Monday, July 30, 2007

Animals In Manhattan

I had a passenger the other day who asked me if I'd ever had an animal in my cab other than a dog or a cat.

What a great question!

I thought that surely at one time or another there must have been something. Someone with a snake or a hamster or a rabbit or something. And finally after racking my brain over it for a minute or two I did think of a ride where I'd had a woman who was taking home with her the "office parrot". She worked in a law firm and every day brought her parrot in to the office in a nifty little plastic transporting box. The parrot was the beloved mascot of the lawyers.

But other than that, not counting a wide variety of drunks, in 29 years there have never been any animals in my cab other than dogs and cats. Although, come to think of it, I did have a cab for a single shift one night that had cockroaches in it. Does that count?

Anyway, my passenger's question led into a related topic of conversation - the subject of what animals either of us had ever seen on the streets of the city. Now after some contemplation on this, I realized that any such list would have to be divided into two categories:

a) animals that were being controlled by humans, and

b) animals in the wild.

It turns out the list of animals being controlled by humans is long and tremendously varied. On the streets of New York I have seen snakes, lizards, monkeys, horses (around Central Park, of course, a common sight), lots of parrots on people's shoulders, and a parade of circus animals on 34th Street en route to Madison Square Garden (camels, zebras, and elephants). And many years ago there used to be some kind of Peruvian fellow on 6th Avenue who walked a llama around on a leash.

But it's the list of animals running around on their own in the middle of Manhattan that is the most intriguing. Okay, what have we got? Pigeons, sparrows, squirrels, rats, and mice. I have seen raccoons several times very late at night on 5th Avenue and Central Park West, so I guess you'd have to add them to the list, too. And I've been told there are a few hawks nesting on ledges of very tall buildings, although I've never seen one. But that's it, right? I can't think of any other animals that are indigenous to New York City. Except one.

There was that coyote...

Do you remember that story about the coyote that was running around in Central Park in March '06? Nobody knows how he got there, but suddenly one day there was this coyote. It took two days for the police to catch him. Amazingly, I actually saw this animal myself.

I was driving down 5th Avenue, which borders Central Park on the east, at around 3 am one night and suddenly I caught a glimpse of a strange-looking animal walking rapidly on the sidewalk next to the park. The animal was dog-like, but you could tell that it wasn't a dog. I could see that it was in some distress as it had a fearful demeanor and its tail was between its legs. Another cabbie on my right saw it, too, and we both slowed down to about 5 mph as we tried to understand whatever it was that we'd both witnessed.

"Maybe it escaped from the zoo," he called out to me.

That seemed like a good enough answer for whatever the hell it was and I put the matter out of my mind. Then the next day the big news in the city was about this coyote that was running around in Central Park.

Anyway, since having this discussion about animals in the city, I have been taking every opportunity I can find lately to ask my passengers this sure-fire conversation starter:

"What is the most unexpected encounter you've ever had with an animal?"

Isn't that a great question?

And another great question is, "Would you like to click here for Pictures From A Taxi?"

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Bicyclist

I have a theory about Manhattan. It's that even though there are something like two and a half million residents on the island and it seems that there's an endless supply of new faces, we keep seeing the same people over and over again. Only we don't realize it because most people look pretty much the same as each other.
As a taxi driver I'm constantly looking at people both to avoid running them over and to see if they want my services. And I've found that it's when someone doesn't look the same as everyone else - really stands out in one way or another - that I keep seeing them again and again.

For example, there used to be an old man in the East Village who looked just like Santa Claus. He had a white beard, rosy cheeks, and always wore either a bright red or bright green sweater. I would see him all the time.

There was a bald-headed, sixtyish woman on the Upper East Side who always wore large hoop earrings and a black dress. I would see her all the time.

And then there's this guy whom I call the bicyclist. I finally got a picture of him a couple of months ago.

I have been driving a cab since 1977 and I have been seeing this fellow regularly for all that time! I probably see him once every three weeks or so on the average, usually on the Upper West Side.

