Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sunday On A Roll

There's a certain phenomenon that exists in sports, gambling, and taxi driving called being "on a roll". If you're "on a roll" it means that you just can't miss. Things are going your way without effort, without even trying. If you were throwing dice at a craps game, you would just win, win, win. If you'd bought a ticket at a raffle, the name that would be picked out of the hat would be yours. It's as if you're on a psychic toboggan ride. Nobody seems to know how it happens, but, if we could bottle it, surely our troubles would be over.

I had a day like that last Sunday. I found myself on a roll. Didn't know how it happened, but it was great while it lasted.

5:25 p.m. - My first ride of the night. A nice little old lady was assisted into the cab at 46th Street and 10th Avenue by someone on the street and then rode with me uptown to the corner of 62nd and Broadway. After she paid me I saw that she might need some help getting out so I came around and literally give her my hand in order to provide that extra little pull she needed to enable her leg to come up high enough to get over the raised area where the back door meets the floorboard. It's something you have to watch out for with the elderly if you're a cab driver. Many older people will refuse an offer for assistance, so I've found it's wise to just come around without asking and open the door for them if it's not already opened or, if it is, just stand there and be ready to lend a hand. Perhaps it was this little good deed that led to the roll. For standing there before I could close the door was my next fare, a blonde.

5:34 p.m. - She was off to LaGuardia with no luggage. This in itself is enough to start a conversation - "no luggage?" - and that simple question led to a discussion about her life and aspirations and a bit of my own story, too. Why no luggage? Because she was a day tripper who'd just come in from Boston to audition for admission to Julliard's graduate school for opera singers. She'd already graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and New York is the next very logical place to continue to pursue such a career. I asked her if she was able to read music as a singer - that is, to be able to sing by looking at the notes on the page and she replied that she could. This ability impresses me even more than being able to play an instrument from the written page since it seems to me to be more difficult to do, and I told her so. I was then able to impress her a little by telling her that I once had the opera star Beverly Sills in my cab. It pleased me to see her reaction to this revelation - "Wow! You did?!!" - because, really, how many people out there are going to be interested in knowing that? Opera is kind of a cult. It has a strong following, but not in great numbers. It shows me, though, that I must have some kind of a celebrity story for all tastes. (The latest count I did of the number of celebrities who've been in my cab came to 124. They add up over the years.) I went on to tell my aspiring diva that we had something in common in that I, too, once studied music in Boston. I'd spent one misbegotten semester at the Berklee School of Music in 1969 when the school was so new that they'd let anyone (me) in. By the time we got to LaGuardia we were in a pretty good affinity due to the abundance of communication, so I asked her name in case she should someday be famous herself and I could say, "Yeah, I had her in my cab when she was still an unknown", and she said it was Charley something. It occurred to me that there's never been an opera singer who went by one name, so I suggested she might want to just go with "Charley". She could be the Madonna of the opera world. Or the Cher, at least. If that happens, remember you heard it here first.

Now, getting a fare to LaGuardia in the early evening on a Sunday is in itself a sign that things are going your way. It's the time of the week when you are most likely to get an immediate ride back to the city, and that's fast money. I did a quick check of the taxi waiting areas (there are five of them at LaGuardia) and decided that the American Airlines lot was the best bet. In ten minutes I was on my way to Greenwich Village with a cheerful couple who appreciated my traffic-avoiding navigation and tipped generously. Back in Manhattan by 7:04. On a roll!

7:10 p.m. - I drove up 6th Avenue looking for my next fare and pulled up in front of the Bed, Bath and Beyond at 18th Street. No passengers, but the doorman of the place came up to me and handed me a little yellow card with little pictures of 30 shopping bags on it. He explained that if I either pick up or deliver customers to the store 30 times on Saturdays or Sundays between 3 and 7 p.m., I will receive a $20 gift certificate from the store. And then he punched the first bag with his hole puncher. I thought it was a creative way for the store to attract taxis when they apparently need them the most. It's not a lot of money, but in the world of taxi driving any reward from an establishment for servicing their public is a rarity, indeed. In fact, the only other place I know of in all of New York that gives a cabbie a prize for delivering a customer is a certain strip joint in Midtown. Just after the newly-arrived patron enters the place, the doorman will come over and adroitly hand the taxi driver an envelope with a $5 bill inside.

After just a minute of hanging around, a couple of guys jumped in and we drove up to 92nd and Central Park West. I showed them the yellow card I'd just been given and this somehow began a convoluted conversation about animals, politicians, and celebrities. When we arrived at their destination the more talkative of the two gave me a $5 tip on a $15 fare and told me it was the most interesting taxi ride he'd ever taken. Which gets me thinking it's not me, it's the roll, and I start feeling a bit in awe regarding the roll, wondering how long it could continue.

