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Yellow-Armored Geniuses MAG
The dispatcher’s voice boomed into the backseat of the taxi, indignant as he yelled at one of his cabbies, “You want direction? Go to college! Make something of your life!” Sitting in that cab in Manhattan inhaling cigarette smoke and air freshener, I knew for certain that at least one taxi driver had gone to college and had made something of his life, not the least of which was finding a wife and having four children, the third being me.
From 1972 to 1974, my father, Alan, finished his final two years of college at NYU and his first year of medical school at Columbia University. Every nice Jewish girl’s dream man, he was on his way to becoming a doctor at one of the finest institutions in the country. Better yet, he was self-sufficient and highly independent: qualities he could attribute to his service in the yellow, iron-clad warrior army that is New York City’s taxi driver corps. Stationed out of the Long Island City garage of the famous Checker Cab Company, Dad worked nights and weekends learning all the hot clubs’ schedules so he would know what time the masses of drunks and partygoers would need rides. Between frequent stops at the Playboy Club to drive the bunnies home and at the U.N. (the only clean bathroom), he paid for his education on 42% of meter fares and tips.
Now, 35 years later, my father remembers his cab experiences as less than enjoyable. His immigrant parents were terrified for him; crime against drivers was at a high and going to school all day and driving all night was hard. He says that he was “always hustling,” always wondering where his next fare would come from.
Nevertheless, he stuck to it for three years, if only because he loved that when he was in a cab, he didn’t have to bear the scrutiny of a boss, a freedom many never experience. Only once did my father come close to succumbing to his parents’ fears of violence. He describes the event as “one of the scariest of my life.” He hadn’t been a member of the elite yellow regiment more than a year when one Sunday night two big imposing men stepped into his cab and asked him to drive them to a particularly rough neighborhood in the Bronx.
As the yellow car plodded along, my father overheard them talking about plans to rob the very establishment to which they were headed as well as their plans to rob him. Alarmed, but not panicked, my dad yelled back to his criminal passengers that he was going to take a great shortcut, reassuring them that since he had grown up in the Bronx (which he had), he knew the streets like the back of his hand. Ten minutes later, he stopped, happily announcing their arrival at the Bronx police station.
My father’s story intrigued me, especially since I was spending my summer in New York at the very school he had attended when a cabbie. I wondered if any of the multitudes of foreigners and immigrants who make up the majority of the cabbie forces were actually on their way to advanced degrees in law, medicine, film? I posted a personal ad requesting an interview with any driver who was attending undergraduate or graduate school. Three days later, a man named Ken responded. He promised to offer “a unique viewpoint” of cab drivers in New York.
Ken attended Yeshiva University from 1982-1984, working toward a Master’s degree in psychology, and drove to pay his rent while his parents paid for school. “I wanted to help as much as possible,” he says. Ken was employed in various social work settings from 1984-1987 and then quit his low-paying job at a methadone clinic to make enough money to join his girlfriend in France and realize his dreams of becoming a painter.
So, Ken fell back on the profession he knew best, and one he thoroughly enjoyed: working as a soldier in the ever more foreign legions of the cabbie militia. For the next two years, Ken once again drove his taxi carrying “strippers, hookers” and a group of people with whom he reluctantly found much-needed solace, “artists who would never realize their dreams.”
During this stint, Ken experienced “the perfect climax if they make my life into a movie.” One Saturday night around 4 a.m., he picked up a woman near Times Square. She was slurring her words and was “clearly a little drugged, drunk or something.” She requested that he take her to 22nd and Broadway; however, once they were halfway there, she looked around, confused, and garbled that in fact, she lived at 73rd and Broadway.
When they reached their destination, she could not find her money. To add to the fracas, the man in the car behind Ken had become so irritated at having to wait for this woman that he bumped the back of Ken’s car. Finally, the wo-man found her money and groggily made her way into the building. Ken found another passenger who discovered the drunken woman’s purse in the backseat. (At this point in the interview, Ken tells me that he always returns anything of value, but “You lose an umbrella? I get an umbrella.”) Ken immediately drove the man to his destination then headed back to the woman’s apartment.