His appearance has always been the same for 29 years: long hair that goes all the way down his back, a thick moustache with no beard, no hat, and always on a bicycle. I've never seen him without a bicycle.

I've been watching him age as years go by and almost feel that I know him. I've pointed him out to countless passengers and he's been the subject of countless conversations. People wonder what he does for a living, if he has a personal philosophy - perhaps an environmentalist - that mandates that he should ride a bicycle insead of using motorized transportation, if he's an artist, etc., etc.

I sometimes think I should try to pull up next to him and introduce myself and ask him who the hell he is - it's been driving me crazy for over a quarter of a century! But that would be kind of rude and awkward. Often the mystery surrounding a person is superior to the knowledge of a person, anyway.
I'll probably just let it be.
Just click here to let Pictures From A Taxi be.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Chefs, Woodpeckers, and George Costanza

Last Tuesday night was going along like any other night shift...
a ride to Grand Central

people going out for the evening

some guy who took the subway to the wrong stop and now needed a cab because he was running late
an inner city white kid going from the East Village to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn with whom I discussed in detail the All-Star Game and the plight of the National League...

but as the night wore on the shift somehow acquired a little theme. Within a few hours I had several memorable rides that each had something to do with the world of television...

10:35 pm - I was again discussing baseball's All-Star Game, this time with a male thirty-something going from 33rd and Broadway to Clinton and Grand in the Lower East Side, when the guy tells me that for 7 years he held the exact same job that the George Costanza character played in "Seinfeld" - assistant to the traveling secretary of the NY Yankees. This meant that for 7 years he was the butt of jokes from his friends and even suspected he was being referred to as "Costanza" behind his back. He said he and the staff would meet with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner every day at 10 am for a strategy meeting and I was surprised to hear him say that Steinbrenner is actually quite a nice guy, at least in his opinion. So why did he leave the job? The pay was too low, only 30 grand per year. Okay, but I'm thinking, how cool would it be to have your office in Yankee Stadium?

11:40 pm - I took a young lady from 72nd and Amsterdam to 49th and 2nd who turned out to be someone I think of as being an "uplifting personality". Someone who is so cheerful, so conversational, and so interesting and interested at the same time that you actually feel uplifted after being around her for awhile. We had one of those discussions that travel effortlessly from one subject to another and probably could have gone on for an hour, only to be abruptly ended by arriving at her destination. As she started to pay me she noticed something on the other side of the intersection and said, "Oh, there's one of my billboards!"

She was referring to an illuminated advertisement on the outside of a telephone booth for a reality show called "Top Chef" that airs on the Bravo channel on Wednesdays. It turns out my passenger is a chef who is currently competing with other culinary rivals for a prize of $100,000 and there she was, with the other contestants, in her white chef hat staring out at me from the ad - while also staring out at me from the back seat of my cab. Another unique taxi-driving experience for me! Actually, I've long imagined how wild it would be to have a passenger in the cab who was also the model whose picture happened to be used in the advertisement on top of the cab. I guess this was the next best thing.

Anyway, her name is Sara Nguyen and you see her here posing for me in front of her own picture. I want everyone who reads this to watch the show and root for Sara. Then when she wins she's going to invite us all over to her place and cook us a big meal. (joke)

Go, Sara!

2:32 am - the streets of Manhattan become relatively empty on a Tuesday after midnight and this is when crafty taxi drivers distinguish themselves from the ones who don't really know what they're doing. You know, driving a cab is a lot like being a fisherman. You have to know where they're biting and where the big ones are. It takes experience.

Anyway, not to brag, but here's how I reeled in a passenger at 2:32 am. Anyone who's ever driven a cab in NYC will appreciate this. I was driving down one of my standard late-night cruising streets in Midtown (no, I will not tell you which one!) and I know that on this particular street there's a building where film post production goes on 24/7 and they do not use "black cars" (car services used by corporations to give their employees a free ride home). So I always have an eye on this place. A woman came out of the building and gave me just enough of a glance to tell me she wanted a cab. I slowed down, hoping she would hail me, but she did not. Instead, she kept walking in the opposite direction from which I was driving. Yet I knew she wanted a cab and I knew the only reason she didn't raise her arm was because I was not driving in the direction she wanted to go.

