Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Oath

There are certain characteristics that make someone a "New Yorker". One of them, for example, is that a New Yorker must be a connoisseur of bagels. If a person doesn't know bagels and have a strong allegiance to a particular bagelry, well, he or she is not a "real" New Yorker. Sorry, but that's the law. You gotta know your bagels.

Another one is the way someone goes about hailing a cab. A cab driver can separate the amateurs from the professionals at a glance. The novice may wave his hand at a taxi which has its roof light off (meaning the meter is on and there's already a passenger in the cab). You would never see a real New Yorker do that. Or he may hail while standing on the sidewalk, a faux pas for a New Yorker, who will always step out a few feet into the street (so he can be seen).

A few Fridays ago around midnight I was cruising along on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village in search of my next customer when I came to a red light at West 4th Street. Three cars were in front of me there, putting me a short distance from the intersection. After a few seconds of red-light waiting, I noticed a welcome sight down at the corner: two people were standing on the sidewalk, looking at me and waving their arms in the air - my next passengers. I knew they were tourists because, as noted, they were standing on the sidewalk, but who cares? A customer is a customer and, besides, I love tourists.

Now, aside from the sidewalk blunder, they were also making another mistake that is characteristic of the uninitiated - instead of walking to me, they were waiting at the corner for the light to change and for me to approach them. It was quite busy on the streets at this time, with not too many available cabs around, so standing there and waiting was a risky thing to do.

And they paid the price.

Suddenly, coming from behind, was a twenty-something guy without inhibition. Raising his arm into a hail, he walked right past the couple on the corner, approached my cab, and got in. He then called out to his friends, another guy and a girl, who followed. It didn't seem to me that they were aware of the others' intention to obtain my services but, even if they had been, it's not my role to intervene. I've found through experience that it's best to stay neutral in these affairs. And, really, a cab isn't truly "taken" until someone is literally sitting on the back seat.

So in they got and off we went, passing the poor inept couple on the corner of West 4th, who looked at us with bewildered expressions on their faces as we zipped by. I found the episode somewhat amusing and commented on it to my new passengers.

"Well," I said, "that's the difference right there between a New Yorker and a tourist," and I went on to give the young man a compliment on his expertise when it comes to getting taxis.

"How long have you lived here? Ten years?" I asked.

"Actually, I don't live here," he said, "I'm from Canada."

I was shocked.

"Are you kidding me?"

"No, I'm from Toronto."

"But you come to New York often, right?"

"No, this is my first time. Well, I was at the airport a couple of years ago, but that doesn't count." And then he added that "ayy?" that Canadians are known for saying at the end of their sentences.

"Wow," I said, "I don't think you know how good you are. You did that like a veteran New Yorker - you're a natural!"

Well, he and his friends loved that. Visitors to New York often feel a bit intimidated by the speed of particle flow here until they get used to it, so a compliment from an entrenched New Yorker like a taxi driver is a valued communication, indeed. The affinity level in the cab shot way up and they told me they were all college buddies and were here for the weekend to attend the wedding of another college buddy and tonight was a party night at the apartment of another college buddy who now lives in New York and that is where they were going, ayy?

Well, I thought this group was swell, and they seemed to think I was swell, too. It suddenly occurred to me that there was a way I could acknowledge their swellness, particularly the swellness of the fellow who'd hailed me, whose name I now knew was Hermie.

"Hermie," I said as we came to a stop at 4th Street and 2nd Avenue, "I'm going to make you an honorary New Yorker. Raise your right hand and repeat after me." Realizing he was in the presence of Authority, Hermie lifted his arm up in the air, as I did mine.

"I, Hermie..."

"I, Hermie..."

"Do hereby declare my love for, and loyalty to, the city of New York..."

"Do hereby declare my love for, and loyalty to, the city of New York..."

"I promise never to wait for a WALK/DON'T WALK sign to change..."

"I promise never to wait for a WALK/DON'T WALK sign to change..."

"I will always obey the first rule of getting a cab, which is I SAW IT FIRST IT'S MINE..."

"I will always obey the first rule of getting a cab, which is I SAW IT FIRST IT'S MINE..."

"I swear before my God that I will always turn off the damned television in the back of the taxi as soon as I sit down..."

"I swear before my God that I will always turn off the damned television in the back of the taxi as soon as I sit down..."

"I will eat a bagel every day..."

"I will eat a bagel every day..."

"with a schmear..."

"What's a schmear?" Hermie asked, not wanting to commit himself to something he didn't fully understand.

"It's cream cheese," I replied.

"With a schmear," said Hermie, continuing his vows.

