Sunday, October 26, 2008

8P28 - An Intimate Biography

A not-well-known fact about New York City taxicabs is that they are allowed by city rules to be on the road for only three years before being retired. This is amazing if you think about it - that every wreck of a cab that you've ever been in was actually less than three years old, an age that would still be considered to be relatively young for a car if it had been living any kind of a normal life. But of course New York cabs lead anything but normal lives. In fact, it might be considered the ultimate test of a vehicle to be driven on the uneven New York streets - constant, 24/7 stop-and-go, doors constantly opening and closing, hard, hard braking - all by cabbies who usually do not own the vehicle and are in cut-throat competition with each other.

It's brutal.

Whenever I mention this three-year limit to a passenger, which is often, I am invariably asked:

"What happens to the cabs once they're taken off the road?"

It's a logical question. Anyone who's ever been to New York City knows that the omnipresence of yellow taxis is as "New York" as a bagel with a schmear. Taxis are everywhere. The thought that they are all replaced every three years naturally makes one wonder where they all go. Well, there are three possibilities:

1) They are stripped down, usually to the bare chassis, for parts.

Taxi garages use the same vehicle for all their cabs (in recent years it's usually the Ford Crown Victoria). These cars are manufactured to be taxis and do not change significantly from one year to the next. Thus, the parts are interchangeable.

2) They are sold off to taxi companies in other cities or states or even in other countries. I know some of the New York cabs wind up in Mexico.

3) They are sold to individuals for use as private cars. In the taxi industry we have a special name for an individual who would buy a car that has already been used as a New York taxi for three years.
That person is known as a "sucker".

Which brings me to the story of 8P28, or "Sweet P", as she came to be known. Sweet P was a New York City taxicab for three years. She served the riding public with distinction and pride. When her time came to be relieved from service, she was eagerly purchased by a sucker for use as his own car.
That sucker was me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning to fully appreciate the story of this remarkable automobile.

Sweet P arrived in this world as a 1999 Ford Crown Vic. She came from humble beginnings, a factory near Detroit, and was destined from birth to be a workhorse of a car, specifically designed for use as either a police cruiser or a taxicab. This meant she had certain heavy-duty features that you wouldn't find in a regular Crown Vic, such as larger brake pads, a radiator that is especially for the transmission, and a fully vinyl, liquid-resistant interior, including the floorboards (just think, if you have the stomach for it, of all the kinds of liquids a NYC taxi must be able to resist). And her engine was a full, eight-cylinder dynamo with the muscle to overcome any sissy competition from the starting line at a red light.
She was purchased from a Ford dealer by the owner of a taxi garage in Manhattan in the year 2000 and was given the medallion number "8P28", a designation that is part of the identification system used for New York's 13,187 yellow cabs for legal and administrative purposes. At the garage she was outfitted with spiffy red decals which told one and all that she was available for service, and how much that service would cost. More than one passerby noted her exceptional beauty, and she was said to be the envy of many older cabs who might see her zip by on the street.
Now, when you see the condition that many New York cabs are in, it may be hard to believe that they were once brand new cars. But they were. Just look at this shot of a cab (not Sweet P) about to begin its very first day of use...

Look at the shine and the complete lack of dents and scrapes. Observe the bright yellow coat and the sparkle on the hubcaps. Does it not take your breath away? And so it was with 8P28.
In her early years she was assigned to two steady drivers at the garage. In New York, there are two shifts to each cab - day and night, each for 12 hours. Some drivers lease the cabs by the week and have the same cab each shift. Others lease by the day and are assigned different cabs whenever they come in.
So naturally it's much better for a cab to be driven by weekly drivers as they take better care of the vehicles due to the fact that they always get that same vehicle. A sense of responsibility ensues, and this was a big break for Sweet P. Her oil was changed regularly, her engine was kept tuned, and her filters were cleaned. And, most importantly, she was driven at moderate speeds with care to avoid the minefields of potholes that proliferate the city streets.
But after two years on the road, with an odometer nearing the 175,000 mile mark, Sweet P was separated from her weekly drivers and given over to the rougher daily guys. Other cabs could soon be heard whispering behind her back that her moldings were coming loose and her undercarriage was rattling. Sweet P may or may not have heard these unkind remarks, but she never lost her sense of professional pride. She continued to keep her drivers cool in the summer and warm in the winter and she once got a passenger to LaGuardia Airport from Midtown Manhattan in fourteen minutes, a record that still stands.

