Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Friday, March 17, 2006

New Frontiers in Employment

The book deal is going more slowly than I'd anticipated. (Though the fact that I actually expected to get an agent, sell the book, and start living off the advance in less than two months tells you less about the slowness of the book industry than it does about my own delusional optimism.) This means that, some time next week, I'll probably have to start looking for temporary employment. As a result, everything I see looks like a job. For example, just the other day, I was sitting at a luncheon counter in full cowboy regalia, when a middle-aged Haitian woman walked up to me and said, "I love that hat! How can I get one?"

"Easy," I said. "I got it in Tallahassee, and it cost me just under twenty bucks."

She got an excited look in her eyes. "You know what that means? You should invest a little money and buy a hundred of them. You could sell them at the south entrance of Central Park. You could sell them for forty or forty-five dollars each. And you'd get it."

And she made it sound so easy! For a second, I actually pictured myself doing just that. It would be just like turning money into money! Plus I'd be my own boss, and I'd work out of doors . . . with the dirt blowing all over me . . . and the rain . . . and I'd have to figure out what sizes of hats to buy . . . and I'd take a loss every time I guessed wrong . . . plus I'd have to fill out the paperwork for a sales permit . . . and figure out where to get the paperwork in the first place . . . and pony up the money for it out of my dwindling imaginary profits . . . and just like that, the dream died, cut into a thousand ugly practicalities. Stuff like that is easy for people like that Haitian woman, who I imagine also balances her checkbook, does her taxes on time, and saves all her receipts in a cunningly decorated recipe box that she always keeps in the same place and which never gets hidden by an absently placed magazine. Compared to all of that, the simple expedient of dog-walking looks like heaven to me.

I've actually thought about being a dog-walker, which is big business in this city. I like dogs. I'm capable of walking. In fact, I like walking so much that I daresay I'm overqualified.

But tonight I had an epiphany. While I was on the corner of Avenue A and Ninth Street, I saw a company of black professionals---nicely dressed men and women in their forties and fifties---trying to hail a cab. I was checking messages on my phone, and in the few minutes I stood there, I saw cab after cab pass them by as if there weren't five of them standing there and waving. And then I saw a cab swing to a stop to pick up three white people twenty-five feet further down the street.

As I walked over to the group, one of the women was telling another one, "Of course, a lot of the drivers are foreigners, so they've got their own ideas . . . "

"Rough night?" I asked.

"It's unbelievable," said the woman nearest me. "We've been standing here for ten minutes watching these cabs ignore us. And of course they'll pick up other people."

Religion professor Cornel West, late of Harvard University, opens his book Race Matters with a similar story---being trapped in an emergency, unable to get a cab in New York City when time was pressing. And I'd read a similar quote from Richard Pryor who said, "It's amazing---I'll walk out of a meeting where I've made a sixteen-million dollar deal for a movie, and then I can't get a fucking cab." But this was the first time I'd seen it up close. And these people--all of them---were clearly oozing prosperity. I mean, it's not like they were the dreaded black youths with gold fronts on their teeth and low-slung jeans and other sterotypical ghetto signifiers, which I could at least sort of understand, if not exactly sympathize with. These folks wore very nice jackets. They wore elegant, understated hats. And did I mention they were oldish?

"This may be crazy," I said. "But how about I hail a cab for you?" They agreed, although the man pointed out, "It'll have to be two cabs. We won't all fit in one."

So while I'm by no means an expert at the skill yet---I can't whistle worth a hoot, and I was wearing all black, which probably isn't good cab-hailing clothing---I got two cabs under false pretenses and got those nice folks on their way within five minutes.

So that may be my new job: Hailing cabs for black people! I could just stand outside an "urban" club at closing time, and offer my services as everyone left. If I charged even as little as two-fifty a cab, I'd have made five dollars in five minutes tonight. At that rate I could pay my rent for a whole month in as little as twelve hours of work. It's a disgusting situation, it's an affront to human dignity, and it's a shame that it's even possible to profiteer in this way. But obviously someone needs to be doing it. And I was never going to use that Ph.D. anyway.

P.S. An alternate thought just occurred to me: I could drive a cab and be the only cabbie who actually picks up African-Americans. I'd have no competition at all! Except I really suck at directions . . .


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