Sunday, March 23, 2008

License Plates

I am a person who knows quite a bit about license plates - it's one of the little bonuses you get when you've been sitting in traffic jams for 30 years.

In the United States, each state has its own distinctive plate and most of these have a slogan imprinted on them, usually right beneath the numbers. Sometime in the '80s I thought it would be cool to memorize each state's slogan and then, once I'd done that, to challenge passengers to "ask me any state and I'll tell you the slogan" (if it has one). Rarely would I be stumped and it was (and hopefully still is) a little entertainment for my passengers, if they can tear themselves away from these damned televisions all NYC cabs now have in the rear compartment.

Most of these slogans are really advertisements for how great that state is or why you should go there and spend your money. Maine's slogan, for example, is "Vacationland". Louisiana's is "Sportsman's Paradise". But there are a few that go against the grain, and these are my personal favorites:

1. Oklahoma - "Oklahoma Is OK". This slogan is taken from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and if you know the show and the song itself you would know that what they're really telling you is, hey, Oklahoma is a really swell place, why don't you come on over sometime? But if you weren't familiar with the show you could easily imagine that the people who thought this thing up must have low self-esteem. "Oklahoma? Well, to be honest, it's not really that great... it's, well, you know... okay."

2. Missouri - "The Show-Me State". Here's a slogan that clearly says, "I don't trust you." Which is awfully close to just saying, "Fuck you!" Gotta love a state that's upfront with its hostility. But maybe if they start to feel better about things they might consider changing it to "The Anger Management State".

3. New Hampshire - "Live Free Or Die". Uh, aren't we being just a bit extreme here? Couldn't we work out a compromise? How about "Live Free Or Live Not Quite Completely Free"? Or "Live Free Or Live A Bit Encumbered By Circumstances We're Not Fully In Control Of"? I mean, do we have to die?

Here in the States, if owners of cars pay an extra fee, they can have their plates personalized. These kinds of plates can be messages which have meaning only to a few people, like this one...

...or they can be Messages To The World, which can be quite interesting. Now that I'm armed with a camera, I've taken to snapping shots of these kinds of plates whenever I can pull up to them at a red light. So, for your viewing pleasure, please check these out...


Say what? You want more? Well, dude, just click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Driving a cab in New York City is like having a private little observation booth from which to observe that most peculiar of the Earth's species, the human race. Any broad observation lends itself to categorization and people can be placed into all sorts of categories, of course, but the two most important ones from a taxi driver's point of view are simply the ones all passengers are placed into as they enter the cab: okay or not okay.

"Okay" is anyone who doesn't cause trouble and pays the fare.

"Not okay" is everyone else.

Like workers on an assembly line who deal with the same particles day after day, a taxi driver can usually spot the slightly defective widget almost instantly. It's a filtering system that automatically detects the oddity and sets off an alarm in the driver's mind that commands him to watch this one carefully.

But every once in awhile somebody slips through. He or she seemed fine but then, oh my god, I have been fooled - this person is trouble! I have a certain amount of anger and frustration when I find myself in this situation (because I should have been sharp enough to spot it), but I also have some fascination at being given an opportunity to observe this type of personality in action. Because, after so many years of driving a cab, if someone can slip under my radar, then, man, this guy must be good! And from observing this person, I may be able to learn something.

All of which leads me into telling you about a fare I had a couple of Saturdays ago.

I picked up this person at Penn Station a bit after midnight. He was a twenty-something white male with neatly combed dark hair, normal height and weight, and rather conservative looking, like he might be a young banker or something. He wanted me to take him way out to Douglaston into the farthest reaches of Queens, close to a twenty-mile ride. It's not a fare I want on a Saturday because Manhattan is totally busy all night long and with this passenger I will have close to half an hour of dead time on the return ride without anyone in the back seat. And that's money lost. Nevertheless, I gave him no attitude whatsoever and just started driving across 36th Street en route to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.

Without my even thinking about it, my passenger had cleared the "Okay" hurdle - he showed no signs of being a candidate for inappropriate conduct, danger, or beating the fare - so I wasn't paying any special attention to him. He told me that when I got out of the tunnel to take the Long Island Expressway to the Douglaston Parkway exit and that he would direct me from that point on. That was fine with me because I haven't had a fare to that part of Queens for five years and certainly don't know the streets out there. So off we went.

