Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Make The Light"

Among the many annoyances in the game of taxi driving is the rare passenger who has the nerve to tell you how to drive. Not where to drive or what route to take, and not even how not to drive ("please don't drive so fast, I'm feeling nauseous"), but how to drive.


"Change lanes."

"Get ahead of that bus."


And my favorite: "Make the light!"

Let us consider for a moment the implications involved in making such a statement. It is as if to say:

"Not only do I not regard you as a professional who knows how to do his job, I think I'm better at it than you are, so do what I tell you."

Or, to put it more bluntly:

"You're an idiot. I'm smart. Obey me."

A couple of years ago I was going down 11th Avenue with a passenger in that back seat when we hit a bit of heavy traffic and he abruptly commanded, "Get in the left lane!" Never letting a comment like that go by, I made eye contact with him in the mirror and said, Robert de Niro-style, "Are you talking to me?" And then, not waiting for a reply, "You must be talking to someone else, because no one talks to me like that!" He immediately changed his attitude and we had a relatively pleasant ride across 23rd Street to his destination at 6th Avenue.

It's a good feeling when little mutinies like that are squelched and you can regain the captaincy of your ship. Your dignity is restored and life seems to be worth living again. Which leads me to the latest incident on this chain...

I was cruising on West 63rd Street a little after 6 p.m. a few weeks ago when I was hailed by a doorman on the block between Central Park West and Broadway. He opened the door and in came a 60ish woman in a rush to get to 65th and Amsterdam, a short ride. About fifty yards in front of us was a green traffic light and she barked out those words:

"Make the light!"

I bristled internally and continued driving at my normal speed. Now, there seems to be a Force that decrees that whenever a passenger says, "Make the light!" the light you've been ordered to make will turn yellow just as you're approaching the intersection and you will have a moment of truth to decide whether to speed up and maybe go through a red, or to play it safe and hit the brake.

Right on cue, the Force did its thing and the light turned yellow.

I had my moment of truth, and...

I hit the brake.

My passenger was very displeased. She grunted an "ugh" and barked, "You could have made it," with a scowl on her face that was so pronounced that it was clear that from her point of view stopping for the red light wasn't merely an error, it was a crime.

So the scene was set for conflict. My professionalism had been assaulted, and there would be a response. But rather than turning around and giving her a lecture about safe driving, fines, and suspended licenses, I tried to reason with her. First, I pointed out the layout of the intersection in front of us.

Broadway, as its name implies, is a wide road with an median of greenery separating two directions of traffic, so the width of the intersection has to be considered before crossing it at a yellow light. Following Broadway, a mere fifty more yards away, is the next intersection, 63rd and Columbus Avenue. Having driven through these intersections perhaps a hundred thousand times in the last 32 years, I am quite familiar with the timing of the lights there and I knew that even if we'd made the yellow light at Broadway at the last second, we certainly would not have made the next light at Columbus. However, when the light turns from red to green at Broadway and you drive straight ahead, you will always get a green at Columbus, too. So there was no reason to speed up to "make the light" at Broadway in the first place.

My passenger's response to this perfectly rational and accurate dissertation was to snap back, "We won't make the light at Columbus". It was a direct contradiction to what I'd just said.

"Yes, we will," I replied.

"No, we won't," she returned, as if we were having a verbal tennis match.

The thought occurred to me that here was a situation where I could win a bet. I could say, "Oh, really, if you're so sure of that let's make it double the meter or nothing." I could add a few extra doubloons to my coffers with this ride and, better than that, I could humble this old crab and put her in her place. But I decided not to stoop to that level. It would be like taking candy from a baby. Better than that, I thought, would be to offer her a deal in which she couldn't lose, except if losing meant that she'd have to shut up and eat crow.

I said these words:

"Tell you what, if we don't make the light on Columbus, this is a free ride."

The success of my strategy was immediate. She did shut up, her demeanor changing instantly into an interested facial expression that said, "Well... okay...". The eating crow part would come in just a bit.

