Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chinese Call Girl

Isn't it amazing what can happen when you put your attention on something? Within 24 hours of writing in my last post that I sometimes suspect, but rarely find out, that certain female passengers are call girls, I had this ride:

I was cruising up 6th Avenue shortly after 3 am and picked up a woman at 54th Street. She was in the middle of a cell phone conversation as she entered the cab and, like many passengers who regard the phone call as being more important than the taxi ride, she merely told me the general direction in which she wanted to go (Queens via the upper level of the 59th Street Bridge) and then went back to the phone.

I made the right on 57th Street and headed toward the bridge. Since she hadn't told me exactly where we were going, I had a bit more attention on her than I normally would have had. I checked her out in the mirror. She was a tall Asian with a rather thin, long face and straight, black hair extending below her shoulders, about 35 years old. She had a rather exotic look to her, and it occurred to me that she could have been cast in an old movie as the wife of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Not that there was anything evil about her. In fact, she was quite nice.

It wasn't until we were over the bridge and driving down an empty street in Long Island City that her cell phone conversation finally ended. As she resumed giving me directions ("make a left on Borden Avenue"), she said, half to me and half to herself, "what a night!"

"Had a rough one?"


"What happened?"

"You don't want to know."

Now whenever someone says, "You don't want to know", you do want to know. And I did.

"I do want to know, but I don't think you want to tell me," I said.

Apparently that was all I had to say for her to feel safe telling me what she really did want to tell me anyway. And this was her story...

She said she was Chinese and she and two other Chinese girls had gone to a hotel in Midtown to give "massages" to three gentlemen. But when they got to the hotel room, there weren't three gentlemen - there were six. And they weren't really "gentlemen" after all. This, to these professionals, was a dangerous situation. She told me that girls in her group have been beaten and raped in scenarios such as this one, especially if they go to a private residence. So now they only work in hotels. And even though this was a hotel, the unexpected additional men made her feel they had to get out of there. But how? Two of them were blocking the exit.

What she did, she said, was to take a big chance. She excused herself to the bathroom, locked the door, and called the police on her cell phone. The reason it was a big chance was that she couldn't be sure how the cops would react. She and the other two girls might be arrested for prostitution. But she felt so uneasy with the situation they were in that she did it anyway.

Luckily for her, the cops arrived quickly and were cool. She was the only one who spoke English, she said, so she did the talking. She said the cop interviewing her looked her in the eye and told her to tell him the truth. She told him they had come to give a "bachelor party" (a bit of a spin but pretty close to the truth) and were frightened by the additional men. Then the cop asked her if they had stolen anything and she truthfully replied that they had not. He believed her and sent them on their way.

A few minutes later she is getting into my taxi and heading back to Queens. And I am reminded once again of the "things you learn driving a taxicab".

Click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Contact - some would say it's the most basic of human needs, perhaps even more important than food. As a taxi driver I am often witness to the permutations that arise from the attempt to obtain it...

Saturday, April 14th, 4:35 am - my last fare of a long, busy night is a 40ish white male with some kind of a European accent which I could not decipher. He enters my cab at 77th Street and Columbus Avenue with a plastic bag and a newspaper in his hands and tells me to drive him to 39th and 9th. I am immediately put off by his brusque manner and decide this is not someone I want to have a conversation with and, in fact, I want to be rid of as quickly as possible.

So when we get to his destination and he tells me to pull over while he finishes a conversation on his cell phone, I am not pleased. Several minutes go by and, after a couple of nudges from me - "excuse me, are you getting out here?" - he tells me to drive him to an ATM on 38th and 6th. It is late, I am tired, and I have become annoyed with the guy as his behavior has crossed the line into peculiar.

We drive to the ATM. He exits the cab but brings his plastic bag with him. I keep my eye on him all the while as he has been deemed a flight risk in my mind. But he returns and, in the same abrupt manner, orders me to drive to 33rd and 2nd without any explanation of what's going on. He gets back on his cell phone and, now that I am suspicious of the guy, I try to listen to his conversation and am able to pick up only pieces of it. With great seriousness he is describing his physical characteristics to someone on the other end. "I am white, I am thin... yes... yes..."

