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