Saturday, June 30, 2007

One Of Those Great Nights

Last Tuesday I had one of those rare nights that actually live up to the romanticized hype of the glory of being a New York City taxi driver. Now as you know if you've been reading this blog that for me driving a taxi is not just a job but borders on being a calling. It's sort of an ongoing exercise in "what realities am I going to encounter tonight?" The theory is that the more I can confront and understand the better the person I will be.

Or something like that.

Anyway, most nights fall short even though they almost always have something memorable about them. You run into one moron too many and the tendency is to come down emotionally a notch or two from enthusiasm. But then there's a night like Tuesday...

What started things off on the right foot was that I was given a brand new cab to drive at the garage. I mean a cab that had literally never been driven before. I have earned some brownie points at the garage and every once in awhile I am thrown a bone like this.

Look at her, the new 1M42. Isn't she a beauty? You know, driving a car - any car - where everything is new at the same time is quite an aesthetic experience. No wonder people keep buying them even if they can't afford them.

So I knew I would be telling every passenger who got in my cab that night that, "You know, you are riding in the newest taxi in New York City!" This is a special game I love to play whenever I am given the honor of breaking in a new cab. Most people, especially if they are veteran taxi riders, realize this is a rare treat ("Just think - no one has ever puked in this cab!") and are really into the experience. But it is the very first passenger that I really look forward to. Because I have figured out the odds.

The odds against being the very first passenger to ever ride in a New York City taxi are approximately 75,000 to 1. By city law yellow, medallion cabs are allowed to be on the road for only 3 years before they are required to be replaced. A cab will take about 25,000 fares (not people) a year, so it's 3 x 25,000, and there you go. This means that if you live in New York City all your life and take a taxi every day, this is a once in a lifetime occurrence. (Actually, once in every three lifetimes.)

I was hoping to get someone who was worthy of this experience. Someone who had been a loyal taxi rider for, say, 25 years or so. Unfortunately it turned out to be a couple of Japanese tourists who could barely speak English and had no appreciation whatsoever of the inadvertent honor that had been bestowed upon them. In fact they didn't even know that tipping taxi drivers is customary in NYC and stiffed me on a $7.10 fare. Ouch.

But I was not deterred, not even a little. I knew this would be a great tipping night, and my very next passenger - who should have been the first - was a lovely lady who went from 49th Street and 5th Avenue to 60th and Amsterdam, had full appreciation of the magnitude of the event, and tipped me $5.90 on a $9.10 fare.

And the next fare, a group of four - two young guys, a pretty girl, and a furball en route to the 79th Street Boat Basin - brought me the first taxi dog I've had in my cab in several weeks.

Meet Pablo (l) and Alice (r). Pablo, I'm told, is a "Havanese", a breed of dog from Cuba (thus, "Pablo", although "Fidel", "Che", or even "Desi" would have worked, as well). Pablo is a year and a half old and was found online and then bought from a breeder in Woodstock, NY. Alice tells me Pablo is a bit hyper and does the "usual tricks" - sits, gives his paw, etc. But let me tell you, when the camera is on, Pablo is a pro. I think this dog is a born model. You just can't get any cuter than that.

So the night went on in this upbeat way. But, of course, this is New York City so the law of averages says for every 12 people or so that get into a taxi, there will be one that is rather odd. Or maybe "offbeat" is a better word, unless "weird", "strange", "obnoxious", or "off the wall" would be a better fit. Anyway, at 8:30 this person got in the cab at Penn Station. He was a fifty-something man, in good shape, travelling all the way uptown to a restaurant at 133rd Street and 12th Avenue (right on the Hudson River) with a twenty-something guy who I thought was his son.

Right away things got off to a bad start when he lit a cigarette without asking permission. Since in today's world this is rude, I immediately told him to put it out, it was against the law, I could get a ticket, blah, blah, blah. But the guy was persuasive and convinced me that since he'd just come in from a long train ride from Long Island he would die if he didn't have that cigarette, so I let him smoke it as long as he agreed to keep it out of sight.

Well apparently this was enough for him to make us both pals from his point of view and he went on to tell me all kinds of details about a six-year divorce cycle which had just ended favorably for him. It was completely inappropriate conversation to have with a stranger, especially with his son sitting there. But he was, as I said, that one in twelve.

