Inside the tricycle tourist trade
by Matt Dodge
Last spring I was sitting in Crema, the coffee shop on Commercial Street, with my new boss, Matt Foley, manager of Maine Pedicab. It was training day and we’d just finished a ride around the Old Port so I could get a feel for the rig: a bicycle attached to a bulky fiberglass passenger seat that rests on two wheels and some heavy-duty shocks. It takes awhile to get used to the tricycle, to trust that it’s really not going to tip over.
Now we were talking sales. As the boss shared tips on how to pick up fares, it occurred to me that the size of your personality is as important as the size of your calves in this job. Foley spent the previous season riding the streets of Portland covered head-to-toe in a green body suit. The Green Man probably earned a couple extra grand.
“If she’s wearing high heels, just say, ‘Those look like they must be killing you. Why don’t you let me give you a ride?’” he said. A young lady sitting nearby looked at us as if we’d just sneezed on her women’s studies degree, then moved to another table.
Another technique is to move your arms in the direction of the passenger seat, drawing potential fares’ line of sight to the cab. It feels like you’re herding human livestock, though on certain nights the Old Port and Old Orchard Beach are like feedlots where all the grain has fermented.
Maine Pedicab came to town in the summer of 2012 with a fleet of six neon-green bikes. It’s part of Boston-based USA Pedicab, which runs rickshaws in several much larger cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Austin. There were a couple lone pedicabbies in Portland before the company arrived, but these days it’s the only game in town.
The rigs Maine Pedicab uses are made by a company in Colorado, Main Street Pedicab. They have 21 gears and cost around $3,000. The cab can accommodate two comfortably, three or four with some lap action. Hauling larger parties is not advised, but it happens.
There are roughly a dozen riders licensed to pedal for Maine Pedicab. The core group consists of about a half dozen guys, most between the ages of 22 and 40. It’s a funny and diverse bunch of sailors, marathoners, dads, slackers, surfers and musicians who have two things in common: the rebellious spirit of the independent contractor and a thirst for beer. Lots of beer.
Most of us could be described as “bike guys,” though a few admit they hadn’t been in the saddle for years before taking the job. I applied in hopes of addressing a case of reverse-seasonal-depression disorder. The journalism jobs I landed after college kept me behind a desk for three Maine summers. I couldn’t stomach the prospect of missing another one.
To work for Maine Pedicab, you must have a Maine driver’s license and be reasonably friendly and fit. You also need to go to the city’s taxi-licensing office at the Jetport, fill out an application, pay about $70, and wait for them to complete a background check. (In my case, this also meant shelling out $150 to settle old parking tickets.) Maine Pedicab charges employees $20 for the mandatory training and $10 for their official, bright yellow t-shirt (I found a cheaper one at Goodwill).
The pedicab season runs from late May to late October. If it isn’t too rainy, you can usually work a shift any day or night. Early in the season, even climbing slight grades made me doubt my physical fitness for the job, but I eventually figured out the easiest routes and built up leg strength.
We can be talked into almost any ride if the money is right: from Prom to Prom, out to the train station or outer Forest Avenue, even the occasional late-night adventure across the Casco Bay Bridge. Summiting Munjoy is the test of a true pedicabbie around here, but cash is a great motivator. While transporting a tardy waitress from a shift at an Old Port restaurant to another atop the Hill, she said she’d give me an extra $20 if I made it all the way. As I breathlessly reached the crest, churning along in “granny gear,” sweat raining from my face, I knew I’d make it through the season. I’ve done the Hill once more since then. Twice is also the number of times this job has induced mild heat stroke.
When you take out a pedicab for a shift, you agree to pay “rent” to the company when it’s over. The fee ranges from $10 for, say, a summery Tuesday afternoon, to $35 or $40 for a Saturday night, and tops out at $60 when there are lucrative events in town like beer festivals and outdoor concerts. Whatever you make beyond that is yours to keep.
A pedicab shift has three stages: the time before you’ve made rent, the moment you make rent, and everything thereafter. Under the yoke of a $40 fee, a shift can begin as an exercise in anxiety suppression. You put on a salesman’s smile, cruise the blocks, and try to forget you owe money to a man fit enough to chase you to the ends of the Earth.
The dinner crowd will get you started, but most of the better-paying rides come later. Several hours can pass before you earn your first dollar of profit, but once that happens, anxiety gives way to giddiness. You feel like you could ride all night.
A bad shift is one for which you net about $50. A good shift is anything over $100 (“making a bill”). This past Fourth of July, every rider cleared nearly $200. During last summer’s Mumford & Sons concert, some reported earning as much as $800. In Old Orchard, where Maine Pedicab ran two rigs this year, the scale is $50 higher, but you have to deal with a more uncouth crowd. My personal record was set there on a Saturday night: $270.
