Saturday, August 06, 2016

What The Man From The Atomic Energy Commission Told Me

You never know who will show up in the back seat of a taxicab.  It’s like a talk show on wheels, really.  A guest enters, we chat for a while, then he or she exits and the next one gets in.  It’s quite a remarkable human situation, if you think about it, especially in a city like New York where the movers and shakers of the world tend to congregate. 

Back in 1992 I had a passenger in my taxi who made a puzzling statement to me and this statement, considering who he was, has kept me thinking about its meaning ever since.  This story is actually one of the most frequently told stories to passengers in my cab, although I’ve never written about it until now.  And I do so now because with presidential politics being what they are in the United States at this time, I feel a responsibility to share this information. 

My passenger was an American man who I estimated to be in his ‘70s at the time.  I remember thinking that he looked to be in great physical condition for his age and that he mentioned to me that he walked ten miles a day, which impressed me.  I don’t recall how it came up in conversation, but somehow the following datum emerged: he told me he had once been a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. 

Whoa.  You may not be old enough to know what that meant, but if you were around in the ‘50s and ‘60s you most likely do.  The Atomic Energy Commission was the highest level federal agency in the United States which regulated the use and development of atomic energy, including the creation of new types of atomic weapons.  In terms of its importance to the country, it might be compared today to the National Security Agency (the NSA) or the CIA.  Top secret, hush-hush agencies with great, sometimes controversial, responsibilities to the security of the country.  

Realizing that I had a rare opportunity here, I tried to make the most of it in the limited time we would be together.  I know I asked him several questions which he was glad to answer, but there is only one thing I specifically remember asking his opinion about, something I’d already had some attention on for a few years.

And that was this: it had occurred to me some years prior that there seemed to have been a shift in the public consciousness concerning the threat and consequences of atomic war.  It seemed to me that people weren’t nearly as concerned about it as they had been before.  You didn’t see articles in the papers or magazines about it anymore, or hear people talking about it anymore.  Nobody seemed to be worried about it anymore, even though the Cold War was still going on.  I don’t know when this change occurred, but I supposed it was a gradual thing that may have started in the early ‘70s, perhaps when the Viet Nam war ended — I don’t know.

When I was growing up in the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s, the seriousness of even the possibility of nuclear war was very much in the public consciousness.  I would say that it and the arrival of television were the two things that shaped the psychology of my generation.  These two developments created a significant “generation gap” between us Baby Boomers and our parents, actually.  They had lived in a world where nuclear bombs and televisions did not exist.  This resulted, I think, in a different view of the world for us and certainly a different view about warfare.  For all the millennia preceding the advent of the atomic bomb, warfare meant men fighting directly against other men with some sort of hand-held weapon or by shooting short-range explosives at each other.  Even in the most horrific wars, it was still understood, if not consciously then subconsciously, that when the war was over, or even if it was never over, the human race would still exist and although it might change for the better or worse, there would still exist what is called “civilization”.

The invention and then the proliferation of nuclear weapons, however, changed that very basic reality.  For the first time in human history, weaponry had been created which could mean the extinction of civilization, if not the extinction of the human race itself and perhaps even all forms of life on the planet.  Man had developed the means of destroying himself as a species.  And this would happen not through masses of armies going up against each other but by certain people pushing certain buttons which would launch the nuclear missiles.  Thus the new reality was that even if everything seemed harmonious and peaceful, this world would always be a very dangerous place.  It could all end tomorrow, complete destruction, just like that, if certain people pushed certain buttons.  That’s a pretty depressing thought, isn’t it?

I grew up knowing, and worrying, about this.  With the Cold War brewing it was always in the back of my mind that this day could be the last day.  This fear was heightened considerably by the 
Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 when the Soviet Union and the United States came to the brink of nuclear war.  It was horrifying.  I remember one specific incident which occurred in my 8th grade music class during the crisis.  Our teacher brought out a record of the music from a new Broadway show called Fiorello! about the former mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia.  We were to listen to the record and there would be a discussion about it when it was over.  She placed the record on the turntable and we waited for the music to begin.  However, this show didn’t begin with music.  It began with the blaring siren of a fire engine.  (Mayor LaGuardia was famous for showing up at fires.)  The entire class, hearing the sound, let out a collective scream.  Not a funny, teenage scream — a real scream of terror.  That’s how on edge we were, and we were only kids.

So I brought this up with my passenger.  I asked him if I was correct in my observation.  Did something change?  Are people in general not concerned about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust like they used to be?  He thought about it for a moment and then told me that I was correct, it was true.  And then he added this comment, and these were his exact words:

“A country that’s worried about a nuclear war is a country that won’t buy a new car.”

I don’t remember if I asked him what he meant by that.  I don’t think I did, actually, maybe because we were at the end of the ride.  But his comment has stayed with me all these years.  If it had come from just anyone, I suppose I would have forgotten about it the next day, but this was coming from the guy from the Atomic Energy Commission, so it carried significant gravitas.    

After giving it much thought, and after hearing the opinions of many passengers in my cab, I came to the conclusion that what he meant was that a country of worried people was bad for the economy, with the implication being that a robust economy was an important ingredient in keeping the peace, not only in America but around the world.  Plus this: what’s the point in having the media and governmental agencies agitating the population about nuclear holocaust when there’s nothing the average person can do about it, anyway?

I decided he was right.  This made sense.  A population which believes the world may end tomorrow might well turn out to be a population of nihilistic, live-for-today stoners.  What it takes for a society to prosper — the steady flow of commerce — could be reduced to a trickle.  No Brillo pads to clean your sink.  No gravy on your mashed potatoes.  No invention of the iPhone.  No Pokemon Go.  If things get bad enough in a country, people will become desperate.  Governments can be overthrown by violence and atomic weapons can get into the hands of some very destructive people.  So the man from the Atomic Energy Commission was right. 

Or was he?

As this presidential election cycle rolls forward in the United States I have given his comment even more thought, and it seems to me something was overlooked.  A country that is not keenly aware of what atomic weapons can do is a country that might elect a rabble-rousing loose cannon to the presidency -- a person who could conceivably blunder our way into a nuclear holocaust.  

So there is something the average person can do about it.  He or she can understand that the risk of atomic warfare is the number one issue in any presidential election, and vote accordingly.  No other issue even comes close.  Not bad trade agreements, not student debt, not illegal immigration, not even psychotic lunatics opening fire in airports.  

Please consider this: the president of the United States, when it comes to nuclear war, virtually has the power of God.  By his or her command all we know of civilization could quite suddenly come to an end.  By his or her command billions -- billions -- of people could perish, perhaps even every human being on this planet could perish.  Perhaps even every living thing on the planet could perish.  Is that not the power of God?

So temperament, sanity, intelligence, and empathy mean everything in a presidential election.  It’s the great decision we as Americans must make every fourth year, and it tests our wisdom as a nation.  Candidates who are rude, impulsive, thin-skinned, angry, and impossible to give advice to can be elected to the offices of mayor, governor, and senator all day long, and sometimes are.  

But never to the presidency.

The motto of one of the great American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.  There are plenty of big sticks in the United States arsenal.  It’s the “speak softly” part that is so important in a nuclear age. 

If you’re an American, I do hope you will give this your most sober consideration before you vote.


*********


There are links to several Wikipedia pages in this post.  I’m giving three of them again here in case you missed them:







I suggest that you to go to these sites and read the articles. I know it’s disturbing to read this stuff, it really is, but I feel we cannot afford to be unaware of what is really at stake in this and in every presidential election.  Go to the Cuban Missile Crisis page first and listen to the riveting audio of President Kennedy addressing the nation.  Then imagine the wrong person being the president at that time.

I feel strongly that all Americans need to be conversant with this subject. "The Nuclear Age" should be required study for everyone at the high school level, in my opinion. 


This is the world we live in.  Let’s not kid ourselves.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Harry Belafonte

The great Harry Belafonte and his wife Pamela Frank were passengers in my cab yesterday.  Cheerful and exuberant, he took a minute to oblige my request for a picture.

