Saturday, January 27, 2007

Art Buchwald Made Good Copy

A few days ago Art Buchwald, the American polical satirist, died at the age of 81. I had him in my cab once and, in recalling that ride, I realized there are two things I have taken from him and made my own.

His gloves and his umbrella.

Just kidding. The first was something he said to me in my cab. This ride occurred in December, 1980, and the reason I can remember its exact date is Ronald Reagan had been elected but had not yet been inaugurated. The conversation went something like this...

Me: What are you doing here [in New York City]? Aren't you supposed to be in Washington?

Buchwald: Nah, Washington's dead. Nobody's around 'til the inauguration.

Me: So what do you think of Reagan? Do you think he'll be a good president?

Buchwald: He'll make good copy.

"He'll make good copy." I've been using that phrase to describe anyone or anything that seems promising ever since he said that to me. I know it's a newspaper term that didn't originate with Buchwald, but that's how it got into my mind. I think we usually don't remember how something like this enters our consiousness, but in this case I do. It came from him.

The second thing was a writing thing. After having had this honor of transporting his butt from point A to point B, I started paying more attention to his columns and, in reading them, I came to recognize the basic form that the newspaper essay takes. First, a premise is stated. ("People act strangely when the moon is full.") Second, data is supplied to back up the premise. ("I saw old Jed flying a kite in the middle of the night and he was wearing Spock ears.") And third, the premise is re-stated, perhaps with a humorous twist, to end the essay. ("Yup, people sure do act strange when the moon is full. Excuse me - I've gotta go get my Spock ears back from Jed.")

A well-written essay in a blog uses this same format. It's how a point is made as opposed to wandering off in all directions.

I don't know if he invented this form - he probably didn't - but nevertheless I did gain my understanding of it from him. So that's two things I got from this guy.

And, you know, I do have a collection of gloves and umbrellas that people have left in my cab... hmmmm... does anyone know what size glove Art Buchwald wore?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Wisdom of the Carrot

Every night one or two passengers, on the average, will tell me they're in a BIG rush. The implication (or direct message) being that I need to get them there FAST!

Nothing wrong with that. I don't fault anyone for telling me what the situation is. But there's just one problem - it doesn't motivate me to do anything extraordinary to help them solve something that is their problem. I will just acknowledge what they said and drive them to their destination in the same way I would have driven if they hadn't said anything at all. But I won't run red lights, make illegal turns, or drive ten or fifteen or twenty miles per hour faster than I would normally drive.

What they have failed to do is to tell me specifically what's in it for me.

Now, some passengers will make the infamous statement that they will "take care of me" or will "make it worth my while". This promise is most often heard when five people are trying to squeeze into the cab (the rules say we can only take four and the driver could get a ticket if it's seen by an unsympathetic cop). Experience shows conclusively that what follows this ride is an average or below-average tip.

Thus a seasoned cabbie translates "I will take care of you" as "Hey, stupid fuck-head, I want you to go ahead and risk a fine and in exchange you will get nothing special." It's an insult.

All of which leads me into what was last night's "fare of the night". It was the rare - and I do mean rare - person who understands that the best way for me to solve his problem is to tell me why it's in my own best interest to make it my problem. Here's what happened...

A twenty-something guy jumped in the cab at Grove Street and 7th Avenue South in Greenwich Village at exactly 11:51 PM. His destination was Fulton and Gold in the Financial District, a short ride that required knowledge of lower Manhattan's geography. I pulled out onto 7th Avenue South, quickly figured out the route in my mind, and told him how I intended to go. This was meant as a passing comment, not really requiring discussion, but it turned out my passenger was quite concerned about getting there as soon as possible and wondered if another route might be better. I told him the way I wanted to go was the best way (which it was), and then he said the magic words...

"My fiancee's birthday is at midnight and if you can get me there before then, I'll give you ten dollars over the meter."

Bingo! His problem became my problem.

I immediately turned into a NASCAR racer, zig-zagging my way around the Holland Tunnel traffic, making the difficult and crucial green light at Canal Street, flying down West Broadway to Duane Street, catching the greens on Church and Broadway, circling around City Hall Park and somehow making the light at Beekman, and finally delivering my passenger to Gold and Fulton at 11:58.

The fare was $7.80. He gave me a twenty and happily told me to keep it. But not before I acknowledged his brilliance by sharing with him this bit of information which I will share with you now.

It took me nine years of taxi driving before I noticed how rare it was for someone to offer me a specific reward for doing something special for them. Once I became aware of this, I started to count the number of times it would happen and have kept this tally in my mind. That was twenty years ago. Counting last night, the number of times this has happened is... (drum roll, please)... EIGHT!

That is correct. Eight times. Thousands and thousands of people have told me they are in a big rush and eight have had the wisdom to offer me a specific reward if I can solve their dilemma for them.

