Friday, January 6, 2017

SCOUNDREL SAVED MY JOB


It's half past six on a Saturday morning in January. The sun is soon to rise and the streets repose in slumber. I have an ominous feeling, since the shift began, that I'm fixing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel bad for leasing a taxi on Sabbath, the day to be in touch with a less limited reality. 

Stopped at a light in the Village, scanning 360 degrees for a fare, a meaty-looking young man in a suit steps out of a cab across the street and glances around for an alternate ride (often meaning the other driver refused an outer-borough or out-of-town destination). I am howbeit always up for geographical and financial challenges, and changes in scenery. Along with a mandatory 5-Boro street map, I carry maps of surrounding suburbs and even regional maps, in case of a jackpot fare to New England or Philadelphia.

I give my horn a few light taps and eagerly wave my hand out to him. He runs over and gets  in, catches his breath and politely asks if I could do him a huge favor. To chauffeur him around for a couple hours so he can run errands. He generously offers to a pay a flat rate in advance. His voice indicates he's slightly inebriated. I size up a wealthy corporate executive in his early thirties, seeking a patient and personable professionalism that has disappeared from this taxi industry. Since there isn't much to do until 9 or 10, except burn gas circling empty blocks, I accept gladly.

He borrows my phone to call up a friend in the neighborhood because his cellular died. His next request is that I manually enter a flat fare of 50 on the meter. The meter consistently regresses to its default setting, after 3 attempts to manually enter the requested amount. If a passenger is going to Kennedy from anywhere in Manhattan, by law they must only be charged a flat rate of 45. The last resort is to punch in this airport fare, which he's fine with.

Credit card readers have become a requirement in all local yellow cabs, and only the passenger can execute this transaction because the screen and swipe machine are located in the back seat. His card instantly goes through, once he tacks on a 100% tip. Surprised at the sheer bulk and immediacy of the transaction, I tell him this would be more than enough for his entire time in the cab. The last thing I want is my client to think is that I'm gouging the price. Laid back and carefree, he says he's not worried about it.

His first stop is just around the block to a spot where 4 men are hanging out on the corner. One of them steps in and they mingle inaudibly. After a minute, the door opens, but not before my beefy passenger remarks to his scrawny friend, "I saw Jesus Christ with the stuff you gave me last time. I hope this is just as good.” I knew then that he'd bought some sort of meditation medication (common for passengers on their weekend homebound journeys).

He then has me up in the Theatre District, waiting curbside, while he disappears into 2 different DVD porn shops for a half hour each, to "sell surplus laptops" on behalf of the company he's employed with. He offers me a job with them, taking pictures of merchandise and typing up descriptions, claiming I could make my own hours in between taxi shifts. His explanations are eloquently articulated and downright believable, despite his paltry intoxication. I always mention to clients that I'm helping my sister thru college, and he offers to "hook me up" with gift cards his company "hands out", so I can buy her textbooks. I sit still behind the wheel, engine off, pondering these offers while reading my book. His next stop is cigarettes and bottled water from a drug store.

Up until now his stories make enough sense for me to lend him a basic level of trust. He thanks me kindly for waiting and proceeds to pay me again with another of his credit cards. Any other driver would have kicked him out of their cab already for earlier reasons. But for me, the first true red flags are only now sinking in. As odd as it sounds not to flinch over a 90 minute spree of apparent porn patronage, used laptop vending, and illicit drug acquisitions, none of it had elements I hadn't previously encountered in 3 years of cab driving (anything goes in New York). You can expect every kind of human being, any age and of any background, engaging in any range of activities. That's part of what gives this city that inexplicably, perpetually energetic dynamic. So long as 2 personal rules of mine remain intact, I rarely get between my passengers and their agendas.
1. Nobody in my cab physically or verbally abuses anyone (save for narcissistic motorists). 
2. I'm paid fairly for my services as an efficient operator of a taxicab.

So the guy insists on another big-hearted credit card transaction because he had just "won seven grand in off-track horse race betting" and wanted to share some with "such a friendly cabbie." He then asks a wonky favor of me, which should have been the absolute deal breaker. He needs 50 dollars back in cash because his bank isn't open and his ATM card is malfunctioning. Are you serious?

Sir, these credit cards you're using in my cab are yours, right?”
Of course they are, what do you take me for?”

Thought bubble: don't want this businessman to have the TLC punish me for refusing to provide service and accusing him of theft. On the other hand, I don't want to be misconstrued as an accomplice if in fact....

