Here's a look at a day in the life of a New York City taxi driver. (Actually, a night in the life - I drive the night shift.) I'm going to go back a few weeks to Saturday, July 15, because that was a particularly memorable evening. Also, I promised a certain young couple that I would post their pictures...
I drive my trusty '91 Camry (317,000 miles on the odometer) to my taxi garage on Manhattan's West Side and park it on the street. I leave the doors unlocked and the glove compartment open to show the thieves that there's nothing to steal and, if they don't believe me, go ahead and open the doors and take a look for yourselves. Just don't break the windows... please! I attach the "club" (an anti-theft device) to the steering wheel, put on my backpack (which contains my food for the shift, my camera, and various taxi-driver supplies), and walk down the street toward the garage. It's 5:15 PM.
The taxi garage at this hour is buzzing with activity. Day shift drivers are arriving, turning in their meters, rate cards, (official identifying document displayed in each cab), and keys to Alfredo, the weekend day dispatcher. A couple of night shift drivers wait in line at the dispatcher's window, ready to pay the $128 leasing fee for a Saturday night shift. Three cabs are up on lifts being attended to by mechanics. The smell of engine oil permeates the air.
I pay my $128 to Alfredo and am handed a blank trip sheet and the keys, rate card, and meter to 7P87, one of the older cabs (3 years and over 200,000 miles) in the one-hundred-and-fifty cab fleet. I am used to driving older taxis since I rent by the day rather than by the week and the weekly guys are given the newer cabs since they are committing to pay for the whole week. I have no problem with that, as long as the cab I am given is relatively operational. My biggest concern on this summer night is whether or not the air conditioning is working... which it is, so I am happy.
I begin my ritual of preparing the cab for the night's work. This consists of cleaning the windows and mirrors, setting the radio to my stations, emptying garbage left over from the previous shift, making sure the back seat is secure, checking the tires, and seeing that the seat belts are available and in working order. And in doing this I observe that my own seat belt - the one for the driver- is broken. This disturbs me as I do use the seat belt whenever I go onto a highway. Steve, the weekend night dispatcher, happens to be hanging around and I bring this to his attention.
ME: "Hey, Steve, the driver's seat belt is broken. Should I go get another cab?"
STEVE: "The rest are all shit. You're better off with this one."
ME: "That's just great. I'll probably get killed driving this thing."
STEVE: "Yeah, probably."
ME: "There's nothing like driving on the fuckin' BQE between two 18-wheelers at three in the morning with no seat belt on. I just fuckin' love it."
STEVE: "Can I ask you a question?"
STEVE: "If you do get killed tonight, can I have your car?"
It's nice to know that if you die during the shift, there's someone left behind to help manage your estate. Who says there's no empathy in the taxi business? I decide to keep 7P87 and by six o'clock I'm on my way up 10th Avenue looking for my first fare. The night has begun.
It doesn't take any great skill to make money on Fridays or Saturdays. These are the two nights of the week when New York really is the "city that doesn't sleep". The other five nights, after midnight, the city that never sleeps takes cat naps. But on Friday and Saturday nights it's an all-night party town and a cab driver knows he'll be busy until the shift ends at 5 AM.
My basic Saturday night strategy for finding passengers is this: go to the shopping areas, like Macys or the mall at Columbus Circle, until 7 PM; cruise the residential neighborhoods until around 8:30, looking for people going out for the night; check out places like hospitals, Penn Station, and the Empire State Building until about 10:15; Times Square until midnight; and after that, head downtown to the clubs and bars where the party people are gathering in droves. Of course, you never know where your next passenger will take you, but this is the basic strategy.
My first passenger jumps in at 57th Street and 10th Avenue. It's a $5.30 ride straight up to 85th and Amsterdam Avenue. The next one gets in just a block from there and takes me all the way out to Forest Hills in Queens, a $25 ride. This is an unusual destination for this time of day, the kind of ride a cabbie is tempted to refuse since it means, in all likelihood, driving back to Manhattan without a passenger and thus losing money due to "dead time". But I take the fellow without a word of protest and, although we have no real conversation, he rewards me with a decent tip. I am further rewarded by a traffic-less ride back to Manhattan, and in 20 minutes I am across the 59th Street Bridge and take my next fare from Bloomingdale's on Lexington Avenue down to Midtown.
For the next two hours it's pretty much one-gets-out-one-gets-in. If the night's going well I expect to make my first money target of $120 by 9:30 and, indeed, as 9:30 rolls arrives, I am quite close to that amount. I use 9:30 as a point of reference because it is my break time and, I must admit, it's a break that is utterly regimented. I park the cab at a taxi stand on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets, walk to the Starbuck's at 51st, use one of the two restrooms to wash my hands and take a civilized piss (what luxury), order a "tall drip, no milk", get change of a twenty, chat with the guys behind the counter who know me as a regular, walk a few blocks in Times Square to stretch my legs, and then it's back to the taxi. This is the only break I will take until the end of the shift. I know that sounds brutal, but I'm used to it.
