Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Case of the Missing Beard

It was busy as hell last Saturday night. One of those nights when, even though all of the city's 13,087 cabs were out on the streets, demand still exceeded supply. So when I dropped off a passenger at Waverly Place and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village at 1 AM, I wasn't particularly surprised to find two people, both females, desperately trying to gain possession of my cab. They arrived simultaneously from both sides and I found myself suddenly playing the role of referee. I chose the girl on the left as she had arrived a moment before the other, and the girl on the right didn't take it well, calling me an anal aperture and threatening to report me to the taxi police. But I chose well because the girl on the left turned out to be a sweetheart and left me with a story.

But the ride didn't start out well at all. She directed me to drive just a block away and stop in front of a three-story apartment building. Which I did. She then got on her cell phone and began a conversation that went something like this:

GOTL (Girl On The Left): Hey, it's me.
GOTL: C'mon down. I'm right here. I've got a cab.
GOTL: Come on, honey! I'm right downstairs. I'm right here!
GOTL: Pleeease!
GOTL: Dammit, come on, please!
GOTL: ...please...please...please...please...

It went on like this for two or three minutes, and I'm thinking I could have been to Midtown already with the girl on the right. One thing you do not want to do when the city is super-busy is sit around and wait. A cab driver makes very little money sitting still in New York City. So I began to express my discontent to my passenger - and then she did something I really didn't like. She suddenly opened the door, said she'd be right back, got out of the cab and went into the apartment building. Without paying me what was already on the meter.

Three more minutes went by. I was just about to drive away and write it off as five minutes and a few dollars lost to a whacky girl who had no regard for the rights of others when, to my surprise, she reappeared. Looking downcast and dejected, she asked me to drive her to a bar on 30th Street and 3rd Avenue. By this time my curiosity had been aroused, so I began asking questions. And this was the story...

My passenger, whose name was Jamie, had been talking to Jed, her boyfriend, on the cell phone. She wanted him to come out with her to this bar, but he wanted to stay inside. When she wasn't able to convince him to come downstairs, she went up to his apartment to try to persuade him. But Jed wouldn't budge.

Both Jamie and Jed are twenty-one years old. They both go to Pace University, and they've been dating for about a year. Well, the guy sounded to me like a jerk. Here was his girlfriend begging him to come out with her on a Saturday night, and he won't go. Not what you'd call creating the relationship. But there was more to the story.

Jamie told me that for as long as she's known him, Jed had always had a full-grown, thick, red beard. In fact, she'd never seen him without it. And neither had any of their friends. Then, a couple of days earlier, Jed suddenly went and shaved it off. And now no one, including Jamie, recognizes him anymore. She'd always related to him as a guy with a beard - it was his main identifying characteristic - and, now that the beard was gone, it was like he was a different person. Not really. But sort of.

Apparently it was all too much for Jed. He'd decided to stay in his apartment and watch the Discovery and History Channels, perhaps forever. But Jamie couldn't stand the idea of sitting there and looking at another documentary about World War II, so she was going to that bar on 30th and 3rd by herself.

When I had learned the whole story I found myself softening up on Jed. He now seemed to me to be something like a Woody Allen character, and I mentioned this to Jamie. She brightened up and agreed that he was, in fact, Woody Allen-ish, and spoke adoringly of him. So she really does like this guy, with or without a beard.

Which just goes to show that true love is stronger than whiskers.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Interview With The Vampire

New York "characters" - I've got one right here. This is a guy who has actually been driving me crazy for years. He cruises around the city very late at night in a fake cab, stealing business away from legitimate cabbies. Whenever I've seen him on the street, it clicks off some kind of vigilante instinct in me. I have followed him around for miles, waiting for him to stop for someone hailing a cab on the street so I could intervene. I once sent the cops after him.

When I say "fake cab", what I mean is this: he drives around in a yellow Ford Crown Vic that has a rooflight on the roof and rates posted on the doors. There is a meter on the dashboard. It looks just like a real NYC taxi. And, in fact, it is a taxi - but it's not a New York City taxi. It's registered somewhere outside the city limits and cannot legally do business in New York.

Fortunately there are very few of these cabs around. And they don't usually seem to last very long. I might see a guy driving a fake cab once or twice (an experienced eye can pick them out) and then I never see him again. But not this guy. As I said, I've been seeing him for years.

