"You mean tonight?" is my usual wiseass reply.
"How many times would you guess?" I ask.
They think about it for a minute, doing some kind of math based on a thirty-year time span.
Wrong again. Sorry to disappoint anyone who's hoping to get a juicy tale out of me, but the answer is actually ZERO. Throughout all those years in the '70s and '80s when New York had such a high crime rate, I was driving cabs that had no partitions to protect me from passengers and I was taking people to the worst neighborhoods in the city almost every night, yet I have never been the victim of a robbery. I've had people rip me off by not paying the fare, sure, and once a kid on the street tried unsuccessfully to grab the money that was in my shirt pocket, but I've never had a passenger pull out a weapon or in any way attempt to separate me from my money. Never.
When I tell people this, what I usually hear is, "Knock on wood."
Like hell I will. If I thought it was luck, then I would also think that any day now my luck is about to run out. It isn't luck.
I have a system...
Many years ago - I think it was in 1978 - I had a conversation with a passenger in my cab which may have saved my life. The passenger was a woman who was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Our conversation had to do with violent crime, a subject that was on everybody's mind in the city in those days. She told me she had prosecuted hundreds of violent criminals and had come to this conclusion: the one you think it is, it is.
"The one you think it is, it is." Those words remained in my consciousness, big time, and it led to the development of my taxi driver's anti-crime system. What she meant was that people who commit stupid, violent crimes look the part. And holding up a cab at gunpoint or knife point in the hope of getting, what? - a couple of hundred dollars? - is a really stupid crime because the idiot is risking years in jail in order to get so little.
The beauty of it, if you want to call it that, is that someone who is that stupid is also not smart enough to dress up in a three-piece suit in order to fool the cab driver. Because if he was smart enough to do that, he wouldn't commit the crime in the first place. He'd commit a different kind of crime, like stealing pocketbooks in restaurants, instead.
After you drive a cab for six months or so you begin to become quite familiar with the various types of passengers you tend to get on any given day. Generally speaking, your customers are people who can afford to pay the fare and fit into certain categories, like business travelers, tourists, working New Yorkers, etc. So the odd person who does not fit into one of these categories stands out like a sore toenail and that is the person you pay careful attention to.
And that is where my system begins.
STRIKE ONE: the passenger looks like Godzilla and I would have driven right past him without stopping, but somehow this guy (it's never an unaccompanied female) made it into my cab anyway. Maybe I was stopped at a red light and he got in or maybe he got in before the previous, departing passenger could close the door, but one way or the other, there he is in my cab. I am stuck with him.
When I say he "looks like Godzilla" what I mean is that he looks like a thug. This is a guy who, to my eye, looks conceivably like someone who is low-life enough to think it would be worthwhile to stick up a taxi driver. It is a judgement call by me based on years of experience. I do not compromise my own reality.
However, this is only Strike One. I do not make any attempt to get him out of my cab or give him a hard time. I merely ask him where he wants to go and start driving in that direction. If the place he wants to go is a well-populated street in a decent part of town, I have no problem with it. Even a stupid criminal is smart enough not to try to stick you up in the middle of Herald Square. But if he wants to go to the South Bronx at two in the morning, then it's...
STRIKE TWO: he's taking me to a bad part of the city at a time of the night when I don't feel safe going there. If the guy is planning on holding me up, this is where he wants me to be. He could direct me to drive into a dark, deserted street in an area where he feels safe and commit the crime there.
When a passenger has two strikes, I have a distinctly uneasy feeling about him. The fare seems wrong. My instincts tell me I am heading into trouble. This is the critical time for a cab driver. The incorrect thing to do is to "hope". You don't want to find yourself in that dark, deserted street with this guy. On the other hand, it would also be wrong to refuse to drive him there. Maybe he's okay. But you don't know that yet, and what must be done at this point is to find out.
I emphasize "must be done". Finding out if this guy is intending to hold you up is the difference between being at Cause or being at Effect, possibly even between life and death. And you must remain at Cause in this situation. How can that be done?
I do it by forcing myself to have a conversation with him. I will just start talking to this guy about ANYTHING. It could be sports, politics, the weather, the economy, traffic, giraffes, people passing by on the street, the color of my true love's eyes, if Burger King's fries are really better than McDonald's... ANYTHING. As I am talking to him, I am carefully watching his reaction to my communication in the mirror. I am trying to determine, by his response or lack of response, what is going on in his mind. I am trying to get a "feel" for the guy.
Interestingly, 99 percent of the time he turns out to be okay. I can see by the way he talks that he does not have an evil intention. I continue on with the ride and he pays the fare. But what about that one percent? What if the guy speaks with some hostility, is sarcastic, or won't communicate at all? What if, after forcing myself to converse with him, I still have a bad feeling about the guy? Then it's...
STRIKE THREE: he is out. I must get this guy out of my cab and I must do it in a busy place where there are lots of people around. How to get rid of him? There are three basic ways:
A) Overtly. You pull up next to a police car and announce to the passenger that you don't like the feeling of this ride and you're not continuing on with it. You don't charge the guy for the ride but if he has a problem, there's the police officer. Or, if there's no cop around, shut the partition and lock it and order him out of the cab. Again, no charge. Make sure you stop in a place where you can pull away the moment his foot touches the pavement.
The overt method is not recommended. It could lead to a confrontation or a ticket for a refusal from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Better than that are the other two methods, the sneaky methods, both of which require a little acting skill...
B) Covertly, Part 1. There is something wrong with the car. Years ago, when I owned my own cab, I had a cut-off switch installed in the taxi. Whenever I hit the switch, the engine would stop running and wouldn't start up again. It was (and still is) illegal, of course, as it could be easily abused to refuse fares you don't feel like taking. But that was the perfect tool. However, if you can't get a cut-off switch installed, there is another way.
Press your foot lightly on the emergency brake to the point where the red "brake" light appears on the dashboard. It will not affect the movement of the car if the pressure of your foot is very slight, but the red light will come on nevertheless. Then announce to the passenger that the brake light just came on and the brake pedal is going all the way down to the floorboard when you step on it, so you're going to have to end the ride and call a tow truck. Don't charge him for the ride as he leaves the premises. Then lock the doors, put your off-duty light on, and drive away.
C) Covertly, Part 2. There's something wrong with you. One way of doing this is the fake cell phone call. You pull out your cell phone and pretend that you're having a conversation with a family member. There has been a terrible accident and a relative has been taken to the hospital. You must get there at once. Sorry, but you're going to have to drop him off right now. No charge.
And then there is the most drastic, yet effective, way of all: "Very sorry, it's really embarrassing to say this, but I have diarrhea." No need to elaborate! Just remember to do this only in a busy place with lots of people around.
So there it is. If you are a cab driver yourself, I urge you to study and practice the Three Strikes And You're Out System even if you have a two-way radio in your cab. (In New York, we don't have radios - all our business comes right off the street.) And if you know someone who is a cab driver, please print out this post and put it in his or her hands. You never know, you might be saving a life.