Saturday, January 18, 2020

Why The Medallion Tanked

For several years now the most talked-about topics of conversation with passengers have been Uber and the fate of the once coveted taxi medallion.  How an established commodity selling for as much as 1.3 million dollars in 2013 could drop in value to virtually nothing in the span of a year is quite a story and I find that not only New Yorkers but people from all over the world are often quite interested in it and many are surprisingly knowledgeable about it as well.

And yet I have not encountered a single person who actually understood the true reason for the medallion's decline.  Nor have I read an article that pinpointed exactly what happened.  The assumption is always that Uber showed up and took the passengers away or, according to a recent series of articles in the NY Times, that predatory loans agreed to by unsuspecting drivers were the cause.  (To read these articles click here.  This is outstanding investigative reporting by Times reporter Brian Rosenthal.)

It is true that these are both parts of the story, but they do not identify the primary cause of the medallion's collapse.  What I'm doing in this post is setting the record straight.  So, if you're interested, read on.

Some History

You may already know about taxi medallions.  If not, here is some information about them:

A medallion is a license -- symbolized by a piece of metal (called the "tin" in the industry) -- attached to the hood of a cab.  It's a license not to drive, but to own one taxicab.



The owner of a medallion may or may not be the driver of the cab.  Most often the driver of a yellow cab in NYC is not the owner.  The owner is more likely to be an investor who either leases the medallion to a middleman (known as a "taxi broker", who in turn sets up a driver with the medallion, a taxicab, and insurance) or the owner of the medallion leases it to the operator of a taxi garage. Taxi garages, also known as "fleets", vary in size.  Some may have only ten or twenty cabs.  Others have hundreds.  There are many taxi garages scattered around New York City, mostly in the boroughs outside of Manhattan.

The medallion system was set up in 1937, during the Great Depression.  In those days all you had to do to get a permit to be in the taxi business in New York was to have a car and pay a $10 annual fee to the city.  The industry was so easy to enter that there were eventually way too many cabs for the amount of business potentially available.  No one could make a living with so much competition.  So the city said if you don't renew the $10 annual fee you won't be able to get another one because we're not going to issue any new permits (medallions).  Before too long the number of taxis dwindled from over 30,000 to exactly 11,787.  And it stayed at that number for over 60 years.  Since that time the only way you could become an owner of a taxi was to purchase a medallion from someone who already owned one.  When the Depression was over demand for taxi service picked up.  More people wanted to get into the business.  Thus the medallion market was created.

It should be noted, however, that many thousands of car services -- far more than the number of medallion cabs -- were added to the streets of the city as time went on.  But only the medallion cabs could legally pick you up by means of the street hail.  All other for-hire vehicles had to be summoned by telephone.

2013

Okay, that should be sufficient history.  Here's the story.  Why did the medallion drop from $1.3 million to virtually nothing in less than a year?

Let's go back to the year 2013.  Conditions in the NYC taxi industry are pretty much the same as they've been for decades.  There are approximately 13,000 yellow cabs (one cab for each medallion) on the streets, a number that is set by law and does not increase, as noted, except on the rare occasion when new medallions are auctioned off by the city.

The majority of taxi drivers are working out of taxi garages.  Working conditions, as always, are far below the labor standards of most American workplaces.

Drivers must pay leasing fees for twelve-hour shifts -- either a day shift (5 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or a night shift (5 p.m. to 5 a.m.)   They also pay for filling the tank up with gas at the end of the shift.

It takes about five hours of driving time to break even, so you don't start making money for yourself until that point is reached.   You don't have to work the full twelve hours of a shift -- that's okay -- but you still have to pay the full price of the shift.  It's not charged by the hour, or by a percentage of the money from passengers.   It's charged by the shift.

There is no union looking out for the drivers, only a taxi advocacy group called the Taxi Workers Alliance.  They try their best but they are not a real union because they have no clout -- that is, they have no ability to call for and enforce a strike. No one who has any real power to improve your working conditions -- like the mayor, the Taxi and Limousine Commissioners, or the owner of your garage -- is looking out for you.  There is nothing resembling a human resources department in the taxi industry that you'd find in any big business in the United States.

There is no overtime.

There is no health insurance.

There are no sick days.

No paid vacations.

No pension.

No profit sharing (of course).

No bonuses.

Although they pretty much fit the description of "employees", drivers have been deemed "independent contractors" by city law since the early 1980s.  (And there went the concept of "benefits".)

Once you're out on the road you are driving in a kind of perpetual horse race with other taxi drivers to be the first to arrive at people waving their arms in the air.  It's very competitive.  Some cabbies prefer to work the airports and spend a lot of time waiting in front of hotels or in lots at the LaGuardia or JFK airports.  Most, though, are battling traffic and other taxis on the streets of Manhattan.

At the same time you're contending with this you are servicing live people in the back seat.  It's not like you're moving cargo.  You've got people -- virtually every type of person imaginable -- to contend with.

You're carrying cash.  Even though about 70% of the payments are made with credit cards, the fact that you are known to have cash could make you the target of a criminal.  You cannot legally refuse service to anyone unless they are "disorderly" or intoxicated and you can be fined heavily or even have your license revoked if you're found guilty of doing these and other offenses by one of the TLC's kangaroo courts.

So it's a dangerous and usually a thankless job.

And yet, even with all these liabilities, there are always plenty of drivers.  The great majority of them are immigrants from third world countries.  Why?  Because as substandard as these working conditions are, they're still a lot better than whatever they had in Bangladesh.  Or Nigeria.  Or Haiti.

Indeed, one problem owners of taxi garages never had was a shortage of drivers. Drivers would tend to come and go, but new ones showing up and old ones returning were always in sufficient supply.  Quite often there were more drivers than there were cabs, which gave the owners of taxi fleets a great advantage.  If they didn't like a driver for whatever reason, they could simply refuse to lease him a cab.  This put drivers in a position of needing to put up with varying degrees of unfairness if they hoped to continue working there.

Dispatchers demanding "tips".

No compensation for lost time if their cab breaks down.

Payment to the garage for accidents which is not returned after insurance compensates the owner.

And so on.

Perhaps the greatest unfairness of all was forcing drivers to accept a "weekly deal". It's better for the owner of a garage to assign one driver to one car and be assured of payment for an entire week than to let drivers work whichever days they preferred.   This meant that even if they took a day off to be with their families they were still paying for the shift for that day.

The point I'm making here is that drivers for decades have been utterly taken for granted.  I mean "utterly", as in completely, totally, absolutely, entirely, thoroughly, in all respects, and to the hilt.

Look at this:




I took this picture in 2009 at my taxi garage.  It pretty much tells the story.  Labor Day is the one day of the year in the USA that is set aside as a national holiday to honor working people.  One driver took it upon himself to write "WE ARE NOT SLAVES" on this insulting notice.


2014 - Uber Arrives

Although according to Wikipedia Uber "went live" in NYC in 2011, it didn't have any impact on the taxi business here until early in 2014.  Then, quite suddenly, everywhere you looked -- on billboards, on TV, on the internet, and especially on the backs of buses -- there were ads from Uber directed not at customers, but at drivers.  Some of these ads were actually offering guarantees of monthly income, something completely unheard of in the history of the taxi industry.






In 2014 Uber pulled off what I would call a military-precision invasion of New York City.  You've got to have several things in place simultaneously for this to be successful.

1. You've got to have a public that has heard of you and has access to you.  There was considerable word of mouth about Uber in the United States from people who traveled to places where Uber had already set up shop.  And by 2014 everyone had a smart phone, so access, of course, was automatic.

2. You've got to be able to provide your service to the public immediately.  If you promote a car service and an app to the general public and then you can't provide a car and a driver, you're finished.  That's what happened to Hailo.

3. You've got to have a business model and all sorts of administrators to put it into action.  This means people, policies, locations, and equipment.  You've got to have the app set up and ready to go without crashing, tech personnel to maintain the app, people to answer phones, people to explain the deal to drivers and get them on the road, managers, lawyers, and staff to run offices.

4. You've got to have a ton of money.  By demonstrating its success in other locations before it arrived in New York, Uber was able to obtain venture capital from major investors.  By June of 2014 they had secured over a billion dollars in funding.

5. And finally, you've got to have a green light from the city you're about to invade. City officials turned a blind eye as Uber was able to add unlimited numbers of for-hire vehicles to the already congested streets of Manhattan.  (By 2018 there were over 100,000.) I think it's safe to assume that the savvy leaders of Uber would not have attempted to enter the world's largest taxi market in the way they did (not with small steps, but with a bang) unless they felt confident that they would not be met with serious opposition from the mayor, the TLC Commissioner, or the City Council.


Meanwhile, At The Taxi Garage

Let's take a look into the world of the taxi garage.  Imagine that you operate a taxi garage and you own or lease a hundred medallions.  That's one hundred cabs, double-shifted.  Two hundred drivers.

