Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Giving Directions Hall of Fame

Two or three times a night a car will pull up to me at a red light and a stressed-out-looking face will appear from behind an opened window and ask me - sometimes almost beg me - for directions. I like to think of myself as a civilized human being so, of course, I always do my best to help. These are usually pretty mundane occurrences, nothing to write about, but there have been a few that have stayed in my memory as being particularly amusing. A "Hall of Fame" of giving directions, if you will.

1) Man in a Chevrolet at 6th Avenue and 12th Street: "Where is 45th Street?"
Me: "Between 44th and 46th Streets."

2) Woman in a Subaru: "Do you know where the Hilton Hotel is?"
Me: "Yes."

3) Young guy in a Jeep: "What's the best way to get to Wall Street?"
Me: "Go to a good business school."

4) Young guy in a Mercedes: "What's the fastest way to get to the FDR Drive?"
Me: "Helicopter."

5) Man in a VW Rabbit on 3rd Avenue at 85th Street: "How do I get to Canada?"
Me: (seeing that he has an opened map on his lap and is not kidding): "Go straight 'til you hit Vermont, then make a left."

6) Girl in a red Toyota: "How do I get to Saks?"
Me (not sure I heard her): "What?"
Girl (louder): "Where's Saks?"
Me (realizing there's a joke here and now pretending not to hear her): "WHAT?"
Girl (shouting): "WHERE'S SAKS?"
Me (still pretending I'm not sure if I heard her): "You want... SAKS???"
Me: "My place or yours?"

My great regret is that no one has ever pulled up to me and asked this exact question: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" In case there's anyone in the world who doesn't know the answer, I will tell you now. It's practice, practice, practice. (This was the first joke ever written in the history of jokes, believed to have been authored by Milton Berle's grandfather.) So you see the kind of wise-ass I am. A closet comedian desperately in search of a laugh.

But there's nothing less funny to a cab driver than what happened to me a few days ago. I was sitting at a red light at the intersection of Chrystie and Delancey Streets in the Lower East Side when a police car pulled up next to me on my left. There were two cops in the car, as usual, and the officer sitting in the passenger's side of the cruiser ordered me to lower my window. "Oh shit," I thought, "what the hell do they want?" The possibilities for misery immediately raced through my mind. Do I have a headlight out? Is the stupid light above the rear license plate out? Did I make some kind of illegal turn back there at Rivington Street? Did I run a red light? I couldn't think of anything I'd done wrong, but who knows what they think? Jesus, this could cost me hundreds of dollars and put points on my license. And that could mean my hack license could be suspended and it could raise the cost of my car insurance.

I lowered my window and braced myself. The cop had a sour expression on his face. He looked like maybe he hadn't eaten in a long time, and maybe he'd just had to intervene in somebody else's family crisis, and maybe he'd just been dissed by some thug on the street - and now he was going to take it all out on me. His mouth opened. These words came out:

"Do you know where Monroe Street is?"

That is correct. Perhaps for the first time in the history of taxi-driving, a taxi driver was asked for directions by a cop. I proclaim this to be some kind of vague moral victory not only for myself, but for taxi drivers everywhere.

I looked at the cop. He looked at me. My perception of him and his plight changed instantly. I saw him now not as a menace, but as a modern-day version of Officer Toody from the old sitcom, CAR FIFTY-FOUR, WHERE ARE YOU? I had to like the guy, but I couldn't resist rubbing it in a little.

"So you're asking me for directions," I said with a broad smile. "That's a switch."

"We're from uptown!" he said, the implication being that the Lower East Side might as well be Madrid or Budapest.

"Oh, okay," I replied. "Well, make a left on Delancey and a right on Allen Street. Monroe runs into it in about ten blocks."

"Got it."

I was on a roll. I saw an opening for a parting shot before the light changed, and I took it.

"Listen," I said, addressing both of them with mock seriousness, "I want you to know that there's no need for what just happened here to ever be known to anyone but the three of us. Your secret is safe with me."

