More Like Taxi Than Taxi Driver

Taxi (which aired from 1978 until 1983 and is still fun to watch on DVD) purported to bring you into the Sunshine Cab Company’s garage. As a genuine ex-New York City taxicab driver I thought I might share some thoughts on how realistic… or not, the show was.

I’ll wait while you check who is writing this article. Yes, it is I, the PJ Media attorney; the “little woman” to the PJ Lifestyle editor; the lady who wrote about her love affair with a dishwasher. Yes, I was a genuine, complete with a NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission hack license, cab driver in NYC while I was in law school. Happy now? Can we get back to the story?

I was going to compare driving a real taxi in NYC with the TV show Taxi, and I bet you’re going to say that it was just totally fake, right?  Well it was not so far from reality.

The garage that I drove out of might well have doubled for an aircraft hangar, but if you took a teeny, tiny corner of it, it looked just like the Sunshine Cab company’s garage where Danny DeVito reigned as Louie De Palma. And yes, the dispatcher sat in a cage, quite like Louie’s. The dispatcher would hand you a car assignment when you came to work and took your cash box at the end of the day. This of course was the draw for a student — you got your tips and your share of what was in the cash box the same day that you worked.

Another advantage for a student is that no one cared if you worked on Monday and then took Tuesday and Wednesday off and wanted to work again on Thursday. The only thing that counted was getting to the garage before the cars were all allocated. More specifically getting to the garage before the cabs with working A/C were all gone in the summer, and before the cabs with working heaters were gone in the winter.

There were more drivers than cars, so the cab company didn’t care when you worked. If you showed up early, you got a cab, if you showed up late, you could wait and see if someone brought back a cab early or could take one that lacked some creature comforts. So for a student it meant you could make some money when you had no homework, and could skip work when you had exams.

We didn’t have anyone who was as wacky as Jim Ignatowski but there were some strange folks out there in the cab line. None were as strange as the “doctor” who gave me my physical for the hack license. I think there are cheap abortion clinics in Tijuana with higher sanitary standards. And if I had to compare him with anyone in a taxi-related TV show or movie, I would say he was closer to Taxi Driver, than Taxi. The good part was that after the physical driving, the streets was not all that scary.

But driving the streets was competitive driving at its best… or worst. The professional drivers, the Alex Riegers, drove the streets of Manhattan. They cruised along, looking for pedestrians who, the pros could tell, were thinking about raising their hand in the New York signal that means “Hey Cabbie.”

Professional cabbies can cross 4 lanes of traffic to get to a fare before the fare’s hand is fully in the air and way before an amateur driver who might be only 2 to 3 feet further back, but on the same side of the street as the pedestrian, got there. This is a skill only gained over years of practice which is often cut short by bad accidents and the loss of your hack license.

So the amateurs often “did the airports.” Doing the airport means you drive out to Kennedy or LaGuardia and go to the cab waiting line. This is not a line, but a huge parking area where cabs wait and are routed in order by a dispatcher. To prevent having drivers sit in their cabs and move 1 foot a minute, the lines are moved up in a staggered manner allowing the drivers to turn off their cabs.

The airport cab lines are where the TV show becomes somewhat more real.  The idea that cabbies would sit around in the garage when they could be out making money is crazy. But on a nice day, in the airport lines, you really did see students with philosophy, economics and in my case law books sitting on their cab’s hood studying. You did see actors rehearsing for auditions. The airport lines are where the socializing took place, and since the cab area was “catered” by an excellent roach coach, it’s where we took our meals.

Because the fare from Kennedy is usually pretty high, even with an hour or two wait for a fare, an amateur might make as much “doing the airport” as driving the streets.   You might ask yourself, why wait in the line for 2 hours for a fare.  Why not just drive by arrivals and pick up some harried traveler who’s not waiting on the passenger taxi line?  The reason is simple.

In New York there are licensed cabs and unlicensed cabs, and licensed drivers and unlicensed drivers. Only licensed drivers can drive yellow cabs. A licensed driver who is seen picking up a fare from the curb at an airport can and probably will lose his license. And whether it’s true or whether it’s an “old cabby’s tale” but I was told on my first day at Kennedy that the very day before I started, a gypsy cabbie (an unlicensed cab driver) had been stabbed when he attempted to bypass the line. I don’t know about you, but that was enough to keep me in line.

I never told either of my parents I was driving a cab during law school. I figured they would just worry. I actually never did tell my mother. When I told my father a few years later, he told me he was quite glad he hadn’t known, but I think secretly he got a kick out of the whole thing.

Unlike the TV show, not many funny stories came out of my days as a cabby. Mostly I drove, risked a ticket by not picking up people I felt a bit uncomfortable about (it’s illegal in NYC for a licensed cabby not to pick someone up while their “On Duty” sign is lit), and tried to schmooze my fares because I got great tips when people found out I was working my way through law school driving a cab.

But I had one quintessential “New Yorkers are good people” moment. I picked up a guy who asked to go to a bar on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel. No, I don’t know if his last name was Soprano. I headed off towards the west side and my fare fell asleep. As I was approaching the bar (he had given me pretty good directions before he conked out), I was hoping he wasn’t dead or passed out. Luckily as I pulled up to the bar and stopped the cab, he woke up. I had already figured if he gave me trouble about paying, I would just drive away.  But he paid me and got out of the cab on his own steam.

Before I could pull out of the lot a NY Port Authority cop pulled up next to my cab and came over to me.  “Are you OK?” he asked. I said yes and looked a bit surprised. Apparently the toll-taker at the tunnel had noticed this young female cabby with a big guy asleep in the back of the cab and called the cops, who had followed me to the bar to make sure everything was OK.  That’s the part of New York I do miss.

It actually wasn’t until quite a few years after I graduated from law school and moved to California that the best NYC Cabbie thing happened to me. The board of directors, and specifically the venture capitalists on the board of one of my clients brought in an outside CEO after a few years of the founders’ foundering. He was from Philadelphia and affected a bit of a South Jersey tough guy attitude. On his first day he gave the employees a talk and said “Don’t mess with me, I’m a Philly street kid.”

Well he didn’t last long… I think actually it was only four days before he took a plane back east, but he failed to actually resign. I was given the job of firing him.  He was not entirely gracious about it, and again started in on his Philly street kid speech. Although to be honest, having run home after only four days didn’t say much for his toughness. Finally I just said I’m not sure why you think I’m going to be impressed with your Philly street kid routine, I’m pretty sure when it comes to street cred, New York City cabbie trumps Philly street kid any day.

It was a very satisfying moment.