If you are not familiar with Harry Belafonte, please click on the link above and check out his Wikipedia page.  He has been an inspiration to millions, including myself, since the 1950s, and he continues to be.

Would you believe he is 89 years old?



(Photo by Pamela Frank)

 

Monday, March 28, 2016

What It Takes To Get Rid Of A McDonald's

Here's a question I've asked dozens of passengers in my cab over the years, and I'll ask it to you now: have you ever -- in your life -- noticed a McDonald's that, once it was there, ceased to be there? Think about this for a minute... I'm talking about every town or city you've ever lived in, every town or city you've ever known, every highway you've ever driven on that had a rest stop, every mall you've ever shopped in: have you ever known of a McDonald's that went away?

I'll bet you can't name even one.

I say this because no one in my cab has ever been able to think of one.  Well, actually there was one passenger who could.  He said there was a mass shooting in a McDonald's in San Diego, California, in 1984 in which twenty-one people were killed, and in the aftermath the McDonald's Corporation decided to raze the building and donate the land to the city rather than reopen it.  However, a new McDonald's was eventually built just a few blocks away.  So it's debatable as to whether or not this counts.

Wondering why this was so, I learned through conversations with passengers and with a bit of research on the net that in the great majority of cases the McDonald's Corporation owns the land upon which the restaurants are constructed.  A realtor in my cab recently told me, in fact, that people are mistaken if they think McDonald's is in the hamburger business.  Actually, he said, they're in the real estate business.  The value of their real estate holdings, including the land itself and the buildings, is more than 28 billion dollars.

So imagine my surprise when I drove up 10th Avenue in Manhattan a few weeks ago and noticed that a fence had been constructed around a McDonald's at 34th Street and it was shuttered up.  This was especially interesting to me because this very same McDonald's was, in fact, demolished about twenty years ago and I remember thinking at the time that it was the only one I knew of that had ever gone away.  Especially strange, I thought, because it was one of the very few restaurants in Manhattan that had its own parking lot.  You could actually park your car and go into the place to eat, unheard of in the real estate paradise known as Manhattan.  And now it was gone?

No!  What happened was that, Hydra-like, it came back!  A new, bigger, two-story McDonald's arose in its place and was super-sizing the fries, sodas, and shakes all over again.  What, I had to wonder, could it possibly take to kill off one of these joints?

The answer to that question requires a closer look at what's been happening in the section of Manhattan that is bounded from north to south by 34th Street and 30th Street and from east to west by 10th and 12th Avenues.  It has its own new name: "Hudson Yards".  "Hudson" because the Hudson River is right there next to 12th Avenue and "Yards" because the construction that's underway there extends over the West Side Rail Yard, where trains headed for Pennsylvania Station come, go, and hang out.  It's a massive real estate development which when completed is expected to consist of sixteen skyscrapers with more than 12 million square feet of office, residential, and retail space.  An extension of the Number 7 subway line -- a massive construction project in itself -- was recently completed and opened for business with a station on 34th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, the first new subway station to open in New York City in twenty years.

It's a big deal.

So why did the McDonald's go out?  Well, it was due to the value of its land, of course.  We all know about "location, location, location" and this is a location wet dream.  It's about an acre of the most prime real estate imaginable, literally adjacent to the new subway station.  Who was the genius who years ago decided to acquire a plot big enough for a parking lot?  Incredible.

I had to wonder what the price could have been for the McDonald's Corporation to sell out.  Happily, I was able to extract this information from two recent passengers in my cab.  One was a real estate lawyer and the other an executive of the development company which bought the land. (It's amazing to me how, when I decide that I want certain information, somehow a passenger shows up in my cab who provides me with it.  It's been happening for years -- a phenomenon, really.)

Anyway, what do you think it was?  Before you read on, just sit back for a minute and think about it.  An acre of land in the middle of a huge, huge real estate development in a whole new section of Manhattan that has its own new subway line -- what do you think that's worth in today's dollars?

Okay, here's the answer (drum roll, please)...

One hundred and forty-four million dollars, including the air rights.

One hundred and forty-four million dollars.

So now we know.

That's what it takes to get rid of a McDonald's.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Weeknd

Tuesday nights at around 3 A.M. -- that's an interesting time of the night for a taxi driver in New York City.  It's the time when the streets are not only at their emptiest, but when the "creatures of the night", so to speak, are most likely to appear from the shadows -- and that could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the creature.  I was getting ready to end my shift at that time a few months ago, not in a creature-of-the-night mood, really, so when I saw a relatively normal-looking pair of humans hailing me at the corner of 54th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, it was a welcome sight.  The two of them -- an attractive, young white lady wearing a tight-fitting party dress and a hip-looking black guy carrying a guitar case -- jumped in and the guy said they wanted to go to the Affinia Hotel at 31st Street and 7th Avenue.  The doors closed and we were on our way, but we went barely a block when there was a problem.

The guy suddenly realized he'd left his card (credit card) in the bar.  This meant we had to loop around to 5th Avenue, cross over on 53rd Street back to 6th Avenue, and then make a right turn on 54th Street, where the bar, a place called Connolly's, was located.  This was okay with me, of course, as it meant more mileage on the ride, assuming he went into the bar, got his card, and we continued on to the hotel.  The young lady, however, was not comprehending the problem.  She thought he said that he'd left his card in his car and didn't understand how that could happen.  After a prolonged discussion, the guy finally realized her confusion and told her the card was in the bar, not in his car.  "My car's in LA," he said.  They both laughed.  Well, he laughed.  She guffawed.  This misunderstanding was not merely funny, it was hilarious, from her point of view.

Overhearing this little episode made me curious about this couple so I kept my attention on them as I made my way back to Connolly's Bar.  I took note of the way they were.  She was clearly a bit tipsy -- a happy, but not drunk, attractive female.  She spoke to the guy ebulliently, full of agreement, listening carefully to his every word, and sitting so close to the guy that a cab driver could only assume that they were more than friends -- or were about to be so.

The guy, though, was much more subdued, laid-back, cool and calm, but not in an off-putting way.  I could see that he liked the girl, liked the affinity and attention he was receiving from her, and was perhaps playing his cards a bit carefully, not wanting to blow what surely must have looked like a winning hand.  He wasn't doing a lot of talking, though.  The girl was the gabby one.

We circled around and in a couple of minutes we arrived at Connolly's on 54th Street.  The guy opened his door and stepped out onto the street, leaving his guitar in the cab.

"Be right back."

"Okay," she beamed back.

He gave her a half-smile and walked into the bar.

The moment the guy disappeared from sight she turned her attention to me.  With wide-eyed  enthusiasm she exclaimed:

"Do you know who he IS???!!!"

I, of course, had no idea who he was, so I said, "The guy who left his guitar in the cab?"

My quip went unnoticed by my passenger and continued on its journey into outer space.

"He's The Weeknd!" she squealed.

"What do you mean?  It's Tuesday."

"No, no, he calls himself 'The Weeknd'."  She became a bit serious for a moment.  "It's his stage name.  But it's not spelled the same.  You leave off the 'e' after 'week'.  So it's not like you say 'The Week End'.  It's more like you say 'The Weakened'.  It's like a double-meaning."

"Oh."

She lowered her voice a notch.  "His real name is 'L.J.', she said, "but he doesn't want anyone to know."  Suddenly she seemed worried.  "Don't tell him I told you who he is when he comes back, okay?"

"Oh, sure, don't worry.  It'll be our little secret."

Her smile returned.

"Okay, so who is The Weeknd?" I inquired (of course).

Her unbridled enthusiasm returned.   "Oh, he's a singer.  He's the hottest thing around right now!  He's HUGE!   I mean HUGE!!!  He's on all the radio stations!  He's all over the place on YouTube!  He's HUGE!"

"Really, wow!  So who are you, his girlfriend?"

"Well, ha-ha, not exactly... we just met in the bar."  She then giggled in the way that people often do  when they're about to engage in a guilty pleasure.  A "My Bad" grin appeared on her face and remained there.

