Color me romantic. Call me an idealist. Accuse me of being overly sentimental. But I dare you not to be amazed when I tell you about my latest encounter with a hero behind the wheel.
I now take for granted the idea that cabbies are my greatest teachers when it comes to learning a city and finding its flavor. But once in a while, I meet a taxi driver whose wisdom extends even further – someone whose example reverberates long after the food quest ends.
Andrew Vollo is such a person. After spending 16 years driving a cab full time, he now teaches yoga and T’ai Chi to taxi drivers at La Guardia Community College (where he also heads the NYC Taxi and FHV Driver Institute, a so-called charm school for cabbies).
He started driving a cab while working his way through Queens College as an art student.
Between his teaching, his family (he’s married and has a son in primary school), and his work recording oral histories of New York cabbies for StoryCorps, the 55-year-old (who looks more like a fortysomething fresh from a spa weekend) rarely has time to paint these days. Though he’s let go of his dream of becoming a famous painter, Andrew’s life has become an unlikely masterpiece.
It all started, he told my co-adventurers and me, when his father passed away at 42.
Hell-bent on avoiding his dad’s fate, Andrew became a health nut. He started practicing yoga and T’ai Chi, spending 3-4 hours a day mastering the new disciplines (Despite cutting his sleep time from 12 hours to six, people noticed his new radiance). Every minute he spent behind the wheel, he tried to breathe consciously. He changed his diet, trading street meat for mock meat.
By the time we met Andrew and were making our way to his favorite vegetarian restaurant, the heat and humidity of the New York summer had been beating down on us for hours. We were sweaty, over-stimulated and exhausted, wilted in the face of the cabbie’s natural bloom.
How about a quick session of taxi yoga?
Andrew parked the cab and talked us through some pranayama (controlled breathing). We twisted our torsos. We stretched our shoulders and upper backs.
Though Andrew isn’t a full-time vegetarian, he loves the way the food at this vegan eatery in the Village makes him feel: healthy, cleansed and deeply satisfied.
On his suggestion, we ordered Siu Mai (steamed dumplings with mushrooms, vegetables and soy protein), vegetarian roast duck (made with pressed bean curd) and Kung Pao Spaghetti (soy chicken stir fried with ginger, garlic, red chilies and peanuts over noodles).
If I hadn’t spent the past 3 1/2 years in the most carnivorous country on earth, the Siu Mai (multi-textured and delicate) and the roast “duck” (silky and suggestive of the real thing) might have tasted pretty good to me. But in Argentina, faking meat would fall somewhere between madness and sin, and it was impossible for me to eat these dishes without being haunted by recent taste memories. In other words, I missed the meat.
Not so with the Kung Pao Spaghetti. So vibrant, sweet and red-chili spicy was the Kung Pao sauce, so crunchy the veggies, so fresh the noodles, the dish easily outclassed the greasy rendition of Kung Pao chicken that I grew up with in southern California. Whenever I go back to Vegetarian’s Paradise, I’ll order this dish.
And I’ll remember the Enlightened Cabbie, who not only showed us where to eat, but how to breathe in a city that moves at warp speed – and how to make life a work of art.
144 W. 4th St. – Greenwich Village
Open: 7 days for lunch and dinner
Credit cards accepted
Photo credits: NY Daily News, Sarah B. via Yelp, and Samantha F. via Yelp