I had entered patronizing mode as we got onto the Henry Hudson Parkway and was just acknowledging anything he said when the conversation between us ended rather suddenly and was replaced by a new activity. It was the two of them making out fervently in the back seat.

Now I am quite accustomed to gay guys being attracted to one another back there, but not with this age difference and with me thinking they were father and son! It really threw me but, always the professional, I gave not the slightest sign that I found anything unusual about their behavior. In fact, as we arrived at their destination, I gave them the news that they were riding in the newest taxicab in New York City just as I had been doing with all my other passengers.

Now you know you are on a roll when even a fare like this turns out to be a winner. The guy gives me a $9 tip on an $11 fare, for some reason tells me he is from the Grucci fireworks family, and then signs a $5 bill with instructions to keep it on the visor of the cab for good luck. I thanked him, drove off, and then, in the immortal words of Harry Chapin, I stuffed the bill in my shirt. Why tell him I get a different cab every night?

So you get the idea. The night just went on and on like this until it appeared to me that all of New York City was celebrating the arrival of its newest family member, a spanking new Ford Crown Vic with extra leg room in the back. What could possibly make the night even better?

Why, driving through Times Square at 2:30 am and suddenly seeing the "Cash Cab" people shooting a scene on the little island that separates Broadway from 7th Avenue at 44th Street! For those who don't know it, "Cash Cab" is a quiz show on the Discovery Channel in which passengers in this one particular taxi (1G12) find themselves suddenly answering general knowledge questions to win money. It's hosted by a guy named Ben Bailey (my hero) who is actually a cab driver. Well, I felt compelled to stop and take some pictures. Of course!

After hanging around for a few minutes taking these shots, I approached one of the crew and asked this all-important question:

"Excuse me, I was just wondering - will you be needing any passengers?"

"Oh, no, sorry," she said with a smile.


I returned to my own 1M42 and continued on into the night. At 3:15 I took a fare to Queens and then, driving along on Northern Boulevard, picked up four stranded, well-mannered teenagers in Astoria who'd been at a high school graduation party but had no ride back to the city. This meant I actually got a return ride to Manhattan at 3:37 on a Tuesday night, something unheard of in the history of taxi-driving. When you're hot, you're hot.

Finally, to end off what had become a night of beginnings, I picked up a sixtyish man in the middle of Park Avenue at 63rd Street at 4:36 and drove him up to Lenox Hill Hospital on 77th Street. He was going to the hospital for the best of all reasons: his daughter was giving birth to her first child and his eighth grandchild. When I told him he was in the newest taxicab in the city, he proclaimed with great enthusiasm, "Then two babies are being born in New York tonight!"

Yesss... two babies on what was just one of those really great nights.

Of course clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi might also help make it a great night. Just a thought...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Congestion Tax

There's been a lot of talk in New York City recently about a plan put forward by Mayor Bloomberg to create an electronic vehicle entry fee for cars and trucks entering Manhattan below 86th Street - $8 per day for cars and $21 per day for trucks from 6 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. Certain vehicles, like taxicabs, would be exempt. The idea is that traffic congestion will be eased because fewer vehicles will enter the city.

Now here is a subject that I can rightfully proclaim myself to be an expert in. There are subjects that I pretend to be an expert in - like baseball and Humphrey Bogart movies - but after 29 years of navigating the streets of New York City, this one is my baby. Hell, I could sell my services as a consultant here. Sit down, Mayor Bloomberg. I am the man.

Now you might expect me to be in favor of this thing because it wouldn't affect me personally and it might relieve the traffic jams I am stuck in. But I'm not. I am against the plan. Here's why...

1. It won't work. When I am sitting in traffic in Midtown, I look around and what do I see? Other taxicabs, other for-hire vehicles, buses, trucks, and some private cars, pretty much in that order. The cabs, buses, and for-hire vehicles are exempt, so nothing is affected there. The trucks will pass along any cost-of-doing-business increases along to the consumer, thus making the plan inflationary. And the private cars for the most part are already paying a fortune in parking fees, so another $8 is not likely to make much of a dent in their numbers.