I believe you sir, but just to ease my mind, show me those cards and your photo ID?”
OK, no problem. Hold on, lemme get them for you.”

He shuffles through a hefty variety of cards inside a small box until he finds the ones. Cardholder name matches on all 4 cards and although the picture's faded and scratched, it looks like him maybe 5-10 years ago. I take cash out from my bank and he enters 100 dollars into another successful, yet dubiously benevolent credit transaction. I feel extremely uncomfortable with him at this point. He borrows my phone a few more times and gets hold of a friend who agrees to come pick him up on the Bowery. His final request is to wait inside my cab cause it's cold out.

Meanwhile he pulls out a business card and uses a pen to scratch out the print, replacing it with his 'current' cellphone number and hands it to me. He still confides in me, even after my open suspicion. He says if I ever need anything, he's glad to help. This gives me a glimmer of hope that he is indeed who he claims to be. His ride pulls up and he hops in-- a sparkling new, pimped out SUV with all tinted windows and fancy rims, driven by a man whose face is almost entirely hidden behind a thick hoodie. When he screeches and peels out of there, I can't help but feel something's terribly wrong. I jot down the plate and almost follow after, but instead I park at the nearest gas station because my bladder's bursting.

Upon return, I check the backseat for rubbish (which I always do). I find a relatively massive mound of miscellaneous paper scrap, used plastic bags, empty wrappers and a tiny little discovery that will ultimately help detectives crack an ongoing case of pattern burglary. It's a business card, identical to the one he handed me, but with the original print. Nothing scratched out. Gut instinct says call that number just to see who might answer.

Are you so and so {name on the card(s)}? You weren't in my cab 5 minutes ago, right?"
Yes that is my name, and I've been home all morning, no taxi rides....”

Palpitating heart bubble: I have to tell this kid that I just met and lost his identity thief.

Your credit cards, ID and business cards were just utilized in my cab and I have the plate number of the vehicle they took off in. They may still be in the neighborhood. Call the cops right away. Let them know I intend to assist to the furthest capacity”.

I was burglarized 3 days ago and canceled my credit cards immediately. I've been in touch with local precinct detectives assigned to my investigation. It seems there may be several victims by now. I'll call the squad immediately and let them know you can help out.”

Turns out the police didn't find it useful to track down that vehicle right away. They were fixated on meeting to talk to me. I show up at the victim's place first, since his address is on the business card. He gives me a tour of what had unfolded in his apartment while he was in the shower. This guy had knocked on his door, claiming to be maintenance personnel, and the housekeeper had let him in. He'd gone upstairs and taken the college kid's wallet and laptop from his bedroom, and fled in a yellow cab, which seems to have been waiting for him. Not good for our reputation as a community of yellow colleagues.

This kid wasn't as emotionally distraught about his cash or credit cards as he was about all the coursework on his laptop that he might never see again. My heart ached on his behalf because I could just imagine how devastated my sister would be if it was her. She's also a college student in the city and among those I care most about in this world. I felt enormous guilt and self-disappointment over having let the perpetrator get away. I kept wishing I would have followed the intuitive impulses I'd felt throughout the fare. To pull up to any cop on the street and somehow relay the odd ongoing situation. But in later talks with detectives it was made clear to me that this would probably have sabotaged the final outcome, and the perp would have still been on the loose, stealing identities. Mind you I've never used the term "PERP" until I spent a whole day around cop jargon.

That morning my shift had begun at 5. My first hour of business had been excruciatingly slow. Only 2 fares of no more than 7 bucks each. The burglar was my 3rd and final passenger of the day. I reluctantly spent the remaining three fourths of my shift working alongside a squad of police detectives, polite and appreciative of my self-driven efforts. From the backseat of an unmarked car, I retraced the footsteps of the perpetrator, as we cruised along that morning's godforsaken route. The 2 detectives up front took notes, asked store clerks questions and requested still frames from surveillance cameras printed out. Sure enough it was him in the shots, matching up perfectly with estimates I had provided of times and locations.

Though by now I forget most of the parlance these detectives spewed out, I remember how fascinating it was to lend an ear to that hidden world and the way it made me empathize, perhaps for the first time in my life, with a police department. They proved to be plain simple everyday people who in fact had a heart under all that bravado. Until then, I had been exposed only to injustices by bully rookie cops with pounds of brainless beef.