So, instead of giving up on her, I circled the block and within 30 seconds I was back to the spot where I thought she would be if she hadn't already found another taxi. And she was. And she got into my cab.

And that is how expert fishermen catch fish in NYC.

She was headed out to Forest Hills in Queens, a 20 minute ride. I asked her if she was editing a film. She was. And that led to a conversation that pretty much took up the whole trip. The film is going to be a 90-minute documentary about the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that was thought to be extinct, but now is thought to be maybe not extinct after all. She told me there have been sightings of the woodpecker in deeply forested and remote areas by reliable "birders" (as they're called), but no one has ever gotten a photograph of it. And that the film is intended for release in movie theaters.

I thought that was interesting, in fact, very interesting, but - come on - how could a movie like this be commercial enough to compete with regular feature films? She told me some amazing statistic about how many birders there are out there. Something like 42 million people. And that to them finding this woodpecker is like the quest for the Holy Grail. It's the ultimate of the ultimates.

Still, she admitted, the thing may wind up on Animal Planet.

Chalk another one up to "the things you learn from driving a cab". Extinct woodpeckers - who knew?

3:15 am - coming back to Manhattan from this ride, I crossed the 59th Street Bridge and was heading west on 63rd Street when, just as I began to go through a green light at 3rd Avenue, I witnessed something you never see except on television - a high speed car chase. Screaming through a red light at 70 miles per hour was a small, white car that, if I'd been two seconds further into the intersection, would have t-boned my cab. About three blocks behind it were about 20 police cars which, to their credit, were making sure the intersections were clear before going through them.

Actually, it looked to me like the runaway car was going to get away. It also looked kind of surreal because this is a scene you never see in the city. But you do see it in cop shows all the time.

As I traveled west toward my usual cruising routes it occurred to me that it was like I'd spent Tuesday night at home and watched TV. I'd seen a sitcom, a food show, an animal show, and an action flick. All that was missing was a talk show. But, then again, my cab is a talk show, so I guess I had that, too.

And all you have to do to see the Pictures From A Taxi show is click here.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Riding With The American Aristocracy

The "American Aristocracy". Now there's an oxymoron for you. We're not supposed to have an aristocracy here in the USA. We kicked out the British and all their kings, queens, and privileged nobility two hundred and thirty-one years ago. Instead of all that, we established a society of a level playing field based not on birth, but on ability. One man, one vote. A representative government. Equal justice for all. Surely there could be no aristocracy in America.

But there is.
And I'll tell you something you learn from driving a cab in New York. You learn where they live. They live on Park and 5th Avenues between 60th Street and 96th Street. If that's where you live, good news, you are a member of the American upper class. And you're not just "well off". You are stinking rich. And most likely your parents and grandparents were, as well.

I actually look at the American Aristocracy as a kind of ethnic group that is similar to other such groups in the city. There are sections of New York that are primarily identified by the places their residents originally came from or by the languages they speak: Spanish Harlem, Chinatown, Astoria with its Greeks, Flushing with its Koreans, and so on. And there are other sections of town that have become gathering places for people with similar interests or lifestyles: disaffected, artistic twenty-somethings in the East Village, gays in Chelsea, aspiring actors in overpriced, four-story walk-ups in Hell's Kitchen.

Park Aveune and 5th Avenue are the places to be for people with the common denominators of having been born to or married into significant wealth and significant power. In this group we have people who never had to get a job just to pay their living expenses and people who sit on the boards of major institutions. We find things like trust funds, prep schools, debutante balls, charity events, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a taxi driver you have this fascinating vantage point from which to observe the characteristics of people from all these groups. I hate to generalize, but as experience grows and one observes similar traits from people in these various groups, a certain amount of generalization becomes inevitable. And here's what I have come to expect from the American Aristocracy:
a) polite children.
b) rowdy teenagers when in a group and not accompanied by an adult.
c) 10 - 15 % tips. Never excessive.
d) businesslike attitudes.
e) never drunk or loud.
f) non-conversational.

