Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Man Bites Dog

Way back on June 3rd I received an email from Antoinette, a researcher at a Dutch television program called Man Bijt Hond (Man Bites Dog), asking if I might be interested in participating in some broadcasts they were planning to do in New York in early September. I was told that Man Bites Dog is a long-running show that's on the air five nights a week in the Netherlands and that they'd be coming to the city to commemorate the discovery of New York by the explorer Henry Hudson 400 years ago. Someone had the idea of including a segment about a real New York cab driver as an unusual angle for a story and they found me right here at this blog. Filming would take place during the first week of September for shows that would be on the air in Holland from Sept. 7th through the 11th.

You get five minutes of fame, right? I realized I've only used up about a minute of it when I was interviewed on BBC Breakfast back in November and so I still have about four minutes left on my account! I said "yes".

Thus began a long series of emails between myself and Antoinette that culminated in a plan: I would show up at the crew's hotel in the Flatiron District in a taxi for three consecutive nights; the cab would be outfitted with special lights, sound equipment, and cameras, and I myself would have a microphone attached under my shirt; I would meet with Cas, the interviewer and cameraman, and Pepijn, the sound man; and the three of us would cruise around Manhattan for three hours each night in search of material that could later be edited for the show.

And so I became part of a real television production.



One of the crew setting up a camera angle on the big star of the show

Cas, the cameraman and interviewer, with the hand-held

Crew member setting up the back seat camera

Passengers shared the back seat with sound man Pepijn

On the second night Cas set up this camera on the hood of the cab

Cas, "NYC Gene", and Pepijn

Video clips from the show:

So how did it go? Mostly it was great fun. And quite flattering that such attention was being paid to me. I will admit to feeling a bit of vindication in the sense that taxi driving is normally a relatively anonymous occupation without any group support. Many things happen that you wish could be witnessed or acknowledged by others. So it was gratifying to finally have that happen in such a big way. They told me close to a million people watch this show every night.

It was also a learning experience. We accumulated more than 7 hours of footage. From that only about 8 minutes of material were actually used. So I learned something about the power of editing. Unless the person being interviewed has some kind of agreement that he has approval rights over the final cut, how he is portrayed is very much in the hands of the editor, or the director via the editor. In this case, I didn't think the material about my personal life was relevant or particularly interesting and I thought the bits at the end of the segments were pretty lame. I wouldn't have included them.

On the other hand, I thought my comments about taxi driving and the interactions with the passengers were presented very well. We had to get the know-how down about getting people to come into the cab, by the way. We found that passengers hailing us from the street didn't want to get into a cab with two guys in the front and another guy with odd machinery in the back. So what we eventually learned was that it was best to park the taxi in a busy night-life area and then Cas would go out on the sidewalk and solicit volunteers. Plus offering a free ride didn't hurt.

My favorite sequence with the passengers was the one with the screaming actress. I should point out that the video she had been in earlier that day was a spoof of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. I think an impression may have been given that she had been in the original, which was not the case. Also the decibel level of her scream was not given justice in that shot. It was much louder! Unfortunately, my comment of "I think you broke my windshield!" was not included. She nearly did! Her name, by the way, is Mika Henderson and she can be contacted at should anyone reading this be in the market for a superb screamer.

Another thing that was left out was that the girl who was with the guy who was so enthusiastic about the celebrities I've had in my cab surprised us, when she learned that the show we were doing was from Holland, by speaking Dutch fluently! It turned out she is from Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America. I thought that was pretty amazing.

So there it is. Cabs Are For Kissing takes to the airwaves. Hope it brings some smiles.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Three Nights

I've often said that in nearly any night of cab driving in New York City something memorable happens, either in the cab itself or out on the street. If you could accurately remember each night behind the wheel, you'd most likely recall that, oh, yeah, that was the night that that happened. Or that was the night I saw that on the street.

Last week was no different:

Sunday, 3:30 a.m.

The "city that never sleeps" was taking one of its catnaps. I had been cruising on my usual routes for more than half an hour without finding a fare, and it's at times like these that a cab driver can let his guard down, meaning that you may be so glad to get a passenger - any passenger - that you ignore the fact that the person who just got in your taxi looks exactly like Godzilla. Translation: it's a teenaged male who looks like a thug. He may turn out to be a nice kid, but you don't know that when you see him on the street. He just looks like a modern, urban version of the monster from the Japanese movie.

So I stopped for this kid on 6th Avenue at 56th Street, a good part of town. Even before he opened the door I felt I had made a mistake. When you've handled the same particles for many years, the oddities stand out. You may not know exactly what it is that keeps your attention on it, but you know that the particle hasn't made it through your internal filtering system. Call it instinct.

The kid was all wrong. Yes, he looked like a thug with his baseball cap pulled half-way down across his face, but many city kids look like thugs today. It's stylish. When he sat down in the back seat and told me his destination, 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, his speech seemed to be affected by drugs. He was coherent, but there was an odd slurring to his words. Nevertheless, I felt comfortable with his destination, also not a bad part of town, so I started driving.

