Tuesday night was like that.
It started with my second fare. She was a particular type of character whom I have run into occasionally and whom I dub the Woe Is Me Person, sort of a professional victim. This is someone who is perpetually "suffering" from one malady or another and by cleverly making you feel guilty about it is able to manipulate you if you're not too bright. She was sixty-something, built like a boxcar, and had that "I am in such pain but don't mind me" thing going on. Sitting next to her was the cowed lackey whom I suspect has been saying "Yes, dear" for the last thirty years, her husband.
They got in on the west side of 56th and 5th and she told me their destination was a deli at 57th and Lex, a thankfully short ride. She mentioned the name of the deli. Did I know it?
"M'am, I don't know delis by their names, except the famous ones like the Carnegie Deli. But I do know 57th and Lex. I'll take you there." She spoke to her husband just loud enough for me to hear, "He doesn't know the deli." I ignored the invitation to an argument and started to drive.
It was 93 degrees Fahrenheit (that's damned hot for those of you who use centigrade) that day but fortunately the cab I had for the shift had excellent A/C and the compartment was quite comfortable. We drove less than a block, and then, her suffering voice:
"Driver, could you turn off the air conditioning, please? I have a cold and I need the windows open. Thank you."
It wasn't a request. It was an order. Turn off the A/C on a sweltering hot day.
What I should have done was to have told her that she can shut off the A/C button which controls the flow of air in the rear of the taxi herself while I close the partition to keep the cold air in the front of the cab. That would have stared the tiger in the face and probably put an end to my upcoming karma situation, but instead I complied and told her she was probably the only person in New York City who didn't want air conditioning today. My oblique comment was ignored.
I made a left on 54th Street and headed east. It was rush hour and the traffic was bumper to bumper. As I pulled up to stop at the red light at Madison Avenue, I heard this:
"Driver, please don't drive too fast. I have a bad back."
What I should have said: "Lady, do you have bad eyes, too? Look, the traffic is at a standstill. I couldn't drive too fast if I wanted to. And I do want to."
What I did say: nothing.
When you're dealing with the mechanics of karma, this is a mistake. Taking it on the chin is a way of keeping the negative energy in your own space and that makes you a magnet for the next lousy thing to happen. But I didn't realize this at the moment. I just adopted the mode of suffering saintliness myself and drove them to the damned deli on 57th Street and then shot invisible arrows through her bad back as she exited the taxi and walked into the deli by herself, leaving her husband/servant behind to pay me the fare.
Well, good riddance. But it didn't take long for her replacement to arrive.
I drove down Lex and within five minutes was hailed by a middle-aged woman at 45th Street - a woman who seemed okay at first but turned out to be another type of character I encounter from time to time: The Evil Jockey. This is a passenger who assumes you are a moron and takes control of the navigation aspect of the ride by telling you not only the route to take but which lane to be in, what speed to drive at, and where exactly to turn left or right. Sprinkled in with this will be comments such as, "Come on, you can make that light!" The passenger is the jockey. You are the horse.
She was a businesswoman going to 33rd and 6th who had not given herself enough time to get to what she said was an important meeting. When the ride began, she was conversational and pleasant. In fact, I even made the mistake of telling her I'd been driving a cab for twenty-nine years when the talk went in that direction. But when we became stuck in heavy traffic at 42nd Street (due to the explosion a couple of weeks ago that shut down Lexington Avenue between 42nd and 39th Streets), with the speed of a light switch she became the bitch from hell.
"You'd better change lanes. You're in the slow lane."
Bingo. With that single disrespectful communication she turned me into a driver who cared about getting her to that meeting on time to one who didn't particularly give a damn if she was late or not. Not that I intended to sabotage the ride. But the mental machinery was turned on that seems to control whether things go right or things go wrong. And wrong it went.
First, it took three minutes to get through the light at 42nd Street. But the tension in the cab made it seem like fifteen. Next, when I told her I intended to take 5th Avenue downtown she ordered me to go straight on 42nd and make the left on 7th Avenue. Then, after circumventing heavy traffic at Broadway and making the turn she ordered, she took issue with me for not turning on Broadway since it would have taken us more directly to her destination. I started to lose my cool.
"Look, you told me to take 7th Avenue, so that's what I did!"
"Broadway would have been more direct."
"You told me to take 7th."
"You've been driving a cab for twenty-nine years and you don't know that Broadway is more direct? I don't buy it."
"I don't care if you buy it or not. You told me to take 7th and that's what I did. And anyway, there was heavy traffic at Broadway and if we'd taken it we'd still be back there waiting to make the left turn."
In divorce proceedings this would be called "irreconcilable differences". We had reached a point, after being together in a cab for only twelve minutes, of hating each other's guts.
"And now you're going to tell me you can't make a left on 34th Street?" she asked in a hostile tone. (She had ordered me to stop on 7th Avenue at 34th Street and there's a no left turn sign at that intersection until 8 pm. It was then 7:30.)
She handed me a ten dollar bill for a $9.10 fare. I handed back to her 90 cents in change, not expecting or wanting a tip. She had decided she'd rather walk the long block to 6th Avenue than endure any further futility with a retarded taxi driver and left the cab with no further words exchanged.
But those invisible arrows were flying all over the place.
What I didn't tell her was that if we'd driven down to 32nd Street and made a left, I could have had her within a short block of her destination in thirty seconds. But by this time, of course, I was rooting for her not only to be late, but to lose her job and wind up sleeping in a cardboard box on the street.
