Pete G., Manhattan pedicab driver, accepts the following as sacraments: Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, marijuana, West African music, cheap Chinese food, long bike rides, not having any money, and inviting total strangers over for dinner.
A few weeks ago, Pete gave me a free ride to Whole Foods in a pedicab that said “Ask me about free rides to Whole Foods.” I had just left the Chase bank on 2nd Ave and 10th Street and Pete was leaning against his pedicab, slurping up a take-out container of borscht from Veselka. It was about 100 degrees outside, too hot to walk to Whole Foods, not to mention bike there, not to mention eat borscht before biking there. I collapsed, hot and discombobulated, into the back of the pedicab, and Pete wheeled us down 2nd Ave, keeping up an enthusiastic chatter of conversation the whole time. If his grin were any less mellow I might’ve suspected amphetamines. He credited calories for his energy. “That borscht is great.”
When he called me a few weeks later to set up a date for dinner, he was on the Williamsburg Bridge, fixing someone’s busted bike. “So, I was thinking….[crunching noises]….sorry, I’m trying to fix this guy’s chain—what’s your name? Abdul—sorry Abdul, I’m not a very good mechanic.”
And when I met him below his Hell’s Kitchen apartment a few days later, he spirited me up the few flights to his place and had me sit by the bathtub in the kitchen, apologizing. “I just have to finish my afternoon meditation,” he said. “You don’t mind, do you? It’ll only be a minute.”
I squatted on the low stool near the cat’s litter box, and Pete popped his ass back onto a piano stool facing a little altar propped up on an ancient piano.
Pete looked at me, still chanting. “Are you hot?” he mimed as his mouth ground and quipped and shimmied, like someone speaking in tongues. He leapt off the stool and turned the fan on, aiming it at me, then resumed his seat, sounding syncopated dings and dongs on the prayer bells and making sure the cat was fed, all without missing a beat. His feet tapped, his fingers danced on his knees, his voice droned sonorously. It went up at the end of each phrase, like a little boy asking a question, then immediately returned to its monotonous, grating cadence. His cat, one of the neighborhood’s genteeler denizens, wound her way around the bamboo plant colonizing the corner and slunk delicately onto the fire escape.
I could see pretty much the whole apartment from my vantage point on the stool by the bathtub; rich people, probably even in Manhattan, have closets that would dwarf it. On the east-facing side of the room was an ancient upright piano, the bamboo plant, that cat and the altar. The southern end of the apartment boasted a tiny water closet and a little room with Pete’s lofted bed, the wall scrawled with decades’ worth of notes and graffiti. One thousand CDs, books and notebooks lay scattered below, as well as some stereo equipment, out of which hemorrhaged a tangle of wires, electronic roots flowing into the floor. On the western wall hung a picture of the Dalai Lama and a calendar, framing a hot plate and the bathtub. And facing north were the windows and the fire escape, a microwave and the litter box, plus, between the windows, a few shelves racked with Quaker Oats, vinegar, soy sauce, paprika, Aunt Jemima syrup and baking soda.
In the middle of the room was Pete’s piano bench, upon which he perched and presided, a friendly praying mantis around which orbited the world. Out of this piano bench, which Pete dipped into liberally over the course of the evening, came strength and sustenance, i.e. Buddhist literature and marijuana. (On the calendar he marked a little “W” every time he bought weed, to make sure he wasn’t overdoing it.) He continued the meditation, his thin body veritably quaking from the spiritual reverberations.
I could hear the neighbor moving quietly behind the apartment’s paper-thin wall; I’m sure she knew every word of the meditation by heart. With a satisfied last few percussionistic dongs of the bell, Pete closed the altar, blew out the candles, placed the prayer beads on the piano and swiveled around to face me, his lined face content. “Thanks for your patience,” he said. “Gotta get that done.”
For almost a decade, Pete has been a fervent adherent of the Soka Gakkai International USA branch of Buddhism, which is headed by the bespectacled Japanese businessman and corsaged, pearl-necklace-wearing wife that sit placidly in a picture frame on Pete’s piano. “I really love the way he explains things,” said Pete, the veins on his head pronounced as scars, beating in time with his speech, punctuating his passion. “He speaks about devotion, the mystic law of the universe, the lotus flower that blooms as it seeds. It represents the simultaneity of cause and effect, the mysterious nature of life from moment to moment. Do you know what I mean?? It’s a magnetism that…defies logic.”
