Thursday, February 22, 2007

Undercover Taxi

Take a look at this picture. What do you see?

Good guess, but you're wrong! It's actually a police car.

I mentioned in my last post that the police activity I found myself in the middle of had vehicles of all types rushing to the scene, and that some of those vehicles were cars that look like taxicabs. This is one of them.

These "taxis" are used as undercover cars in general police work. You may see them cruising the streets as you would a regular patrol car or perhaps pulling over a motorist (they're equipped with flashing lights and sirens) who ran a red light or something. The cops are in plain clothes, not uniforms. I would guess there are about 20 of these cars in the city. I see them every day.

How can I tell? A very experienced eye can see certain differences at a glance. First off, there's the medallion number. (These are the four digits in the rooflight that are used to identify one cab from another.) If the first two digits are 6Y, it's always a police car. If the first two digits are 2W, it might be one. (Some are, some aren't.) Then there's the license plate. Real cabs have the four-digit medallion number there, too. As you can see in this picture, this car has a different set of numbers. Another thing is the black molding strip running across the doors. The Ford Crown Vic taxis that are in service today all have a yellow strip, not black.

The cops (there are always at least two in a car, sometimes more) who drive these vehicles never pick up passengers. They have meters, but they're always running. So another way of identifying them is to look inside, if you can, and see what the meter's total is. Very likely it reads some ridiculously high amount.

Seven hundred, twenty-five dollars and seventy cents. Plus the fifty-cents night charge. It's like a picture from taxi driver heaven. This is what we dream about!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cops And Casting Directors

It's often been said that New York is a city of infinite variety but, to be more accurate, I prefer to say it's a city of infinite realities - infinite realities all jammed together in such a tight space that you are in a constant state of exposure to them. It can be amazing how quickly you may find yourself in an utterly different reality than the one you were in just moments ago.

No one knows this better than a taxi driver...

Last Monday night just before midnight I sat in front of Nobu's on 57th Street waiting for a fare. Two middle-aged women came out of the trendy, expensive Japanese restaurant and climbed in. One was going to Gramercy Park and the other on to the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. In overhearing some of their ebullient chatter I ascertained that there had been a party at Nobu's to celebrate the opening of the movie MUSIC AND LYRICS, a romantic comedy which premiered at the Zeigfield Theater in midtown earlier in the evening.

"Did you see Drew?" one asked the other.

"Not at the restaurant," replied her friend, "but she was sitting right in front of me in the theater."

After the first one was dropped off at 21st Street and 3rd Avenue, I kind of continued the conversation as if I'd been involved in it all along. I learned that my passenger was the casting director of the movie - she had made the decisions as to which actors would play which roles, including Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I asked her various questions about casting and about this film in particular, and she was quite conversational, but I saved my big question until the end of the ride.

"So," I asked, "if you were casting me in a movie, what kind of role could you see me playing?"

"I don't know," she said, "I can't see your face."

I turned around and moved a bit to my right so she could see me clearly through the opening in the partition.

"A leading man!" she exclaimed.

I laughed out loud a bit past the time normally allotted for laughing out loud because this was a JOKE. I may be vain, but I'm not vain enough to imagine that with my oversized nose, bald spot, and baggy eyes I could ever be cast as a leading man in this lifetime. (Although, then again, there is Woody Allen. Hmmm....)

"No, come on, seriously," I said with a smile.

She took a better look. "I could see you as a teacher," she said. "You're an intellectual."

Well, I was happy with that! My feeling of self-esteem had been upped a notch and she left me with a big smile on my face (and a nice tip in my pocket) as she exited the cab and ascended the steps of her brownstone. I headed back to Manhattan on Atlantic Avenue and in eight or nine minutes I was gliding off the exit ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, ready to find my next passenger, wherever that may be.

And then, in the blink of an eye, that city of infinite realities thing kicked in, big time.