"Ohh, I got it," I replied.  I smiled back, as if to say, "I'll be your secret coachman."

So now I did get it, indeed.  She was his Thank-You-For-Choosing-Me-Sir pick-up of the evening.  And the place they were on their way to is also known as the Shagalicious Hotel, by Marriott.

"So how did you and The Weeknd wind up in a bar at three in the morning?" I wanted to know.

"Ohhh, well, he just played at a big fund-raiser at MOMA," she said.  "$50,000 a plate!  Can you imagine that -- $50,000 a plate!  He was the entertainment."

It did make sense.  Although the main entrance to MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) is on East 53rd Street, there's an open-air terrace that extends to 54th Street, right across the street from Connolly's Bar.  So I assumed The Weeknd and his people must have headed there after the show.

We continued to chat it up for a couple of minutes which meant that she went on bubbling all over the top about how big a star The Weeknd is while I pleasantly acknowledged whatever she said.  But then, suddenly, there was a hitch in the plan: the guy who calls himself "The Weeknd" returned to the cab, sat himself down, and announced to my passenger that he was having a problem with his card, so there would be a bit of a delay.  He suggested that instead of waiting for him in the cab that she come back into the bar until he could clear up the trouble.  The girl said, "Oh, okay," and took out her own credit card to pay the fare, which was up to $9.80 at that point.  She swiped her card, the transaction (including a $1.96 tip) went through, and they left the premises, he with his guitar in hand.

"Sorry," he called out to me, which I appreciated.  I like that in a celebrity, no attitude.  He seemed like a nice enough guy.

Well, there I sat in front of Connolly's Bar.  There were still quite a few people inside, so I thought I might as well hang out and see if I can get another fare, or better yet, maybe I could get the girl and this guy The Weeknd again.  It would no doubt be a fascinating eavesdropping situation, based on what she'd already told me.

But no.  Ten minutes ticked by and then finally a middle-aged couple, whose destination was the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue, came out of the bar and got in my cab.  As I pulled out from the curb I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the girl and The Weeknd re-emerge from the bar and get into another taxi.  I cursed my luck, missing them by just seconds, and drove my new passengers to their destination.  It turned out to be my last fare of the evening.

I was curious about The Weeknd, so the next day I decided to check him out online. I found that he is, indeed, quite the rising star.  He's got dozens of videos on YouTube, with many millions of views, and has performed at lots of major events.  His latest venture was doing the soundtrack for the movie Fifty Shades Of Grey -- very impressive!  I watched one of his videos and found (unusual for me) that I liked the sound of a new recording artist.  This guy was good.  So I clicked on another one, this time paying more attention to the images than I had before.  And then...

...hey, wait a minute...

I looked more closely.  Whoa, whoa, whoa, just a minute, there!

I watched the video again.  Could it be?

Oh my God, yes, it was true.

THE GUY I WAS LOOKING AT IN THE VIDEO WHO CALLS HIMSELF "THE WEEKND" WAS NOT THE GUY WHO'D BEEN IN MY CAB!

On further investigation, I found that there's a fellow called "L.J." in his band who plays the bass!  Aha!

At first my feeling about the attractive young lady in the tight-fitting party dress was one of sympathy.  Poor thing, she'd been duped by what may be the oldest band-member's trick in the book.  But then I became more critical.  I mean, what a disgrace to the good reputation of groupies everywhere.

Come on, honey.

If a guy tells you he's Mick Jagger, you've got to do a little vetting.  Does he know the words to "I Can't Get No Satisfaction"?  Can he at least hum the tune?

Come ON!






Thursday, November 05, 2015

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.   For a limited time HarperCollins is offering the ebook edition for a mere $1.99 on Amazon.com.  The usual price is $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 right, then...


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Taxi TV And Me

My God, how I hate these things.

For those who may not know, let me first tell you what the Taxi TV is. It's a television monitor situated in the rear compartment of all yellow and green (outer borough) taxicabs in New York City. It's not, however, a regular TV like you'd have at home. Rather, it consists of pre-programmed information, the majority of it being clips from television talk shows, along with commercials and the occasional public service announcement. The entertainment, the pitches, and the hear-ye-hear-ye's are packaged in continuous loops which the passenger may see and hear twice or even three times during the course of a ride. The driver hears it whenever the meter is turned on, which on the average is 60% of his twelve-hour shift.

The speakers of the Taxi TV are situated about 24 inches behind the driver's head. Not only does the cabbie have no control over its coming on automatically when the meter is engaged, he has no control over the thing's volume. The passenger can, with a tap-tap-tap of his finger, raise the volume to make it suddenly blasting into the driver's ears. He may also turn it off, and many do just that if they can figure out how to accomplish the task. Most, however, simply ignore it while conversing with their riding companions or the driver, texting, or chatting on their phones. Thus the Taxi TV is, more often than not, just "noise".

And if all this weren't enough to make you scream, let me add that it was the city itself (Mayor Bloomberg, in particular) which mandated its presence in all cabs in 2008. It is there primarily to raise advertising revenue for medallion owners and the companies which won the contracts for its installation and maintenance. The drivers don't see a dime - of course!

It is very unpopular with the majority of the taxi-riding public.  And needless to say, the drivers universally hate the thing.

Well, my dislike for the Taxi TV has been welling up in me for all these years.  The only positive thing I can say about it is that it has given me a worthy replacement for my Giuliani rant.  (I had my Giuliani rant perfected to such a point that passengers in my cab, who may have made the mistake of saying something positive about former Mayor Giuliani to me, would have been happy by the end of the ride to sign a petition to have the man tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a pole.  It was a thing of elocutionary beauty.)

A few weeks ago an acorn dropped on my head and the idea occurred to me to make an offer to passengers in my cab to raise awareness of the outrageousness of the presence of a television monitor in a taxicab, or at least of its continuous noise.  I decided to give them a one dollar rebate on the ride if they would just turn off the damned sound.  

It made the New York Post.  

Click here for the link.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

On The Radio In The U.K. Monday Morning

I will be sitting in with Ed and Rachel on their Heart Radio Breakfast Show (www.heart.co.uk/westmids/on-air/breakfast/) this coming Monday morning, June 8th, at 6:00 a.m., U.K. time (1:00 a.m. in NYC).

The show airs from Birmingham, England's second-largest city, but they'll be broadcasting from right here in New York on Monday. Don't know exactly what we'll be talking about (I'm hoping they'll let me do a traffic report!) but whatever it is, it should be fun. So tune in if you can. I'm told that I'll be on in their first hour, between 6 and 7 a.m., U.K.

The show can be accessed worldwide on the Internet, but the station doesn't provide archives, so the only way to catch it will be live on Monday.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Well Worth The Eighteen Bucks

There are certain rides which you suspect will be trouble, but then it turns out there is none. For example, the passenger looks drunk, acts drunk, is drunk, and you’ve got a feeling that any second now this son of a bitch is going to puke in the back seat. But he does not. And that is good. But then there are others for which your suspicion is justified - you could see it coming, and indeed it arrives. But at least you can say, “I saw it coming” and give yourself credit for possessing a certain amount of wisdom, even if your wisdom wasn’t of sufficient quantity to have been able to avoid the damned thing in the first place.

Such was the case with a ride I had a couple of months ago, on a frigid Wednesday evening in February. I had taken a fare from Manhattan to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, at 6:20 - not something a cabbie wants to do at that hour because it likely means going back to “the city” (Manhattan) without a passenger and that is money lost. And although the mantra of the veteran New York City cab driver is supposedly “I don’t go to Brooklyn”, I took the guy without even a hint of complaint - a sign that I may be softening up in my old age.

It was the next ride that was the trouble. Before I could turn around and head back to the Williamsburg Bridge I was hailed at McCarren Park by three teenage boys, dressed in outfits typical of the so-called “inner city”, each about 15, maybe 16 years old. Now here’s a little truism a cabbie learns, usually the hard way, about teenagers and taxicabs in New York City - there are only two situations in which kids between the ages of 13 and 17 ever take taxis without an adult accompanying them. 1) They are “rich kids” from the Park Avenue or 5th Avenue parts of town. 2) It is a Friday or Saturday night and the teenagers are a boy and a girl who are out on a date. The reason: money. Cabs are too expensive for teenagers unless you’re a rich kid or it’s a very special occasion.

