WBAI's John McDonagh: Poetry of the Streets, Written by Those Who Know Them Best
- 05/05/2013 by Matt Flegenheimer (NY Times)

The poets work from 5 to 5, day shift or night, conducting their research with the meter running.

They find muses among the drunks and romantics of the Bowery, or the “Brooks Brothers mannequins” of Wall Street, as one of them riffed.

They scrawl notes at times on rolls of receipt paper.

And like many men of letters before them, they waste no opportunity to impart wisdom to future generations.

“Tip the waitress or barman well,” one verse began, “’cause you’re going to need their toilet.”

These are the bards of gridlock, a group of New York City’s yellow taxi drivers coached in recent weeks to produce a series of poems about their jobs, to be presented as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. On Saturday, inside a darkened theater on Lafayette Street, the drivers recited their work as a roomful of the city’s literary class observed. “The idea is to take the creative writing workshop out into the community of workers,” said Mark Nowak, the group’s instructor and the director of the master’s program in creative writing at Manhattanville College. Mr. Nowak said he had in the past organized similar workshops for Ford autoworkers in Minnesota, Somali nurses, and electricians from Chicago.

Organizers turned to the taxi for this year’s event. “What could be more New York City than the yellow cab?” Mr. Nowak said.

Each of the three drivers who volunteered to participate had spent at least 20 years driving a taxi: Davidson Garrett, 60, from Midtown, who has driven since the 1970s to support acting and writing pursuits; John McDonagh, 58, from Middle Village, Queens, who in his spare time hosts an Irish-American radio talk show; and Seth Goldman, 53, from East New York, Brooklyn, who claims to have been deemed by his family “the only Jew in New York without ambition.”

Their entries sketched the majesty of a day’s first fare and the indignity of shepherding a belligerent reveler, the tyranny of fleet owners and taxi commission bureaucrats, and the empty city that the drivers scoured for fares after Hurricane Sandy.

“Who knew it would take a hurricane,” Mr. Garrett recited, “for this persnickety old man to be thrilled for a fare to Brooklyn?”

In another piece, entitled “1040 Fifth Avenue,” Mr. Garrett recalled how he often passed the address of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, hoping that one day she would try to flag him down.

“Sometimes I picture you as a diaphanous ghost, waving an arm for a taxi,” the driver wrote. “Of course, your apparition is always adorned in a smart, Lilly Pulitzer day dress.”

Many of the day’s verses recalled the season of Occupy Wall Street, including Mr. McDonagh’s “West Street Story,” about delivering a rider to 200 West Street, the Goldman Sachs headquarters.

“The 1 percent don’t do buses, subways or walk,” he wrote. “The 1 percent don’t touch cash. It’s credit card, and it’s a write-off.”

Other works described the typical day, at times channeling the city’s poetic forebears. “I travel to Manhattan over the 59th Street Bridge,” Mr. Goldman said, in a nod to Simon and Garfunkel’s paean to the crossing. “Not feeling groovy, 4:50 a.m.”

After the readings, an audience member asked the drivers if they expected to continue writing. Only Mr. McDonagh said no.

“It feels good to create something, just for myself,” Mr. Goldman said.

In one of his pieces, though, Mr. Goldman set out to create something for someone else: the rookie driver.

Dressed in his standard cabby fare — unshaven, with a white T-shirt and green Converse — Mr. Goldman ticked off his suggestions: Drink coffee, but tread carefully, since “what goes up must come down.” Avoid right-wing AM radio. Stay off taxi lines, unless fatigue sets in.

He read quickly at times, stumbling on occasion. But for the weightiest section, his delivery was calibrated perfectly, like an avenue’s worth of traffic lights, turning green in succession.

“Dignity, always dignity. Some men are not their best behind the wheel of a car,” he said.

He idled for a moment.

“Wish to feel the heartbeat of the big, bad city?” Mr. Goldman asked. “You are doing the right job.”

headline photo
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times Three New York City taxi drivers with at least 20 years of experience each, including John McDonagh, 58, at right, and Seth Goldman, 53, seated, recited their poems on Saturday as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

 


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