There, Ken told the doorman that the woman he had been driving had left her purse in his car. In fact, she had already realized she’d left it and the doorman told Ken to head up to her apartment.
“You never know what reward you’re gonna get from her ... after all, she’s a stripper,” he added slyly.
While Ken did not know what to expect, he certainly didn’t expect what he saw: Blood everywhere, on the walls, the ceiling, even the cat. The woman was holding a razor to her wrist.
Ken had interrupted a suicide attempt, and the woman standing in front of him had had the incredible luck of leaving her purse in the cab of possibly the only taxi driver in New York City who happened to have a Master’s degree in psychology. He convinced her to call 911 and get rid of the hordes of pills littering the room. Ken tells me, “I left right away and started telling the story to friends.”
In the next 14 years Ken climbed his way up the social work ladder, eventually taking a job running a homeless shelter. However, crises abounded, and as he began to hate his work more and more, his girlfriend of six years became very ill and he decided to marry her. Wanting to be at peace with his professional life when he married, Ken returned a year ago once more to the post that he describes as a “moving talk show.” On Valentine’s Day, Ken brought his now-healthy wife with him for the ride and received many an invitation for drinks from couples in the backseat.
With all of his experiences over three decades, Ken certainly sees himself as a one-of-a-kind cabbie. He describes himself as very “relaxed about the rules,” often telling passengers with cigarettes to “smoke ’em if ya got ’em” and wishing that he could just “serve martinis and have a lounge atmosphere.” He is likely the only white, middle-aged, Jewish taxi driver with a Master’s in psychology who plays jazz music. Ken has even had the pleasure of taking fares from Cecil Taylor, a jazz legend who used to play with Miles Davis, and Amiri Baraka, the former poet laureate of New Jersey.
Ken is also keenly aware of the differences between New York City of the 1980s, when he first drove a cab, and the city now. He calls what was once known as “the city that never sleeps,” “the city that gets a damn good night’s sleep” as he tells me that the nightlife has died down considerably. He explains that most of his transports are from “Williamsburg to the East Village,” since most of his fares are trendy hipsters and not hookers, artists and strippers they once were. He has also seen the number of foreign drivers increase, many of them immigrants, and most not as eager to chat with their customers as he is.
My father, after finishing medical school and attending business school at Northwestern University, now works as a senior health-care consultant. While my dad still waits at LaGuardia Airport for hours ... just as he did in his taxi-driving days ... it’s now for a limo.
Both he and Ken consider themselves anomalies among the ranks of cabbies, however, they are certainly not the only ones who seem overqualified for their profession. There are plenty of lawyers, businessmen, doctors, teachers, politicians and future professionals out there, who are, once were or will be proud corporals fighting the good war against walking and subways. Perhaps the next time you step into a cab, you will be in the presence of a future congressman, someone who will cure cancer, or even the physicist who will figure out how string theory solves contradictions between the fundamental forces of nature. But you may never learn this about your cab driver because English is probably not his first language.
My father and Ken took very different paths, but each is very happy with the choices he made. Ken doesn’t see his job as work: he loves to drive, he loves to meet people, loves the city, and loves getting paid to do these things. My father has created a comfortable life for his wife and four children - a lawyer, an entrepreneur, an aspiring writer, and a lively eleven-year-old - and while he certainly enjoys his work, he describes it as simply a means to an end to provide for his family.
While most people are surprised when I tell them that my dad used to drive a cab, their surprise turns to understanding as soon as they step into a car with him. He knows the shortcuts and manages to make record time everywhere he drives, and always steers with one hand. He has taught my brothers and me how to navigate the streets like pros.
I often wonder how exactly I would handle having to drive a taxi to pay for my education. I get tired around 11 p.m.; I’m afraid of the dark; and I have trouble driving from my house to school without getting lost. I feel only pride as I relay my father’s tale to anyone who will listen, especially if that person is sitting in the front seat of a New York City taxicab.