Friday, January 11, 2013

मैं नस्लवादी नहीं हूँ. मैं सीधा हूँ

Rust Street, Maspeth, Queens
Hello to the new cycle on the Mayan calendar. My affair with box trucks ended on the eve of Christmas Eve. Taxicabs aren't the jealous type so I came back without a hitch. I am mad at myself for not making time to go out and help volunteer at Respond and Rebuild in the Rockaways since the hurricane hit.

First passenger in eight months asks me how I'm doing and I respond with frankness. I must find a way to make more money and become more spiritual. It's a cliche and in my rare attempt to redefine myself I forget. She sighs, as if I were lost, and tells me not to fall into the human trap of needing something to believe in. Rich people think god is money. You should learn to be content with what you make. She concludes her sermon with an 8% tip.

80% of Mexicans in the Apple come from Puebla. One of them graces my cab from work in Billyburg to his unlikely neighborhood of Steinway, an Arab district in Astoria. He says of Colombians que somos muy cultos. We're cultured people. I say the same of Poblanos, but neither of us are willing to accept a compliment, each critical of his own. Around the corner I happen upon a gracious resident of Crown Heights who is black and gay. I bolt him home on the BQE and he leaves a 30% tip (to all you xenophobes who'll never serve the outer boroughs like I do).

On the topic of tips, it is important for people from unaware backgrounds to adapt to those cultural norms that hardworking people depend on for a livelihood. I'm not trying to single anyone out, but Indian Americans have a bad rep for this. I've witnessed it for myself innumerable times, while working in both the residential moving industry and the taxicab. I make it a point to provide them extra mile treatment, since kindness is the best antidote to negativity, but it often has no affect. In many countries it's uncommon and even insulting to tip. A service position somewhere with incomparably lower living costs may be able to get by on a pre-arranged wage (if one exists). Some people were born here but were raised in unintentional ignorance. Perhaps you're a recent immigrant and feel a need to conserve your resources (not applicable to recipients of affluence allergic to strap hanging). You may have been treated poorly by people who automatically assumed you wouldn't tip, and so you tipped according to their behavior, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of misunderstanding. Let's each take a step towards ending this by providing great service and appreciative gratuities that are not contingent on pre-conceived notions of one another.

That said, thank you Hanna, the South African girl from India (whose favorite song's music video is shot near where she lives) for dignifying my efforts with a 25% tip. You'd be proud to know that Amina Cachalia was being interviewed on BBC radio the moment you disappeared into Kennedy's terminal 4.

On the prelude to a later airport run, I had parked the cab in the Village and walked into three establishments before being allowed the dignity of #1. This one said no at first and then reluctantly shooed me toward the bathroom while stating,"is what it is, the boss is here." (boss reprimands humanistic instincts of his employees). Do not be flabbergasted to find a bottle of/for urine lurking in the front seat of a cab. Why can't there be a system where we show our hack license? When I came out to the sidewalk I saw a lady with a suitcase at the curb beginning to raise her hand. I sprinted over to her. "Need a cab? Mine's parked right over there. I'll carry this (luggage) over for you."
An Arab cabbie walked up to my cab in line at JFK and lovingly inquired if I knew of any 24 hour shift possibilities. I'm pleasantly taken aback every time I'm spoken to in Arabic. There couldn't possibly be a Jew driving a cab out in this godforsaken industry, except for those that pass for Arabs, a few leftover Schizoids, and one Mizraphrenic.

I picked up a newly wed guy on Wythe Avenue who was picking up a large picture of his spouse's that he'd snuck out to be framed at a frame shop as a surprise. We agreed to make a round trip out of it with the meter running and I'd like to thank him again for the 30% tip, and for aligning time and space to yield my next fare, a Japanese family to a Ramen place on Smith in Boerum, via BQE. I'd like to thank them for a 33% tip. No thanks to the following fare though. A NoLita numbskull, homebound for the holidays, to LGA in a firm flotsam flash, with an insulting 7% tip. From there I drove empty to Greenpoint and found a pleasant young man heading to Queens Center Mall to get his mom and sister gift cards for Christmas, and something for himself. He had that New York brand of mojo. The kind that's tough without being insolent, and he even volunteered to jump out on Woodhaven so I could turn again and break free from a gridlock of lethargic shoppers.

