Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Means Of Exchange

Recently I had one of those iffy passengers who fell right in the middle of the Trouble/No Trouble Line of Demarcation. He might be okay, he might not be okay - I couldn't tell.

He was a twenty-something, medium height, medium weight, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, with a Detroit Tigers baseball cap topping off the package. So he looked all right as I approached him, his hand in the air, on 2nd Avenue up in the Upper East Side. But a moment after I brought the cab to a complete stop I noticed the first sign of trouble. It was a nuance thing, just a little tiny thing only a veteran cabbie would spot: it took him just slightly too long to open the rear door. Normally you stop and there is a one to two second elapse of time before you hear the click of the door handle being lifted. It took this fellow three to four seconds to accomplish that task. If he'd been with other people it wouldn't have appeared on the radar screen as he could have been saying goodnight to his friends, but this guy was alone. Figuring in the additional factors that it was two-thirty in the morning and he was in an area where there is a multitude of bars all still open even though it was a Tuesday, and it translates to the driver as only one thing:

he's drunk.

Now, some of us realize this and drive off immediately. But I'm not as quick as I used to be and, besides, it's dead slow on Tuesday at 2:30 a.m. and if I don't take this guy it could be - who knows? - half an hour before I get another passenger in my cab. And karma being what it is, that next passenger will probably be a drunk, too. So I stayed put and awaited fate. The question now became, how serious would it be with this guy? How drunk was he?

The first thing you have to do is put him through a little coherency test. Is he capable of communication? Can he tell you where he wants to go? Obviously if he can't do this the ride never begins. So you don't start driving or turn on the meter until he clears that hurdle. This guy, although he was taking too long to respond, was not so drunk that he couldn't tell me that 7th Street between Avenues C and D was his destination. So I started moving forward.

"Do you want to take the Drive?" I asked. We would either jump on the FDR Drive, a highway, or head down to Alphabet City on 2nd Avenue. The Drive would be faster.

No answer.

"Take the Drive?" I repeated.

I looked at him in the mirror. Oh, shit, he was slumping over. Immediately the possibility of three bad things presented themselves to me mentally:

a) he may vomit;
b) he may be so out of it that he doesn't realize that he has gotten into a cab and has no way of paying for the ride;
c) he may descend into complete unconsciousness and be unable to be awakened.

And now I was stuck with him. He'd given me an address, he'd closed the door behind him, and we were moving. I could think of nothing to do but hope for the best and take him where he'd said to go.

"I'm taking the Drive," I called out, knowing I was speaking to an inanimate object. I made a left on 79th and within a minute we were on the FDR's 73rd Street entrance ramp at the edge of the East River. The tension was mounting up within me. The biggest fear of the three bad things is a) above. Puke spilling out onto the back seat of the cab is a horror of Stephen King proportions to a taxi driver. But there are ways of trying to handle the vomit candidate and the best of them is to keep him talking. Unfortunately that wasn't possible with this guy. All I could do was get him to his place as quickly as possible in order to reduce his window of opportunity. So I picked up my speed and whispered a little prayer to the Patron Saint of Please Don't Throw Up In My Cab.

I took the long way to the Houston Street exit, knowing he wouldn't object, since it was the fastest way to get him there. In less than five minutes we were off the Drive and cruising up Avenue D toward 7th Street. I made the left there and steeled myself for what was to come - how bad would it be?

"So where should I stop?" I kind of yelled toward the general vicinity of the rear compartment.

Not surprisingly, once again there was no response.

I pulled the cab over to the curb, stopped, and turned around in my seat, fearing I would see the guy covered in vomit. But, hooray, there was none - just a human body lying flat on the seat in marinated slumber. My task now was merely to wake him up, a far better situation than having to clean up the former contents of his esophagus.

"Hey, buddy, we're here, wake up!" I announced.

He stirred slightly. There was hope.

I raised the volume. "Buddy, we're here - WAKE UP!"

He opened his eyes. Good man.

"We're on 7th between C and D," I said in a normal voice. "So where is your building?"

Arousing from his dreams, he looked around at his surroundings. I could see from the expression on his face that he understood that he was in a taxicab and that I was a taxi driver. So of the three possibilities listed above, he'd made it past a) and c). All he had to do now was tell me where exactly he lived and pay me the $16.30 on the meter.

"Where's you building?" I repeated.

He looked a me a bit oddly, not as if he didn't understand the words I was saying but as if he didn't understand why I would want to know. There's a certain stage of drunkenness in which the gears are turning but they don't mesh together and result in forward motion, like a car with a transmission problem.

"Your building - where is it?" I asked again, thinking if I rephrased the question I might get an answer.

"Go downa da cawna," he said, still half-asleep. This was progress. I drove down to Avenue C, made a right at the corner, and pulled into an empty space at the curb. Okay, I'd done my job, now it was time to get paid and be on my way. Time is money in my business. Or at least hopefully it is.

"It's $16.30 on the meter," I said flatly.


I looked at him again in the mirror and saw that his head was slumped over on his shoulder and his eyes were closed. The motion of the cab on our little half-block journey to C had rocked him back to sleep. He would have looked cute if he'd been a six-year-old boy.

"It's $16.30," I called to the back in a near yell.

He stirred.

"16.30," I repeated, calmly.

He now understood that it was his job to find either $16.30 or a credit card on his person and he began to move his hands around into various pockets in his clothing in order to accomplish this task. I sensed trouble but gave him the benefit of the doubt in my mind as I awaited payment. Like many drunks he probably had the money but didn't remember where he'd put it.

I waited.

A minute went by.

Turning again to the back seat, I saw that he'd suffered a setback in his mission - he was slumped over again with eyes closed. I would have to take control of the situation. God, how I hated this, you have no idea.

