To the experienced eye of a veteran cabbie, the mere appearance of certain people in the back seat translates immediately into misery. You know instantly that this ride is going to be an exercise in suffering, anxiety, and endurance.
That's how it was a couple of days ago at 6:30 pm at 30th and 5th. A pair of perfectly pleasant passengers were replaced before the door could be closed upon her by a middle-aged woman who said these dreaded words as she settled in:
"Will you take me to Brooklyn?"
She might as well have reached forward and twisted my ear or tweaked my nose. A ride to Brooklyn at this time of the evening to a cabbie is money lost. It means he will have to trek it back to Manhattan through rush hour traffic without a passenger. And that is dead time when he would have been making money during this same time if this damned passenger had not gotten in.
Of course a cabbie can just refuse the ride, even though it is illegal to do so. But then he runs the risk of having a problem with the passenger who may decide to bring the matter up with the Taxi and Limousine Commission which will no doubt fine him hundreds of dollars or even suspend his license for the offense. With this in mind, plus having within me a sense of fair play, I long ago stopped refusing rides. And so, with a tone in my voice that conveyed the emotion of apathy if you listened carefully, I said to her these words of my own:
"Uh, yeah, it's okay."
"Take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Prospect Expressway, then take Ocean Parkway to Foster Avenue and make a left."
"Okay, got it."
It had gotten worse. Not only did she want to go to Brooklyn, she wanted to go to the Kensington section of Brooklyn, which is relatively deep into the borough. Not as deep as Canarsie or Sheepshead Bay, but it was no quick trip over the bridge, either. It would mean 20 to 30 minutes of dead time, the equivalent of throwing twenty dollars out the window.
I pulled out into the traffic of 5th Avenue with a scowl on my face and took a look at her in the mirror as I headed downtown. Oh, god, no. She looked like the John Travolta character in Hairspray. Chubby, bouffant hairdo, like she'd gotten on a bus in 1963 and never gotten off. Here was a person who, in my judgement, surely spent the bulk of her time eating chocolates and watching the soaps and would also turn out to be self-indulgent and mean. I waited for the sniping to begin.
It didn't take long.
"Do you think the Brooklyn Bridge would be as good as the tunnel at this time?" she asked.
I told her since it was rush hour I thought the tunnel was a better choice because it usually has less traffic than the bridge and brought us out further into Brooklyn, thus enabling us to avoid a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway which is normally a mess at this time of day. I also mentioned that although there is a $4.15 toll for the tunnel, I thought it was worth it. But that, of course, was up to her.
I continued driving south on 5th Avenue and hit a red light at the end of the avenue where Washington Square Park is located. I was feeling some tension in the air so I decided to try to lighten the mood by pointing out a flaw in the statue of George Washington which stands with grand authority at the base of the Washington Square Arch.
"Do you see the statue of Washington over there?" I asked.
"Do you think his head is too small?"
She leaned forward to get a better view. "No, it looks right to me."
I now knew for sure that trouble was coming. I have pointed out Washington's undersized head to a couple of hundred people over the years and with only one exception has anyone failed to agree with me that, indeed, the head is too small. And that one exception confessed a minute later that his own head was too small, so his opinion was jaded. So this woman was actually the first person of all time to disagree. God help me.
I drove on without continuing the conversation. I went west on Waverly Place and hit a red light as we approached 7th Avenue South. And then, her whiny voice:
"Why are you driving west? The tunnel is on the east side."
"No, it's on the west side. You enter it on West Street. Maybe you're thinking of the Queens Midtown Tunnel."
"No, the Brooklyn tunnel."
"It's on the west side, believe me."
"This isn't how the other drivers go."
"How do they go?"
"They take the highway on the east side and then they go into the tunnel."
"If you go that way you have to go all the way around the tip of the island and then come up north again on the west side. It's one way to go but I think this way is shorter and faster. Anyway, the tunnel is on the west side, not the east side."
The silence returned, and this was a bad thing. It was a silence that nevertheless spoke the words, "I don't believe you. You're trying to rip me off." The hostility was now palpable, but I did what any cabbie would do in this situation - I suppressed my own resentment and drove on. I made a right on Leroy Street, following a brilliant route that takes you around the Holland Tunnel traffic by wending through a few curvy streets in Greenwich Village before landing you out on West Street. But my passenger did not appreciate the efficiency of the ride she was getting. She had morphed into a type of passenger I refer to as the evil jockey and was becoming more bold in the saddle.
"Why are we way over here?" she moaned. "We should be on the east side."
I had reached my personal tipping point. "Look," I replied firmly, "you can see for yourself on the map on the tv screen. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance is on West Street. And that's on the west side of Manhattan. You don't even have to take my word for it. " (All NYC taxis now have a GPS tracking map on a television monitor that's in the rear compartment.)
My comment was enough to initiate a new period of stony silence which lasted about a minute. And then, in a voice just loud enough for me to hear it:
"Well, this sure is the long way..."
It turned out to be the breaking point. I made eye contact with her through the mirror and laid down the law: "Look," I said, "I'm taking you on the best route I know. If you keep implying that I'm trying to rip you off I'm going to take it as intentional harrassment and I'm going to end the ride. Do you understand?"
There was a pause much akin to the reaction a boxer might have if he'd just received a direct hit. Her reply was a bit odd. "Yes, sir," she said, "I understand."
We continued down West Street toward the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in the cab had gone from stormy weather to an Arctic freeze. After an exchange like that, in the close quarters of a taxicab, the drawbridges over the moats are drawn up and the hostile parties retreat into their own castles. I knew this would happen, but I'd decided I'd rather endure the rest of the ride in that kind of unexpressed resentment than to put up with all these covert little shots. So be it.
Now, the one thing you hope for in a situation like this is that the ride comes to its conclusion as quickly as possible. The worst thing would be that you'd be sitting still in a traffic jam. So, of course, that's exactly what happened next. There was a jam-up as we approached the Ground Zero area and the traffic was reduced to a crawl. I looked out my window. She looked out her window. A couple of minutes ticked by.
And then the most remarkable thing happened.
"Did you see the convention last night?" she asked, meaning the Democratic National Convention which had begun the previous evening.
Her initiating a normal conversation under the circumstances was completely against the rules of Hostile People Not Speaking To Each Other. I was stunned.
"I saw the highlights on the news," I replied.
"Did you see Teddy Kennedy?" she asked.
"Yes, that was amazing," I said, "what a dramatic moment."
"Yes, he was wonderful," she replied.
The conversation continued into a lively and friendly back and forth about the Democratic Convention, city politics, Obama, Giuliani, McCain, and the way the taxi industry is governed. I couldn't help but notice that the more we spoke to each other, the more we liked each other's company and the mental ridges that had seemed so solid just minutes earlier had evaporated. This change of tone was against all the odds.
The discussion went on, and by the time we got to Foster Avenue it had become one of those rides that I was enjoying so much I didn't want it to end. We even continued the chat for a minute after we got to her destination to make sure all points of the conversation had been adequately finalized. She then handed me the fare with an above-average tip.
I offered her the usual comment I make when an enjoyable ride reaches its conclusion: "Take care, it's been nice talking with you," I said.
"It was nice talking to you, too," she said as she opened the door, "once we made up."
We both laughed at her observation, and she was on her way.
I couldn't help reflecting about this ride as I made my way back to Manhattan. This woman had gone in my reality from an unfortunate stereotype that was living up to its expectation to a likable and enjoyable traveling companion, all because she had decided to change hostility into affinity by communicating.
It shows us how quickly and easily relationships can change for the better. This could be said not only of personal relationships but of relationships between groups and nations as well.
And that is the power of communication.