Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Down Goes Frazier

Many people in New York assume that the taxicabs are busy all the time. It just ain't so. During any twenty-four hour period, there are hours that are extremely busy, it's true, but there are also hours that are only somewhat busy, and then there are hours that are extremely not-busy. During the night shift (5 p.m. to 5 a.m.) it goes like this from Sunday to Thursday:

From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. it's extremely busy. One passenger gets out and the next one gets in within three minutes.

From 8 p.m. to midnight it's somewhat busy. Perhaps ten minutes between passengers.

From midnight to 3 a.m. it's extremely not busy. You could go half an hour or more between passengers.

And then from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. it's so not busy that it turns out the phrase "the city that never sleeps" was just so much hype. There's a big-time catnap going on and you wish you could get on a foghorn and ride around screaming at people to get out of bed and do something! There's not much business at all, although you could be lucky and get an airport ride after 4:00.

On Fridays and Saturdays it's a different story. It's either extremely busy or somewhat busy throughout the whole shift, although it can get pretty slow on Fridays after 3 a.m.

However, there can be periods of time, like unexpected fluctuations in the weather, when these patterns can inexplicably change. It could be 7 p.m., for example, and half an hour goes by without a fare. Or at 2 a.m. from out of nowhere it's suddenly super-busy for a while. That phenomenon occurred recently on a Wednesday at 10:45 p.m. I had just dropped a passenger off at Madison and 24th and circled around onto 5th Avenue, heading downtown, to look for the next one. Pulling up to a red light at 23rd Street, I noticed something that cabbies love to see: there were perhaps six or seven people on both sides of the intersection, all looking for taxis. There's a certain rush that goes straight through to the core of a taxi driver's psyche when he sees this sight. It's an aesthetic thing, like a Mozart crescendo. How fortunate I am, the cabbie thinks, to be alive and to experience such beauty.

Since I was surrounded in the front, rear, and on both sides by other vehicles, the plan that instantly formed in my mind was to cross 23rd Street when the light turned green, veer over a couple lanes to the right, and pull up at the curb where there were several people who looked like they were in need of my services. I would place the cab kind of in the middle of them, without choosing anyone in particular, and let them work it out among themselves as to who would get possession of the coveted taxi. It's a tried and true method I use so as not to give the impression that I prefer one person over another.

But my plan suddenly became irrelevant as, coming toward me on foot, was a guy who did what many savvy New Yorkers do when demand exceeds supply: he walked directly into the middle of the street in order to gain possession of the cab before the light could turn green. It's a bold move that the more timid still standing on the sidewalk might construe as cheating, but it's certainly a part of the gamesmanship that is common in Manhattan when it comes to grabbing a cab. As he opened the rear door and sat down, I greeted him with a smile and, although I didn't say anything except hello, I was mentally admiring him for being a take-charge guy. He returned my greeting with a smile and an hello of his own and then surprised me by telling me that his destination was just across the street, at the far right corner of 23rd and 5th, the same spot I'd intended to drive to before he'd hopped in. He explained that a friend was waiting there and, I assumed, the friend would jump in the cab and the three of us would then be on our way to somewhere else.


The light turned green and I put on my right-turn signal, skillfully maneuvered my way across two lanes of traffic, and came to a stop right where he wanted me to be. He opened his door on the curb side of 5th Avenue, as he should have, and then... the action began. A large man - about six-foot-one, 190 pounds, maybe thirty-five years old - moved forward on the sidewalk toward the cab. My passenger - who was something like five-foot-eight, 150 pounds, thirty years old - stepped out of the cab and, seeing that the other man wanted the cab, politely told him that it was not available because someone else was about to get in. Normally the other person would say, "Oh, okay," and step back. But not this guy. He stepped forward and, although I didn't catch exactly what he said, his body language and tone of voice were clearly saying, "Tough shit, jerk-off, this cab is mine!"

I knew immediately it was big trouble. Competition for possession of taxicabs - an indigenous sport in New York City - can be nasty, but it's extremely rare for it to be so in-your-face, especially between men.

The first guy fired back a sarcastic put-down of the other guy - "Oh, so you're owner of this cab, huh?" - and, realizing if he moved forward on the sidewalk that the other guy would get in, called out to the person who was waiting for him, a thirty-something woman, to come over to the taxi, which she did. This woman then stood in the space of the cab's opened door, thus securing possession of the taxi, at least for the moment, but she did not get in. She was apparently concerned for the safety of her friend who, although smiling, was in a heated jaw to jaw with the other guy.

After this went on for a very long thirty seconds, I decided I had to do something. There was no way I was going to let the other guy take the cab away from the first guy, so I thought if I told him this - politely, of course - I could be the face-saving interventionist who could end the conflict. So I got out of the cab and approached him.

"Listen," I said to the other guy, "he had the cab first. I started the meter already."

