Sunday, January 31, 2010

Inside "Taxicab Confessions"

As I walked out of my taxi garage one evening last June to start my shift, a smiling young lady approached me and handed me this flier:

I immediately called and was given an appointment for an interview.

Thus I was able to get my foot in the door of the famous American television program, "Taxicab Confessions". I've long been a fan of this show and I'll admit it's been a dream of mine to be one of their drivers. If you're not familiar with it, click here. What they do is equip a real taxicab with several hidden cameras and microphones and record conversations between passengers and drivers. Passengers are unaware that what's been going on in the cab - often things that reveal their innermost thoughts, problems, and realities - has been recorded and are asked at the end of the ride to sign a release form, allowing HBO (Home Box Office, an American cable tv station) to use the material for broadcasting. If they sign, it may get on the air. If they don't, it won't.

This show started in 1995, and due to its popularity it has actually become a little part of the experience of driving a cab in New York City. A passenger will sometimes be having an in-depth conversation with me and then suddenly pause and say, "Hey, this isn't Taxicab Confessions, is it?" Of course, it isn't. But sometimes it is. One night a passenger told me he'd once actually been in the Taxicab Confessions taxi and had spilled his guts out about his sexual proclivities to his driver. But he wouldn't sign the release. "I don't want the world to know about that shit," he said to me... "especially my wife!"

I will occasionally refer to the show when the moment presents itself. For instance, a young man once told me that when he'd been an undergrad at Columbia University he not only was a student, but he also had a little business of manufacturing fake New Jersey driver's licenses and selling them to underage students so they could get into bars, a felony for which, if he'd been caught, could have sent him to jail and ruined whatever he was planning to do when he graduated from the prestigious and ultra-expensive university.

"Wow," I said, "now that's a 'taxicab confession'!"

Another time I had a group of four half-drunk, twenty-something man-boys on board en route to the next whiskey bar. The guy sitting up front with me was explaining his modus operandi for picking up girls for all to hear. What he does, he bragged, is simply to approach girls in the bar one by one and ask them point blank if they'd like to come to his place with him to have sex. No chit-chat, no lines, and especially no buying them drinks. "Twenty-nine will tell me to go fuck myself," he said, "but the thirtieth one will say 'yes'." A lively discussion ensued concerning the pros and cons of such an approach and what the odds actually were. At the end of the ride, as I was being paid, I asked these guys if they'd ever heard of a show called "Taxicab Confessions"? Their jaws dropped and they started rollicking around like the alcohol-soaked glee club that they were. "Are you shitting us, man? Are we on that show?" they howled, obviously hoping it was so. "No, sorry, you're not," I replied, "but you could have been!"

Now, I am the kind of person who likes to categorize data. I enjoy it when someone asks me to name my top ten movies of all time, or to list my favorite pizzerias, or whatever. I suppose that theoretically, at least, there could be a list of the "best taxicab confessions" I have ever had in my cab. And if there was such a list, I know immediately what confession would be at the top. Not because the confession itself was so outrageous, but because it was uniquely in a sub-category of its own. It was a gourmet item, a connoisseur's treasure.

It was a taxicab confession about a Taxicab Confession. And to put the cherry on it, it came from a celebrity. For fear of being sued, I'm not going to name this celebrity, but here's the story, anyway, the short version.

Quite a few years ago there was an episode of Taxicab Confessions, taped in Las Vegas, in which a young man and a young woman were in the back seat making out while the driver tried to find out who they were and what they were up to. It was obvious that they were really into each other - in fact you might say that she was ga-ga about this dude and that he was goo-goo about this doll. As the driver kept prying, we learned that the young man was a member of a certain rock band and that the girl, who had just been in attendance at one of their concerts, had more or less been plucked from the audience by this guy. So they really had known each other for only about an hour and yet they were on their way to a hotel, presumably to consummate their acquaintanceship. When the driver revealed to them at the end of the ride that they were being videotaped by Taxicab Confessions, the young man eagerly signed the release form, exclaiming that it was his favorite show.