When attempting to turn an interested passerby into a paying passenger, the biggest challenge is making them understand how much a ride costs. There is no meter and no set rate per mile or minute. A minimum charge may be negotiated up front for long trips, but passengers can basically pay whatever they decide the ride was worth. Many people still want you to quote them a price — especially foreign tourists, who are less likely to feel like they’re being grifted if you throw out a dollar figure.
Being less extroverted than many of my co-workers, I rely heavily on the handlebar-mounted bell, especially when parents with kids are around. Children really get a kick out of seeing a grown-up riding a tricycle.
The bell is useful in other ways later at night. I’d been waiting all my post-pubescent life to find an effective, non-verbal and non-creepy way to express interest in women. There’s nothing better than having a bright, cheery bell to ring at pretty girls.
The Godless North
By no coincidence, the pedicab hotspots in the Old Port are restaurants popular with tourists: Portland Lobster Co., Bull Feeney’s, Flatbread, Gilbert’s. When a cruise ship is docked, we queue up at the terminal and follow a system by which the first one in line gets the first fare, regardless of which cabbie is approached. Large groups of cruisers often want group rides, so we’ll frequently have at least three cabs at one hotspot.
There are two broad categories of cruisers: Midwesterners and a tanner, slightly less intelligible type from a realm called “the South.” Cruisers can be picked out among the locals by their matching outfits, collegiate sportswear, and the wide-eyed expressions on their faces when they realize they’re in, as one man repeatedly put it, “the Godless North.”
I’ve tried to learn a little about their customs, and have had some success. For example, I found that if you spot someone sporting the cardinal red “O” of Ohio State University, yell out “O-H!” and you’ll invariably be met with a boisterous “I-O!”
Beyond that, communicating with most cruisers has been difficult. It’s hard to converse when you’re constantly biting your tongue. Casual racism is all too common among this crowd, but during a potentially profitable 45-minute tour, there’s not much else I can do but nod and try not to genuinely agree with anything they say. Off shift, I supplement my worldview with daily doses of NPR.
I took a Buckeye couple on a particularly odd ride. The man claimed to be a casual scholar of “religiosity.” During the 45-minute tour, he explained why the northeastern United States is morally bankrupt and expressed disgust when I mentioned my mother’s membership in the National Education Association. I baited him a bit by listing all the churches in Portland that are now restaurants, cultural heritage centers and (gasp!) performing arts venues. He looked sorry for me, then said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m ’a quote you on that when I get home.”
The rest of the tour was saved when we passed, of all things, a gay nightclub. Upon seeing the sign for Styxx (his ladyfriend: “They spelled it wrong”), we fell into an amiable discussion about classic rock during which he was gracious enough to forgive certain members of The Eagles for their liberal leanings.
The shady and the famous
I don’t know if it’s the bright colors of our cabs and t-shirts or the dopey/bored expressions we wear while waiting for a fare, but something about pedicabs seems to attract weed fiends. This summer I unwittingly went on at least three pot runs and was approached by two different middle-aged men looking to “score some grass.” (Sorry, man, but if you’re over 30 and use the words “score” and “grass,” I just assume you’re a cop.)
The clues are not subtle. There was the fare who directed me to a place in the West End he could only describe as “this guy’s house.” There were the people who asked if I knew of any ATMs that dispense $10 bills. And, of course, there’s the utterly unstoppable scent of a fresh bag of dank.
I don’t know a lot about local restaurants or history, but when fares approach with a conspiratorial look and ask where they can take a short walk without encountering any “authority figures,” I’m glad to oblige by bringing them to one of several scenic pot-spots. I once picked up a kindly older man on Commercial Street who wanted a lift to Exchange. His grandson was visiting and had brought some medical-grade green, but Pops didn’t have paraphernalia. I dropped him off at Awear and he emerged a few minutes later toting a gift bag with the top of a bong poking out of its tissue-paper wrapping.
Sometimes a ride can take a sudden left-turn into some shady, unsavory territory — and I don’t mean Parkside. There was the Filipino lady from the cruise ship who invited me to have lunch with her at a Thai restaurant (not hard to refuse, since it was only 10 a.m.). I probably should have been wiser when an older, solitary shipmate of hers repeatedly touched my arm and asked where he might find a “nice, quiet place, away from people” to take a walk. My suspicions were confirmed when, upon bringing him to the trailhead of the East End path, he asked me to join him. “We can keep the meter running,” he said. “I mean, I know you could be working.” I mumbled some excuse and sprinted off to share the story with my co-workers, who were quick to crack all the obvious jokes that pun on “trailhead.”