2. It's elitist. Big companies and individual fat cats wouldn't notice this tax any more than they would notice the price of a bottle of Dom Perignon going up a few dollars. But the "little guy" would. It would be the small business owner and middle-class Joes who would suffer from it and, don't forget, it is this class of people who are providing services to those who have the wherewithal to live in Manhattan below 86th Street. You need the service people to be able to get to you.

Let me tell you something. Since 1977 I have been listening to suggestions from frustrated passengers on how to ease traffic congestion in Manhattan. Some of my favorites:

*** Ban trucks except at night. (A common sentiment.)

*** Ban private cars altogether. (Hear it all the time.)

*** Ban pedestrians. (All right, that's my own idea. I hate pedestrians!)

*** Build cement walls in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels when nobody's looking to get rid of all the New Jersey drivers.

*** Parking tickets are not enough. Bring back the pillories and water dunking to publicly humiliate offenders.

*** Pay really mean-looking people to stand at the bridge and tunnel entrances and give the finger to motorists bringing their private cars into the city.

*** Bring in the National Guard. Or the Marines. Or the Mob. Or Guiliani.

*** Just make Joe Torre the traffic commissioner.

All kidding aside, here are my own thoughts about easing traffic congestion in Manhattan. These would not make as much money as a congestion tax, but they would work.

a) Make it absolutely unthinkable to double-park in Midtown. A double-parked vehicle takes up a what should be a moving lane and slows down everything behind it. All the enforcement resources available should make this particular offense their number one target, and a massive public relations campaign is needed to educate the public on this. Hey, once it was socially acceptable not to clean up after your dog. Now that is a total faux pas and there's no dog shit in the streets. The same should be true about double-parking. A crime against humanity!

b) Make ferry service abundant and cheap. You want fewer vehicles on the island of Manhattan? Make municipal ferry service the obvious way to go. That means enormous parking lots in Brooklyn and Queens and frequent ferries across the East River and frequent buses greeting passengers on the Manhattan side. And it must be so cheap that traveling this way would be a no-brainer. The NY Waterway, which runs ferries from Weehawken, New Jersey, to the west side of Manhattan is a great idea but it's run by an individual for profit and is expensive. Ferry service must be super cheap and run by the city itself.

c) Put enough traffic cops on the streets to eliminate gridlock. People who are stuck in traffic love to blame a traffic cop if they see one. I disagree. These guys and gals are needed at every key intersection - especially on all the streets leading to the bridges and tunnels, like Canal Street - to do one thing: prevent gridlock. But there aren't nearly enough of them. Here's an idea. Take some of the people who spend their time writing tickets on illegally parked cars and redeploy them to directing traffic. Or (since that would never happen) use the funds derived from tickets on illegally parked cars to hire more traffic cops who actually do direct traffic. What an idea.

d) For God's sake, get rid of the street fairs! Okay, this is a weekend problem, not a Monday to Friday problem. But it is a problem and one that is totally created by the city itself and could easily be eliminated. These so-called "street" fairs shut down traffic on major avenues every weekend once the weather is warm and cause massive congestion. And what are they? Nothing more than flea markets selling schlocky merchandise. Hundreds of thousands of people are inconvenienced for the benefit of a very few. They must go!

So there it is, an educated opinion. We'll see how this thing goes. It should be interesting.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Dwindling Spiral

"The dwindling spiral" - it's a figure of speech used to describe a situation in which someone is headed on a path toward inevitable destruction. It's as if there's a force in the universe, like a whirlpool, that is attracted to someone due to a flaw in that person's character and, once it has him in its grip, the journey to extinction is unstoppable. What can be fascinating is that this process can be so obvious to you but remain completely unseen by the person who is actually headed down the drain.

I had such a person in my cab a few days ago.

He was a guy, about 35 years old, whom I picked up in the Upper East Side late last Tuesday night headed to Battery Park City, an upscale apartment complex way downtown in the Financial District. He had curly blond hair that went down almost to his shoulders, eyelids that looked like he was having difficulty keeping opened, and the glazed-over demeanor of someone who'd been doing a lot of drinking. But this is a good late-night fare, so I was glad to have the guy aboard. And what made it better was that although he was obviously a party-animal kind of dude, he was quite talkative and not arrogant or rude as many of these people tend to be. So this was going to be a fun ride.