"Buddy, wake up."

He stirred.

"C'mon, it's $16.30 on the meter. You gotta pay me so I can get back to work."


Once again, his hands began searching. What was good here was that at least he wasn't trying to be evasive. I had no sense that he was going to try to beat the fare. From this we could progress. I still thought it was a better than even chance that I'd be paid.

So I waited.

Thirty seconds went by, but I could here the sounds of his hands patting himself down. Still hopeful.

Sixty seconds.

Nothing. Time's up.

"What's happening?" I asked in a not-friendly way.

"All I got is two dollars."

"How about a credit card? You have a credit card?"

"Uh... no..."


"You mean you got in my cab with two dollars in your pocket and no credit card?"

"uh... well..."

And with that he resumed his search of pockets and any other crevices he could get his hands into. I was pissed but not outraged. Again, I appreciated that he wasn't trying to bullshit me. He wasn't trying to tell me to "wait here while I go get the money" and then of course you never see him again. He wasn't trying to pay with just the two dollars. To the contrary, he was earnestly, albeit drunkenly, trying to find the money which was somehow mysteriously eluding him.

Still, I wanted to get paid. So I decided to do something that has proven to be remarkably effective in similar situations in the past. And that is, to get a cop. It is amazing how often a passenger is suddenly able to find his money when a cop shows up.

Now, New York must be the most policed city in the world. In most areas of Manhattan you can't stand in the same spot for more than two minutes before a police car drives by, even at two in the morning. This can be intimidating if you're a driver and you're worried about being pulled over for some stupid infraction. But it's great if you actually need a cop.

Sure enough, after about a minute and a half of watching in my side view mirror with one eye and and keeping my attention on my passenger in the rear view mirror with the other, I spotted a cruiser coming up slowly behind me on Avenue C. I opened my door, stepped out of the cab, and waved at the cops.

They stopped beside me. As always, there were two in the car. The officer sitting on the right rolled down his window. With that blank, neutral gaze that cops have when they're entering a scene, he asked me with only the expression on his face what was up. I told him the situation: passenger, probably drunk - $16.30 on the meter - two dollars - no credit card. In unison, they stepped out of the patrol car, walked slowly to the rear of the cab, and opened the passenger's door.

"Good evening, sir, the driver says you don't have enough money to pay the fare," one of them said, flatly.

My passenger, replying in a new found coherency, indicated that he was trying to find his money, it must be here somewhere. The cop said okay, find it. After another minute of futile hand motions, Mister Sobering Up Quickly admitted to the cop that all he had was two bucks. And no credit card. The officer suggested that perhaps he could call someone who could come over and pay the fare. And added that if he could not produce the required sixteen dollars and thirty cents that he would be placed under arrest for theft of services.

That will get your attention.

Like a surreal reversal of the hit TV show Cash Cab, my passenger had a shout-out with which to call a friend and beg for help. I could almost hear the sounds of quiz show music in the background as he nervously dialed a number and waited for a connection to come through. And then, good news, his friend was on the line. He told him the situation, adding that he was about to get "fucking arrested" for not being able to pay for a taxi ride. But his face turned from hope to despair as he learned that his would-be saviour was nowhere in the vicinity at the moment and could not help him out.

Perhaps he could call someone else, the cop suggested.

He could not, my passenger replied, since he didn't know anyone else who lived anywhere around here.

The jig was up. Like a condemned man about to walk the plank, he told the officer he was out of options and resigned himself to his fate. The cop who had been standing beside the first cop came over to me and started to take my information for his police report. Meanwhile the first cop was informing my passenger in a formal manner that he was about to be placed under arrest. He had him step out of the cab and place his hands behind his back as a prelude to being handcuffed.

It was an awful scene and I was not pleased with it as I did not perceive my passenger to be an evil person. In fact, I had come to kind of like the guy. I saw him as a basically well-intentioned individual who may or may not have a drinking problem. And I admired him for not trying to insult my own or the cops' intelligence.

Being hauled off in cuffs was way too much of a penalty here. But, on the other hand, I still wanted to get paid. I knew that if he was arrested I would eventually get a phone call from the precinct informing me that I could come down and pick up my $16.30. No one was going to sit in jail for very long before somehow coming up with that relatively paltry sum. I mentally searched for a solution to the problem and after a few moments I found it.

It was sitting on his head.

I turned around in my seat and called over to the about-to-be jailbird. With the first cop's permission he leaned back into the rear compartment to hear what I had to say.

"I'll make you a deal," I proposed. "In exchange for the ride, I'll take your Tiger's cap. Give me the hat and we'll call it even."

You have never seen the word "elation" better expressed than by the look that appeared on my passenger's face. His baseball cap was immediately placed into my possession and both his hands reached forward to embrace my own as he thanked me, thanked me, thanked me from the bottom of his heart.

"The offending party and myself have reached an agreement in this matter," I declared in mock seriousness to the officer standing beside me who'd been filling out his report, "and I consider the situation to be resolved." A slight smile appeared on his face, the only expression of emotion that was made by either of them. He closed his book and walked over to where the first cop was standing, who was already sending my passenger on his way.

And so, that was that. My passenger was released from custody, headed back toward Avenue D on 7th Street, and disappeared into the shadows, hatless. I thanked the cops and they, too, quickly vanished. I was left sitting there on the corner of C and 7th for another minute, filling out the details on my trip sheet and reflecting on what had just gone down. The truth is, it would have been enough of an exchange for me to just have been thanked so profusely like that. But now I had a new hat, to boot.

All I could think was one thing.

Go Tigers!


That, and one other thing: click here for Pictures From A Taxi.