I can still remember that first fare in my New York taxi: an older white-haired woman standing at Union Square on 17th Street. I cruised to a stop and picked her up but had no idea where her destination was. She was irate. "Don't they train you people first? They shouldn't let you drive till you know where everything is," she said. Actually they did give us a little test about where points of interest like Shea Stadium were located.
When I got to New York and was looking for a job I hadn't seriously considered the taxi biz. It seemed too scary and dangerous although I *had* driven in Indiana the year before. I worked as a temp messenger, once pulling my little cart of business-related paperwork behind me high up into the World Trade Center, and then worked as a painter, baker, and in a couple of daycare centers, one in the Village and the other in Harlem.
When I started driving taxi it was the day shift for the month of May, then I went back to the hills of Northern California for the summer. I got tired of living off Humboldt's food stamps and Mendocino's commodities, big chunks of yellow cheese and packets of white flour, and returned to New York in September. I got a cheap place to live in a second floor walkup at 533 East 13th Street between Avenues A and B for $86 a month even though I had vowed not to live in Alphabet City which was more dangerous than the placid Westside of Lower Manhattan. In those days the city was giving away buildings on my block if you fixed them up—I remember seeing a hippie with a ponytail and a tool belt going in and out of one of the old tenements.
I drove taxi three nights on the weekends. There was a process called "shaping up" where you came into the cab company at around 1pm, signed in, and waited for a couple hours for a taxi coming in off the day shift. The cabbies sat around telling stories, putting each other on, downright lying, and insulting each other but with no real offense intended, a strange culture. They were all men except for Heather Schreiber who was forty-five and later became my roommate, along with her seven-year-old son Huggy who I recently figured out was the actor Liev Schreiber. (Heather fed her cat rice and vegetables and would chant, “Little black cat with little black paws and little black balls.” Huggy was a friendly little kid with shoulder-length blond hair under his baseball cap. His mother sent him walking across town everyday with his backpack full of books to PS. 41, the cool school in Greenwich Village.)
Driving a taxi in New York City meant cruising constantly along the avenues, then turning up the side streets to get back to an avenue where you might then be the first cabbie at the light when the arm or hand of a customer across the street went up into the air to hail you. (It got so instinctive that a pedestrian could reach up to scratch his nose or adjust his hat and I'd screech to a stop. Sometimes I would also swerve over to the curb only to be waved on by someone who wanted the more desirable Checker cab coming behind me. I drove a Dodge.) It was really all about hailing in Manhattan although the savvy veterans, the lifers, knew when the movies, etc, were getting out. I just cruised, although I would get into short lines at cabstands at fast moving locations such as Penn Station or Grand Central.
But mostly I *drove* for nine hours straight not even stopping to pee as you didn't want to disrupt the momentum. In the morning on a typical day I woke up in my slum apartment in the East Village, pulled on my pants and shoes, and dashed down to Thompkins Square Park a few blocks away to shoot hoops, then came back to the apartment where I drank a glass of home-made soy milk and began cooking my soy bean or black bean and sweet potato pie. When the pie was done I jumped on my bike, the Schwinn five-speed I had shipped from Indiana, or rode the subway up and across town to the cab company where I munched down while shaping up.
When it was getting time for dinner I stopped at a bodega, bought a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce, and sometimes a beer, and drove over to Grand Central or another cab stand where I could eat my scrumptious grub while waiting for a fare. Those bean pies were actually a step up from my previous lunches: sardine cream cheese mustard sandwich or the old hippie standby peanut butter and honey sandwich.
Finally I was making the big money, $40 a night for three days, $120 a week, and saving half of that, $60 a week. Friday was the big night and Saturday was almost as good. Sunday was kind of a throw away, lucky to make $40 on Sunday, no impossible. That first year driving taxi the cabbie got back 41% of the money brought in and it was supposed to go up to 43% the next year. What we did was steal or cheat the company a certain amount by driving some fares "off the meter". The first ten bucks a night I would do off the meter by making a private deal with the customer. He'd say where he wanted to go, somewhere that I quickly calculated was about a five dollar fare and I'd say, “How 'bout let's do it for four off the meter?" Those astute New Yorkers almost always agreed. It was a little stressful making these side deals which was why I got it out of the way every night at the beginning of my shift.
If we didn't turn the meter on the vacant light on the top of the cab would stay on and the roving hack inspectors could notice that the light was on while a passenger was in the back and you would be fined, about a day's pay. However, there were some tricky ways ways to turn the light off. The one I used was turning the ignition switch forward and jamming a pencil in to hold it in place. It worked well and after a while you saw all these pencil holes in the dash board.(Sometimes you would get a big fare like to New Jersey or Westchester which was worth 20 bucks or more off the meter. Once a fellow hack said he did an off-the-meter run to Philly and his taxi broke down. He broke a window, jumped on a train back to New York and reported his cab stolen. Or so he said, those cabbies were monumental bullshitters.)
Driving taxi in New York was really about driving taxi in Manhattan where the grid pattern of the city made it fast and easy to get around. I got out on the streets at around three o'clock to get in on the frantic rush hour business and then the dinner and entertainment fares. It was unfortunate to get a trip to Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx or the airport during rush hour as you had to waste all that time fighting traffic and then get back as fast as you could to Manhattan, though at the airport you could at least get in a line and get a fare. (I wrote a poem about it once, of which some of the lines were "Stuck in Brooklyn again and this time I'm running every red light to get out...Oh Manahatta, Manhattan, let me see your bright lights again, sew me in your rush-hour hem." And sometimes I did run every red light to get out.)
