Friday, April 09, 2010

The Heat Is On

There are certain people who, when you see them coming toward you, you're thinking, "Oh, please, don't get in my cab. Just keep on walking, don't stop, keep going. whatever you do, don't open the door, don't do that!" And then, as they do open the door, it's "Oh, shit." Because you already know they're going to be trouble and now your job description has been changed from "taxi driver" to "trouble-person-handler".

I had a character like that a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night at around midnight at 31st and 8th, just south of Penn Station. He lumbered toward me as I was waiting at a red light doing the semi-coherent shuffle - one foot forward, one foot to the left, one foot forward, one foot to the right - and came to a landing on my right rear door, which he proceeded to open a bit too slowly. He plopped himself down on the back seat and I was stuck with him.

He was in his early thirties, I would say, and seemed to be a mix of ethnicities. Maybe a little Hispanic, maybe a little Italian, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, it was hard to tell. He wore the black leather jacket of someone who might have signed up for membership in the rough side of town, like he could belong to a gang, but you couldn't be sure. His black hair was shaved in some areas and was long in others, very I've-gotta-be-me, probably the product of some East Village hair styling Picasso.

Most people, when they enter a taxi, they tell the driver where they want to go, but this guy just sat there as the rear of the taxi filled up with smoke from the cigarette he held in his hand. With some passengers a lit cigarette, currently forbidden by the nanny state, would be the subject of some negotiation as to whether or not it could stay or go. With this guy I knew instinctively that a hard line was the right approach.

"No cigarettes in the cab, sir," I said, not leaving room for discussion.

He tossed it out the window without protest. That was easier than I thought it would be.

"Where are you heading?"

Four seconds, five seconds... no reply.

"Where are you going?"

And then, in a voice barely audible, "one sisteen."

"Sorry, what?"

Slightly louder, "one sisteen."

"116th Street? 116th and what?"

Three seconds, four seconds... "Amsherram."

"Sorry, what? 116th and what?"



Three seconds... "Yeah." And then this: "I got plenny-a money, man," and he pulled out a wad of bills and held it up so I could see for myself in the mirror. I pulled out into the traffic on 8th Avenue and headed uptown.

Now, there are three things you worry about with passengers like this. First, he may be so stoned out that he's unaware of whether or not he has enough, or even any, cash in one of his pockets and then, when you get him to his destination, the new game is, "Let's Find Your Money". But the guy obviously had enough money, so that was not an issue, and that was good. Second, does the passenger really know where he wants to go? You get him there and then he announces that this isn't where he wants to be and he accuses you of "taking him for a ride". And third, is he a vomit candidate?

I looked him over carefully in the mirror and decided that, although it wasn't out of the realm of possibility, he was not likely to throw up. Pukers are almost always drunks. They usually display their condition by slumping over to one side, often winding up horizontally on the seat, and the alarm goes off for the driver when he realizes he can no longer see them in the mirror. This guy didn't do that. He remained upright and, although his head would droop forward, I didn't think he'd been drinking. I did think he was stoned and in a daze from whatever drug he'd been taking, but he didn't strike me as someone who was about to part with his dinner. So that was also good.

Whether or not he really knew where he wanted to go remained to be seen. Now that I had a destination, I put my attention on navigation and made a left on 33rd and shot over to 10th Avenue, which changes its name to Amsterdam when you cross 59th Street. So we were on our way. For the next forty blocks or so the ride was uneventful. He seemed semi-okay. He was on his cell phone and was mumbling with someone who must have been able to understand what he was saying, although from what I could hear, it sounded unintelligible. When we reached 79th Street, he mumbled something in my direction.

"A hunriddafor," was what I heard, or something like it.

"Sorry, what?"

Three seconds, four seconds, and then, softly, "A hun'red." Three more seconds, and then, "An' four."

"A hundred and fourth street?"

He grunted agreement.

We continued up Amsterdam and arrived at our new destination in about three minutes. I pulled up on the right side of the avenue and stopped.

"Argunmuggawishkeygumma," he garbled, or some such sound that was completely undecipherable. I looked at him wearily in the mirror, having gotten to the point where I was just sick of dealing with the guy. Realizing I couldn't understand a word he was saying, he tried sign language and pointed to the right to indicate that he wanted me to make a right turn and continue driving toward Columbus Avenue. I complied. We drove slowly across 104th and finally, just before the end of the block, he made another sound that meant that I should stop the cab. I did so.

