out of my own pocket (should I get nothing for doing all this planning and execution?).  "F U C K your ten dollars!"  He kept insisting that I owed him the same payment I gave all the others. 
One of my friends spoke to him in French, his native tongue, explaining the situation, plucking the map out of my hand and showing the ride  thief how much the other driver deserved the money.  Another driver told him that the money was all paid out to the hirees; there was no more to pay him with. 
Finally he rode off, angrily pointing at me and saying, "I'm gonna remember you owe me money!!"  A veiled threat?
Now I have twenty drivers appreciative of making good money on a Monday, two unhappy drivers, and one wild card.  What happens next time he sees me, and we're not surrounded by other drivers? 


Find my videos about New York and worldwide travel by going to Youtube.com and typing in "TourguideStan"

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Indians are coming

The Indians are coming to America.

The first time India had dealings with the West was in the 15th century, shortly before Columbus. The nation of Portugal was benefitting from the distribution of information and knowledge that doctors, naturalists and college-level teachers had been doing at the beginning of the Renaissance: new discoveries were being disseminated, in letters written in Latin, throughout European centers of learning.  Portuguese sea maps of coastlines were becoming the best in the world, and gaining in importance to the government there. The government had been paying privateers to go further and further south along the coast of Africa, and getting reports back of new lands discovered beyond the Sahara. At one point the locals would pay in ivory for European trade goods, so that area on the newest maps was labelled "the ivory coast," followed by "the gold coast" and so on down to the Cape of Good Hope.

With ships heading north up the east coast of Africa, Portuguese princes wondered if the Egyptian philosopher Ptolemy might have been right in his prediction that Africa could one day be sailed around. That is, circumnavigated.  The Portuguese, with their accurate maps, were the first Europeans to do so. They found Muslims as far south as present-day Kenya, and the Arabic language in use. This was handy:  Portugal had come out from under Moorish rule that century, and many sailors could speak Arabic for calling on Moorish ports.

A ship loaded with trade goods made it as far as Riyadh. (An educated Arab asked, "How did you get here?")   The ship's captain located a pilot who could guide them to Kalkota (Calcutta, in the West), and plotted coastline positions on their maps along the way. When finally received by the Raja, the Portuguese offered woolens to tropical India, and were instantly rebuffed. They and their ship were sent away. The Indians thought the Portuguese had been errant sailors on a lone ship, off on some crazy adventure. But the true mission was to find and plot the exact location of Kalkota!

So they left, and re-circumnavigated Africa, stopping at Portuguese way-stations and Portuguese-friendly harbors along the way. And then Portugal built an armada.

The armada sailed around Africa, secure in the knowledge that they were the only people in the world capable of doing so. And they sailed across the Indian Ocean directly to Kalkota, destroyed its navy, laid waste to the palace, killed the raj, and took over all shipping. Within 15 years, every ship running between Riyadh and Singapore paid a tribute to Portugal.

And no one even knew where it was.

The other European countries started copying Portuguese maps from captured ships, and soon Spain was circumnavigating Africa (and sending Columbus off on his wild goose chase). The other ocean-faring countries, France, England, Netherlands and even the Swedes to an small extent, went east in search of riches.

Britain eventually took over almost all of India, save for a treatied Portuguese colony town called Goa, which remained Portuguese until about 1970. Goans speak Hindi and Portuguese, in addition to English.

Let's come to present-day India. 
India's colonial history is much the same as America's: predominantly English.  Use of English was enforced by Great Britain.  Hindi and other languages such as Gujarati or Urdu were suppressed. 
Britain freed India in 1947, whereupon it split into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan.  East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1970. 
English is the second language in these three countries.  Educated Indians speak English, and English words abound in Hindi. 

The years just before the dot-com bust in 2000-2001 brought worldwide expansion in internet communications and the fiber-optic infrastructure it runs on, mostly paid for by large multinational communications giants.  That recession led many giants to sell off their new comm networks.  Smaller Indian comm companies bought fiber-optic lines in and around India, and bought access into fiber-optic lines worldwide.
Then they used their English-language background and newfound web-tech savvy in new ways: people in Bangalore were trained to sound like Americans, Irishmen, Canadians, and Englishmen, and these people staffed call centers that cater to the people of these nations.  The system works well.  When you have trouble with your computer and ask to talk to a "real person," the real person may be talking to you over superfast fiber-optic lines from the other side of the world!  Likewise, there are call centers for internet-based companies, online shopping companies, American and Canadian store chains and what-have-you. 

I was once a medical transcriptionist.  Now it's faster and cheaper for a medical company to contract with an Indian transcription firm.  The workers are paid a low wage by American standards, but that's a pretty high wage by Indian standards.  Plus, their daytime is our nighttime, so audio tapes from the doctors are changed into files, emailed over to India, typed out overnight, and delivered back as transcripts the next morning's email.  There is currently no way to beat that. 

Indians are earning good money from Western companies, as well as having their own startups that are successful both in the East and West, due to the triple advantage of:
a. English language background
b. lower wages than in the West
c. high-speed internet

And these people are really curious about The West.  India's GDP grows at double the rate of America's.  Granted, that's from a low base GDP.  But it gives rise to an interesting fact:  India's middle class numbers about 300 million people.  That's equal to the population of the entire USA.  And what are they doing with their money?  They are travelling. 

