Monday, March 8, 2010


It's always a mouthwatering mystery for the cabdriver to wait in line at the airport taxi lot, wondering who (of all the people stepping off their planes) is going to happen to be at the front of the passenger line (at the terminal) when the cab finally creeps its way up there (from behind a solid single-file stream of taxis). The most fist-clenching unknowns are....

1. Will they be going to Manhattan, just into the neighborhood adjacent to the airport, or all the way out into the land of rate 4 (double on the meter beyond city limits). This becomes especially relevant nearing the last 1/4 of one's shift.

2. Where did they fly in from? Perhaps they're foreigners, domestic tourists, here for a brief business venture, or just plain New Yorkers returning from trips with just as many variables.

On one particular episode in and out of La Guardia (NY's domestic flights hub), I was sort of on a roll (aside from the 2.5 hour holding lot delay and an adventurous incident with a college boy from Shanghai, who was studying Biology at SUNY in Stony Brook). It all began at 7:17 am on a Sunday last month. I shuttled an out-of-town couple to the end of their splendid urban vacation. I never learned which North American city they were from because all three of us were too tired to converse. Don't be alarmed. A fatigued cabbie doesn't allow themselves to be delirious, just cranky and quiet, with bloodied coffee eyes. By 7:30 we were at the terminal, thanks to the thoroughly unoccupied bridges of Williamsburg and Kosciuszko.

It wasn't until 10:00 that I was bestowed with a new passenger. Until then I had passed the time imparting a few tricks of the trade upon a young new duo of Sikh drivers from my garage that had recognized me in the massive central holding lot (though not as big as Kennedy's). The college freshman who rechristened my cab had moved from far eastern China to far eastern Long Island in the last year, to attend the State University of New York. The first thing he said upon entering, and kept repeating profusely in a thick Mandarin accent, was "30-09 Broadway in Queens, the Long Island Railroad please".

I'm always afraid of seeming as inadequate or as apathetic as the common cabdriver, especially because of my unusually youthful appearance. Therefore I always try to be as nimble as humanly possible about locating the destination in my mental map, choosing the best route, and merging into traffic.... all within seconds. But every now and then I'm either stumped or the request simply doesn't make any sense. This one was the latter. "Sir, I believe there are closer LIRR stations than that. There's one in Flushing and the main hub is in Jamaica. Where in Long Island are you trying to go?"

He immediately grew very concerned and robotically repeated the address, which as far as I could tell, was in Astoria. Why would you go that far west to catch an eastbound train if there were stations nearby? I started driving down Junction, making my way toward the part of Jackson Heights where Broadway begins, in case the address was (for some Queens-eccentric reason) down there, even though the logical location (according to the digits) would be by the corner of 31st Street in Astoria, (coincidently) where the N and W subway trains stop overhead.

That was one of the few shifts in which I forgot to bring my hefty sack of maps with me. Otherwise, I would have simply checked the MTA map for clues to decipher his intent.

He only got more nervous and less understandable, but he did finally mention that he was in fact headed back to school in Stony Brook (Suffolk County).

I drove up Broadway, all the way to the address he'd given me, all the while warning him that (as far as I knew) there were no LIRR stations in Astoria. I even shut the meter off way early and told him $16 would be his total fare (in an attempt to calm him down). When we got there I pointed at the elevated subway platform and told him that he could theoretically take a city train and eventually arrive at a commuter rail junction, but that it made no sense for him to have taken a taxi to that spot.

I pulled his heavy suitcase out of the trunk and threw it on my back. I assertively motioned and called him to follow me as I began walking briskly up the staircase with his bag. He tried to tell me it was OK and he didn't need my help, but I had to figure all this out for at least myself and my insatiable geographical curiosity, and he looked like he would've died carrying that suitcase to the platform. I glanced at an MTA local and regional map (back to back on each side) that an agent gave me. Sure enough, the LIRR station in Woodside would've been his best bet, followed by a transfer unto the Port Jefferson branch in Jamaica.

We had just been by that part of town less than 10 minutes ago and it would end up taking him the better part of an hour to make that connection aboard the subway. I pointed all this out to him on the map and offered to drive him back over there free of charge. He gave in quite easily and the whole mood of our relationship made a 180 degree turn. He displayed a very carefree and thankful attitude, as if all of a sudden he discovered he could completely trust in me. His welfare was my main concern (not my time or income).

