By Danny Calise
As my boss, Antony, spoke toothlessly through his beard while lighting an already-lit cigarette, I looked around at the empty beer cans and various pieces of trash surrounding me in the 75 square foot office/bedroom of the pedicab shop where I had been working and thought to myself, “How did I get here?” Originally, I had envisioned pedicabbing to be a healthy gig where I got to spend time outdoors and meet all kinds of people. It would be hip, profitable, even glamorous. Well, some of that was true.
* * *
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a pedicabber in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest (SXSW)?
Well, I’ll tell you from first hand experience: you wouldn’t hack it. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but much like the persistence and determination it takes to run a marathon, SXSW pedicabbing is as much of a mental feat as it is a physical one.
What exactly is a pedicab? you might be thinking. Well, a pedicab can take two forms: either a full bicycle with a trailer attached to the back with seating for 2-3 people, or a tricycle, which rides like a bicycle and has a front wheel and two wheels underneath the passenger seats in back. Pedicabs thrive in urban areas where points of interest are just beyond reasonable walking distance and streets are flat enough for the pedicab drivers to not have to work too hard to get riders from point A to point B.
Pedicab drivers, or Pedicabbers, can rent the cabs for a nightly fee of around $35 on Fridays and Saturdays or monthly for rates of around $325 to have free rein to take the cab out any time that month. Why not just buy a pedicab outright so you can collect all money and not owe anyone? Well, the benefits of renting the cab from a pedicab company are that they handle all cab maintenance, they possess the proper insurance and business license to handle any potential claims, and, quite frankly, pedicabbing isn’t a sustainable form of income, so the average rider doesn’t want to be invested in it for more than a few months.
* * *
A high school teacher by day, I sought a part-time weekend job where I would be rewarded for working quickly and efficiently. Pedicabbing seemed to fit the bill. From the moment I interviewed for the pedicabbing job at **** **** in Austin in January, 2016, there was talk of a massive gathering of the pedicabbers in March. It was the Super Bowl of Austin pedicabbing. This epic 9-day affair was known, to some, as South by Southwest. To pedicabbers, though, it meant hard work. I was told when I took the job that my body would surely give out physically at some point during the music, film and tech festival. That I’d be pedicabbing day and night, with people in constant demand of a speedy ride. Veteran pedicabbers shared forgettable lore and half-stories about times they…really needed a break, or spent upwards of nine dollars on a meal during South-by because they were just THAT hungry. “Whatever,” I thought to myself, nodding with polite faux-awe on my face as they spoke.
The weeks building up to South-by, I “got my legs,” so to speak, building up the stamina and strength to be able to pedicab straight through the 9-day festival. I went out on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at around 9 PM and staying out until 2 AM. My cab was bare bones: I didn’t have any music-playing capabilities, nor did I have a blanket to shield riders from the cold weather. What I did have was conversation–I walked the fine line between funny/charming and intrusive/annoying, and what I learned in these weeks was that riders are 99% nice and understanding, and mostly just curious about what it’s like to ride a pedicab.
As someone with a short fuse when it comes to verbal altercations, it was easy to let myself be angered by smart-alec responses to my pedicabbing pitch. I’d shout out, “Hey guys, would you like a ride?” And a man walking with a woman would grab his thigh as he was walking and say, “Not while I’ve got these,” referring to his legs. The woman would make an embarrassed face, I would ride away silently, later thinking of all the comebacks I should have used on him. “You won’t have those for long if you keep wasting them on walking, buddy!” The truth was there was nothing I could say. If someone didn’t want a ride, there was no reason to waste energy on a comeback, especially if I couldn’t think of a clever one.