When we arrive at 33rd and 2nd he once again does not pay me and get out, but instead continues a conversation on his phone. This time he's getting an address and an apartment number from the person on the other end. He says this aloud a few times, the sound of his voice creating a memory of it in his mind. Then, finally, he decides to end the ride. The fare is $15.40. He gives me an additional 60 cent tip. I am so happy to be rid of him and the anxiety he carried with him that I'm not even upset about the cheapskate gratuity. In fact, I expected it.

My night is over, so I drive to the gas station to fill the tank for the next driver. As I clean up the cab, I find that The Village Voice has been left on the back seat and is opened to a large section they have at the end which is a listing ("body work") for prostitutes.

Now I understand.

Tuesday, April 17th, 11:37 pm - a 30ish guy, white skin, about 6 feet tall, jumps in at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 34th Street. Our destination is DeGraw Street in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. As the ride begins I overhear him say to someone on his cell phone that he just punched someone on a subway platform. A minute later that conversation is over and, unable to resist asking him about it, I do. (Which turned out to be a good thing for him, as he needed to talk to someone.) He told me this story...

He'd been at Yankee Stadium and was on a subway filled with people coming from the game. The Yankees had just played the Indians. He grew up in Cleveland and, although he's lived in New York for ten years, he was wearing an Indians hat. A group of "white, suburban gangster wannabes", all teenagers, decided to harass him due to his hat as they exited the subway car and stepped out onto the platform. This led to an angry exchange of words and one of these kids in particular, showing off to his friends, got in his face.

And that's when my passenger slugged him.

He said they were all in shock and just stood there as he hastily went up the stairs and left the station. He then jogged a couple of blocks and jumped in my cab, thinking about stupid, teenaged punks and lawsuits. So actually it turned out I was his getaway driver.

Interestingly, as he told me about the incident, he was filled with regret and chided himself for losing his cool and hoped maybe it will have taught the kid a lesson. It reminded me of the time another person used my cab as a getaway car after being in a bar fight and thinking he may have just killed someone. (See "The Wrong Guy". )

But this one wasn't as serious. "Worst case scenario, the guy's got a broken nose."

2:42 am - two girls, both in their twenties, one a platinum blond and both of them wearing skimpy clothes, get in at 87th and York. Their appearance translates immediately to the male eye as a neon light flashing "sex" - not quite as obvious it would be if they were street hookers, but it's close. That they are standing on a street in a residential neighborhood where there are no bars around adds an element of curiosity about them to my expert eye.

Their destination is 7th Avenue around 24th Street, but they are not sure of the exact address. When they get on a cell phone and are then told the number of the building, added to the fact that they speak in strong Russian accents, I have no doubt that these are call girls en route to a client. It's something I sometimes suspect with certain female passengers, but it's not often I am so sure about it.

Well, they seem pleasant enough and the way they jabber away to each other in Russian is rather melodic to my ear, so I am thinking whoever is paying for them may be getting his money's worth. But halfway into the ride their phone rings and after a short conversation I am told to please turn around and take them back to where I picked them up. Which I do.

I am thinking about asking them why their customer cancelled out on them but decide that would be pushing it and I just keep my mouth shut. We return to 87th and York, they pay the fare, and disappear into a deli.

4:11 am - my final fare of the night is a dancer/stripper from Flashdancer's. The girls all leave the club at 4:00 and I'm told there are as many as 50 of them working each shift in the joint, so it's a good spot to get one last ride.

Since I work the place often, I've had many conversations with these girls. I find the ratio of conversational to non-conversational to be about 50 per cent. In other words, about half of them do not want to speak with their cab driver. This in itself is interesting to me because, if you think about it, here's someone who has just spent several hours dancing almost naked around a pole and then trying to lure guys into a back room so they can do twenty-dollar "lap dances" for them. It's a come-on dressed up in a heightened degree of "friendliness" (pardon my pun). But then, just minutes later, they are often quite out of communication.

This last passenger fell into that category. It was a long ride out to Queens during which she stared blankly out the window. She seemed to me to be a lonely and unhappy person. And if that's true there's some irony there considering the type of work she does.