He broke into a wide grin and started telling me all about how badly he wanted to switch majors to Chemistry and how much less complicated the train system was in Shanghai. He explained that google had given him that erroneous address and that I was "a very warm-hearted person." Actually, nope. I'm merely setting an example of the way I'd like all of humanity to behave. Loving my neighbor as myself, as the saying goes, because that is life's main purpose. At the end of the trip he offered me an extra $10 bill. I took it because one should not block another's opportunity to give, or take, for that matter.

From Woodside I returned to the airport empty because I had a shortie pass. These are slips of paper that the airport taxi dispatchers hand out to cabdrivers when the fare isn't going beyond Queens. It enables the driver to return and get a new passenger without waiting in the enormous lot again, but it must be done within 90 minutes (more than enough time). Otherwise, waiting that long the first time would have been severely detrimental to their total net profit for that shift, and cabdrivers would be less likely to stay and serve the arriving flights upon shuttling over departing ones.

I bounced right back out of the airport with yet another college student. I guess this was the big end of winter break for all the area schools (of higher education). She goes to Parsons and lives in Williamsburg, just like my sister. I asked her to let me guess the city she had flown in from by telling me the first letter.

"I had one lay-over and the cities start with 'V' and 'M'."
I scanned the U.S. map in my head, since La Guardia is 98% domestic flights. I could only think of Minneapolis and the 'V' must be some small town in Minnesota?

"I'll give you another hint. The flight came in from the north."
"Oh yeah, Canada Air goes here too! That's easy then. Vancouver and Montreal!"

She had been skiing in British Columbia over the break and her father's company, Nestle in London, was sponsoring both her education and her vacation. For this she was grateful.

After dropping her off on Bedford and South 4th, I decided to drive up the main drag of local artisans, on my way back to the airport empty again (since I had yet another shortie pass). The plan was: if I picked someone up going into Manhattan, that would end my airport love affair. But otherwise, La Guardia was shaping up to be my pin ball machine for the day. I had one hipster take a ride just down the street with a couple buckets of paint. Then I found myself heading to the airport empty again. On the way there I tuned in to a lovely new musician's NPR debut on the radio. I got to indulge my ethnomusicological obsessions by learning about Zee Avi, who mixes Malaysian and English lyrics with beautiful acoustic/ukulele skills. Two of her must-hear songs are "Bitter Heart" and "Kantoi." You can watch these on YouTube.

I came back to LGA and got a slightly uptight couple heading to Brooklyn Heights. From that same neighborhood, I picked up a nice man going to Windsor Terrace. Then I cruised vacant through Park Slope, en route to Manhattan, when I picked up a trio from Dallas who needed a ride to the Waldorf (hotel), to get their luggage, and then onward to EWR (Newark Airport).

So after all those Brooklyn/Queens fares in a row, I was finally shot back into Manhattan by the same passengers who shot me right back out of the island again. And they happened to be friends with Derek Lam, the fashion designer who gave my sister an internship a couple of summers ago, after his partner got a ride to work in my cab one morning (my greatest serendipitous networking breakthrough to date). I know these all sound like a whole lot of tangents, but I'm just trying to point out how evident the interconnectedness of everything is in this profession of mine. I love it!


  1. Hey Cabbie, what is rate 4?
    It's really interesting to learn about professional details like shorty passes.
    What did you mean by this, "by the same passengers who finally towed me in"?

  2. My biggest question is how did you work through the Newark ride from Brooklyn to the Waldorff. Did you start the meter at rate 3? or did you go rate 1 until the waldorff and then start the meter again, or did you just negotiate with them that you were definitely taking them from the waldorff and set up a whole flat fare from there? Did you actuaal take them to newark from there? and if so how did the doorman handle it, everything was cool?

    okay now aside from that the handling of the guy who wanted to go to miscllaneous lirr station was very cool, I would have been completely perplexed, I can't even figure out the queens addresses I suppose I would've asked him if he knew the name of the station he was going to, but sheesh, sounds like he wasn't able to help much. Congratulations on another triumph of converting a situation into something natural and so on, and so forth.

    and keep it going with the blog for sure, i can just feel the people needing these blogs, just waiting to get a good story, they're so patient, and I just know that good fortune will come as a blog in this genre gets daily.

  3. u r very humanitarian. I appreciate ur efforts for peoples.
    I once had 5 shorties from JFK before I got one to manhattan the good thing about them were they were all brooklyn and were all 40+ and on top of that tips made, it all equal to Manhattan, me glad :D
    yes the background is perfect now. previously I had to stop several times and get my head/eyes straight before staring on the post again, thanks much appreciated
    be safe out there.


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