I believe there is a huge life lesson to be learned here.

Let's call it the wisdom of the carrot.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Case of the Twisted Testicle

Are you a people-watcher? Do you ever look at people walking by on the street and wonder what they've been doing all day? In New York, with its endless stream of humanity shuffling by, this is a popular activity. Most people appear to be pretty much the same as each other, but what do they actually DO?

One of the great things about taxi-driving is that people plop themselves in your car and you have a chance of turning this idle daydream into a tour of someone's reality. And sometimes, once you know it, you think, "Who in the world could ever have guessed THAT?"

I had one of these the other day.

I was cruising up 1st Avenue, looking for my next fare, when I saw two people, a man and a woman, hailing me in front of New York University Hospital at 32nd Street. At first I thought they were together but as I approached them I could see that they were standing a bit of a distance apart and were actually in competition with each other for possession of my taxi. In these situations I will try to position the cab so that the rear door is an equal distance between them when I stop and then let them settle it (or fight for it) between themselves. I don't know who's been standing there the longest and I don't want to appear to be favoring one over the other.

Anyway, the man, a thirty-something, got in. And right away he had something to say about the woman he'd left behind. "Man, I hate that. She thinks because she's a woman that she has some kind of a right to the cab. She knew damn well I was out there first and she walked right in front of me."

"Oh, you were out there first? I couldn't tell."

"Bitch!"

This outburst led to a conversation about the etiquette of taxi hailing, which is basically an uncodified sector of human conduct. You can often see what someone's made of when he or she is trying to catch a cab because there are no social consequences involved. The assumption is that the other person is someone you will never see again. It's a situation that can bring out the worst in people.

My passenger was a veteran taxi-hailer and understood but didn't excuse the every-man-(or woman)-for-himself attitude that some New Yorkers display in the catching a cab crunch time. "Everybody's in a rush," he said, "but after being in surgery for six hours I'm not gonna stand there a let someone shove me aside."

"Oh, you're a surgeon?"

"Yeah."

"What's your specialty?"

"Urology."

Well, that was interesting, so I delved. I asked him some questions about what kind of surgery he'd been doing for six hours, thinking he'd probably tell me he'd been removing kidney stones or something. Instead, he told me this story...

My passenger had operated on a young man who'd had a twisted testicle. I immediately thought of some joke which I won't embarrass myself by repeating here, but my passenger would have none of it. He explained what the situation had been in a straightforward, professional manner.

The testicle had become twisted around itself in the scrotum and, because its supply of blood had been cut off, was in danger of dying unless corrected within a matter of hours. So this was actually an emergency. To make matters worse, the (female) anaesthesiologist, although aware of the situation, had decided to take a meal break, thus delaying the surgery and adding considerable tension to the matter. When she finally did show up, my passenger had words with her and told me he intended to report her. (Looks like he was having a bad female-karma day.)

The surgery, which consisted of untwisting the testicle and sewing it to the inner wall of the scrotum, was performed successfully. And my concern that here was yet another thing I needed to worry about was pacified by learning that the poor guy's runaway testicle was an unusual, genetic disorder.

Now I imagine myself sitting in a sidewalk cafe with a friend, watching the people who are strolling by. We amuse ourselves by guessing what these people may have been doing all day.

A muscular, young man wearing a hard hat walks by.

"Oh, he must have been working at a construction site," we say.

A woman with two small children at her side walks by.

"Oh, she must have been caring for the children," we say.

My passenger walks by.

"Oh, he must have been untwisting someone's testicle," we say.

The things you learn driving a taxicab.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

More Fun With Street Signs

Here's a street in Tribeca that always asks a question...




This street, also in Tribeca, is for people who can't get to it on time...



When the married former mayor of New York, Rudy Guiliani, was having an affair with a woman on his staff, he ordered the street where she lived renamed in her honor...




Oh, all right, I lied. It's actually "Essex Street" in the Lower East Side.


Friday, January 12, 2007

A Pedestrian Thing

Last night I had a "thing on the street" that involved a pedestrian. I'll tell you about that in a moment, but first a few words about this group of people as a whole.

Pedestrians - I have no use for them. Really, what good are pedestrians to a taxi driver? If I don't already have a passenger in my cab, I see them as people who should be giving me some business. And whether I have a passenger in my cab or not, here is a whole segment of the population that slows me down when I'm trying to make a turn. A pox on them, I say.

The truth is, pedestrians in New York should be looked upon as tourist attractions. Many of them are daredevil lunatics, right up there on a level with people who jump off cliffs with an elastic cord tied around their leg. Admission could be charged for the privilege of seeing these people risk their lives for nothing.

An avenue with cars, buses, and trucks zipping by? Hey, man, I ain't gonna waste twenty seconds of my life waitin' for no light to change. I'm goin' NOW! And I'm gonna eat my fries while I do it.