* * *
I got the feeling that the pedicab company I worked for was past its heyday. The owner, Antony, a 28 year old toothless man appeared to be one step above homeless. Or, really it seemed like he just slept at the shop. For my first night of training, his excuse for being late was that his ride to the shop took too long, which didn’t make sense to me because he was apparently a business owner. But regardless, I didn’t question his lack of car ownership. I explored the shop, which was located in a bad neighborhood on the East Side of Austin, behind a train station where homeless men could be seen urinating before one’s very eyes. Inside the shop’s gate, there was a garage that could have fit four cars, but instead held 8 upright pedicabs and had many tools sprawled across the floor and various workbenches. Towards the back of the garage was a room with two floor mats, an acoustic guitar, dozens of empty beer bottles and cans and trash everywhere. That was presumably where some pedicabbers or just homeless people stayed nightly. Outside the garage around the back was a space for storage of more cabs and a workstation where the owner did some welding for some extra cash on the side. Even farther back was a shack where the shop’s resident artist lived and sometimes created art.
Once the tour of the shop was over, the owner invited me into his “office,” a room beside the garage towards the front of the shop. Inside was more of the same: beer cans everywhere, some empty, some half full, cigarette butts as far as the eye can see, and a bunk bed with trash on the top bunk and a dirty bedspread on the bottom. All of this was in a space of 75 square feet.
The owner himself, Antony, was a manic dude. He was a businessman, first and foremost, but had a soft spot for people in need, hence all of the opportunities for people to sleep at the shop. Throughout every conversation I’ve ever had with him, he would chainsmoke cigarettes, continually lighting the already lit cigarettes seemingly because he enjoyed the lighting process. When he needed to hold a document and a pen, he would put the lit cigarette in his ear for additional storage. Mid-conversation in the office, he would gently lift one of many beer cans and ask me, “Is this the beer I just brought in here?” and of course, I didn’t know or care. It didn’t bother him, though, and he sipped away.
How this man came to own this shop and all of the pedicabs therein is still something of a mystery to me. Essentially, I think he was just in the right place at the right time and took over for someone else. What I observed was that he certainly didn’t appear to me making any money off of the company, but enjoyed being in charge and made just enough to keep the shop afloat and the cigarettes burning. He alluded to a time in the future when he would have the money to open up a local boxing gym in the neighborhood.
He was a chronic story repeater. The first night I met him, he told me all about the benefits of becoming a “monthly rider” (renting the pedicabs from him on a monthly basis): that he would present me with better riding opportunities, that my cab would always be available, and that the South-by rates would be half-price for monthly riders. Several times after this he would give me the same pitch, even after I had already agreed to become monthly. I grew to hate interacting with him. Not only was he verbose, and always talking about things I cared nothing for, but he possessed a trait that I despised in someone: lack of appreciation for someone else’s time. One time after a South-by shift, he talked my ear off for over an hour, with his eyes half open (I suspected that night that he might be on drugs of some kind, but upon reflection I concluded that he was just insane), about how it would be great for the shop if I could make a run with my car to a used video game store and pick up a few games as well as wires in order for the guys to be able to play a four player game of Mario Kart the next day. He had me write down all of the items that I was to buy, and finally, at 3 AM, he let me go home. I threw the paper with the items away immediately, and cursed the day I ever agreed to work for this man. But after all of our long “talks” (he talked, I nodded), I realized that he was just a lonely man who had so much to say and no one to listen to him. Perhaps this was the case with many veteran pedicabbers.
Every night of South-by when I would return the cab to the shop, I was forced to meet with him one on one to hand him my nightly lease ($35), and listen to whatever he had to say that night. He would be constantly lighting his cigarette, touching his beard and face, tugging on his beltless pants and grossing me out to no end. Then he’d approach a group of pedicabbers sat on a bench outside the garage and shout an obligatory joke that they’d all laugh at out of respect. Yes, the heyday of the shop, if ever there was one, was long gone.
Before South-by, he had described a ritual gathering at the shop that took place the night before South-by started. Pedicabbers and friends of the shop would gather around a fire and burn a dollar in sacrifice to the gods of weather, as well as eat pizza in order to carbo-load in preparation for the great journeys ahead. I ended up sleeping through this ritual and didn’t hear any mention of it around the shop afterwards. It seemed more for Owner’s benefit than ours.
