Who Stole My Country 107 – Driving a Cab

I finally realized I was taking the whole job hunting business too casually. I was still too much of the mountain, too little of New York. So I dedicated Monday to getting my act together.

Using an American Express Credit Card that I had carefully kept current during my mountain days, I replaced my boots with a pair of city shoes. I replaced the battered mountain jacket with a Polish imitation Burberry, which actually attracted and absorbed water when it rained. I shaved off my beard and trimmed my mustache.

Richard approved the changes but didn’t think they went far enough. 

I had been walking the streets of New York for weeks.  Now green shoots poked through cracks in the concrete, between scraps of paper, empty bottles and scattered pop tops, forsythia and crocuses bloomed. Pigeons fluttered up from crumbs of paper bag lunches. Old men and women sat on benches in the sun and stared ahead with looks of resigned incomprehension, as if they were wondering how it had all happened.

I no longer had a smile for them.

Two more weeks passed without success and I was out of cash and credit.  My sister Mimi and her husband, Ed and their five children were living in a large apartment on the Upper West Side.  Ed was making a living by, among other things, driving a cab.  Ed urged me to try cab driving.  “It’s like being a fisherman,” he said, “A fisherman for fares.  You read the streets like the waters of a stream, spotting the big fares in the slow waters of deep pools.”  Ed had a way of making everything he did an adventure, an odyssey like the journeys of the early explorers he was forever reading.

Would ride in a cab with this driver?

The learning curve in cab driving was steep.  After passing the chauffeurs test and studying my maps, I went to work for the 125th Street Cab Company, with a depot on Broadway and 127th Street. Low man on the pecking order when I went to work, I got the worst cab in the shop, a rattling monster that belched smoke and threatened to shake apart at any moment.  People routinely asked to get out of the cab after driving a block or two.  “No offense, but I’ll get another taxi young man.”  Of course it was still possible to get another taxi in New York in 1976.

In fact, it was a grim time for New York City. New York had been in a financial crisis since 1974 when Mayor Beam had to lay off city workers for the first time since the Great Depression. When the federal government refused to help, the New York Daily News Headline read:  FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”    When Mayor Beale laid off firemen and policemen in 1975, the Police Union put up signs at major transportation centers, WELCOME TO FEAR CITY. 1976 and 1977 were times of soaring crime, an epidemic of arson in Harlem and the Bronx,  the spread of porn shops and prostitutes on the west side of Broadway above 42nd street.

Trips to the Bronx were like trips to a war zone. The South Bronx was on fire most nights, losing ten square blocks, or five thousand housing units, a year to arson fires. You drove on boulevards where street lights were out, trees cut down, where shoulder-high weeds covered vacant lots and apartment houses and small businesses we’re blackened shells.  As I driver, you kept your hand on your lead pipe and your heart in your throat. When the lights went out for twenty-four hours in July, 1977, the city experienced what some people called “an orgy of looting and violence.”

Ed taught me the city currents in all their intimate details and how to fish them for maximum income. Early in my shifts I looked for rides to JFK airport, avoided the clogged highways and took the quick route from midtown across the Queensboro Bridge and out Northern Avenue, or if that wasn’t moving across 21st Street to Astoria Boulevard, through the streets of Queens.   I dropped passengers off as overnight flights were coming in from Europe and without waiting in long lines caught a fare back to Manhattan.

You make the most money driving a cab by moving as many people as possible as quickly as possible, but coming back from the airport I’d pitch tourists the scenic route.  I went around the tip of Brooklyn past Brighton Beach where from the Shore Parkway the Verrazano Bridge loomed across Gravesend Bay, then through Bensonhurst and Fort Hamilton, picking up the Gowanus Expressway as the New York skyline sparkled across Upper New York Bay.

I’d cross over to Manhattan at its southernmost tip, through the Brooklyn Battery tunnel, and head up town on any of a variety of routes to the tourist’s hotel.  It was a spectacular view, day or night, and well worth the fifty per cent it added to your fare.  It was a taxi cab ride you’d never forget.

I drove the night shift from 3:00 pm in the afternoon until 3:00 am in the morning, and I got to see the city’s underbelly.  People smoked dope, snorted cocaine, fought with each other and made out on the back seat of my cab.

I always wanted two driving requests:  “follow that cab,” which I never got, and “drive around the park,” which I got the night I picked up a couple in front of the Plaza Hotel on 59th and 5th.  He was dressed in a tux and she in a low-cut evening gown.  I made a U-turn in front of the Plaza and headed into the 59th Street entrance to the park.  Before going very far I heard the hard slap of a hand hitting flesh.  Glancing in the rear view mirror, I saw the guy in the tux pulling his hand back to slap the woman again and the adrenalin pulsed through me.

I pulled over to the side of Park Drive, stopped and turned around, sliding back the glass window that separated drivers from passengers.  “Not in my cab,”  I said.  He looked at me in surprise but she replied, “Mind your own fucking business.”  So I closed the window and drove them around the Park while he put her across his knees,  pulled up her dress and slapped her butt.  I dropped them off back in front of the Plaza.   Her face and arms were red and she covered herself with a head scarf as the doorman held the door and another couple slid in the back of my cab.

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