Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Cab Runneth Over

Sometimes during the course of a shift a taxi driver may notice that events of the night seem to be taking on the form of a theme. Let's say, for example, that you get three drunks on three separate rides and they all have red hair. You would think of that shift as the "Night of the Red-Headed Drunks". Or you get not one, but two passengers who offer you a big tip if you'll allow them to continue smoking their cigars in the cab and then two more who just light up cigarettes without even asking if it's okay. That shift would live in your memory as "A Smokey Night in New York City".

I had a shift last Tuesday that had a theme of its own. It was all about fluidity. Not the figurative kind. The literal kind. Of the three forms of matter - solids, liquids, and gases - the one that gives taxi drivers the most trouble by far is liquids. Gases aren't too great either but they can't compare to the misery caused by liquids that are out of control. Any cab driver reading this will immediately think of some outrageous incident involving a liquid that wasn't in the place where that liquid should have been. It happens to everyone who drives a cab.

The precursor to my evening was the weather itself. It was the kind of night that writers think of when they write, "It was a dark and stormy night..." Well, it was a dark and stormy night. Actually, come to think of it, every night is a dark night or it wouldn't be a night, would it? But I digress. This one was dark and stormy. The rain was cold, just a few degrees above the freezing mark, and it was a steady, unrelenting kind of rain, the kind that, if you weren't careful, could make you start thinking about how miserable not only the weather is, but how miserable existence itself is. It was that kind of rain.

So the stage was set. The first sign of trouble was at 7:11 when a young lady got in at 64th and Park, headed for Suffolk and Rivington in the Lower East Side. "Take the FDR," she said, and then settled back in her seat with her cell phone glued to her ear. The FDR (named for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States) is the highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan and is the fastest way downtown, so I had no problem with her route. It was her next comment that gave me pause.

"I'm feeling nauseous," she suddenly announced out of nowhere. I wasn't sure if she was directing her origination to me or to the person on her cell phone, but it was said loud enough for me to hear it and when I hear the word "nauseous" it gets my FULL ATTENTION. It's like telling your dog that it's meal time. The ears go straight up.

I stopped at a red light at 64th and 2nd a moment later and turned completely around in my seat to take a good look at her. She seemed all right. "You're feeling nauseous?" I inquired. "Oh, don't worry," she replied rather pleasantly, "if I'm going to throw up I'll get out of the cab first. But I'll be okay."

That was troubling. The problem was that I would be on the FDR in about a minute and on that highway there are no shoulders, thus no place to pull over. So I had to make a quick decision. Either she was a good or a bad vomit risk. If she was bad, I'd have to insist on staying off the FDR and sticking to the streets. If good, we would proceed as planned. I put her through a mental filter. She showed no signs of being drunk - that was good. She didn't have any signs of being sick - that was good. And she was conversing cheerfully with whomever was on the phone with her. Good again. I decided to get on the highway.

Now, since this is a post about misbehaving liquids, you're probably thinking that was a big mistake and she barfed in the cab. But, no! My judgement was good and we made it down to Suffolk and Rivington without further ado. It turned out this fare was just an incident in a theme.

The night went on. The rain continued and continued, only letting up for brief moments before resuming its assault. One passenger commented that "at least it isn't snow", but I informed him that snow was in the forecast for the next day. A gloom had set in, an ominous feeling that we were in the hands of a deity who was out to get us for something we must have done but could not remember what. It was a feeling that was exacerbated within me by the behavior of a 30-something male who got in the cab at Church and Vesey at 9:45 and wanted to go to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

I went up Church and made a right on Canal, heading for the Manhattan Bridge. We stopped for a red at the corner of Lafayette and then, without warning, he told me to pull over.

"I have to piss," he proclaimed, as if this was something that happens all the time in the course of a taxi ride.

A sense of urgency set in. A pisser isn't as alarming as a puker, but it's alarming enough and I didn't have a read on this guy. Was he about to pee in his pants, and thus on the floorboard? That could be almost as bad as vomit. There was a garbage truck on my right that was blocking me from being able to get over to the curb and I told him to hold on until the truck moved. But he didn't hold on. He opened his door and went directly to a newsstand that was closed up for the night and took aim.

Meanwhile, the light turned green, the garbage truck moved out of the way, and I had a few moments for reflection while I waited for my passenger to finish making his contribution to the evening's rainfall. I realized this was only the fifth time in 32 years of cab driving that someone had gotten out in the middle of a ride to take a piss. (Yes, I've counted them.) So he'd entered an elite group. But beyond that, I considered the possibility that some kind of karma was at work here. All this rain, then there was the girl, and now this guy with his bladder. If I indeed was being toyed with by Fate, would Fate be kind? Or would I be washed away as if I were a metaphor in Somebody's parable?

The night went on. I brought my passenger to his building on Taaffe Place and headed back to the city. The rain just kept coming down and a wind had picked up that was really blowing things around, making garbage bags fly across the avenues like some kind of urban tumbleweed. But hours went by and the rhythmic counting of my windshield wipers finally had me forgetting about the possibility of a confrontation with a liquid destiny.

Perhaps it was this complacency that made me a target for a passenger who got in at 12:40 at 21st and 7th and was heading down to Varick and Broome. He was a middle-aged gentleman carrying a huge, flat object wrapped in a huge plastic covering, presumably to protect it from the rain. He placed the object carefully across the back seat and then slid in next to it. Of course, I was curious about what it was, so I asked him about this thing resting beside him on the seat.

