If you live in New York long enough to sign a lease you become a social historian. It’s a benefit that they don’t mention with the laundry room and in-house super.
But knowing how to recognize the hidden gold in each New York tale requires a skilled eye, and this McDonagh has in spades. If there’s an art to telling a good story then New York City cab driver John McDonagh is already a master.
Condensing 30 plus years of activism and observation into one hour, McDonagh’s new show Cabtivist is a disarmingly funny and often biting slice of social commentary set from behind McDonagh’s wheel.
Directed by Kira Simring, Cabtivist’s New York is recognizably the one we all wanted to live in when we first arrived here. McDonagh’s main beat is the era of low rents and raucous parties. It’s filled with musicians, hookers and hoods.
It’s the city that never stops, dancing never mind sleeps. But it’s as lost to time now as Tara, or Atlantis.
McDonagh remembers it all, good and bad, and has thankfully lived to tell the tale, although he’s had more than his share of guns pointed in his ribs by junkies in search of a fix, or hoods in search of a fast buck.
“I’ve really being doing this show for about 35 years in the bars in the Bronx and Queens,” McDonagh tells the Irish Voice, “but this time it’s on stage and it’s a far more unique show than just a memoir of who I picked up one night.”
Understand, he’s no novice at this tale telling stuff. McDonagh, who’s also well-known as the host of the Saturday afternoon Irish radio show Radio Free Eireann on WBAI alongside Sandy Boyer and Eliza Butler, has been involved in many major reality shows and documentaries.
He taught BBC’s Top Gear’s Richard Hammond how to drive a New York cab. He even took Britain’s national treasure Stephen Fry on a riotous tour of the Mafia hotspots in Queens for Stephen Fry in America.
“I come from a section of Queens where all the families seem to have a club, the Gottis, the Gambinos, the Colombos. I brought him into some of the clubs to meet the boys. So you had this proper Englishman coming in and hearing about gambling and fixing horse races,” McDonagh recalls.
A month before Fry arrived the club had been shot up in a mob hit. The bullet holes were still in the walls.
“The producers wanted me to reassure them he wouldn’t get shot and I said the guys who do that tend to sleep during the day. So the trick was to get the crew out to Queens early. Before these guys actually get up.”
Fry himself was as mystified he was being driven around by an Irish Republican who is an ardent critic of the peace process, as he was meeting the Mafia.
“New York has no such thing as underground anymore, as far as I can see. Manhattan has no more bodegas, there’s no parking lots or gas stations, and it’s lost its neighborhoods. It’s just all very wealthy people now. The last strongholds are parts of Brooklyn and Queens,” McDonagh said.
“At one time, someone got in my cab and wanted to go to Eighth Street and Avenue B, I would be frightened. It was known as the alphabet jungle and they would be going to a drug deal, not an art gallery.
“You would bring them down to an abandoned building and the guy would say to you, ‘Just wait a couple of minutes.’ That meant I was in the middle of a drug deal and this could go three ways. He rips off the dealer and I’m the getaway van. Or the dealer rips him off and I don’t get paid. Or the deal goes well and everyone gets paid.”
Those kinds of cabs rides don’t happen much in 2015. Now people are usually heading to an art gallery in that neighborhood. “On the Lower East Side the junkies used to do weird one step forward two steps back dances on the streets. Now the people down there bring yoga mats and do tai-chi.”
Has the city lost its mojo? “No one can afford to live here any more. It’s a city for the rich. Who’s going to be able to hang on, I don’t know.”
McDonagh is a well-known critic of the Northern Irish peace process and – as he makes clear in his show – that criticism has cost him dearly. So why does he persist?
“I just hate all the lies that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are telling, particularly about never being in the IRA or backing away from what they were involved with,” says McDonagh.
“To think that their end result was that they were going to administrate British rule in Ireland, the struggle wasn’t worth it. I did an interview with commanding officer of the Belfast Brigade of the IRA Brendan Hughes and he said I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed if I’d known this would be the result. I feel the same way.”
After the success of the sold-out debut of Cabtivist last month, two more shows have been confirmed for the Cell Theatre, 338 West 23rd Street, for October 30 and November 16 at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit www.thecelltheatre.org.