"Thanks!" the officer sitting closest to me called out as the light turned green and they made the left onto Delancey.

Okay, so I lied.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mail-Order Dog

Dogs in cabs. It's a genre of its own in the world of taxi-driving. As for me, I love it when someone gets in with a dog. Right away, there's an instant conversation. Anyone who owns a dog in New York City loves to talk about their canine pal. No exceptions. In fact, I read somewhere that the easiest way to meet a girl or a guy is to strike up a conversation with them while they are walking their dog.

But many cabbies, for reasons I don't fully comprehend, will not allow dogs into their cabs. Perhaps it's a cultural thing, a consideration that it would be an insult to their own dignity to give service to an animal. Or maybe there's a fear that the dog would mistake the back seat for a fire hydrant. Or maybe it's that here's a chance to pass someone by legally. (NYC taxi drivers are not required to accept animals in their cabs unless they are service animals, like seeing-eye dogs, or unless they are in a carrying case.)

I have never refused a dog and I've never had a dog piss or puke in my cab. People, yes. But dogs, never. Only twice have I had a problem. Once a guy left his Doberman (named Rambo) with me in my partition-less cab while he jumped into a deli. The dog became agitated and started barking and snarling. That was some serious tension. And another time a couple of girls in the East Village brought in a wet, long-haired mutt they had just found on the street. The lingering odor was so bad, I had to use a can of air freshener to disguise it.

When you consider that hundreds of dogs have passed through my portals without incident, the percentages clearly indicate that dogs make good passengers. Once, in fact, I had a celebrity dog in my cab. It was a black lab who had just done a "stupid pet trick" on the David Letterman show - he was able to hold some large number of tennis balls in his mouth. Think about this: here was a dog who was known to millions of people. He'd had his five minutes of fame. Hey, I haven't had my five minutes of fame. Have you?

This all leads me to tell you that I had a "fare of the night" recently who was a dog.

He was a one-year-old Maltese named Julian traveling from 69th Street and Broadway to 71st Street and 3rd Avenue with his owner, a twenty-four-year-old brunette whose name I neglected to write down on my trip sheet and now am not sure of, but I think it was Jennie. (Correction: not "Jennie"... it was "Jessica". See comment. Thanks, Jessica!)

I was told an interesting story of how these two hooked up. They actually met online. Jessica had been shopping on her computer for a Maltese puppy and located a breeder in Alabama who had one. The transaction then occurred, other than from pictures on the internet, sight unseen. Julian was shipped by air to New York and met at the airport by Jessica. (Kind of like a mail-order bride, except a dog.) The cost was $1,200 plus $200 for shipping. Jessica had recently completed grad school and had received enough money as gifts to pay for her pet. So Julian was really a graduation present.

You know how they say dogs and their owners are supposed to look like each other. Well, obviously these two don't look like each other, but they did seem to fit to each other. They made a charming pair.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Three Stars

So, did you recognize the movie star? It is... drum roll, please... Susan Sarandon. It may have been difficult to recognize her without her red hair anywhere in sight. Only about half of the dozen or so passengers in my cab whom I showed the pictures to got it right. One passenger, a dancer from Flashdancers, the strip club, didn't recognize her but did immediately comment on her cleavage, which I myself hadn't noticed up until that point. We are all experts in our own fields of endeavor.

Speaking of which, here is the newest addition to the streets of New York. The Toyota Prius taxicab.

This is, of course, the hybrid electric and gasoline car which is great on fuel and low on pollution. I asked the driver how much he spends on gas per shift (about 140 miles are driven in a shift, the ultimate in stop and go driving). He said from 8 to 10 dollars. I'm spending between $40 and $50 in the Ford Crown Vic I lease from my garage. Wave of the future? I sure hope so. But how will it stand up to the brutality of driving on New York streets? That remains to be seen. It's a small car.