Now, I know this, but as mentioned maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or maybe it’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve had any teenagers in my cab who didn’t fit into one of those two categories that I’ve let my guard down. Whatever the reason, I stopped and let them in, all three in the back seat. Immediately there was this sinking feeling a cabbie gets when he knows he’d made a mistake. I had gone against my instinct, thinking I was doing the right thing by stopping for whomever wanted my services, as per the rules, but now I had a problem on my hands. As soon as they were in my immediate space, danger signals went off on my taxi driver radar. These were not your normal taxi passenger particles, so to speak. They weren’t passing through the filter.

What I do in a situation like this, as I’ve described elsewhere in this blog, I call my “Three Strikes And You're Out System”. Strike One: from your outward characteristics you look to me like potential trouble of one kind or another. I don’t feel comfortable with you in my cab. Strike Two: I also don’t feel comfortable with where in the city you want me to go and the time of day (like late at night) you want me to go there. Well, these three fellows by appearance, age, and demeanor brought me to Strike Two immediately, and when I asked them where they were going the one directly behind the partition next to the right-side door barked out:

“Ridgewood, yo.”

Ouch.

This was further bad news because not only did they want to take me for a long ride in the opposite direction from Manhattan, but Ridgewood is a low-income, not-gentrified part of the city which I don’t really know very well due to the fact that I get so few fares out there. This ride was going to be something like fifteen to twenty dollars on the meter. Three inner-city teenagers paying that much money for a cab ride when they could have taken the subway? Noooo… this particle was definitely not making it through the filter. Still, the procedure of my system is that when you have a Strike Two, what you do is communicate, or try to. Often what looks like something ominous turns out to be not that way at all upon further observation. So I went at it.

“So what street do you want in Ridgewood?” I asked.

“Huh?” the kid on the right-rear grunted.

“Where are you going? What street?”

There was a brief conversation among them. And then, “We don’t know yet,” replied the same kid, who seemed to be a spokesman for the group. “Get on Metropolitan.”

This was a further bad indicator. They’re taking an expensive ride and they’re not sure where they’re going? Two possibilities enter the mind of the taxi driver: maybe they aren’t concerned about spending money on a ride to a vague destination because they have no intention to pay for it. Or, worse, maybe they want to get to a general area and then find a street where it would be a good place to hold you up. I knew I had to determine which possibility it was before we got to Ridgewood - my life could be at stake here. If I decided what they had in mind was just to beat the fare, I would take them. If I was right, all I would lose, really, would be some time. But if I wasn’t sure, I would have to abruptly end the ride in a busy area with lots of people around (hopefully right behind a police car, if I could find one) and through overt or covert means, get them out of the cab. (That’s Strike Three.) So I had a plan. But first I had to continue with my attempt at communication.

The kid in the middle, who I could easily see in the rear-view mirror, was wearing a Yankee cap. I thought this was a good way to start a conversation, so I looked at him in the mirror and asked him if he was a Yankee fan. He seemed surprised that he was being asked a question. After thinking about it for a few seconds he replied, rather flatly, “Yeah.”

“How do you think they’re looking for the new season? Think they’ll make the playoffs?”

The kid pondered this concept - Yankees… playoffs… and finally responded. “Maybe,” was all he said. He wasn’t saying much, but he said something. I took this as a hopeful sign and continued.

“Hey, you know who I had in my cab last summer? Derek Jeter!”

Now for any Yankee fan, or even any baseball fan, this statement should result in a “Wow!” of one sort or another. Derek Jeter, the recently retired superstar of the Yankees, has been the most admired sports figure in New York for the last twenty years. But all it got out of the kid was an even-voiced, “That’s cool.” And nothing more. This was not good.

I was beginning to think I was going to have to get rid of these guys for my own safety when there was an oddly positive development in the ride. They started goofing off with each other. One of them accused another of farting. Then the one who’d been accused yelled up to me, “Hey cab driver, did you fart?” which brought some laughter in the back seat. It was juvenile and disrespectful, but it gave me something with which to calculate their intentions.

In my understanding of human behavior I could not see three teenagers joking around with each other if what was in the back of their minds was to pull out a weapon and rob me. If that had been their intention, they would have been serious, silent, and mean-spirited. I could see that these kids were basically just wiseass teenagers. Still, something was up and I was pretty sure at this point that what was up was that they were going to try to beat the fare. That suspicion wasn’t enough to kick them out of the cab, however, so we continued on.

When we’d gone a couple of miles down Metropolitan Avenue some disagreement arose among them as to where they wanted to go. One kid said turn left, the other said no, turn right, and then there was a whispered conference among them - a development I didn’t like one bit. What was it they didn’t want me to hear? It was a little after seven in the evening and although it was dark there were still plenty of cars and people on the streets, so I still didn’t think they intended to hold me up. But now I wasn’t so sure. I decided that if they directed me to turn into an alley or a dead-end street I would quickly close the partition window on them, lock it, and order them out of the cab. The Plexiglas partition is bullet-proof (it had better be!) and as long as I had an open road in front of me I could take off the moment they stepped out of the cab and be safe, hopefully. To hell with the money.

If, however, they were simply going to try to leave without paying, as I expected, well, I had another plan…

We took a few lefts and rights and wound up on a one-way, residential street. Halfway down the block the kid in the rear-right says, “Okay, stop here.” As I brought the cab slowly to a halt, I noted that the street in front of me was devoid of other vehicles, a good thing. Stopping the cab, I left it in “Drive” with my foot on the brake.

“You’re getting out here?” I asked the group, noticing that there was $18.30 on the meter.

But there was no answer, as such. Instead there was a sudden, loud, rebel yell from both sides of the compartment as the rear doors flew open simultaneously. With grins of joyous complicity on their faces, the two kids who had been sitting next to their own doors jumped out of the cab and began to run away the moment their feet touched ground. Seeing this, I put my own plan into action. Instead of just sitting there and watching them run, I stepped on the gas, hard, while at the same time reaching back, slamming the partition window shut, and locking it. The sudden forward thrust of the cab caused the two rear doors to close on their own. But I wasn’t driving down the street alone. The kid in the Yankee hat who had been sitting between his friends hadn’t been able to get out in time. In an instantaneous reversal of fortune, he was suddenly a prisoner in a moving vehicle.

“Like I didn’t see that coming,” I called back to him while bringing the speed up to about 25 miles per hour. The look of shock on the kid’s face was priceless. I wish I could have taken a picture of it.

“So,” I said in sarcastic cheerfulness as we continued down the street, “let’s find a cop.”

There was panic and confusion in the kid’s eyes. Perhaps he saw his future melting away due to being arrested. Perhaps he could see how he would lose the respect of certain people in his life whom he admired. Or perhaps he could just see himself being picked up at the precinct by his momma, who would give him more than a piece of her mind when she got him home. Whatever it was, he kept it to himself. He didn’t say a word to me.

For my part, I knew I had to keep the taxi moving while looking for a cop. If I brought it to a stop, the kid would certainly bolt. I continued driving down the street for another block with still no other cars in front of me, but then slowed down a bit to make a left turn at an approaching intersection. As I went into the turn, the speed of the cab going down to about fifteen miles per hour, the kid suddenly pushed open the right-rear door and jumped out, rolling over a couple of times onto the pavement just like in a scene from an action movie. Looking back at him through the mirror, I could see him rising to his feet, apparently uninjured. There was an accumulation of snow on the street which may have cushioned his fall.

I kept driving, satisfied that I had won the game. Actually, just the look on the kid’s face was worth the eighteen bucks. In these fare-beating scenarios, it’s not really about the money, anyway. It’s about pride, not letting someone make a jackass out of you. Also it’s about teaching the person a lesson, if possible. Hopefully this kid had a realization along the lines of there being consequences to stupid behavior. Of course in this particular instance, he may have had a realization of a different kind...

