Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fourth Worst Thing That Can Happen To A Cab Driver

I have long held the opinion that the three worst things that could happen to a cab driver are

1) Death

2) Paralysis

3) Some subhuman pukes in your cab.

In that order.

But I never knew what the fourth worst thing might be.

Until now.

Here's what happened...

A few nights ago at around 10 p.m. I was cruising for a fare on University Place in Greenwich Village. It's a narrow, one-way street that runs for only seven blocks from Washington Square up to 14th Street. I like University Place because it has several bars and restaurants on it as well as one of the great rarities in Manhattan, a bowling alley. These are all places where a cabbie is likely to find his next passenger. It's also a late-night area due to the high population there of New York University students who may be hitting the midnight oil or, more likely, hitting the midnight gin and tonic in a bar.

As I passed 13th Street, moving slowly in order to be able to stop in case I was hailed, a figure came rushing out at me from my left (driver's) side. He was a white-skinned, wild-eyed guy in his twenties whose facial expression and frantic body motion immediately struck me as WRONG. In taxi-driving, like anything that you do repetitively over a long period of time, you develop an instinct for the particles that stand out from the usual. And I could see in an instant that this guy didn't fit. People simply don't hail you like that unless there is something wrong.

Sometimes you're stuck with a person like this. You're waiting at a red light and he gets in. You know immediately that he's trouble but there he is in your cab and you've got to deal with him.

But sometimes you're not stuck with him.

You just keep driving and pass him by.

Of course you hope that he thinks that you didn't see him and that's why you didn't stop. You never want to hurt anyone's feelings. But any veteran cabbie knows that his feelings are quite secondary to your own gut instinct. The guy is trouble, you know it, and you keep your foot on the accelerator.

But it was different in this case. He came running right up next to me on the side of the cab. We made eye contact. I slowed down momentarily and glanced forward to see if the light at the next intersection, 14th Street, was red or green. It was green. This meant if I kept driving I could make the light, turn right, and be gone from this guy and whatever storms were brewing in his universe forever.

I kept driving.

There was no "Sorry, I didn't see you" about it. It was a blatant "I see you, I don't like your face, and I reject you. Goodbye." It was ugly.

I saw him still waving frantically at me in the rear view mirror, but REJECTED had been stamped on his application form and that was that. The decision of the judges is final. I made the turn and he was gone from sight and mind.

On 14th Street the distance between University Place and the next intersection, Broadway, is quite short. Because of this and its key location at the south end of Union Square, there is normally a ton of traffic at that particular spot. And it was no different at this time. It took me close to a minute to reach Broadway and then make another right to head back downtown in search of my next fare.

It was a fare I didn't have to do much searching to find. My next passenger jumped in as I stopped at the red light at 13th and Broadway.

Unfortunately, it was the same guy.

In all my years of taxi driving, this was a first. Never before had I had to confront a rejected passenger and answer for my sin. Never before had I had to speak to such a person. But there he sat in the back seat, almost surreal, looking at me like the Ghost of Misdeeds Past.

I was in shock. I immediately wondered how he'd been able to get over to 13th and Broadway so quickly on foot, and then realized that if he'd been running he could have done it in just that amount of time. I then hoped maybe he wouldn't recognize me as the driver who had just passed him by.

No such luck.

"Why didn't you stop for me, man?"

I considered the situation. There was no way I could bullshit my way out of it. So I just told him the truth.

"I didn't stop for you because I didn't like the way you came running up to me waving your arms so frantically," I said. "When people do that it usually means there's some kind of trouble going on and I don't want to be a part of it."

Interestingly, he could accept that. Truth has a way of doing that, even if it's an unwanted truth. He just accepted my explanation without feeling a need to get into an argument about it.

"Okay," he said, "Listen, I've gotta get down to 7th Street and Avenue A fast. In a big rush here, man!"

It was as if the whole rejection incident had not taken place. I felt relieved.

But as I started to drive down Broadway, I realized this was a good thing and it was a bad thing, too. Good because what could have been a major confrontation and even disciplinary action against me by the passenger had evaporated into nothing. But bad because the truth which had caused that potential trouble to disappear nevertheless meant that this passenger was, in fact, going to be trouble himself.