Now, down to business. The focus of this blog is the "fare of the night" or the "thing on the street", meaning the most interesting people I encounter in my taxi or something I see on the street that's worthy of mention. And here's one I wanted to write about. On Aug. 2nd at 1:30 AM I picked up a happy, young lady in Greenwich Village and drove her out to Astoria. She had been talking excitedly on her cell phone for awhile and when she finished that conversation I asked her what was going on. She told me she is the manager of a restaurant in the Village and they had just received a favorable review in the NY Times. Three stars, as a matter of fact.

Unless you are already familiar with the culture of fine dining in New York City, this may not seem like such a big deal. But I assure you, it is. This is how it goes: someone at some point in his (or her) life realizes that he loves to cook. He may very well have attended and graduated from a culinary school (no small accomplishment). He works for years as a chef in an excellent restaurant. Finally, with investors lined up and with many friends to help him, he takes a mighty plunge and decides to open his own place. Enormous planning and effort are put into this project.

At last the restaurant becomes a reality. But will it be a success or just another one of the many flops? This often depends on a single, fickle, and perhaps fair or grossly unfair variable: the review of the food critic of the New York Times. If the reviewer likes your restaurant, your chances of success have multiplied dramatically. If not, your entire endeavor is most likely headed where the potato peels, egg shells, and fish bones wind up... That's the power of the food critic of the NY Times. So there is real drama here.

My passenger, whose name is Sara (and whose birthday it is) filled me in on the behind the scenes details of the story. She works at the Blue Hill restaurant on Washington Place between 6th Avenue and Washington Square

Park. It's a cozy, little place in the below-ground-level of a townhouse which has been in business for six years. The special feature of Blue Hill is that they prepare only food that has been grown within 150 miles of New York City. Blue Hill had received a two-star review ("very good") from the NY Times when it first opened and, Sara told me, if a restaurant is still in business after six years, it is the policy of the Times to review it again. They'd been informed that a food critic would be dining there that week, but they didn't know what day and they didn't know who it would be. So there was an air of mystery, suspense, and excitement in the restaurant all week. Was the portly gentleman at table twelve actually the mighty reviewer from the Times? Or could it be the woman in the pink suit at table seven?

The moment of truth had arrived earlier that evening. They received word that the review of Blue Hill would be published in the August 2nd edition, and they had received 3 stars ("excellent") from food czar Frank Bruni. The ecstasy of the staff had to be contained as the last diner stayed in the restaurant for an excruciating 45 minutes after the check had arrived. Finally the patron departed and they all celebrated their significant win.

Another example of increasing my own reality by communicating with a passenger. I wouldn't have known anything about all this if I hadn't simply asked her what was going on. If you'd like to see the review for yourself, by the way, google "Blue Hill restaurant, New York City".

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Movie Star

During almost any night of taxi driving in New York City something memorable happens. Not every night. But almost every night.

The memorable thing that happened on Wednesday, July 26th, was a "thing on the street" (rather than a passenger in the cab). There was a big movie production going on all night on 6th Avenue in the 50s. Lots of trailers, lights, equipment, and production crew people. Film making is really big in NYC and it's certainly not unusual to drive by a makeshift set on the street. An experienced eye can tell at a glance how big the budget is by the amount of space that is taken up. Sometimes you see just a few people and a camera on the sidewalk. Other times the trucks stretch out for three city blocks and there are a couple of cops around to keep order. This was one of those times.

I hadn't paid much attention to any of this until around 3 AM. I was doing one of my late-night cruising routes (certain streets I drive on that have proven to be more fruitful than others in the never-ending game of finding the next passenger), when I noticed that the production had switched its location to 7th Avenue and 54th Street, and the next shot they were going to shoot included a taxi cab.

I am very observant, whenever I see a movie that has a scene with a NYC taxi in it, to notice if they got the details of the taxi correctly. If anything is wrong I spot it immediately and it throws me momentarily out of the "suspension of disbelief". And there is one thing that they almost always get wrong. I decided to stop for a while and take a closer look at their taxi. And, since I now carry with me my digital camera, to take a few pictures. Here's a couple of shots of the cab they were using. Can you see what's wrong?

