Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Well Worth The Eighteen Bucks

There are certain rides which you suspect will be trouble, but then it turns out there is none. For example, the passenger looks drunk, acts drunk, is drunk, and you’ve got a feeling that any second now this son of a bitch is going to puke in the back seat. But he does not. And that is good. But then there are others for which your suspicion is justified - you could see it coming, and indeed it arrives. But at least you can say, “I saw it coming” and give yourself credit for possessing a certain amount of wisdom, even if your wisdom wasn’t of sufficient quantity to have been able to avoid the damned thing in the first place.

Such was the case with a ride I had a couple of months ago, on a frigid Wednesday evening in February. I had taken a fare from Manhattan to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, at 6:20 - not something a cabbie wants to do at that hour because it likely means going back to “the city” (Manhattan) without a passenger and that is money lost. And although the mantra of the veteran New York City cab driver is supposedly “I don’t go to Brooklyn”, I took the guy without even a hint of complaint - a sign that I may be softening up in my old age.

It was the next ride that was the trouble. Before I could turn around and head back to the Williamsburg Bridge I was hailed at McCarren Park by three teenage boys, dressed in outfits typical of the so-called “inner city”, each about 15, maybe 16 years old. Now here’s a little truism a cabbie learns, usually the hard way, about teenagers and taxicabs in New York City - there are only two situations in which kids between the ages of 13 and 17 ever take taxis without an adult accompanying them. 1) They are “rich kids” from the Park Avenue or 5th Avenue parts of town. 2) It is a Friday or Saturday night and the teenagers are a boy and a girl who are out on a date. The reason: money. Cabs are too expensive for teenagers unless you’re a rich kid or it’s a very special occasion.

Now, I know this, but as mentioned maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or maybe it’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve had any teenagers in my cab who didn’t fit into one of those two categories that I’ve let my guard down. Whatever the reason, I stopped and let them in, all three in the back seat. Immediately there was this sinking feeling a cabbie gets when he knows he’d made a mistake. I had gone against my instinct, thinking I was doing the right thing by stopping for whomever wanted my services, as per the rules, but now I had a problem on my hands. As soon as they were in my immediate space, danger signals went off on my taxi driver radar. These were not your normal taxi passenger particles, so to speak. They weren’t passing through the filter.

What I do in a situation like this, as I’ve described elsewhere in this blog, I call my “Three Strikes And You're Out System”. Strike One: from your outward characteristics you look to me like potential trouble of one kind or another. I don’t feel comfortable with you in my cab. Strike Two: I also don’t feel comfortable with where in the city you want me to go and the time of day (like late at night) you want me to go there. Well, these three fellows by appearance, age, and demeanor brought me to Strike Two immediately, and when I asked them where they were going the one directly behind the partition next to the right-side door barked out:

“Ridgewood, yo.”

Ouch.

This was further bad news because not only did they want to take me for a long ride in the opposite direction from Manhattan, but Ridgewood is a low-income, not-gentrified part of the city which I don’t really know very well due to the fact that I get so few fares out there. This ride was going to be something like fifteen to twenty dollars on the meter. Three inner-city teenagers paying that much money for a cab ride when they could have taken the subway? Noooo… this particle was definitely not making it through the filter. Still, the procedure of my system is that when you have a Strike Two, what you do is communicate, or try to. Often what looks like something ominous turns out to be not that way at all upon further observation. So I went at it.

“So what street do you want in Ridgewood?” I asked.

“Huh?” the kid on the right-rear grunted.

“Where are you going? What street?”

There was a brief conversation among them. And then, “We don’t know yet,” replied the same kid, who seemed to be a spokesman for the group. “Get on Metropolitan.”

This was a further bad indicator. They’re taking an expensive ride and they’re not sure where they’re going? Two possibilities enter the mind of the taxi driver: maybe they aren’t concerned about spending money on a ride to a vague destination because they have no intention to pay for it. Or, worse, maybe they want to get to a general area and then find a street where it would be a good place to hold you up. I knew I had to determine which possibility it was before we got to Ridgewood - my life could be at stake here. If I decided what they had in mind was just to beat the fare, I would take them. If I was right, all I would lose, really, would be some time. But if I wasn’t sure, I would have to abruptly end the ride in a busy area with lots of people around (hopefully right behind a police car, if I could find one) and through overt or covert means, get them out of the cab. (That’s Strike Three.) So I had a plan. But first I had to continue with my attempt at communication.

The kid in the middle, who I could easily see in the rear-view mirror, was wearing a Yankee cap. I thought this was a good way to start a conversation, so I looked at him in the mirror and asked him if he was a Yankee fan. He seemed surprised that he was being asked a question. After thinking about it for a few seconds he replied, rather flatly, “Yeah.”

“How do you think they’re looking for the new season? Think they’ll make the playoffs?”

