Memoirs of a New York City Taxi Driver

It was all I could do to keep myself from fucking up the guy with the Knicks sweatshirt at the restaurant table next to me.

“Can you believe these guys want a fare increase?” he asked.

“Fucking A!” his friend with the Syracuse baseball cap farted.

“None of ’em understand English; they never know where they’re going.” Such brilliance from someone wearing a vinyl “Cats” jacket.

I refrained from breaking the Heinz 57 bottle over his head. How could these morons know anything different? They’ve never been held up. They’ve never driven twelve hours through pouring rain – without windows. They’ve never driven a taxi in New York. Some people are blessed with perception, but most people need experience to make them complete. I know I did.

In The Beginning
I started hacking in 1984, when I was 21. I’d just been expelled from Columbia Engineering for either disciplinary or academic reasons – my dean couldn’t decide which – and my girlfriend wasn’t returning my calls. It was a shitty summer for a would-be idler. It was overcast, grimy and there wasn’t a ray of sun for the beach-bound. My back rent was piling up, and the housing judge told me he wouldn’t grant me any more delays at my next court date.

I needed a job.

I’d taken the hack license test a year earlier on a lark. I was one of those geeky out-of-towners who gets caught up in the idea of New York City and develops an obsessive need to know it inside-out. I’d heard of other kids at college who made good money, sometimes as much as $300 a night, driving a hack. I liked the idea of not having some asshole boss breathing down my back about how long I spent in the shitter.

I spotted an ad for drivers in the New York Post and showed up for “shape-up” at the Dover Garage at 6 pm. Dover is known to TV viewers as the place they show in the opening credits of the “Taxi” sit-com.

A degrading experience straight out of The Bicycle Thief, a shape-up involves waiting around for one to two hours in a dingy garage hoping there’ll be a beat-up piece-of-shit taxi left over after all the regular drivers – full-timers who pay by the week and part-timers who have been around a while – pick theirs up first. There’s no guarantee this loitering will pay off, although looking earnest and waif-like, a trait I’d perfected as a child, seems to pay off. After two fruitless waits, I was issued my first cab.

Problem gamblers are created by their first experiences: A big win the first time out leads to a lifetime of attempts to replicate that happy incident. My first time out in a New York taxi got me hooked. I drove all night, until 6 am, taking out an hour for a cheeseburger deluxe-and-a-Coke, chatted with some devastatingly cute club girls, got some big tips. I went home with $250 in balled-up, greasy fives and singles – all of it tax-free.

The Faceless Man
The biggest concern of a cabby is safety. New York police don’t investigate cabby murders, you’re not allowed to pack a gun and most cabs don’t have effective safety barriers. You’re on your own, and have to look out for yourself as effectively as you can.

I took a number of precautions, particularly because I drove night shift. Other drivers were my main inspiration. For instance, my colleague Alex took out cab No. 1L88 one night. He stopped at a burger place under the then-elevated West Side Highway, which ran along the Hudson River. Upon his return, an assailant was waiting for him in the back seat. The second he was attacked, Alex reached under his seat, found the tire iron he kept there and swung it backward as hard as he could, hook side first.

“There was this tug,” Alex said, “so I pulled back. I heard a tearing sound.” Then he heard a horrible scream, the back door opening and someone running away. When he turned around, there was blood all over the rear windshield and the back seat. There, in the middle of the seat, was a flap of skin with eye and nose holes. It was the mugger’s face.

I saw 1L88 when it came in the next morning. There was still blood smeared across the rear windshield, but that hadn’t stopped Alex from picking up fares all night.

“I wasn’t going to lose an entire shift fee over that douche-bag,” Alex said.

After that, I always carried a tire iron under my seat.

Control Freaks!
I was the king of my cab. Women in particular were interested in altering my personality during the perhaps six minutes we spent together in my ‘84 Caprice Classic. Inspired by a sequence in the film Stripes, I dealt with a woman fare who insisted on smoking all the way to Kennedy Airport by ejecting her in the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge. Another time, I picked up a woman at the Palladium nightclub who plopped in and announced:

“We’re going to Brooklyn!”

While Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) rules specify that cabbies must take passengers anywhere they want to go within the five boroughs that comprise New York City, reality is a different thing entirely. When you pick up 45 people a night, you quickly detect patterns in human behavior. Of all the possible destinations in New York, Brooklyn may the worst for a taxi driver for the following reasons:

-No matter what the fare, Brooklynites only tip one dollar.
-Most sections are incredibly dangerous.
-There aren’t any decent highways, so getting back to Manhattan takes forever.
-It’s impossible to get a fare back.