As is my normal procedure when the passenger is alone and it's going to be a long ride, I tossed out a couple of comments to see if he was a conversationalist.

He wasn't.

In fact, his demeanor was kind of blank. It was hard to get a read on this guy. He was neither hostile nor friendly, but, whatever, it didn't matter. Some are chatty and some ain't, I don't take it personally. So I turned the radio up a bit to keep myself entertained as we got through the tunnel and began our trek on the L.I.E. Otherwise it would have been a long, silent ride and that in itself can be a little uncomfortable when two people are together that long without any conversation.

The trouble began as we approached the Douglaston Parkway exit. What should happen when a passenger has elected to give directions is that he should be right on top of things. Instead my passenger wasn't paying attention to where we were on the expressway and I had to bring it to his attention that I was approaching the exit which he had told me to take.

"I get off here, right?" I called back to him, wanting to be totally sure we'd had no misunderstanding.

He didn't respond immediately, so I repeated the question. Looking at him in the rear view mirror, I feared I might find him slumped over in a deep sleep or something. But he wasn't asleep. He was looking forward with that blankness I had noted when he got in the cab.

Finally he responded with one word: "Yeah."

This guy had now become visible on my radar screen. He wasn't responding normally and I began to get the idea that there may be trouble ahead. It wasn't any kind of personal danger signal. It was more of a somehow-I'm-not-gonna-get-paid signal or a some-other-kind-of-trouble signal. I went on full alert, particularly because this was a very long ride and if I got beat it would be a loss of $40 or more, and that, combined with the dead time coming back to Manhattan, would really hurt.

We proceeded along a service road that ended at a red light at the intersection of Douglaston Parkway. He should have told me well before we arrived there in which direction to turn, but he said nothing.

"Left or right?" I asked.

There was a pause. Then, "Right".

I turned in the direction indicated and went straight ahead for about half a mile, waiting for further directions, but none came. I checked him in the mirror, again wondering if he'd fallen asleep, but, no, he was fully conscious.

"Just keep going straight?" I asked again, feeling a need to be reassured that he knew where he was going.


I thought it would be a good idea to re-establish the understanding we had that I needed directions from him, so I reminded him to keep an eye on where we were going so I'd know where to turn. He replied that, yeah, he knew that and to just keep driving straight.

Which is what I did for about another mile until we came to a red light. And that's when this fare descended into the ride from hell. For me.

We sat at the light for twenty seconds or so. There were no other vehicles anywhere around, so the silence and stillness around us amplified the tension I was feeling being around this guy. And then he said this:

"Where have you taken me?"

Oh, shit. I was alone in the middle of relatively nowhere with a nut. Or at least he might be a nut.
"Where have I taken you? What do you mean? I've taken you where you told me to take you."

"Where are we?"

"I don't know - we're on Douglaston Parkway, where you told me to go!"

"You made a wrong turn."

I turned around and looked him straight in the eye through the opening of the partition. "Look, buddy," I said with barely contained anger, "how could I have taken a wrong turn when I went where you told me to go? I was following your directions!"

He just sat there staring at me without saying a word, the expression on his face indicating that he was of the opinion that I was somehow trying to deceive him.

The light turned green, but I didn't move the cab an inch. We just sat there in the middle of the road - no other cars around - in a bizarre, stony silence. The meter clicked an additional 40 cents due to the waiting time.

"The meter's running. Why aren't you moving?"

"I'm not moving because we don't know where we're going!"

I was becoming furious and it was showing in my voice which, although restrained, had been raised a couple of decibels.

"Why are you raising your voice to me?" he replied in a calm, even tone.

Oh my god, the guy was a bona fide psycho. The normal and expected reaction of a passenger in this situation is to be apologetic or at least supportive toward the driver as it was obviously he who has caused the problem. But this guy was not trying to create a resolution to a simple, human situation. He was turning it into a mind game, with he being the matador and I the bull.