It was a cop thing. As I headed west on one of my downtown routes (Worth Street), I noticed something only the experienced eye can perceive at a glance. There was police activity suddenly occurring, but it wasn't just any police activity - it was something big. Police vehicles - patrol cars, detectives' cars, even a few taxis that are actually undercover police cars - were appearing from all directions and they were moving faster and more erratically than they would under normal circumstances. There were sirens blaring north of me, south of me, east of me and west of me. Whatever was going on, it was big and I was in the middle of it.

I crossed through West Broadway on Worth Street just moments after a police car slammed to a halt on the north side of the intersection. The doors of the cruiser opened simultaneously and coming out of the vehicle was something I'd seen only three times in 29 years of taxi driving: cops with guns drawn.

You might think otherwise if you'd never been to New York City and the only thing you really knew about it were the things you'd seen in movies, but a cop with a gun drawn is an extremely rare sight here. I'm told most cops go through a twenty-year career without ever having drawn a weapon. It's not something that is done lightly.

I stopped the cab on the west side of West Broadway and tried to decide what to do. It was a safety versus curiosity dilemma. An officer holding a pistol in both hands was crossing the avenue and moving very carefully on foot toward a parking lot to my right, his body shifting from left to right as he tried to extend his range of vision. Oh, yes - I was in a dangerous place.

My digital camera, which I carry by my side at all times, has a video function which I've just lately been starting to play around with. A moment of truth was at hand: do I get the hell out of there or do I stay and take pictures? I knew it was a photo op that might never come again, but on the other hand there was the thought that I could be a paragraph in tomorrow's newspaper.

I went with some kind of journalist's instinct. I reached into my backpack on the seat next to me, pulled out my camera, and started fumbling with it.

I adjusted the control knob to "video" and tried to push the right buttons to get it going. It was one of those moments-seem-like-minutes time expansions: the cop with the gun was crouching down and pointing his gun at an SUV that was parked in the lot - I finally got my camera rolling and started pointing it at this cop and other cops with guns drawn - it occurred to me that this might not be such a great idea after all - the cop turned away from the SUV and looked at me - I put the camera down, thinking he might think I was pointing a gun at him - the cop shook his head at me (I realized a couple of minutes later that he thought I was a cop in an undercover taxi and the shake of his head meant there was nobody in the SUV) - I decided to get the hell out of there - I drove to Hudson Street and made a right.

That all took place in a span of about 20 seconds. Sorry to say, the video showed only blurred images, which is too bad because I would have loved to have been able to post it here. (I did learn one thing: you've got to be ready and you've got to be fast.)

My next passenger was waiting for me as soon as I turned onto Hudson. I drove him to Astoria in Queens and we had an interesting conversation about cops and photography.

Later in the night I looked at all this in retrospect. The shift in realities could be compared to changing channels on television. In the blink of an eye I had gone from romantic comedy (the casting director) to action flick (the cops). It was like YOU'VE GOT MAIL meets THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

New York City.

After reading all those words, what you need now is a picture. So click here!

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Ding

Bad karma is like bad weather. You're doing nothing out of the ordinary, or at least that's how it seems, and then suddenly out of nowhere - you're in it. One bad thing after another happens.

I had a shift like that recently.

First there was a woman who gave me a ten-cent tip on a $7.90 fare. She probably thought she was giving me a $1.10 tip but didn't notice that there is a one dollar surcharge added to the total on the meter during the evening rush hours (in this case, $6.90 + $1.00 = $7.90). That was no big deal but it annoyed me and most likely set me up mentally for the next bad thing.

Which was getting the finger from a pedicab driver. Pedicabs have multiplied like cockroaches in the city, even in the winter, and, although I admire drivers who provide their own horsepower, they are becoming a traffic nuisance. This one particular person was pedaling up 6th Avenue in a moving lane, apparently suffering from the delusion that he was a Chevrolet. So I tapped my horn. The guy, who had a face that looked like it belonged in a penitentiary, flipped me the bird and threatened to fuck me up but good. That was a first. So much for the thought that the pedicab drivers were just a bunch of swell, good-natured college kids.

But these incidents were merely preludes to the ding.