Have you ever actually witnessed someone being hit by a car? Most people haven't, but I have, four times. It's a gruesome thing to see, even if it happens at a slow speed. But it gives you a healthy respect for the physics involved after you see a human body bouncing across the street like a rubber ball.

But most pedestrians here do not have that reality. The walk/don't walk signs are universally ignored. The majority of people will wait for the moving vehicles to pass by, but there is a growing contingent of fools who will just walk in front of cars on the assumption that they are seen and the car will stop.

I ran into one last night. Not literally, but almost. Here's what happened...

I picked up a fare, a middle-aged man headed for Penn Station, at 60th Street and 5th Avenue at 10:40 PM. I drove down 5th to 37th and made a right turn with the intention of catching the green at 6th Avenue and then proceeding through Broadway to 7th Avenue, making a left, and driving to Penn Station at 34th Street.

There were no cars in front of me on 37th Street, so making the light, which had just changed to green as I turned onto the street from 5th, was definitely possible. I picked up my speed to about 30 mph (the speed limit in NYC) and I could see as I got about three quarters of the way to 6th that pedestrians were crossing through their "don't walk" sign at the corner. Nothing unusual about that. So I sounded my horn as I approached to warn them that I was coming.

Everyone stopped - except one woman.

What happened, quite quickly, was a "this is my turf" confrontation. Like animals with territorial instincts, some people just won't give ground on the notion that this is sacred soil and it is mine. So she stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and stood there, daring me to run her over.

Now most people would say that was insane, even if she had the right of way, which she didn't. But it was worse than insane, it was criminal. Because she was holding in her hand the hand of a small child! She wasn't just sacrificing herself to the cause, she was taking her kid with her.

So, of course, I stopped. And then we had "words", since I had missed the green light and was now waiting on the red. What exactly those words were I could not say, not because I don't want to repeat expletives, but because we were shouting at each other at the same time and neither of us could hear what the other one was saying. Not that it would have mattered. This was not a person who was going to admit that there was even the slightest thing wrong about what she had done. And yet my passenger and I agreed that she should have been arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.

God, sometimes I wish I was a cop.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lady Jane

And now for the year's first dog.

I recently picked up Lady Jane (the Rottweiler-Shepherd mix with the big nose) and Amy (the human with the nice smile) on 42nd Street at 10th Avenue and drove them down to the East Village. As is the case with every dog that gets in my cab, there was a story.

Amy was planning her Christmas vacation, a five-day trip out west, that would include skiing in Colorado. This meant that Lady Jane would have to be left in New York because they don't allow dogs at the ski lodge. So preparations needed to be made. Amy had heard of a woman who dog-sits on the West Side for $50 a day and she had just brought Lady Jane over for a meet and greet at the woman's apartment. Apparently all had gone well. Lady Jane and the woman's two Chihuahuas hit it off splendidly.

Amy adopted her dog at a place called the NYC Animal Care and Control. They told her she had been tied to a tree and then abandoned near the FDR Drive (a highway on the east side of Manhattan). Amy was immediately charmed when she saw her, paid a $100 adoption fee, and brought her back to her apartment and a surprised roommate. The dog was given the title of "Lady" to make up for her humble beginnings with a touch of aristocracy. And the three of them have since been living happily ever after in the East Village.

Lonely for New York? Click here!

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Moderate Muslim

Tonight's fare of the night was a man in his 30s who approached my cab at 3 AM while I was waiting at one of my "strategic spots" in Greenwich Village. (A "strategic spot" is a certain place where I may just sit in my cab in order to "fish" for a fare when it is slow on the streets.) He came up to my window and asked me if I knew where a certain club was located (I think he called it the "Orchid Club".) I had never heard of it, so he elaborated by telling me it was a club for transsexuals.

I knew there was such a place just a couple of blocks north of where I was sitting, so I told him its location and, when I mentioned that there was always a "trannie" sitting on a stool out in front of the joint, it rang a bell with him and he was sure that was, indeed, the place he was looking for. I thought he would just walk off but instead, perhaps feeling guilty that I wasn't going to profit by being honest and helpful, he asked if I could drive him there. That was fine with me so he jumped in and we went for what amounted to merely a ride around the block.

Now what was interesting about this guy was that he mentioned that he was from Turkey. I know that Turkey is a Muslim country so right away the idea that a Muslim man would be going to a transsexual club struck me as fascinating. I had already gained his confidence by not invalidating him due to his choice of night clubs, so we could speak frankly. And we did.

He told me that he was, in fact, a Muslim, but (obviously) a moderate one. And this led to a discussion of which Muslim countries in the world would tolerate the presence of transsexuals. He said only in his own country, Lebanon, and Indonesia could such a thing be found. Morocco, he said, was liberal but not that liberal. Everywhere else - Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc, etc - forget about it. He went on to say that Turkey was by far the most moderate Muslim country in the world and that is why it is one of America's most important allies. An interesting thought.