Fast forward a couple of years to the year 2002, as I recall. Quite late one night I picked up two thirty-something guys in Hell's Kitchen and started driving them to their destination, the Soho Grand Hotel, about a 15 minute ride. One of them was quite friendly and conversational, which opened the door for me to begin a Taxicab Confessions-type interrogation. Knowing that they were en route to a hotel told me that they were not New Yorkers, so I asked why they were in town. The talkative one said he was doing some recording. In fact, they were just coming from the recording studio. That made it easy for me to ask him who he was, and he told me his name and the name of his band.

Bingo! It was the same band as the guy who had been in that episode of Taxicab Confessions a couple of years earlier. "Oh," I said with considerable interest, "you're in that band?" He replied, correcting me, that he wasn't just in that band, he was the main man of that band, the lead singer and the songwriter.

Years of experience have given me a good sense of what I can get away with with certain types of passengers, and I knew I could have some fun with this guy. I immediately went into my imitation of a John Belushi sketch character from the early days of Saturday Night Live.

"Well, EXCUUUUUUUSE MEEEEEEEEEE!!!!" I squealed, mocking him. "Excuuuuse me! I did not know! You're not just in the band, you're the main man in the band! Excuuuuuse meeeee!"

He took it well. Both he and the fellow sitting next to him (who turned out to be his bodyguard and never said a word through the whole ride), laughed at the well-deserved ribbing which, in its own way, created some rapport between us. The conversation continued. I told him that, probably because I haven't been keeping up with rock bands since the Beatles broke up, I wasn't familiar with his music or with his group except for one thing: that time a member of his band was on Taxicab Confessions.

"Oh, yeah, that," he said disdainfully.

"What do you mean?"

"That guy got himself fired because of that," he said. "I hope he enjoyed his five hundred dollars."

This was shocking to me. Why would this guy have been fired because of that? Was it because plucking pretty girls out of the audience was considered to be bad public relations? Hell, that was the kind of behavior we expect from rock bands. That would be good public relations. But his answer was something I never would have thought of.

It was because, he said, the guy wasn't really in the band. He was a hired back-up musician who was touring with the band but, by his statements and by signing the release form, he represented himself on national television as being "in" the band, something he actually was not. The five hundred dollars is what Taxicab Confessions pays people whose material is actually used by the show.

I continued to give my rock star more good-natured ribbing about what a mean guy he must be to have fired the poor fellow just because of this. I reminded him that I never would have recognized the name of his band if it hadn't been for that episode.

"Oh, he's all right," he replied. "He wound up with Fiona Apple."

So there it was. A taxicab confession about a Taxicab Confession. Gourmet, indeed!

With all my years of experience and with my knowledge of and affinity for the show, I felt I had a decent shot at being chosen to be a Taxicab Confessions driver. So a few days later, at the appointed time, I showed up at an office in Chelsea with my friend Annie at my side for support. I was greeted by a staffer who provided me with a bottle of water to offset the effects of the hot afternoon, and explained what would be happening. First, there was a questionnaire to be filled out about my experiences as a taxi driver. And then I would be miked up and interviewed on camera by Harry Gantz, who along with his brother Joe is one of the co-creators of the show.

Harry Gantz

The whole thing took about half an hour and was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Here, finally, was a place where I had a resume. Harry Gantz, as you might expect from someone who does Taxicab Confessions for a living, is friendly, inquisitive, and easy to talk to. Plus he looks a little like Fred Astaire, don't you think?

Being inquisitive myself, I found out quite a bit about how they do the show. Since here you are reading a taxi driver's blog, I thought you might find this of interest:

1) First of all, the show is for real. The passengers you see in the back seat are not set up in any way. They are indeed picked up off the street, always very late at night, with no knowledge that they're about to participate in a television documentary.

2) The taxi drivers are not actors, they're licensed cabbies. We had to bring our hack licenses with us to the interview to prove that we were the real thing.

