Monday, April 30, 2012

Mister Hess

Well, speaking of the Hess Station at 45th and 10th, here's one from the vault. I've written a couple of times about one of the unique aspects of driving a cab in New York City, the phenomenon of finding yourself suddenly mingling with various strata of the human race with whom you otherwise would probably never have had the opportunity to be in contact.
(See "Running The Gamut". And "Running The Gamut, Part 2" .)

That's what happened during the rush hour one evening in December of 1990. I picked up three men in business attire - suits and overcoats - on the west side of Midtown who wanted to go to a restaurant across town, a ten to fifteen minute haul, depending on traffic. Two of them got in the back and the other, a somewhat older gentleman, perhaps in his '70s, sat up front with me. I owned my own cab in those days and it had no partition (I hate them), so it made for a more comfortable fit for the three of them to seat themselves this way. The two in the rear could move around easily and the lack of a Plexiglas obstruction made conversation from front to back no problem for all three of them.

As the ride got under way, they continued a conversation which had already been in progress before entering the cab. I, a professional fly on the wall, took note that what they were talking about was how the situation in Iraq was affecting the price of oil. Clouds of war were in the air in those days. Sadaam had already invaded Kuwait, the international coalition had been formed, and a deadline for withdrawal had been sanctioned by the U.N. In retrospect I wish I'd paid more attention to exactly what they were saying, but at the moment I thought they were just three businessmen discussing what was currently in the news. I tuned them out and put my attention back on the observation of the particles in perpetual motion on the streets and sidewalks of New York City.

After a couple of minutes, however, my contemplation was interrupted by the gentleman to my right.

"Hey, driver," he said, "what kind of gasoline do you put in your cab?"

"Amoco, usually," I replied.

"Do you ever use Hess?"


"Do you know that station on 45th and 10th?"


"Are you happy with the service you get over there?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Tell me something - are the bathrooms clean?"

I noticed in the mirror that the two fellows in the back had big grins on their faces and were suppressing laughter. I knew something was up and needed no further prompting to turn the tables on them.

"All right," I said with a smile of my own, "that's it... which one of you guys is Leon Hess?"

The older gentleman sitting beside me reached over and shook my hand. He was, in fact, Leon Hess, the founder and owner of Hess Oil and, no less impressive, the owner of the New York Jets football team. It was understandable that I hadn't recognized him. Unlike some owners of professional sports teams, Leon Hess never gave interviews and was quite low profile when it came to the media. You never saw a picture of him in the papers.

Having had his identity revealed, which was no doubt his intention, the subject turned immediately to the Jets. I admitted to Mr. Hess right away that wasn't much of a football fan, that baseball was my sport, but that didn't deter him. I think I became for him "The Fan", at least for the moment, and he went into a digression about the current situation in Jets World. The team had been particularly horrible that year and although there were still a couple of weeks left in the regular season, they were already out of contention for making the playoffs. Mr. Hess told me with some anguish that he'd just fired the coach.

"I hated to do it," he exclaimed, "he's a good man. But it's my responsibility to do whatever I can to put a winning team on the field."

He told me he'd been at Giants Stadium the previous Sunday to watch the other New York football team, the Giants, play the Dallas Cowboys in below-freezing temperatures. Although the weather was brutal, he said the stadium had been full. He contrasted that with the fact that his own team had only been filling half the seats in the same stadium for the last few home games due to their losing ways.

"It's not the fans' fault," he said, "Jets fans are the best in the world. It's up to me not to let them down."

I wished I'd been more of a football fan so I could have held my own in conversation with him and I kind of apologized for being so much on the periphery of the sport. It was too bad my friend Harry wasn't here, I told him, because Harry was a guy who probably knows as much about the Jets as he did. Harry was a sports fanatic who could tell you the names of every position player on the team for the last ten years.

"Say hello to Harry for me," Mr. Hess said with a smile as he and his friends got out at a swanky-looking restaurant.

He paid me double the meter, something I appreciated more for its acknowledgement implication than its monetary value. And I noticed that he had not fastened his seat belt even though he was sitting up front seat with me. A sign of trust, I thought, that I also appreciated.

I've had many years to reflect on that ride. It left me with a first-hand experience with, as mentioned, a type of person with whom I might otherwise have never come into contact. Here was Leon Hess, a lion of American business, probably a billionaire, giving me fifteen minutes to form an impression of how someone in his station in life might be. And the impression was quite a favorable one.

Was he aloof?

No, to the contrary.

Was he friendly and conversational?

Quite so.

Did he show any of the social class snobbery, the "I'm over here and you're over there" attitude of people who feel cab drivers are beneath them?

Not at all.

Did he, in fact, demonstrate that most admirable of characteristics, caring?

In a big way, not only when he spoke of his football team and its fans, but when he spoke of his oil company and its customers.

You know, there's no data better than first-hand data. When you've seen something with your own eyes, it doesn't much matter what you read in the papers or hear other people say about that with which you've had personal contact. You know. I can't say that because Mr. Hess made a favorable impression on me that all people at the pinnacle of Big Business are nice guys. But because of this ride I also can't fall into the easy assumption that you've got to be a rat to rise to the top.

And that's one of those little nuggets of wisdom one picks up along the way.


Along with this, of course: click here for Pictures From A Taxi.