9:00 p.m. My next six fares were unremarkable, just so-so rides with nothing special going on, and I'm thinking my lucky streak is over. Nine o'clock is break time and since I found myself on the Upper East Side I decided to flick on my "off-duty" light and head over to the Starbuck's on 87th and Lex, one of my favorites (easy parking and two clean bathrooms). As is my custom, once I park the cab and step outside, I first open a back door and check for garbage before locking up. Something immediately caught my eye on the floor. It's something that, to a cab driver, is like a row of five cherries popping up on a slot machine to a gambler.

It was a wallet.


Now, there are two kinds of wallets you can find on the floor of a taxicab. One is a wallet that has been emptied by a previous passenger. And the other is one that has not. This wallet was of the latter variety.


I don't want you to think that I'm the kind of person who would find something of value and not try to return it. To the contrary, I have a very solid policy in this regard. I will make every effort to return the item unless the person who lost it was, in my opinion, outrightly evil. And that has happened only once in 32 years. My success rate is quite high, probably around 90 per cent, not counting things like umbrellas, gloves, and hats whose value isn't worth the trouble it would take to hunt the person down. I'm talking about items such as cell phones, wallets, and bicycles (yes, someone once left a bicycle in the trunk of my cab). The reason the bells of the jackpot go off when you find something like this is that invariably the person who gets it back is going to give you a significant reward.

I snatched the wallet from the floor and returned to the front seat of the cab. Examining its contents, I found about $60 in cash, a single credit card, a Medicare identification card, some phone numbers of doctors, and, fortunately, the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the person who owned the wallet and her children. This meant that returning the wallet was going to be easy to do.

I did a little detective work to try to figure out which passenger it could be. The clues I had were that it was a female who was old enough to be eligible for Medicare and had at least two grown children. I looked over my trip sheet and reviewed who'd been in my cab that night, and I realized it could only belong to one person: it was the little old lady who had been my first passenger. She must have dropped it when I was assisting her out of the taxi. The amazing thing is that I had taken nine fares since then and, counting the numbers in the column of the trip sheet that tells you how many passengers had been in each ride, these nine fares consisted of 17 people. In other words, 17 people had come in and out of my cab and no one had noticed the wallet on the floor! And that is quite remarkable.

I got out my cell phone and dialed her number. The call was answered by the desk clerk in what turned out to be an assisted living facility on the West Side. I asked if this certain person lived there, he said she did, and I told him I was a taxi driver who had her wallet. He told me she was out of the building and suggested that I just drop it off with him, but of course that was not going to happen. Trying not to insult the guy, I told him that I'd be working all night and that this was something I could give only to the lady herself. I gave him my number and asked him to give it to her when she came in. If I give the wallet to him, there goes the reward, there goes the satisfaction I get from seeing someone's faith in humanity rehabilitated, and how would I know if he would actually give it to her, anyway? I don't know this guy from Adam. Or Eve, for that matter.

I went into my Starbuck's, used the restroom, got my tall black, returned to the cab, opened up my bran muffin from Trader Joe's, and went back to work, cruising down Lex without a fare (but with caffeine) until I got to Midtown.

9:33 p.m. - My phone rings. I immediately flicked on my "off-duty" light once again and pulled over to the curb, knowing the call would be for the wallet. It was the daughter of the little old lady, overjoyed. She told me the address of her mother's facility and I told her I would be there in about ten minutes.

Just as I was about to drive off, three exuberant women came rushing up to the side of the cab seeking my services. I told them I was off-duty but if they were going my way I could take them. Not forgetting that I was on a roll, it didn't really surprise me that where they wanted to go was only two blocks away from where I was heading. They jumped in the cab. We rolled on.

Well, it turned out they were from Virginia and were having themselves a great time in the big city. They told me they come to New York every year during "this week" and, from what I could gather, it was an annual, get down and boogie, what-happens-in-New-York-stays-in-New-York weekend. They were so bubbly that I felt comfortable telling them, in order to show that New Yorkers in general are wonderful people and that I in particular am a wonderful person, that, hey, look at this, I am on my way to return a passenger's wallet. And I held it up for all to see. I might as well have told them that I'd discovered that the cure for arthritis was drinking martinis. I was an instant hero. They gave me twenty dollars for a $6.30 fare and, in the immortal words of Harry Chapin, I stuffed the bill in my shirt. It occurred to me about ten seconds later that maybe I should always have a wallet handy to show passengers that "I'm on my way to returning it". I could make a fortune.

9:46 p.m. - I arrive at the assisted living facility and the daughter of the little old lady was right there, waiting for me just outside the entrance to the place. She was about my own age, filled with gratitude, and I could see from the way she spoke that she cared deeply about her mother who, she said, was sure that "that nice cab driver" would return her wallet to her. She handed me a couple of bills, thanked me again, and we went our ways. Stopping at the red light at the next intersection, I looked at what she'd given me and saw it was two twenty dollar bills. A bit exorbitant, I thought, but much appreciated.

