“God created heaven and earth in six days. On the seventh, He turned the meter on.”
So began my humor piece, “Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Taxis”, published in the December, 1982 issue of Travel & Leisure magazine. I was trying to make it as a writer, but I was writing what I knew.
When I moved here, I learned the city by hacking it, driving a cab from 1969-1973, and again from 1980 – 1984. (I didn’t want to return to the job. As a fellow cabbie explained to me at the time, “In this town, when you don’t know where you’re going, you drive a cab, and have others tell you.”)
To this day I still have dreams of having a yellow body or bicycle or car, and picking up people and trying to get them from here to there in the city. You drive as long as I did, it gets into your blood.
The meter actually ticked then; the drop was 35 cents, and ticked a dime every – I believe – third of a mile. The taxis swooned of sweat as they rumbled and groaned down the potholed streets. This was the city after our parents had abandoned it, sticky underfoot, reeking of dog doo, coming apart at the seems. Cabs were pushed to the limit, often to 100 or 150 or ever 200,000 miles. And I routinely left a fleet’s garage with a headlight, windshield wiper or taillight or two busted.
My first days on the job, at age 19, new to town from the posh suburbs, I was scared silly. Driving out of the old Chase garage on West 47th Street by the river, I studied my maps and guides, but it was my passengers who taught me the streets.
“It’s my first day on the job” was what I learned to say…for about the first month. In those days most cabbies were still that stereotypical white working class Brooklyn gruff guy you saw portrayed in the movies, who called guys “Mac” and women “dames”. So most passengers were so shocked to see an actual hippie cabbie behind the wheel that many of them warmed to me.
My very first passenger was a 50-something urbane gentleman I picked up in midtown and drove to his home in the Village.
He had his tennis racket with him, but his arm was hurting. I saw him rubbing it.
“It’s the…indignity of old age,” he said, and elaborated all the way home.
I’d make between 20 and 35 trips a night, and I swear, somewhere in my memory is embedded every last one of them. Below are a few I plucked for this piece…
At 4:30 one Sunday morning I pick up an old queen, complete with bunny outfit, but he is not in a kid-like mood. He had just staggered out of the club and was sourly plopping himself into my back seat.
“Take me to 84th and Amsterdam!” I flip the meter arm, but before I start driving, I notice his bloodshot eyes eyeing me suspiciously.
“I’m watching – Jew!”
I just turn around and stare at him. He then opens the door, raising his eyebrows in a haughty “Look — I’m really leaving!” look.
And then lets himself out.
Other passengers were friendlier, although, being a hippie back in ’69, not too many others who looked like me could afford taxis. But that was soon to change, and when they’d get in, they would often see me as a fellow traveler, and in more ways than one…
Late on a Friday night in ’70, a young couple in the back seat wants to get high.
“Hey man, mind if we do some hash?” he asks, as we’re heading down the FDR on our way to Brooklyn.
“Not if you don’t mind sharing,” I respond.
Now at this time a lot of the hash is coming into the city from Afghanistan, and it often is what the dealers are calling “opiated”.
As I’m driving onto the Brooklyn Bridge, after one toke on his little hash pipe, the lights above me began to drip. I can no longer feel the wheel, and everything is vibration in my hands, under my ass and under my right foot as well. I find myself having to drive from memory because I am certainly not holding onto anything solid.
“I think I have to stop a minute”, I say to my passengers’ consternation. Upon exiting the bridge, I pull over for a good 15 minutes till I come down. After this, I think twice before asking a passenger to share the goodies.
Since I mostly drove the night shift, I got to see some pretty shifty characters, and some of the seamy underside of this town at one of its seamiest times…
In the East Village at the time, after midnight on 3rd Street between Avenue A and 1st, is a wild outdoor drug bazaar filled with junkie pushers of every conceivable stripe. One night a woman I pick up on the Upper East Side, well dressed and in her 20s, and with a drab and desperate look on her face, points me down there.
I turn the corner from Avenue A and they converge upon us like drooling jackals circling a wounded deer.
“Hey baby! What you need?” She rolls down the window. These guys are pushing each other out of the way. One of them reaches into the window and lifts the lock.
“Let me in baby! Lemme in!”
He opens the door. I panic. How can I know how hungry he might be?
I excellerate just as he’s stepping in, and he rides the door, holding on to it for dear life, but finally lets go.
“What did you do that for?!” she shouts at me. “He was a friend of mine!”
“I know. He’ll be your friend till the day you die!” I retort, shocked at my own bluntness.
She’s completely thrown by what’s happened, and, dejected, has me take her back home.
Then there is the time I take an elderly Hispanic couple back home one steamy Saturday night in the South Bronx.
As I turn the corner into an intersection where several streets converge, I spot a crowd of about 30 people just up ahead. A shot rings out from their midst, and they all start running for their lives in all directions from a wild-eyed man who’s opened fire on them. As I slow down, he suddenly turns and aims a shot right at me. I feel the bullet strike the hood.
I’m thinking, “Perhaps I should consider putting the car in reverse…” or whatever it is that one thinks during those slo-mo moments when life shifts into high gear.
And so I do. And quickly get the hell out of there. Later, after safely depositing my traumatized couple, I get out of the cab to survey the damage. He’d blown out my right headlight. I quickly calculate, from the distance he fired, how much difference, from his hand, an inch or so to the right would have made. For years thereafter I celebrate my survival on the anniversary of that day.
The city wasn’t all grit and gutter, of course…
One day a doorman on 5th Avenue in the 70’s hails me, and three people get in.
On our way down to the Plaza Hotel, the mother, flanked by her two children, is showing them some family photographs.
“…And that’s Jackie,” she says.
“And that’s Bobbie and Jack on their boat. How they loved to sail!”
I almost plotz.
It turns out to be Ethel Kennedy (Robert’s widow) her son Michael (who’s now gone), and one of her daughters.
Another time, I pick up a beautiful black woman who speaks of performing. When I ask her what she does, she says, “Well, I sing and play guitar. My name’s Odetta.”
I once pick up Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. She seems to be addicted to peanuts.
I also once have writer Bruce Jay Friedman, who will go on to write Stir Crazy and Splash, among other films and books. As he pays me and is about to exit my cab, I ask him if he has any advice for an aspiring writer.
“Yeah,” he says. “Write your fuckin’ head off!”
And yeah, I’ve been fuckin’ doing just that ever since.