Now, I am supremely confident about my own instincts as a taxi driver. I had rejected this guy on a gut level that is never wrong, from my point of view. I knew that anyone who comes running up to a cab like that and who looks the way he looked was just surely going to mean some kind of trouble for me. And now I was waiting to see what the trouble would be.

It didn't take long. The ride we were taking was a short one. So short, in fact, that he could have walked it in five minutes, which was an outpoint in itself. This was not the kind of person who spends money on a taxi like that. Although he didn't tell me why he was in such a rush, his demeanor and his hurried speech told me it was drugs. My evaluation of the guy was that he was a junkie and this was a drug "emergency" of one kind or another.

We got to Avenue A and 7th Street in about a minute and a half. I pulled over to the curb so as to not block the traffic. And then he hit me with it.

"I've gotta meet someone in that building across the street. She's got the money for the ride. I'll be right back, man."

It was literally the oldest trick in the Book of Passengers' Sneaky Tricks.

Normally what I would do in this situation would be to try to stop the passenger from exiting the cab without leaving something of value behind. Or I'd just take off with him still in the taxi and look for a cop. You don't take a ride in a cab and then announce at the end of the trip that you have to disappear into a building to get money. That's a taxi no-no and it takes just one rip-off at the beginning of a cabbie's career to learn that lesson.

But this case was different. For one thing, it was a really short ride with little time lost and only a few dollars on the meter. But, more than that, in the wider karmic view of things I kind of felt I owed it to him.

So I let him go without a dispute. I waited there for a couple of minutes if only to validate what I already knew - that there was no way this guy was coming back - and then I drove off.

But I did go away with two things of value. One was that it showed me once again that my instincts are rock solid. I knew instantly when seeing this guy first coming toward me that he was bad news and that I was right to have not stopped for him.

And the other was discovering what the fourth worst thing is.

It's the dead returning to life and coming to get you.

The horror of it.

The horror!

Of course there's no horror in clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi. It's like strumming a banjo in a meadow on a summer day.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Good Cop

Well, I wrote a "bad cop" story - "Two Kinds Of Tickets". In the interest of fairness, and as required by the Taxi Driver's Code of Honor which doesn't exist, I am compelled to file the following report.
It's a "good cop" story.

It happened a few days ago and it had to do with something I knew would happen sooner or later (and turned out to be later).

Yellow cabs in New York City have been required to accept credit cards for just over a year now. Since it began I've been wondering what would happen when:

a) the only credit card the passenger has is declined. Or all the credit cards the passenger has are declined, and

b) the passenger has no cash and no apparent way of getting cash.

This situation is a bit different than what the same situation would have been in the days prior to credit cards. In those days, the passenger presumably knew that he didn't have any money in his pockets. I mean, who would get into a taxicab without knowing he had money to pay for the ride? You get the guy to his apartment building and then, after a minute of putting his hands through his pockets...

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I don't have any money on me!"

And then...

"I'll go upstairs and get some money. I'll be right back!"

And then...

Nothing. And you can't believe you've been suckered again. Plus you've wasted ten or fifteen minutes of money time. "He (or she) seemed so sincere..."

But this declined credit card situation is a little different. It's much easier to believe that the person genuinely didn't know his card would be declined and there's a presumption of innocence. Right?

Well, wrong. It turns out that, if you're a veteran cabbie and you've been ripped off whatever the requisite number of times is, the assumption is that this is just another, more modern, way of beating a fare. It's a presumption of guilt, actually.

Here's what happened...

A few days ago I picked up a fare at 3:45 a.m. in Midtown at 6th Avenue and 56th Street, a good part of town. It's an area where you might find office workers who've been doing an all-nighter heading wearily home or you might find someone who's been in an upscale bar all night heading wearily home. My passenger was an attractive 30-something female, professional in appearance and sophisticated in demeanor, whose destination was 84th Street in the Upper West Side. There was nothing "street" about her, nothing that would seem to be a tip-off that she would even consider the possibility of not paying a cab driver his fare.

So when, after several swipes, her credit card was declined by the taxi's satellite-connected system, I wasn't concerned. She would just use a different card, which is actually not that unusual.

But she didn't have another card.

Still, I was not concerned. She would just reach into her bag and pull out enough cash to pay the $7.80 fare, probably giving me a ten and telling me to keep the change. Or, if not a ten, then certainly nine, since eight would be a 20 cent tip (also known as an "insult") and this person would never give a 20 cent tip.