We whizzed down 5th Avenue without any traffic and there wasn't yet much more than aimless chit-chat between us until we were approaching 33rd Street, just past the Empire State Building. At this point he suddenly had a big idea. He asked me to slow down, make a right turn on 33rd, and stop. His object of attention was a place called "Joy" which was a short distance down the street. He told me if this joint was open he would be getting out right there (a shortened ride and a disappointment to me), but on inspection it was clear that the establishment was shut down for the night.

So what was "Joy", I wanted to know. He told me it was a massage parlour where for a hundred bucks you could get an hour-long massage from an Asian lovely with a "happy ending" if you wanted it. Well, I knew these places were around town but what I found intriguing were two things: 1) that it was on the ground floor with a sign on the front door, and 2) that this guy was ready to go into it on a whim. I mean, a minute ago he was all set to go home to Battery Park City and then, out of the blue it's, hey, let's have some wang with Miss Wong.

This was an action that opened a window into character. Here was a guy who was living on the edge of something. He was not your normal working stiff having a big night out. He was different. I wanted to know more about him, so I delved. And this was his story...

He had been a Wall Street trader for a number of years and had made quite a bit of money. His business had brought him to Brazil several times and he'd even lived there for awhile. During the time he was in that country he discovered something that really appealed to him - that he could live like a king there for relatively little money. So he had recently decided to move to Brazil. He bought a house on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, hired two servants, and all it costs him is a thousand dollars a month, total.

But my passenger didn't make this move to set up a business or pursue some kind of inner calling. He made the move to party. He'd had enough of the Wall Street game. Now it was time to get down. He hadn't taken the trouble to learn the language (Portuguese). He had no involvement in the community of his adopted country. This was going to be an endless run of sex, drugs, and the Samba.

Now it probably wouldn't surprise you too much to learn that someone in this situation had pulled in the following: only three weeks prior to his being in my cab, he'd been driving his own car in his town in Brazil at night and was pulled over by some kind of military police outfit. They proceeded to search him and his car and, according to my passenger, he actually witnessed them dropping a packet of cocaine into the trunk.

But they didn't arrest him and haul him down to the police station. They let him get on his cell phone with his lawyer and conducted a thinly-veiled extortion in which a price (several thousand dollars) was agreed upon to have the charges dropped. They then accompanied him to his house to get their money, but he only had enough cash for part of amount they demanded. So they gave him a bank account number and directed him to deposit the rest of the money into it the next day, which he agreed to do. And then they left.

However, when he tried to make the cash transfer the next day, for reasons he did not understand, the bank account number he was given was said to be invalid. Very shortly after that, he left Brazil and came back to the USA. But my passenger, who told me he thought at the time that these cops might take his money and then just kill him, knows they're still back there and are expecting to get more out of him.

"Well," I said, "so much for the Brazil experiment." (Thinking there was no way in the world he would ever return there).

"Oh, no," he said, "I'm going back next week."

"You mean to sell your house?"

"No, I'm not leavin' there."

"But what about these guys? They know where you live!"

He just shrugged his shoulders and made an expression on his face as if to say, "Whatever will be, will be."

I was amazed by his response, but before I had a chance to ask him why he would decide to return to living in such a dangerous environment when he didn't have to, we had arrived at his destination and the only other thing I had the time to say was, "Good luck."

I thought quite a bit about what his reasons for returning to Brazil could be as I drove around Manhattan that night, but after awhile I realized that whatever he would have said would certainly not have been the truth.

Because he couldn't see it himself even though it was so glaringly obvious to me.

This guy had a character flaw - his only purpose for living was to get laid and to get high. And the lure of that lifestyle and the grip that it had on him made his confront of his environment too low to observe that he was a sitting duck for predators who, like snakes moving in on an easy kill, could put the bite on him at any time.

The truth is, my passenger was in a dwindling spiral that was doing about 100 miles per hour in the slow speed zone. And if you listen carefully you will soon hear the inevitable sound of him crashing into a wall.

Nothing dangerous about clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi, however.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Celebrity Comeback Line Hall of Fame

I got into one of those convoluted conversations with a passenger a few days ago that somehow led onto the subject of comeback lines. And it got me thinking... what have been the best comeback lines that I've heard in my cab (or at least the ones I could remember)? So I went to the vault, and these are what I found. Interestingly, except for the one of my own, they all came from people who are to some degree celebrities.