But when a cab enters her third and final year, the dwindling spiral seems to pick up speed. The mechanics know the end is approaching and they start to pilfer parts for newer cabs. A knob here, a switch there, a seat replaced for one in poorer condition, an oil change missed, and before you know it, a cab that only months before had appeared vibrant and full of life is suddenly old and making drivers who get behind her wheel think she should soon be headed for the junkyard. Passengers, too, begin to take note of bumpy rides and show their displeasure by reducing their tips. It's not a happy time for anyone, least of all the poor taxi who is facing dismantlement and humiliation.
But just as it was beginning to look as if there was no hope, the finger of Fate tapped 8P28 on the dashboard. She was scheduled for an inspection by the Taxi and Limousine Commission and, in order to pass this inspection, had a major makeover including the installation of new body bushings, which is the automobile equivalent of a hip replacement. Suddenly she had a new zip in her gait and was seen rounding corners with noticeable ease. The inspection pass would mean an additional four to eight months on the road. Life seemed fun again.
At the same time, some things were changing in my own life. Seven years had elapsed since taxi drivers had been granted a rate increase and I was becoming so desperate in the money department that I had decided to supplement my income by giving tours as a taxidriver. My idea was to get a hold of an old cab, fix it up if necessary, and use it as a vehicle for touring. People would get a "taxi tour" by one of the most veteran cabbies around, a guy who has "more stories than the Empire State Building".
For months I put the word out to mechanics and owners of garages that I was in the market for a cab that was coming off the road. But I know a few things about cars and what's left of them after a life on the streets of New York, so I wasn't looking for just any old cab. I wanted the best. Finally Moe, the top mechanic at my garage, told me he had found the perfect vehicle. It was 8P28, a cab he said had just been overhauled to pass an inspection but was being taken off the road nevertheless. I had her assigned to me for a shift and found her, indeed, to be in excellent shape. Within two weeks I had struck a deal with the owner of my taxi garage. For the sale price of $900, 8P28 was mine.
It took a couple of weeks to get her registered, insured, and outfitted with a bright new coat of yellow, but finally the day arrived when she was ready to roll out of the taxi garage and into a new life with me. But before she could drive out of the place she'd called home for three years, Moe had discovered a problem: the engine was "missing". What was happening was that the timing of the engine was wrong and it wasn't firing on all of its cylinders, making for a very rough idle. This became a chronic issue with 8P28 and the short version of the story is that fixing the problem properly would require replacing the engine - something I wasn't about to do - but it could be kept running by frequently patching up a leaking engine part.
Another way of stating the short version of the story would be to say that I had been deceived by the owner of the taxi garage into buying a car that wasn't what it was made out to be. Nevertheless, I blamed myself because this is what you expect from the owner of a taxi garage. And that's why a person who would buy a used cab is known as a sucker. Still, I was determined to use this cab as my touring car and I proceeded to spend hundreds of dollars getting her through the requirements of the state inspection.
And tour we did, at least for awhile. Sweet P adjusted well to her new role and seemed content to be a part of a new activity, albeit a much less active one. But the touring idea had problems of its own. The insurance needed to run such a business legally was much more expensive than I had anticipated. Sweet P continued to show her age by breaking down from time to time as the elderly are apt to do. And then finally the taxi rates went up significantly in 2004 and my need to supplement my income diminished.
The truth is my need for her had come to an end. Sadly, she was relegated to occasional use as a back-up car. She sat alone most days in front of my home, no doubt dreaming about the time when she was the toast of 10th Avenue. There were many weeks when the only time she would see me would be when I'd come out to start her engine, and that was only to keep her battery charged. After one long period of inactivity this last summer, I found to my horror that wasps' nests had appeared behind the little door that covers the gas cap and in the driver's side door jam.
Poor Sweet P was becoming decrepit with age. Here is a shot I took when she taking one of her long naps...
I finally reached a point where I realized I was going to have to learn to let go. Aside from the wasps, the repairs, and the inspection that was over a year overdue, I was paying an extra $50 per month in auto insurance premiums that could no longer be justified.
Sweet P was going to have to go. With a heavy heart, I put an ad in Craig's List.
Amazingly, I received many calls and emails showing an interest in the old girl. But one caller, an adventurous fellow by the name of Buzz Brown, was particularly persistent and wasted no time in showing up at my house to close a deal. His reason for wanting this particular car was unique and turned out to be utterly appropriate for a vehicle that had once been a New York City taxicab, a car that could take a beating under the most stressful of conditions.
What did he want to do with a car that had once been a New York City taxicab?
Use her in a demolition derby.
A demolition derby is a like the carnival ride of "bumper cars" except the cars are real and the object is to be the last car standing after all the competition has been crashed into heaps.
And there are aesthetics involved. Buzz told me he planned to turn Sweet P into a shark with gray paint, sharp teeth, and a fin on the roof. He told me he'd send me pictures of the big event, which he did. And here they are...