No response.

"I'm sure you'll get another cab in a minute. But I can't let you take this one, okay?" But I was talking to wall, a wailing wall at that, because he was so focused in on insulting and being insulted by the first guy that I don't think he could even see me. Really, it was like I wasn't there. Defeated as a referee, I walked over to the woman and suggested she get in the cab, but she wouldn't - "I want to make sure he's okay," she said.

"Why doesn't he just get in the taxi?" I asked her, figuring that she should know. If the two of them would just get in, I could drive away and that would be the end of it.

"He's not getting in," she replied. "He's got his bicycle chained to the pole over there," pointing to a sign post.


So there was more to this story than met the eye. The first guy must have been waiting with the woman there at that corner where the other guy was and, perhaps trying to impress her, had hustled across 23rd Street when he saw me - an empty cab! - pull up to the red light on the other side of the street. The other guy, who perhaps had been waiting at the corner longer and perhaps had put down a beer too many, was no doubt pissed off about what he perceived to have been a dirty rotten move and now, seeing that the first guy wasn't even getting into the cab himself, decided he was within his rights to be outraged at the injustice that had been perpetuated against him.

Of course, he wasn't within his rights. Hell, there are no rights when it comes to grabbing a cab, but you couldn't tell him that. He raged on at the first guy who at this point seemed to have had enough of the whole thing and simply turned his back and walked over a few steps to attend to his bicycle. He squatted down on bent knees to get to the lock, ignoring the other guy who, shadow-like, bent over, too, and continued to hurl invectives at the back of his head.

Suddenly the first guy stopped what he was doing and stood up, calmly.

He turned to the other guy.

And then... wham! He decked him with a right cross!

The other - much bigger - guy went down like a sack of potatoes. All right, like a sack of bagels - this is New York.

I was stunned, of course. But oddly enough, although this was real violence happening right in front of my eyes, it all seemed so comical to me. Seeing the other guy suddenly sprawled across the sidewalk, what came to mind immediately were the immortal words of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell while broadcasting the heavyweight championship fight between George Foreman and Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973. Foreman connected with an uppercut to Frazier's jaw in the first round and Cosell's voice boomed:

"Down goes Frazier!"

"Down goes Frazier!"

"Down goes Frazier!"

Well, the corner of 23rd and 5th wasn't a boxing ring in Kingston, but it was certainly a theater of the absurd - and it wasn't over. The other guy rose to his feet, turned to the first guy, and hurled not a fist, but another derogatory comment at him. The first guy looked at him, smiled, and then... wham!...

Down went Frazier once again!

Suddenly a woman I hadn't noticed before came rushing over to him. She helped him to his feet and began fussing over him. He leaned down so she could see if any damage had been done to his face and made a gesture to her that looked like he was inviting sympathy, as if to say, "Did you see what that awful, awful man did to me?" She touched his cheek like a mother bestowing a healing hand on her poor child's wound.

Meanwhile, the first guy, in a display that should earn him immediate acceptance into the Nonchalance Hall of Fame, turned his back on a much bigger man whom he'd just slugged twice and went back to the task of unlocking his bicycle. This accomplished, he then mounted the bike, waved goodbye to his female friend still standing in the space of the cab's opened door (and now stunned by what she had just seen), and pedaled away in no particular rush.

The other guy, with his own woman still consoling him, slumped off in the opposite direction.

The first guy's lady-friend finally got into the back seat and closed the door. Her destination was 19th between 8th and 9th, a distance so short it could have been walked in six minutes, making the whole incident even more absurd than it already was. I stepped on the gas and began my interrogation.

"Who is that guy?" I asked.

"He's a colleague - we work in the same office," she replied.

"What kind of work is it?" "It's online marketing, like doing surveys of customer satisfaction. That kind of stuff."

"Have you ever seen him do anything like that before?"

"No! He's usually like really 'even-Steven', you know? Except maybe when he's in a stressful situation, he might explode. But not physically, you know, just yelling at somebody."

"Wow, that was really wild," I said.

"Yeah, that was wild," she agreed. I wasn't sure if her tone of voice implied an admiration for the guy, like maybe she was discovering that the caveman type really turned her on, or if she was thinking, wow, the guy is really a psycho. She used a credit card to pay for the ride, giving me a 25 per cent tip on a $6.70 fare. Not bad.

As I drove off in search of my next passenger, I had some time to contemplate this incident in relation to the broader scheme of things. You know, taxi drivers are low on the social totem pole - we don't generally get much respect. You've heard me complain about this from time to time. But, hey, when was the last time you ever heard of two patients slugging it out in the waiting room of an orthodontist over who gets to go in next? And when did anyone ever deck somebody because there was only one attorney left in the office and the big guy wanted him all to himself?

Damned right. It never happens.


Clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi does happen, however. But, please, no fighting! Just clicking!