If every shift is sold out that means you've got two hundred drivers paying you approximately $125 every day for the use of a cab for twelve hours.  That's a lot of money coming in, but you also have an enormous overhead.  Your expenses include:

--- the cabs themselves which by TLC rules must be replaced every three years.

-- the parts for the cabs which are in constant need of repair.

-- the cost of the garage.  This includes whatever you pay for renting the space if you don't own it, for property tax and insurance if you do own it, the parking lot for the cabs, the equipment you need to maintain the cabs, office machinery and office supplies.

-- insurance for the cabs, over $500 per month per cab.

-- a body shop and its equipment.

-- perhaps a tow truck.

-- personnel, including mechanics and dispatchers.

-- lawyers.

-- accountants.

-- fees paid to the city.

-- and let's not forget the cost of leasing medallions if you don't own them or paying for loans that may be outstanding on the medallions that you do own.

Clearly, it's an expensive proposition to run a taxi garage in New York City.


The Key Question

About a year after the medallion crashed it occurred to me that I didn't know the answer to a very pertinent question about the economics of the taxi business.  I keep up with these things and I was sure I'd never heard the answer to this question in conversation nor had I learned about it from trade magazines or in the media.  So I posed the question to the owner of my taxi garage, a person who has operated a fleet of as many as 240 cabs for thirty years:  

"What percentage of your cabs have to be out on the road for you to break even?"

He answered immediately without needing a moment to think about it.  

"Eighty per cent."

Eighty per cent to break even.  That, ladies and germs, is a great piece of data.

Here's another one: the customers of the owner of a taxi garage are not the passengers who get into his taxis and pay for a ride.  His customers are the drivers who lease his cabs.  His income comes almost entirely from his drivers.  It is of little concern to the garage owner if passengers are happy with their rides or even if his drivers are out on the streets for the full shift and racking up lots of money on the meter.  In fact, it would be fine with him if the drivers don't work the full shift.  It would mean less wear and tear on his cabs.  

The customers of the owner of a taxi garage are his own drivers.  That's where his money comes from.


Why The Medallion Tanked

The medallion did not tank because Uber took the passengers.  Uber certainly took many passengers but not enough so that you couldn't still make a living driving a yellow cab.  I can say this for a fact because I've been driving a yellow cab since 1977 until the present.   It's true that I'm making less than what I was before Uber showed up in 2014, but it's not that much less.  There's still plenty of business for yellow cabs.

And that's because the business model of the medallion cab -- people who live and work in an extremely condensed piece of real estate (Manhattan) step out onto the street, wave a hand in the air, and a yellow car suddenly appears and whisks them away -- is actually competitive with and often better than the app.  I see people all the time standing there waiting for their Uber to show up while available yellow cabs are driving right by them.  The app may have replaced the telephone but it has not replaced the street hail.   

The medallion also didn't tank because several hundred drivers were swindled by predatory lenders.  There are over 40,000 people in New York City who have valid hack licenses.  There were thousands of people who never drove a cab but purchased medallions strictly as investments.  The misfortunes of a relative few could, and should, lead to reforms in the way loans are made and even to compensations to these drivers, but it would not by itself destroy the confidence that so many others still had in the commodity.

The medallion tanked because the drivers defected to Uber.  

They suddenly left the garages, in big numbers, and did not come back.  New drivers considering entering the industry chose Uber instead of yellow.  Old drivers considering returning to the profession decided to give Uber a try instead of taking the old twelve-hour shift deal.  

Drivers, who for so many years were taken for granted, whose working conditions were deplorable, saw the possibility of a better life if they left the garages and went with Uber.  

No more twelve-hour shifts.

No more working for five hours before you break even. 

No more waking at 3 a.m. to get to the taxi garage by 5:00 to start your twelve-hour work day.

No more working all night and not getting to sleep until 7 a.m.

No more dispatchers shaking you down.

No more being turned away because all the cabs are already leased out.

Now you can own and drive your own vehicle.

You can make money even if you drive for just a few hours.

You can arrange your schedule to give you time with your family.

Work when it's busy.

Work whenever you feel like it.

Surge pricing!

Unfortunately, and predictably, this didn't last.  As time went forward Uber (and Lyft), like the owners of taxi garages, showed themselves to be not particularly concerned with the welfares of their drivers. In fact Travis Kalanick, Uber's founder, shamelessly announced that the long-term goal of Uber was to completely do away with their drivers and replace them with self-driving cars!  These companies allowed their market to become saturated with unlimited numbers of drivers and the good times were over.  It was, and still is, actually very similar to the situation which led to the creation of the medallion in 1937.

But in 2014 Uber sure looked great if you were working out of a taxi garage.

At first the drivers began to drop away like weary soldiers disappearing from their ranks on the long march home.  You might wonder whatever happened to so and so who you used to see at the garage every day.  Someone would say out of earshot of the dispatcher that so and so went to Uber.  The word started to get around from these early defectors that they were doing so much better now, making as much money in two or three busy hours as they were making in twelve at the garage.  

I will never forget what I started seeing in September of 2014.  Traditionally summer was always the slowest season for yellow cabs due to so many New Yorkers being out of town on vacation.  Many cabbies took time off in the summer, too -- the only time of the year when they may not have had to worry about losing their weekly deal.  I might see a dozen empty cabs parked on the street in front of my garage in the summer months, whereas at other times of the year there would be perhaps just two or three out there, waiting for repairs.   

But every year right after Labor Day, it would be as if a switch had been turned on. Immediately the business was back, the traffic was worse, the shifts at the garage were selling out, and things were back to normal.  This did not happen in 2014. Instead there were dozens of empty cabs sitting on the street because they did not have drivers.  In fact, the owner of my garage had a new problem -- he had no place to put his cabs.  He had to start paying to keep them in commercial parking lots. 

Driving around the city I saw the same thing.  Every taxi garage with dozens of empty cabs on the streets.  As months went by, nothing changed.  Rows and rows of empty cabs at every taxi garage.  

The days of endless supplies of drivers were over.

This meant that the garages were below their 80% threshold.  They were losing money.

Worse than that, the confidence in the medallion evaporated.  There was no reason to believe that things were ever going to get better.  

This carried over into the taxi broker segment of the industry as well.  As mentioned above, some drivers preferred to lease medallions rather than continue working out of garages.  They'd go to a middleman (the broker) who'd set them up with a medallion (owned by an investor), a taxicab, and insurance.  He'd then guide them through the red tape of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and they'd be in business for themselves.  Part of this arrangement would be for the driver to sign a contract agreeing to continue to lease the medallion for an agreed upon period of time.   

Let's say the driver signed a two-year contract to lease the medallion in November of 2012.  The two years go by; it's now November of 2014.  He sees that all the drivers he knows who went to Uber are doing great, much better than he is.  Is he going to renew his contract to lease that medallion?

No.  He's going to return it to the broker.  See ya later.

Also, getting back to the owners of taxi garages -- they usually own some medallions themselves but they, too, were leasing medallions from investors.  Seeing that they no longer had enough drivers and were losing money, did they renew their leases with the medallion owners?

No.  In order to cut their expenses they reduced the number of cabs in their fleets by returning the medallions they did not own.  My garage shrunk from 240 cabs to 144.

What if you were the person who bought a medallion (or ten) strictly as an investment?  That commodity which had been giving you a great return in the form of a monthly check from a broker or a fleet owner has now been returned to you. There are no drivers to be found and you are getting nothing.  If you owned only one medallion (and one cab) at least you could still make money by driving the thing yourself.  But you can only drive one cab at a time.  And you own ten medallions.

You are screwed.

Supposing you owned a bank or ran a credit union.  Would you still accept the medallion as collateral for a loan?

No.  So the existing medallion owners could not borrow on their own medallions in the hope of riding out the crisis.

Supposing you were someone who had been considering buying a medallion and you understood what was happening. Would you buy a medallion for a million dollars? Would you buy one at any price at all?  No, you would not.  Nor would anyone else.

If no one will buy a medallion, what is it worth?  

Nothing.  

So that is the story.  That is why the medallion tanked.  The engine that was producing the wealth -- the drivers -- galloped out of the stable in the hope of finding a better life.   

It's a story that has a certain karmic appeal to it.

If you kick a horse long enough it will no longer be around to pull your wagon.



Thursday, December 19, 2019

How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?

I stopped for a couple of passengers the other day on the Upper West Side who announced with some enthusiasm that their destination was Carnegie Hall.  I could see they were in a good mood, and this made me think they might be candidates for the oldest joke in the world.

So I fed them the line:

"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

They were right on it.

"Practice!" they called out in unison.

We remained at the curb for a few moments while I gave this some serious consideration.

Finally, as we pulled out into traffic, I said...

"Nah... I think I'll just take Broadway down to 57th Street and make a left."



