Monday, December 29, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Last Friday some schmuck in a suit jumped in at Hudson and Duane. "33 Maiden Lane as fast as you can please", he begged with puppy dog eyes. This as I was attempting to fit a cup, brimming with blazing coffee, into a stiff holder. It squirted and spilled in every direction as I focused on playing hardball with the 1.2 mile stretch on behalf of my passenger. Upon arrival he blurted out, "you did a real nice thing for a really shitty person", which left me scratching my head. Maybe it had to do with his destination: the federal reserve?
Six bland fares later Lisa Foti, the owner/designer of a womens boutique jumped in on her way to work. She's suffering from dwindling patronitis, even though her prices are reasonable and her fashions optimal. She deserves to stay afloat.
Four easily forgettable fares later an offensively opulent, mid aged woman takes her sweet time getting in, covered in gold and diamonds, and smothered in shopping bags. The kind that tips the least of anyone. Just as we take off, an alluringly scabrous woman with a hefty rucksack who looks like she's with National Geographic stands on the roadside hailing the next cab. I should have known it would pay off to turn a blind eye on the name dropper in order to come across the swashbuckler. So for five Soho blocks I was trying hard not to forget that this indeed is a human being, who perhaps got lobotomized by top secret purveyors of greed, thereby having no recollection of her humanitarian nature. Upon turning unto southbound Lafayette we coast alongside a trio of double parked mack trucks. Suddenly she blurts out: "stop here, stop here!" With my tongue already chewed on and clenched, my response came out ruder than it ever had: "I can't triple park here BUDDY!" A nicer tone would have been, "I like to go out of my way to not be in the way.
Many of the cabs at my garage have blemished transmissions or delayed mechanisms. The accelerator doesn't respond at first, and when you bring the pedal further down towards the metal it jerks into action, thereby jolting the entire vehicle forward in one violent thrust. Not only must I endure this when a red light changes green, but also every single time traffic slows and speeds up. On days like this I have to explain to every passenger that I'm not having epileptic seizures, nor am I suffering from perpetual jackrabbit syndrome. A lot of times they don't even know what I'm talking about because they're totally accustomed to cabbies driving in this manner out of habit. No wonder half of the cabs are always on the verge of breaking down. We've forgotten it's a virtue to treat things as if they were ours, even if we're only borrowing them. I understand the spite felt towards acquisitive garage owners and dispatchers, but taking it out on the taxi hurts your fellow yellow colleagues the most. Oh right, we never had any camaraderie either. You steal my fare. I'll steal the next one's. It makes our roof cones look like dorsal fins. And our minds like that of a malnourished shark. And a City Harvest truck rolls by with a very fitting ad: "34% of New Yorkers have to choose between food and rent."
The holding lot at JFK has recently come under great scrutiny by many cabdrivers, due to it's new rule allowing wheelchair accessible taxi vans the privilege of going first, while everyone else sits in line for hours. It already was an almost abortive idea to stick around for a return fare after bringing someone to the airport, but now it's just preposterous. The city wants to become handicap friendlier by giving these van cabbies an incentive. But now the lane designated strictly for accessible taxi vans has become everlastingly packed with them and the dispatchers keep that line flowing interminably, while nearly 500 other cabs rot in deliquescence. So the last time I was at the Kennedy taxi hold might have very well been the last indeed. A crowd of us were standing near the management office, debating the situation. After a while two drivers proceeded to ask the head of dispatch how much longer they were going to keep us idle on behalf of the vans. One of them was Ethiopian and the other Nepalese. But both of them lifted up their shoes and pretended to aim at the management, which made everyone break into a roar of laughter and compliments for Bush over his sharp reflexes. Over 4 hours later I was released into Terminal 5, only to take this teenager home to South Ozone Park, literally 11 blocks away and a dime tip. I couldn't use my shorty pass because my mother's best friend needed a free ride from Midtown East to Newark Airport so I had to get back on time. You can imagine how substandard my income was that day.
Speaking of low wages, the other day, around noon, I picked up two ladies from the Port Authority. The daily lease and gas had taken 6 hours to pay off that morning and I had just broken even. We sat at a red light on 41st and Eleventh Avenue. When it turned green I drove forward slowly for a left turn. A textile merchant on his cell phone hadn't realized it was his turn to stop. His SUV entered the intersection at about 10 MPH. I braked and began blowing my horn. Inches away he noticed what was going on and slammed on his brakes, but still managed to put a big dent above my front right tire. It turns out he speaks Hebrew like me, but with a thick Persian accent. He begged me not to call the police and promised to work out a deal with my garage. I had no part in the fault, yet my net profit that shift was nearly zero. At least I didn't lose $800 in damages. I simply had to return the cab to Queens and go home for the day. Beware of New Jersey plates as they make their way towards the Lincoln Tunnel.