By 1600 we return to the precinct and they order coffee and a burrito for me. We must wait for the crime scene evidence unit to show up and take swab samples of taxi door handles, since he was the last passenger in the cab. They swab the inside of my cheek too, so as to rule out any DNA that's mine, since I'd gone back there to clean out the trash. As 1700 approaches the detectives advise me to call my garage dispatcher and let him know the cab may not leave the precinct for another while.

“Yeah whatever, try to hurry up” (perhaps not believing the extent of it) is their response at the fleet. But between 17 and 1800 they call at least a dozen times, demanding the cab be brought back immediately, so that the outraged night shift driver can start his shift. One of the sleuths gets on the phone and chews them out right back. “Listen carefully, we could have this taxi quarantined for a week if you like! Just hold your horses (horse-hiring) and we'll get this guy (horse) homebound as soon as we're done, ok?” Taxi dispatch backs off and gives me no hassles upon a 100 minute late arrival. Night driver is a frustrated veteran of the avenues who expresses to me that he'd gone through far worse scenarios in previous decades of hacking (a token of empathy??).

Three nights later the top detective calls to ask if I can come in and look at more mug shots and try calling the perp at the number he had provided. It sends a chill down my spine, but I don't hesitate one second. He wants to meet in the morning. I plan to drive a shift, and he leaves our meet-up time up to me, so I said, “I'll be there shortly after 10a.m.. That way I can work the busy morning rush”. I end up not being given a cab the next day cause the queue of hacks (with seniority) is out the door when I arrive. Still, it turns out to be quite an eventful day in the land of gumshoe legwork.

I use the detective's landline to try the perp. Plan is to remind him of the ride on Saturday and the gift card offer for my sister's textbooks. Two tries and no answer. I'm thanked for my willingness and sent home until further notice. It seems so anti-climactic, as I had hoped to wrap up this investigation right then. I take a train back to Brooklyn and stop by my friend's apartment to pick up a collaborative art journal we'd been filling in. Three hours later I'm on a subway platform again (luckily overground this time) when the sergeant scout calls again. In the most absolutely urgent, yet utterly collected voice tone I'd ever heard: 

“Gil, Gil! We need you now! Where are you? Can we pick you up? Can you be here in 10? Catch a cab, I'll pay for it. I called the perp myself and he answered. I pretended to be you and asked if he'd hook up my sister with a gift card. It took him a minute to recall the cab ride, but he agreed to meet you in half an hour at... (a busy lower Manhattan intersection).”

I happen to be standing on an inbound subway platform, 3 stops out in Brooklyn. Train bound for Manhattan's approaching this second. I'll be on the LES in 15 max.” 

My heart's pumping and the short train ride feels like eternity, and a movie. I call the squad soon as I surface. I'm instructed to run in the direction they're driving from. Strobe lights spin and a siren screams as they run red lights toward me. Three ferocious undercover cops, fully tattooed and seemingly on steroids, sit in passenger seats while the detective steers the wheel. They barely make me enough room to sit down and we're off, strobes and sirens still blaring. Black, fully tinted Lincoln Town Car.

At first we drive right up to the block where he said he'd be. We roll down our windows and mix in with traffic flow, while scanning sidewalks up and down for him. Each cop in that testosterone-infested car must have asked “is that him?” about half a dozen times, all answered with my blunt “no, not him.” They jokingly name this "White Guy Wednesday" cause most of their cases so far today have involved white perps. I tremble with fear, not only of him, but of these rough plainclothes mobster cops. I look diligently at each of a hundred different faces on the street in a span of seconds, but none of them are his. The other problem is the detective kept losing him on the phone. Unclear whether poor reception or the man's own paranoia's to blame.

Two blocks away (from what was to become yet another personal "Ground Zero" of spots throughout the city where life-altering peak experiences have occurred to me) we go into some sort of Plan B mode. The detective pulls over, steps out into an active lane of traffic, and motions the first yellow cab to stop. Displays his badge and orders the shocked, elder Pakistani owner-operator out of his cab and into the unmarked car I'd just been in. I'm then instructed to get behind the wheel in the commandeered taxi. He only briefly explained to my senior colleague that this was a police investigation and that his taxicab would only be needed for a few minutes. It was among the most awkward moments in my life, begging my yellow grandpa to understand the situation and that I'd take good care of his deep cadmium yellow baby and give it right back. Not like he had a choice in the matter. I just felt embarrassed and horrified, imagining how I'd feel in his shoes that moment.