Carnegie Hall - Full (48155558466).jpg

Sunday, February 24, 2019

What It Takes, Part 3 -- Epilogue: McEnroe Returns

Note: Best to read Parts 1 and 2 below before reading this one. 

Epilogue (noun) --  a section or speech at the end of a book or a play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened. (the Apple dictionary)

I love epilogues, especially when one occurs in real life, as if life itself were a story. In the context of a ride in a taxi in a big city like New York, epilogues are rare indeed because in most cases you will never meet your passenger again.  So whatever you may have found to be interesting, or quirky, or disturbing about your passenger -- whatever the circumstance was --  it will remain unresolved in your mind.  You may occasionally find yourself wondering, "whatever became of so-and-so?"   You wish you could meet that person again just to find out or so you could satisfactorily end the story yourself.

I had an epilogue in my cab last year on April 22nd, a sunny Sunday with birds chirping and happy trees serenading the city with a concerto in the key of delicate green.



As I was waiting at a red light on Central Park West a bit before 4 p.m., the right rear door opened and a passenger jumped in.  Before I could say "hello" he barked, "59th and York and make it fly!"   Apparently he was in a big rush.

This kind of request is usually made in the form of a polite question, not a blunt command.  I looked in the rearview mirror to evaluate the situation.  In other words, why should I drive any faster than I  normally do?  Is this really an emergency?  I had one of those Nissan minivan cabs that day


which has a partition running the entire width of the cab.  One of the few things I like about this vehicle is that it allows the driver to fully view the passengers in the rear.  It also has an intercom that actually works, enabling the driver and passenger to hear each other.  So I was able to take a good look at this guy.

Hey, wait a minute -- he looked familiar.


Oh my God, it was McEnroe.  Again.  Much older.  After thirty-four years he has returned to me, the prodigal passenger.

"Mister McEnroe!" I exclaimed.

Big mistake.

If you recall from the second story in this series, the correct way to address John McEnroe is by referring to him by his last name only.  I should have remembered this and I immediately suffered the consequences of my blunder.

"WE DON'T HAVE TO TALK!" he screamed.

Now if this had been virtually anyone else in the world I would have tossed the guy out of my cab.  It's a dignity issue.  You can't allow people to talk to you that way unless, of course, they are drunk and much bigger than you.  But this was McEnroe. Actually, it was kind of charming.  I smiled as if he'd said, "Hello there, how are you?", which in his own way is sort of what he did.

I stepped lightly on the gas and we began moving downtown on Central Park West. His destination required me to make an almost immediate left turn onto the transverse which runs through the park at 65th Street.  It's the fastest route to the East Side.  But the transverse was closed due to a parade on 5th Avenue that day, so we had to cut over to Broadway, a detour.  McEnroe didn't take this lying down and began venting his rage at Mayor de Blasio, the tyrant who had no doubt orchestrated this outrage.  Ridiculous to get so upset, you say, but think about it. This is McEnroe.  Everyone knows how McEnroe feels about referees and mayors are pretty much the same as referees.  Right?

I realized there was no point in continuing on in that vein.  Instead, I said:

"Hey, do you remember what you were doing in the evening of March 13th, 1984?"

This non sequitur caught his attention.  He perked up and forgot about the mayor.

"I have no idea."

"You were in my cab.  I picked you up from your place on East End Avenue and took you to the Garden to a Knicks game.  We talked about sports.  I told you about the time I hit some balls with Martina Navratilova's coach."  

McEnroe's face lit up.  "I think I remember that ride!"

Well, that handled his don't-talk-to-me and his I'm-in-a-big-rush state of mind. Suddenly McEnroe was friendly, conversational, and in no particular hurry.  We began a rambling conversation about various subjects, one thing leading to another, as often happens in a lively exchange.  My long tenure as a taxi driver interested him and he asked me some questions about my more memorable rides.  One that I mentioned was the ride with a couple of Mafia hit men to Newark Airport.  That led to him telling me about a book he'd been reading at the time, I Hear You Paint Houses, which led to how much money Netflix was reportedly paying Martin Scorsese to direct the movie version.  And so on.

By the time we were about halfway to 59th and York I suddenly realized that I had the rarest of rare opportunities at hand.  And that this was really going to be fun.

Let me explain: in the last 34 years I have told the stories in Parts 1 and 2 of this series to countless passengers in my cab.  If the subject of tennis comes up, or if anything to do with what it takes to be the champion in a sport comes up, if time permits I will tell my passengers those two stories together.  First the story about how pleased I was with myself that I was able to hit the serve of Mike Estep, Martina Navratilova's coach.  Then the story about what McEnroe's response to me was, seven  months later, when I told him how pleased I was with myself that I could hit Mike Estep's serve:

"Well, Mike's never been known for his serve," McEnroe had said.

It burst my little bubble.

This always gets a laugh.  Then to make my point I really dig into McEnroe, putting emphasis on certain words.  I'll say: "here's a guy who is number ONE... in the WORLD!  NO ONE can beat him!  In the WORLD!  NO ONE!  But he's just a little concerned that maybe his TAXI DRIVER can hit his serve.  But then, oh, wait, it's okay.  It was only Mike Estep.  I'm safe."  

After a brief pause for more laughter I'll put the finishing touches on my speech:

"What we're looking at here is compulsive competitiveness of a magnitude that is borderline insane!  This guy is asylum bait.  He's surrounded by assassins.  Even his taxi driver, for God's sake, is a potential threat to his dominance in the world of tennis."

And the point I make is that this is what it takes to be Number One.

So -- the rarest of rare opportunities at hand was this: due to the high level of affinity that had been created between us by our free-flowing conversation, I knew I could now tell McEnroe the story I'd been telling passengers for 34 years about him to him.  Just the way I tell it.  In life this just never happens.

So I set him up.

As we hit some traffic on 57th Street, I asked him if he remembered what he'd said to me in 1984 about my tennis session with Martina's coach.  Of course he did not, so the door was open.  I started at the beginning with Mike Estep hailing me on 6th Avenue in August of 1983, how friendly he was, how he was telling me things about the men's tour he probably shouldn't be telling anyone, about how he always beats Martina in a real match, and so on, leading up to his invitation to come out onto the court so I could see what it's like to try to hit the serve of a pro, and then later observing the ferocity of Martina when she played him in a practice game for real.

Watching McEnroe in the mirror, it was clear that he was enjoying the story and I was in safe territory when the story became about him.  So I brought it on...

"...so it's seven months later, March 13th, 1984 to be exact..."

"...you're going to the Garden, you're in my cab, we're on the FDR Drive..."

"...I'm telling you how happy I was with myself that I was able to hit his serve..."

"...you move forward in your seat, a look of concern on your face..."

"...what was his name again? you ask..."

"...Mike Estep..."

"...you move back in your seat, all relieved..."

"...well, you know," you say, "Mike's never been known for his serve"...

I check in the mirror to see how McEnroe's responding.  He's loving it.  I continue, with emphasis:

"...it's 1984.  You're the Number ONE tennis player in the WORLD!  NO ONE can beat you!  In the WORLD!  NO ONE!  But you're just a little concerned that maybe your TAXI DRIVER can hit your serve!  But then, wait, it's okay, it's only Mike Estep.  I'm safe."

Looking again at McEnroe, I see he's just about doubled-over in laughter.  I move in for the kill.  In  mock exasperation, squealing:

"Mike's never been known for his serve?"

And then, the coup de grace, both middle fingers raised high in extended triumph:

"FUCK YOU!  FU-U-U-CK YO-U-U-U McENROE!"

Now he is doubled-over in laughter.  

I tell my passenger to go fuck himself and he loves it.  A great accomplishment for me, but I knew it wouldn't offend him.  Self-deprecation has always been one of McEnroe's sterling qualities -- his saving grace, actually.

A feeling of calm set in as the laughter subsided.  We rode in silence for half a minute or so, then  traffic for the 59th Street Bridge brought us to a complete stop at Park Avenue.  I told McEnroe I knew a cab driver trick to get around it and proceeded to turn one block south to 56th Street, which is always completely empty.  As we began to zip along at a decent pace, I remembered that in our previous ride back in '84 I had kind of set him up for giving me a big tip.  We now had only a couple of minutes before we'd arrive at his destination, but I realized it could be done again.

"You know, for many years you held the record for being the best celebrity tipper in my cab," I said.    

"Really!  Who broke it?"

"Leonardo di Caprio.  Back in 1997.  He wanted to know who was the best celebrity tipper I'd ever had in my cab and I said, 'believe it or not it was John McEnroe, who gave me double the meter.'  Then he said, 'well I'm gonna give you triple the meter.' And he did.  Pretty impressive, considering he was really just a kid at the time."

Looking at him in the mirror, I could see a certain look of concern appearing on his face which I'd seen before.  Remember, this is a man who suffers from Obsessive Competitive Syndrome.  