3) In order to get material that would be useful for the show, the drivers tend to be unabashedly prying. They are helped in this endeavor by a director who is in a van that follows the Taxicab Confessions taxi wherever it goes. The driver is connected to the director via an earpiece through which he receives suggestions as to how to steer the conversation (steering the taxi he does on his own). If you ever watch an episode in which the driver has short hair, look carefully at his left ear. You will see the earpiece. The director has a tv monitor in the van and can see and hear everything that is going on.

4) Although the show is for real, there are two things about the way it's done that could give passengers an idea that something is going on. First, there is a large interior light inside the taxi that is always on. This isn't the normal dome light that all cabs are equipped with. It's a narrow, custom-made lamp that extends halfway across the interior of the cab, just above the windshield on the passenger's side. It's there to provide sufficient illumination for the hidden cameras. Second, the taxi moves at an extraordinarily slow pace. I've seen it several times on the street and I could always spot it because it goes at about half the speed of all the other vehicles on the road. The reasons for this are that if the taxi gets too far away from the van, they lose contact with each other and, probably more importantly, one of the problems they have is that sometimes a "good ride" (one that is providing potentially usable material) ends too soon. So they drive slowly in an attempt to get more stuff that might make it onto the air.

5) They go through an enormous amount of footage that they don't use. Either the material isn't good enough or the passenger won't sign.

6) The drivers who are initially chosen go through a filtering process in which they drive around in the cabs they normally use (not the Taxicab Confessions cab) with hidden microphones in place and suggestions being given by the director in the van, but without any television cameras set up. If they make it past this stage, these drivers are then used for real.

Now, I wish I could end this post by telling you that I was chosen and can be seen in an upcoming Taxicab Confessions show, but unfortunately I never got the call. I wasn't given a reason for this, but I can't help but wonder if my problem wasn't my gender. The flier I was initially given actually encourages female drivers to apply, and, if you've watched the show, you will have noticed that a disproportionate number of the drivers are women. I say "disproportionate" because the rarest kind of taxi driver in New York is a female taxi driver. You could watch cabs go by on the street all day and never see one. Yet, on Taxicab Confessions, at least half of the episodes have female cabbies behind the wheel.

So, Harry, listen up. You were probably too embarrassed to ask me to do this, but you shouldn't have been. Of course I'd be willing to cross-dress to do the show.

You've got my card. Give me a call!


But before you do, click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Friday, January 01, 2010

How I Ended The War

I am a great believer in the ripple effect of communication. That a word whispered into an ear can cause a castle to crumble or another to appear.

I have often wondered, after having had a conversation with a passenger, what effect may eventually be created by that exchange. The taxicab is a unique human situation in that it's a business relationship, but its closeness in a shared space, its anonymity, and its protection from external interruptions can create conditions in which real contact can occur. The only trouble, from the driver's perspective, is that you almost never find out what the far-reaching effect of that amazing conversation may have been (although it does happen every once in a while - click here for a story about that).

So, even though it's quite unlikely I'll ever know if I've specifically changed somebody's life for the better, I like to think that I improve the world by showing respect to passengers, being a good listener, and occasionally offering what seems to me to be a sage comment or two. And that gives me a needed feeling of having "done something about it".

Now, as you know, in New York City every type of human being is wandering around and eventually gets into a taxicab. People get in and people get out in an endless and grand or not-so-grand procession of the human race. One passenger is going home to Queens after staying too late in a bar, the next one tells you he was once declared legally dead, the next one is a professional call girl who has an attentive audience as she discloses inside information about her trade, and the next one says he'd just spent the day chaperoning the President of the United States around in the U.N. (For the story about that, click here.)

With this great variety of humanity coming and going through his doors, a taxi driver every once in a while finds himself in the sudden company of a certain person who is either known by reputation or is discovered through conversation to be a "key player" in some particular sector of the world stage.

The thoughtful driver might see this as an opportunity. "What could I say to this Very Important Person," he might think, "that could create an effect on him and thus on the entire sector of the world in which he is so influential?" Such opportunities are fleeting, indeed. There are only a relatively few moments in which to establish a rapport and make your strike. More often than not, the brilliant things to say are thought of only after the person has left the taxi forever.