One of the permutations of the attempt to make contact, if you will.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Traffic Jam Connoisseur

I was traveling south on Broadway a few days ago with a passenger in the cab when I unexpectedly hit bumper-to-bumper traffic at around 83rd Street. Traffic flows and stops flowing in predictable patterns in New York City and this was not a place, nor a time (9 pm), where I would expect to be suddenly at a crawl. I told my passenger it was probably just a double-parked truck and we should be moving along at normal speed within a minute or two.

But two, three, four minutes went by and we'd only moved three blocks. I was about to suggest that we detour over to Columbus Avenue, when the traffic began to pick up just a bit and I could see some flashing lights not too far in the distance. Since these lights were yellow and not red, I thought it was some kind of road work or utility work in progress and figured it made more sense to stick to Broadway rather than make a detour as the source of our delay had been identified and wasn't too far away. My passenger agreed. And then the traffic started moving a little quicker and in another minute I could see what was actually screwing things up.

It was a house!

A pre-assembled house on a flatbed truck and a couple of cars with "oversized load" signs on them were taking up two of Broadway's three moving lanes, causing all other vehicles to squeeze into one lane to pass them. Who in the world would ever have guessed that that was actually the cause of the problem! As I waited my turn to merge into a single file and then was finally released onto an unobstructed Broadway, I was reminded of something that has happened to me after all these years of taxi driving.

I have become a connoisseur of traffic jams. Some people are connoisseurs of fine wines. Some are connoisseurs of cigars. French cuisine, Chinese vases, antique cars, shoes, Barbie dolls, Civil War memorabilia, ladies' undergarments - they all have their connoisseurs. But I, the New York taxi driver, I am a connoisseur of traffic jams.

One of the great topics of conversation in a taxi is, "What the hell is causing the traffic to slow down?" (Or stop completely.) Usually it's the mundane - the expected delay as you approach the 59th Street Bridge; the inescapable backup as you head toward the Theater District around showtime; the agony you feel as you realize the Lincoln Tunnel traffic is backed up on 11th Avenue all the way to 55th Street.

Most traffic jams are quite predictable and can be taken in stride. Or avoided altogether if you're a savvy driver. It's the unpredictable ones that are the province of the connoisseur. There are two types: a) the jams where you never know what caused them. They're just there and no explantion is ever found. b) the jams that, when you do learn what caused them, you say to yourself (like with the house going down Broadway), "Who in fucking hell would ever - ever! - have possibly guessed that this was what was causing me to sit on my unmoving ass for the last half an hour?"

Here's one of my favorites of all time. It happened in 1997.

I had a fare to Forest Hills in Queens at about 7:30 pm. It was a lousy ride because it means a twenty-minute trip back to Manhattan, most likely without a passenger, at a time of day when it's very busy there. So it's a money-loser. But I never refuse a fare so off we went. When we were about five minutes away from my passenger's destination we hit a mother of a traffic jam on Queens Boulevard. It just suddenly came to a dead halt at a time and in a place where the traffic should have been moving along with no problem.

After trudging along for ten minutes I could see a multitude of red lights flashing in the distance and thought it was most likely a serious accident so, after a conference with my passenger, I took a detour and did some zig-zagging in order to get him to his apartment building. It was a great move which saved us both some wasted time.

After dropping him off, I found myself quite near to whatever was happening, but fortunately I was on the opposite side of Queens Boulevard and the traffic was moving along pretty well on that side of the street. I naturally tried to see what was going on but all I could see were police cars with their lights flashing. I was ready to forget about it and just get back to Manhattan as quickly as possible when a minor miracle happened. I got a fare going back to the city, a middle-aged woman en route to Midtown.

After getting over my shock and joy of getting this lucky ride, I of course asked her if she knew what was going on. And, miracle number two, she did! I was certainly expecting to hear a story about a gruesome accident or a disturbing crime - but no. Here's what she told me...

It seems a woman who was an amputee went into a hair salon to get a new haircut. She was so displeased with the result that, as a protest against the morons who had done this to her hair, she decided to take off all her clothes and just sit there. The salon people called the police and when it went out on the police radio that a nude, female amputee was refusing to put her clothes back on, every patrol car within ten miles showed up. The traffic jam was caused by all the police cars which had nowhere else to park, so they just blocked up the boulevard.