What appeals to Pete about this brand of Buddhism is that it believes in the power of prayer to change destiny. “For example,” explained Pete. “I always wanted to live in a house where I could have a piano. Well, a couple of years ago, someone donated this piano to the Buddhist culture center, and I took it home! So I guess I don’t live in a bigger house or anything…but at least I have a piano!”
We tramped downstairs to the Chinese place around the corner to pick up dinner, a place Pete likes because he can take home five things for $5. There were about 60 different hotel pans of food lined up side by side, sweating in bain-maries. Some of them looked like they’ve been there since the dawn of time. I filled a take-out container with penne pasta in a primavera-type sauce and piled it with syrupy tofu, fried bean sprouts, fried rice, and seaweed salad. It doesn’t look that bad in print, but it was abominable.
We took the food back to his place and reclaimed our stools. Pete rinsed the dust off a couple of forks and glasses and opened a bottle of wine. He perched atop the piano bench and ate with gusto. There was a lot of empty toe space at the end of his socks, which were already covering very long feet. He was wearing jorts cut off at the knee, a tennis shirt, and a flat-billed cycling cap that shaded a pair of extraordinarily large, bovine eyes. He chewed in a way that was at once aggressive and thoughtful. “You hate the food!” he said, noticing. “I’m so sorry!!”
When Pete first moved to New York, he crashed on couches for a couple of years. Then he lived on 2nd street near the marble cemetery, moved to Hoboken, followed that with a stint in East Flatbush and Jersey City, and finally set up twenty-two years ago in the Hell’s Kitchen tenement where we sat together and compared notes on the world. Pete remembers the neighborhood back when New York was much more of an anarchist, in-your-face place. "There was this old bum on the corner, Winston. He had a black-and-white TV that he rigged up to plug into the lamppost. He lived in front of it, on this Persian rug, and had this incredible sense of entitlement. It was like, ‘Man, quit interrupting the Flintstones!’ The police were far too beleaguered to care.” The rent when Pete first moved to Hell’s Kitchen in 1987 was $213 a month; now, it’s $471.90.
The apartment’s landlords, the family behind the century-old butcher shop on the corner, have taken Pete to eviction court three different times, but he’s managed to remain ensconced. “It bothered me that I wasn’t paying rent, I guess,” he said. “But I could live with it.” (At the moment, Pete estimates that he’s got $150 in his bank account.) In 2001, when Con Ed cut him off, he lived in the apartment for six months with no phone or electricity; he finally got a cell phone in 2007. “Kind of zen, but I got tired of it,” he pronounced on that time. Pete is always praying for fiscal deliverance, and eventually—proof of the value of his faith—it comes, though unfortunately sometimes shrouded in undesirable clothing. “Death has brought a lot of studio equipment into my life.”
Pete is a musician to the core: “They stamped ‘artist’ on my ass when I was born,” he chuckled. He started out in a covers band, then followed a woman out to California and played to hecklers in a Mexican restaurant near the Navy base in Monterey, then spent a few years busking in the Port Authority subway station, teaching himself the violin underground. It sounded like a particularly demeaning kind of penance. Pete is philosophical about it. “The humiliation process is kind of purifying,” he said. “You have to sink to the bottom before you rise to the top.” He preferred the hallways because people didn’t feel as obligated to donate as they do on the platform, so he knew their appreciation was real. “I could’ve played ‘Danny Boy’ like some kinda Johnny One-Note and made tons of money, but I was never that guy.” Once or twice a year he still takes his violin down to the subway.
Sometimes he met women there. He has a thing for dark-skinned women, and believes he got at least one of them off the street. “I know I was the catalyst for Nikki, anyway.”