From the taxi stand on Broadway I drive up 8th Avenue to Columbus Circle and catch a fare coming out of the Time Warner Building up to 92nd and Madison. Within a minute I have another ride, this time heading downtown to the Meat Packing District. The night continues to be busy but uneventful for the next couple of hours, but like any night of taxi driving in New York City, and especially a Saturday night, I know that sooner or later something memorable will happen. I have a definite sense of inevitability about this. As it turns out, the event occurs at 11:30.
I drop off a fare near the extreme southern tip of Manhattan and drive uptown on West Street. Just as I pass the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel I am hailed by a thirty-something man in a suit who, instead of getting in the taxi, motions for me to roll down the window. He tells me he is coming from a wedding reception in the building to my right and the bride and groom will soon be coming out and will need a ride to their hotel. Would I be willing to wait a few minutes for them? And one other thing - he and his friends want to decorate the back of my cab with paper streamers and cans attached to strings. Would that be okay?
Well, they picked the right cab. Not only is the driver the kind of guy who lives for this sort of thing, but the taxi itself has a picture of a bride on its roof. (7P87 was advertising the Broadway show, MAMMA MIA, which pictures a bride). Talk about good karma - wow! I give my consent and within moments the wedding party descends upon my cab and production is underway.
Ten minutes later, 7P87 has been transformed in much the same way that Cinderella's pumpkin was changed into a carriage. It's quite a makeover. In fact, 7P87 has never looked so good.
Once the decorations have been completed, a few more minutes pass by before the bride and groom finally make their grand entrance onto West Street. But I have no complaints about the delay, as I have already been well taken care of by the the guy who hailed me ($50), and the truth is, I am having a great time. Everybody gives the newlyweds a few final cheers as they are ushered into the taxi. I introduce myself and we are on our way to the Maritime Hotel on 16th Street and 9th Avenue.
In all my 28 years of taxi-driving, this is a first. I once had a Chinese couple in full wedding apparel as passengers, but it turned out that they were dressed up just to have pictures taken, which I was told is customarily done 6 months in advance of the wedding itself. This, of course, is the real thing.
I am naturally curious to find out something about my special passengers, so I waste no time in starting a conversation. Their names are Mr. Ben Grossman and Mrs. Jackie Grossman (I may have been the first to address her as such). They are in their 30s, both are New Yorkers, and both are teachers. They had been together for two years before taking the plunge. They strike me as being genuinely nice, caring people who are well-matched in their personalities. The kind of people who, if you were a kid, you would like to have as your parents.
The trip to the Maritime Hotel is a quick one, only about 10 minutes. The hotel is located in a very trendy, night-life area (the Meat Packing District) and there is a restaurant and a club in the hotel itself. So the entrance to the place on this, a Saturday night, is the epitome of a busy NYC street scene. Nevertheless, I pull right up to the the front, get the doorman to help with their light luggage, and before wishing the Grossmans a happy and prosperous life together, a couple of snapshots are taken. (Yes, that's me standing between them.) All while the hundred or so people who mill around on 16th Street, in typical New York fashion, take no notice of us whatsoever.
Don't they look like a nice couple, by the way?
I drive down 16th Street and pull over to the curb half-way down the block. I pick up the cans and deposit them in the trunk and am about to do the same with the streamers, but suddenly I have an idea. Why not leave them there? It would be cool to drive around the rest of the night like that. So I do.
It turns out to be a good business move. Great for conversation and great for tips. I tell the female passengers that getting into a cab with streamers hanging from the trunk (what are the odds of that happening?) is an omen that they, too, will soon be married. Like catching the bouquet at a wedding. This went over well with all of them except one young lady en route to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who wanted nothing to do with marriage. (Wait 'til she's in her 30s.) One passenger actually tells me that she had noticed my streamer-decorated cab drive past her about an hour earlier when she had been standing on the street.
At 5:03 I drop my last fare off at 50th and Lex and call it a night. I have been on the road for 11 hours, taken 33 rides, and carried a total of 64 people during the shift. I drive to the Hess station on 45th and 10th, put $41 into the gas-guzzling 7P87, and then, a bit sadly, remove the streamers and deposit them and the cans into a trash bin. I park 7P87 on the street, walk to the garage, which is relatively deserted, and hand in the meter, rate card, and keys to Steve, who is still on duty. After exchanging some pleasantries, I leave the garage, walk to my car, and am pleased to find that a) it is still there, and b) the side-view mirrors are still there, too. I start her up and am on way way home.
I review the night in my mind. It's been a good one, money-wise, people-wise, and even adventure-wise. Another one of those nights, like most nights of taxi-driving in New York City, that, unless the driver is generally oblivious or happened to be in a personal funk that night, he will feel that he has once again been nose-to-nose with life. Maybe that is putting a bit of a happy face on it, but it's the way I'm feeling as I turn my Camry away from Manhattan and head for the highway.