...like that he may have a future as a stuntman!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why Uber Has Turned Out To Be The Best Thing That's Ever Happened To The NYC Yellow Taxi Driver

Passengers in my cab are always surprised when I tell them there is no taxi drivers’ union in New York City. It is assumed that with all these cabs everywhere you look there must certainly be a union, but there is not. There is a taxi drivers’ advocacy group, the Taxi Workers Alliance, whose leader, Bhairavi Desai, often appears in the media and at meetings of the Taxi and Limousine Commission to try to present the viewpoint of the drivers, but the Taxi Workers Alliance has no clout. This was painfully evident in September of 2007 when Ms. Desai called for a two-day work stoppage to protest the imposition of the high-tech “system” (GPS monitoring, credit card readers, and back seat television screens) upon the taxi industry in New York City. Her call was widely ignored by the drivers who instead opted to avail themselves of the inducement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pay her no mind and instead make a bundle on those days because he was allowing drivers to accept multiple passengers and charge by zones.

Although I did observe the work stoppage myself, I was not at all surprised that it fell on its face. The template upon which the taxi industry in New York operates was conceived in 1937, a time of enormous labor unrest in the United States. Intentionally or not, it has turned out to be union-proof. The number of yellow cab medallions was fixed at 11,787; about half of them were owned by numerous taxi fleets scattered around the city and the other half by independent owner-drivers, one taxi for each owner-driver. So with dozens of taxi garages and thousands of independent drivers scattered all over the city, there was no central location where drivers would ever congregate and no place to put a picket line. Attempts to unionize failed and, boy, the weakness that was the result of that failure has been evident ever since.

Just compare the difference in the way taxi drivers and members of the Transit Workers Union (subways and buses) are dealt with by the city when a strike, or even a temporary work stoppage, is threatened. Mayor Bloomberg, as mentioned, simply bribed the taxi drivers to continue working on those two days. In May of 1998 there actually was a one-day work stoppage by taxi drivers, a labor miracle engineered by Ms. Desai, in response to Mayor Guiliani’s sudden imposition of unpopular new rules upon the industry. For that one remarkable day there were virtually no yellow cabs on the streets of the city. The mayor went on television that evening and with a smile on his face said, “The streets were nice and empty today. They should do it more often.” He refused to negotiate and then for the next two years taxi drivers were continuously being pulled over by the police and ticketed for such offenses as wearing sandals or having an entry missing from their trip sheets. Some felt this was not a coincidence.

But should the president of the Transit Workers Union even be overheard at the gym using the word “deadline” in regard to the expiration of contracts with the city, the attitude from the mayor’s office is along the lines of, “Come on over, we can work it out, let’s do lunch.” Negotiations are conducted and deals are made. Why? Because the TWU is a very strong union - it can call a strike for real and cause great trouble not only for the citizens of the city but for the mayor, who will be blamed for letting it happen. That is clout. That is leverage. That is what taxi drivers have never had.

As a result they have been taken utterly for granted by owners of taxi fleets and city officials alike. Due to a steady influx of immigrant labor, garage owners have never had to particularly worry about not having enough cabbies to drive their vehicles, regardless of the working conditions these drivers were required to tolerate. And any newly-elected mayor or recently-appointed Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman soon learned that they can impose any rules they want on taxi drivers and there will be no meaningful opposition to their decrees.

The examples of this could fill a book (hey, there’s an idea!) but I’m going to give you just three, to illustrate the point.

1) After the recession hit in 2008, taxi garages were overflowing with drivers looking for work. Since it’s more convenient and more profitable for fleet owners to lease their cabs out on a weekly, rather than a daily basis, drivers were told they had no choice but to take the weekly deal. This meant a six-day work week for either a day shift (5 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or a night shift (5 p.m. to 5 a.m.). Should a personal situation or an illness or a Hurricane Sandy come along and you needed a few days off, tough, you still had to pay the full weekly lease if you wanted to continue to drive one of that fleet’s cabs.

2) The high-tech “system” was mandated by the Bloomberg administration to be in use in all taxis in January of 2008. It consists of three components: credit card readers, GPS tracking, and a television monitor in the back seat. I will leave the pros and cons of the credit card readers and the GPS tracking for another day - let’s just talk about the television monitor. Here is a glittering example, the gold standard, if you will, of just how taken for granted the taxi drivers have been. When you sit down in the back seat of a New York taxicab, a TV monitor is staring you in the face. When the driver turns on the meter it activates the TV and the canned entertainment begins. Of late this consists of clips taken from talk shows, interspersed with commercials and public-service announcements. What this means to the taxi driver is that for approximately sixty-five percent of his twelve-hour shift (the average percentage of time the meter is on) he will be forced to endure listening to the same jokes and babble over and over and over and over again. Was any kind of survey ever done of how the drivers felt about this? Of course not. Are the drivers even given a piece of the advertising revenue the Taxi TV generates? Uh, why even ask?

Aside from all this, there is a safety issue, as well. The monitor is about twenty-four inches from the driver’s head, so the noise it emits is inescapable. And to make it worse, the volume can be turned up to make it suddenly BLASTING with a quick tap-tap-tap of the passenger’s finger. Now, quite aside from the obvious annoyance this would be to the person who has to put up with it for two-thirds of his or her work day, has it occurred to no one that it is also a distraction to the driver and it therefore makes a ride in a taxi less safe than it would be if the thing simply wasn’t there at all? If anyone would dispute that point, I would invite them to answer this question: how would you like it if that monitor was twenty-four inches behind the head of your airline pilot as he’s bringing your plane in for a landing? Do you think that would be approved by the FAA? Of course not! But in a taxi, it’s okay?

3) And then there is the Nissan NV200 minivan, the so-called “Taxi of Tomorrow”. Forget about the fact that the car is not a hybrid. Forget about the peculiar and troubling deal that Mayor Bloomberg entered the city into which squelches competition in the marketplace by awarding Nissan an exclusive ten-year contract to be the sole manufacturer of all taxicabs in New York City. Let’s just talk about the feature of this vehicle which makes it so horrible that I told the manager of my garage, after driving it for only two shifts, that if he had no other types of cabs to offer me, I will quit: it comes from the manufacturer with a solid Plexiglas partition which cannot be opened. Why is this so bad? Because, although there is an intercom which permits a sentence or two to come through, it nevertheless reduces the chance of an actual conversation between the passenger and the driver to nearly zero. Like hair salons and bars, the taxicab is a business setting in which there is a potential for real human contact. For a driver like myself, this is the essence of the job, and for many New Yorkers - and for nearly all tourists - contact with taxi drivers is an important part of the “New York experience”. The partition which cannot be opened kills that, and it kills tips, too, as a consequence of the enforced disconnection from the driver.

So into this environment enters Uber, the new kid in town. After some initial wrangling the dust settles down and Uber creates a foothold in the taxi community. Its popularity with customers grows. The owners of car services are very worried because the Uber business model of getting a taxi via an app is superior to having to call for one on the phone and wait for it to show up, if it shows up at all. But the fleet owners of the yellow cabs are not worried because the business model of going out on the street and waving your hand is still superior, or at least as good as, ordering a cab via an app. So even with Uber in town, business was going along as usual… until last summer.

That’s when things began to change. And this was the huge, unforeseen consequence which is turning the New York taxi industry upside down: the drivers of the yellow cabs began to defect to Uber. Like weary soldiers who disappear from their units in the middle of the night, the drivers are deserting the fleets, and there is no sign at this point that they will be coming back. At my own garage at least twenty-five percent of the fleet’s two hundred taxis have been standing empty on most days since July.