With so much attention in the news these days about fanatical Muslims it was encouraging to me to meet someone who can consider himself to be of that religion but not feel compelled by it. Obviously this was a person who thinks for himself. In his own way, a breath of fresh air, in my opinion.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Year's Eve

Driving on New Year's Eve is not like driving on any other night. It's in a category of its own. It's the night that every other busy night is compared to. New York, the city of people in motion, is in its highest gear. Anything can happen.

It went like this for me...

I started the shift at 5 PM at the garage on W. 44th Street. I was given 3G71, an old cab in good condition. The radio had good reception and the cup holder wasn't broken, as they so often are, so I was happy. After cleaning up the car and getting my trip sheet in order, I was ready to pull out and was struck by a feeling I get only on New Year's Eve. It's the feeling of being the pilot of a jet fighter that is heading out for battle. Not that I've ever been a jet pilot. But it must be the same.

There are three things to be careful about on this night. One, the traffic in the Midtown zone where Times Square is located. Two, drunks vomiting in the cab. And three, getting stuck in a the middle of an unruly crowd. (Sometimes known as "a riot".) Happily, I successfully avoided all of them and had a great night.


But I want to brag a bit and tell you this is not a matter of luck. It's a matter of experience. Where to avoid being. Who to avoid taking. And when to leave your meter on so the roof light stays off so people will think there's still a passenger in the cab and thus leave you alone, so you can get on a highway and get the hell out of the badass part of town you didn't want to be in in the first place. That all comes from experience.

In New York City New Year's Eve goes all the way to 5 AM and beyond. And the night can be divided into two distinct parts: before midnight, and after. Before twelve, no one is drunk and everyone is heading out to their party. Interestingly, there is a lull from 11:45 to 12:15 during which time it is impossible to find a fare. Everyone has gotten to their destination and no one is leaving, of course, until after "the ball drops". So instead of roaming the streets without a customer, I took a break and went over to Central Park West, parked the cab and watched the fireworks.


Not a bad way to bring in the year.



Then at 12:15 it starts again and gets busier and wilder as the night presses on. Soon everyone who gets in the cab is somewhat plastered and a cabbie finds himself in taxi driver heaven: dozens of people on every block desperately trying to get his services. It warms the heart, it does.

But, as I said, my night went smoothly. No one was too drunk. No one was particularly obnoxious, and thank God no one threw up. Most of my fares were just cheerful people having a good time. Three of them kind of stood out for me, all of them females.

The first, an elderly black woman, was going on a short ride early in the evening from 118th Street to 116th Street in Harlem to sing in the choir of her Baptist church. She said she does this every year and always has a great time. Her church is one of churches in Harlem where tourists come to hear gospel music and she told me they are sometimes so crowded they have to turn people away. This woman was so wholesome and connected to her community that it made an impression on me.

The second was my last fare of 2006. A young lady, probably not even 30 years old, coming from New York Hospital on the Upper East Side to 79th Street on the West Side just before midnight. She told me she was a doctor who'd been on call at the hospital for the last 15 hours. What kind of a doctor? A psychiatrist, she said. Well, I don't want to offend anyone, but ever since I saw my cousin's life destroyed at the hands of psychiatrists, I am not a fan of the profession. Nevertheless, we had a polite conversation and I asked her the question I always ask psychiatrists who get in my cab. "What's your definition of 'the mind'?" I asked. (I once had a psychiatrist tell me, as if it was a secret just between him and me, that "no one knows what the mind is". Ever since then, my question persists.) She struggled with this for a bit, saying "that's a good question". Finally, she answered. "It's where the intellect resides," she said. Oh, okay, that clears that up. (P.S. Find me one cardiologist anywhere in the world who has difficulty telling you what "the heart" is.)

The third memorable ride of the night was a blonde in her thirties going straight up 1st Avenue from 34th Street to 60th Street at around 1 AM. She said she was feeling ill with a congested nose and other symptoms but had to go to a friend's house for her traditional black-eyed pea soup which she has every year on New Year's Eve for good luck. And now she just wanted to go back home to sleep it off because she has to be in L.A. tomorrow for work. "What kind of work do you do?" I asked. I noticed a sly smile appear on her face in my mirror and I knew this would be good. "I'm an adult film performer," she said. Her name was Houston and she specializes as the middle-aged mother the teenage boys get their hands on. "I can't give blow jobs with my nose stuffed up," she said. "You've got to be able to breathe through your nose!"

Who knew?

When I finally called it a night close to 6 AM I had grossed my highest ever and, just as important since I'm always on the lookout for omens, I had a good feeling about 2007. I'm predicting a good year.