An experience during First Friday Art Walk made me seriously reconsider bringing a blanket for passengers on cooler nights. I picked up a couple and their wide friend on the lower end of Free Street. They wanted a ride up to Nosh. The friend took up more than half the cab, so the woman positioned herself in the man’s lap and the couple’s tongues immediately mingled. Riding uphill, I breathlessly tried to make conversation with the third wheel while her friends went at it, hands groping under a family heirloom that, until then, had occupied a very sweet place in my memory.
Early in the summer, I was parked in front of Gritty’s when a portly man wobbled over. “My friend!” he said in an Eastern European accent, his beery, stale breath in my face. From what I could gather, he was an engineer aboard a ship docked in Portland for a couple days, eager to make the most of his shore leave. “I vill take care of you, my friend!” he promised. He wanted to either “go to a dirty bar with women!” or to “a bar with dirty women!” or both (he said a lot of stuff I couldn’t quite comprehend). I calculated his odds of finding suitable female companionship along Fore Street, then starting pedaling in the other direction, toward Sangillo’s.
On a sweltering Monday morning in July, I got a call from my boss. “Hey, man, you on a ride? Can you pick someone up on Commercial Street?” I’d just finished a long trip and needed a minute to rest, but then he said, “It’s this real nice guy named Bill Russell.” A second later, I was cranking it down to the State Pier, ignoring more traffic laws than usual and wondering how a basketball legend would feel about autographing a sci-fi paperback — the only paper thing I had on me, besides cash. I coasted to the meeting spot and was hailed by a very tall, fairly old … white man. “Hey, there,” he said, hefting his fishing equipment into the cab “Can you take us to the Holiday Inn?” (I later discovered my boss isn’t much of a sports fan. “Who is Bill Russell?” he asked.)
At the end of an Alive at Five concert in Monument Square last August, a large man with a voice local AM talk-radio listeners would instantly recognize walked up to me with a wary look and his daughter in tow. “Hey there, think you could pull me in that thing? I’m kind of a big boy.” I said I could, he told me where they wanted to go, and I mentally mapped out a route without any prohibitively steep hills.
“It’s not going to break when I get on, is it?” he asked. This question was followed by one of the more unsettling splintering sounds I’d heard in four months on the job. Once underway, the fiberglass creaked, the shocks bounced, and I had the sensation of being tilted several degrees to port. I assured him all these noises were perfectly normal, but was not surprised to walk into pedicab HQ the next day and see “Bike #2, broken frame” scrawled in dry-erase marker on the maintenance whiteboard.
Other famous pedicab fares I know of include bike enthusiast David Byrne, who autographed a co-worker’s cab, and either LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy or just a really cool dad.
One night late in the season, I wheeled into a lot off Commercial Street and parked the rig next to a fetid dumpster. Two other drivers were there, too. It was an unusually slow Friday. Unlike the parking lot attendant absently thumbing his iPhone and the cooks crouching and smoking nearby, we could call it a night whenever we wanted, but were all hesitant to give up. One booze cruise or bachelorette party can quickly put you in the black.
Another hour passed with no action, and a familiar despair crept in. I owed $25 in pedicab rent, but the idea of choking down another mealy Cliff Bar just to make it through a couple more hours made me nauseous. I sighed and nodded to the other drivers. “Screw this, guys. I’m going in.”
I have a confession to make to Father Paddy O’Rickshaw: I’m not sure I really enjoy riding in pedicabs. Driving them has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, but I’m not convinced I would ever hop in back. I can identify with the many people who get dragged into a pedicab by their drunker friends and spend the whole ride complaining how awkward it is to be conveyed by human horsepower. I can’t even get pizza delivered if I’m home alone, because the idea of one person driving a car to deliver food to one other person strikes me as a big step toward the future in which everyone rides around on those levitating easy chairs from WALL-E.
And then there’s the money. After having done this for a season, I couldn’t pay a fellow driver less than $20 for a ride of any distance, and I’m not the type to easily part with that sort of cash.
Up front, in the driver’s seat — that’s where I belong. I crave the freedom, the ability to exercise both body and mind, the prospect of ending the night with wads of sweat-dampened money I can throw at my naked girlfriend as she rolls on the bed, laughing.
When I’m laboring up a hill, I’ll often say something to try to make passengers feel less guilty: “It’s almost as easy as riding a bike.”
Matt Dodge discusses his experience as a pedicabbie on The Bollard Podcast.