I continued:

"That record stood for 17 years until it was broken by Derek Jeter.  Jeter gave me quadruple the meter."

McEnroe was indeed concerned.  "What was Jeter like?" he asked.  "I've never met him."

I told him Jeter was as advertised -- friendly, funny, easy to talk to, unpretentious. 

We arrived at his destination, the Sutton East Tennis Club (of course!) at 59th and York.  The fare was $19.30 and  I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind -- "should I give this guy quintuple the meter?"  That would be almost $100.  Could he do it?  The title of Best Celebrity Tipper Of All Time was within his grasp -- again! -- and the tension was almost palpable. 

McEnroe, like most people these days, was paying with a credit card.  As the passenger is touching a screen in the back to enter the tip, the driver can watch on his own screen in the front to see what's happening.  McEnroe began tapping.  If this had been taking place in a stadium, the crowd would be hushed in nail-biting anticipation.  

Could he do it?

The numbers began coming up on my screen, ever so slowly, one digit at a time...  a five, then a zero, then a period and two more zeroes.  Fifty dollars.  A valiant effort, ladies and gentlemen, but, alas, not enough.  He had come up short.  So sad, really, to see Father Time catching up with them.  Even the great ones must fall eventually to his relentless pursuit.  

But wait!

Number of times what's on the meter is only one way of determining the winner. Simple quantity would be another, more accurate, means of awarding the trophy. Di Caprio's ride in 1997 had been a short one and triple the meter came to about fifteen dollars.  And Jeter's ride was also a short one, around $8 on the meter and he gave me two twenties.  A $32 tip.    

So actually McEnroe had done it!  After 34 years he had come back to reclaim his title -- the Best Celebrity Tipper of All Time In My Cab. 

Without question the greatest comeback in taxi history!


I immediately decided he should receive a trophy -- my book.  I always keep a copy handy on the dashboard should the need arise to show it to passengers and this was just such an occasion.  

Thanking him for his tip, I announced that I had something for him -- "because you're special!"  And I held it up for him to see.  I couldn't hand it to him because the partition in these Nissans is solid with no window, so I told him to come around to me to receive his prize.  While he was on his way I wrote an inscription: "To John McEnroe, Thanks for that double the meter in 1984!  Best wishes, Eugene Salomon."  
I handed him the book, we shook hands, and by the big smile on his face it seemed to me that he was as happy to receive it as he was when he'd been handed one of his many trophies for winning the U.S. Open.  

Although that could be something of an overstatement on my part. 


*********


I found myself basking in the afterglow of that ride as my day continued on.  While taking a break at one of the many Starbucks around the city I reviewed mentally what had transpired earlier.  By confronting and skillfully communicating with an angry passenger I had turned the ride into a pleasant experience for the both of us.  I had transformed "we don't have to talk" into a fifty dollar tip.  I had explained to the passenger the route I was taking and expertly navigated the city streets to get him there in the shortest possible time.  I was so able to get myself on his wavelength to the point that even saying "fuck you" to him was completely appropriate and appreciated.  And I had given him a book written by his own taxi driver, something that is not likely to happen to a passenger even once in a lifetime. Putting all modesty aside, that is what it takes to rise to the very top echelon of a subset of our culture called "taxi driver".








Thursday, October 04, 2018

What It Takes, Part 2 -- My (Verbal) Tennis Match With John McEnroe

You know, having a conversation is a lot like playing tennis.  A statement is made from one person to another, then it's responded to, tossed around, back and forth, each person trying to make his or her "point", each trying to "score".  This can be obvious, as in a debate, or it can be subtle, as in a friendly dialogue.  To some people, even saying "hello" can be an attempt at making a score before your opponent does.  That's how it was in the evening of March 13, 1984, when I looked in my rearview mirror and found that John McEnroe was sitting in the back seat of my cab.  

It was the doorman of his high-rise on East End Avenue who'd hailed me and opened the door for him but since I'd been looking down at my trip sheet, filling in the required information, I hadn't yet noticed who my new passenger was.  I simply called out my usual "hello" and awaited the response.  Would this one be friendly, in a big rush, arrogant, a drunk, a serial killer, or what?  McEnroe's response was a hard, direct shot, you might say, to my forehand.

"The Garden," he said.

Now, what was most important here was what wasn't said.  He didn't say "hello" back to me.  He didn't say "please".  He didn't say "Madison Square".  Just "the Garden", as if I automatically knew who he was and which garden he was talking about. It was more of an order than a request and at the same time it tested the ability of the recipient (me) to respond in kind.  An excellent opening -- I didn't yet know who he was, but he'd already scored.  Point, McEnroe.

I looked straight into the rearview mirror, wondering who would be speaking to me this way.  I recognized him immediately and shot back my own gut response:

"McEnroe," I blurted out, showing surprise but no great enthusiasm.

I give myself a point here because: a) I returned his sharp opening with one of my own.  If he had intended to be blunt with no mincing of words, he got the same from me.  b) I didn't show any false respect or false adulation or false friendliness. It was just "McEnroe", not "Mr. McEnroe", or "Oh, John McEnroe!"  Basically I was conveying an attitude that said, Okay, I know who you are, but you're not on a tennis court, buddy, you're sitting in my cab, so don't start up with any of those shenanigans you're famous for.  I can hit your serve.  Point, Salomon.



His return caught me off guard.  "Yes, it's me," he said, more to himself than to me and barely loud enough to be heard.

Now this was a switch, a complete change of style.  His words could be interpreted as "Yes, the Great One is in your presence," but his tone was self-deprecating.  Here was John McEnroe in person poking fun at John McEnroe the celebrity, actually satirizing himself.  It was an impressive display of flexibility as a conversationalist. Point, McEnroe.

We volleyed as we headed south on East End Avenue.

"Are you playing tonight?" I asked, thinking maybe there was a tennis match at the Garden.  No, he said, he was going to a Knicks game.

"Take the Drive?" I asked.  (Meaning the FDR Drive, the highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan.)

"Yeah, please."

"Who are the Knicks playing tonight?"

"The Suns."

A couple more easy lobs were exchanged with no points scored.

Then, fearing the conversation might peter out for lack of fuel, I changed tempo by employing a technique I've used on other celebrities.  I express my regrets that I'm not all that familiar with their area of expertise (even if I am) because here would be a great opportunity for me to learn something from someone so renown in that field.  Celebrities live lives of annoyance from mundane questions posed by strangers and this may cause them to be reluctant to engage.  So by pleading ignorance (or even pretending you don't recognize them) it has the effect of putting them at ease.

"Too bad I don't really know that much about tennis," I kind-of-lied as I made a left on 79th Street and approached the entrance to the Drive,  "or I might be able to hold down an intelligent conversation here.  I mean, I play a little, but I don't really know the fine points of the game."

Looking in the mirror, I watched his facial expression loosen up just a notch.  I edged into the opening I had created.  "Funny," I said, "I seem to keep getting professional tennis players in my cab."

McEnroe was interested.  "Really?  Who?"

I could feel a big score coming up.  Here was the famous John McEnroe showing an interest in the not-famous me.  To hell with modesty, a surge of what let's call self-importance was rising from within and it felt good.

I told him about a couple of fares I'd had with tennis players whose names I didn't remember.  After talking for half a minute, however, I realized I was getting too chatty and that McEnroe's interest was waning.  So I served him up my big story ("What It Takes, Part 1") about how the previous summer I'd driven Mike Estep, Martina Navratilova's coach, out to a private club in Queens to practice with her; how Mike was such a great guy; how he'd asked me if I'd like to watch them practice; how I'd always wondered if I could return the serve of a pro, so I asked Mike if he'd hit me a few balls when we got there; and how -- isn't this great? -- he did.

McEnroe was all ears.  Not to brag but, really, I had the guy in the palm of my hand.

"Could you hit it?" he asked.

John McEnroe, the number one tennis player in the world, wants to know about my tennis game.  Yes!  Point, Salomon!

"Yeah," I said and, not trying to disguise my pride, I told him how I'd actually been able to get my racquet -- actually, Martina's racquet, ha-ha -- on the ball.  Not with any authority, mind you, but still, after a few serves I was getting my timing down and I could hit it.  Not bad for an amateur, huh?

McEnroe moved forward, a concerned look on his face.

"Who was that again?"

"Mike Estep," said I.

"Oh," he said, and he moved comfortably back in his seat again.  "Well, you know, Mike's never been known for his serve."

Ping!

The little bubble I'd been sitting in for the last seven months came bursting apart and evaporated into the atmosphere.

"Mike's never been known for his serve."

With one quick stroke I'd been reduced to the pathetic little tennis wannabe I actually was.

Point, set, match -- McEnroe.  Damn!

