Ride along with this award-winning writer to learn a few of the everyday challenges - and unexpected rewards - of making a living as a French Quarter pedicabber.
-by Andrew Cominelli
photos by Ellis Anderson and Andrew Cominelli
This well-heeled customer approaches me slightly hunched, both hands rooting around in his designer pockets. He asks me if I think I’ll be able to help him find some cocaine. It’s a common enough request to which I always reply with a shrug and apology. But before I can finish shrugging, he is in the bike. He peels a fifty from his billfold and hands it to me.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s do it.”
I haven’t a clue how to hunt down cocaine, nor am I interested in making an authentic attempt.
But I have been paid. And this guy’s shoes are really high-ticket, which means I stand to be paid more. I will put on a little show of finding the drugs.
As we roll, I tell him I can’t guarantee anything. It’s risky to seek drugs on the street, especially so close to Mardi Gras when the Quarter teems with undercover police. I will take him to a few strip clubs, I say, and he can ask around inside.
“Whatever you can do, man,” he says. He keeps a careless distance from his own desires, which, I’ve learned, indicates real wealth. If I can't find him cocaine, he’ll pay someone else to later.
We spend the next two hours together, my Canadian friend and I. I can't say we get to know each other. We don’t chat about the weather, or acknowledge the Carnival roaring all around us. He doesn’t ask me where Cafe du Monde is, or if this was all underwater after Katrina, or if I like living here, or what I do outside of this. He just reiterates that he wants cocaine.
We hit Bourbon, and I point out a strip club. “Try that one,” I say. “And you see LipStixx right there? Yeah. Try in there.”
I have no idea what I’m talking about. I have never scored cocaine, neither in a personal or professional capacity. I once overheard another pedicabber offer to take a prospective buyer to a strip club, so I’m working solely off that eavesdropped tip. I’m certain it won’t work, but I pretend that it might. And it works in a way; he keeps handing me money after each stop, even as he remains drug-free.
I snake through the Quarter to find fresh corners of Bourbon Street and banks of untested clubs. At each stop I watch the crowd swallow him. I wait, turning down other prospective passengers, until the Canadian returns, shaking his head. “Where else can you take me?”
We try half the strip clubs on Bourbon. At some point I start giving him made-up names. “At Barely Legal,” I say, “make sure to ask for Hannah.”
I’ll admit it. I hustled him a little.
Mostly pedicabbing entails trucking passengers from points A to B, hotel to restaurant, restaurant to bar, bar to bar, bar to strip club, strip club to late-night fried chicken joint. Most rides are straightforward, the price worked out beforehand.
Stranger requests can be met, for the right price.
Some tourist has forgotten where he parked, and a pedicabber might spend an hour searching for the red Silverado. Some folks want to rent a pedicab for the exact amount of time it takes them to smoke a blunt. A Maryland woman once rented me for three hours to help her find the house where her grandmother once lived. A group of Japanese business people once paid a friend and me $150 each to take them five blocks to a restaurant, then wait while they ate seafood platters and po-boys, then take them the five blocks back.
Then there are the propositions of a sexual nature -- an invite up to the hotel room delivered in a drunken slur. I have charged people extra for touching me inappropriately, but this is S.O.P. for New Orleans pedicabbers. My ass was once deep-tissue massaged by passengers on the way to Frenchmen Street. I have had to feign laughter and flattery at dirty talk from swinger couples.
I once pedaled a sheepish guy from California back to the Sheraton. We barely spoke, but in front of the hotel he opened his wallet to show me all the cash inside. “I have money,” he said. “Do you think we can find someplace for me to maybe jerk you off a little?”
“No,” I said, “but thanks.”
And yet, pedicabbing is dignified because it’s a hustle, and hustling occupies a dignified position in U.S. consciousness. Our national respect for hustling is born of respect for the hustler’s independence. Hustling is a way to make a living according to one’s own rules.
The codes and parameters any hustler follows are self-imposed. The hustler relies on his or her own discipline and creativity to get ahead. The hustler starts with nothing, not even information. She waits. She watches. She learns to optimize speech and actions for profitability.
And through simple ingenuity, the hustler escapes the workaday bullshit most everyone else endures - meager paychecks, sneering bosses, conniving co-workers, missed promotions. The hustler escapes all this by building her own model. The style of her work, and its outcomes, can from almost every point be traced back to her ingenuity and her decisions. Whether the money rolls in or not, she holds much more control over her fate.
No one else on earth can operate quite the way she does.
Ultimate hustler example: the pedicabber. She starts with a tricycle and a company shirt and a city license to operate. The rest is pure creativity. There are endless variations on the theme. Flavors and styles of riding, strategies for big events and slow nights, modes of talking to passengers, giving or witholding information. One learns to avoid lower fares, to sell and upsell, to turn half-hour rides into hour-long rides. A thousand ways to attract, to convince, to sell the ride.