Now, I admit you are not going to be able to know this unless you are quite familiar with the taxi system in New York. Certainly most people would not see it. But movie makers are notoriously fussy about getting all details totally correct when they compose a shot. And there are some people out here in the audience, both those in the taxi industry and some very aware taxi passengers, who do know. So I have often wondered why film directors don't fix this little mistake they are constantly making.

Take a close look at these pictures. (You can click on them to see a larger view.) Can you see what's wrong? It's the identifying numbers and letter on the roof and on the license plate. Every NYC taxi has four digits - one number followed by a letter and two more numbers - that are used to distinguish it from all other taxis. But not all the letters of the alphabet are used. This one shows the letter Q. It's not used. There are no taxis in NYC that are identified with a Q. Also, they've used a zero after the letter. Zeros are sometimes used as the last digit, but never as the first digit nor the digit after the letter.

Am I being too picky? Maybe, but it bothers me. I decided to bring it to the attention of the film crew. I spoke to a couple of people and was given this explanation by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. Apparently, since each taxi is owned by an individual or a company, they would have to get permission from and pay the owner in order to use a real number. Sounds reasonable, but I don't buy it. My question is, okay, so why don't they do that? It couldn't cost much. I think they're just being lazy.

All right, I admit there are bigger things in the world to be concerned about. Like what's this movie all about and is anyone famous in it? I asked another crew person and was told it's a Disney production that will be called ENCHANTED and it has something to do with a person with magical powers who goes around granting wishes to people. And, yes, there is a famous star in it who, as a matter of fact, is standing right next to me. I didn't recognize this very famous actress right away, probably because of the costume she was wearing. Do you know who she is?

In the great tradition of teasing the reader, the answer will be in my next posting.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Day In The Life

Here's a look at a day in the life of a New York City taxi driver. (Actually, a night in the life - I drive the night shift.) I'm going to go back a few weeks to Saturday, July 15, because that was a particularly memorable evening. Also, I promised a certain young couple that I would post their pictures...

I drive my trusty '91 Camry (317,000 miles on the odometer) to my taxi garage on Manhattan's West Side and park it on the street. I leave the doors unlocked and the glove compartment open to show the thieves that there's nothing to steal and, if they don't believe me, go ahead and open the doors and take a look for yourselves. Just don't break the windows... please! I attach the "club" (an anti-theft device) to the steering wheel, put on my backpack (which contains my food for the shift, my camera, and various taxi-driver supplies), and walk down the street toward the garage. It's 5:15 PM.

The taxi garage at this hour is buzzing with activity. Day shift drivers are arriving, turning in their meters, rate cards, (official identifying document displayed in each cab), and keys to Alfredo, the weekend day dispatcher. A couple of night shift drivers wait in line at the dispatcher's window, ready to pay the $128 leasing fee for a Saturday night shift. Three cabs are up on lifts being attended to by mechanics. The smell of engine oil permeates the air.

I pay my $128 to Alfredo and am handed a blank trip sheet and the keys, rate card, and meter to 7P87, one of the older cabs (3 years and over 200,000 miles) in the one-hundred-and-fifty cab fleet. I am used to driving older taxis since I rent by the day rather than by the week and the weekly guys are given the newer cabs since they are committing to pay for the whole week. I have no problem with that, as long as the cab I am given is relatively operational. My biggest concern on this summer night is whether or not the air conditioning is working... which it is, so I am happy.

I begin my ritual of preparing the cab for the night's work. This consists of cleaning the windows and mirrors, setting the radio to my stations, emptying garbage left over from the previous shift, making sure the back seat is secure, checking the tires, and seeing that the seat belts are available and in working order. And in doing this I observe that my own seat belt - the one for the driver- is broken. This disturbs me as I do use the seat belt whenever I go onto a highway. Steve, the weekend night dispatcher, happens to be hanging around and I bring this to his attention.