Next, I tried to make some kind of conversation with him, but it turned out to be impossible due to his iPod earphones. The kid was in his own little world back there and could not be communicated with. But I wanted his money for the ride, so I ignored this additional danger sign and kept on driving.

Now, this is a big flunk on my part because I have a system for handling passengers like him (see The Three Strikes and You're Out System) but I failed to employ it. And it's especially a flunk because there have been a few taxi driver murders in New York City in the last couple of months and this kid could have been the one. Fortunately he didn't pull out a weapon. But what he did was this...

First, he changed his destination at the end of the ride (another danger sign) - now he wanted to go to 88th Street, which he mumbled in that slurred voice, just as we approached 86th. Then he wanted me to turn on 88th, which I did. Then, after some indecision, he told me to stop in the middle of the block. Then he opened the back door without paying me first. Then he stepped outside onto the street. And then he did what the experienced fare-beater has learned to do.

He ran at top speed in the opposite direction. Don't tell anyone, but that's the best way of getting a free ride. (Other than just asking for one.)

So his semi-stupor was an act. I felt the sting of being had, but wasn't really that upset about the $7 I'd lost on the ride with this punk. I was more upset with myself for having been so careless. Still, the game was on, so I put the cab in reverse and backed out of the block, hoping to catch him even though that was close to impossible. Then I circled the block one time thinking maybe I'd spot him and then get extraordinarily lucky and find a cop at the same time. But of course that didn't happen.

So it was money and time lost. But it was memorable. And if it was memorable, then it's a story. And a story has value, so I guess it wasn't a total loss after all.

Monday, 2 a.m.

And speaking of stories, one of the best sources for them in the world of taxi-driving is road rage. In a city of limited space but unlimited vehicles, the struggle for turf and manners never ends. Every taxi driver in New York has road rage stories. And Monday at 2 a.m. provided me with yet another one. And it was in a rather exotic category - "Road Rage Incidents With Garbage Truck Drivers".

Of all the different types of vehicles competing with each other for space in New York City, I think the struggle between taxicabs and garbage trucks is the most vicious. It's primarily a matter of size. Garbage trucks are enormous and often block the narrow, one-way streets while loading up. And there sits the taxi driver behind the garbage truck unable to go where he needs to go to find his next passenger or to bring the passenger he already has to the destination. It's an automatic turf war.

What often makes the situation worse is the fuck-you attitude of the garbage truck drivers. There is rarely an apology or a thank you from someone who has just taken several minutes of your time (and therefore money) so he could do his job. And there is no tit for tat in this relationship - the taxi driver never gets to take up any of the garbage truck driver's time, except for the occasional drop-off of a passenger in the middle of the block. And that's only for a few moments. Anyway, this endless conflict is a part of the life of a taxi driver and we learn to endure the suffering.

But there is only so much a person can take. And Monday at 2 a.m. was the last straw for me.

I had picked up a passenger on 56th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue who was heading for Queens. This meant that we would drive straight across 56th to 3rd Avenue and then make two more turns to get onto the Queensboro Bridge. 56th Street happens to be a superb street for catching green lights and, wanting to impress my passenger (an attractive blonde) and at the same time start a conversation, I said to her that I thought we could get a green light at every intersection all the way to 3rd Avenue. She was doubtful that this was possible, but was curious to see if it could be done, which was the effect I'd hoped to create.

So off we went.

We indeed did make every light all the way across town. The blonde was impressed. And then, like in a scene from a movie, just at the moment when I was about to drive through the final green light at 3rd, a man walked out in front of the cab with his hands in the air. I stopped, thinking he was some kind of an idiot who was crossing the street against the light. But he didn't cross the street. He stood in the middle of the intersection for a moment, then turned around and made another hand signal to his buddy in a garbage truck who proceeded to back the truck onto 56th Street, completely blocking me and making it impossible to pass.

So instead of waiting two seconds to allow me to go through the green light - and it should be noted that there were no cars behind me - these guys felt the right thing to do was to stop me in my tracks and let me wait a couple of minutes so they could load a large pile of garbage from the sidewalk into their truck.

I was outraged. It was an insult, and an unprovoked insult, at that. I had done absolutely nothing to antagonize these guys. This was pure thug-ism, I'm-bigger-than-you-ism, civilization versus barbar-ism. It was so bad I felt it was worth it to do something retrospect might call stupid, something that it says in the "Road Rage Manual" that you must never do.

I got out of my car.

Never, never, never get out of your car unless there's an accident. It's an unwritten rule acquired by the wise. But I did. I walked over toward the guy who'd been driving the truck and commenced shouting at him, pointing out that he could have let me go through the green light, among other things.

His response: "Shut up and let me do my job." A bit of irony there, considering the circumstances.

Needing to get in the last word, I shouted back "HURRY UP!" at him as I returned to the cab, knowing quite well that being ordered to do something by a cabbie would drive him crazy. He replied that, okay, now he was going to go as slow as possible. I didn't really care. It was no longer so much about time lost. It was about pride.