For cabbies, time is money. You’re shelling out $100 for a 12-hour shift, so you need to make $8 an hour before you start to see a dime of profit. If you’re dicking around Bed-Stuy with some deadbeat fare for a dollar tip, you would have been better off sitting in a diner sipping coffee. If the city really wanted to ensure cabbies would take people to Brooklyn, they’d make it a double-fare zone. Until then, Brooklynites should get accustomed to subway gangs.

I told the Palladium woman to get out of my cab. She yelled at me and took down my hack license number and taxi company name. In the Eighties, cabs had a fake company name on their doors for this express purpose – this night I was apparently an employee of Asparagus Cab Corp. A few weeks later, I was summoned to Taxi Court, deep in the fluorescent bowels of TLC headquarters at Times Square. My boss wrote a letter certifying that I hadn’t driven that night and advised me to show up in my best Brooks Brothers suit.

“That’s him! That’s the creep that wouldn’t take me to Brooklyn!” the plaintiff spat at me.

I stared at her quizzically as if examining a bug.

“I’m sorry about what happened to her, Judge,” I said. TLC judges like to be called “judge.” “But whoever turned her down wasn’t me. I always go wherever I’m asked.”

“Liar! Fuckhead!”

“I wasn’t driving that night.”

“It was you, you fucking liar! Scum!”

“A lot of these passengers, they think all cabbies look alike, your Honor,” I closed. “While I am distressed that some vile driver refused her request, I cannot accept responsibility for this offense.”

Case dismissed.

Two Jobs, Two Lives
Like most part-timers, I drove around half-asleep most of the time. During the day, I worked full-time as a trader/trainee at Bear, Stearns & Co., the brokerage firm run by New York’s cheapest CEO, Alan C. “Ace” (he gave himself the nickname) Greenberg. Ace paid his clerks $10,000 a year. This way he could afford to pay himself $20 million.

I’d work like a demon from 8:30 am to settle my trade tickets so I could skip out at 5:30 pm and rush to the garage. I drove from 6 pm to 6 am, caught an hour nap at home and went back to work. I made more in one night of taxi driving than I did in a week at Bear Stearns ($160 after taxes), but I needed health benefits and a desk job that might lead to something better. One night I was so dead tired that I drove forty blocks – two miles – down Seventh Avenue completely asleep.

One evening I picked up an older, graying suit. He asked me to talk about myself. He recognized my voice; he turned out to be one of my day job clients. Appalled at my shitty salary, he offered me a job at his firm in eastern Connecticut, but I never followed up on it.

The vast majority of my passengers were businessmen and young couples. I only encountered notable people a few times. One night I drove Roseanne Arquette to her apartment in the trendy Chelsea district; she was really nice and unassuming. She even gave me the phone number of her realty and recommended her quiet, tree-lined block as a great place to live. Another time I drove Jimmy Breslin and an equally rumpled companion through Central Park to the Upper East Side. He was a nasty, rude son-of-a-bitch. He reeked of beer and didn’t tip for shit.

I ran into Woody Allen – literally – near NYU. His limo pulled out of a side street right in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time and creased his front fender. As the limo driver and I finished inspecting the minor damage and decided not to report it, the Woodman (I recognized his glasses) hopped out of the back and started screaming at me: “You stupid fucking asshole! Pull your head of your ass, cocksucker!”

I took the high road, never responding to his tirade. When he had finished, I looked at him straight in the eye and said: “You haven’t made a decent film since 1973.”

Near Death Experiences
Getting mugged is a fact of life when you’re a cabby. Criminals know that you carry as much as two or three hundred bucks at any given time, so you have to take precautions. Whenever I happened to be on the West Side of Manhattan, I stopped by my apartment building and dropped my spare cash into my mailbox. I kept my crowbar handy, and applied for a gun permit.

Nonetheless, the best thing you can do is screen your passengers. I quickly learned that picking up black people wasn’t a good idea. Racism had nothing to do with it; it’s just that most blacks in New York live in shitty neighborhoods. The odds are that your passenger will leave you in peace with a nice tip, but stopping at red lights at intersections where all the lights have been shot out at two in the morning is another matter entirely. Early in my career, I dropped off a well-dressed black couple in Bed-Stuy, arguably the most dangerous area in the city. A block later, I was surrounded by a pack of guys with two-by-fours. I escaped by flooring the gas and aiming at the biggest one.