In a few more moments, our light at 63rd and Broadway turned green. The light ahead of us at Columbus, the light I had to make, was already green, as I knew it would be. With just fifty yards between these two lights, it was impossible not to make that Columbus light.

My foot pressed down on the accelerator.

You know, there's a military truism that in combat operations, nothing ever goes according to plan. Apparently the same thing is true in taxi driving. For just as I drove through the Broadway intersection, not one, not two, but three cabs suddenly appeared in front of me and stopped to discharge passengers at the Empire Hotel, the only building on the tiny block. These taxis didn't pull over to the side. No, they just stopped in the middle of the street, making it impossible to get around them.

Precious seconds ticked by. A couple of beeps from my puny horn did nothing to move them. The light at Columbus turned yellow. The light at Columbus turned red. And I found myself in the midst of my latest humiliation, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, and a crow on a platter in front of me.

I tried taking it like a good sport, laughing out loud, and not trying to wiggle out of the noose I'd created for myself by using the cabs blocking the street as an excuse. "Well," I said, "a deal's a deal. This is a free ride."

Of course, what I was hoping she would say was what any fair-minded person would say - that it was all right, that she wouldn't hold me to my offer. But instead, what she said was, "Well, I'll give you a good tip." In other words, "Thanks for the free ride, sucker."

My only solace was that my misery would be brief. 63rd Street runs into Lincoln Center at Columbus, so we had to make a left turn, go down to 62nd Street, make a right, and then drive over to the next avenue, Amsterdam, make another right, and finally go just three blocks to her destination, the Lincoln Center Library, at 65th Street. As it turned out, the reason she was in a rush was because she works in the library and was running late for the evening shift.

In the few remaining minutes of our ride, which seemed like an hour to me, she did an attitude reversal. No longer was she an ill-mannered cow in a china shop, stomping over anything in her way because she was late for work. Her getting something for free had trumped her bitch card, and she became a chatty human being sitting in the back seat. But I even found her attempt to be sociable offensive when she asked me this famous, left-handed question:

"So what else do you do besides drive a cab?"

I am asked this occasionally, and when it happens I usually look at it as a cast-not-your-pearls-before-swine situation. The person who asks it is telling you that the job you are doing is considered by him to be beneath his standard of what a respectable job should be - would he ask a teacher what else does he do besides teach? - and what I normally say is, "This is it, I drive a cab." And then give him a little speech about the good things of taxi driving - freedom, adventure, the whole human race sitting in your back seat, no boss, no four walls, no office politics, no deadlines, no bringing your work home with you. I leave out the parts about twelve hour shifts, no health care, no pension - things like that.

But to this passenger, probably because I was hoping she would realize it would be mean-spirited to hold a working man to his promise of a free ride, I tossed a pearl.

"Well," I said, "I'm a writer."

"What do you write?"

Holding back a temptation to say "words", I told her I had a blog.

"You must have lots of stories."

"Yes, driving a cab and stories are a good fit," I agreed.

"So much material," she added.

"That's the thing - the material just comes right to you," said I, mentally noting the irony of someone who could be "material" herself commenting about the abundance of material.

Amazingly, against all odds it seemed that we were developing some rapport between us and, as I pulled in front of the Lincoln Center Library, it started to feel like this ride might actually have a pleasant ending. I had left the meter running and the total was $6.00, including the $1.00 evening rush hour surcharge and the 50 cent New York State tax. So here was a second moment of truth - would she redeem herself by handing me the full fare, telling me thanks, but no thanks, for the free ride offer? I had already decided I would say that I appreciated that and then, like Harry Chapin in his Taxi song, stuff the bills in my shirt and we'd both be on our way.

But instead she handed me $2.00, opened her door, said, "Have a nice night," and walked away. I watched her enter the library and shot an imaginary arrow through her head. Then, realizing I had an extra arrow in my quiver, I took it out and shot myself, too.

For having offered, and given, a free ride to someone who was not one of the nice people of this world.


Target practice? Don't shoot a mean person. Send an arrow over here instead for Pictures From A Taxi.