Saturday, June 30, 2007

One Of Those Great Nights

Last Tuesday I had one of those rare nights that actually live up to the romanticized hype of the glory of being a New York City taxi driver. Now as you know if you've been reading this blog that for me driving a taxi is not just a job but borders on being a calling. It's sort of an ongoing exercise in "what realities am I going to encounter tonight?" The theory is that the more I can confront and understand the better the person I will be.

Or something like that.

Anyway, most nights fall short even though they almost always have something memorable about them. You run into one moron too many and the tendency is to come down emotionally a notch or two from enthusiasm. But then there's a night like Tuesday...

What started things off on the right foot was that I was given a brand new cab to drive at the garage. I mean a cab that had literally never been driven before. I have earned some brownie points at the garage and every once in awhile I am thrown a bone like this.

Look at her, the new 1M42. Isn't she a beauty? You know, driving a car - any car - where everything is new at the same time is quite an aesthetic experience. No wonder people keep buying them even if they can't afford them.

So I knew I would be telling every passenger who got in my cab that night that, "You know, you are riding in the newest taxi in New York City!" This is a special game I love to play whenever I am given the honor of breaking in a new cab. Most people, especially if they are veteran taxi riders, realize this is a rare treat ("Just think - no one has ever puked in this cab!") and are really into the experience. But it is the very first passenger that I really look forward to. Because I have figured out the odds.

The odds against being the very first passenger to ever ride in a New York City taxi are approximately 75,000 to 1. By city law yellow, medallion cabs are allowed to be on the road for only 3 years before they are required to be replaced. A cab will take about 25,000 fares (not people) a year, so it's 3 x 25,000, and there you go. This means that if you live in New York City all your life and take a taxi every day, this is a once in a lifetime occurrence. (Actually, once in every three lifetimes.)

I was hoping to get someone who was worthy of this experience. Someone who had been a loyal taxi rider for, say, 25 years or so. Unfortunately it turned out to be a couple of Japanese tourists who could barely speak English and had no appreciation whatsoever of the inadvertent honor that had been bestowed upon them. In fact they didn't even know that tipping taxi drivers is customary in NYC and stiffed me on a $7.10 fare. Ouch.

But I was not deterred, not even a little. I knew this would be a great tipping night, and my very next passenger - who should have been the first - was a lovely lady who went from 49th Street and 5th Avenue to 60th and Amsterdam, had full appreciation of the magnitude of the event, and tipped me $5.90 on a $9.10 fare.

And the next fare, a group of four - two young guys, a pretty girl, and a furball en route to the 79th Street Boat Basin - brought me the first taxi dog I've had in my cab in several weeks.

Meet Pablo (l) and Alice (r). Pablo, I'm told, is a "Havanese", a breed of dog from Cuba (thus, "Pablo", although "Fidel", "Che", or even "Desi" would have worked, as well). Pablo is a year and a half old and was found online and then bought from a breeder in Woodstock, NY. Alice tells me Pablo is a bit hyper and does the "usual tricks" - sits, gives his paw, etc. But let me tell you, when the camera is on, Pablo is a pro. I think this dog is a born model. You just can't get any cuter than that.

So the night went on in this upbeat way. But, of course, this is New York City so the law of averages says for every 12 people or so that get into a taxi, there will be one that is rather odd. Or maybe "offbeat" is a better word, unless "weird", "strange", "obnoxious", or "off the wall" would be a better fit. Anyway, at 8:30 this person got in the cab at Penn Station. He was a fifty-something man, in good shape, travelling all the way uptown to a restaurant at 133rd Street and 12th Avenue (right on the Hudson River) with a twenty-something guy who I thought was his son.

Right away things got off to a bad start when he lit a cigarette without asking permission. Since in today's world this is rude, I immediately told him to put it out, it was against the law, I could get a ticket, blah, blah, blah. But the guy was persuasive and convinced me that since he'd just come in from a long train ride from Long Island he would die if he didn't have that cigarette, so I let him smoke it as long as he agreed to keep it out of sight.

Well apparently this was enough for him to make us both pals from his point of view and he went on to tell me all kinds of details about a six-year divorce cycle which had just ended favorably for him. It was completely inappropriate conversation to have with a stranger, especially with his son sitting there. But he was, as I said, that one in twelve.

I had entered patronizing mode as we got onto the Henry Hudson Parkway and was just acknowledging anything he said when the conversation between us ended rather suddenly and was replaced by a new activity. It was the two of them making out fervently in the back seat.