In this last shot, I am told, Sweet P was battered but not down. She continued on valiantly until her poor heart gave out and she expired on the racetrack in a blaze of glory.

I am so proud.


And proud also to invite you to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Shea Goodbye

I believe that in America the edifices that have the most meaning to the greatest numbers of people - more so than any other public structures - are our baseball stadiums. First there is the love of the game itself. And what follows right behind that is an attachment to the stadium where the game is played at its highest level.

I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of New York City. Throughout my entire childhood I played baseball in one form or another. There were the organized Little League games and the less organized choose-up games; there was stick ball, wiffle ball, softball, and made-up games like "Catch A Fly, You're Up" and "Running Bases". There were even table games (the forerunners of video games) like Parker Brothers Baseball. And of course there were the endless, solitary hours spent throwing a rubber ball against a wall or the roof of the house and catching it as it came back to you.

What went hand in glove with playing these variations were the sacred trips into the city with my father to see his team, and therefore my team - the New York Giants - play Major League Baseball in the ancient stadium that once stood in Harlem, the Polo Grounds. The Giants abandoned New York for California in 1958 but the Polo Grounds was not torn down. It proudly held its position in space until it was occupied by its new tenants, the New York Mets, in 1962. By that time I was 12 years old and, in those days, that meant you were old enough to get on a train with your friends and ride the rails all the way from Long Island to Harlem. To see the Mets!

Not that I didn't still go to an occasional game with my father. I did. But now I went to lots of games with my pals. Then, in '64, Life dealt me a winning hand: Shea Stadium was completed, the new home of the Mets, and it was much closer to my home on Long Island. I was set. In that summer of '64, I was at Shea so often that it became my home away from home and its address in the landscape of my mind would become the place where so many memories of the final days of boyhood would be stored.

Now, as the last game has been played in Shea and it awaits the executioner's wrecking ball, I find myself inevitably reminiscing about the place. I remember in particular two extraordinary games that I attended that year with my friends. The first was on May 31st. It was the second game of a double-header with the San Francisco Giants which lasted 23 innings. Aside from being the longest baseball game ever played, this game had several notable things happen, each of which was so special in its own right that, if you watched baseball games every day for your whole life, you might never see even once: there was a triple play executed by the Mets; there was a steal of home by a player on the Giants, Orlando Cepeda; Willie Mays played not only his usual center field, but played the shortstop position, as well (yes, I saw Willie Mays play shortstop!); and it was later revealed that a pitcher on the Giants, future Hall-Of-Famer Gaylord Perry, threw his first "spitball" in that game.

Of course, the Mets lost, but who cared? My friends and I were baseball savvy enough to realize we'd seen baseball history, and our appreciation of the game was senior to the game's final score. Also, we had a little code that we were proud to adhere to: we never left a game before it was finished. That day we had arrived at Shea Stadium at 11:30 in the morning and we didn't get home until 1 a.m. - a baseball fan's badge of honor.

