May 25, 2008

New York Taxi Times--Part One

For six years over a 15-year period, I drove a yellow taxi at night in New York City, beginning in the early 70's and ending in the late 80's. I've never written about it much, because I was wary of getting it wrong or leaving out the important stuff, and memory is tricky. Over that span of time, so many things changed: The City changed, people and places changed, the government and our society changed, and I changed. Nobody can stop change, and only a fool would try. The only thing that never seemed to change were the pigeons and rats, and the poor, tired horses slaving and drooping on 59th Street, waiting for tourists who want to ride through Central Park. Whole buildings disappear overnight. Bumpy streets suddenly are smoothed out and become rutted and potholed again a month later. Traffic is hell or it is light. A good driver learns the streets and the lights, and after awhile he knows the city like a cop knows criminals. I used to feel that I was leading the traffic or pushing a herd of cars all over the city. Sometimes Broadway is a sea of yellow. The horn is the essential survival tool, and a "New York minute" is that space of time between when the light turns green and the guy behind starts honking his horn. The most common mechanical failures of a taxi are the ball joints and wheel bearings, and if a driver hears one grinding and fails to park and call for a tow, he or she can lose the job quicker than a lizard's tongue.. The swanky nightclub named Hippopotamus, where limos blocked 60th Street beside the Queensboro Bridge, and where Jackie Kennedy is reputed to party, suddenly closes, and within a month a new club opens, and the limos disappear, until another Jackie-type validates the place. You know where the "in-place" is by the limos and expensive cars blocking the street, and by the presence of the better-dressed prostitutes, who patrol the edges hunting for big money. When I began driving a cab after my last shot at getting back into the newspaper game failed, Times Square was a street brothel of porno stores with masturbation booths lining 42nd Street. After enough complaints in the pages of the New York Times, the cops made periodic sweeps and drove the whores over to 11th Avenue. They would return in a few weeks, dressed in shorts and heels, picking up Johns and hailing cabs. I transported hundreds of them, but wouldn't pander to tourists who thought every cab driver was a pimp. Of course, I knew where they were. I knew where the posh whorehouses of Park Avenue were hidden, and I knew where the sex clubs like Plato's Retreat and others were. If someone asked for one by name, I obliged . I tried to be a good taxi driver. I never took the long way on purpose, never shortchanged anybody, and --unless I was feeling frightened or nervous or they just looked too desperate or bad--never passed anyone by because of their race; but drivers both black and white who say they never did that are probably lying. The practice of taking people where they wanted to go lost me a lot of money, and sometimes endangered my life; but there were benefits as well. Doing things against my own interests, well, what can I say. I've been doing it all my life for one reason or another that seemed right at the time. A ride back from the South Bronx or Co-op City or Flatbush in an empty cab on a busy night can lose a driver a hundred dollars, so have some sympathy for the guy with his off-duty light on, he might be in debt over his eyebrows and losing valuable time. I've had prostitutes servicing their customers in the back seat and people shooting dope and smoking crack. Most times I put a stop to it, but other times I just let it go. I didn't have time for arguments that could turn deadly and change nothing. I'd get disgusted or find a wild hair up my butt and leave the racket for awhile to do something else--carpentry or painting usually, or just getting the hell out of New York to see what was going on in California. And then, for one reason or another, I was back in New York relying on my trusty hack license and my familiarity with the city. (I cannot get lost in New York.) I'd lived in and around New York since 1964. And everything changed all of the time. Old classic Broadway theaters closed despite public protests by actors and New York's cultural elites, making way for large hotels booked two years in advance for the Times Square spectacle of seeing the ball drop, and another excuse to party. I have been to every fancy place in town, but seldom or never went inside. I know where the private club is on 58th Street where Henry Ass Kissinger dines, and I know where the monster lives. I took hundreds of famous and not-so-famous people to Max's Kansas City on lower Park Avenue and finally went inside to see what all the fuss was about. People were having so much fun it scared me back out the door. You can see that I'm not much of a party guy. It's a matter of some regret to me that I've never given a party in my life. But I'm a gregarious and talkative person sometimes, and most of my customers liked me and tipped me well. I'm sure that others hated my guts. Maybe they were in a bad mood or I was. Maybe a cab driver had cheated