Well, of course. That's what was causing the traffic jam. Why didn't I think of that in the first place?

Click right here for Pictures From A Taxi. It's free and there's no waiting in line.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Karma Vs. Coincidence

I recently drove a woman to Brooklyn who was quite interested in knowing which celebrities I've had as passengers in my cab over the years. I wound up telling her my Leonardo di Caprio story. Just as we were arriving at her destination and I had finished telling her the story, her cell phone rang. "You're not going to believe this!" she cried out. "This person calling me is a personal friend of Leonardo di Caprio!" And with that statement she handed me her phone and the voice on the other end verified that it was true, Leo is indeed a friend of hers.

Now I ask you: what are the odds of that happening? What are the odds that just as I finish telling this story - at the exact moment I finish telling it, actually - her phone rings and this person, of all persons who could possibly call at that exact moment - should be a personal contact of the person I was just speaking about? A million to one? A billion to one?

Was that karma?

Or was that coincidence?

Or how about this one? One night, after I'd been driving a cab for about ten years, something happened that had never happened before. A blind woman got in and when I got her to her desination, an apartment building in Gramercy Park, she asked me if I would come with her into the lobby and ring the buzzer of the person she was going to see. Since she was blind, she could not read the names. Of course I was happy to help her and did as she requested. The next night, another blind woman got in my cab and asked me to do the same thing! And in the 19 years since then it has never happened again.


Or coincidence?

It turns out that the topic of "what are the odds?" has a special little niche among veteran New Yorkers when it comes to taxicabs. Particularly when it comes to having had the same driver more than once. Since there are 13,187 taxis randomly cruising the streets, about 40,000 licensed drivers, two and a half million residents in Manhattan alone, and a street grid system on an island that uses numbers and very few names, it would seem possible to calculate the odds. So the argument could be made that getting the same driver, or for that matter the same passenger, more than once was just a coincidence.

This, for example, could be said by many to be strictly a matter of chance: one night I picked up a young man and a young woman going from 2nd Avenue and 26th Street to Greenwich Village. About 30 seconds into the ride, the guy says to me that he thinks he was in my cab a few days ago. He described the conversation he'd had with the driver (the phenomenon of blind loyalty by fans to their baseball teams) and I said that yes, that was me, all right, as that is one of my frequent topics of discussion. He then mentions to the lady, who turned out to be his sister, that this was the driver he had told her about! Well, we all thought this was a remarkable occurrence. Not only did I get this guy twice in the same week, but I was not just any driver to him, I was a special driver who had made an impression on him. And now his sister gets to meet the driver she'd been told about. We had a pleasant conversation about the odds of this happening before I dropped them off at a restaurant.

And then, about two hours later, I picked them up again!


Or coincidence?

Well, as you may have guessed, I side with those who say karma. I am not one to say that there is no such thing as random chance. But I have observed this phenomenon of freaky coincidences occurring too many times in the context of taxi driving not to conclude that something is going on here. I can't say for sure what it is, but I do know that it has to do with one's attention being stuck on something or someone. And it also has to do with one's own "universe", if you will, being senior to the physical universe.

Don't believe it? Try this one on for size: way back in 1981, I had finished writing my first stage play. I was quite interested in getting the script into the hands of professionals so I could get it critiqued and make contacts that could possibly lead to a production. One person I knew of, a friend of a friend, had just won an Academy Award for a short film. His name was Bert Salzman. I got his address from my friend and wrote him a letter, asking if he would be kind enough to take a look at my script. Three or four weeks went by, and I hadn't hear back from him. Then one night I was cruising down 2nd Avenue, looking for a fare, and Mr. Salzman and his wife appeared from the street out of nowhere and got into my cab! They told me their destination on the Upper West Side and made themselves comfortable in the back seat. They, of course, had no idea who I was.

"You're Bert Salzman, isn't that right?" I said. (I recognized him from having seen his picture a number of times.)

