Monday, August 23, 2010

Running The Gamut, Number Two

I wrote in a previous post (Running The Gamut) that one of the spectacular things about driving a cab in New York City is that on any given night it is possible to encounter passengers from the very top of the social spectrum all the way down to the very bottom. People - who can be so different from one another that they might as well be from other planets - make their entrances and exits in what could be described as a microcosmic parade of the human condition. It's vaudeville on wheels, and it can be quite a show.

Not long ago I had one of those nights that tap danced on the treetops and then slopped around in a puddle of mud. It dined at le Cirque, only to stretch its arm into a garbage can to scoop out a half-eaten slice of Ray's pizza. It was a warm bed in the Waldorf, then a cardboard box on the steps of the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church.

You get the idea.

Let's start at the top.

On the evening of May 4th, a Tuesday, I found out that Time Magazine puts out an issue every year in which they announce the "100 Most Influential People In The World".

They divide their 100 into four categories:

1) Leaders

2) Artists

3) Thinkers

4) Heroes.

An essay is written about each person by another prominent person to make it even more interesting. The article about Bill Clinton, for example, was written by Bono. The one about Prince was written by Usher. The one about Oprah Winfrey was written by Phil Donohue.

I'm not particularly a reader of Time Magazine, so the reason I found out about this issue at all was a unique one. It turns out they have a big event to go along with the annual publication which is held, appropriately enough, in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. It's a red carpet affair, of course, and guess where the red carpet ends? In a taxi stand right in the middle of the circle, that's where.

So when I was brought into the area by a passenger at 11:40 p.m., I noticed there was something going on and quickly secured a position on the taxi cue. Paparazzi were milling about, always a good sign, and a contingent of onlookers held their ground on both sides of velvet ropes that extended all the way from the curb to the entrance of the building, a distance of about thirty yards. What or whom these people were waiting to see I did not yet know, but my interest in the event itself was secondary. What interested me most was the extra business I could get at a time of the night when passengers start to become less plentiful. This was going to be money found, kind of like discovering a five-dollar bill smiling up at you from the sidewalk.

The taxi line moved quickly. Within five minutes I welcomed my next fare aboard - two gentlemen wearing tuxedos, one of whom sat up front with me, and two ladies all decked out in evening gowns. Obviously they were coming from this event, whatever it was, and, just as obviously, they were in great spirits. As we began driving toward their first destination, 40th and 9th, my curiosity kicked in and I slipped in some questions during slight pauses in their own conversations. It went something like this...

"So, what's going on at the Time Warner Building?" I asked the man sitting next to me.
He told me about Time's 100 Most Influential thing. I was impressed.

"Wow! There must have been a lot of celebrities, huh? I saw the paparazzi outside the building."

"Oh, lots of them," he replied.

"Any big names?"

"Elton John."


"Sarah Palin."


"Bill Clinton."

"Wow, Bill Clinton's in there? How's he looking?"

"He looks good! And he gave a great speech."

"You know, say what you will about Bill Clinton's politics or his personal life, but no one can deny he's one of the great orators of our time."

"He is, it's true."

"So what was your end of the deal?"

"Well, the gentleman in the back, and myself, were two of the people being honored."

"You mean, you are two of the most influential people in the world?"

"Well, I don't know about that, but that's what Time Magazine seems to think."

I was stunned. I would have thought that anyone who could be given such an honor would either be so famous that they'd be instantly recognizable or would be driven around in a luxurious private car with their own chauffeur. The four people in my taxi, I had assumed, were probably involved with the production of the event in some way, or perhaps had been invited guests.
My next question was the obvious one:

"So... who are you?"

The gentleman on my right introduced himself as Dr. Douglas Schwartzentruber and the gentleman in the back seat, he told me, was Chetan Bhagat. The ladies were their wives. The reason Time Magazine chose them was because Dr. Schwartzentruber is a pioneer in developing a vaccine that can treat certain types of cancers and Chetan Bhagat is India's most popular author.

As a taxi driver in New York City I'm sure I often have passengers in my cab who are truly Very Important People within their own spheres of influence, but it is rare that I actually get to know who they are. And it is never that I get them at a time when they've just been bestowed with an acknowledgment on so grand a scale. So I was aware of how special this moment was not only for them, but for me as well.

We drove down 9th Avenue in a taxi full of happy chatter. The afterglow of their evening was filling the cab with an energy that was rubbing off on me. It was that floating feeling you get sometimes during a perfect ride.

The organizers of the event had given the attendees souvenirs of several copies each of that issue of Time Magazine. Dr. Schwartzentruber gave me one to keep. After thanking him for this gift, I asked him and Mr. Bhagat to sign it for me. In all my 32 years of taxi-driving, and after having had well over a hundred celebrities in my cab, it was only the second time I had ever requested an autograph. The other time had been back in the '90s when I had Tori Spelling, then starring in the hit TV show Beverly Hills 90210, in the back seat, and the only reason I'd asked her was to impress Suzy, my teen aged daughter (who failed to be impressed - of course).