This is a disaster scenario for the garage owners. It is quite an expensive operation to keep a fleet of taxis on the streets of New York. The owners' only source of revenue is what they receive from the leasing fees of drivers, so if too many cabs stand empty for too long, the fleet owners will be facing bankruptcy. And to make matters worse, the medallion, which had been trading in the vicinity of a million dollars, is in free-fall. It has lost over twenty percent of its value since the drivers began to shift to Uber, and right now it would be difficult, if not impossible, to sell one because potential buyers as well as lenders are shying away. There is no longer confidence in what the future may hold for the value of the medallion nor does anyone know what the bottom will be. This means that even if a fleet owner wanted to liquidate some of his medallions to help cover expenses while he rides the crisis out, he cannot. And the city, too, has suffered. The sale of 2,000 new medallions, which was included in Mayor Bloomberg’s final budget and was expected to bring in a billion dollars, has been suspended indefinitely.

What does this all mean for the drivers of the yellow cabs? It means hallelujah, leverage has arrived at last. It has arrived not through feeble threats of strikes or work stoppages, but through competition for the services of drivers. Now, for the first time ever, fleet owners and city officials will have no choice but to give serious consideration to how their actions affect the lives of the drivers. If they are wise, they will realize it’s not only a matter of whether or not a cabbie can make more money driving for Uber, although that is, of course, an important issue. It’s also about the working conditions of the drivers - the twelve-hour shifts, the six-day work week, the Taxi TV, the removal of choice in the vehicles they can drive, and so on.

Hey, Taxi and Limousine Commission - do you want the drivers to return?

How about doing some surveys?

Find out what's really needed and wanted from the drivers.

And then give them some good reasons to come back.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Running The Gamut, Number Three

One of the great things about driving a taxi in New York City - perhaps the greatest thing - is that on any given day you may run the gamut: that is, you may pick up people who are able representatives of both the top and the bottom of the social spectrum. Your first passenger may be a nun who works for God and your second a street hooker who works for Jake the Snake, her pimp; your third an assistant district attorney and the fourth the guy he’s sending to prison. And so it goes - the parade of humanity enters and exits through your doors. It’s magnificent, really.

(Note: I’ve written two other posts on this subject, “Running The Gamut”, and “Running the Gamut, Number Two”. If you’d like to read them please mouse on over to the subject index on the right and click on running the gamut. I’d link them up right here but I’m having some technical problems with Blogger, which hosts this site, and am unable to do so at the moment.)

So, in this episode of Running the Gamut, we’re going to zero in on a specialized zone of activity in New York City, the world of baseball. For those of you who may live in a part of the planet where baseball is not played, let me fill you in on the basics:

- baseball is the number one sport in the United States. It is played on many levels, but the ultimate goal of any player is to make it to the top level, which is called the Major League.

- the first Major League game was played in 1871.

- there are thirty teams in the Major League, spanning across the country in most of our principal cities. The season goes from April until the end of September, with the three-tiered playoff games continuing until the end of October. The regular season consists of 162 games for each team.

- in New York City there are two baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets. The Yankees came into existence in 1903 and have long been the premiere team of the sport. Many of baseball’s iconic players (such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle) were Yankees. They have won 27 championships, far more than any other franchise. Their home is Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Mets have been around since 1962. They have won two championships in their 52 years. They play in Citi Field in Queens.

On August 7th, a Thursday, I started my shift at 5:30 pm, as I normally do. My first passengers were two ladies - one middle-aged, the other a twenty-something - going from Columbus Circle down to Penn Station. They were both wearing the pinstriped jerseys of the Yankees - the familiar, interlocking “NY” on the front and, I noticed, the number 2 on the backs of both of them. The Yankees had played a game that afternoon so I knew without even needing to ask where they were coming from. A conversation began.

Yes, they told me, they’d been at the game, adding that there was some kind of delay on the subway, which was why they were in my cab - and they had only twenty minutes to catch a train to New Jersey. Could we make it? I told them to relax, I’d get them to Penn Station on time. And we were on our way.

I soon discovered that they were mother and daughter, both big Yankee fans, that they go to at least one Yankee game together every year (“it’s a tradition”), that the game they’d just attended was the only game for them this year, and that, hooray, the Yankees had won. Still, the mother said, they were “greatly disappointed”.

“Why?” I asked (of course). I mean, the Yankees won, you’re supposed to be happy.

“Because Jeter didn’t play!” they both answered, almost in unison.

“Oh, gee, that’s too bad,” I said, completely understanding their dismay.

Again, for the benefit of those readers who may not know baseball, allow me to tell you why this fellow named Jeter not playing in that game would be such a letdown to my passengers. Derek Jeter has been a star player - the captain of the team, actually - for the Yankees for the last twenty years. During his tenure the Yankees have won five championships and gone to the playoffs 17 times. On a personal level he has broken so many statistical records that they seem endless. He ranks sixth on the all-time hits list. (That means that, going back to 1871, only five players have had more hits than he.) And off the field he has been the very epitome of what we would hope a star athlete to be. Hard-working, generous, respectful, always upbeat, never involved in a controversy, never a bad word said against him - he is truly a role model not only for America’s youth, but for everybody. All around the country he is regarded as the “face of baseball”. People are naming their children (and their pets) after him. And now, at the age of 40, he has announced that this season will be his last. Fans of opposing teams are crowding into their own stadiums to get one last look at him when the Yankees come to town and are giving him standing ovations when he comes to bat. He is the superstar of the world of baseball.

So this was why my passengers were so disappointed even though the Yankees won the game. Being devoted Yankee fans and fans of Jeter in particular - the number 2 on their jerseys is his number - they, too, had wanted to see him play one last time. But, alas, he’d been given the day off, something that happens from time to time during the course of the long, long season.

Nevertheless, my passengers were in good spirits as we approached the entrance to Penn Station at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, despite the presence above us of a gigantic Nike billboard featuring a thirty-foot image of Derek Jeter acknowledging the adoration of his fans.

“Re2pect” was the only text accompanying the image.


As mother and daughter left my cab with smiles on their faces and five minutes to spare, my eyes wandered to the shop directly on my right. It was a Modell’s Sporting Goods store, one of many in the city, where they sell mostly apparel for fans. The entire window displayed t-shirts, jerseys, hats, buttons, and every other imaginable form of commemoration featuring, guess who?





Yes, it has been a Derek Jeter year in New York City, if not the entire country. “We need our heroes,” I thought, as I pulled out into the quagmire of traffic on 7th Avenue. And indeed we do. In this age of super-cynicism, is it not something of importance to have a counterbalance to the liars, the cheats, the pretenders, and the thieves who show up for a free meal at every opportunity? It is important. Let the good guys win every once in a while.

I slogged along in the evening rush for the next few hours. At 6:50 three out-of-towners went from 77th and York down to the Astor Place Theatre in the East Village to see Blue Man Group, a nice twenty-dollar run on the FDR Drive. Then there was a short ride over to Alphabet City. On my next one, from the Bowery down to the intersection of Allen and Chrystie, I found myself sitting in a bumper to bumper jam-up on 2nd Avenue. Looking around at the environment, I noticed one of those gigantic double-decker tourist buses just to the left of me which was decorated with - well, will you look who’s here again? - fifteen-foot-high Derek Jeter action images on all sides. “Jesus,” I thought, “this guy is everywhere.”

The next few fares took me to the West Village, up again to the Upper East Side, down to 60th and 5th, and then, at 8:30, to 22nd and 8th in Chelsea. 8:30 is around the time for my ritualistic coffee break, so I parked at 6th Avenue, went into the Starbucks at the corner, got my tall Pike (no room for milk), returned to the cab, dug through my bag to retrieve my carrot muffin sliced into bite-sized pieces the night before, and began munching away in happiness. Ah, that feeling of the hot coffee meeting the muffin… bliss.

Okay, back to work. My next fare was a chatty fellow going from the popular Eataly restaurant and market on 23rd and 5th all the way up to 157th and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem - $28.50 on the meter and a $5 tip - a great ride. After that it was 73rd and Columbus down to 15th and 5th, followed by 14th and 4th down to Gold Street in the Financial District. The night was wearing on, and I was doing pretty well, both in spirit and in money.

