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.


Gusgamashuq Abunoori said...

Truly the most captivating taxicab scripture I've read to this day. You're a fantastic writer. It expanded my perspective as a cabbie, and yes I too feel an emotional attachment to all the cabs I drive. I'm one of those rough daily guys, but I find myself personifying these beloved beasts of burden just the same. There's always a sense of reunification when assigned a cab I've driven before. "Hey! Long time no see. Remember that day we nearly got sideswiped by that Jersey driver?"

King of New York Hacks said...

Great story Gene. Truly people don't know how these vehicles become our friends.

Anonymous said...

very very well written. had fun reading it, as i do with all of your blog posts.

Lynne Hand said...

If I'm ever in NY I'll be sure to book you for a smooch with my hubby.

Greetings from a Brit in Europe.


Anonymous said...

Chris in the UK saw you on the BBC morning news 5 minutes ago - just wanted to send you greetings from blighty!

Anonymous said...

That was a great interview you just gave on the BBC news.
Roxanna London - UK

Anonymous said...

Hey Im just eating my breakfast and seen you live on the BBC - keep up the good work!

Jan said...

Hi Gene I have just seen your interview on British TV show 'Breakfast' with Bill Turnbull .So just had to come and have a look ,''very interesting''I will be back ,I have a blog too ,if you care to come and visit ,and leave me a comment so that I know you have been lol Jan xx

Anonymous said...

Saw you on BBC tv channel this am and came to look at your blog, which is great.

I drive HGV trucks (18 wheel semi's in your lexicon) and you do get attached to them without a doubt.

I wish you good fortune

Spike, Midlands, UK

Mypatch said...

Lovely to see you interviewed on BBC Breakfast from an English backwater. How incredible small the world is these days and we shall look forward to reading all about you and your cab on your blog.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story, i could not stop reading, mark from England.

Anonymous said...

P.S i found your blog after seeing you on morning t.v in England on the 6th november 08 (today). Mark from england.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gene, I just looked up your blog after seeing you on the BBC news here in the UK and thought I would say hello.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog. Came across it after seeing u plug it on bbc new. Haven't been to New York yet but certainly aware of the cabs and their drivers.
Glasgow, Scotland

Anonymous said...

Hi Gene
I am watching the morning
news in Bristol England
when an interview with a New York cabbie gets my
attention.I'm sure your blogs will now be widely
read in the UK,they are brilliant, you should write
a book
Regards George D

Anonymous said...

Saw you on our British TV programme this morning. You mentioned your blog and I've just been into it and had some laughs. You write a good story - I enjoyed reading about sweet pea. Reckon you could write a book (if you haven't already). Well, I've been sat here almost an hour, enjoying this dip into your blog, but the washing is waiting and the dusting, the hoovering..... I could go on. Thanks for a good read.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eugene!

I saw you on BBC Breakfast this morning and I have been checking out your blog! Very interesting reading indeed! I enjoyed your interview with Bill today and I work for BBC myself so I was especially interested
I have been in NYC once myself and it was amazing! I hope to make it back at some stage. I will let you know where to pick me up! ;o)
Congratulations to you all on the Obama victory!!! We are all so pleased on this side of the pond!

All the best from an Irish girl in London!

blackfive said...

Heard you this morning on B B C Breakfast T/v with Bill Turnbull a fellow Scot.I myself was an Edinburgh Taxi Driver for 22years.Interesting thing that the life of a N Y taxi is only 3 years.In Edinburgh it is infinate but we have a strict cab office where the taxi has to be presented annualy for inspection.The aveaage life of a taxi in Edinburgh due to the strict cab office is around 3 to 5 years.The taxi then would be traded in and bought by the likes of Blackpool where their standards are not so high.
I have had many Americans in my taxi and they all say that Edinburgh standards of taxi and driver`s knowledge are the best.London is much the same but some of their taxis are much older.I was in one last year which was 1997 which is very old by our standards.
I`ll keep reading your blog now I know of it ,happy driving.You like ourselves must have some stories.I`ll share some with you some time.I`ve a couple of goodies on our esteemed Prime Minister Gordon Brown.What you would call a right tight Scotsman.

Dave Walker said...

Hi there,

Saw you on the BBC news being interviewed. That's a whole lotta viewers in the UK!

Nice blog too :o)

christophe said...

hi eugene!
great story! i've had fun reading and surfing on your blog!
good to see you live this am on the BBC!
take care,
christophe from london UK

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

What scintillating insight! You are a marvel! What a treat! Thanks for a good read.

Seacret Admirer

Anonymous said...

All of the above;o from Scotland!
Lovely to 'meet' you.

Truckmann said...

HI Gene
Really enjoyed the post.
Almost had a lump in my throat. I'm lying.....I did have a lump in my throat.



Fee said...

hey I knew you before you were famous!!!! Just remember that. Cannot believe I missed you on TV although I will have been busy with breakfasts then appropriately enough given the programme's name. Is it on youtube?

Yuriy said...

Wonderful blog you have here; this one and Pictures from A Taxi are both my favourites.

yurri from Russia

Rainer the Cabbie said...

Thanks Gene, fantastic story mate.
I also have been a sucker, twice, the most memorable was an Australian build Holden Kingswood,ex Taxi of cause, that had 750.000km. on the clock. When I bought it, back in 1986, it belong to the Taxi washer and had a big hole in the floor that was covered by a piece of plastic. He told me how he used the old cab when he build his house, and how he used to stack it full of bricks. This old girl, nicknamed Heart of Gold, stayed with me for 6 months, two young girls learned how to drive on it and she traveled faithfully up the coast of Australia, a 3000km trip, including some dirt roads. At the end I sold her to a panelbeater for the same price I purchased her. Old Taxi cabs never die, they just reinvent themselves. Love your writing Gene.

no woman no cry said...

Lovely history.Im a fan of Ford Crown Victoria taxis but im not from NY.I was at NYfor a week and i was very dissapointed when they said its the end of crown...

Anonymous said...

If they can only be cabs for three years, how come they reach a million miles?

Eugene Salomon said...

They don't reach a million. They have about 200,000 after three years.

Unknown said...

Great story Gene. Truly people don't know how these vehicles become our friends.i also have an experience of taxi cabs and however i also wants to share this on below for kind of help,, and if any one wants to make his journey easy and comfortable so that it website may help such people,,

Kathleen said...

I can imagine 8P28 cherished her memory of you til the very end.

Eugene Salomon said...

Ha, that is so funny, Kathleen. I just hope she wasn't upset with me for having let her go.