After South-by finished, the owner described an epic annual party that the shop threw. He’d get a great local band to play, and everyone from the neighborhood (did I mention who lived around this neighborhood?) would come together and party down. Impromptu boxing matches would occur, people would climb to the top of the garage, and all types of debauchery would take place. I didn’t attend this event. They held it on the Tuesday after South-by and didn’t get the word out until 10 PM Tuesday night. I asked a fellow pedicabber about this party a few days later and he told me that it was quite tame compared to previous years’ parties. “No one boxed,” he remarked.
* * *
The owner talked a lot about pedicabbing, while admitting at times that he hadn’t done it himself consistently in months. I learned that his advice was not useful because he was officially out of the pedicabbing game. Whatever he knew or had known about pedicabbing was no longer relevant.
On the fourth night of South-by, I had rolled by the shop around 9 PM to take a little break, charge my phone, have some dinner and gather my strength for the night ahead. Knowing that I was one of the few pedicabbers on whom he could rely, he entrusted me with the task of training his roommate, who had just been fired from his job due to his refusal to take a drug test. This was an enormous request on the owner’s part because South-by is the most profitable time of year, and training a new person would ensure a pedicabber that he wouldn’t make a dime for at least an hour. And knowing how much the owner loved talking, I knew that he would flap his toothless gums for a while before he’d let us go. A stingy businessman, he asked how much I’d like to be compensated for the hour and a half that I’d train his roommate. I thought about it, and determined that, in that time, I would make at least 50 bucks. So I told him that’s what I wanted. He sure didn’t trust that amount. He said, “Really? Because typically this night of South-by is pretty slow. The music hasn’t started and tech is just ending.” Utterly frustrated by this guy, I said, “You asked what I thought so I told you.” “Okay, how about this: If you’re out there and it looks decently busy, like you’d be missing out on rides, I’ll pay you $50. Otherwise, I’ll give you $30.” Knowing that I would be the one to tell him whether or not it looked busy, I agreed. He never stepped foot out of the shop so there was no danger in him seeing for himself.
So I trained his roommate, a nice guy with a decent work ethic. And in the end, I took him to a line on Brazos St. where we both lined up and eventually both got rides. I had impressed upon his roommate that the night looked busy, and that later, when the owner asked him, which I knew he would, how it looked out there tonight, he should say it was busy. When I returned to the shop that night, I reported to the owner that it sure was busy out there and that I expected to be paid $50. He skeptically looked me up and down, to read whether or not I was lying to him. “Really? Let’s ask around and see how it was. What time were you training?” “10-11.” He approached the bench where six or seven pedicabbers sat drinking and smoking cigarettes. “Hey how was it out there around 10-11 tonight?” They thought for a moment. It was currently 3 AM. No one had a good idea of what it was like that far back. They looked puzzled. “Uh, it was okay out there, not too crazy.” One pessimistic rider who I usually avoided talking to responded, “It was dead out there for me.” And the owner turned to look at me, convinced that he had correctly smelled a rat. My face didn’t change. “I could have picked up three rides in that time. I don’t know what you want me to say.” Then one of the pedicabbers shouted out, “Isn’t that when ACL Live let out?” And the pirate-like pedicabbers’ table all agreed. The owner conceded, “Okay, okay, that’s a big venue. You would have gotten some rides from that.” I hated him so much. But the cheap bastard walked into the office, walked out and handed me $50.
* * *
A typical night of pedicabbing during South-by might look like this:
5:00 PM – Report to pedicab shop to pick up cab. Check to make sure you have all of your essentials: a Square credit card swiper, a blanket in case riders get cold, a bike tire pump, a spare tire, an external phone charger, at least one bottle of water, food consisting of bars and fruit, and business cards with your name on them.
5:15 PM – Depart the shop and head for East 6th street, home of the Fader Fort and Spotify House. This means that big crowds will be milling around these two music showcase locations. Many people park around I-35 and walk to the shows. Depending on how hot it is (or how lazy people are feeling), this means that a group of two to three people might be looking for a lift for the half-mile uphill distance. Ride around East 6th for 10-15 minutes and if nothing’s doing, head west to the Convention Center.
