Monday, November 26, 2007

5A48 And The Manslaughter Moment

There was a taxi driver killed in a road rage incident last week here in New York City. His name was Mohammed Elwaleed. I didn't know him personally, but the story was in the news for a couple of days. Apparently Mr. Elwaleed got into an argument with another driver at around midnight at the intersection of 65th Street and Madison Avenue. In the course of whatever the argument was about, he got out of his taxi (a no-no in any road rage incident) and was then literally run over by the other driver, who was later apprehended and now faces manslaughter charges.

Mohammed Elwaleed was a 44 year-old immigrant from Sudan who leaves behind a wife and two small children.

It was yet another one of those stories that sobers one up to a disturbing aspect of living your life in a big city - or, really, just living amongst other human beings in this civilization. It's that invisible volcano beside which we are all building our huts. It's needing the ability to know when the stranger who's just appeared in front of you, Special Delivery from Fate, is about to explode.

I had such an incident myself a few weeks ago. I seem to get one or two of these a year on the average.

It started at the beginning of a Saturday night shift when I was assigned the cab 5A48 for the evening. The taxi garage was "sold out" that night. That meant that every cab was out and should you be unfortunate enough to have a breakdown, you were stuck with that car. You couldn't bring it in and exchange it for another one.

As I headed out of the garage with the meter and rate card for 5A48 in hand, another driver noticed the identifying paperwork I was carrying.

"You've got 5A48?" he asked with a disapproving look on his face.

"Yeah... why, it's no good?"

"I had that cab last night," he said quite seriously. "Whenever it hits a bump, it stalls out. Twice it stalled out on me on the highway. I could have been killed."

This comment led to a discussion about how to start a stalled car that was already in motion. The driver who was giving me such a grim warning turned out to not know that in these situations you are supposed to put the car in neutral and start it up while it is still moving. Instead, he had brought the cab to a full stop on the highway, put it in park, and then turned the ignition key.

"No wonder this guy almost got killed," I thought, "he doesn't know how to drive!"

Nevertheless I returned to the dispatcher's window and asked the weekend guy, Wilfredo, about the condition of the taxi. He assured me it had been fixed.

I then returned to the driver and told him what Wilfredo had said.

"If God loves you," he replied, "you will not be harmed."

And on that bright note I made my way to where 5A48 was parked. I did my usual prep on the cab and after about 15 minutes I pulled out onto 10th Avenue to start my shift.

I drove six or seven blocks.

I hit a bump.

5A48 stalled out.

As I put the cab into neutral and started it up without stopping, I assessed the situation. If I brought the thing back to the garage and had the mechanics try to fix it, it could take hours. This was not a common mechanical problem. In fact, in my thirty years of taxi driving, I had never had a cab that stalled out whenever it hit a bump. (It still amazes me that after having driven literally thousands of different taxis, I can still discover some new mechanical malfunction that I have never experienced before.)

On the other hand I could just continue with 5A48 and hope that I could make it through the shift without any mishaps. After all, the problem was really in the category of a major annoyance rather than a real danger. And since money was at stake (I would not be compensated for time lost in the garage), the choice was obvious.

I stayed with 5A48.

As the night wore on, it was clear to me that I had made the right decision. Although the frequent stalling out was a very major annoyance - the damned cab was stalling out about once every 3 minutes, thus adding up to over 200 stalls before the night was over - I had not lost any business because of it. However, it was contributing to the stress level of the Saturday night shift, which is normally crazier than any other night of the week, anyway. Saturday night is always filled with loud, stupid, and drunk party people and, even without a particularly outrageous incident getting under your skin, it has a way of wearing you down.

All of this set me up for that fare I get once or twice a year.

At 4:53 I was hailed by two guys, one white and one black, at 35th Street and 6th Avenue. They wanted to go up to 125th and Amsterdam in Harlem. Although I was tired and my shift ends at 5:00, it was a good last-fare-of-the-night ride. It would bring me about $15 extra income and I would be able to make it back to the garage by around 5:30, within the acceptable return time.

I headed west to 10th Avenue and figured I'd just ride up 10th, which becomes Amsterdam at 59th Street, all the way to 125th. The lights are synchronized in "the wave" on that avenue, so I would be able to make the entire trip with no red lights. Plus the pavement of Amsterdam is nice and smooth so I didn't expect 5A48 to be stalling out much.