"Yes, I am," he replied, a bit startled.

"So, Bert," I said, "did you get my letter? I haven't heard back from you!"

Well, of course he nearly jumped out of his skin. To make a long story short, Mr. Salzman did read the script and he did give me some helpful advice. Nothing came of it, but that doesn't matter. The point is, what are the odds of, out of the millions of people in New York City wandering the streets at that particular time, this one particular person whom I had my attention on getting into not one of the thousands of other taxicabs wandering the streets in New York, but into my taxicab?


Or coincidence?

Click here for Pictures From A Taxi. I've heard it's good karma!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An April Fool's Day Story

Here's a story from the vault - April 1, 2003, 8:30 pm. The war in Iraq had just begun.

A young guy and his girlfriend, both about 19 years old, jumped in at 79th Street and York Avenue and told me to drive them to DeKalb and Vanderbuilt in Brooklyn. This was bad news in itself as any cabbie in New York hates to leave Manhattan when it's busy on the streets. It means he most likely has to drive back without a passenger and that is money lost.

But to make matters worse, these two kids saw the upcoming journey as not merely a way to get from point A to point B, but as an opportunity for a heavy make-out session. My attempts at chit-chat fell on deaf ears and within 30 seconds they were kissing passionately and doing God knows what with their hands.

As I entered the FDR Drive and headed south, I realized I was in no mood for this. A money-losing, half-hour ride to Brooklyn with two juveniles who have no regard for how their behavior affects other people, jumping all over each other the whole way to Brooklyn. And by pretending that I wasn't right there, three feet in front of them, reducing me to a non-human object that drives a taxicab.


This wasn't going to be merely a bad ride to Brooklyn. This was going to be an assault on my dignity and an endurance test of my tolerance. I gritted my teeth and started the process of suffering through it. But then, as I passed the 53rd Street exit of the parkway, I had a thought.

It was April Fool's Day... hmmm...

"Hey, have you guys heard the news?" I called back to them with a tone in my voice that demanded attention. Through the mirror I could see their heads, which had been joined together at the lips, come apart and their eyes stare blankly at the back of my head.

"President Bush has signed an executive order reinstituting the draft."

They both moved forward simultaneously and a slight space opened up between their shoulders. The guy wasn't sure he'd heard that right and asked me to repeat it.

"There's gonna be a draft, just like in the Viet Nam war. All men over the age of 18 are going to have to go into the army."

"What? Oh, my god!"

"Are you over 18?"


"Oh, man, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this."

"But I'm in college. They don't take students into the army... do they?"

"What I heard on the radio was that there wouldn't be any exceptions. Unless you were like physically disabled or something, you know?"

"Oh my fucking god!"

Other than asking for some directions as we approached DeKalb Street 25 minutes later, I don't remember saying another word to them until the cab stopped in front of their building. I didn't have to say anything because the rest of the ride consisted of a lively conversation between the two of them about the pros and cons of the Iraq war, the armed forces in general, whether or not he should maybe go into the navy, why shouldn't the volunteer army be good enough to handle the conflict, what are we paying our taxes for, anyway, is Bush really deciding anything or is it just Cheney, why shouldn't females be drafted, too, and whether his father, who knows a lot of people, could possibly get him out of this mess.

Needless to say, this dilemma proved to be the antidote for youthful lust. And aside from the deep satisfaction I took in successfully diverting their attention, I drove across the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn without any introspection as to why it should be my fate to be reduced to role of servitude to a couple of disrespectful teenagers.

They stepped out of my cab after paying the fare and giving me a below-average tip and took a few steps in the direction of their place. I called out to them from my opened window.

"Hey, you know that thing I told you about the draft?" I said.

They stopped walking and turned to look back at me. "Yeah?" the guy replied.

"April Fool!" I shouted back with big smile on my face.

They looked at each other with expressions on their faces as if to say they couldn't believe they had swallowed the gag hook, line, and sinker. Then they broke out laughing.

And I drove off on DeKalb Street back toward the Manhattan Bridge in what might be called a state of ecstasy, thinking they really ought to make April Fool's Day an official national holiday.

Click here for Pictures From A Taxi. No joke!