ME: "Hey, Steve, the driver's seat belt is broken. Should I go get another cab?"

STEVE: "The rest are all shit. You're better off with this one."

ME: "That's just great. I'll probably get killed driving this thing."

STEVE: "Yeah, probably."

ME: "There's nothing like driving on the fuckin' BQE between two 18-wheelers at three in the morning with no seat belt on. I just fuckin' love it."

STEVE: "Can I ask you a question?"

ME: "What?"

STEVE: "If you do get killed tonight, can I have your car?"

It's nice to know that if you die during the shift, there's someone left behind to help manage your estate. Who says there's no empathy in the taxi business? I decide to keep 7P87 and by six o'clock I'm on my way up 10th Avenue looking for my first fare. The night has begun.

It doesn't take any great skill to make money on Fridays or Saturdays. These are the two nights of the week when New York really is the "city that doesn't sleep". The other five nights, after midnight, the city that never sleeps takes cat naps. But on Friday and Saturday nights it's an all-night party town and a cab driver knows he'll be busy until the shift ends at 5 AM.

My basic Saturday night strategy for finding passengers is this: go to the shopping areas, like Macys or the mall at Columbus Circle, until 7 PM; cruise the residential neighborhoods until around 8:30, looking for people going out for the night; check out places like hospitals, Penn Station, and the Empire State Building until about 10:15; Times Square until midnight; and after that, head downtown to the clubs and bars where the party people are gathering in droves. Of course, you never know where your next passenger will take you, but this is the basic strategy.

My first passenger jumps in at 57th Street and 10th Avenue. It's a $5.30 ride straight up to 85th and Amsterdam Avenue. The next one gets in just a block from there and takes me all the way out to Forest Hills in Queens, a $25 ride. This is an unusual destination for this time of day, the kind of ride a cabbie is tempted to refuse since it means, in all likelihood, driving back to Manhattan without a passenger and thus losing money due to "dead time". But I take the fellow without a word of protest and, although we have no real conversation, he rewards me with a decent tip. I am further rewarded by a traffic-less ride back to Manhattan, and in 20 minutes I am across the 59th Street Bridge and take my next fare from Bloomingdale's on Lexington Avenue down to Midtown.

For the next two hours it's pretty much one-gets-out-one-gets-in. If the night's going well I expect to make my first money target of $120 by 9:30 and, indeed, as 9:30 rolls arrives, I am quite close to that amount. I use 9:30 as a point of reference because it is my break time and, I must admit, it's a break that is utterly regimented. I park the cab at a taxi stand on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets, walk to the Starbuck's at 51st, use one of the two restrooms to wash my hands and take a civilized piss (what luxury), order a "tall drip, no milk", get change of a twenty, chat with the guys behind the counter who know me as a regular, walk a few blocks in Times Square to stretch my legs, and then it's back to the taxi. This is the only break I will take until the end of the shift. I know that sounds brutal, but I'm used to it.

From the taxi stand on Broadway I drive up 8th Avenue to Columbus Circle and catch a fare coming out of the Time Warner Building up to 92nd and Madison. Within a minute I have another ride, this time heading downtown to the Meat Packing District. The night continues to be busy but uneventful for the next couple of hours, but like any night of taxi driving in New York City, and especially a Saturday night, I know that sooner or later something memorable will happen. I have a definite sense of inevitability about this. As it turns out, the event occurs at 11:30.

I drop off a fare near the extreme southern tip of Manhattan and drive uptown on West Street. Just as I pass the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel I am hailed by a thirty-something man in a suit who, instead of getting in the taxi, motions for me to roll down the window. He tells me he is coming from a wedding reception in the building to my right and the bride and groom will soon be coming out and will need a ride to their hotel. Would I be willing to wait a few minutes for them? And one other thing - he and his friends want to decorate the back of my cab with paper streamers and cans attached to strings. Would that be okay?