At 11:12 a twenty-something woman beat out another twenty-something woman in a rush to get to my cab at 27th and Park - it can get quite busy in certain sections of Manhattan at around that time on a Thursday night - and directed me to drive to LaGuardia Place and Houston Street on the southern boundary of Greenwich Village. When I arrived there eight minutes later I pulled over on Houston at the intersection but had to wait a bit for her to swipe her credit card - it took several swipes to register - and then to gather her stuff together and open the door. As she did so a particularly attractive young lady standing a short distance away noticed that my cab was becoming available and began moving quickly toward me with her hand in the air. Seeing the hail, I remained at the curb instead of pulling out onto the street. She hustled up, opened the door, got in, and said, “Someone else is coming”, with a concerned look on her face. About five seconds went by until the person we were waiting for came jogging toward the cab, being pursued by three or four shouting females who were basically begging him to pose for a picture with them. He stopped at the opened door of my taxi and stood with the girls for a few moments, flashing a very familiar smile while they snapped away and thanked him profusely.

And then Derek Jeter got into my cab.

“It’s number 2,” I said, sort of half to myself and half to them, and a bit in shock.

“Hiya buddy,” said Derek Jeter.

“I can’t get away from you!” I exclaimed (in jest).

“I’m following you, buddy!” Derek replied, smiling.

Their destination was a street in the West Village, so this was to be a short ride, only five minutes or so. Immediately I knew I had a problem, and a sort of panic set in. Derek Jeter has descended upon my cab from outer space and is all mine for five minutes. I knew from his friendliness upon entering that he would be open to conversation - but what should I talk to him about? One thing I’ve learned about major celebrities is that you try not to talk to them about the thing for which they’re famous. When I had Paul Simon in my cab, for instance, did I speak a word to him about his music? No. We had a memorable conversation about baseball, actually. (That story is in my book, by the way.) So here was the Crown Prince of Baseball sitting in my cab. If not baseball, what should the topic be? The answer hit me with the impact of a Randy Johnson fastball.

I had heard several months ago what Derek plans to do after he retires from baseball and, when I heard it, it really grabbed my attention. It’s not what you would expect. You’d think it would be broadcasting, managing a baseball team, or even becoming the owner of one. Something along those lines. But no. He plans to publish books. Derek Jeter, book publisher - doesn’t that open up a side to him we never knew existed? Amazing. So our five minutes together were spent primarily discussing books.

Out of respect - or should I say “re2pect” - for the confidentiality of a private conversation, I will not say more than that. But I will say this:

1. One of the fears some people have upon meeting a celebrity they’ve admired from a distance for many years is that the guy or gal will turn out to be a jerk in person. There should be no such fear regarding Derek Jeter. He wears it well, as was said of Jackie Kennedy. Derek Jeter is a nice guy, a caring person. There’s a kind of goodness that radiates from him.

2. Many people, when I tell them I had a certain celebrity in my cab, want to know about the tip. “How much did he tip you?” they ask. Well, I won’t say that, either, but I will say that Derek has surpassed Leonardo di Caprio as the best celebrity tipper I’ve ever had in my cab, a mark that had stood for 18 years. (That story’s in my book, too.) So there’s another record broken by Derek Jeter!

3. He likes to call you “buddy”. Aside from how he greeted me, I’ve heard this as well from a couple of different sources. Apparently everyone is Derek’s buddy. With this in mind, I found a fantasy had elbowed its way into my universe…


"Derek Jeter At The Pearly Gates"

There had been much excitement when the word spread around Heaven that Derek Jeter would be arriving the next day. Angels, spirits, and souls of all types left their clouds at the break of dawn to ensure they would be there in time to catch a glimpse of the Face of Baseball and give him a warm, heavenly welcome. At the appointed hour, amid a chorus of trumpets and harps, Derek arrived at the Pearly Gates and was greeted with great joy by none other than Saint Peter himself. After the speeches were over and a choir of children sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, Saint Peter pulled Derek over to the side and said, “Come with me, Derek, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” At once the clouds parted, thunder roared, and Derek found that he was standing alone with his host in some kind of divine baseball field. A bright figure appeared from the dugout and floated toward them. “Derek,” whispered Saint Peter, “I’d like you to meet God.”

God: “Derek Jeter! What a pleasure to meet you at last!”

Derek: “Hiya buddy, how ya doin'?”

God and Derek exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes until an angel suddenly appeared to escort Derek to his next engagement and drove him off in a golf cart.

“Wow,” Saint Peter said to God as they disappeared from sight, “Derek Jeter!”

“Look,” said God, beaming - “I got his autograph!”


And so did I - on my trip sheet…




Back to work, I must admit I was on Cloud Nine. My Derek Jeter experience had elevated my emotional tone up to a steady flow of enthusiasm which carried over to the rest of the passengers in my cab for the remainder of the shift. Each new arrival soon learned that, “Hey, guess who I had in my cab just a little while ago? Derek Jeter!” What amazed me, however - and this is such a New York City phenomenon - was that of the eight more fares who rode with me until I quit at four in the morning, half of them had never heard of him!

A pleasant thirtyish woman in Brooklyn, going from Grand Street in Williamsburg to Dean Street in Crown Heights, was happy that I was happy, but she was from Germany - no baseball. A fellow coming from a gay club in Hell’s Kitchen en route to Astoria thought it was interesting, but he was from Indonesia - no baseball. A kid who was actually wearing a Yankee cap took me from 73rd and 5th Avenue down to the Lower East Side and barely grunted in reaction to my Jeter announcement, but he was from the Twilight Zone - no baseball. And then, to top it off, I had a young lady from Japan, where the entire country is addicted to baseball, admit to me that she didn’t know who Jeter was, although she did know who Matsui and Ichiro are, Japanese stars who have both played on the Yankees.

“I am sorry,” she said, “I’m a street performer and I’m drunk!”

Well, that’s New York City for you. A city so huge and so diverse - bursting at the seams with all kinds of people from every corner of the world - that such a thing could be possible. If a superstar of baseball had played for twenty years on a team in any other city in the country it would be inconceivable that virtually anyone living in that city would not know him well. But in New York this can be so.

So I had run the gamut of the world of baseball, from the adoring mother and daughter who were so disappointed because they didn’t get to see Jeter play, to the object of their affection himself. Imagine if they’d stowed away in the rear compartment of the taxi - merely six hours later they could have met him in person! I wish I knew who they were so I could tell them that! But it was my very last passenger who made me realize that I had also run a gamut of another kind.

I was driving up Amsterdam Avenue just a few minutes before four o’clock, en route to a gas station at Broadway and 130th Street, when I spotted a figure in the shadows about a block ahead at 113th Street who apparently was trying to hail me. As I got closer I could see that he was crouched over a walker, appeared to be in pain or at least in some discomfort, and that the entrance to the emergency room of St. Luke’s Hospital was just down the street. I pulled over and stopped.

He was a gaunt man, quite small, I think Hispanic, and I judged him to be about 40 years old. He thanked me for stopping - there aren’t many taxis around at this hour - and asked if I could help him get into the cab. He was quite frail, barely able to lift his leg high enough to make it into the rear compartment, and was, in fact, coming from St. Luke’s. Taking care that he didn’t slip and fall, I held his arm and guided him in, then placed his walker in the back. As we drove off he told me about his condition, a spinal injury which had left him crippled. I sensed no self-pity or blame, it was just the way it was and he was carrying on. His destination was a mere ten blocks up the road to a project complex at La Salle Street. When we got there he paid me the $5.50 fare in cash, no tip, and asked for a receipt, so he could be reimbursed. He put the receipt in his pocket and we began the reverse process of extricating him from the taxi. That took a minute and then he thanked me for my help and began moving toward his building in his walker, an inch at a time.

I was done for the night and drove a few blocks over to Broadway and the gas station. After filling up, I had some time to reflect on the events of the evening, particularly this last ride. That frail man had sat in the same seat where Derek Jeter had been sitting only a few hours earlier. Both were about the same age. Aside from his fame and charisma, Jeter is a physical specimen, taller and more impressive in person than I had realized. If you had no idea who he was and saw him walking down the street, you might well have thought he could be a professional athlete. My last passenger, by contrast, was at the bottom of that scale.