Then, on June 21st, we went to another Sunday double-header, this time versus the Phillies. In the first game of the afternoon a pitcher on that team, Jim Bunning, pitched one of the rarest of all baseball events - a perfect game. Not a single Mets player reached first base. It had happened only seven other times in Major League history. That pitcher, Jim Bunning, is today a United States Senator from the state of Kentucky. Another less-than-once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary baseball masterpiece.

But in looking back at my days with Shea, I can see that the memories I take from it that are the most meaningful to me are not recollections of particular games where I happened to be in attendance. They are the memories of the adolescent adventures my friends and I perpetuated in that arena.

This was a time in our lives - between the ages of 13 and 15 - when we were in the process of stepping away from our childhoods and testing out the world of adults, trying to figure out not only where we would fit in, but also experiencing by trial and error what we could get away with. And Shea fit in perfectly with this rite of passage. It wasn't just a stadium to us - it was a challenge.

One thing we knew was that we didn't like to pay to get into the place. So we discovered there were certain gates which, if we felt daring, we could sneak under and get in for free. But usually we did pay the $1.30 general admission, which gave you a seat in the upper deck. However, we never stayed up there. We always snuck down into the box seats and, more often than not, we wound up sitting right behind one of the dugouts.

As the season went on, and our boldness increased, we found new frontiers to conquer. For example, we'd always wanted to catch a foul ball, but we'd never gotten one. Then at one game during batting practice we noticed an errant ball lying near the stands which no one had retrieved. My friend Billy, a bit more bold than the rest of us, climbed over the fence onto the field to get it, then climbed back into the stands where he belonged. He was soon pounced on by a stadium cop who gave him a choice of either returning the ball or keeping it and getting tossed out of the park. The choice was obvious: Billy kept the ball, was escorted outside, then promptly snuck back in and joined us for the remainder of the afternoon.

As the season wore on it seems, in retrospect, that we were beginning to think of Shea Stadium as being ours. What else could account for this kind of impudence: we discovered that if we hung around in our seats for as long as possible after a game had ended and left only when being ordered to do so by security, we could duck into the men's room on our way out and hide there for about twenty minutes. Why would we want to do this? Because when we finally emerged from the men's room, everyone had gone and we then had the stadium all to ourselves. We would actually go out onto the field and run around the bases and talk to each other on the telephone that connects the bullpen to the dugout. A sign that hung above the top step of the Mets' dugout which said "Watch Your Step" wound up in my friend's bedroom.

We had balls, all right.

But what turned out to be our piece de la resistance occurred on Sept. 7th when the Mets played a game with a team then called the Colt .45s (now the Houston Astros). Billy and I decided to go up to the press box level of the stadium in the 9th inning to watch the end of the game. We discovered that if you carried yourself as if you belonged there, security probably figured you were the sons of some big-shot executive and they wouldn't bother you. So there we sat with the media, as if we ourselves were reporters. Then, just as the game ended, we opened a door we shouldn't have opened and found ourselves standing in the broadcasting booth with Lindsey Nelson, the Mets announcer, who was live on the air! The technicians in the booth froze in horror and begged us in pantomime not to interfere with the show, which we did not. Later, as a souvenir of our good behavior, they gave us the lineup card that had been shown on television prior to the game. It listed the players for the Mets on one side and the players for the Colts on the other. Billy and I later flipped a coin for who would get the Mets half. I won the toss, as you can see. That's Casey Stengel's signature at the bottom.

The success of our impertinence may have had an effect on the psyche of my friend, as he went on to have a career as a broadcaster himself. You may have heard of him. His name is Bill O'Reilly and what you just read is the story of the first time O'Reilly ever set foot in a broadcasting booth.
Ahhh, the good old days... sigh... anyway, that's my own story about a ballpark and what it meant to a kid. Thank you for indulging me in this bit of pure nostalgia that has nothing whatsoever to do with taxi driving.

And goodbye, Big Shea.