Everybody has their war stories, go-to cocktail palaver, one-up material to out in conversation to pull focus, spark a flagging dialogue, test the waters with a new acquaintance, or, if necessary, shut down some gasbag. I have some good ammo: an extreme rural upbringing, a one-room school with outhouses, no less (not exactly Butcher Holler, but still), professional actor (though this can cause people to glass over when it turns out to mean Shakespeare or Moliere in Pittsburgh and Cleveland), lived in NYC (from Mars), wine consultant (ditto), bartended in NYC (ehh, used to have more cachet before everyone became a bartender), owned a café in Portland (loser), lifeguard at a pool in a mafia club (that’s a story I need to be careful about), drove a taxi in New York…people are all ears!
As most of my odd jobs (some very odd, indeed), I got turned on to them by an acting pal. Dawber, a bright, well read, astonishing actor, one of my best friends for years, drove for a garage in mid-town and encouraged me to get a hack license. Work as much as you like or part-time. I did. You go to the TLC, Taxi and Limousine Commission, take an exam. Pay a bunch of fees. Our garage was on West 55th. (The exterior of the one you see in Taxi was in Greenwich Village, and our main competitor in Manhattan.) There were two shifts: 4 A.M. or 4 P.M. You showed up a few minutes before the beginning of a shift, handed your hack license to a dispatcher, he assigned you a yellow cab, gave back your license to display on the dash, and a hard stock trip card, on which you entered the details of every fare: where and when you picked them up and dropped them off. These days, I think it is computerized. Drivers had to gas up before turning a car back in, so you were ready to roll. They wanted you out on the streets. Part-timers got the crappy, beat up buckets that rattled and shimmied, with an indentation in the driver’s seat as deep as a winter pothole; wonderful for your lower back. They were mechanically sound, because the company needed them to run. In those days there was no air-conditioning in the low end of the industry. New drivers got 56% of the fare, plus tips. With seniority the percentage got higher, as did the quality of the car. I never saw that. I had a cigar box, the chosen chalice of cash, and a few pens. That was pretty much it. You could wear whatever. I would stop at the outdoor public swimming pool in the Village on 7th Avenue on sweltering summer days, and for 25 cents take a quick dip in my cutoffs, cooled off, and dripped dried in the cab. In the winter, I might go by another actor chums place. He was a recluse, so he never got work. I think he sold weed as he always had a joint going, which is why I stopped. That and the hot, strong coffee he constantly brewed.
I don’t recall how long I stuck at it, maybe six months? Enough to sour me on the profession and respect the people who do it, though it can be hard as a passenger when some ass takes you through midtown at rush hour instead of going a bit East or West to avoid traffic or chooses a longer route to the airports. Anyway, as a rider, you are the boss, and when you get in tell them how you wish to go. It’s like getting onto a horse. They’ll know if there’s a fool on their back and will take advantage. One thing I got out of the job was learning New York, the boroughs, boulevards, and parkways, the bridges, short cuts, theaters, taverns, hospitals, and other things, too.
I about died stopping for a fare in front of Lincoln Center, figuratively, I mean. As it happened, I was hailed by my new agent, my first important agent. There was nothing to be ashamed of, clearly, I was not the only out of work actor driving a hack in NYC. I wanted her to see me as an up and coming, not a down and out. She didn’t get into the cab, but put a girl friend, or client, in the back seat, closed the door, and leaned to my open front passenger window. “Be sure you get her home safely, Driver!” she ordered. I kept my face turned away and hoped she didn’t read my name or see my picture on the license, which, she would have done if she were sincerely concerned. (Punk’d!) After receiving her stern instructions, I decided not to rape her friend in Riverside Park. That incident bothered me on so many levels.
In the dark of the morning I picked up a couple coming out of a club in lower Manhattan. They gave me an address in Brooklyn. Pretty fresh on the job, I was a little nervous to leave Manhattan, though I knew Brooklyn a bit, having operated a gas station there. (Talk about your odd jobs.) About half way over the Brooklyn Bridge, my eyes began to sting and I was overwhelmed with a strong and pungent odor. I began to panic they were trying to drug me into a stupor with some kind of emanation, and I’d slowly succumb, but not before safely pulling over, where they’d take my cigar box. I got them home with no incident. A few days later I smelled the same scent in the Village and learned it was patchouli oil. I was embarrassed at my paranoia. I felt like the batty aunt in the James Thurber story who would always put her jewelry outside her bedroom door at night, accompanied by a note: “This is all I have. Take it and please don’t chloroform me.”
One spring evening, I was racing up 3rd Avenue, on a slip stream of greening lights, and a young blond woman’s arm went up on the left side of the avenue. I easily threaded through the bit of traffic at that hour and pulled up sharp, put my head out of the window, and kissed the fare on the mouth. Her friends looked startled until they realized, out of the 15,000 cabs in NYC, the woman, coincidently, happened to have hailed her husband. Her sister was standing there. I should have been kissing her.
In midtown during a midday shift, I picked up a hippy executive, long hair in a business suit with an attaché in hand, and drove him a few dozen blocks to an address on Broadway. He got out as if to get to his billfold, but turned and ran, his limp hair a little flapping cape, and disappeared into the crowd flowing in and from an office building. Obviously, he had practiced this maneuver. I wanted to give chase and strangle, but I knew by the time I turned off the car, rolled up the windows, and locked up (because you don’t leave anything unlocked in NY) he would be on the 9th floor, or around the corner. Nice guy. Rip off a kid driver for four bucks. I didn’t profile, for the most, even after the black whore stiffed me when I took her from 9th Avenue in Manhattan to the South Bronx, a thirty minute drive. At least, the bitch covered most of the fare with the fistful of money she shoved at me, unlike dirty hairy. Angry, scared, and impotent in the Bronx, out the time and tip, I slammed my hand into the roof of my car. A screw holding on the taxi top light punctured the skin. The next morning, when my wife saw it, I told her I’d been shot. She started to cry. I apologized, and told her the truth, but she was shaken. Pathetically, I was trying to make her feel guilty for the situation of, what, my life?
On a night ride to Kennedy my directive was to get to the airport as fast as I could. I had picked up the well dressed young man in front of the St Regis Hotel. I was still new at it but you learn the routes to the airports pretty quickly, and at 10 o’clock the traffic was minimal. New York does sleep. Maybe it had more to do with the bone numbing vibrations of my jalopy than Knieveling, but when I pulled up to the Pan Am terminal, he paid the fare and handed me the biggest tip I’d ever seen. “Thanks for the ride,” he said. “I’ve never gotten here so fast!”
New York, whether it’s the greatest city, I can’t say, but it is an amazing collection of humanity, and if you live there long enough, you’ll witness as much as you care to see. More, if you look in the rearview.