So it seemed that with the way the shift was going, I was being set up by forces beyond my control to have a completely disastrous night. Who knows what else might happen when you start pulling in people like this? A flat tire? An accident? The cab breaks down in the Bronx?
So I confronted what was going on. Yes, I was somehow attracting negativity. I couldn't see two monsters like this in a row as being a coincidence. But wait, by simply observing this I could bring an end to it. There was no need for me to take a karmic whipping. I could simply decide that okay, that's it, no more bad rides tonight. I'm a good guy. I'm a great cab driver. No need for these things to happen to me.
And right away my night turned around.
Immediately I picked up a great fare who was all smiles and seemed to think she was just the luckiest woman in the world to have me as her taxi driver. And then there was a Japanese couple who were big Yankee fans. And a man from Philadelphia who discussed with me the importance of Alexander Hamilton to United States history. I was having one great fare after another, culminating in this at 10:30:
Pictured here are newlyweds Eric and Sabina and Sabina's parents from Poland. I drove them (and a lot of flowers) from a restaurant on the West Side where their wedding reception had taken place to their apartment on 40th and Lex. Eric and Sabina had been dating for about a year and decided to get married to coincide with Sabina's parents visit to the United States. I want to tell you, if you drive a cab you can't get a ride that's more joyous than this.
So it taught me a lesson. You don't have to go into agreement with what would seem to be the inevitability of bad karma. We're not the dimwits of destiny. We write the words to our own music and we dance the way we damn well decide we want to dance.
I continued to drive on into the night wondering if I could get anything to top a bride and a groom being in my cab. What could come next? How about a Hollywood film director who decides he wants to use me in his next movie about taxi drivers? Maybe Martin Scorcese himself! My mind began to wander... Taxi Driver 2... hmmm...
The night went on. A little after midnight I was hailed in front of a gay bar called "Therapy" on 52nd between 8th and 9th. Some guy was saying goodbye to a young lady and kind of escorted her into my cab. (It has become fashionable in NYC for girls to hang out in gay bars.) She told me her destination was in Astoria, Queens, and after a brief discussion about the best way to get there, we were on our way.
I was still in a great mood and wanting to communicate with everyone, so I attempted to start a conversation with this person but found, after a couple of failed tries, that she was not the chatty type. So I put my eyes on the road and just drove. C'est la vie.
However, as I was crossing the lower level of the 59th Street Bridge, I became alarmed at something - I could no longer see her in my rear-view mirror. I turned around to see what was up and saw that she was lying face down across the back seat. Oh my god, she was a vomit candidate.
"Are you all right?"
Her head tilted upward slightly. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm just tired."
I wasn't convinced. Sometimes people who are drunk and on the verge of barfing in a cab are afraid the driver will throw them out if he thinks they're about to be sick. So they con the driver with lies.
"Listen, if you feel like you're gonna be sick, just tell me so I can pull over."
"I'm okay. I'm just tired," she said in what was almost a whisper.
What can a driver do in this situation? You can't just throw somebody out because you think she's going to vomit. Maybe she was just tired. I had no choice but to keep driving and hope she was on the level.
It took six or seven more minutes to get her in front of her apartment building on 28th Avenue. I looked back at her and observed the seat, half-expecting to see barf on it. But the seat was clean. The girl, however, was still sprawled across it and was now out like a light. I had to yell at her to get her awake enough to realize she had arrived at her home.
She opened her eyes. And then she sat up.
And that was all it took. The change of position of her body was the impetus that sent about a gallon of creamy puke spilling from her mouth, down her arm, and all over the back seat.
I sprang like a leopard to the back door and opened it in the same way that cops do when they're raiding a house where drug dealers are living. I was outraged, to put it mildly.
"Oh, shit!" I screamed. "Why didn't you tell me to pull over? Dammit!"
But my rage drew nothing but a pukey blank stare. The alcohol had kicked in and she was out of it. It took her about five minutes in her semi-conscious state to find the money to pay for the fare and kick in an extra twenty dollars at my not too subtle suggestion. And all the while covered in her own vomit.
She then stood up, took a few steps toward her building, and collapsed on the sidewalk. As pissed off as I was, I still did the right thing and took her by the arm and guided her to her place and made sure she got into it all right. I then had to wipe her puke off my own hand and deal with the mess she'd left me. Just fucking wonderful.
I went to work with my paper towels, Windex, and air freshener spray. After about twenty minutes of disgusting, humiliating labor, I thought I had it licked (pardon my choice of words) and went back to work. But after a passenger asked me if someone had thrown up in the cab, I had to confront the fact that I needed to bring the damn thing back to the garage. There the hard-working Tonio, one of the all-night guys, helped me remove the back seat and hose both it and the floorboards down. The fact is, her vomit had seeped under the seat through the seat belt openings and onto the floorboard. After we wiped it down with cloth towels, the job was finally done for real.
I took a few more fares that night, but that was basically it. The puker had put a pretty heavy exclamation point onto what had already been a very memorable evening.
And what that exclamation point meant to me was this: remember all that stuff I was saying about how we write the words to our own music and all? Well, who or whatever's in charge of that karma thing doesn't seem to like hearing talk like that. It might be a good idea to keep your voice down when talking about all that free will stuff, all right?
Just a thought.
Of course, we still have free will to click here to see Pictures From A Taxi. Right?