"Unless it turns out you're lactose intolerant..." I added.

"Unless it turns out I'm lactose intolerant..."

"Or you really don't like cream cheese that much..."

"Or I really don't like cream cheese that much..."

"In which case, fa-gedda-bowt-it..."

"In which case, forget about it..."



"Very good. Now, Hermie, there's just one more thing - I'm going to spell out a word and I want you to pronounce it."






"Again. CAW-fee..."


"Hermie, by the power invested in me by, uh, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, I hereby pronounce you to be an honorary New Yorker. Congratulations!"

A cheer went up in the cab that I believe was noticed by the passerby on the street. We continued on our way and by the time we arrived at their destination of 13th Street and 1st Avenue, the camaraderie had become so high among us that they actually invited me to go up to their party with them, a great honor. I had to decline, having a living to make, and they were fine with that, but then, as they were piling out, I realized I had one more thing to say.

"Hey, Hermie..."

He paused as he was halfway between the cab and the street and gave me his full attention.


"The ayys have gotta go, okay?

"Yes, sir!"

And with that, Hermie and his friends were on their way.

I heaved a sigh.

It's always a pleasure to welcome a new one to the ranks.


And a pleasure, as well, to welcome you to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

John Lennon Remembered

(This is a post I originally published on Dec. 8th, 2006, the 26th anniversary of John Lennon's death. I am putting it out again today, the 30th year, in case you hadn't seen it before.)
Mozart had it.

Beethoven had it.

Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers had it.

Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan had it once.

I guess Paul McCartney also had it, but I'm not sure if he still does. And Stevie Wonder, he may still have it.

But, man, John Lennon really had it: the rare ability to master each element of a musical composition - lyrics, voice, melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation - in order to produce perfect music - a lot of perfect music, actually - that stands the test of time. Music that sounds fresh, interesting, and vibrant no matter how many times you listen to it. Music that continues to intrigue the listener, to produce emotional impact upon the listener, year after year, and that just doesn't get old.

Plus, at least in the case of John Lennon, a social conscience to go along with it and courage in the extreme to take a stand.

I really miss this guy and continue to feel cheated that he was taken from us. I think of him each time I drive past the Dakota in my taxi and wonder what further music he would have created that now we will never hear. In fact, if I ever find myself feeling a bit too cheerful, all I need to do to restore my cynicism is remind myself of his tragedy - that the reward you get from a certain segment of the human race for creating great art is to be snuffed out like an insect if you make the mistake of letting them know where you live.

I would like to use this occasion, the 26th anniversary of his absurd death, to share with you a few John Lennon stories - really just glimpses - I happen to have as both a New Yorker and a taxi driver. A little trip down the misty passageways of time, if you will indulge me...

I actually used to live across the street from him. Mini (my ex) and I shared a large, two-bedroom apartment with another couple, Bob and Claire Luhrs, in the Bancroft building at 40 W. 72nd Street in 1975 and 1976. It was quite a kick in those days to be able to say to someone, "Oh, yeah, well, John Lennon is my neighbor, you know..."

Spotting him was kind of a game people in the Upper West Side would play in those days. You might walk into a shop and the girl behind the counter would say, "Hey, guess what, John Lennon was just here!" And lots of people would mention that they'd seen him walking around at one time or another. But I lived there for a year and had never laid eyes on him. After awhile I began to feel like there was something wrong with me! Why were these other people seeing John Lennon all the time and I never was? And then one day, finally, there he was, walking down 72nd Street toward Columbus Avenue.

The truth is, I never would have noticed him if he hadn't been with Yoko Ono. She stood out like a beacon, smiling right at everyone on the street, as if to say hello to the world, and you recognized her instantly. And then you looked around to see if he was there. And yes, there he was! - along with the baby, Sean. But his way of carrying himself was the opposite of Yoko Ono's. He wore a big hat, a scarf covered half his face, and his gaze was downward, not outward. She was the extrovert and he the introvert, it seemed. (Of course, appearances can be deceiving. If you really want to know about John Lennon's personal life, I suggest reading LOVING JOHN, by May Pang, John's companion for the year and a half he was separated from Yoko Ono.) I felt an impulse to say hello, but immediately sensed that that would be an harrassment to him, so I just smiled and kept walking.

And I saw him one other time, in 1977, when I was doing a brief stint as a street peddler. One morning Phil Reinstein and I were waiting on the 3rd Avenue side of Bloomingdale's for the truck with the umbrellas to arrive, when suddenly John and Yoko walked by. And it was just as it had been the first time - Yoko was smiling at the world and John was looking down at the sidewalk (perhaps composing a song in his mind, who knows?). And again I wouldn't have recognized him if he hadn't been with her.