We were on our way.

Within a minute into the ride I could see by the way these two guys were sitting closely together that they were gay and by the way they were talking softly to each other that they were not conversational as far as the driver was concerned. This was fine with me as I was rather exhausted and not in the mood to be chatty anyway. So I turned the radio to the smooth jazz station and headed for 10th, where I turned right and headed uptown.

All was well on 10th Avenue until we got to 51st Street. At that point we hit a delay because there had been a serious accident, with an overturned car, and the police had closed the avenue and were diverting traffic onto 51st toward 11th Avenue. I explained what was happening to the passengers, who didn't acknowledge what I'd said. What it meant was that we were going to have to circle the block and wind up back at 10th Avenue on 52nd Street. The delay took about five minutes.

As I got rolling again on 10th Avenue, the voice of the black guy piped up from the back seat. "Why didn't you take the highway?" he asked. This was not a friendly question. His voice had an edge to it.
I could have taken 11th Avenue up to 57th Street, gotten on the highway that runs along the west side of Manhattan, and exited at 125th Street. It would indeed have been faster, although it wouldn't have been any cheaper because the distance is slightly longer and we would have no waiting time on Amsterdam. So I told him the truth.

"This cab has been stalling out on me all night whenever I hit a bump," I explained. "I didn't want to take the chance of it stalling out on the highway."

My explanation was met with a distinctly stony silence - there was a lingering feeling of distrust and resentment in the air. But I was tired and chose to ignore it. We continued up Amsterdam with no further communication between us until we arrived at their 125th Street destination, about ten minutes later.

The fare was $17 even. The white guy exited first and started to walk across 125th, a wide, two-way street with four lanes. Apparently their place was on the opposite side of the street. The black guy stayed behind and handed me the fare, with no tip, through the partition window.

Not getting a tip was no big deal. Obviously the guy was not totally happy about the ride and not tipping is a customer's prerogative. I was ready to drive off, but before he closed the door, my passenger decided to have some words with me.

"The next time somebody runs off without paying," he said, "that will make it even for this ride."
It was clearly an insult. The guy was saying I had ripped him off and lied to him about the reason for not taking the highway and that, no sir, you could fool some of those suckers but you sure as hell couldn't fool him. And not only that, he had appointed himself the ombudsman for all the inner city kids who run off without paying the fare.

It was a comment that was totally mean-spirited and had a racial undertone to it. Plus, he was totally wrong. In a more perfect world, I might have calmly attempted to handle his considerations or just shrugged my shoulders and driven off. Instead, I resorted to sarcasm.

"So you feel that you paid too much," I replied, my own mocking tone implying that his comment was idiotic and that he was a moron. "And that's the justification for ripping off cab drivers. Did I get that right?"

The guy at this point was standing on the street but had not yet closed the door. His response to my sarcasm was to open the door a bit wider, lean into the compartment, and send a ball of spit straight through the partition window and into my face. He then began nonchalantly walking across 125th Street without having closed the door.

I was, of course, outraged and humiliated. This piece of dog doo had insulted me and now had assaulted me. Nevertheless, my reaction was immediate. I wiped his spit off my face with one of the napkins I always have handy behind the visor, and then did something he hadn't anticipated when he decided to launch his saliva missle at my head. I swung the taxi around in a U-turn and suddenly was in position to run him the fuck over as he crossed the street.

And that was the manslaughter moment.

It's that briefest little speck of time in which you either cross over the line or you do not. Most of us do not. And most of those who do spend the rest of their lives wishing they could take that moment back, as is likely the case with the man who ran over Mohammed Elwaleed.

As for me, I swerved close enough to the jerk to let him know I could have killed him if I wanted to, and shouted out a word at him to indicate that he bore a resemblance to the part of the digestive system that is responsible for expelling waste products from the body.

By the time I got back to the garage my anger had pretty much subsided and I felt grateful that I had been given the ability not to act on impulses.

Perhaps God does love me.

Or perhaps He can barely tolerate me and that's why he made me a taxi driver in the first place.

There is still one place where it is perfectly acceptable to act on impulse, by the way. And that is to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Top Ten List Of Exactly Where To Stop The Cab

Since the writers at Letterman are on strike, many Americans are currently suffering from Top Ten List withdrawal syndrome. Hopefully this will help - it's my own top ten list of descriptions I've received from passengers of exactly where they want me to stop the cab...