6:00 PM – The next hour or two will be spent riding up and down Trinity Street, raising my hand and looking for groups of two or three that look like they don’t know where they’re going. During the music part of the festival, they might look like young hip hop artists or messy-haired British rock n’ rollers. Every musician must come through the Convention Center to pick up their badges, so a ton of people are constantly walking in and out. Riding beside the main doors of the Convention Center on the bicycles-only path, I was grateful every time someone opened the door and I got a whiff of powerful indoor air conditioning.
Bizarre protests were witnessed here. One where a group of people ages 8 to 68 were protesting against Netflix. Their signs read “Give us our movies back,” and their shouted slogans included, “What do we want? Movies. When do we want them? Now.” I gathered that they were of the belief that Netflix was somehow taking their movies away from them. Their protest lasted an hour and the constant foot traffic resumed unaffected. I wondered what the debriefing meeting of this protest consisted of. “I think we made our point.” And they all cheers their Blockbuster brand microwave popcorns.
Another protest was a group of punk rock types with tough looking dogs in tow who were protesting against gentrification…in general. They didn’t appear to have any goals other than to shout as loud as they could. Evidently, they measured their success based on the old protesting rubric, “If you change just one person’s mind, you’ve been successful.” I didn’t witness anyone volunteering to join their ranks.
8:00 PM – People are officially out drinking now. This means that people need rides to and from the nightlife hotspots: Rainey Street and the Dirty 6th.
On a typical Friday or Saturday night in Austin, the Dirty 6th (a stretch of East 6th Street that runs from I-35 to Congress Ave.) is the place to be for partygoers. It is notorious for its wild and crazy atmosphere, and its pedestrian-only walkway similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. For pedicabbers, the Dirty 6th is a great spot to pick people up, except that police block off certain streets and only allow us to line up on certain others. On ordinary Friday and Saturday nights, pedicabbers are permitted to line up on either side of Neches and Brazos Streets, and on one side of San Jacinto Blvd. and Trinity Street, while also being able to ride up and down Red River St., a popular route connecting Rainey St. and the Dirth 6th. During the 9 days of South-by, however, pedicabbers were limited to only Brazos and Sabine Streets.
On my first day of South-by, I wasn’t aware of these limitations, and I optimistically rode north on Red River up to 6th and was greeted by a police officer. Having been a pedicabber for two months previously to South-by, I learned through word of mouth and from my own experiences that the cops were not on our side. They loathed us due to our lack of regard for their ever-changing and ever-specific laws. They weren’t even the ones who might write us a ticket for not having a proper pedicabbing license or the right type of blinking lights on the backs of our cabs, that was reserved for special transportation officers. Instead, their role was to forcefully yell at us, and their frustrations were amplified by the fact that pedicabbers, too, were ever-changing. So every time they yelled at a pedicabber, there was no assurance that that pedicabber would spread the word amongst his co-workers because there are over 10 pedicab companies in downtown Austin, and missing among popular topics of conversation between us was the new and exciting restrictions now enforced by the cops. The fact was, we were arch nemeses my nature. All we wanted was to bend the very laws that they lived to uphold. So when I strolled up Red River and saw a brigade of 5 cops sitting in a golf cart next to a road blockade, I wasn’t surprised to get an exasperated reaction from their leader. He shouted angrily, “I already told you guys, you can only go on Sabine and Brazos.” I shrugged my shoulders non-communicatively, for, who were the “you guys” he was referring to? All pedicabbers? If so, I had not gotten the memo. I cursed said officer under my breath and rode down to Sabine to see if my kind were welcome there. We were.
Now, pedicabbers, for the most part, follow an unwritten code of rules among ourselves. Obviously laws like “Don’t ride on the sidewalk.” or “Don’t ride the wrong way on a one-way street.” are broken at the pedicabber’s discretion. But when it comes to breaking rules against one another, these rules are strictly followed and can be punishable in any number of ways such as a group of pedicabbers blocking you in or simply just kicking your ass if you cross the wrong pedicabber.
