I have wondered from time to time if it's just because I'm getting older or if it's because the mores of our society have changed or if it's simply that I don't drive on Friday or Saturday nights anymore that have caused a particularly outrageous activity to vanish from the back seat of my taxi. No, not slopping up the upholstery with cheese nachos.
It's been something like four or five years since it last went down. And then it annoyed me so much I threw them out of the cab in the middle of Times Square. Maybe that's what did it. But it finally happened again a couple of nights ago after such a long intermission - a throwback, it was, to the good old days.
Enter the stars of our show at exactly 1:52 a.m. at 2nd Avenue and 84th Street. She, an attractive brunette and he a not unattractive guy with a normal haircut and a bit of a beard, both twenty-somethings. There was nothing over the top about their appearance, nothing that would have made you think that defects in their character were showing up in the way they carried themselves or by the way they looked. In fact, they struck me as a couple of nice kids as they climbed in and told me their destination, 117th Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem. The girl, in particular, greeted me with a warm hello and a smile which gave me a sense of inclusion in their world, something that is appreciated by a cab driver in the middle of the night. It can be a lonely profession.
But that sense of inclusion quickly evaporated when I made a right on 83rd and headed crosstown. Their togetherness was too together for me to feel anything but excluded as she cuddled up on his chest and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. This would be another purely functional ride after all, the driver a mute extension of the taxicab itself, the passengers in their own space and bubble. So be it.
We stopped at a red light at Park Avenue. Having the chance to take my eyes off the road and glance around at the environment, I sensed that something was wrong here. Looking in the mirror, the girl had disappeared. Could she be taking a quick snooze on the guy's lap? Not unless she talks in her sleep, as her little female giggles were loud enough to carry over into the front of the cab. I feared the worst but carried on, turning right on Madison in the direction of the 97th Street transverse. Before we had progressed a block on the avenue the giggles had morphed into murmurs and there were some upper body movements of the guy which gave a further indication that what was going on in the back was an activity of the oral variety that is actually illegal in a public place.
No, not brushing your teeth.
Now, what is a cab driver supposed to do in this situation? Stick his head through the partition's window to catch the perpetrators red-handed (all right, perhaps "handed" is not the correct word here)? And if you do that, then what do you do? It's just too awkward to be confrontable. Besides, what if I poked my head through the partition and found that nothing untoward was actually going on, after all? Wouldn't that make me out to be the jackass?
So to hell with it. I would endure it all the way to Harlem if I had to. I made the left on 97th.
But then, as we began our trek across the Central Park transverse, they crossed the line. Looking in the mirror, they had assumed the "Taxicab Position" - the male sitting normally, facing forward, the female straddling him, facing the rear window. It means their activity had gone from "presumed innocent" to "you've got to be kidding" in the mind of the taxi driver. It was over the top, right in your face, and for the sake of one's dignity it begs for some kind of response.
I have two forms of retaliation to the appearance of the Taxicab Position and I immediately put the first one into motion. It is to attempt, by means of hard braking and sharp turning, to knock the female off her joystick. It's kind of like a party game like "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" - "Knock the Girl Off the Penis". So when I came to the next red light at Central Park West I slowed, then hit the brake with a noticeable thump. No good, she remained attached and continued to sway gently in place. When the light turned green I made the right on CPW as sharply as I could without putting the cab into a spin, but again it was to no avail. This girl could have a career in the rodeo.
By the time we came to the next red at 106th Street the party had ended, at least for the time being. She had dismounted somewhere around 101st and the two of them sat tight together, smiling and cooing at each other the rest of the way up to their destination at 117th. Still, it was not over as far as I was concerned. You simply cannot do this in the space of another human and not expect a settlement of accounts. This is my taxicab. This is my workplace. To fail to respond would be a humiliation in itself, an admission to myself that I was, in fact, just a mute extension of the taxicab. Something needed to be said, so the second form of retaliation was begun.
As I brought the cab to a stop at 117th and awaited payment of the $14.50 fare, I began a little end-of-ride conversation. "You know, the taxi rates just went up," I said in the general direction of the back seat. It was a true statement. There was a fare increase on September 4th.
"They did?" the girl responded.
"Yeah, there's a $10 surcharge now for the hotel room."
The guy laughed but his partner in crime did not get the joke. "I hope you're kidding," she said as she handed me a $20 bill.
I took the bill and held it in the air. "Yes... I am..." I replied, in a not unfriendly way.
"We're going to a hotel room!" she exclaimed, happy-faced, as if it were quite a coincidence that I happened to mention that.
"You've just been in one," I zapped back. Touche.
"Can I have three dollars back?" she asked, her smile still in place.
"Three dollars back," I repeated, with just the slightest hint of sarcasm. I slowly counted out the bills from my roll and offered them through the partition to whomever would take them. She moved forward to accept the money but as she did so her boyfriend interceded.
"Tell him to keep it," he told her, sotto voce style.
She paused a moment as the suggestion was processed. "Oh, you can keep the change!" she said with just the slightest hint of airhead.
"Gee, thanks," I replied in pretended surprise. I didn't need their three bucks. But this gesture in the fragile territory of Manners, Lack Of, at least did do something to compensate for their transgression.
They stepped out of the cab and closed the door. I looked over at them for a final mental snapshot and found that the girl was waving me goodbye, still smiling.
"Thanks for the hotel room!" she called back.