The ding. The dreaded ding. It's an occupational hazard for a cab driver and a big-city quality of life item for anyone who dares to drive a car into Manhattan.

The ding is when the door of one vehicle opens too widely and knocks into the door or fender of another vehicle.

They come in two varieties. One is the ding that happens when the owner of the dinged vehicle is not anywhere around. The other is when he is. In the first instance the handling is to say to yourself, "Oh, damn, that's terrible, gee, I'm sorry that happened". And then drive away. In the second instance you must actually confront and handle an angry human being.

Since I was having a bad taxi karma day it meant, of course, that the owner of the other vehicle was right there. Here's what happened...

I was waiting at a red light on 68th Street, facing Columbus Avenue, with no passengers in the cab. On my right was a black, expensive-looking SUV. A sixty-ish woman appeared from the sidewalk and walked toward me. Like when you can see an accident coming but are helpless to prevent it, I surmised immediately that a spatial problem was at hand. I was too close to the SUV and there was no room to move forward. Unless this woman opened the door of my taxi very carefully the potential existed here for a ding.

As she came closer my apprehension grew. Because I could now see, simply from her facial expression and demeanor, that she was not the open-the-door-very-carefully type. To the contrary, she appeared to be an old-fashioned, quintessential battleaxe. If Oscar the Grouch had a 65 year-old sister, this would be her.

And to add to the tension - considerably - I then noticed that a middle-aged man was sitting in the driver's seat of the SUV and he was watching this woman with the same apprehension that was impinging on me. Like a meteor that has been on a journey of a hundred million miles and is finally turning into a firey ball as it hits the atmosphere, a moment of truth was suddenly at hand.

The woman put her fingers on the handle of the right rear door... she pulled the handle up... the door began to open...


True to her character, she then climbed into the back seat and pretended that nothing had happened. The driver of the SUV - of course - jumped out in great alarm to inspect the damage. But then, acting on an instinct that I didn't really know that I had, I did something that turned out to be a karma-crusher.

I grimaced. And my grimace was noticed by the other driver. It was a facial expression that said, "I could see this coming but there was nothing I could do about it. Nevertheless, even though I have been victimized by the actions of a careless person, it is my responsibility."

My expression of pain actually made him sypathetic to my own plight and gave us both a common enemy. So when he noticed a smudge of yellow paint on his black door - although he could have made an issue of it - he dismissed it as no big deal and let me go on my way. But not before shaking his head and rolling his eyes as if to say, "Too bad you and I both have to live on the same planet with the moron sitting in your back seat."

I could feel the jaws of fate release me, no doubt to go off seeking fresher meat somewhere else. But I still had to deal with the black mass sitting in my back seat.

"What does he expect? I have to get into the taxi!" she barked.

"He expects the person opening the door to be careful not to put a dent in his car," I said with an edge in my voice.

"There was hardly any room!" she protested.

"It's one of the skills," I replied. The implication being as a veteran New Yorker she should know better.

"I have a bad leg! I need room!"


The light turned green and we headed to Central Park West and then uptown toward her destination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A minute of stony silence was suddenly interrupted by her angry voice propelling itself toward me from the rear.

"Well, why do these people insist on driving their cars into Manhattan? There's no room for their damned cars and they think they're too good to ride the trains!"

I realized by this time that there would be no point in arguing with her (since she was incapable of admitting that she'd done anything even slightly wrong), so I employed the same technique that is used on drunks who go on a rant about politics: I patronized her by agreeing with everything she said. You may say it was the coward's way out, but it was quite effective in getting us to the museum in peace.

I pulled up in front of the Met, where tourists were waiting at the taxi stand for a cab to arrive. She paid the fare and gave me a surprisingly decent tip and then swung the door open to its full length, very nearly knocking down my next passenger.

As I watched her make her way to the stairs that lead into the museum's entrance, it seemed that a storm system had left my cab and was headed into the building where so many of the world's art treasures are stored. I listened to the news the next day to learn how many Van Goghs and Cezannes had been destroyed, but, oddly enough, there wasn't any mention of it at all.

Click here for Pictures From A Taxi.