They crossed 3rd Avenue and walked down 60th Street toward 2nd. Phil and I looked at each other and said, "Let's follow them!" And for a block we shamelessly did trail them, from a distance, of course, so they wouldn't know we were there. I remember two things from this little adventure: John and Yoko stopped and did some window shopping in the stores that were not yet opened, and a girl, walking by them, turned around and did the most classic double-take (widened eyes and dropped jaw) I have ever seen a human being do.

By 1979 I was a full-time taxi driver. One summer night I had two gorgeous "party girls" in my cab and they were going to the Dakota - John and Yoko were having a party.

They were both very friendly and quite conversational and one of them was kind of silly, as well. She was interested in what it's like to be a cab driver and was asking me all sorts of questions. One thing she wanted to know was how much money we made.

"Is it ludicrous?" she asked (meaning "lucrative").

"Not as ludicrous as this conversation," I replied with a smile, doing my imitation of Groucho Marx.

"Touche," her friend said, laughing. The silly one laughed, too, but didn't realize anything funny had been said. We pulled up to the Dakota and they jumped out of the cab, merrily waving goodbye before disappearing into the caverns of the building. Out of my world and into the world of John and Yoko, where so many people of my generation wanted to be.

Now, a hundred years later, I look back and think that if I'd played my cards right, I could have gotten those girls to bring me upstairs to that party. I could have said this or that and one of them would have said, "Hey, why don't you come on up with us? Come on, you'll be our guest, no one will mind." And I would have gone upstairs with them and had that experience.

When the Time Machine is invented I'm going to go back to that night and I'm going to that party. I'll stand in a corner like a ghost and take it all in and I'm sure I will realize then, more than I ever could have in 1979, what a very special and fragile time it was.

I was driving a cab on that night of December 8, 1980. Around midnight a bizarre bulletin came across the radio - John Lennon had been shot and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital. The hospital wasn't far from where I was at that moment and I decided on impulse to go there to find out for myself what condition he was in. It actually hadn't occurred to me that he might have been killed. I thought it must have been some stupid accident and he'd been shot in the foot or something.

I parked my cab on 9th Avenue near 57th Street and walked two blocks to the hospital's emergency room. There, in the ambulance parking area in front of the E.R., was a scene quite surreal. People scurried in all directions. Television broadcasting trucks and cameras were everywhere. A young man was making a spectacle of himself by kneeling in prayer with the TV cameras on him. A girl came running out of the hospital crying and screaming. Jimmy Breslin, the reporter, showed up and was ushered inside. Then someone announced that everyone should go to the hospital's lobby on 59th Street where a statement would be made to the media.

I went along.

The lobby was a small area with a few tables and chairs. The room was tight and tense and filled with about sixty or seventy people, mostly reporters from news agencies. A middle-aged woman representing the hospital came out first and briefed the reporters on how to correctly spell the name of the place and the name of the doctor who was about to talk to them. She had an odd smile as she spoke that I found annoying.

A girl standing next to me started to move her body to sit down on a wobbly table that would not have supported her weight. I stopped her from sitting there by touching her on the back, probably saving her from injury. She didn't seem to appreciate my helpfulness, however, not bothering to thank me. (It's funny how I remember this, considering the magnitude of what was happening, but I do.)

Then the doctor whose name it was important not to misspell came out and read a prepared statement. John Lennon, he said, had been admitted to the hospital at such and such a time - and was "dead on arrival".

A collective gasp - a terrible sound I have never forgotten - immediately filled the room.

A few months later I had three women in my cab who turned out to be nurses at Roosevelt Hospital. They spoke among themselves but I, the fly on the wall, overheard their conversation. John Lennon was still alive when he was brought into the hospital, they said. The doctors didn't know who he was, they said. He was NOT "dead on arrival", they said.

Could the doctors have saved him? Based on the very carefully worded statement the doctor made and the conversation I overheard, I speculate that they thought they might have been able to had they been totally on the ball. But I doubt that there's any real blame to be shared. I would suppose they did the best they could. Still, I find it disturbing to have the feeling that they were more concerned with protecting their reputations than in telling the whole truth.

So those are my Lennon memoirs. Just a few glimpses from a distance. The pictures are from the ironwork that surrounds the Dakota building, by the way.

I do think John Lennon's music will be listened to as long as people have ears. It continues to speak to us, people of all ages. I am often impressed by how well many teenagers I have in my cab are very knowledgeable of the music of the Beatles, indeed.

One other thing. You know, I wish I'd said this to him when I had the chance: thank you, John.