I made a right and got on the FDR Drive.  Having been so profoundly reduced in stature, I found I could think of nothing to say to McEnroe so I just reverted to my job description as a New York City taxi driver and stepped on the gas.  Soon we were barreling along at 50 miles per hour in the middle lane, and for the next half a minute there continued to be no conversation between us, McEnroe no doubt quietly savoring the conquest of my dignity.  Understandably my mood began taking a turn toward the Dark Side.  What good was living, anyway?  There's always some venomous creature waiting to put its fangs into you just when life seems all zippity-do-dah.  Why continue slogging on with it?  The idea of an end-it-all-with-a-glorious-bang entered my mind.  I could unfasten my seat belt, pick up speed to about 100 miles per hour, and crash into the stone wall that runs alongside the highway. McEnroe hadn't fastened his own seat belt so he'd probably go flying into the East River. This concept had an element of poetic justice to it which I found very appealing.  Mike's never been known for his serve, huh?  We'll see about that.  I moved the cab over into the right lane and started looking for a good place in the wall to crash the cab.




But then, wait.  I reconsidered.

All right, one way of looking at it would be that I had been demolished, even humiliated, by McEnroe.  But let's take a step back and delve into this a bit, shall we?  Here's a guy who is ranked NUMBER ONE in the WORLD.  There are MILLIONS of tennis players, ALL OVER THE WORLD.  They play this sport in schools, in colleges, in leagues, in private clubs, or just with friends.  If you're GREAT at it you may actually become a professional and make some kind of a living at it.  But then you're up against all the other players from ALL OVER THE WORLD who are also GREAT. Nevertheless you may become an elite player, rise high in the rankings, and become famous, respected, and wealthy.  But if you're the GREATEST OF THE GREAT -- if you are ranked NUMBER ONE IN THE WORLD -- you will have earned the AWE of both the general public and your own colleagues because NO ONE IN THE WORLD CAN BEAT YOU!  NO ONE!

And yet John McEnroe, the best tennis player in the world, and, some might say, the best tennis player of all time, is concerned that maybe his taxi driver can hit his serve.  But then, oh, it's okay.  It was Mike Estep.  I'm safe.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we're looking at here is compulsive competitiveness of asylum magnitude and I suppose we're also looking at what it takes to be Number One in tennis and some other sports.  He is surrounded by assassins.  Everyone is a threat.  This is a guy who is one referee's bad call away from being confronted by men in white coats and whisked off to the happy farm.

No, I decided, I would not crash the cab into the stone wall that runs alongside the FDR Drive.  In an act of considerable magnanimity,  I would let McEnroe live.  I realized he hadn't won the match, he'd only won a set.  So the game was still on.  But what I needed to do here was to clarify for myself what the object of the game we were playing actually was.  I thought about it.   For him, I realized, it was to shape me into a dutiful listener so he could hear himself pontificate.   But for me, the game, in the time-honored tradition of taxi-driving, was to set my passenger up for giving me a big tip.

I awarded myself a point for this brilliant insight and the match continued.

Easing up on the gas pedal, I steered the cab back into the center lane.  Our conversation resumed, turning to sports in general -- football, baseball, hockey, basketball.  I began to notice that he'd listen carefully to whatever I had to say, wait just a moment, and then correct me.  My strategy was to listen carefully to him as well, but not to correct him.  For example, when at one point he interjected into the conversation that tennis is the greatest sport that ever was, I didn't contradict him even though everybody knows that baseball is the greatest sport that ever was.  Agreement creates affinity and affinity is crucial in the tipping phase of the ride.  So it could have appeared to an observer that McEnroe was scoring all the points here, but in reality I was holding even with him.

We exited the FDR at 34th Street.  The conversation had turned to boxing and McEnroe was telling me that Larry Holmes, who was then the undefeated heavyweight champion, would soon lose.

"Who'll beat him?" I asked.

"He'll beat himself," McEnroe snapped back.  A return with some real zing to it, especially considering that the person giving it was himself was the champion of the tennis world at that time, and McEnroe received a point for style.

We moved along on 34th Street and as we approached 2nd Avenue McEnroe committed a breach of taxicab etiquette by telling me to turn left and take 31st Street to the Garden.   The offense here is giving simple directions to a professional driver, as if I don't know how to get to Madison Square Garden.  But in this case I let the faux pas pass without comment as it suited my game plan.  The street he chose is actually the slowest way to get to the Garden from the East Side because you'll get a red light at every intersection.  He was adding three minutes to the ride. That's good for the meter but what I liked most was that it was giving me more time to work him for the tip.  Advantage, Salomon.

As we began our crosstown trek on 31st Street McEnroe, perhaps realizing that the end of the ride was approaching, suddenly seized complete control of the conversation and began to preach in earnest about his issues with tennis.  This was good news.  I could be getting taxi-driver-as-therapist money here.



First he hit on the officiating.  His complaint, he said, was that the officials aren't professional officials.  He pointed out that in baseball and football the players get to know the officials on a first-name basis.  In a close call their decisions are respected because the players know they are competent.  But in tennis, he said, you see new faces in every tournament, officials you've never met before.  Trust in their competence isn't given a chance to develop.



I thought, wow, you know, he makes a good point here, and I awarded him one.  I'd never heard that argument expressed before and it made perfect sense -- of course, a lack of trust in the professionalism of the officials would create problems with the players.  But a few moments later I realized, wait, this is McEnroe's justification for why it's okay to berate officials during a match, as he was so famous for doing.  I took the point away for faking himself out.



Next, he took on the fans.  "New York fans are the worst," he squawked, recalling when he'd played against Vitas Gerulaitis, who was from Queens, in the finals of the U.S. Open in 1979.  What are the odds, he asked, of two guys who are both from Queens ever making it to the finals of the U.S. Open, played in Queens, in the same year?  And the fans?

"They booed both of us!"

Now here McEnroe was clearly committing a foul.  It would be one thing if he had it out for one particular fan or for even a certain type of fan.  But all New York fans? Come on.  I had no choice but to deduct a point for unsportsmanlike conduct.

We arrived at the Garden.  I pulled up to a special side entrance on 31st Street where McEnroe wanted to be dropped off, stopped the cab, and started tallying up the points.  With the penalty point deducted from his score it appeared to be a dead heat.  So... this match was going to be decided by the tip.  The fare on the meter was $5.20.  (This was in 1984. Today that ride would cost around $15.)  A cheap or -- considering it's a celebrity -- even an average tip would force me to conclude that my efforts had been in vain and I would have to concede the match to my opponent.  It would have to be a definitive, excessively generous gratuity to win.

With tension mounting, McEnroe opened his door and stepped out onto the street. He reached into the pocket of his coat and, stepping halfway back into the cab, handed me two bills: a five and a single.  It was going to be an eighty-cent tip, slightly less than average for a $5.20 fare.  I would have to interpret this as a snub, a cheapskate's ace, and give the final point and the match to McEnroe.

But wait!

McEnroe reached into his pocket again.  Out came several more bills which he handed to me with an almost apologetic look on his face.  He closed the door, waved goodbye, and walked toward the Garden, smiling.  I counted the bills.  There were six singles.  So McEnroe had tipped me $6.80 on a $5.20 fare, better than double the meter.  It was the best tip I'd ever received from a celebrity, a record that stood for twelve years.

Point, set, match -- Salomon!





********




Notes:

1. This is the second in a three-part series, "What It Takes".  Stay tuned for Part 3, "McEnroe Returns".

2. I am able to recall the details of a ride taken 34 years ago is because a) it was particularly memorable, and b) I've always kept journals of my most interesting rides.

3. There's a documentary recently released about McEnroe's year, 1984 (the same year he was in my cab), in which he won an incredible 82 out of 85 matches.  To see a clip from In The Realm Of Perfection click below:



4. Click on this one to see a taxi nearly running over McEnroe (from the movie Mr. Deeds):




5. To watch a compilation of McEnroe tantrums, click here:



Friday, September 07, 2018

What It Takes -- Part 1, Martina and Mike

For most of us today, sports are a part of our lives.  As toddlers we are already playing catch and kicking balls around.  As children we play in games with our friends and idolize the grown-ups who play the same games we do (and they wear uniforms!).  Getting a bit older we may participate in organized leagues and start to take our games more seriously.  Such a person may begin to think:

I wonder if I could play this sport professionally myself?

As time goes on it becomes clear that some people have been blessed with skills which set them apart from their peers.  He or she may become the star of one (or more than one) of their school teams.  They may receive a scholarship from a college which is interested in their athletic ability.  Scouts for professional teams might even be watching them and offer them a contract.

So a selection process is at work here.  Let's say you're one of these people who've progressed this far.  You're a professional athlete at some level.  You're finding the competition now is really fierce.  You most likely will be thinking:

I wonder if I can continue to compete successfully in my sport for years to come? How long can this go on?