And I was stuck in a taxicab with him in the middle of the night with no one else around.

I tried to calm myself down, realizing that, psycho or not, I was somehow going to have to handle this guy and my own indignation and anger at him were not going to be the way to go. I tried to negotiate. "Okay," I said calmly, "what are we going to do here? Where are you trying to go? To somebody's house?"

"I don't see why I should have to keep paying because you're lost."

I looked at the guy in the rear view mirror. "Look," I replied, using all my restraint to keep from screaming at the son of a bitch, "if you think I'm trying to rip you off, I'll tell you what - you just tell me what you expect to pay for this ride and that's what the price will be."

I was of course outraged that I would feel I needed to placate somebody who was so clearly out of line, but that is something a cab driver can always say to make peace with the customer. The expected reaction is then one of conciliation. The passenger should feel at ease and whatever the level of affinity had been before the problem began should be restored. But that's only if you're dealing with a sane person.

What this guy said was - nothing. Instead he got on his cell phone and called someone. The conversation took about a minute, during which time we continued to just sit in the middle of the road at the traffic light, my passenger uttering occasional mono-syllables and myself feeling the effects of severe mental stress. During his chat I heard him say the words "train station".

I turned around and spoke to him. "Do you want to go to the Douglaston train station?"


It was the only piece of information I needed.

"Then we should have turned left at the light when we got off the L.I.E. The train station is north of the L.I.E."

"I told you to go north at the light."

"You told me to go right at the light."

Those turned out to be the last words we spoke to each other until we arrived at the station five minutes later. But rather than having a feeling of relief that our mutual problem had been solved, I instead continued to experience great anxiety during these five minutes about what might happen next. Would he jump out of the cab at the station without paying me? Would he insist that he'd been ripped off and pay me a fraction of what was on the meter? Or would he come up with some other completely unexpected insanity? I was stressing out.

This guy was driving me crazy!

When we got to the train station the meter was $47.80. He handed me three twenty dollar bills and left the cab without another word. A $12.20 tip, excessively high.

Now you might think that this meant that he was sorry about the hard time he'd given me and wanted to make it up to me. But there was no smile, there was no "sorry", there was no indication in any way that that's what he intended. Instead, his act of handing me the money and leaving without a word was in itself another strange action that left me feeling ill at ease.

Nevertheless, I was glad the ordeal was over and that I'd been overpaid. I drove off quickly, noting that he was getting into the driver's side of a parked car as I pulled away.

In retrospect, I found that I couldn't stop thinking about this ride. Experienced as I am, I did not see this guy as just another difficult passenger. No, this guy was more than that. He has a special significance which, if understood, I think provides a valuable "life lesson", and I'd like to share that insight with you.

You noticed that I referred to this guy as a "psycho". I wasn't using the term loosely. We often think of a psycho as a wild-eyed maniac with a gun in his hand. Or someone screaming nonsensical babble as he walks down the street. Those are the easy ones to spot.

But there's another understanding of the term that I like much better because it helps us spot the most insidious of our species. It's someone who is motivated by a continuous intention to harm or destroy. This person is also a "psycho" but is much harder to detect than the loud ones because he can go through life seeming to be a normal person. But if you look closely at this character, you will find a path of destruction everywhere he's traveled.

I looked back at my own thirty minutes with this passenger. Instead of having a pleasant experience with this guy, instead, for no rational reason whatsoever, I was put through the hoops of anger, frustration, anxiety, and resentment. I felt genuine relief to be rid of him.

Then I imagined what my life would be like if this guy was my boss. What would it be like if he was my brother? What kind of existence would a woman have who was married to this guy? Or, worst of all, what if he was your father when you were still a little kid?

Your life would be hell. Your days would be filled with endless problems that would never be solved and you would experience stress all the time. Your confidence and self-esteem would be nonexistent. You would conclude that life was no fun and you might even become suicidal.

Do you know someone who's causing you trouble all the time? Upon close inspection, is it your honest opinion that this person is motivated by a continuous intention to harm or destroy? Does this person leave a path of destruction everywhere he or she has been?

If so, take some advice from a taxi driver.

Get this person out of your life.