Detective jumps in the backseat and sinks low below windows while I drive back to agreed meet-up point. Every second is frantic and rushed. I'm instructed to pull a reckless and highly illegal U turn against the traffic light on a very busy street and then carefully running a red light on his command. It's all going down like an action film. I'm both loving and hating every minute of it, not unlike my entire 200 week relationship with NYC in general.

He manages to set up a precise street corner over the phone, where this guy would step into "my" idling cab, in exactly 5 minutes, and sell me a gift card for "half price". He leaves me with vague instructions and runs across the street to hide in another vehicle. Meanwhile, the mob cops hide in their car on yet another corner (with their innocent Pakistani bystander/hostage), blending in with parked commercial vehicles.

All of a sudden I'm alone, sitting in an unfamiliar cab, waiting for a high-stake suspect to show up and step inside. My only guideline is to call detective soon as I can recognize and guarantee it's the right guy, and say, “it's him.” Then hang up. I think to myself, dude will freak out and run before they can get here if he hears me say that on the phone, so I lock the doors and keep my finger on the call button. Out of nowhere he appears backdoor and begins assertively pulling on the handle. He wastes no time looking through the glass, making eye contact, and yanking more feverishly on the handle. The moment I execute the brief phone call, I hang up and unlock the doors. He steps right in, slams the door, and sits there staring at me like what the hell was that all about? I apologize and greet him as cordially as I remember treating him on that solemn Saturday, but my entire body quivers in panic and words don't easily coming off my tongue. He senses something's up.

Making matters worse, right then the elder cabbie walks up to the front passenger window and begins tapping and begging in a thick Urdu accent for me to hand him his cellular, so he can let his granddaughter know he'll be late picking her up from school. Somehow the mob cops must have got so riled up in locker room talk about how they were going to break the perp's nose that they didn't notice the old man walk off. Obviously I comply with his request as quickly, quietly and nonchalantly as possible. He walks away to make his call. 

Perp asks me what in the world was that all about and I answer calmly that he's my taxi partner and we share a phone. I then pull out my wallet and pretend to count my money in preparation for the gift card purchase. Meanwhile, he asks me why I was being so meek and that it was freaking him out. He looks out the window in both directions a few times and tries to hurry me up. Feels like a lifetime since I cued the detective and nothing.

All of a sudden they appear, creeping behind a sidewalk subway stair pit as they try making eye contact for a final confirmation. I turn toward them and nod my head in urgency. Sure enough he looks over and spots them too. That very instant he pushes open the street side door and bolts with his tote bag in hand, dodging oncoming traffic in both directions as he darts across the street. Adrenaline floods my instincts and I give chase, alongside the detective, who is warning me thru a faded, slow motion sound tunnel to stay back (which I slowly acquiesce to). The undercover mandogs run too, but lag behind with their heavy muscles. The perp pulls a few solid football moves, jerking about like an RB on a mission.

Once I see that the cops gain on him, I slow to a stroll and watch it come to a somewhat violent ending. He turns to look behind him and gives up when he realizes how many of them there are. Three more plainclothes cops had shown up out of thin air, and they all tackle him to the ground, before intentionally bashing his cheekbone into the sidewalk. I'm stunned by the brutality, along with hundreds of innocent bystanders walking and driving by all around. Perhaps we were in danger if this guy turned out to have a weapon.

I stand there watching until the detective notices and asks me to move so the perp cannot see me. They search his tote bag and find burglar tools and crack cocaine. My Pakistani senior walks over and is braced by my big bear hug. He freaks out for a moment when he notices that I left his front driver side door wide open unto a lane of traffic. I run over and close it. He takes off shortly thereafter, to pick his granddaughter up from school. Minutes later I'm back at the precinct, receiving verbal high fives from a gang of gumshoes. They egg me on about becoming a dick, but I keep saying I'm too pacifist to carry a gun. Head detective says if I ever need help with anything, I can count on him.

Back to my atypical routines of hackneying I go for the remainder of that week. My girlfriend then gives me a brilliant idea. I call up the sergeant and tell him about a little problem I'm facing in a couple of weeks. To make a long story short, I accumulated 11 points on my civilian driver license during a 15 month period several years ago, early on in my taxi career. Because of this, the TLC summoned me to taxi court, facing a one-year revocation of my taxi license. The past two years, hundreds upon hundreds of fellow cabbies had fallen into the same predicament, thanks to revenue quotas. Even veteran hacks with multiple decades under their belt, who've steered clear of tickets for years.