10. "By the second pile of garbage."

9. "Next to that idiot over there."

8. "Near the thing."

7. "Anywhere where you won't be honked at."

6. "In front of that little oasis between the tenements."

5. "Over on the left on the right."

4. "Okay, right here. No, not right here, over there. Okay, right here."

3. "Right where that man just cleaned up after his dog... I hope he got it all."

2. "Right where the derelict is sleeping... oh, no, he's not sleeping, he's just lying there."

And finally - drum roll, s'il vous plait - the number one description of all time...

1. "A little bit past the dead pigeon, please."

And if you will stop your cursor right here, you can click onto Pictures From A Taxi.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The No Sex Zone

I was waiting in the taxi line at Flashdancer's at 4 am recently when a young woman and a guy hurried out of the place and got into my cab. She wasn't one of the strippers - the girls who work there never get into cabs with customers - she was the girlfriend of this particular guy and they had just spent some together-time in the club. Their destination was the West Village, a two-mile trip from our Times Square starting point.

They immediately snuggled up close together and started laughing and were kind of pecking at each other, so I knew that these two were strictly into their own world and that this would be a non-conversational ride. That was all right with me because I'd already been driving for over ten hours and was hitting my post-4-am-wall, that mental/physical barrier which says that this will be the last ride of the night. So I just turned up the radio a bit and put my proverbial eyes on the road.

But before we'd gone ten blocks I noticed in the mirror an unmistakable shift in their positions. The girl had moved down in the seat and the guy was straight out on top of her. There was no question about it - they were about to start fucking. I drove for about another block and then actually surprised myself at my own reaction. I suddenly pulled over to the side of the street, right next to the Hard Rock Cafe, and stopped the taxi.

"I don't have to put up with this," I barked. "Take another cab!"

They had already straightened themselves up, and the guy started to say something in protest. But I cut him off before he could get a syllable out of his mouth.

"Don't give me a hard time," I said, "just get out and take another cab!"

The girl, who had one of those classic shit-eating smiles on her face, gave him a little shove and they both immediately exited the premises without any further words being exchanged.

I drove off a bit in a daze, wondering if I should look for another fare or just call it a night. As I moved down 7th Avenue, I found that my attention was stuck not on the fact that two people were about to have sex right there in the seat behind me - that has happened a number of times - it was on the way I had handled it. That had never happened before.

In the past I must admit I have always found the titillation factor to have outweighed the indignity factor. I have been more interested in voyeuristic aspect of this weird social situation than in keeping my own dignity intact by not allowing ill-mannered people to get away with pretending that I don't exist.

For several days I found myself mentally returning to the incident and wondering what had changed with me. And then it hit me like a slap in the face. Oh my god, I am over 50 years old and have gone through male menopause without even knowing it!


I'm getting old!

My fears were confirmed when I remembered what had happened about a week before I had had the two would-be fuckers in my taxi. I had picked up a young guy from this very same strip club and gotten into a lively discussion with him about breasts, something that was not hard to do considering he was coming from the Double D capital of the west side of town.

Why, I had beseeched him, did men almost uniformly have such an obsession with breasts, anyway? A breast is a gland for God's sake, right up there next to the thyroid and the pituitary. In fact, it's not even a part of the reproductive system. It really belongs to the digestive system, if you think about it. I mean, it secretes milk! What's the big deal?

Of course, he looked at me like I was out of my mind and said he didn't care if they belonged to the digestive system or the solar system - he just wanted to get his hands on as many of them as possible.

Now I realize the only reason I could even say such a thing to this perfectly normal guy is that I am on a steep slope that winds up in a nursing home. There I lie in my bed watching The O'Reilly Factor on an overhead television and wondering when the nurse will show up to change my diapers. It's depressing as hell.

So depressing, in fact, that the only way I can think of to cheer myself up is to publish some pictures of dogs that have recently been in my cab. And here they are...

Pictured here is Pippen, a three year-old King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who was named after a character is Lord of the Rings. According to his owners (whose names I didn't get) Pippen is a big eater and can "almost talk".