Okay, let's say it does go on.  You're an established professional who's beaten the odds and you are still playing at the highest level.  But being somewhat famous and making a lot of money are not enough, you find.  The selection process is still at work for you.  Now you are no longer asking -- no, actually you are telling yourself:

I am the best who ever was.  No person, no obstacle, can stop me.  I choose this for my destiny: I am Number One, I am the greatest player to have ever played this damned sport, the champion of the ages, that's who I am.  I will not be, I cannot be, defeated. 

People like this are rare.  You have probably never met one.

Driving a taxi in New York City for all these years, I've met two of them.  From those rides I was able to gain an insight about what it takes to stand alone on top of the mountain.  Here are the stories, in chronological order....


MARTINA AND MIKE

On a sunny, mid-August day in 1983 I saw my next fare waving at me at the corner of 56th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan.  He was a 30-something guy, white shorts, a polo shirt, and in the hand that wasn't up in the air he was carrying about half a dozen tennis racquets.  Placing them carefully on the back seat as he got in (I noticed) he told me his destination was a certain country club out in Douglaston, Queens, about a thirty-minute ride.  

Well, I'm always sizing up my passengers as they get in, mainly to ascertain whether or not they're conversational.  This often means picking out something to comment on in the environment, saying something about it, and noting their response.  In this case, it was easy: 

"So what's with all the tennis racquets?" 

"You know who Martina Navratilova is, the tennis player?"

"Oh, sure."

Although I don't really follow the sport as a fan (I'm a casual player), it would have been difficult in 1983 not to know who Martina Navratilova was.  She was the number one female tennis player in the world at the time and she was very famous.  
"I'm her coach," my passenger said cheerfully, "and these are her racquets.  I'm going out to Queens now to practice with her."

"Oh, right, the U.S. Open," I said.  "When does it start?"

"It starts tomorrow for the qualification rounds, but Martina isn't playing until Monday."

Just from the pleasant tone of his voice, I knew I had a real conversationalist here. And clearly there could be plenty to talk about.  I became (once again) the interviewer of my own talk show and he, my special guest. 

His name was Mike Estep.  He was a professional tennis player himself, he told me, ranked 250th on the men's tour.  By the end of the ride, however, he would be ranked Number One in a unique category of my own invention: The Friendliest Passenger In My Cab Of All Time.  




Mike was totally happy to answer any questions I threw at him, and then some. Things like:

"How long have you been Martina's coach?"

"I just recently came on board.  You know, she's never won the U.S. Open.  I think I can help her do that."

"How so?"

"Well, the main thing is she's got to charge the net more.  Be more aggressive."

"Oh."

I knew nothing about tennis strategy but appreciated his candor.  I realized a door had been opened for me here.  I could ask this guy anything about anything.

"When you practice, do you ever play a game for real?"

"Sure."

"Who wins?"

"Oh, I beat her every time," he said -- not bragging, just matter-of-factly.

Interesting.  The number 250 male can beat the number one female.  Every time. Or so he says.  I wondered if this could really be true.  Hmmm...

I let the conversation flow around a bit and Mike told me some of his stories about being on the tour.  About how he'd once played an exhibition match in India against that country's top tennis player and, although he lost the match, he was happy to have lost because it caused the people who'd come to see them compete (the Indian locals) go home smiling.  Another story had to do with a time a couple of years earlier when he'd been playing at Wimbledon.  They have a parlay betting method in the U.K. in which a bettor can choose the winners of several consecutive matches on a card and if all his picks win, the bettor can walk away with quite a bit of money.  Mike learned later that there had been a gambler who had a card in which he'd correctly picked the winners of several matches and needed just one more correct pick on his card to win a small fortune.  That match had been a match that Mike had played in and won, but the gambler had picked his opponent to win it, so he wound up winning nothing.  "The other guy is higher ranked than me," Mike said, "but what he [the bettor] didn't know is that I always beat him."  He felt bad for the gambler, adding that he had no illusions about his own chances of going much further in the tournament.  "It's not like I'm going to win Wimbledon," he said.  




Our thirty-minute ride went by very quickly, which is a phenomenon that can happen in a taxicab when there's no lull in the conversation.  As we were about to enter the parking lot of the private country club in Douglaston where Martina was staying, Mike surprised me:

"Would you like to come over and watch us practice?"

Every once in a while I answer a question correctly.  Dismissing immediate thoughts of "needing to get back to work" I replied:

"Sure!"

What an extraordinary invitation!  So I parked the cab right there in the parking lot and the two of us got out and began walking toward the tennis court, about a hundred yards away down a path to our right.  A thought came to mind: as a fan of baseball and, as mentioned, as a casual tennis player, I've often wondered what it would be like to try to hit a ball thrown by a Major League baseball player or to hit the serve of a professional tennis player.  Is it really that hard to hit it?  Would I even see it as it went zipping by me?  I realized I had an opportunity at hand and seized the moment.  I said to Mike:

"You know, I've always wondered what it would be like to try to return the serve of a professional tennis player.  Do you think you could hit me a few?"

Now, keep in mind, I'm not an imposing kind of person andI would never have asked this question unless I was sure it was appropriate.  But Mike had already shown that he was such a friendly guy that there was no question in my mind that he'd be glad to accommodate me if he could.

"Well," he said, "if Martina's not out there yet... sure."

We arrived at the court.  About a dozen people were gathered around, waiting to see Martina.  But instead what they saw was her coach and a guy wearing jeans with a big smile on his face go out onto the court.  Martina had not yet arrived.

How surreal was this?  Thirty-five minutes ago I was driving my cab up 6th Avenue looking for a fare.  Now I am standing on a tennis court with one of Martina Navratilova's racquets in my hand, waiting for her coach to start hitting me serves.  I am eagerly awaiting being humiliated in a nice way by my own inability to play the game, and in view of a bunch of spectators.  Bring it on!

Mike raised his racquet in the air and pumped one at me.

To my surprise I reacted in time to hit the ball.  It didn't go anywhere near the net, but it didn't go past me, either.  I was pleased.  Mike hit me another one.  I hit it again, a little better this time.  On the next serve (and now I'm starting to bounce back and forth in imitation of how tennis players awaiting serves put their bodies in motion just before the ball is hit to them) I hit the ball over the net.  Out of bounds, but over the net.  Mike hit me another one, and a few more.  On each serve, as I was getting my timing down, I was hitting better shots.

I'm starting to think, damn, maybe I'm better at this sport than I've given myself credit for.  Maybe I should take this game more seriously, get into a league myself, take lessons.  I could be a contender.

Suddenly out onto the court steps Martina Navratilova.  She sees her coach playing tennis with some guy holding one of her racquets in his hand.

Martina, in her Czechoslovakian accent, looking at Mike: "Who's this?"

Mike, nonchalantly: "Oh, it's my taxi driver."

Martina: "Oh!  Okay!"

And with that she sits down, her back against the fencing that surrounds the court, to watch us play.

Oh my god, now I am playing tennis with not only a bunch of spectators gawking at me, but under the gaze of the best female tennis player in the world, as well.  And I'm playing with her racquet!  Pressure!  Mike serves me again, and this time I hit the ball over his head, again out of bounds but at least I'm getting the center of the racquet on the ball.  I'm beginning to wonder if I'm too old to turn pro.

On his next serve, Mike puts some "English" on the ball, causing it to spin sharply off to one side as it hits the surface and making it completely impossible for me to hit it back.  This was great fun, a bit of well-deserved showing off on his part, and after one more of these, thinking it better not to overstay my welcome, I returned Martina's racquet to its rightful owner, thanking her and Mike profusely for their hospitality, so to speak.  I walked behind the fence and found a solitary position (not among the other spectators) from which to watch their practice session.

Martina stepped out onto the court and it began.

They had what appeared to be a set regimen of drills.  In one of them they stood only about ten feet apart from each other on opposite sides of the net and volleyed back and forth, machine-gun-rat-a-tat-tat style, a marvelous display of reflexes and coordination.  These were professional, conditioned athletes doing their homework, you might say, although with their grace and precision it seemed to me they could just as well have been ballet dancers or circus acrobats.   There was also a physicality about them, Martina especially, that was striking.  She exuded strength, the musculature in her arms and thighs sculpted like a statue of an Amazon warrior.




This is not to minimize Mike. At one point during a break in their routine, he walked over to me and asked me what I thought.

"It's hard for me to believe there are 249 guys better than you," I replied.  He was that good.

Returning to the court, they began to practice by playing a game for real, to win. Immediately I remembered what Mike had said in the cab:

"Oh, I beat her every time."

Now I could get to see for myself if this was really true.  They played for about twenty minutes, and they played hard.  Did he beat her?  Yes, in fact, he did.  And this is what gave me my first insight about what it takes to be the one standing alone on top of the mountain.