Now none of these are too bad and it's nothing I can't live with. But there is this one other characteristic that I must say really gets under my skin. It's an attitude I often pick up on that I am considered to be a servant, a lesser-than, a non-person. It's not done blatantly, it's a nuance thing. But when I do pick up on it and then consider that it's coming from someone who has never had to worry about how to pay his rent, it stirs up a deep resentment.

Having said all this, I want to tell you about a fare I had last Saturday around 6:30 pm. I was hailed at 83rd Street and Madison Avenue by a waiter. He came up to the side of my cab and asked me to make a left on 83rd and pull up in front of his restaurant, Giovanni's, a little hole in the wall Italian joint I'd never noticed before. A regular customer would be coming out - one who will tip me well, he assured me - and would I mind waiting a minute or two? Please?

Well, sure, I said, no problem, and then as he went back into the restaurant I started to contemplate how many times someone has told me how well I was going to be tipped before a ride began only to find later that I was given at best an average gratuity. God, it happens all the time but, really, who cares? A good tip vs. a lousy tip is only a matter of a small amount of money anyway, so why should the waiter think this would be an inducement to me? Whatever...

It took a minute or so for the waiter to re-appear and then I understood a little better why there was some anxiety in his manner. There was not one passenger, there were three - a seventy-ish man, an elderly woman who was in a wheelchair, and a young, black woman who was the nurse to that woman. Some taxi drivers are cruelly unwilling to put up with the hassle of getting a wheelchair-bound passenger into the cab and have been known to drive off. I suspected that this may have happened to this waiter in the past. But he needn't have been worried. I would never do that.

I was ready to assist the crippled woman into the back seat and put the wheelchair into the trunk, but it turned out this was the job of the nurse. So all I had to do was watch the proceedings and say a few words to my passengers to make them feel at ease. I asked the elderly lady if she had enjoyed her meal and she stared through me blankly. And then, judging by her lack of reaction to anything that was going on around her, I realized she was in a demented state. Or perhaps "senile" or "Alzheimer's" would be better descriptions. In any case, this was a sad story that I was witnessing.

We were finally all in the cab, with the gentleman sitting up front with me, and I was told their destination was 75th Street and 5th Avenue. A very short ride to a prime American Aristocracy location. As we made the left from 83rd onto 5th it occurred to me that I have had far more elderly, wheelchair-bound passengers in my cab from Park or 5th Avenue buildings than I have had from other parts of the city. And I realized the reason for this was that wealthy people can afford to pay for their care in their own homes. Other people are placed in nursing homes or die at a younger age because they can't afford the best medical treatment. It seemed to me to be yet another example of the privilege of the wealthy.

We drove quickly down 5th Avenue to 75th Street and in the minute or so that it took to get there the man sitting to my right said not a word to me. After I stopped the cab in front of their building a doorman came running out to open the door and the procedure of extricating the elderly lady from the cab went into motion with the nurse and the doorman doing the honors. The fare was $4.90. As the gentleman reached into his pocket to find his money, I braced myself for the 10 % tip.

But I was wrong. He gave me a ten and told me to keep the change - double the meter. The waiter had not lied.
And then he did something that was much more significant to me than a good tip. As we watched the elderly woman being wheeled into the building he looked at me with an expression on his face that conveyed the burden that I suspected he'd been carrying for many years. And he spoke these words:

"Don't get old," he said.

It said something to me that I already knew but needed to be reminded of again. That if you've got enough food to eat and a roof over your head, you're basically in the same neighborhood as the guy on 5th Avenue.
The human condition does not have a street address.

(But Pictures From A Taxi does. Just click here.)