Normally you didn't develop personal relationships with your customers when driving taxi. I met Patricia Jambrina coming out of the TWA building one night at midnight. She was in her thirties and I was twenty. Just call me Jambrina she said. We hit it off and got to be friends somehow to the point where I'd try to pick her up every Friday night at midnight. It got a little crazy when I was in another part of town and dashing madly to get to TWA by midnight. Once she invited me up to her apartment and we smoked a joint and talked. It was a platonic relationship although she was hot in my fantasies. (I was a shy, clueless and innocent feminist and never made a move. Gore Vidal, who once said “Never pass up an opportunity to have sex or be on television,” would have been disappointed in me.)
After I'd been out in California about eight years I was doing a week at the Hippocrates Health Institute in San Diego ostensibly to try to deal with my pot addiction. It was a typical year: I was a stoned, addicted and lonely dirty hippie living in a depressing little cabin, ahh the good old days. So after harvest I went to Hippocrates, since that was all the rage those days, having no idea that their big deal was wheat grass enemas, oh how delightful. After a couple days there this woman was kind of staring at me and said she knew me. It was Jambrina. Her head was shaved as Hippocrates, I found out, was kind of a last chance cancer health stop. (I watched the 49ers and Cowboys championship game in a nearby bar till the last minute then abandoned the game to race to registration and missed seeing “The Catch.”)
After a weekend driving taxi I sometimes hitchhiked up to my grandma's house fifty miles north outside Newburgh for a few days of R+R. She rented a small apartment on the estate of the poet Hazel Brill Jackson and I got to stay in the gardener's cabin. I remember fondly the omelets she made me for breakfast with those finely cut mushrooms. When it was time to leave she'd drive me to a little mountain spring where I filled my bottles, loaded them in my Oaxacan string bags, and headed back to the city. Riding the bus across the George Washington Bridge Manhattan came into view like a vibrant sculpture and I had the great hopeful illusion that this time I would conquer the city, but that victorious feeling didn't last long and soon I was caught up in the taxi traffic flow again, dreaming of the promised land of Northern California I had discovered the previous summer: Whitethorn, Whale Gulch, and the ocean.
I didn't have famous people that I knew of in my taxi except once when I learned an important lesson from the restaurateur Toots Shor, a friend of Jackie Gleason who used to get mentions in Earl Wilson's entertainment column. Mr Shor was 85 at the time and he asked me to help him out of the taxi. I went around to the door, grabbed his arm and tried to pull him out.
"Don't pull my arm off!” he said. “Just give me an arm!"
Sometimes toward the end of my shift at around two in the morning I would smoke a joint, usually around Lexington Avenue and Sixty-first street for some reason. Boy would I see my cosmic place in the traffic pattern then with all the all the other taxi's headlights behind me and the red tail lights before me. I would invariably space out and take my customers past their buildings and have to circle back around the block, very embarrassing. (Once I got high near the end of the shift and got a fare to a bar deep into a Brooklyn ghetto with a black man. I started the conversation telling him I had just started my shift so he wouldn't think I had much money on me and not worth robbing. There was a thick plexiglas partition between driver and passenger but nothing preventing someone from putting a gun to the driver's side window.
We had a nice conversation across the Brooklyn Bridge and I was feeling bad that in my stoned paranoia and racism I had started off an interaction with a fellow human being by telling a lie. By the time we got to the bar on some deserted dark street I decided to make amends by going in with him for a drink. Inside were all black people except for one sketchy-looking white dude. I drank my bear and left unscathed, stopping at then running every red light back to Manhattan.)
I drove with my little map to the side of me and when I was told the destination I'd take off as if I knew where to go. Generally I did but at the next red light I'd surreptitiously scan thru the map to get the specifics, thinking that if I didn't have to ask the customer I'd get a better tip. In reality they usually told me how to get there and it probably didn't affect the tip. I was the hippy bamboo flute boy playing in the acoustical subway stations, in the taxi at red lights (only once was I told to stop), and stopping to jam in Washington Square Park and share a joint at four in the morning on my bike ride home to the Lower East Side from the West 49th street taxi company.
The cabbies ruled the streets, we drove as fast as possible breaking all the rules. For example while waiting to make an unprotected left turn at a light we always anticipated the coming green light and turned first before the oncoming traffic got their green. We just did it, part of the game to save a few seconds. Once I tried to make fourteen green lights on Park Avenue, around ten was the norm, and it was the only time a fare told me to slow down.
There were these Puerto Rican guys in my building, on my block, who liked to hassle me. (Did they know I was fantasizing about "their" women?) They would make unreasonable requests like "lemme drive your taxi" and when I didn't they kicked out the tail-lights. Once I was letting an Englishman stay over when Angel and his friend came by. They forced their way in and dumped the okara (soybean pulp left over from straining soy milk) on the floor. I was just putting mustard on one of my sardine cream cheese sandwiches and chased them outside with the mustard knife still in my hand. Quickly a crowd formed and the biggest Puerto Rican guy came over and punched me in the neck.
“Go home,” he said. Home? Where was that?
I decided to leave the neighborhood and arranged to move in with Heather and Huggy at the corner of First and First. I loaded a taxi with my stuff and as I got into the cab Angel came up and kicked me in the ass. Yes, grammar police, I was literally kicked out of my neighborhood.
I remember the Christmas tears driving during the holiday season, watching the happy groups of carolers, then behind the wheel on Christmas Day trying to sing a few myself. After that there were the accidents and soon I couldn't drive at all, fired.
Within the month I was on the road back to California, never to return.