A payroll investigator by day. Macy's employee by night. She had me rush her between jobs extra fast in order to change into an all-black outfit. I almost told her that in the summertime a lot of teenagers change into their uniforms in the backseat, on their way from school to flipping burgers. She was definitely one of my more hardcore passengers, but probably wouldn't feel comfortable with that. Later on that evening I took the manager of a lounge home. We had a lively chat about our mutual love of ethno-mesh and he promised to let me in free whenever. At some point I was refueling on the corner of Metropolitan and Bushwick, when a Chinese trio behind me asked the clerk if any tire shops were still open. I ended up switching out their flat and they forced me to take a twenty bill. It did take nearly twenty minutes anyhow. From there I gave Daniel St. George a ride up to his studio in L.I.C.. Then a Bolivian bartender who moved here when he was 5 y/o (like me) home to the Bronx. Then Almanzo the Greco-Cuban ABC soap opera actor from Sheridan Square to Jersey City. Then an Asian-Australian Londoner to dinner with her friends. All these ethnic mixtures had the gamma waves of my prefrontal cortex buzzing all night. But the psyche of a cabdriver can shift quickly from carefree endorphin rushes to fight or flight adrenaline gushes.
I had just parked along the taxi relief stand on Ninth and 42nd. I was about to cross the street for a snack when a shiny new BMW reversed with maniacal force into the empty space in front of my cab, where I happened to be standing. He stopped just shy of sending my kneecaps into oblivion. Another yellow cab was trying to park in that same spot, designated by law as one of the only places in the city where taxis can park free of all hassle in order to piss, poop, eat, sip, and stretch out their cramped bodies. The cabbie honked incessantly, like a calf witnessing the slaughtering of his mother, but the BMW wouldn't surrender. I ran around to the driver's window and pointed at the official D.O.T. sign while explaining loud enough for him to hear through all the commotion and glass. By now the bums from the local homeless shelter were in on the riot and several bystanders were watching, including other (more browbeaten) cabdrivers.
The wealthy old suburban white guy (NJ plates) left his embellished wife in the car and got in my face, threatening to hit me if I uttered another word, which I did. He made a fist and swung his scrawny little arm at my mouth, causing my jagged teeth to slice a slit in my gum. All I could do is just keep repeating, "you're not allowed to park here because it's reserved for taxicabs who wish to go on break". He got back inside and peeled off. One homeless woman commended me for not punching him back. That's how much I love my hack license.
As if one unusual taxi tale per week weren't enough, here's another. I picked up this short Puerto Rican dude on Houston and Allen the other night. With slurred speech he said "150th and Amsterdam". During our entire ride up the FDR he kept asking if I wanted a ticket for not illuminating my name and picture on the partition. The bulb was simply drooping off to the side. He also accused me off trying to take a longer route because I'd made a U-turn on Houston in order to head towards the Joe DiMaggio, which I agree on hindsight was less than the best option (2nd only to the FDR). But I wasn't doing anything on purpose, and I turned back around to the east upon request. He kept piling on other offenses I was guilty of and assured me I was going to get written up. I was dumbfounded and he was looking more and more like an undercover TLC cop with each passing moment.
He called someone to meet him at the destination and mentioned my violations. Was this a prank that would eventually turn into a mafia hold up? At the end he said, "sit tight", and stepped outside. I immediately got out too and demanded my $25.00. He was on the phone again and actually directed a real life New York State Police car over to our corner. The officer got out and wanted to know WTF was going on. He clearly resembled my passenger, who kept pointing at the partition, demanding I get a ticket. I mentioned he had not paid the fare yet. The cop pulled out his wallet and handed me exact cash, and told me to get lost. Then he grabbed what seemed like his younger cousin or sibling and dragged him away, referring to him by his first name, and visibly embarrassed about the whole scene. No ticket. No robbery. And I even found a fare headed back downtown.
Quick note to fellow cabdrivers:
I've decided to post technical taxi/traffic information on a separate blog.