Pete, too, has done a lot of things for money. When he first came to New York, he borrowed a bike from a guy in Brooklyn and worked as a messenger for a film processing company. At 19 years old, he was in Jersey City playing Grateful Dead covers. Then he worked on Wall Street for a while. He clarified: “As a runner.” He’s worked as a dispatcher for taxis, too, and as a research assistant at St. Roosevelt’s Hospital. He’s busked aboveground, in Times Square. “If you stand there long enough, you’ll see everyone you’ve ever met.” When this involves people from high school, it can be uncomfortable, but Pete shrugs this off as an occupational hazard. “Hey—at least I’m the king of my fate.” These days, he mixes pedicabbing with focus groups.
He hates, hates, hates getting older. “If you’re not a fiscal success, people reject you. At my age, if you’re pedicabbing, you’re a bum. But pedicabbing is a great way to control my financial reality. I’m finally learning, with age: responsibility and freedom must be coupled. You can’t just have one.”
It’s rare to run across people who are genuinely, not-just-saying-it, uninterested in money, mainly because this requires the strength to be indigent. Pete always recognizes what good fortune he has (“Buddhism helps”), and lives utterly in the present. “My attitude has always been, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’m just trying to divorce myself from…the hype indoctrination. Yes! The hype indoctrination!” I wonder aloud where he got the phrase. “What do you mean? I just made it up.” He’s remarkably lucid, peppering his speech with James Joyce and observations that are brittle and cutting without being cynical, which he’s anything but. “Whatever. There are ways of treating this island as a physical island and not as a roiling commerce board. My happiness derives from finding these.”
Pete’s way often involves his bicycle. On days off, he meanders up Riverside Drive, napping on the grassy knolls, drowsily listening to the laughter of Mexican kids playing in the water. It was on another bike ride, right before we’d fixed the date for our dinner, that he met Abdul, whose chain he was adjusting when we’d spoken on the phone. Once Pete had restored the bike, they rode for a while together. “I think Abdul was really feeling a lack of dialogue, a lack of discussion.” They talked about Buddhism. “He came from another faith, but we were really on the same page. Hey—you know what you should do instead of Eating With Strangers? Biking with Weirdos!” He guffawed irrepressibly, folding his long, lean, body in half, heartily slapping his sinewy thigh.
By this time, the lights were low, the night’s coolness had set in, and we were listening to music on Pete’s stereo system. We’d groove happily to roots music or Pete’s own synthesizer compositions for a while, and then he’d spring up abruptly, like an exaggeratedly tall and fervent Jack-in-the-Box, having changed his mind about the soundtrack, and switched it to something a pole apart. The volume was set loud enough for Pete’s aggrieved neighbor, were she so inclined, to shout along to any lyrics, but every time he switched CDs, he’d turn the sound down gradually, “as a respect to the music.” He kicked a Haruki Murakami novel out of the way, picked up a Marisa Monte CD, reconsidered, and slipped in Mali Music, a collaboration between West African musicians and Damon Albarn, from Blur. “This, my friend, is music on a sacred level.”
Sometimes you really wish you had a goddamn tape recorder because everything coming out of someone’s mouth is interesting and worthwhile and you can’t take notes fast enough and notes are crap at capturing ambience anyway, especially once you get stoned with your subject. My four hours with Pete were like that. If reading this piece makes him out to be a caricature, let me be unequivocal: what emanated from him was excessively human, so much so that sometimes, it broke my heart. The absolute honesty of his voice and absence of posturing rendered his character utterly transparent. It made everything he said valuable, because it was the truth.
Pete thinks of himself as an artist, but I see him as a poet. He views the world in his own skewed way, and refuses to soften his angular, ragged edges to fit into its round holes. He’s a prism, a craggy, gaunt, rangy one at that, and so he will steadfastly remain till the world makes holes his size. Or doesn’t.
So what? It takes all kinds of people to make a world, and the world is a better place for having Pete in it; I hope he finds the redemption he seeks. “In Nichiren Daishonen Buddhism, praying hard enough gets you what you want,” Pete said shortly after his recitation. Perhaps one of the things Buddhism is best at is lulling people into believing that stasis is a means to an end, or an end in itself. I’m constitutionally allergic to this kind of thought, but I’m not sure it makes me a better person, or a happier one.
At the end of a very long night, Pete showed me out like a gentleman and handed me my Styrofoam container of unctuous, gelling Chinese food. I begged off. “You hated the food! I knew it. You’re going home to make a soufflé now, aren’t you? You are! You are!!”