The kid pondered this concept - Yankees… playoffs… and finally responded. “Maybe,” was all he said. He wasn’t saying much, but he said something. I took this as a hopeful sign and continued.

“Hey, you know who I had in my cab last summer? Derek Jeter!”

Now for any Yankee fan, or even any baseball fan, this statement should result in a “Wow!” of one sort or another. Derek Jeter, the recently retired superstar of the Yankees, has been the most admired sports figure in New York for the last twenty years. But all it got out of the kid was an even-voiced, “That’s cool.” And nothing more. This was not good.

I was beginning to think I was going to have to get rid of these guys for my own safety when there was an oddly positive development in the ride. They started goofing off with each other. One of them accused another of farting. Then the one who’d been accused yelled up to me, “Hey cab driver, did you fart?” which brought some laughter in the back seat. It was juvenile and disrespectful, but it gave me something with which to calculate their intentions.

In my understanding of human behavior I could not see three teenagers joking around with each other if what was in the back of their minds was to pull out a weapon and rob me. If that had been their intention, they would have been serious, silent, and mean-spirited. I could see that these kids were basically just wiseass teenagers. Still, something was up and I was pretty sure at this point that what was up was that they were going to try to beat the fare. That suspicion wasn’t enough to kick them out of the cab, however, so we continued on.

When we’d gone a couple of miles down Metropolitan Avenue some disagreement arose among them as to where they wanted to go. One kid said turn left, the other said no, turn right, and then there was a whispered conference among them - a development I didn’t like one bit. What was it they didn’t want me to hear? It was a little after seven in the evening and although it was dark there were still plenty of cars and people on the streets, so I still didn’t think they intended to hold me up. But now I wasn’t so sure. I decided that if they directed me to turn into an alley or a dead-end street I would quickly close the partition window on them, lock it, and order them out of the cab. The Plexiglas partition is bullet-proof (it had better be!) and as long as I had an open road in front of me I could take off the moment they stepped out of the cab and be safe, hopefully. To hell with the money.

If, however, they were simply going to try to leave without paying, as I expected, well, I had another plan…

We took a few lefts and rights and wound up on a one-way, residential street. Halfway down the block the kid in the rear-right says, “Okay, stop here.” As I brought the cab slowly to a halt, I noted that the street in front of me was devoid of other vehicles, a good thing. Stopping the cab, I left it in “Drive” with my foot on the brake.

“You’re getting out here?” I asked the group, noticing that there was $18.30 on the meter.

But there was no answer, as such. Instead there was a sudden, loud, rebel yell from both sides of the compartment as the rear doors flew open simultaneously. With grins of joyous complicity on their faces, the two kids who had been sitting next to their own doors jumped out of the cab and began to run away the moment their feet touched ground. Seeing this, I put my own plan into action. Instead of just sitting there and watching them run, I stepped on the gas, hard, while at the same time reaching back, slamming the partition window shut, and locking it. The sudden forward thrust of the cab caused the two rear doors to close on their own. But I wasn’t driving down the street alone. The kid in the Yankee hat who had been sitting between his friends hadn’t been able to get out in time. In an instantaneous reversal of fortune, he was suddenly a prisoner in a moving vehicle.

“Like I didn’t see that coming,” I called back to him while bringing the speed up to about 25 miles per hour. The look of shock on the kid’s face was priceless. I wish I could have taken a picture of it.

“So,” I said in sarcastic cheerfulness as we continued down the street, “let’s find a cop.”

There was panic and confusion in the kid’s eyes. Perhaps he saw his future melting away due to being arrested. Perhaps he could see how he would lose the respect of certain people in his life whom he admired. Or perhaps he could just see himself being picked up at the precinct by his momma, who would give him more than a piece of her mind when she got him home. Whatever it was, he kept it to himself. He didn’t say a word to me.

For my part, I knew I had to keep the taxi moving while looking for a cop. If I brought it to a stop, the kid would certainly bolt. I continued driving down the street for another block with still no other cars in front of me, but then slowed down a bit to make a left turn at an approaching intersection. As I went into the turn, the speed of the cab going down to about fifteen miles per hour, the kid suddenly pushed open the right-rear door and jumped out, rolling over a couple of times onto the pavement just like in a scene from an action movie. Looking back at him through the mirror, I could see him rising to his feet, apparently uninjured. There was an accumulation of snow on the street which may have cushioned his fall.

I kept driving, satisfied that I had won the game. Actually, just the look on the kid’s face was worth the eighteen bucks. In these fare-beating scenarios, it’s not really about the money, anyway. It’s about pride, not letting someone make a jackass out of you. Also it’s about teaching the person a lesson, if possible. Hopefully this kid had a realization along the lines of there being consequences to stupid behavior. Of course in this particular instance, he may have had a realization of a different kind...

...like that he may have a future as a stuntman!