9:53 p.m. - At this point, I'm beginning to feel impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and, as if to test me, two passengers get in at 47th and 8th who, under normal circumstances, would have been able to get under my skin. They were two middle-aged, obese females, one of whom not only had great difficulty simply getting into the cab, but also was attempting to gain sympathy from the other by whining and moaning on about her range of motion difficulties. They were coming from a play and I overheard the whiner say, "if it wasn't Mamet, it never would have made it to Broadway". In other words, it was a new David Mamet drama and they didn't care for it. Now, I am a David Mamet fan so that comment, along with their upper crust, academic-condescension way of speaking, would normally have been enough to bring me down a notch. But not tonight. Even their ten per cent tip when I dropped them off at 89th and Riverside didn't put a dent in my elan vital. I was on a roll, after all.

But then things seemed to even out. I took several unspectacular rides. I thought it was over. But, no!

11:35 p.m. - I pick up a couple near Washington Square in the Village who are en route to the posh Regency Hotel in the Upper East Side. They were from another country - I'm not sure which - in great spirits, and enjoying each other's company. We didn't have much conversation during the ride other than my pointing out that the Park Avenue Tunnel, through which we passed, was originally built for trains. Then when we got to the Regency, the gentleman told me that he "likes the way I drive" and gave me $25 for an $11.90 fare. And asked for my card. As I drove off, I'm thinking I'm so hot I may have to be declared a fire hazard. The roll!

But I hit another lull. It had to be over. Then, this...

2:55 a.m. - I pick up a middle-aged man in Midtown who wants to go to a section in Brooklyn right under the Manhattan Bridge that's known as "Dumbo". It's pretty much a non-conversational ride, but about halfway there, just to break a bit of monotony setting in, I asked the fellow if he knew what "Dumbo" stood for. He didn't, so I told him - it's an acronym for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass". He seemed to appreciate this, so I went on to ask if he knew what Tribeca meant. He didn't know that either, so I told him it was for "Triangle Below Canal". Another five minutes or so went by without much conversation, and then as we were getting close to his destination he suddenly asks me if I know what the numbers in Union Square mean! Now, this is not a question that is normally asked of a cab driver - in fact I don't think anyone has ever asked me that, ever - which wouldn't be any big deal in itself, but when you consider that the last post in this blog was on this very subject, then his asking me this question at this particular time is something that might be considered beyond coincidence. So I told him what the numbers mean and also told him that of all the people in the world of whom he could have theoretically asked that question, I am undoubtedly the only person in the world who could hand him a card containing the web address of his own blog and direct him to the most recently written entry which would explain and demonstrate, via video, the answer to his question. And I gave him my card.

At this point I had to consider the very real possibility that for reasons unknown I had been imbued with godlike powers and should seriously consider starting my own religion, but of course you know that whenever you start blowing bubbles like this someone shows up with a pin...

3:31 a.m. - I pull over on Carmine Street in the Village for a young lady who has just finished kissing some guy and wants to go to 40th between Broadway and 6th. She was kind of pretty and seemed tired and done for the night, so there was no talking, really, just a straight run up 6th Avenue. And then these horrifying words: "I don't feel good". Oh my god, that translates immediately as: "I'm going to throw up now". Without needing to ask for any further information, I knew I had to instantly bring the cab to a halt and get her out because within a few moments there would be puke all over the place. But I was in the middle of the avenue and, wouldn't you know, there was a vehicle at this hour of the night blocking me, meaning it would cost me an extra three or four seconds to get over to the curb. And that additional time could mean that God was about to spit on me for my arrogance as well as whatever the girl was about to do. It just suddenly seemed somehow ironically fitting that my perfect night would end with me cleaning up vomit.

But it didn't happen!

We made it to the curb and she puked on the street.

Still on a roll!

4:30 a.m. - I finished the night off by taking a young man who was a systems troubleshooter to Brooklyn from Midtown. He'd just spent the night repairing a company's computers on an emergency basis and I realized here was the perfect person to ask about some trouble I've been having with my own computer. One of the few perks of driving a cab is that you can always get free legal advice and free computer advice from passengers. So I told him my computer, a pc with Windows XP, has been slowing down lately. He made an analogy with a truck that is carrying a heavy load - the more weight, the slower the truck can go, and recommended that I quit some of the always-running programs whose icons appear at the bottom right-hand side of the screen. I did this and it has helped enormously, which is why I pass it along to you, a little cherry to top off my Sunday on a roll.

Along with Sundays on a roll, I would also recommend ham and Swiss on a roll with a dash of mustard and a click right here for Pictures From A Taxi.