The foremost example of an unwritten pedicabber’s rule is that of snaking, a loathesome practice that involves a pedicabber stepping in front of a line of pedicabbers and stealing away their rider without regard to the established line for that area. Snaking also includes taking a ride when you are at the back of a line. The accepted practice if you are not first in line (some lines can have up to 20 pedicabbers on them) and a potential customer approaches you is to cease negotiating with that customer immediately and point him.her to the front of the line so that he/she may hire the first pedicabber in line. One can also shout audibly, “First up!” so that the first pedicabber in line can move towards the potential customer to expedite the process. During South-by, however, the rule of law is weakened and the new stance on snaking becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”
11:00 PM to 2:00 AM – On Rainey St., the pedicab lines grew long because pedicabbers weren’t allowed to ride through the street and must wait at the edge of the line of bars for potential customers. It’s a kick in the gut to optimistically ride up the hill to Rainey St., only to find a line of pedicabbers 20 cabs long. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a break is needed and joining a line is a smart play. When you’re ready for dinner, it makes sense to join a line, ask the pedicabber behind you to look after your cab and jet over to a food truck to get some fuel, all the while building up to a guaranteed ride when you reach the front of the line. But when you’re full of energy and ready to ride, all thoughts of obeying laws and the right thing to do go out the window. If a couple comes up to you asking how much it would be for a ride to the Dirty 6th, you tell them 20 bucks and hurriedly usher them into your cab, first in line or not. This form of snaking became a reality during South-by, and by the second day, it was common practice. If people wanted a ride, you gave it to them.
But not all pedicabbers subscribed to the “monkey see, monkey do” logic of snaking. On 6th and Sabine, the line wasn’t 20 pedicabbers long, but rather 8 or 9. Each time “First up!” was called and the first pedicabber in line got a ride, we’d all have to re-maneuver our cabs so that we’d be closer to the front. By the time midnight rolled around, thousands of people were milling about around the cab line and people were hiring cabs left and right. I was fifth in line when three partygoers approached me asking if I can take them to Rainey St. This was a no-brainer. I told them to hop in. The pedicabber in front of me had a more traditional mindset. When he saw the trio about to hop into my cab, the older pedicabber shouted out “First up!,” and moved his head chicken-like, wondering if anyone else was watching me snake this ride. He asked me nervously as the trio sat down in my cab, “Are you part of this line or…,” and I just ignored him, only interacting with the customers. He continued to freak out, and I simply smiled at the customers, asking if they were ready to depart. They were, and we were off. Yet another successful snake.
2:00 AM to 3:00 AM – Power hour. All bars close at 2 AM, which means that every patron leaves the bars and needs a way to get back to their hotels or their cars. Sure, there is competition from Uber and Lyft, but pedicabbers can navigate through traffic legally and illegally, using bike lanes and riding on the opposite side of the double yellow lines. So we got plenty of business. On Rainey, the once long lines are non-existent. As quickly as you can ride up to the end of Rainey St., you can nab a duo or trio and take them to the East Side to their cars or to the JW Marriot downtown, or similar hotels. If you had the stamina to make it to this hour, you are rewarded with consistent rides back to back. I must admit that I didn’t make it to Power Hour every night, but when I did, my adrenaline carried me through to 3 AM.
3:00 AM to 4:00 AM – All pedicabbers ride back to their respective shops down East 4th street. I passed 4th and Attayac, a corner which houses four pedicab shops and where upwards of 15 cabs would be parked outside just chilling as their drivers sat around drinking beers and enjoying a well-earned break. I pull into the shop and park my cab. I pay my nightly lease to the owner and drag myself to my car, knowing that I’m in for the same tiring experience the next day. When I get home, I total up the day’s wages and add them to a post-it on my tv stand. I take a brief shower, dry my hair the best I can, stretch my legs while I brush my teeth and fall face first into my bed. I will wake up eight hours later with my legs feeling like Jell-O.