That allowed me to enter Queens Boulevard further down in Rego Park, where I instantly found a couple late to a reunion in Crown Heights. I gave them an estimate of $30 to 40. It came out to $28.50. Sadly I got a 5% tip. I feel like most cabbies wouldn't have accepted the inter-borough fare in fear of wasting time and money. I feel like my fare knew this and went from acting desperate for a ride to playing stupid with the tip. I did get a LGA out of it though, in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was an awkward trip with siblings from rural South Carolina who've been ever so slowly adjusting to the NY state of mind, and were on their way home-for-the-holidays. We agreed on not serving religion, in order to be of service to the creator. Unto Northern Boulevard after dropping them off and two Colombianas ran over in a rush to see Mary Poppins at Times Square, so I took some back streets and flew over the East River for these Judias Samarias from another socioeconomic planet.    

I gave an Gujarati cabbie commuting to his parked cab on Varick Street (from his home in Chinatown like me) a 50% discount. It was the only moment in the entire ride his face turned from a frown to a smile. He's been a driver for "not long." Twelve years actually. So modest, yet so disgruntled. Not happy living among "those people" (Chinese). They're "not good." I responded by silently forcing on his shoes. You can't understand someone's thoughts unless you walk in them. He has several children and a wife in a small space though.

A tall, lavish Norwegian woman hailed me at a hotel in Midtown just after experiencing a peak emotional moment in her life. She immediately got busy elaborately recounting a history she's had with the Jewish son of Moroccan and Russian parents (who had as many loose screws as her), while I drove her to Saks Fifth. Decades ago she lived in New York and dated him intensely on and off. She eventually moved to London, married a cold, robotic German, and raised children. While briefly in the Apple once she ran into her first love, and he begged her to stay, but she couldn't. Years later and divorced, she returned to find him (today), but this time he couldn't, and for no better reason than that his passion questing had dried up and he was now a rational middle-aged (Jewish) man. She laughed and cried and barely let me concentrate on driving. All along I thought she had this idea (not unlike my theory) that if one needs an on-the-spot shrink, one simply steps into a taxi and promptly begins their therapy with the driver, until she explained that the reason I was hearing this earful was because my Ashkizrahi eyes reminded her of him.    

Two elderly Jewish ladies amble in on Madison and unapologetically change their Upper East Side destination a couple of times. It's fine though because I remember them being mostly pleasant about it. Besides, I have no use for apologies. Their 60% more than makes up for any inconvenience. Mind you it is not common for old women on the Upper East Side to be anything but verbally harsh to a cabbie and tipping beyond 15% is unheard of. Upon arrival, I hop out, open their door, and help them out. The eye contact between us is that of oh, look at that.... we seem to both be Jewish. And with that exchange an awkward utterance of "happy holidays."   


  1. Your thoughts on tipping reminded me that in many countries tipping is not done. This is true for most of Europe. And, it's not because they consider it rude or an insult. It's because the compensation system is different (i.e. they are paid a decent wage and/or the tip is included in the prices charged for whatever). So, a large percentage of visitors will simply not know the 'rules' for tipping here in the USA; especially those who are just getting off a plane at JFK or Newark. The solution would be for the TLC or NYTWA to display or publish a handy guide to tipping in multiple languages. It would be best, for example, to include this information on those crazy yellow sheets they hand out on the taxi line at each airport. It's a simple solution and I would bet that even the TLC would be receptive. Someone just has to suggest it. Or maybe I'm just naive.

  2. Anonymous1/22/2013

    Beautiful! Glad to see you back up here; keep the posts coming.

  3. Anonymous2/01/2013

    Yeah, nice to read your world...welcome back from where you were. XO


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