Friday, November 21, 2008

What Actually Does Drive Me Crazy

It's quite common for passengers to ask me for how long I've been driving a cab. After I tell them it's 31 years and wait for them to stop gasping, a frequent comment I hear is:

"Doesn't it drive you crazy?"

"Doesn't what drive me crazy?" I reply.

They think about this for a moment. "Well... the traffic, for one thing."

"Let me tell you something about traffic," I say. "What actually drives people crazy about traffic is that they can't get where they want to go and there's probably someone getting pissed off at them for being late. But that stress is with the passenger, not the cab driver. Imagine you were cruising around town with no place to go, just listening to the radio. You might find it relaxing. That's kind of what it's like to be a cab driver."

This seems to make sense. Most people never looked at it that way.

Then, just to have some fun, I will say this: "There are, however, two things that do drive me crazy in this business. But you'll never guess what they are."

Passengers love this because it gives us a game to play. Can they guess what drives the veteran cabbie around the bend?

"Mean people?"

"Nah... what would be stressful would be having to be around a mean person all the time. But when you drive a cab the mean people you do encounter are out of your life in ten minutes. That's one of the perks of the job, actually."

"Bad tippers?"


By this time there is a long pause. They start to go for the long shot.

"People who bring dogs in the cab?"

"Of course not, I love dogs!"

"People who throw up?"

"Well, yeah, but that doesn't count 'cause it only happens about once a year."

"Trips out of Manhattan?"

"That can be annoying but it doesn't classify as something that drives me crazy. Remember, we're looking for two things that are really stressful here."

"Short rides?"

"No, come on, there's nothing wrong with a short ride."

"People who don't know where they want to go?"

"No, what do I care? The meter is running."

"People talking on their cell phones?"

"No, at most that is merely slightly annoying. Definitely not 'drives-me-crazy' material."

Finally there is a long silence and I can see by the expressions on their faces that they're out of guesses and ready to give up.

"So what is it?"

Drum roll, please. But before I give you the answers, I want to say that I think any cabbie in New York who's been driving for more than a year would agree with me on this. And I think you probably have to be on the inside of any activity in order to be able to correctly say what it is about that activity that most infuriates the people who actually do it. Outsiders aren't usually aware of the subtleties.

Okay, enough suspense. Here they are, the two things that actually are the most stressful about making a living as a New York City taxi driver:

1. Any contact whatsoever with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The TLC is the city agency which makes the rules for the industry and administers those rules. Although I admit that there have been some improvements recently, its history in my 31 years has been sordid. Without getting into a diatribe about the shortcomings of this bureaucracy, I'll just say that cab drivers have to accept whatever mindless or mean-spirited dictates come down the line (like televisions in the rear compartment that are under the control of passengers and blast out the same commercialized drivel over and over and over into the ears of the drivers) and that even the routine of renewing one's hack license every year has enough potential stress connected to it to make one dread opening the renewal form which arrives annually (maybe) in the mail. (One year, for example, I had to make seven trips to various city agencies to clear up the TLC's own bureaucratic errors.) I could go on and on, but I'm sparing you the horror.

It's the second cause of stress that is by far the worst, however, and although it seems the most obvious to me, no one has ever guessed what it is.

2. I can't find a passenger.

That's right. I am cruising the streets of the city and I can't find a damned passenger! Nearly everyone who ever takes a cab in New York assumes that cabs are always busy because whenever they want to get one, it seems it is difficult to find one that's available. This is true, but it is true only because the taxi business is a peak-hour business. During the rush hours (7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 8 p.m.) demand exceeds supply. But that's only 7 hours of the day. There are 17 other hours and during many of them, quite the opposite is the case.

Try getting a cab at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday night, for example. Before your hand goes into a full wave, you will find three or four empty taxis cutting in front of each other in their attempts to get to you first. The 13,187 yellow cabs in New York City derive all their business from street hails. You don't get on a phone and call for a yellow cab. You go out on the street and wave your hand. This means we're all in competition with each other and, when supply of cabs exceeds demand for service, it's a horse race, believe me. Did you ever dream of being a NASCAR driver? Come to New York and drive a cab at night instead.

So how bad can it get? Twice I have gone two hours of desperately cruising the streets without getting a single fare. Being empty for 45 minutes is not all that unusual. And that is stress because you have paid a leasing fee for the use of the cab for a period of 12 hours and therefore time is money (or no money).

It is also a bit humiliating in my case because, if I don't say so myself, I think of myself as the Grand Master of finding fares. So for me to go long periods of time trying every trick I know and still finding another empty cab in front of me wherever I turn, well... it can drive me crazy. I start behaving like the maniac taxi drivers I hear passengers complain to me about. Last week, for example, I was cut off viciously on 7th Avenue South by another cabbie who then beat me to a passenger standing off the sidewalk at W. 4th Street. Instead of shrugging it off and continuing on down the avenue to hopefully find another passenger, I tossed a cup of water through his window as I drove by. Idiotic, certainly, but it shows you how crazy even a non-crazy fellow like myself can get.