India is experiencing solid growth in tourism and travel.  I've been working with groups from India since 2008.  They don't pay as well as Americans, and tipping is not part of their culture.  But, given the choice of having work or not making any money that day, I'll take the money and walk...holding up my umbrella to follow. 

On such a walking tour recently, our group was going up Broadway from The Battery to Wall Street.  Along the way are sidewalk-width plaques bearing the names of those who have had tickertape parades in their honor, through the years.  I pointed out the plaque honoring Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose parade was in 1965.  The result was really surprising: the entire group clustered around the plaque, speaking quickly in Hindi.  They were awestruck!  All the cameras came out, and photos and videos of the spot were made.  A woman brought her hands to her cheeks, staring down wide-eyed.  We stayed right there for a few minutes, until everyone got their photos in. 

Typically, an Indian tour company works with an American counterpart that is owned and operated by Indian nationals living here.  Most of my clients have been from Mumbai, but some came from Kalkota in the last group I worked with, last month.  The group before that had been in the Indian Air Force, so they'd been from around the country. 
Indians fly in from Kalkota, taking the Pacific route to the West Coast.  They spend a day in LA, a day in San Francisco, followed by a day in Las Vegas. ( I wonder what they think of America after having spent time in Las Vegas?)  They then fly to DC, spending a day touring there by bus.  The bus takes them up the coast to New Jersey, where they stay in inexpensive hotels in Newark, Secaucus or Jersey City.  
I am given the group leader's phone number, and meet them on Liberty Island.  Then I either escort them back to Liberty State Park and we bus to Manhattan, or the bus comes over--under, really--and we board at Battery Park.  
My guests want to see four specific things: the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park and the United Nations.  We usually turn up Trinity Place to see the WTC first.  Then up Church Street to Worth, east on Worth to Chatham Square and Chinatown.  East Broadway to Allen Street through the Lower East Side, and north on First Avenue.  I try to get to the photo stop at the UN before 5:00 PM, when they start taking down the flags.  India is about the 35th flagpole down the line (staringt with Albania and working down to Zimbabwe).  The Indian flag flies just south of the northern entrance of the UN, and they really get a charge out of seeing it! 

We disembark for a few minutes at Rockefeller Center.  By this time I've already told them of John D. Rockefeller Senior, and things that his immensely wealthy son, Junior, did for the city, such as the UN, The Cloisters, and Rockefeller Center.  We go to the plaque that holds Rockefeller's words about mankind.  We gaze across the skating rink and I tell them the story of Prometheus and Zeus behind him, about mankind's quest for fire and then for electricity, resulting in this center that trumpets the victory of worldwide communication.  The Indians know just what I'm talking about, because that victory of communication has paid for their trip here. 

The people know basic things about America, but ask a zillion questions about those basic facts, hoping I can fill them in.  A typical bus tour has the following among their questions:
Where are the robots that build cars?
About a thousand kilometers west of here, in Detroit.
Where does Rockefeller live now?
He is dead, but the Rockefeller family is still rich and still active. 
Why don't Americans speak Hindi?
We were conquered and settled by the English, who pretty much set the standard of language, though Americans come from every country and can speak many languages, if needed.  As more Indians move here, more Americans can speak Hindi. 
How do you bribe your police?
We buy things the police produce, such as hats or bumper stickers.  Those often induce police officers  to let people go for minor infractions.  But those who commit large crimes must go to trial.  There is no way to avoid that.  A billionaire who stole people's money is in jail now. 
Do you know any movie stars?
No, but I've carried a few on my pedicab, which you would call a "cycle-rickshaw." 
This spawns myriad questions about why a guide would pedal a cycle-rickshaw, which they see as a low-class occupation.  I tell them that I do tours of Central Park, and that the only ways to see the park without walking are by pedicab or by horse carriage.  Then I mention that my pedicab boasts a mountain bike frame, a differential, a hydraulic brake, 21 speeds and LED lights fitted into a Fiberglass body.  They come to appreciate this, since Indian pedicabs are all steel and have only one speed. 
Greenwich Village--which they show little interest in, BTW--is a very old, intricate neighborhood.  I explain further that I have a pedicab tour of the Village that buses are simply unable to do.  It's an advantage to use a pedicab there.  My guests marvel and shake the tops of their heads back and forth, which means they understand what I'm saying but don't necessarily agree with it. 
We leave Rockefeller Center and take a left through Times Square, on the way to my Empire State Building dropoff.  I tell them that Rockefeller Center was built as a center of the American radio and television industry, two decades after Times Square established itself as the center of America's stage industry.  The stage and television industries are often a springboard to the film industry.  They nod: it's the same over there. 

We'll hang a right on 33rd so they can see Madison Square Garden, and go around the block to 34th, for the Empire State Building dropoff. 