Figured I'd spare the rest of my readers the irrelevant advise. However, if you drive in NYC otherwise, you may find it useful too. Not that I have any sympathy for private motorists. I wish only buses, bicycles, delivery trucks, and taxicabs were allowed in Manhattan. Either that or DMV requiring a special license to drive inside the island, attainable only if you display a heightened sense of consideration for everything around you, the ability to merge smoothly/alternately, and a commitment to make full use of every square inch and be alert 110% of the time. Obviously a lot of so called cabbies would lose their jobs too. A, this ain't for everyone b.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Cabdrivers never quite know where along a random route someone might appear with their hand in the air, and where they might want to go. It's fascinating to come home after a long shift and use one's list of all the passengers who occupied the back seat to create an intricate map. It's like GPS tracking at the TLC, only more colorful. For example, the map on the uppermost center of the collage uses brown lines to depict when the taxi's meter was engaged and blue for the vacant moments. That was a busy day, apparently.
I had my first 'double shift' ever on Monday. That means I got to keep the cab for 24 hours instead of the usual 'twelve'. Carl Scorza was one of my 42 passengers that night/day/night, and one my favorites ever. We were talking about how heartbreaking it is to think of all the people twice and thrice our age who were slumbering in the 7 deadly degrees of wind chill. Somehow we got around to the topic of art. He paints panoramas of our city for a living. I told him about my collage journals and he agreed that some of these galleries wouldn't mind displaying blown up versions of my illustrated taxi routes on their walls. It's only a matter of style pattern proliferation and some self marketing. But whatever. I'm not quite the business mind. I don't scheme or contemplate things too well. I'm more of a doer. A determined donkey with a limited arsenal of unharnessed will power, geographic savant syndrome, and the kind of innate bounteousness that would take a bullet for you.
The least likable fare of that shift was this conservative German Jew who entered the cab around Turtle Bay at 15:30 and said, "I live near JFK so get on the QMT." He engaged in an avalanche of emotional discussions on his cellular the entire 90 minutes aboard, and even shut the partition on my face when I tried to communicate. From what I gathered, his wife was in the hospital, both daughters at home with a fever, and his father-in-law was not satisfied with the $5,000 donation he had made to their synagogue that morning. He interlaced his English with some Yiddish and even French at one point. It turns out his destination was Cedarhurst, a tiny suburb just on the Nassau side of the border. I wasn't entitled to have refused him, but he had known just how to manipulate me anyhow. He proceeded to pay with a credit card, but somehow brought the transaction around 180 degrees while I was paying attention to his disconcerted spiel, and printed a cash receipt. I found out at the end of the night. I'd been cheated out of almost 60 dollars.
The fare that followed him nearly made up for it. From Long Island I'd gone straight to the central holding lot at Kennedy. There must have been 400 cabs ahead of me, yet I was out on terminal 3D with a Korean Los Angelino in under half an hour. A hotel in Teaneck (NJ) was his destination and his googlemap printout said to take the Whitestone to the Cross Bronx (perhaps the most congested 'express'way in NYC). My radio was scraping in and out of clarity so I'd have to do without the reports. I took the GCP over the RFK, up the HRD, and across the GWB. Miraculously smooth in spite of the afternoon rush. That fare came out to 98 after his generous tip. I turned in at 23:00 that night. Could have stayed out until 5 am. Oh well.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Every so often a cabdriver will run out of change because an unbroken succession of passengers pay with 20 dollar bills. Other times a cabbie might have accumulated a thick wad of singles, fives, and tens... to the point it don't even fit in the crevices of the cockpit or shirt pocket anymore. But when all you have is large bills, you can't pick up another passenger until you've parked and gone inside an establishment to break a Jackson or two, or maybe even a Grant. The hot dog and donut carts are quite often unwilling and it can take forever to find legal parking. So my instinct is always to jump out of my cab at a red light and bum rush every taxi on the block, which usually works after the fourth or so try.
What I've discovered though, is that the nicest cabbies in New York are the ones from Tibet. Without fail, they're always ready to help. May their unique language and culture survive the onslaught of now almost 6 decades of foreign occupation. In this city there is a united nations of taxi driving. There are very few countries I haven't seen represented. I have close friendships with a Guinean, a Turk, an Uzbek, a Paraguayan, a Belorussian, an Algerian, an Honduran, and an Afro-Chinese American. We'll periodically call each other to warn of new police traps and bustling taxi stands. Or we run into each other at the airport holding lots.