Well, they picked the right cab. Not only is the driver the kind of guy who lives for this sort of thing, but the taxi itself has a picture of a bride on its roof. (7P87 was advertising the Broadway show, MAMMA MIA, which pictures a bride). Talk about good karma - wow! I give my consent and within moments the wedding party descends upon my cab and production is underway.

Ten minutes later, 7P87 has been transformed in much the same way that Cinderella's pumpkin was changed into a carriage. It's quite a makeover. In fact, 7P87 has never looked so good.

Once the decorations have been completed, a few more minutes pass by before the bride and groom finally make their grand entrance onto West Street. But I have no complaints about the delay, as I have already been well taken care of by the the guy who hailed me ($50), and the truth is, I am having a great time. Everybody gives the newlyweds a few final cheers as they are ushered into the taxi. I introduce myself and we are on our way to the Maritime Hotel on 16th Street and 9th Avenue.

In all my 28 years of taxi-driving, this is a first. I once had a Chinese couple in full wedding apparel as passengers, but it turned out that they were dressed up just to have pictures taken, which I was told is customarily done 6 months in advance of the wedding itself. This, of course, is the real thing.

I am naturally curious to find out something about my special passengers, so I waste no time in starting a conversation. Their names are Mr. Ben Grossman and Mrs. Jackie Grossman (I may have been the first to address her as such). They are in their 30s, both are New Yorkers, and both are teachers. They had been together for two years before taking the plunge. They strike me as being genuinely nice, caring people who are well-matched in their personalities. The kind of people who, if you were a kid, you would like to have as your parents.

The trip to the Maritime Hotel is a quick one, only about 10 minutes. The hotel is located in a very trendy, night-life area (the Meat Packing District) and there is a restaurant and a club in the hotel itself. So the entrance to the place on this, a Saturday night, is the epitome of a busy NYC street scene. Nevertheless, I pull right up to the the front, get the doorman to help with their light luggage, and before wishing the Grossmans a happy and prosperous life together, a couple of snapshots are taken. (Yes, that's me standing between them.) All while the hundred or so people who mill around on 16th Street, in typical New York fashion, take no notice of us whatsoever.

Don't they look like a nice couple, by the way?

I drive down 16th Street and pull over to the curb half-way down the block. I pick up the cans and deposit them in the trunk and am about to do the same with the streamers, but suddenly I have an idea. Why not leave them there? It would be cool to drive around the rest of the night like that. So I do.

It turns out to be a good business move. Great for conversation and great for tips. I tell the female passengers that getting into a cab with streamers hanging from the trunk (what are the odds of that happening?) is an omen that they, too, will soon be married. Like catching the bouquet at a wedding. This went over well with all of them except one young lady en route to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who wanted nothing to do with marriage. (Wait 'til she's in her 30s.) One passenger actually tells me that she had noticed my streamer-decorated cab drive past her about an hour earlier when she had been standing on the street.

At 5:03 I drop my last fare off at 50th and Lex and call it a night. I have been on the road for 11 hours, taken 33 rides, and carried a total of 64 people during the shift. I drive to the Hess station on 45th and 10th, put $41 into the gas-guzzling 7P87, and then, a bit sadly, remove the streamers and deposit them and the cans into a trash bin. I park 7P87 on the street, walk to the garage, which is relatively deserted, and hand in the meter, rate card, and keys to Steve, who is still on duty. After exchanging some pleasantries, I leave the garage, walk to my car, and am pleased to find that a) it is still there, and b) the side-view mirrors are still there, too. I start her up and am on way way home.

I review the night in my mind. It's been a good one, money-wise, people-wise, and even adventure-wise. Another one of those nights, like most nights of taxi-driving in New York City, that, unless the driver is generally oblivious or happened to be in a personal funk that night, he will feel that he has once again been nose-to-nose with life. Maybe that is putting a bit of a happy face on it, but it's the way I'm feeling as I turn my Camry away from Manhattan and head for the highway.