But not always.

Many years ago I had such a fare. Its exact location in time is a bit vague to me, but I think it happened in the mid-nineties. I had been cruising down West 43rd Street, approaching 11th Avenue, when I was hailed by two men coming out of the Market Diner. They were Irish - they'd been drinking - (no, I did not say that if they were Irish it goes without saying that they'd been drinking. I would never say such a thing!) - and their destination was 6th Avenue and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village.

These guys were around 40 years old and eager for conversation. Rather than just giving me their destination and talking to each other, they engaged me right from the start of the ride, as if for some reason I needed to be convinced of something. It turned out that what I needed to be convinced of was why it was okay for the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) to set off bombs and use other violent tactics against the British.

Now, I knew very little about the struggle in Northern Ireland other than what I'd read in the headlines. It wasn't my fight and I never considered it my responsibility to learn the history of the conflict or to form an opinion about who was right and who was wrong. The only real contact I'd had with it, in fact, had been from another passenger who'd been in my cab several years prior to these fellows. She was a middle-aged Irish woman who expressed herself about the situation in Northern Ireland with such passion and outright hatred that I'd always remembered her. I didn't remember which side she was on, but I recognized in her emotion that she'd been personally affected by the conflict, quite possibly by the loss of someone who'd been dear to her. I believed that her passion was fueled by a gut-level, perhaps insatiable hunger for vengenance against whichever side had caused her loss and I had gleaned from her an insight into why the conflict never seemed to end. It was an "I hit you, you hit me, I hit you, you hit me" endless cycle of retaliation. From this insight I formed my only opinion about the whole mess and that opinion was that somehow the individuals involved in it had to overcome their desire for retribution and resolve to learn to live together in peace, for the sake of the future.

I listened carefully to what my two passengers had to say without challenging them. An angry comment one of them made particularly struck me as being a flimsy justification for violence - "the British cannot be reasoned with!" he exclaimed, perhaps trying to convince not only me but himself that this was so - but I didn't attempt to contradict him or even play devil's advocate. These were serious people who were speaking emotionally and, although I didn't know or want to know specifically who they were, I did know with certainty that they were in the I.R.A. and that they were in agreement with and participating in the activity of killing people who were their political enemies. Some would call them terrorists, others might call them freedom fighters, but whatever you call them, they were scary and perhaps drunk and for my own safety's sake I just wanted to be rid of them.

But there was this other thing.

It was the knowledge that words can change minds and changed minds can change conditions.

So I decided to take my shot. And my shot consisted of a single word.

As they were exiting the taxi at their destination in the Village, I said this:

"I have just one word for you guys."

There was a pause. They had just spent the last ten minutes using me as their sounding board and were at least for the moment all talked out. So the moment was right. Their facial expressions seemed to say that they wanted to know what this one word could be and, whatever it was, that they would give it their full consideration. So I told them the word.

"Gandhi," I said.

The one who had just given me a ten-dollar bill for the ride seemed a little stunned by the comment. He thought of saying something in response, but he didn't. Then he closed the door and they were gone.

After that, time went by. I continued to not give any special attention to the conflict in Northern Ireland but eventually I did notice something. I noticed that things were getting better. And then the conflict was resolved and today no more bombs are being set off. The war is over.

Did the comment of a taxi driver in New York City end the war in Northern Ireland?

Of course not.

Or did it?

I write this story not only to overstate my worth to the world and to boost up my always fragile self-esteem, but because it is my New Year's message to you, a much-appreciated reader of this blog. I suggest that we resolve to never forget that thought precedes, and is senior to, action and to further resolve to never underestimate the power of communication. Let us resolve to continue to make our voices heard and to always remember that the easiest way to recognize a tyranny is by its attempts to stifle the free flow of communication.

Best wishes to you for a great New Year and a great New Decade from a taxi driver...

May your best days be yet unseen,

And may all your lights be green.

And one other resolution, while we're at it: let us all resolve to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.