I've discussed the dirty politics behind this (in detail) on older posts, but the gist is..... due to steep increases in general unemployment, a massive influx of new applicants have saturated the TLC. New applications mean dollar signs. To make room for them, TLC digs deeper through veteran driver records to saturate TLC kangaroo courts. By doling out suspensions and revocations, they vacate the workforce and destabilize what little strength, solidarity, morale, work ethic and pride we had to begin with.

I'd already been tried and dismissed in October, due to the TLC's own clerical errors. Due to the mysterious filing of an internal appeal, I'm scheduled to reappear on the first week of February and my lawyer makes it clear there isn't much hope this time. Since 2006, I put every ounce of skill, innovation, determination, enthusiasm, and human warmth into every single taxi fare, sincerely caring more about my passengers' satisfaction than about my income. TLC's claim that I pose a danger to the riding public is outrageous. To let them snatch my hack license right out from under me for a whole year would have been a deep stab to the heart of what made up my identity during that period in my life. Especially while I tried so hard to save up money for necessary travel. 

This all is what I explained to my detective friend. He didn't hesitate to come testify and uphold my character in taxi court. Hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m., but by the skin of my teeth, I convinced the judge to postpone it for an hour so detective could arrive on time. She and the prosecutor kept poking fun at me, claiming it was simply a mathematical equation of points and timespan. It served no purpose for anyone to speak on my behalf. 

Nor did they really believe an NYPD detective would actually show up to defend some poor (g)runt like me, which next to never happens. Meanwhile, they held countless brief hearings for dozens of other cabbies in the room, each a merciless slaying of a hardworking person's access to hard work and dignity. Still, I held on to the smallest morsel of hope.

Soon as detective arrived, I introduced him to my taxi lawyer, who briefed him on the courtroom atmosphere. Judge saw us next, letting detective give his speech first, so he could subsequently depart the building on other important tasks. It went very much like...

Your honor, on behalf of the residents of New York and the NYPD, I would like to express appreciation for the relentless and self-motivated efforts of this cab driver in bringing a criminal to justice. He came to us out of his own accord and worked with us for several days, volunteering unlimited amounts of information, time, and putting his own safety on the line. We at the squad would like to see more taxi drivers like Gil on the streets of our city, serving and protecting our public to the best of their abilities. It was a pleasure and an honor working with him on an investigation. We could not have done it without him. Thanks, your Honor, for the opportunity to take this floor. That's all I have to share.”

Judge thanked him for commuting to her courtroom of his own accord. Soon as he left the room, an unfoundedly peculiar procedure unfolded. Lawyer began shooting off what few somewhat valid arguments he could scratch. Prosecutor interrupted him and judge allowed it. He and the judge engaged in a private dialogue that lasted several moments. I figured I was done for. Then the prosecutor returned to his chair, raised his head and his voice, and proclaimed that he would like to make an amendment to the summons. His speech was too thick with court jargon for me to comprehend completely, but the gist of what was happening is that the wording in the summons was intentionally twisted around so they could decide that there was no justification in revoking or suspending me. 
This summons has been hereby dismissed. You may pick up the print-out up front”.

Once outside the courtroom, my lawyer quickly claimed credit for this verdict, but I don't see how it could have been anything other than the detective's earnest testimony that got me off the hook. Don't get me wrong, he's the best taxi lawyer in NYC. He's the only taxi lawyer who actually used to drive a cab himself, and defends his clients with all his heart. It's clearly visible in his mannerisms, and if that's not proof enough, he's co-authored books about the adversities of driving yellow. So, for now, I'm still a valid taxicab operator, and all thanks go to a random chain of ghoulish events that turned out to be nothing short of a blessing, perfectly synchronized, as if delivered priority mail from the heavens.

What all this means is that from now on I'm going to drive the cab like a grandpa (most of the time). No more U turns. No more rolling through stop signs, even if it's 3 a.m. on a desolate stretch of road. No more split second lane shifts. No more left turns from right lanes. No more risking it in the "buses only" lane. No more cell phone. No more speeding up to a yellow light. I have no doubt that all this is going to translate into less tips during rush hour, less fares fitting into each shift, more annoyedly tardy passengers, etc. But I'll have the peace of mind that comes with the privilege of having a job no one can fire me from (independent contracting), where I create my own schedule (mostly), and which enables me to serve my beloved city to the best of my abilities.