Follow That Car

Posted: January 1, 2012 by S. Trevor Swenson in General, Me & Mine, Observations
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New York City’s taxis and their drivers…you gotta love ‘em, despite how difficult they make it to do so. It dawned on me recently as a Sikh gentleman drove me home from Penn Station upon my return from Casa de Guilt and a visit to my mother’s. I was half surprised that I was able to get a taxi to begin with. It was raining lightly, and it is the middle of the holiday season. People flock to cabs in the rain and other disagreeable weather. For some reason, the cab drivers delight in driving around with the “Off Duty” signs lit up during these weather conditions, as hopeful New Yorkers and tourists alike stand out in the road desperately waving their arms and getting soaked. My theory is that this is a form of revenge by the drivers for what they have to endure from their less than polite or well behaved passengers day in and day out.

The Sikh gent didn’t disappoint. He did everything a cab driver can do to further annoy the weary traveler arriving in NYC. I gave him the cross streets of my destination. I said “please” and “Thank you”…I was nice. He immediately pulled Plan C from the Irritating Cab Drivers Manual. “Which way you want go?” he asked. He wasn’t concerned with which way I wanted to go. They never are. He merely wanted to tell me of the lack of wisdom in my choice of directions. “Ohhhhh” they will tut tut. “Oh, much traffic that way, very busy.” Why do you ask the passenger which way they want to go? Seems to me that they put up with enough impatience and verbal abuse without throwing in segues for more. Cab drivers are supposed to take you any route you wish. It says so in the most ignored document in the universe. It was named “The Passenger Bill of Rights” by the comedians who came up with it to make it sound important and relevant. Here is the Bill with additional commentary.

  • driver who has and uses E-ZPass at all toll crossings that accept it, and who charges passengers the discounted E-Z Pass rate; (this is a moot point as the driver will not take you out of Manhattan without a bribe, threat or both)
  • Pay for your ride with credit/debit card; (“I’m sorry, machine is broken my friend”)
  • Go to any destination in NYC, Westchester, Nassau, or Newark Airport; (Yeah, sorry…aint gonna happen)
  • Direct the route taken: The most direct route or one of your choice; (After being argued with. God help you if you don’t know where you’re going “Brooklyn? What is this Brooklyn?”)
  • A safe and courteous driver who obeys all traffic laws; (Hahahahahahahahaha)
  • A knowledgeable driver who speaks English and knows City geography; (Heeheeheehee surely you jest)
  • Air conditioning or heat on request; (This is true. Heat in Mid August and AC in February)
  • A noise free trip: no horn honking or radio; (Noise free save for Kasey Kasim’s Bangledeshi top 40, and a driver yelling at other cab drivers via cell phone)
  • Clean air. smoke and scent free air; (You’ll notice month old funky driver BO didn’t make the list)
  • Working seat belts for all passengers; (Your mission: Find Them)
  • A clean taxicab: interior, exterior and partition; (I’d love to get a lab to analyze the partition’s surface)
  • Be accompanied by a service animal; (In a vehicle that smells like an animal)
  • A driver who does not use a cell phone while driving (hand-held or hands free); (It took several fatalities to get this little gem in the Bill of Rights)
  • Decline to tip for poor service; (That’s right, no quarter for you Habib)

It’s amazing the deep and intense hatred the driver and passenger can develop for each other in a 20 minute drive. The passenger is convinced that they could get out and push the cab faster than the driver is driving it. In the back seat, we mutter to ourselves, roll our eyes and make passive aggressive commentary. We become such racists that a Klansman would tell us to tone it down upon hearing our remarks.

The driver will ask whatever god they pray to what they did to deserve this lot in life. Or they hearken back to their lives in whatever third world cesspool they came from and think “Was Sudan really that bad?”

Drivers have lots of nickel and diming tactics they use to jack the fare by .30 cents. They turn into red lights rather than going through the green ones. I’m sorry this sounds really awful but it is 100% true. There is a certain nationality to cab drivers who have always, always tried to give me a dollar or two less than what I request…after I have tipped them. “Oh, ha-ha, I thought you said “thirteen” dollars my friend.” Yeah, ‘eleven’ does sound an awful lot like ‘thirteen’.

Cab drivers are, in theory, supposed to pick you up and take you where you want to go within NYC, Westchester etc. They have the option of taking you to NJ should you negotiate a fair price for their time. Another maddening ploy by the drivers is to drive around on peak hours on weekend nights when the bars and clubs are letting out with their doors locked and “off duty” signs on; so they can decide if they want to take you or not. The most money for them is to relay people within Manhattan from clubs to other clubs, to bars, restaurants, drug dealers penthouses and then to late night restaurants so they can drunkenly torment waitresses, busboys and waiters. A nightclub patron could take the subway of course, but weekend evenings are when the track workers get paid union double time to stand around, hold shovels and look annoyed. It is also safe to say that the super cool and edgy outfit you chose to gain entry to that chi-chi nightclub will get you beaten up on the subway…”Ey check out da fag in da purple tuxedo an top hat ovah dare.”

The cabbies pull up, roll down the window and inquire “Where you going, my friend?” Since my philosophy in life is that it takes as much time to be a jerk as it does to be nice, I reply. “I’m going to get in your taxi, and you’re going to take me wherever the fuck I want to go.” Then I reach for the door which will be locked and the driver drives off laughing and cursing me out in a language that sounds like an out of tune banjo. This process repeats itself until a driver will agree to take you to Queens or Brooklyn, but their tires are bald so they will need to go via Pittsburgh to avoid bridges, tunnels and potholes. By this time you’re purple tux is starting to chafe, and you just want to go home and email the pretty girl who gave you the fake number and email address at the club after inhaling the 6 $15 drinks you bought her, and leaving with her friends without saying “Thank You”… Yes, I’m bitter… Deal with it.