If it were up to me, I'd be backpacking around the world right now. And that has been the plan ever since I graduated from high school. But no one on my mother's side of the family had completed college yet, so she badly wanted me to not waste time. I spent 5 years earning a degree and another 3 working odd jobs to pay off the loans. And now that the coast is clear, the economy is nearing collapse and my immediate family needs my financial assistance. So instead of using the taxi income to save for travel, I'm having to give every bit of it to my parents, so they don't go bankrupt. They can barely keep up with their debts and I feel as if I'm repaying them for having provided me with such a fantastic childhood. Meanwhile, my little sister is almost half way through college and plans to be the next Jean-Paul Gaultier or Vivienne Westwood. And she wants to utilize her fortune on improving the lives of others (including us), if only those filthy rich with a fashion sense still exist after she graduates.
Last week a Haitian woman who lives in the Pacific Northwest jumped into my cab at Kennedy airport. As we approached the Van Wyck Expressway I saw the total traffic standstill that awaited us up ahead. So I let her know that I taking the Conduit as an alternate. While trying to hear what 1010 am had to say about the L.I.E. and the BQE, so I could then choose between Woodhaven and Atlantic, she interjected with what would become a long metaphysical rant about using mind to manipulate matter. She more or less blamed my lack of spiritual strength for every thickening of cars we'd encounter. I do understand that our thoughts have more power than we give them credit for. Having studied Kabbalah for years, the concept of mind over matter isn't alien to me. But this woman seemed to lack a sense of humility about it all. She was almost conceded in her mannerisms, no matter how much I tried to not pass judgment. She instructed me to check out Ramtha and read up on the double slit experiment. Here's a cartoon video demonstration that effectively blew me away.
A couple days ago I was idling on Madison Avenue in the mid 40s. I always remain in the same spot when a passenger leaves. I jot down worthwhile observations or read a few lines for a minute, to advance in my book, and then glance at each mirror and window for prospective fares. If no one shows up within 60 seconds I'll merge back into the flow of everlasting fiberglass. But often enough someone does get in during that short span. In fact it's usually a better tactic than to instantaneously jackrabbit back into the continuum like most cabbies do.
This particular time four suits from Chicago knocked on the shell. I popped the trunk and walked back to load their luggage. All four of them were so happy-go-lucky and wide eyed, but started scratching their foreheads when I reached for their bags. In such a routine operation, I hadn't noticed that I'd forgotten about some cargo of my own. Two dusty old chairs that I'd salvaged from a dumpster were occupying the large tub of usually empty space. As I set them out unto the sidewalk to re abandon them, these lovely Illinoisians suggested that I place the chairs on top of the luggage. "But they're dirty!?!" They consulted each other for an instant consensus. I was going to end up keeping the chairs that I needed for the table I 'd found weeks ago in Queens. You see my mother had donated much of our furniture to the college kids who moved into our old apartment in Brooklyn. So we had to re scavenge the curbs.
Jill, an investment manager, got into the cab by where the viaduct sucks Park Avenue up into the Helmsley building. She was headed to a doctor's appointment precisely where the viaduct ends on the south side. We crawled above Vanderbilt and 42nd for almost 10 minutes to go the 4 blocks. She said something on the phone, so nonchalant and ruthless that it reverberates in my head. "....so did we get Margaret laid off yet? We've got to that a.s.a.p. if we want to remain...." No remorse. No human being on the receiving end, on the verge of losing what we, in this society, base our self worth on. Don't take me for a hopeless altruist or even a bleeding heart. I am one of those who believes that our economy has been based on air. On speculation and debt, as opposed to something more substantial, like resources and brow sweat. Perhaps it will take a total meltdown for us to rethink our roles and our purpose in life. Speaking of learning to appreciate what you have, Chop Shop is the best film I've watched this month. It's about this homeless kid in Queens who makes it work by being really resourceful and he even helps his older sister out.
The other day I was waiting at the garage to be assigned a taxi. It was around 2:30 am and there were about 4 other drivers sitting in the lounge alongside me, hoping to get a head start on their day shift. I started chatting with an older guy from Bangladesh, who was enthusiastic to teach me everything he knew about the history of his country. The catchiest thing about his lecture was his repeated use of the number 3,500. That is how many miles lie between Pakistan and Bangladesh if you go by sea, which is what they used to do when it was one country, because India was enemy territory. 3,500 is also the amount of princes in the Saudi government and the amount of nukes possessed by India, if I understood him correctly. Back when his country was known as East Pakistan, he served in the Pakistani air force. But one day they put him in a concentration camp on suspicion of being a spy. Long story short, we all were assigned cabs that morning and went on to toil and compete for customers on the streets of NY for more consecutive hours than your average human being can handle.