New York, the City of the Human Condition.

We carry on.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Come On Back

Why rushest thou so, Robin Williams?

Come on back.

I am hereby requesting an encore of your Frances McDormand.

And I would certainly appreciate an opportunity to thank you... for the kindness behind your words.

Why rushest thou so?

I loved you - didn't you know?

Come on back.

Robin Williams was in my cab on September 7, 2008.  I'm proud to say that twenty minutes of his life were spent with me. The story of that ride can be found in the post called "Feathers In My Bald Spot", Sept. '08 in the archives.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

We Create Our Own Karma

The Mark on East 77th Street is a posh, boutique hotel which caters to the well-moneyed and well-connected American Aristocracy of the Upper East Side, and to the Flying Cosmopolitans, mostly Europeans, along with at spattering of celebrities (I’ve picked up two from there - Jane Seymour and, quite recently, Eliot Spitzer). I always have my eye on the place as I drive by as there’s a watering hole at street level from which emerge potential passengers. And of course I’m always looking for that next passenger.

It was there at the Mark that I was waved down by a doorman one night not all that long ago at around eleven o’clock and a rather stunningly beautiful, ebony woman entered my taxi. She was exquisitely well put together: tall, thin, angular features, exotic-looking jewelry, what looked like perfect hair, and an outfit that even I, a fashion moron, could tell was smart and chic, if not elegant. She just had to be a model, I thought, if not a supermodel.

She gave me her destination, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a twenty-minute ride, and after a brief discussion about the route we would be taking, I thought our conversation was already pretty much over. I’ve found fashion models tend to be rather aloof, so used to men fawning over them that they see us as men-objects, not really people, an interesting reversal on the way we are said to think about them. And also, I must admit, a woman who is perhaps too beautiful can be intimidating to a man simply by her appearance. Those of us who suffer from a deficiency in swaggering confidence see the “ten” as a goal that is automatically out of reach, a no-game condition. We assume we would have to be on a comparable level of good looks as she, or wealthy enough to make her overlook our deficiencies. So we shy away, just on assumption. I’m no different.

After five minutes of silence, however, she surprised me by initiating a conversation. What would it cost, she wanted to know, to take a taxi to Trenton, New Jersey, at six in the morning? And would I be interested?

I told her it would be ridiculously expensive because Trenton is about sixty miles away and it would take an hour and a half to get there if the roads were clear, which might be the case at 6 a.m., but would certainly not be the case on the way back. Hell, you could sit at a bridge or tunnel for an hour in the morning rush, so that had to be taken into consideration on what the price of the ride would be. Off the top of my head I told her I would charge three hundred dollars - a stupid amount of money to spend. And besides, I couldn’t do it. My shift ends at five.

She had a problem, she said. She was a model (you see, I knew it!) and she had to be in Trenton at eight in the morning for a shoot. And here it was, 11 p.m., and she hadn’t yet figured out how to get there. She didn’t even know where Trenton was.

Well, I guess she wasn’t a supermodel after all, not that it mattered. (Assumingly supermodels have managers who handle these logistical problems and, clearly, she didn’t.) So taking on the role of transportation consultant, I told her if I were her I’d take a train, then grab a cab in Trenton.

This sounded like a good idea.

-- Which train?

-- New Jersey Transit.

-- Which train station, Grand Central or Penn?

-- Penn.

-- I’ll take a taxi from Brooklyn to Penn Station, she added.

-- You can always catch a cab on Roebling Street, I said.

Problem solved.

Her smile lit up the cab.

As often happens when people communicate with each other, the level of affinity between us rose and further communication came more easily. I found out she was from Haiti, so we discussed the situation there after the earthquake; she asked me some questions about taxi-driving in New York City; she said something about her sister; we had an amusing argument about the best pizza in the city (take your pick, I say, New York is a pizza paradise). It was nothing more than friendly chit-chat, but friendly chit-chat gives you a sense of the other person and in this case it showed me a sincere, open individual whom I liked for the way she was, quite aside from her beauty.

We arrived at her place, an apartment house on North 7th Street, and she paid the fare with a card, giving me an above-average tip. As she thanked me for the ride and began to leave, I realized something: I myself would be in Penn Station at about the same time as she. I was taking commuter trains home in those days and the earliest one, the one I always caught, left at 6:10. So I told her that she and I might see each other again in Penn Station, wouldn’t that be crazy?

Now she might have responded with a sign of suspicion at my having said that - what is this guy, a stalker? - but she didn’t. Instead she smiled pleasantly, giving me the impression that she thought that if we did happen to run into each other again in Penn Station it wouldn't be a bad thing at all. Not that I had any ideas about this woman. I would have said the same thing to anyone whom I perceived to be a good-natured human being.

She waved goodbye and disappeared into her building.

My shift proceeded as usual. A couple of rides to Brooklyn, a steady passenger from the NY Post to his home in Rego Park, a period of half an hour when I could find no one, and a sampling of tourists, drunks, and bankers working late. At 4:30 I gave up looking for a last-ride airport ride and headed to the Hess Station on West 45th to gas up. My night was over. By 5:10 I was waiting on the line at the taxi garage to turn in the rate card and keys and get paid for the credit card transactions of the night. At 5:35 I was out of there and began walking to Penn Station. At 5:55 I arrived.

I had fifteen minutes to kill before my train departed. I’d almost forgotten about the model who was going to Trenton but then it hit me and, only because she’d been nice, I started to walk over toward the waiting room near the 8th Avenue entrance, which is shared by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, to look for her - just to say hi because I thought it would be such a unique thing to see somebody twice like that. The station starts to get busy at around 6 a.m., with lots of early trains departing to Washington, Boston, and Savannah, so I had to zig-zag my way around dozens of moving bodies until I finally made it to the waiting room. There are approximately a hundred seats in there, about half of which were occupied.

I looked around.

No, no, no… maybe she left already… maybe she found another way to get there, after all… no, not there.

It already began to bother me that I would never know.

I looked again.

And there she was, sitting there, just a couple of rows away from where I was standing! I must have scanned right over her the first time I looked. Wow! I walked over.

-- Hey, hi, remember me?

-- Oh, yes, hello!

Big smile.

-- So I see you got here all right.

-- Yes, there were taxis on Roebling Street, just like you said. Thank you so much.

-- Oh, you’re welcome. When does your train leave?

She looked at me blankly. That was odd. I looked over at the departure board. There was the Trenton train, Track 2, 6:02, ALL ABOARD. I looked at the clock. It was 6:00! Why was she still sitting there?

-- Oh my God, your train is leaving in two minutes!

-- It is?

I thought maybe this whole train thing was new to her. She obviously didn’t understand how it worked - you look at the board, when it says to get on, you go to the track… she was from Haiti, maybe she didn’t understand the meaning of the words on the board…

-- Come on, you’re going to miss your train! Follow me!

She jumped up. Fortunately I knew exactly where Track 2 was located, not far from the waiting room. She followed me through the mishmash of travelers and in twenty seconds we were standing at the doorway leading to the stairway that takes you down to Track 2.

I opened the door for her.

-- Go on, you can still make it!

-- Oh, thank you!

-- You’re welcome! Go!

She ran down the stairs and for the second time disappeared from my sight. I looked at the clock. 6:01. She made the train.

I had to move a bit quickly now to catch my own train - wouldn’t that be ironic if I missed my own train - but I got there with five minutes to spare which for me, knowing exactly where things are and exactly how much time it takes for me to get to them, was an eternity. After my train pulled out and I did some paperwork regarding the night’s business, I had some time to reflect upon what had just happened.

I thought at first that I had done it, that I had been the watchful angel, so to speak. And to some degree, yes, I had. But really, she had done it. She didn’t have to be open and friendly to a random stranger, her taxi driver. She could have been cold and uncommunicative. But it was the way she was, her good nature, that made me feel it would not offend her if I suddenly showed up and said hello.

We create our own karma.