Now I am quite accustomed to gay guys being attracted to one another back there, but not with this age difference and with me thinking they were father and son! It really threw me but, always the professional, I gave not the slightest sign that I found anything unusual about their behavior. In fact, as we arrived at their destination, I gave them the news that they were riding in the newest taxicab in New York City just as I had been doing with all my other passengers.

Now you know you are on a roll when even a fare like this turns out to be a winner. The guy gives me a $9 tip on an $11 fare, for some reason tells me he is from the Grucci fireworks family, and then signs a $5 bill with instructions to keep it on the visor of the cab for good luck. I thanked him, drove off, and then, in the immortal words of Harry Chapin, I stuffed the bill in my shirt. Why tell him I get a different cab every night?

So you get the idea. The night just went on and on like this until it appeared to me that all of New York City was celebrating the arrival of its newest family member, a spanking new Ford Crown Vic with extra leg room in the back. What could possibly make the night even better?

Why, driving through Times Square at 2:30 am and suddenly seeing the "Cash Cab" people shooting a scene on the little island that separates Broadway from 7th Avenue at 44th Street! For those who don't know it, "Cash Cab" is a quiz show on the Discovery Channel in which passengers in this one particular taxi (1G12) find themselves suddenly answering general knowledge questions to win money. It's hosted by a guy named Ben Bailey (my hero) who is actually a cab driver. Well, I felt compelled to stop and take some pictures. Of course!

After hanging around for a few minutes taking these shots, I approached one of the crew and asked this all-important question:

"Excuse me, I was just wondering - will you be needing any passengers?"

"Oh, no, sorry," she said with a smile.


I returned to my own 1M42 and continued on into the night. At 3:15 I took a fare to Queens and then, driving along on Northern Boulevard, picked up four stranded, well-mannered teenagers in Astoria who'd been at a high school graduation party but had no ride back to the city. This meant I actually got a return ride to Manhattan at 3:37 on a Tuesday night, something unheard of in the history of taxi-driving. When you're hot, you're hot.

Finally, to end off what had become a night of beginnings, I picked up a sixtyish man in the middle of Park Avenue at 63rd Street at 4:36 and drove him up to Lenox Hill Hospital on 77th Street. He was going to the hospital for the best of all reasons: his daughter was giving birth to her first child and his eighth grandchild. When I told him he was in the newest taxicab in the city, he proclaimed with great enthusiasm, "Then two babies are being born in New York tonight!"

Yesss... two babies on what was just one of those really great nights.

Of course clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi might also help make it a great night. Just a thought...


Mike S said...

Wish I'd been there to help break it in. The Japanese couple probably weren't impressed, as the taxis in Japan tend to look new even when nearing the end of their 2 year life of taking on fares. Also, in Japan, the tip is ALWAYS included in the meter price, just as in restaurants it's in the menu price. Even in the shops and everywhere that there's tax on goods purchased, the tax is included in the price tag amount. If a bottle of beer says 100yen, it's 100yen, regardless of tax. Very convenient for us visiting, but can cause Japanese who aren't accustomed to tipping or paying more than stated price to seem cheap in some places. Great post and pics:)

G.S. said...

Mike - Thanks for that info (I didn't know that) but, nevertheless, I think it's obligatory for anyone visiting a foreign country to learn the local customs.

Anonymous said...

Now that was an incredible post. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed reading EVERY word of it.
Handsome Harry

jodester said...

great post dude! always love a dog pic!

John said...

Hi Gene,
Congrats on the new car. Pity we did not hook up when I was in NY.
Still if you come to Dublin...
I was as sick as a dog for 1/2 the time I was there. Those NY delis are not safe.
I found the natives of NY friendlier than the Irish. I even managed to shake hands with a native American Indian at the Smithsonian.
Do you know that the Indians sent over Maze to feed the starving Irish during the famine.
Look I will tell you more later.
Must just say.
Be careful that your kids do not phone home their girlfriends from the hotel phone bill $860. OUCH

Anonymous said...

"The odds against being the very first passenger to ever ride in a New York City taxi are approximately 75,000 to 1."

I think the odds of being the very first passenger to ride in that particular new taxi are 75,000:1.

The odds of being the very first passenger to ride in A new taxi are different. If there are 13,000 taxis in NYC and a new one appears that will do 10 rides on its first day, then the chances are 130,000 to 1. But if two new taxis appear per day, then it's 65,000 to 1. And so on.

G.S. said...

I calculated the odds as being about 75,000 to one as follows: there are two shifts in a day, so that's 730 shifts a year. Multiply that by 3 because that's how many years the TLC allows a cab to be on the street before it's mandatorily retired and you've got 2,190. Now multiply that by 35, the approximate number of fares a taxi takes in one shift, and you've got 76,650.
I rest my case.