A few weeks ago I was cruising up 1st Avenue at around two in the morning and there he was. I didn't have a passenger in my cab, and neither did he, so I set off after him. I followed him for about a mile, and then I had an idea. I realized he'd make a good interview for the blog. I mean, here's a guy who could be thought of as being the underbelly of the underbelly in New York City. Kind of like a vampire. He comes out late at night and sucks the blood from the economy of the already overworked legitimate cabbie, and then disappears when the sun comes up. It might make good copy.

So I did something extraordinary, considering that I'd been this guy's nemesis for years. I pulled up next to him and said hello. I didn't speak angrily or condescendingly. Just some taxi driver chit-chat. I showed him my digital camera and asked if I could interview him and take some pictures. And he was totally obliging. In fact, to put it mildly, he was quite eager to talk. It was as if he'd been on a long, long journey and here at last was someone who was willing to listen to him. We spoke for over an hour.

I've always had an appreciation of the character who is a likable scoundrel. The Falstaff character. The rogue who takes short cuts around the law but does no serious harm. And this guy was him. His name is Marvin. The image you see of him here is exactly the way he has looked for all the years I've seen him on the street. Same hat. Always a lit cigar in his hand. And his cab perpetually filled with smoke. (His passengers must love that.)

His mode of operation is this: his car is, in fact, licensed to be a taxicab in a town in Westchester County. Getting the license wasn't difficult. All he had to do was open a post office box and fill out some forms from the town clerk. He doesn't work for a taxi company. He's just a one-man-band in business for himself. He does have the insurance required to operate a taxi business (although he sometimes lapses on the payments).

Marvin has a few steady customers up in Westchester, but what he mostly does is drive down to the city and cruise the streets late at night. He tries not to be noticed. His rooflight, like NYC taxis, is illuminated when the meter is off so potential passengers will notice that he's available. But, unlike New York taxis, his rooflight is set up so that you can only see the illumination from the front. From the back, the rooflight is dark. This means that taxi drivers coming up behind him will think he's already got a passenger in his cab and won't think of him as competition. Sneaky. And clever, I must admit.

His way of charging for his services is sneaky, too. Marvin has rates posted on his doors that look just like the decals that are attached to the doors of New York cabs. But upon closer inspection it turns out the rates he's charging are higher. NewYork taxis are currently authorized to charge 40 cents for a fifth of a mile. Marvin charges 40 cents for a sixth.

It is, of course, illegal for any vehicle other than a real medallion taxi (the yellow taxis you always see in pictures) to pick people up on the street. But it's not illegal for a taxi from another town to come to the city and simply drive around. So for Marvin to actually get in trouble, his act of picking up a passenger from the street must be witnessed by a cop or a Taxi and Limousine Commisssion officer. And that is why he is careful not to be noticed. He usually cruises only on streets where there are no other taxis around. And certainly no police cars in sight. Marvin does a lot of looking in his rear-view mirror.

I was curious how he wound up in this racket and he told me his story. He had been a legitimate NYC taxi driver back in the early '80s and, in fact, had owned three medallions. (The medallion is the license from the city to own one taxicab and to operate it according to the rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. The medallion can be bought and sold by individuals and are quite valuable, today trading for over $300,000. Like houses, they are usually purchased by taking out a loan from a bank or a credit union.) But he ran into financial problems with his partners, couldn't make his payments on his loans, and lost the medallions. Disgusted and broke, he kept driving one of the cabs without a medallion. Eventually he was caught, arrested, and fined. But what flipped him over to the "dark side" was that he was spoken to rudely by the TLC officer was caught him. That was the final straw.

Since then, Marvin has been a renegade cabbie. But what amazed me was how long "since then" has been - 1984! In other words, Marvin has been cruising the streets illegally and making some kind of living at it for over twenty years. He said he'd been caught a few times and has paid a few fines. But nothing that would stop him from continuing. To me, that is amazing.

I felt a certain amount of admiration for the guy. I myself had once owned a medallion and found dealing with the city and dealing with my drivers to be unendurable. And here was Marvin kind of giving the finger to "the man". But my admiration was abbreviated when Marvin, blathering on, perhaps told me a bit too much. He pointed to his taxi meter, which was not like the ones we use in the city, and bragged that he has it rigged with something that is called a "zapper". That means that whenever a hidden button is pushed, the meter clicks. So Marvin's passengers are winding up paying about double what they would pay if they were in a real NYC cab.

"Why hit a single when you can hit a home run?" was Marvin's justification for doing this.

Well, that was where he lost me. It's one thing to screw the system and get away with it. It's another thing in my mind to victimize your own customers. My opinion of the guy dropped like a stone when he told me this. Still, the thought of Marvin brings a smile to my face. He is a character. Even if he is a vampire.