Vegetarianism is widespread in India.  When we get near the ESB I tell them of two nearby restaurants, Maui Tacos on Fifth at the dropoff point, and the more expensive Hangawi on East 32nd, where the staff wear traditional Korean costumes.  And, if they want South Asian food and are good walkers, there are several Indian restaurants clustered on Lexington near 28th Street. 
We part company either at or at the top of the Empire State.  There is no tipping, because tipping is not part of their culture.  The only people you pay "a little something extra" to are government officials.  It's a "Peace, out," with the word 'namaste,' which means 'peace.'

I hope that I've left them with a better understanding of what New York City is, and more particularly what America is.  They are part of the rising Indian middle class, and this won't be the last time they deal with Americans.  I really want to give them a fair first impression of us as a nation.  I'm always trying to hone my craft toward that end.  Indian tourism is rising, and they're coming to New York.  I can work with them, since they speak English.  I've been thinking recently of taking some Hindi lessons.  All of us guides had better learn a little Hindi, because more Indians are coming every year.  While they do speak English, I'm sure more complete understanding would come from our knowing at least a little Hindi.  It couldn't hurt. 

I bought an NYPD Bomb Squad T-shirt in the 1990s.  The back says, "IF YOU SEE ME RUNNING, TRY TO KEEP UP."   The Indians are beginning to run.  The rest of the world had better keep up.

Find my volunteer traveler advice posts online by typing "TourguideStan" into the NYC forum at Tripadvisor.com.  Find my Youtube posts about travel and about New York by typing that name in at Youtube.com. 

Best wishes,

Stan O'Connor

licensed sightseeing guide


member, Guide Association of NYC

member, NYC Pedicab Owner Association




Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hard Times

Last night, July 2, I worked from 5 PM to 11:30 PM, and made a total of seventy-five dollars. That's just about minimum wage, when you work it out. Some guys made less than I did. Some made more. Thursday night, I only made $20, a new low for a Thursday.

A friend I had not seen since last fall met me last night in Times Square. He had dropped out of pedicabbing, sold his "bike" and gotten a job in a hotel. But the work was part-time and pay was low. This summer he went to the guy who bought his bike and now he's renting it.

This friend had made $50 since 7 PM. It was now 11 PM, so he'd made $12 an hour doing what used to make $200 for a good driver, when the economy was good.

This year is like 2002: hordes of people in town, none of them with cash. They come to Times Square without knowing anything about it. I wait in front of the Brill Building, wanting to show them my Midtown Tour of Rockefeller Center, Times Square and Saint Patrick's. But they pass me by.

Mistrust of pedicabs is high, due to the guys who have offered a charge of some money amount for two people, then get them to the destination and say "Each," thus scamming them. So many scammers have preceded me that people now pretend I'm not there when hailing a ride. I have to dicker to get rides, and go cheap in order to make a living.

I wait at the corner by the Plaza Hotel, trying to get customers to take a tour of Central Park. But they don't trust me, since I haven't got either a double-decker bus or a horse. They don't know I have fifteen years of tourguiding under my belt, and can give them a GREAT tour. No, they'll go with a carriage, getting 1/4th the ride for 2/3rds the price.

Last night in Times Square, two unpleasant things happened. First, a young woman scolded a carriage driver who was parked behind me, calling a carriage horse "slave labor," and him a "slavedriver." Then when she got to me, I offered, "Good for you. Now prove that a man can give a better ride, by being my customer instead." She tried to ignore me, looking embarrased while walking on.

Second, a young woman had been texting while standing in the intersection I was trying to cross. I said, "That thing works on the sidewalk, right?" Her boyfriend then came off the curb and asked, "Did you take this job because you couldn't get anything else?" And he walked away as I answered, "No, this is a cool job. I've been doing it eight years." It was a few seconds before I realized he'd just insulted me. That really hurt, especially when I kept thinking of the miniscule amount of money I made. It was really tough.

I've been mentoring a fellow licensed guide/pedicab driver who is homeless. Yesterday he made $51. Recently I got him to call one of the double-decker companies and get started on getting regular work. It's my hope that he will get himself an apartment, or at least a share. He's not putting enough effort into it, though. The other day he said he'd taken the bus company's Brooklyn tour, but "hadn't been in the mood to listen." Now he has to take it again, or he just won't learn. If he doesn't learn, they won't hire him. The guy is smart, but isn't taking the necessary steps to improve his life.

Thinking about him, and about how poor life has become for pedicabbing over the past year, I've decided to take the necessary steps to improve my own life. I will apply for the double-deckers again, myself. I can't go on making such a small amount of money. Though double-decker work is rewarding in that you're helping people understand the city while they get acclimated and taken to the sites they want to visit, it's grueling. You bake in the sun, soak in the rain, freeze in the wind and snow. Someone will sit right behind you and pepper you with questions, which takes time away from the other 49 people on the bus.

Seven years I spent on double-deckers. I didn't want to go back to them, but this season is just killing me.

Help me avoid this fate. Take a private tour of Central Park, Midtown or Greenwich Village through www.oconnorgreentoursnyc.com
Hire me for your upcoming bus trip to Manhattan. It costs only $10 per passenger on a 20-seater bus, or $5 per passenger on a 50-seater bus, for a fantastic tour of Manhattan. I won't let you down.

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