*** Sometime in 1987 I picked up an attractive woman and her male companion in Greenwich Village. One of them was carrying a guitar. The lady said in a chipper voice that they wanted to go to 56th Street and 7th Avenue, at the rear of Carnegie Hall. "So what's at Carnegie Hall tonight?" I asked. "I am!" she replied enthusiastically. She was the singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega.

*** Same story, different character: sometime late in the '80s I picked up an elderly gentleman heading for the 92nd Street Y, a New York institution best known for its ongoing series of lectures by prominent writers and artists. Again, I asked, "What's at the Y tonight?" "I am!" he said. He was Harrison Salisbury, a famous New York Times journalist.

***Another one, also from the '80s: I was cruising down Columbus Avenue, looking for a fare, when a distinguished-looking gentleman hailed me for a short run down to Lincoln Center. He spoke in a refined English accent and, although he was certainly overweight, he was the kind of person you would describe as "portly" - not "fat". "Fat" would be a derogatory term and this gentleman's demeanor kind of prohibited its use. He asked if I wouldn't mind taking him to the underground, drive-through entrance to Lincoln Center (no longer in use) at 64th and Amsterdam. It was an entrance from which a person could take an elevator directly up to the theater and thus not have to walk up long flights of stairs. I told him sure, that would be no problem. And then, as a joke, I said this: "Are you conducting tonight?" And he said, "Yes."
It floored me, of course, as I had absolutely no idea who he was. But he did have some kind of a carrier wave about him that communicated "conductor". He told me his name (which I unfortunately failed to write down and have since forgotten) and that his orchestra's performance would be broadcast live on the radio in a couple of hours. So later that night my passengers had a little culture added to their rides.

***One summer day in 1985 I picked up three guys in Midtown who turned out to be players on the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. I drove them out to Shea Stadium where they would be playing against the Mets later that night. I am a big baseball fan (the only sport I care about) and so, of course, I was very impressed that these guys would be in my taxi and I was chattering on and on about baseball this and baseball that. One of the passengers, a pitcher named Rick Rhoden (later a member of the Yankees), threw me a fastball that set me up for a curve. "Hey, driver," he said, "are you married?" I was, at that time, so I said, "Yes." "Doesn't your wife talk to you?" he zinged. (What I should have said: "Sorry, I never date my passengers." But who can think that fast?)

***One day in the winter of 1981 I was driving up Central Park West at 75th Street and there, to my amazement, stood one of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time with her hand up in the air waving at me - Carly Simon. It took me a minute to get over my apprehension at having someone of this stature sitting right behind me there in my cab, but she was so friendly (with that famous smile of hers smiling at me in the rear-view mirror) that I soon felt at ease. In fact, I felt enough at ease that I decided to play a little joke on her. As we approached her destination, a restaurant on the Upper East Side, I took on the persona of "the stupid fan" and said this: "Uhh, you know, I know it's none of my business, and I hope you don't mind me asking you this, but, uh, why did you break up with... (she had recently split up with James Taylor and this was a big item in the news)... Paul?" (i.e., Paul Simon). Without missing a beat, she came back instantly with, "He was too short for me."

***Just a few years ago I was cruising in the East Village one night around midnight when a young guy jumped in at St. Mark's Place. He told me he wanted to go to Columbia Heights, a street in the Brooklyn Heights section of Brooklyn and started to give me directions for how to get there. "Oh, I know where it is," I said, interrupting him. "In fact, you know, there's a famous person who lives on that street. I've had him in my cab twice - Norman Mailer." "Yes, I know," the young man said, "he's my father." My passenger was Stephen Mailer, himself a novelist and an actor - and also a terrifically nice guy.

***Here is one of my own built-in comeback lines that I like to use when I'm in a certain mood. Someone gets in my cab and says, "I want to go to Brooklyn." "You want to go to Brooklyn?" I repeat back at him. "Yes," he says. I pause a couple of seconds to make sure the timing is right (timing is everything in comedy), and then, with a quizzical look on my face... "Why?"

Got any comeback line stories of your own? Please send them here, I'd like to read them!

And don't forget to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.