One co-worker, and perhaps the most financially successful pedicabber on the planet, instructed me to practice shouting the question, “Do you guys want a ride?” in different cadences. He told me to pay close attention to which rhythms scored the most customers, and to use that only. He tells me the same thing about my haircut, about the way I smile, the jokes I crack with passengers.
Another rider invented an ingenious trick for the summer. Upon arriving at the destination, the passenger will ask what the ride costs. Before naming his price, my friend pulls a gallon of water from under the seat and drinks deeply, as though he’s just ridden across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia. Then, breathless, he say, “It’s $14.”
He gets twenty every time.
Some pedicabbers play ukeleles to attract passengers. Others have city tour guide licenses and sell custom tours of the Quarter, the Garden District, City Park and Esplanade Ridge. Some have semi-regular clients who pay just for their company -- three hours, five hours, eight hours at a time.
There are riders who make their money with speed, trying to notch as many rides as possible in a single shift. Other riders go slow and chat up their passengers, effectively monetizing their personalities.
My first night on a pedicab was miserable. I was 25, new to New Orleans. It was a damp February night. Rain had been forecast, so I put plastic grocery bags around my feet, over the socks, before shoving them into my boots.
Another driver stood posted outside of a dingy bar, soliciting passengers like a carnival barker: “Good evening, folks! Would you like a ride? All righty, have a great evening! Howdy, folks, can I whisk you away on my tricycle? All righty, have a great evening!”
This act filled me with dread.
I biked around the frigid Quarter for hours, passenger-less. At some point, on a lonely ride up Burgundy Street, came a moment of deeply-felt absurdity. I drifted up and out to a clear-eyed vantage where I could see myself objectively, a solitary young man in jeans and boots and a ratty army-green coat, steering a strange yellow contraption up a dark empty street.
What grim error led me here?
It would take six months for me to start hustling. The switch flipped in the space of one ride. The voice of my co-worker Tony came over our company’s radio asking for a bike to meet him at an upscale Mexican restaurant.
I’m closer than anyone else, so I get the nod from Tony and bike down to him. Four middle-aged women -- prime pedicabbing target demographic, turns out -- want to go to a bar on the far end of the Quarter. The ride is about twice the average length of rides and will be lucrative. They pile in.
Tony hauled ass to our destination. We blew every stop sign. I’d been such a law-abiding citizen heretofore that I actually stopped at stop signs, which now seems patently ridiculous.
I had a hard time keeping up, but now I was having fun. This fun, I realized, came from the strong sense we were about to make a good chunk of money really fast. Imagine, if you will, a small-time hustler pitching a scheme involving a stray shipment, a wharf, a midnight rendezvous.
We were not so different. Our job was to ride around the French Quarter, plundering its stray human cargo for fast money. The faster we rode, the faster the money rolled in. This was Hustling 101, painfully basic stuff, and I was finally paying attention in class.
Tony was half a block ahead of me.
A crowd of hundreds – shirtless men in bondage harnesses, dog collars, leather dog masks – gathered around the bar. This was the weekend of Southern Decadence, one of the South’s biggest and certainly its most raucous LGBTQ+ festivals. Music thumped. Drunks swarmed.
It was then that I first appreciated Tony’s genius. Before our passengers could fix their puzzled expressions, Tony turned to them and said, “Y’all want to go to Frenchmen?” They all nodded. Frenchmen Street, 10 more blocks away! With his instant read of our passengers, Tony put 20 bucks more in each of our pockets.
On Frenchmen we were paid handsomely. As the women disembarked, Tony responded to a radio dispatch to the Phoenix, seven or eight blocks away. He looked at me. “Come to the Phoenix,” he said. “You’ll get a ride.”
We rode hell-for-leather to The Phoenix, a strong Decadence venue, raucous off the charts. Tony found the passengers who had called our dispatcher and sped off. Moments later, I secured a couple of passengers of my own and pointed the bike back towards the Quarter.
I had felt the pitch and roll of Tony’s hustle. By pedicabbing those 25 minutes with him, I was called up to the big leagues, The Show. And I stayed, locked in Hustle Mode, for the rest of the night, for the next three years.
And I still tap into it, every time I get on a pedicab, no longer the timid and lorn 25-year-old with plastic bags on his feet. I now am the confident expert who sells rides to Frenchmen, milks a random request for cocaine, cruises the Quarter with a mercenary grimace. I am a schemer, a sponge for tourist money, an unlikely hustler.
Andrew Cominelli is a writer and bike taxi operator in New Orleans. In 2017, he won the Faulkner Society's Faulkner-Wisdom Short Story competition. After college, he spent a few years writing and performing live comedy in New York before bolting south to focus on his fiction. He hopes that his pedicabber's-eye view can provide some new insights on work and life in the modern French Quarter.