He and his co-worker finished hauling the plastic garbage bags into the truck in about two minutes, actually faster than I'd expected. They then started to move the truck forward through the green light and went about half-way across 3rd Avenue. I steered my cab around the right of it and into the intersection, thinking that hopefully they would turn left onto the avenue and be on their way. But I had a feeling this thing wasn't over. Thugs in big trucks have a habit of using their vehicles as weapons when they have found a way to justify acting out their destructive impulses.

Seeing that I was trying to make a left turn around him, the driver kept moving forward to block me. Then he stopped the truck completely. I stopped as well, waiting for him to move. But instead of seeing the truck go back into motion, I saw the driver coming toward me on foot with a truly crazed look in his eye, shouting obscenities. It was about to become physical.

I had three seconds to make a decision. Either stay put and get into some kind of altercation with a lunatic sanitation worker or drive away.

I drove away.

It meant continuing straight on 56th Street toward 2nd Avenue and then taking a detour to 1st Avenue in order to get to the bridge to Queens. And it meant swallowing a little bit of pride in order to avoid a situation that was right on the brink of getting not only ugly but dangerous, both in a physical and legal sense. Jail sentences and funerals are often conceived in situations just like this.

My passenger, meanwhile, had sat through the ordeal somewhat in shock, I think, and it led to a friendly debate about the pros and cons of taking a stand. Her opinion was that it wasn't worth it to get so fired up, that these guys were jerks, and "that's why they're garbage men"; my opinion was that there are instances when turning the other cheek causes more stress internally than the feeling of moral superiority is worth. At the end of the ride our conversation resulted in a very above-average tip and a cheerful wave goodbye from the sidewalk after she exited the taxi.

Which made the incident all the more memorable.

Tuesday, 4:30 a.m.

I was looking for one more short ride at the end of my shift when I spotted a man and a woman emerging from the Brill Building at Broadway and 49th Street who were looking for a cab. Two things were remarkable about this sighting:

1) The man was a celebrity, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. The lady who accompanied him turned out to be his assistant.

2) I knew before stopping for them what they had been doing in that building and why they were leaving at this wee hour of the morning.

They got in my cab and told me their destination on the Upper West Side. Without even acknowledging that I knew who he was, I immediately said, "So, did you finish editing the new movie?"

They were kind of stunned.

"You know, the one about capitalism," I added.

They were doubly stunned.

Michael Moore smiled. "How did you know that?!" he asked.

It's a rare and particularly satisfying situation to drop some information on someone who could have no idea of how in the world you could possibly know something. It would be like approaching a stranger in a restaurant and leaning over and mentioning that "your sister Jenny- the one who lives in Ohio - wants you to give her a call". The stranger would think you have superhuman powers.

"I could go into my psychic routine," I replied, "but the truth is I had someone in my cab last night coming out of that building who was working on the film. He told me all about it, how you have something like forty people on the project and it's been going on for three days."
"Small world," said Michael Moore.
The ice having been effectively broken and even melted, we rolled up 8th Avenue toward their destination. Michael Moore is a man I have long admired for his courage in exposing the greed and corruption of powerful vested interests and his movie, Sicko, about the health care disaster in the United States, has been influential in shaping public opinion about the issue. With debate raging in this country at the current time, and with health care reform being debated and formulated by the federal government even as we spoke, I had one of those karma feelings I get from time to time while driving a taxi. My attention is on this health care battle. And then Michael Moore gets in my cab. Karma or coincidence? Hmmm...

I mentioned to him that I was a perfect example of the person who is being shut out from access to health care in the United States. The taxi powers-that-be, which is primarily the Taxi and Limousine Commission, deemed all taxi drivers in New York "independent contractors" many years ago even though in reality we are anything but. As such, owners of taxi garages don't have to provide benefits to the drivers. And even though I work a forty-hour work week, a full-time job, I do not make enough money to afford an individual health care policy. And I make too much to qualify for Medicaid. So I'm left in the middle.

"If you were living in any other industrialized country in the world," said Michael Moore, "you'd have access to health care."

"How do you think Obama is doing in regard to the health care issue?" I asked.

He replied that he thought the president needed to stick to his guns and not back down from political opponents.

Our conversation turned to his current project. It's a movie about what caused the financial crisis and how democracy is being stifled. He told me that he and his crew had been working around the clock for the last few days in order to get it done in time for consideration for an Academy Award. The deadline had been earlier in the evening and they did indeed finish in time. Talk about pressure!

It was nice to see for myself that someone you've admired from a distance doesn't turn out to be a prick in person. Michael Moore, I'm happy to say, was friendly, conversational, unpretentious, and even humble (calling me "sir"). He stayed in the cab for an extra minute at the end of the ride to finish up our conversation. And he shook my hand warmly as he left.

His assistant went on to a second stop and told me he'd barely had any sleep for the last four days, which made his congeniality all the more impressive. The next day, she said, they would be off to the Venice Film Festival.

An interesting peek into the lifestyle of one of the effective agents for change on this planet, I thought. And one of the really good guys in my opinion.


So those were three nights of memorable, and not untypical, occurrences while driving a cab in New York City. Yet as scary, enraging, exciting, and fascinating as those incidents were, they would pale in comparison to what was even more memorable for me on each of the three nights. Stay tuned...