But then came an alarming confession. "I don't have enough cash," she said.

Now this was not good and quite immediately I was concerned. In prior years when the passenger had no cash but did have a credit or debit card, an option at this point would have been to go to an ATM. But since her card didn't work in the taxi's system, there didn't seem to be any point in trying the declined card in a bank. Nevertheless, there was still another way. I suggested that she go upstairs to get money from her apartment but leave something of value in the taxi as collateral.

And this is where she lost me.

She told me that there was no money in her apartment and she then handed me two dollars and offered to give me her business card so that I could call her the next day to arrange to be paid the remaining $5.80 of the fare.

Now I was offended.

Her gesture reeked to me of deceit and manipulation. I'm afraid I've been around the block too many times (literally) to see this as anything but an attempt to take me for more of an idiot than I actually am. Plus telling me there's no money in her apartment - not even ten dollars - sorry, even in the unlikely chance that this is true, couldn't you find something in your apartment to pay the fare with? How about a tea kettle? (That actually happened once.)

The funny thing in a situation like this is that getting paid is no longer the real issue. If someone gets in the cab and tells you up front that he doesn't have enough money to cover the cost of the ride, well, all right, you can decide right there to either take him or leave him. No harm done and you respect his honesty. And, most importantly, I haven't been made a fool of.

It's when someone thinks he can pull a fast one on you - make you a sucker - that the game becomes "You Can't Do That To Me!"

And that's what this game had become. What I do in a situation like this is to become a not very nice guy. If the person appears as a threat to me, I will suddenly slam the plexiglas partition window shut, lock it, and announce that we're now going to drive to a police precinct. If the person does not appear to be a threat, as in this case, the window stays open but we still take off for the police station. Sometimes the passenger will try to bolt from the cab at this point, so the trick is to drive to the cops without ever stopping, not even for a red light.

And that is what I was about to do.

Except something happened that only happens in the movies. It's like when a screenwriter is creating a scene and knows that in order to keep the audience involved in the story he has to "cut to the chase" or in some way bend the rules of reality. Because what happened next was almost unbelievable.

At the very moment I needed a cop, a police cruiser - without being signalled to in any way - suddenly pulled up next to my cab and the officer closest to me asked me if everything was okay.

My god!

Apparently the cops had been watching the block and had noticed that the time it was taking for the passenger to depart the cab had been unusually long. And that was enough to ask if I was okay. When I told them that my passenger's credit card had been declined and she had no money to pay the fare, this sequence was set into motion:

- one of the officers informed my passenger, in so many words, that she was damn well going to have to pay the fare

- she decided to give an ATM a try anyway and told me her bank was two blocks away, on 86th Street

- I told her I was turning the meter on again and did so

- we drove to her bank with the police car following right behind us

- she got out of the cab and went into the bank's lobby where the ATM machines are located (pictured below)

- one of the officers actually got out of his cruiser and followed her into the lobby! (he's standing out of sight behind the white pillar in this shot)

- with the cop standing ten feet behind her, she tried to withdraw funds

- she could not

- she returned to the cab and we drove back to her apartment building

- the cops followed us there

- she told me she was going to go upstairs to see if indeed there was any money in her apartment and that she was leaving her wallet on the back seat until she returned

- I said okay

- she left the cab and disappeared into the building

- the meter kept running

- she returned in two minutes with a twenty dollar bill, saying that luckily her boyfriend was there which she hadn't known before and that he had given her the money

- I didn't believe her but let her save face by pleasantly saying okay

- the original fare of $7.80 was added to the second fare of $4.60, bringing the total to $12.40. She took $3 back from the twenty, thus leaving me with a $4.60 tip "for your trouble".

- I said thank you and thought that was the right thing to do and a decent thing to say

- she left the cab and went back into her building

- I got out of my cab and walked back to the cops and thanked them, telling them I had been paid in full

- they said I was welcome and one of them added that "you've got a hard job, too"

As I drove off looking for one last fare for the night, the whole incident seemed to me to be what a fantasy of a cab driver might be after he'd been ripped off by a passenger and had received no justice at all. I mean, we expect no justice. So what happened here was surreal.

And it also answered the question of what to do when a passenger has neither a valid credit card nor any cash.

You just sit there for a moment and from out of nowhere a cop will come along to help you.

A good cop.
And while you're celebrating your good fortune, click here for Pictures From A Taxi.