New Yorkers follow patterns that make screening easier. The leather-clad club girls on Second Avenue in the Village at 1 am are going to Brooklyn – always. The fur-bearing crones hailing you outside Lord and Taylor’s department store hail from the Upper East Side, a sure bet for a Depression-era 20-cent tip. Men tip better than women, poor people better than the rich, West Siders better than East Siders, West Villagers better than East Villagers, Wall Street businessmen better than Midtown ones, Queens residents better than Bronx ones. I tended to receive good tips because I was young, white and clean-cut. A lot of people acted as if they’d happened upon King Tut’s treasure when they entered my cab. “Hey! You’re white!” they’d smile. “Hey! You’re racist!” I’d reply, wondering at my own reluctance to pick up black passengers.

Passenger screening improves your odds for safety and profitability. But when you pick up 45 fares a night, 3 nights a week, 50 weeks a year, it’s unavoidable that one of those 6,600 people is going to fuck you up.

In my case, it was a young white guy on 101st Street, a dozen blocks south of the Columbia campus. This was in 1989, at the height of the weekly cabby murder era. For the past several weeks, a serial murderer had been leaving dead drivers in their cabs along the West Side Highway. The latest one had been robbed and shot in the back of the head at 97th Street a week earlier; I saw the execution scene on the front of the Daily News.

This guy looked like Charlie Sheen in a white shirt and tie. It was ten at night. Probably going to see his girlfriend. Nothing to fear.

We’d driven four blocks when I felt the gun against my right ear. “Pull over and give me your money.”

The Daily News photo flashed across the windshield. We were at the same exact corner. The dead cabby hung out the open driver’s side door into a pool of blood. He’d been a husband and father of two in Rosedale. I immediately knew that this was the guy who’d killed him. His voice was terribly calm, self-assured, relaxed, bored. This was routine business.

I sucked in a huge gulp of air. I let it out: “FUCK YOU!”

I floored the gas and headed down the street, running lights and honking my horn.

“Pull over! Give me the money!”

I had nothing to lose. If I complied, he would rob and kill me. I’d never been as certain of anything in my life. I decided to take him with me.

“You chose the wrong cab, you fucking asshole! Bet you didn’t know you were going to die, did you? Better get used to it, shithead! You’re going to die tonight! You’re going to die! I’m going to hit a building! I’ll drive off a pier!”

I continued in this lunatic vein all the way down the street, veering over to the wrong side of the street, while my attacker kept screaming for me to stop and give him money, that’s all he wanted, he’d leave me alone afterwards, all I had to do was pay him the money, I had nothing to worry about.

Our balance of power had dramatically shifted by 50th Street. Now he was begging me to let him out. I was searching for something to slam into at an angle that would hurt him more than me. Finally, I relented.

“Let me out! Forget it! You’re nuts!” He was really scared.

“Throw out the gun first.” He did. I slowed down to 20 or 30.

“Jump out! I’m not slowing down anymore!”

He opened the door. When he jumped, I swerved to the side of the street and sped up. I heard a deep, sonorous “bong!” and kept driving.

After composing myself, I circled the block and returned to the spot where my attacker had jumped, a half-hour later. Two EMS technicians were busy loading up my assailant.

I rolled down my window casually. “What’s up? What happened to him?”

“Guy got tossed from a moving car. He’s really bad. Hit his head on a lamp post. Ugly.”

Incidentally, the wave of cabby shootings along the West Side stopped.

Price-Gouging for Fun and Profit
Driving a cab is a miserable job. Whole nights go by without decent tips. There’s nowhere to take a piss, except for dark Chelsea streets and diners where they’re nice to cabbies. You suck up vast quantities of exhaust and come home reeking of gasoline vapors.

So it’s only fair that natural disasters and human desperation often compensate cabbies with big windfalls. New Year’s Eve is a prime example of this. Although not as common as it was when I was driving, the practice of driving around with the “off duty” light guarantees vast profits. I charged $20 “off the meter” to go cross-town on New Year’s, $50 to go north and south and refused all outer-borough fares with a vengeance.