He told me it was a sign. It turned out he was a sign maker by trade and the sign he was carrying was going to be displayed on the front of a store but first he needed to bring it back to his studio for some final touches. He was a friendly person and, since I was interested to learn about his craft, a lively conversation ensued. He told me he'd been doing it for ten years, that business was always good since there were only three other sign makers in that part of the city, that his business was recession-proof, and that he wished he'd started doing it long before he did, instead of wasting his time at his previous occupation, a building superintendent. Now he was his own boss and was making great money doing something he really enjoyed. And it was also in harmony with his talent as a fine artist - he was a painter.

He went on to tell me about a project he hopes to be commissioned to do by the city. Sixth Avenue, when it was renamed "Avenue of the Americas" many years ago, used to have circular renditions of the coats of arms of all the countries in North, South, and Central America displayed beneath street lamps all the way from Tribeca up to Central Park. Most of them are now gone and the few that remain are in very poor condition. He told me he wants to be the one to restore these heraldic devices. And, he confided, he has a friend who knows Mayor Bloomberg personally, so he thinks he may have an insider's shot at landing the job.

Well, the guy struck me as being a genuine craftsman, a master of his trade, and a relatively fulfilled human being. It was a pleasure to talk with him and I felt a good rapport as he paid me the fare. He opened the door, took one step out into the rain, and then he blurted out two ominous-sounding words:

"Oh, shit."

"What's the matter?"

"Uh, the paint spilled."

This didn't compute. Paint spilled? What paint? How could paint spill? I didn't know what he was he talking about.

"What do you mean?"

"I had a can of paint in the bottom of my bag. It must have fallen out of the bag while we were talking."

"What??? You mean you spilled paint in the cab?"

"Uh, yeah. Sorry."

I jumped out into the rain and looked in the rear. A puddle of white paint covered the right rear floorboard area and there were splatterings on the hump and on the left door panel as well. It was a disaster.

"Do you have any paper towels?" he asked.

"Not enough to clean up that mess!" I said. "Oh my god, is that stuff oil-based?" I cried out in desperation. If it was, I knew that no one could ever get it out and that a) my night was over, b) the entire vinyl floorboard covering would have to be replaced, and c) if this guy didn't pay for it, I would wind up with the bill from the taxi garage. It was enough to make vomit look like a good thing.

"No, it's acrylic. I can get it out with soap and water."

"Thank god!"

And with that, my passenger told me he was going to go down Broome Street to his studio and that he'd come back with soap and towels. He then took off in the rain, taking his sign in its plastic bag with him.

It was a moment of truth. I wasn't sure if he'd return at all and had to make an instant decision - should I insist on accompanying him to his place to make sure he didn't run off on me? Or should I let him go without a word of protest? I decided to trust him, based on my impression of him as being an honest person.

Well, it's nice to be right about someone's character - in two minutes he was back with a couple of towels and a bottle of Fantastic cleaner. Fifteen minutes later, the mess was pretty much gone. I complimented him for taking responsibility for what he'd done and we shook hands.

I was back in business, although the time I'd spent standing out in the rain watching him clean up left me close to soaking wet. But that was as it should have been, considering the theme of the evening:

My Cab Runneth Over.

Now, if you're ever feeling washed away yourself, here's a little life preserver for you: just click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mission To Haiti

One of the little side-benefits of driving a cab in New York City is that you occasionally have a window presented to you through which to gain an insight into major world events. For example, to go way, way back, I once had a military man in full uniform get in my cab who was en route to New York's Sloan-Kettering Hospital. It turned out he was a general in the army of the overthrown Iranian government who was going to visit "His Excellency" in the hospital. "His Excellency" was the Shah of Iran who had been overthrown by the Islamic revolution and was at that time receiving treatment for cancer at the hospital (from which he died shortly thereafter). I didn't have a conversation of any substance with this military man, but his seriousness, his stiffness, his continuing to wear the uniform of an army that no longer existed as a show of respect for the deposed Shah, and his use of the term "His Excellency" have remained with me all these years. An abstraction had been given some mass, a face. Whenever the Iranian situation was mentioned after that I could think back on this ride and get a feeling for the way it was, just based on the way this general in my cab carried himself.

I had a ride like that a few days ago.

I picked up a young man in Manhattan who was headed for Kennedy Airport, and from there he would be flying home to London. New York was a stopover in his journey from his original point of departure - Haiti, a place that, of course, is very much in the news these days. He told me he is a photographer and had donated his services to record some of the relief effort that is in progress on the devastated island.

Getting a report about something from someone who was actually on the scene makes a deeper impression on me than just seeing it on the television or hearing about it on the radio. And the stories he told me were inspirational:

- volunteers who in the morning would have recoiled at the sight of someone receiving an injection were taught how to do it and by night's end had administered hundreds of inoculations to Haitians at risk of disease,

- a volunteer took half a day to teach himself to identify all the instruments used in surgery so he could then serve as an assistant and thus free up a doctor to perform surgery who otherwise would have been doing the job of handing instruments to surgeons himself,

- volunteers were sleeping in tents, eating food packets provided by the military, using makeshift latrines as bathrooms, and taking showers from water coming down from elevated buckets,

-people were experiencing the exhilaration of knowing that they were actually saving other people's lives and knowing as well that their reach was expanding and that they would never be the same again.

It occurred to me later that changes for the better often go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Here is a country literally being invaded by people who have come to help. Some of them are specialists, some of them are there to just help in any way they are needed. Soldiers arrive in huge planes and are deployed to distribute food. These kinds of things have not been the normal way the history of the human race has been written.
It brings to mind the dream of a brave new world and it's enough to make an optimist out of you.
The name of my passenger was Felix Kunze.

You can see his photography at