What's funny here is that Dr. Schwartzentruber, in order to help me find him in the magazine, wrote "heroes" after his name, but after looking him up I discovered that they had actually put him in the category of "thinkers". Not that it matters, of course - no doubt he's a hero as well. Chetan Bhagat's signature came out kind of illegibly (maybe he should be a doctor!), so he kindly printed his name under it, again so I'd be able to find him in the magazine.

As we arrived at 40th and 9th, the location of the Bhagats' hotel, it was interesting to overhear their conversation as they parted ways. Mr. Bhagat handed his card to the Schwartzentrubers and invited them to stay at his home in Mumbai if they were ever in that part of the world. And then he said this:

"I don't belong on the same stage with you."

I repeat this not in any way to diminish the work of Mr. Bhagat. In fact, as a writer myself, I find having someone of his stature in my cab to be a bit intimidating. I repeat this because I think he was correctly sizing up the magnitudes of importance here. Writers - whether they be writers of novels, screenplays, stage plays, or songs - are very important, indeed. We all know this. But the man sitting on my right - well, let's put it this way...

What if you, or someone you care for very much, had been diagnosed with a cancer and you were confronting the prospect of undergoing chemo and radiation therapies? But now, because of this man, that cancer could be treated, and very possibly defeated, with a vaccine. How would you regard the man who had spared you from this ordeal and perhaps had saved your life? It would be how the human race regarded the man who defeated polio in the '50s, Dr. Jonas Salk.

Kind of like God.

So as we proceeded toward the Schwartzentruber's hotel on 6th and 39th, a three-minute ride, I would have to admit to feeling honored and even humbled just to be in his presence. They say we are all born equal, and that is true in a legal sense, but we surely don't wind up being equal in terms of our worth to other people. Some of us are giants. This man had a value to the world that was beyond measurement. The thought occurred to me, as mundane as it was, that I should drive extra carefully with this precious cargo in my taxi. What if a mistake on my part caused him to be injured or killed? There could be no amount of taxi insurance that could ever cover the loss.

So we drove across 38th Street at about half my normal speed. I crossed the intersections of 8th and 7th Avenues only after being absolutely certain that no vehicle was about to run a red light and crash into us. And when we arrived at their hotel I scrutinized the oncoming traffic in my rear view mirror to make sure Dr. Schwartzentruber was not struck by an approaching car as he opened his door. He was damn well not going to die on my watch!

Along the way I tried to ask him some semi-intelligent questions about his work and he answered in layman's terms. I noted that he had no condescension in his manner and gave me no feeling of being "lesser than". And that's the way it always is with the great ones, isn't it?

After dropping off the Schwartzentrubers, my night went on. I went back to the Time Warner Building and picked up another fare. This time my passengers, a young man and a young woman, indeed were a part of the team that produced the event. After some pleasant chit-chat and a drop-off in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan, business slowed down considerably, as it normally does on a Tuesday night after the witching hour. I took my post-midnight, fifteen-minute break and resumed cruising the streets of the city in search of business.

One of the great misconceptions about taxi-driving in New York is that many people assume we are always busy. Nothing could be further from the truth. After midnight on a weekday it is brutally competitive amongst cabbies trying to gain better position on the avenues so they will be the first to get to any passenger who may be somewhere down the road looking for a taxi. It's like a horse race, really.

In the next two and a half hours, I got only four rides and was feeling the stress that comes from working hard and having little to show for it. As it turned out, it was time for the bottom to show up.

Bottom appeared in the form of a potential passenger, a thirty-something male, hailing me on Amsterdam Avenue between 74th and 75th. I could tell from the way he was waving that this guy was in an undefined state of inebriation and stopping for him at all was not necessarily a good idea. When I say "undefined" I mean I knew he was drunk but I wasn't sure how drunk. Most stoned people are still viable passengers. This fellow was iffy. Nevertheless, I was desperate, so...
I pulled over and stopped.

As he approached the cab, he did the semi-coherent shuffle - one foot forward, one foot to the left, one foot forward, one foot to the right - but still he was able to get into the back seat without too much trouble. It looked like he might be okay, but that turned out to be wishful thinking.

"Hi, there," said I.

"How-you," he replied after a few vacant seconds.

"So where are you heading?"


"Where you wanna go?"

A long pause, and then: "No wan go dere no go wan go."

I knew it was hopeless but for two minutes I kept trying to get a destination out of him, anyway. Finally I accepted defeat and left him standing in the same place where he'd been before he hailed me. I drove up Amsterdam, made a right on 81st, another right on Columbus, and headed downtown to a part of town where I'd be more likely to find a passenger at 3 a.m.

The thought later occurred to me that within three hours I'd had two passengers in my cab whose influence spans the globe and affects millions of people and then, sitting in the same seat, I'd had someone whose sphere of influence was so microscopic that he couldn't get his own memory banks to tell him where he lived.

I'd run the gamut.

And you can have gamuts galore by clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi. What a deal!