The fare was $12.70. He reached for his wad of cash and handed me two bills. One was a ten and the other... whoa, the other was a hundred dollar bill.

For a taxi driver, this is a moment of truth. Here is a passenger who is ripe for the taking. Semi-coherent, drugged-up, a dumb-looking thug with a fistful of money - it would be easy to take advantage of him. I held the two bills up so he could see them through the partition.

"Sir," I said, "you gave me a ten and a hundred."

He made some sounds and a gesture that meant that I should return the bills to him, which I did. He then handed me a twenty.

"Out of twenty," I said, and started to count out the difference from my own money. Before I could give it to him, however, he opened the door and told me to keep the change in words I could actually understand. This was a great tip and I said "thank you" at above normal decibel level to be sure he could hear me. He then closed the door and disappeared into the darkness of Columbus Avenue.

I turned the corner and my honesty was rewarded by an immediate fare of three kids from Spain who were en route to Times Square. You don't really expect to get another fare until you are back in Midtown, a ten minute hike, so it was like money found. The Spanish kids were tourists who were all agog at finally being in the Promised Land of New York City, a dream come true for them. We had a lively run downtown and when I dropped them off at 47th and 7th I was feeling a bit exuberant myself, except for one thing.

There was something about that last ride that was keeping my attention on it.

As I started driving around Times Square looking for my next fare, I reviewed everything that had happened with that guy. For one thing, the amount of smoke coming from his mouth just after he go in the cab was abnormally huge. When people enter a taxi with a cigarette burning (a rarity today) the entire back area never fills up with smoke within five seconds. People know you're not supposed to smoke in a cab, but this guy made it obvious. And when I'd told him to put it out, he suddenly didn't seem particularly semi-coherent as he complied immediately without protest. That was an outpoint. It didn't fit.

Then, although he couldn't coherently tell me where he wanted to go, he didn't have any trouble showing me all the money he was carrying. The only time a passenger shows you his money without being asked to do so is when he is an inner-city guy who is going to the ghetto and wants to assure you that he's not going to rip you off. People who are so stoned that they can't pronounce the name of the street they want to go to don't have the mental acuity to offer you assurance by showing you their cash. It was another outpoint.

Finally, at the end of the ride he had held up the two bills separately in his hand, so it would be easy to see what they were. Usually when a bill is mistakenly rendered by a passenger, the mistake is hidden by the other bills that surround it. In this case it was glaringly obvious that he was overpaying. It was also an oddity.

I drove around for awhile running the incident over in my mind. And then it hit me.

That guy had been a cop!

The Taxi and Limousine Commission or the Police Department will occasionally send out decoys to test the integrity of taxi drivers. Many years ago I had a middle-aged, conservatively dressed African-American man hail me in Midtown and direct me to drive up to Harlem. I went a block in the right direction and he then identified himself as a TLC inspector. I had passed the test and was actually given a receipt to prove it. So these things are done, particularly after something has hit the fan in the industry. And, indeed, something had hit the fan a few days prior to this ride.

The news had been widely reported that out of approximately 44,000 taxi drivers in New York City, about 30,000 of them had been ripping off passengers by hitting a button on the meter that automatically adds an out-of-town charge to the fare. This was according to the GPS tracking mechanisms that are now installed in every cab in the city. It was an astoundingly large number of drivers and the TLC chairman and other city officials were duly upset at the revelation.

So the heat is on. This was further borne out by stories I began to hear from other taxi drivers of tickets being handed out for offenses that are normally overlooked, such as failure to signal a lane change or discharging a passenger more than twelve inches from the curb. Also there were stories of other set-ups, such as decoy cops hailing New York cabs on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel in Hoboken to see if the driver will pick them up (a no-no since New York cabs can only pick up passengers within the city limits).

It was later reported that this initial report of widespread overcharging had been grossly exaggerated, by the way. Most of the instances of the out of town button being wrongly hit on the meter have turned out to be mistakes, and the number of cabbies who had done it repeatedly was closer to 3,000 not 30,000. Still, that is unacceptable as there is no excuse to ever rip off a customer and this sort of thing gives honest drivers a bad name.

So we'll see if the heat gets turned off.


Rumor has it that another way of getting the heat off is to click here for Pictures From A Taxi. Just a rumor, of course.