Thursday, May 28, 2009

New York Taxi Moment

This week, friends are coming in from out of town. They, too, live in urban environments, so instances of city rudeness are not unknown to them, especially on the road, I imagine. (How many times a day does someone in Southern California get exposed to a dose of road rage?). But when it comes to rude, New Yorkers—especially the cab drivers—have earned a reputation over the years, not wholly undeserved. Actually, I think that people in the city (including the cabbies) have trended much more toward nice in the past decade, though maybe "nice" is just a relative term. Certainly there was a post-9/11 shift. Of course I hope that my friends have only the best experiences in public transportation during the next few days, but in case of any rudeness, I thought I'd share a story to convey that it happens to all of us sooner or later, even the locals—so it's not necessary to ask whether you, when you visit New York City as a tourist, are a target; odds are, it's nothing to do with you whatsoever. As for me, I have only ever written down a cab's medallion number once, and, unfortunately, it wasn't the time I lost a wallet on my way home one evening. No, I wrote down the number of the most obnoxious cab driver I've ever had  the displeasure of having—plus the locations and time of day of pickup and drop-off. I was on the West Side, on or near 57th Street and Ninth Avenue, close to my apartment at the time. This was a couple of years ago at most. I don't remember exactly where I was heading, but it was way across town; I think my journey had something to do with appointments for kindergarten admissions for my son. (If you don't know about the hellish circus that is the NYC kindergarten admissions season, I'm sure it'll turn up in some other post, but trust me: this time of your life is really not the time you want to cope with surly, insulting, incompetent cab drivers!) Things started out all right. We zipped across Central Park to the East Side, then we started hitting the red lights and traffic congestion. I had started my trip slightly on the wrong side of running late, and I remember being concerned about the time. If you're not familiar with the New York grid, the blocks that take you East-West are double or triple the length of the ones running North-South. Crosstown blocks are not really where you want to get stuck. So we're moving at what is now a snail's pace, and then there's a break in the traffic; we can advance. The driver speeds up for several car-lengths, then skids to a halt. He rolls down the front passenger side window and starts talking to a young woman and a man who are standing on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone building, two huge rolling suitcases between them. It takes me a second to realize that he is prowling for his next fare. Is it me, or does it seem completely inappropriate to you, too, that we've stopped in the middle of the street, the meter still running on my ride, so that the driver can negotiate a trip to JFK or LaGuardia or Newark? At this point, we weren't all that far from where I needed to be, but, given the time, it was too far—too many long blocks—for me to get out and walk the rest of the way. So the driver keeps up his wheeling and dealing. Had there been anyone driving behind us, the situation would have taken care of itself: horns would start blaring, and we'd be moving along. But isn't that the way? When you don't want gridlock, you've got it bad. When you could actually profit from some impatient horn-blowing behind you, there's no one to be found. I had to goad the driver on myself. All right . . . I mention to him that the meter's running, and could he continue on, because I'm about to be late for an appointment. I'm sure there was more than a hint of irritation in my voice. If it had just ended there, I wouldn't have thought more about it. Unfortunately, the driver then proceeded to trump me in rudeness beyond belief. Because I dared speak up, he gives me this hostile look in the rearview mirror, then keeps talking to the people on the sidewalk. I tell him he's got to move on, at which point he starts swearing at me. F---ing b----, what the f---, and so on. But he does accelerate. Does he ever. He's now mad at me for queering his next (more lucrative) deal, and I start to wonder if his solution is to do everything possible to put me in harm's way, hoping I'll break something in an accident. I wouldn't put that kind of twisted logic past him; he was also continuing his stream of cursing. But we do arrive at my destination, at which point he indicates the full fare to pay. I had my wallet out already—I had used my pen and the back of a business card to write down the cab's identifying numbers—and I pulled out the fare minus a dollar. I knew he'd really start shouting at me then, but I didn't care. I told him that was all I had, that the last dollar could be paid by the people on the sidewalk if they were still there when he circled back around, and that was that. I jumped out of the cab, for the first time refusing to give even a penny's tip. He gave me more of his tongue lashing, but screeched off, leaving me in his dirty exhaust. I looked at my watch: right on time, and actually I was feeling not bad at all. In the end, I threw away the information I'd written down. After all, what was I going to do, call up and complain that some city cab driver had been rude? I'll leave that to others (some tourists maybe), although, as I've said already, I certainly hope that my visiting friends have no reason to complain this week. "Welcome to New York, and may all your cab rides be safe and pleasant! Have a nice day."

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