I once had a passenger in my cab who was a waiter and we got into a conversation about our professions. He told me about his recurring dream of not being able to keep up with business in his restaurant. He said in his dream the space of the restaurant kept expanding and the tables extended out beyond the entrance right out onto the street. He would run and run from the restaurant out into the street trying to take orders and serve food, but the tables kept multiplying faster than he could cope.

My scary dream is kind of the opposite. I am cruising the streets of New York after midnight making every sage move I've learned over the last 31 years. And yet, everywhere I go I find an empty cab already in front of me. I can't find a passenger no matter what brilliant maneuver I make. This goes on for an hour. Then another hour. Finally, completely exasperated, I find myself driving uptown on Broadway. I decide that all my knowledge of where to find a fare has failed me so I just chuck it all out the window and just drive. I know nothing. Further and further I go on Broadway, up into the Bronx, and then even further up into Westchester County. I am now out of the city limits, but I don't care. I just keep going. Broadway is a continuing road and becomes State Highway 9 up there. I find myself passing through small towns and noticing deer on the sides of the road. I don't care, I just keep going. After two hours I find myself in the town of Kinderhook, not that far from Albany, approaching a red light. It is nearly 4 a.m. and of course the town is completely dark and deserted. I'm thinking I ought to turn around and go back to the city, but then, as I come up to the red light, something catches my eye just beyond the intersection. It's a broken-down limousine with two dressed-up party people at its side waving at me frantically. I realize they want my service! No doubt they had rented the limo, now disabled, and see me as a miracle sent to them to take them back to New York! And I see them as a miracle of my own, a signal from the Almighty that my travail has not been in vain, that my insane journey into the wilderness was actually guided by the Divine. I wave back at them through the windshield, trying to communicate that as soon as my red light turns green, I will be there to rescue them. But just before the light changes...

...another yellow cab from New York City appears from out of nowhere, speeds through the intersection, screeches to a halt beside the limo, and picks up the stranded party people before I can get to them.

And you know when you start having dreams like this that it won't be long before you pick up a couple of husky fellows in white coats who take you for a ride to the funny farm. Although, come to think of it, then at least for awhile there you would have had some passengers!

It has also been rumored that failure to click here for Pictures From A Taxi can also cause one to go crazy. But that is just a rumor, of course.


Real cab driver said...

Only 20 years for me. No dispatching, wow. I didn't find out that I could refuse to be dispatched a call until I'd driven for around a year. I'm as good as anybody in town at working flags, and on a football Saturday, I might exclusively work flags, but there's no dispatching in NYC?

People in NYC must have more class than folks here in Madison, WI. On two consecutive shifts this fall, I had pukers. Now, they did get the door open, and did puke on the pavement, but...... And I had another one blow a belly full of beer last weekend, but that was after he'd paid me and I was backing out of his driveway.

A couple of weeks ago, my last fare of the night were two guys who said they were dealers from Jackson Hole, WY. They were totally trashed. First guy gets out, second guy is paying me, I look around and say to myself that the first guy got into the house pretty fast. Nope. He'd passed out and was lying on the driveway next to the cab arms and legs sprawled out, lying on his back. My nightmare would be running over his leg, backing out of the driveway. When I got him on his feet, I was out of there like a shot.

G.S. said...

It's true, the yellow cabs in NYC work strictly off the streets, so we're always racing with each other. People sometimes ask me what I do for a living and I may say that I race cars, and it's true. Other car service vehicles (the "black cars" and community car services) are dispatched, however. As far as pukers are concerned, it only counts if they actually barf inside the cab. So the number would be a little higher if I counted the heads vomiting out the window, although that doesn't happen very often, either.

Gilighan Qabista said...

I love you GS

King of New York Hacks said...

I second Gil's first I love you. You are THE SAGE of NYC Taxi driving!

Anonymous said...

So true but people never guess these two things. After midnight when there are no passengers it gets even hard find a good radio station.

Anonymous said...

I started driving a cab in Manhattan in June of 1972, but quit after six weeks. Experiences included having a well dressed man piss in the back seat, a transvestite seated in the front who attempted to grab my private parts and a hooker whom I drove to midtown stating that she could only pay with services. I had enough. I suppose not much has changed.

G.S. said...

Actually, a lot has changed. You're making me nostalgic for the good old days...

Anonymous said...

It is like that because mafia (TLC and Garage owners) have monopol and they maximize their profit by having cars out (rented) all the time. Drivers, in order to maximize profit, have to drive 11-13 hours. I think 100 years ago workers won right for 8 hours shift, but 8 hours shift doesn't work for garage owners and TLC.

John said...

Goo GS you must be working every day...Too busy to blog..
Have a great 2009.