It was Martina's ferocity in missing a point in a practice session.  Ferocity at herself. It was a little scary to witness.  I was glad I was standing behind a fence!

Now you may be recalling how upset you may have become in some game you had once been trying to win, but did not.  You may be thinking that that's how Martina must have felt as she failed to anticipate what the trajectory of Mike's next shot would be and watched helplessly as the ball went whizzing by her.  I'm going to make an assumption here that you are underestimating what Martina's actual response was.  "Upset" is not the word.  Nor would "dismayed", "agitated", "unnerved", "angered", "disturbed", or "flustered" be the words.

I believe the more accurate description would be MORALLY OUTRAGED.

No, this was not just a return she'd failed to make.  This was an INJUSTICE.  This was an IDIOCY that was UNACCEPTABLE.  This was failure to store grain in anticipation of a harsh winter.  This was not properly securing your fishing boat to the pier before the big storm hit.  This was putting twenty grand on a horse named Alvoc because Jack, the local bookie, says he has inside information.

After failure, the mindset becomes akin to a hard knuckles fistfight in a VIRTUOUS WAR to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to RIGHT THE WRONG THAT HAS BEEN DONE.

That, along with all the skills, is what it takes to become Number One.

Mike Estep, the friendliest passenger who ever rode in my cab and a tennis virtuoso, had what it takes to rise to the middle rankings on the men's tour.  But he didn't have that.

Martina did.

And a couple of weeks later, for the fist time, she won the U.S. Open.





*****


This is the first in a three-part series, "What It Takes".  Stay tuned for Part 2, "My (Verbal) Tennis Match With John McEnroe".





Monday, May 28, 2018

Get `Em While They're Hot

What's that?

You still haven't bought my book, Confessions Of A New York Taxi Driver?

Well, good news, your holding out is about to pay off, at least if you own a Kindle.   HarperCollins is now offering the ebook edition for a mere $4.99 on Amazon.com. The price had always been $10 and change, so... what a bargain.

Just click here and you're on your way.

Say what?

You need further convincing?

A promotional video or something?

Well all righty, then, here you are:









Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Fan Strikes Back

Baseball.

It's the one sport I am really a fan of, and I have suffered much because of it.

As a kid I was raised as a fan of the New York Giants baseball team by my father, himself a lifelong devotee of that franchise, and I worshipped the players. Then, when I was nine years old, they packed up their bats and balls and moved to San Francisco, taking my Willie Mays with them.  What a slap in the face to an innocent child who'd done nothing but love them!

It was the first in a long series of betrayals that were yet to come.

There followed four years of abandonment and bitterness.  The only baseball team left in town was the Yankees, but switching to them at that time was not an option, as I'd been thoroughly indoctrinated to see them as The Enemy.  So I trudged through empty days in some kind of baseball purgatory, left on my own to play second base for my Carvel 91 Little League team without a role model to emulate nor a guide to show me the way.

Strange thoughts of retribution began to creep into my universe.  I would find myself sitting in class in elementary school with my attention drifting to mental scenarios of Horace Stoneham, the owner of the Giants at that time, showing up at my front door and begging me for forgiveness.  I would insist that he move our Giants back to New York City and come to my school to make the announcement with me at  his side.  He'd give me a bunch of tickets to games.  He'd send Willie Mays over to my house to give me tips on hitting.  My friends would see me hanging with Willie and would be jealous.  Billy O'Reilly would offer to be my best friend if he could just get to spend time with Willie, too.  Of course I would not allow it.

Not surprisingly, my grades began to suffer.

But in 1962 it looked like things might be starting to turn around. The New York Mets were created as a new National League expansion team, and, although they were awful in terms of winning games, they served as an adequate replacement for the Giants.  Things went along smoothly until 1969 when they made the mistake of winning the World Series.  With their fans now expecting them to play like winners, they immediately began to implode.  Nolan Ryan, a rising star who went on to become one of the best players in baseball history (and today has thousands of kids named after him) was traded away.  Tom Seaver, who had earned the nickname "The Franchise", was let go in a silly contract dispute.  Mets management thought it would be a good idea to decorate Shea Stadium with gigantic neon stick figures of baseball players and to have a huge plaster apple rise from a huge plaster hat whenever a Met hit a home run.

I felt my intelligence was being insulted.  Hey, Mets, I'm an educated baseball fan.  I don't need flashing lights and electric apples to keep my attention on the game. Still, I followed the team and rooted for them even though they quickly descended into mediocrity and worse.

Then in 1975 free agency arrived, thus planting the seed of the fan's moral dilemma.  From a human rights point of view players of course should be able to be paid what the market will bear.  Who are the owners to prevent players from offering their services to the highest bidder?  Slaveholders?  It was actually heartwarming, for a while, to see the big stars making big money.

But things soon got out of hand.  Apparently what the market would bear, what with all the TV revenue, ticket sales, concession sales, trademark income, and so on, was more than anyone could have imagined.  The average annual salaries of Major League baseball players ballooned from $113,000 in 1979 to over $3,000,000 in 2006.   And that was the average!  The big names were making tens of millions per year with guaranteed contracts that paid them that money even if they had bad years or sat half the season on the bench.

The average working person began to have a hard time relating to this.  A teacher or a cop makes barely enough to keep food on the table and maybe not even enough to take the family to a baseball game, but some guy who can run a little faster, throw a ball a little harder, and hit a ball a little better can make... what?  Tens of millions of dollars for playing baseball for just a single season?  Some began to question the values of our culture -- a disconnect was setting in.

You would think that when some guy is making millions of dollars a year for playing a game that he'd be happy with what he's got, perhaps even thanking his lucky stars every day for his good fortune.  But no. In 1981 the players and their union thought they should get more.  So they went on strike, canceling 713 games.  In 1994 there was a lockout (this time the owners wouldn't agree to the players' demands) which abruptly ended the season in August and cancelled the entire post-season, including the World Series.

Then, to make matters even worse, in the late '90s we found out that many of the star players were actually cheaters.  Some guy whose name was on your kid's t-shirt was actually jacked up on "performance-enhancing drugs".  Aside from the betrayal of trust that it loudly proclaims, this even tore away at the history of the game. Now when a new record is being approached (such as the number of home runs hit in a season or in a career) the question invariably arises as to whether or not the new record should count in the record books if the player had ever been found to have been taking PEDs.

You know, with all of the perfectly valid things to become cynical about in this world, baseball should not have been one of them.  But it was.  I myself had become so disenchanted about the way things were going that I decided I was a "free agent" as a fan in 1985.  My loyalty was no longer a given -- it had to be earned. I had to wonder why I was even bothering to pay attention to these overpaid, pill-popping cheaters.  After some soul-searching I realized what it was.

It was the game itself.

Baseball.

It's the most intriguing, most theatrical, most balanced, and most intellectual sport ever invented.  Consider this:

In baseball...

--- there's no clock.  A game could theoretically go on forever.  There's no possibility of a tie.  I love that.

--- it's a game in which a contest between two individuals (the pitcher versus the hitter) immediately shifts into a game between multiple team players the moment the ball is hit.

--- it's a game of likelihoods, represented as statistics, which keep you thinking as the game continues, not just watching.

--- you don't have to have a huge body to play it at its highest level.  In fact this year a player on the Houston Astros, Jose Altuve, who stands at just 5 feet, 6 inches, won the Most Valuable Player award in the American League.  A player on the Yankees, Aaron Judge, who is 6 feet, 7 inches, came in second in the voting.

--- it's like a symphony, with diminuendos (moving slowly) building into huge crescendos (increasingly unbearable tension with every pitch).

--- you can get to know the players as individuals.  They're not hidden behind masks, like in American football.  They're not in constant motion, as in many sports.  Each player on a team comes to bat four or five times in an average game.  This gives the fan opportunities to become familiar with them as personalities, similarly as you would come to know a character in a drama.

And then there's this, as aspect of the game I find especially endearing:

Baseball is the only sport in which a fan in the stands can, in certain specific circumstances, become an active and legal participant in the game itself.  When a batter hits a ball in the air that is heading for the stands, once the trajectory of the ball crosses the point that separates the stands from the playing field, the rule book states that the fan in the stands has as much right to catch the ball as the player on the field who is also trying to catch it.  If that player is on your team, you should get out of his way and let him catch it.  But if he's on the opposing team, the fan should try to catch or deflect the ball himself before the player can get to it.  For that specific moment the fan in the stands is actually a player on the team!  

Every once in a while this magnificent aspect of baseball actually determines the outcome of a game.  October 9th, 1996, was one of those times.  The New York Yankees were playing the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of the American League Championship Series.  Late in the game Derek Jeter hit a long fly ball to right field that was descending close to the fence.  A twelve-year old kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over and scooped the ball into the stands.  It should have been ruled fan interference but the umpire called it a home run and a great controversy ensued.  Nevertheless, the call stood (this was before they used videotape replays to decide close plays) and the kid became instantly famous.  He was dubbed the "angel in the outfield" by the New York media and appeared on talk shows.  Not only that, but he went down in baseball history and to this day any good Yankee fan or serious fan of the sport knows his name.