It is also possible to make your own opportunities. My niche was cruising the grimy streets of Alphabet City in the East Village on rainy weeknights where there are no cabs to be found. Trendoid club kids hailed me, wanting to go to the nearest subway station – a $3 or $4 fare – and I’d charge $5 per person for a group of four people. They’d always say “no way.” I’d drive away slowly. Invariably they’d start yelling, “No, wait! We’ll take it!” They were terrified of crossing Thompkins Square, which at the time was a homeless encampment.

The Drowned and the Saved
Hacking is a test of survival. Looking back at the many cabbies I knew who died during the brief period I drove is to realize that it could easily have happened to me. Sasha was a miserable asshole. He had too much facial hair in places where there’s not supposed to be any and a habit of cutting the shape-up line. So maybe it was his fate to get held up in East Harlem in 1985. Two muggers shot him through the back of his head, causing him to veer in front of a truck coming off the Triborough Bridge. They escaped the wreck, but got pummeled by a crowd of pedestrians until the cops came.

My friend Dave, who had attended Columbia with me, worked at the same garage. We were supposed to have breakfast together after our night shifts on a Sunday in July 1986, but he never showed up. The street cleaners found him Monday morning, when he refused to move his car to the alternate side of the street. He was slumped over the wheel on a side street in East Harlem, a block away from where Sasha died. He was an English major, a freelance artist, a really nice guy, who always said everyone was entitled to taxi service, regarding of where they lived. His face had fallen over his slit throat.

Joe was a friendly guy who sometimes drove me home for free after my shift. One evening he was driving in the West Village, where there are a lot of intersections without traffic signals. He had the right-of-way, but a semi-truck going the other way ran a stop sign. His cab was cut neatly in half. He walked away from the accident without a scratch, but his two young women fares died instantly. He returned to the garage with a glazed look and demanded his deposit back. No one ever heard from him again. There’s no way he doesn’t think about that now. A few months after the accident, the city put up a traffic signal there.

The Last Detail
My last shift started badly. My first fare was a loud salesman who asked to go to Queens. He tipped me $3 – $3 short of decent – and I headed to nearby Kennedy Airport to get a fare back to Manhattan. I waited for three hours for a flight to come in. The principle of time investment – I’ve already waited x time, if I leave now, that time will have been wasted – tripped me up. Eventually an Air Jamaica flight came in. My fare, a large, loud woman, demanded to be taken to an address in Queens. I didn’t know where that was, and was asking her for directions, when a TLC inspector walked up to her.

“Is this driver giving you trouble?” he asked her.

“No!” I said.

“Yes!” she replied.

“Listen, sir, all I’m trying to do is ask her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know where she wants to go. How can I take her there if she doesn’t know where she wants to go?”

“Is he refusing you?” he asked her.

“Yes. He is refusing.”

“No! I’m not refusing! Christ, will you please listen to me? She–”

“Refusal of service. Two hundred bucks.” He started writing out a summons.

“This woman doesn’t understand English! How can you take her word for anything?”

He kept writing. The woman grinned at me.

He wasn’t going to listen. I was already negative thirty bucks for the night, and this was really going to fuck me over. Nothing was going to stop this idiot from writing this summons. I had no choice.

I leaned back and punched him in the cheek as hard as I could. He fell backwards. I flung the woman’s bags from my trunk to the ground and drove off. I saw people running over to him in my rearview mirror.

Barely a hundred yards further, a lanky black guy hailed me on the airport loop road. I picked him up.

“Where to?”

“The city.”

Things were going to be all right after all.

Traffic was tight on the freeway, so I opted for a local road for a short stretch. Then I felt the knife on my throat. I pulled over.

“I only have twelve bucks.”

“I’ll take it.”

I handed over the money and watched the kid run off among the weeds and broken glass. He found a hole in the chain-link fence and disappeared. I drove back to my garage, asked for my deposit and took the subway home.

Back to School
Six months later, I applied and was accepted back to Columbia, this time as a history major. I finished a year later, in 1991, worked a series of day jobs, in Columbia’s admissions office and as a financial analyst for a San Francisco consulting firm, until I was able to survive on a cartoonist’s income. I moved back to New York in late 1995. My wife and I often take cabs, especially late at night. I always ask my drivers how business is. They open up when I talk shop and mention that I drove during the Eighties.

Not much has changed. Cabbies aren’t getting killed left and right anymore, but street crime in general seems to have abated – for now. Nobody really cares about cabbies, and they know it. They view it as a temporary shit job to tolerate until something better comes along.

I know it doesn’t help, but I always tip too much. I have to.

(C) 1995 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved