Photo by Nicholas Whitaker
I usually hate Times Square. At its best it is a bunch of light bulbs on steroids, marquees on acid and fluorescence on speed. But no real light penetrates this galaxy as reflected milky ways of neon; garish, overpowering signs and streaming advertisements all compete to be the best travesty of the sun.
While light races above you, movement down below is next to impossible. I generally tend to avoid Times Square because once you enter this blinding abyss your chances of escape are encumbered by slow-moving tourists who have lost all inertia. Despite the mercurial light show above, traffic oozes like reluctant sludge.
The best way through Times Square is on a pedicab, best described as a bicycle rickshaw. I had befriended some of the Pedicabbers thinking I was going to write an article about them, posing them as part of the Green Movement. I had met one named Milosh while in Columbus Circle. Milosh was from Bosnia and he and his family were refugees during the war.
Milosh took me to meet the other pedicabbers who were hanging out near Bathesda Fountain in Central Park. They looked at him incredulously for having brought a stranger into their midst. Milosh explained that I wanted to write an article about pedicabbers. This did not make me any less strange, but they trusted me after I smoked a spliff with them. I found out that most of them were students from Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Though technically you need a license to operate a pedicab, most of the pedicabbers didn’t have one because all that really mattered was that they had the $200 needed to rent a pedicab each week. They charged around $70 for a tour of Central Park, and provided taxi services to theater goers near Times Square. One Russian I met made a thousand dollars a week. They were their own bosses. They worked when they wanted, picked up who they wanted, and obeyed traffic laws only if they wanted. They are the accented cowboys of midtown.
Since that first meeting, whenever I went by Columbus Circle I would encounter the pedicabbers. Eventually they met my friends. One of my friends even started dating a pedicabber. The article never got written as I started feeling less like a journalist and more like a pedicabber groupie, which is probably one of the most random things anyone can be.
One night Milosh decided to take me and my friend Liz on a ride through Times Square. Compared to their four wheel counterparts, being on a pedicab makes you feel like you’re on the Millenium Falcon. Milosh weaved through traffic as if he were dodging asteroids. No longer part of the sludge, we were as mercurial as the lights flashing above us. Liz and I were somewhat at our wit’s end, as an encounter with any fast moving vehicular asteroid would have demolished the rickity pedicab and us. Milosh made certain that our jaunt was as harrowing as possible, narrowly missing the side-view mirrors of cars and squeezing past halal stands and yellow cabs.
Eventually we had to park the pedicab for the night. Milosh usually parked his in the stables where they kept the horses that pulled the carriages in Central Park. The stables were closer to the river, and Milosh decided to park in a garage that was a couple blocks away from Times Square.
He pedaled the cab past the entrance while Liz and I were still in it. There were two attendants. One, a large Puerto Rican man, leaned his weight on a booth as he eyed us warily. “Park it here, up front,” He commanded to Milosh. Milosh refused, explaining that he always parked at the lowest level and proceeded onward.
“I said you cannot park there!” The vigilante persisted, but Milosh was not about to make this man’s life easy by complying.
“I alvays park at bottom! I don’t know vat the deal is. Every time I park in front my pedicab get a scratch.”
“Um maybe you should just park at the entrance,” Liz and I said, but Milosh ignored us too.
“I keep telling you, you cannot park down there! Park here!”
“No!” Cried Milosh to the man.
Then he turned to us and said, “There’s something I vant to show you!” And we lurched onward into the depths of the garage. The attendant’s protests were muffled by our indifference, but I couldn’t help noticing that he he had started chasing after the pedicab.
“Milosh, are we going to get into trouble?” I asked, looking at the pursuant behind us.
“No, its okay.” And I noticed the man had stopped running and was heading back to his booth. Case closed.
“Okay, now dis is vat I vant to show you.” As we descended on the ramp into the bowels of the garage, the pedicab gathered speed and we started spiraling as gravity took us downward like a corkscrew. Milosh pedaled faster and with each level we descended we made a jolting turn, which got more acute the farther down we went. We were caught in a concrete tornado as we zoomed past parked cars. Liz and I raised our arms as if we were on the Cyclone. We finally came to a halt and Milosh locked the pedicab. “It’s like roller coaster! Cool, no?”
It was a clever shenanigan indeed, but the glee wore off as we got out of the pedicab. How were we going to get out of the garage without encountering the attendant? Milosh pointed to a door and explained that there were stairs that led outside. I went up the stairs thinking how lucky we were to thwart the fat man. I felt a little sorry for him. There were three of us, and a pedicab. And now we even had this secret exit. All he had was himself and his barrel gut.
We had gone up a couple flights of stairs, skipping two steps at a time with cruel glee, when a loud metal crash announced that the door had been violently flung open. I was wondering what sketchy personality other than ourselves might need to be taking these stairs. Then I heard the loud stomping and heaving breathing of someone who was carrying a lot of weight really fast, and understood that we had underestimated the fat man.
“STOOOOOP!” Thundered the attendant. What was he, some kind of tell tale heart that was going to follow us around for a simple parking misdemeanor? Liz, Milosh and I looked at each other. The exclamation points in our eyes read HOLY SHIT. The ensuing dialogue sounded like a scene from a World War II flick.
“You guys go ahead!” Cried Milosh.
“What are you going to do?”
“Just go on without me!”
“We can’t leave you!”
It was true, we could not leave Milosh there. Liz and I do socially sanctioned forms of running all the time. Playing soccer. Jogging through Central Park. There was no doubt in my mind that we could outrun the guy. But Milosh was a little soft around the edges and chain smoked like the proper Eastern European he was. The asphalt was a great equalizer, and without the pedicab he was a slow creature. Leaving him to fend for himself would have been like leaving an earthworm on the intersection of Broadway and 42nd.
Our indecision helped the guard close the gap between us. And we saw that we weren’t just being chased by an angry fat man, but an angry fat man wielding a metal golf club. We all gasped in unison, trying to look at each other and the golf club at the same time. Milosh protectively placed himself in front of us, God bless him. It was too late for us to make a run for it and there was not enough room in the stairwell for us to disperse. The man had the golf club poised over his head like a baseball bat. By the desperate look in his eyes and the quiver in his belly it was clear he had been flirting with the precipice of insanity for a while. Maybe he had problems at home, or working under the constant glare of fluorescent lights with only a panorama of cement garage walls was affecting his psyche. This unfortunate encounter and usurpation of his authority might be all he needed to take the plunge. Any wrong word or movement might push him off the edge and someone’s head would be a pinata.
We all wondered who would speak first and what the hell they would say. In the liminal moment between an inhale and an exhale, I allowed myself to stare off into space, to see if my life would flash before my eyes. It didn’t. I took this as a sign that everything was going to be fine.
Then Milosh spoke, waving his arms delicately in front of the guard as if the man were merely a smudge he was trying to wipe off a wine glass. “It’s okay, everything’s okay. We didn’t mean….”
“OUT! COME DOWN! COME WITH ME!” The man bellowed. Could he really believe that he was waving a metal golf club at three unarmed twenty-somethings? I didn’t think he actually wanted to hit us, and his eyes were darting around frantically as if looking for a reason not to.
“We’ll come,” I said “But first you lower your golf club.”
He did, and we went down the stairs with him leading the way and flinging open the door. The man continued his rant. “I TOLD YOU! DO NOT PARK HERE! YOU NOT SUPPOSED TO PARK DOWN HERE!”
But we became emboldened as we left the claustrophobia of the stairwell behind us. Space offered protection from any potential bludgeoning. “Look sir, maybe you can get away with this in Puerto Rico, but not here,” said Liz.
“BUT I CANNOT LET ANYONE PARK HERE!”
At that point in my life I still hadn’t learned that you can’t really diffuse an irate person by being irate yourself. So I yelled “YEAH, BUT I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S NOT IN YOUR JOB REQUIREMENTS TO CHASE PEOPLE WITH GOLF CLUBS! YOU COULD GET FIRED FOR THIS!”
Trying to do his part, Milosh had been babbling an apology, explaining that he only wanted to show us how fun it is to go down the ramp in a pedicab. Liz was the most rational. “Sir, we understand why you’re upset but we didn’t mean any harm. You don’t want to be fired for something like this.” In the man’s anger and our shock, the parked pedicab was ignored. We had walked right past it.
Eventually the man stopped talking and the golf club remained at ease by his side. It was useless anyway. The entrance to the garage, the booth and the other attendant were all in site. Freedom was literally a shining light at the end of huge tunnel as the glow of Times Square beckoned nearby. All the man could do was shake his head.
It had not been his day. The man’s authority had been brazenly undermined, his impressive sprint down four levels of the garage was in vain, and now he was being told that he could be fired for protecting his turf. Even worse, the offending pedicab remained parked at the bottom of the garage. I didn’t dwell on it for too long as we finally reached the gaping exit. As we emerged from the cave of doom with its wild, club bearing inhabitants we all breathed a sigh of relief. I made a mental note to add this incident to the list of things I will never tell my mother. Together we walked slowly, silently and gratefully towards the light of Times Square, wanting it to engulf us.
Robin Kilmer graduated from Bard College in 2007 and worked for three years at a public school in the Bronx. She hopes to one day successfully converge two diametrically opposing forces: writing and making a living. Until that day she is working as a nanny.