And this is Phoebe, a four year-old French bulldog, with owners Ruben and Eric. Phoebe barks when she sees an animal on tv; she fetches like crazy; and if someone is being loud or is upset, she will actually climb up on that person and put her paw on his or her mouth or chest.

There you go, it worked... I'm cheered up already!

And you can cheer up, too, by clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Halloween, 2007

Halloween was on a Wednesday this year so that meant there were two Halloweens in New York. One on the Saturday night before Halloween (Oct. 27th), the party night, and one on Halloween itself (Oct. 31st), the trick-or-treat and Halloween Parade night. There is no better vantage point to see all of this than to be a taxi driver.

You drive around the city and as the night goes on more and more people appear on the sidewalks dressed as clowns, witches, cowboys, pimps, driver's licenses, nuns, boxers, cartoon characters, ketchup and mustard bottles, and cops. And more witches. Some of them get into your cab - my favorite this year was a young lady who was being "Miss Scarlet" from the game Clue. (She did it in the billiard room with the rope.)

But one of the hazards of these nights - it seems to happen every year and this year was no exception - is that I may find that I'm not sure if my passenger is wearing a costume or not! After all, this is New York City.

It becomes one of those awkward social situations. I want to comment on the costume, assuming it is a costume - but I don't want to offend the passenger in case it's not.

"What are you? A pimp?"

"I beg your fucking pardon, asshole, this is how I look. You got a problem with that?"

"Oh... sorry!"

Now that would make for an uncomfortable ride. On the other hand, if it's one of these borderline costume situations and you get it right, well, maybe you have made the passenger's night. A few years ago a young man got in my cab wearing a bright white suit, a white vest, and a black shirt opened three buttonholes down to reveal a gold chain. We exchanged some chit-chat en route to his Tribeca destination. I really wasn't sure if this was a Halloween costume or not. Finally, I took a stab at it.

His face lit up in a huge grin. "You got it!"

This year's version took place on Saturday night at 2:15 am. I was cruising down 5th Avenue and a teen aged kid stepped out from the curb to hail me. I saw from a distance that he was wearing what, for lack of a better term, I will call an "inner city" outfit - on over sized baseball cap, with the bill of the cap off to the side, and a sleeveless t-shirt. Now if you're a taxi driver, this is not what you want to see hailing you. "Inner city", "teenager", and "taxicab" are not a good mix. If ever there was a candidate to beat you for a fare, it is this. So I was actually thinking of passing this kid by, but then I realized that he was standing alone on the corner of 87th Street, right in the heart of American Aristocracy territory, where no inner city kid would ever be standing alone in a million years.

I realized this was rich kid wearing what for him was a Halloween costume. I stopped and he got in. His destination was 76th and 5th, a mere 11 blocks away.

"Going to a party?" I asked.


"Who are you supposed to be?"

"Someone from Long Island."

I discreetly refrained from informing him that I myself had been born and raised on Long Island and continued the ride. At 76th Street he handed me a twenty dollar bill for a $3.80 fare and said, "Keep the change, this will be the best tip you'll get all night!"

Now this was truly remarkable for a few different reasons. First, kids are never good tippers. Second, members of the American Artistocracy are never good tippers. And third, it wasn't my best tip of the night!

Earlier in the evening, at 9:20, a beautiful and intriguing Englishwoman named Ann got in for a ride from Times Square to the Gansevoort Hotel in the Meat Packing District. She was quite interested in all aspects of taxi driving, especially celebrity stories. I wound up telling her my Leonardo di Caprio story which ends with Leo asking me who my best celebrity tipper had been. I told him it had been John McEnroe, who had given me double the meter. Leo then said, "Well, I'm going to give you triple the meter!" And he did.

Ann informed me that although she was not a celebrity she was going to outdo Leonardo di Caprio and give me four times the meter and proceeded to pay $40 for an $8.60 fare. (Which is actually five times the meter and secures Ann a plaque in the Best Tippers Hall of Fame.)

I've got to start telling that Leonardo di Caprio story more often.

Now as great and fun a night Saturday was, it was outdone by Halloween II on Wednesday. Not because I made more money, which I didn't, but because of the Halloween Parade. This is the night when Greenwich Village, which is crazy on a normal night, really goes wild. This thing gets bigger, more surreal, more Dali-esque every year. Here are some shots...

What's that? You say you want even more pictures from NYC? Well, then, just click here for Pictures From A Taxi.