Here's the video of the incident:


And this is what aired on The Today Show the next day:



Okay, all of the above is to set you up for what occurred in my taxi in the early morning hours of August 30, 2002.  Here is a story from "the vault", one I have told to many passengers in my cab but never before gotten around to writing -- a tale of retribution by a fan who just couldn't take it anymore...


I'd started my shift late that night and that, along with a few lousy rides, had dampened my mood.  Plus there was something else going on that night which was really bothering me  -- the deadline of yet another threatened baseball strike was set for midnight.  If an agreement wasn't reached by that time, the season would come to a halt -- there would be no baseball the next day and, who knows, maybe not for the remainder of the season.

I'd been following this on the radio, of course.  Just after the midnight hour an announcement came over the air that the deadline had been extended -- the negotiations between the owners and the baseball union were continuing on into the night. This was hopeful, but it was still maddening to me as well.  Just the idea of millionaires thinking their working conditions could warrant a strike...  it was infuriating.  This strike thing was really getting under my skin.

The night went on.  Business was slow.  According to my trip sheet, at 2:09 I picked up a guy and a girl coming from a bar on 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue and took them to 26th and 6th.  After dropping them off I headed back to 47th Street and at 2:24 picked up another fare, two young ladies, and took them to 89th and 2nd.  I then drove downtown to see if I could catch a fare at a club on 56th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.  It was a good move.  At exactly 2:51 four people came out of the club and entered my cab.

Three of them were beautiful young women, well-tanned and well-cleavaged, wearing skin-tight party dresses.  They squeezed together in the back seat.  The fourth passenger was a guy who might be called a "cool dude".  He had on an expensive-looking suit and wore his hair in abbreviated dreadlocks -- not the full-length kind that would go down below the shoulders, but a shorter version that ended in mid-neck.  It was an unusual look that caught my attention.

As he sat down next to me in the front seat, he immediately took control of his new environment.  "Hey, man," he said, "let's get something else on the radio." Then, without bothering to ask me if that was okay, he reached over and changed the station from the one I had on ("oldies" rock and roll) to one he preferred (hip-hop). He then turned around in his seat and started carrying on with the girls.

It was a severe breach of taxicab etiquette.  Passengers in party mode often want some kind of dance music to keep them in the groove, and requests are always honored.  But to reach over and change the station without even asking... well, that's beyond rude.  It's belittling to the driver, as if he's not there, not really a person.  And, although it is a mode of public transportation, it's still my car you're in, buddy.

Nevertheless, I choose not to make an issue of behavior like this.  My thinking in these situations is, okay, this passenger is acting badly, but he will be out of my life in ten or fifteen minutes.  Most people are relatively polite and there are always a few who are too full of themselves to notice, or care, how their behavior affects others. That's how it is.  I can tolerate this.  There's no need to take a stand.

I pulled out from the curb and drove east on 56th.

"So where are you heading?" I asked, since no one had yet given me a destination.

"Just go downtown, man, we're gonna find another club," the cool dude said, then he turned around again and continued chatting it up with the ladies.

I made a right on Lex, which goes downtown.  The party was continuing as we drove along, the music loud, the laughter loud, and the driver not enjoying the experience. As we approached 34th Street I was told by the cool dude to pull over and stop beside an all-night deli.

"Just getting some cigarettes," he said, "back in a minute."  He got out of the cab and was joined on the street by one of the girls from the back seat.

As I watched him open the door to the deli, it suddenly hit me -- I realized who this guy was!  This was Tony Tarasco, a baseball player currently on the Mets, an outfielder, who had once played for the Baltimore Orioles.  Earlier in the season I'd read an article in the newspaper about him, about how he'd been in a gang in Los Angeles when he was a teenager and was able to leave that behind to become a big-league baseball player.  It showed a picture of him with this hair style, the abbreviated dreadlocks, which was why I recognized him.  And if you watched the above video you would already know that it was Tony Tarasco in right field in Yankee Stadium on October 9th, 1996, who was trying to catch the ball that was deflected into the stands by the young fan.

Well, wasn't this interesting!  Here it was, nearly three in the morning, a baseball strike pending, and I've got a baseball player in my cab who at the moment was buying cigarettes and was not yet done partying.  I looked at the two girls in the mirror -- beautiful, so well put-together, all that cleavage, a couple of Jayne Mansfields. They were making small talk between themselves. One of them, apparently, was from Sweden.

All these bits of information began to whirl around in my mind... my long-lost Giants, the hapless Mets, millionaire athletes living in bubbles, the steroids, the strikes, the magnificence of the game itself, soaring ticket prices, radios, the magnificence of the game itself, night clubs, cigarettes, the magnificence of the game itself, cleavage...

I was starting to feel emboldened.  I reached over to the radio dial and turned it back to my own station.  That was more like it.

The door opened.  Tony Tarasco and the other girl got back in the cab.  Right away he noticed the station had been changed.

"Hey, man, what happened to my music?"

"Oh, the girls didn't like it.  I turned it back."

A complete lie, but at the moment it seemed like the right thing to say.

There was a hesitation.  And then, in what can only be attributed to divine intervention, at that very instant a bulletin came on over the radio with the latest news about the baseball strike. Both of us stopped talking and, listening intently, we learned that the negotiations were still continuing on into the night.  Then, just as the report ended, I seized the moment.  Turning to my station-changing passenger, I went into a loud and angry mock tirade that went pretty much like this:

"If those MOTHERFUCKERS DARE go on strike, we're NEVER coming back!  NEVER! FUCK these over-paid millionaires! FUCK THEM!  Less than a year after 9-11 and THIS is what these MOTHERFUCKERS want to do?  Go on STRIKE?  Oh, boo-hoo, you poor little baseball babies, you only made three million dollars last year!  Are you KIDDING?  Go on STRIKE?   FUCK THEM!  I'm telling you, man, if they go on strike, we fans are NEVER coming back!  NEVER!"

He seemed to have enjoyed the rant.  With a big smile he said:

"Oh, man, you don't know who I am!"

There followed what in the theater is called a "pregnant pause".  If life were a novel, this would have been the moment of climax, when the hero knows that his war has been won, his journey done, his object of desire attained.  All that remained was procedural.

Savoring the moment, I flipped my own demeanor to cheerfulness and, with a big smile, I said:

"Oh, yes, I know who you are.  You're Tony Tarasco.  And I've got two words for you, Tony..."

He was stunned, truly, as if he'd been caught by a right hook to the chin.

"What?"

I went for the knock-out:

"Jeffrey Maier!  That kid's more famous than you are!"

His bravado flying out the window, he seemed to have descended into an introspective spin and was at a loss for words.  Finally, he said:

"Well, I don't know about that..."

It took a few moments for Tony to regain his composure.  Then we had a civil back and forth about the pros and cons of the looming baseball strike.  My point of view was, among other things, that it was less than a year after the Twin Towers came down and thousands lost their lives.  Millionaire athletes going on strike in times like these would be the epitome of greed and disrespect.  His argument was that it's a short career and players need to be thinking about their grandchildren.

I looked in my mirror at the three curvy ladies in the back seat.  It was hard to imagine them as grandmothers.

By the time we arrived at the new club, any hard feelings that may have arisen from my sneak attack had dissolved.  Tony turned out to be a good sport.  At one point he showed me an electronic device he had attached to his belt with which he would vote either "yes" or "no" to whatever agreement might be reached in the negotiations.  I thought that was cool and pretended I was going to try to yank it away from him.  He enjoyed that, which I appreciated.   It showed me he was a guy who could be kidded around with.

"Vote 'yes'," I demanded as we reached their destination, a new club.  With a smile and a wave goodbye (and an excellent tip, I must say) he and the girls were gone.

The next day the news was that an agreement had been reached and the players had voted to accept it.  There would be no strike.

Later I learned that Tony had been quite correct about one thing he'd said to me -- it is indeed a short career, at least for most players.  Two days after he was in my cab, he played in his last game in the Major Leagues.  His career as a player was over, although he has remained in the game as a coach.

But I was correct about another thing.  I have told this story to scores of passengers in my cab, each of them describing him or herself as a baseball fan. I ask them all if they remember the name of the kid who deflected the ball into the stands.  The great majority of them do -- "Jeffrey Maier"!  But only one passenger so far (who turned out to be from Baltimore) remembered the name of the player who was trying to catch that ball.

So you can go to a baseball game, try to catch a ball that is heading right toward you and, if Fate decrees it, you can wind up being better remembered in baseball lore than many, if not most, of the players who actually played the game.

Baseball -- the magnificence of the game itself.