Enough of my ranting about the drivers, as much as some of them may deserve it. These guys have an incredibly difficult job and one that I wouldn’t want. NYC cab drivers and their lot in life have become a film and book cliché. Holden Caulfield had several interesting and familiar run ins with cab drivers in The Catcher in the Rye. Travis Bickle spoke of a “Real rain coming to wash all the scum off the street…” someday in Taxi Driver.

Archie Bunker drove a cab part time on weekends to make ends meet on All in the Family. His encounters included giving mouth to mouth to a 300 lb female impersonator and picking up Sammy Davis Jr, who presented Archie with a generous reward for the return of some property left in his cab. In addition to the reward Sammy planted a big kiss on Archie’s cheek in a photo. Archie’s encounters rank around a 3.5 on a 10 point scale compared to some of the stories I have heard. New Yorkers love cab shenanigan stories almost as much as we love bragging or complaining about the great deal or crippling rip off that our apartment is.

The old crusty and grizzled cliché cab drivers from the movies are all but gone and have been for decades. NY cabbies are from everywhere but New York these days. Most are from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, with some from Eastern Europe, various parts of Africa and the Middle East. There are a few from Haiti as well. Most Latino cab drivers work for car services I have noticed and these are some of my favorite to talk to. I like the high energy of their radio stations, and have noticed that the Spanish language drive time and morning disc jockeys are just as obnoxious as their English speaking counter parts

Many of the cab drivers have advanced degrees and were high level professionals in their home countries . . . doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers and the like. It must be a slap in the face for them to be condescended to and insulted by rude, ignorant New Yorkers on an hourly basis. They also never get a break from the city and especially the police. When a cab driver is pulled over it is almost always a case of guilty until proven innocent and even guilty after proven innocent. I was once in a taxi that got pulled over for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. The poor driver was terrified of the cops and begged me to stay with him. Either he had some very bad experiences with police back home, or with the NYPD or possibly both. I felt bad for the guy.

I’d like to think I am a fair story teller. I’m pretty good with accents and voices and I can generally make people laugh with the sagas of the NY cabs when I try to. In closing I thought I’d share a few of my favorite gems.

A Russian/Ukrainian driver dropped me off at home after work. He’d been playing games with the fare and route so I tipped him poorly (or rather I gave him the standard good tip in addition to the bill I usually gave, his scenic tour of NYC ate up most of this amount) He counted the money and looked at my angrily. “This is it?” he asked. “For doing your job…terribly? Yeah that’s it.” I replied. As I walked away, I think he meant to call me a “Mother fucker” but his English language skills weren’t so slick, so instead, at 3am, he yelled across Queens, “I am fucking your mother!!!!!!”

A Haitian cab driver, with me in the back, had picked me up and proceeded to cut off another driver on the West Side Highway. The other driver; an African fellow pulled along side and they engaged in a heated argument at 85 mph. it should be noted that I am quite possibly the biggest nervous sissy passenger in the universe.

“Hey, where the fuck you learn to drive?”

“From your mother!” (Ah, NYC once again comes shining through)

“You stupid-son-of-goat-fucking-bitch. I kill you.”

“Suck my dick.”

“Yeah? You pull over and I suck it!”

After 20 minutes or so of this I meekly piped up. “Um, maybe you could just drop me off over here, I can walk the other 40 blocks.”

Perhaps my favorite story is of a driver who picked me up in Manhattan to take me home to Astoria, Queens. Where I lived was a slightly confusing neighborhood of avenues, streets and drives with similar street numbers. It was a maze of one way streets and dead ends, and unless you knew the exact route you could be circling for half an hour to get to my apartment building. I got in the cab and gave the driver the address and cross streets. I then (politely) asked “Do you know how to get there or do you want directions?” As I said not only was my neighborhood a little confusing, but often cab drivers will just start driving around and a $20 fare later will ask you how to get to your destination. The driver didn’t answer me, so I assumed he didn’t hear me. I started to ask him again. “Do you know how to get there or….”

“IF I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO GET THERE, OBVIOUSLY I’D ASK YOU!” He barked back at me. We rode in uncomfortable silence all the way to Queens. After he missed the first one way street he was supposed to go down, I smiled to myself. I was going to have the last word and laugh in this little exchange. Another wrong turn and the driver started to look slightly flustered and embarrassed. Now I started to have a little fun. “What’s wrong?” I asked with mock concern. “I though you knew how to get there. You aren’t lost are you?” We pulled within a couple blocks of my house and the fare had reached $19.80. I told him he could let me off here so I could give him a $20 bill and a nice parting shot for his rudeness.

I slammed the money into the tray and said “Maybe if you weren’t such an asshole, you’d get tipped.” Please with myself, I exited the cab. “Hey!” the driver called after me. I turned around quickly anticipating a fist fight. Fine by me. The driver was standing there; blank faced holding my money in his hand. It was a $100 bill rather than the $20 I thought I had given him.

Ooops. I tipped the man after retrieving my $100 and walked away sheepishly

  1. There’s an amazing story in a New Yorker from a few weeks (months?) back about tracking a NY cab with an iPad left in the trunk. I’ll try and find the title. Fantastic read.

    And I think on April Fool’s Day all the NY cabbies should be courteous and clear, just to freak people out.

  2. Ruchika says:

    And one thought cab drivers were the IN-BETWEENs to interesting things and places in our life! We just got it ass-backward all this time! 😀 Kudos, smartness!


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