or insulted them, or maybe they just didn't like taxi drivers. The job's not high on the social ladder. You see a lot of class-ism when you drive a cab, and it's not hard to tell the newly-rich from old wealth. Some wealthy people are very nice and democratic, and some have their noses so high in the air you have to pry it off the ceiling to get them to pay the fare. New wealth is uncertain and often arrogant. I tried never to expect a tip so I would never be disappointed, but sometimes I did anyway, and those were the times when I was disappointed. Poor people who can least afford it tip the most. Some cabs are dirty; filthy, in fact. Some of them smell bad. The windows of some look like they have cataracts, and some are such rattletraps they belong in the back alleys of Islamabad or Baghdad. Some drivers don't bathe enough, and many can't speak English very well, or at all. That's how it is, and that's how it's always been. Cab-driving has always been an entry-level position into our country, even back when it was horse cabs driven by Irish or Italians. In London, I heard, a potential taxi driver had to pedal around for a year on the twisting, impossible streets on a bicycle with a map on the handlebars before he ever sits behind the wheel of their famous taxis. But in New York, a driver's license and a hack license (and now rudimentary classes) are all that's required to sit a maniac behind the wheel, giving him the power of life and death over his terrified passengers. But I kept myself and my taxi clean, and I swept the car out before each shift, and cleaned the windows inside and out, if they needed it. Most of the time, I obviously looked like a hippie or at least an iconoclast, but the truth is that I was (and still am) a Yippie. You know what a Yippie is? A political hippie. I probably can't pinpoint a time when I was not stoned on grass behind the wheel, to tell the honest truth. But I had only one accident, driving empty at 3 a.m. up Hudson Street returning from Brooklyn in the last year I drove. A drunk came speeding the wrong way down a one-way street, and I broadsided him on the passenger side in an intersection just below Canal. Fortunately no one was hurt. I was that rare driver who wore his seat belt and wouldn't take a cab out if it didn't have one for me and three for the passengers. Sometimes I made the passengers wear theirs as well, which was a pleasant surprise for some New Yorkers. Sometimes, white people would get in expressing surprise and pleasure that I wasn't black or a Singh (pronounced "Seek.") They are the Indians with turbans who are known to be aggressive and argumentative. It was Indira Gandhi's Singh bodyguards who shot her dead for violating one of their temples and supposedly attacking their religion. I've known cab drivers who had been doctors in Africa, or philosophers with Ph.Ds from Columbia University; the first unlicensed to practice in the U.S., the second too smart, too sensitive, or too stoned to work for the Demonic Bank of Compassionate Capitalism. In the 1930's, refugee Jews from Europe, who knew the value of unions, formed the Taxi Driver's Union, which was a fair union, until Italian mobsters took it over in the 50's and 60's. The mobsters consolidated their rule and sanctified their sellout about the time I started driving. In the 40's, there were a lot of Puerto Rican drivers, and later the orientals from Korea and China came in; then the Indians, Pakistanis, and so on. Most of the Jews retired or got out of the business some other way. Today, without knowing for sure, I bet there are a lot of Arabs bouncing over those old streets and glaring at the Jews. When I started, drivers got 43% of the meter for six months, when their take rose to 49% and the company's shrank to 51%. The company paid for gas and oil and did all the mechanicals. The union mobsters sold us out "for a dime," when they made a deal with the owners, a different group of mobsters, to tack a 10-cent surcharge onto each ride. The dime went into private pockets, and the companies gained immunity from union trouble, so they could do whatever they wanted. Actual pension plans for drivers and their dependents are low, mean and absurd. Now the business is back to "horse-hiring," which was the way it was before the Jews made the union. Horse-hiring means that drivers rent cabs for escalating rates and pay for the gas and oil themselves. It means that the driver must make his "nut" for the next day, before he makes a dime for himself. With this deal, a slow Monday or Yom Kippur (when observant Jews don't ride) can leave a driver with $20 for a night's work, or even less, sometimes leaving him without his nut. Naturally, horse-hiring does not promote happiness among drivers, but, being Americans with an ingrained hatred of anything that is in the best interests of the working class--like good unions--or immigrants from countries that never saw a union, they are trapped between that famous rock and a hard place. It you want to know how many Jews live in New York, go out on the night of Yom Kippur and see them walking the streets in groups, while a river of empty yellow cabs flows by. The busiest night of the year is St. Patrick's Day, but five will get you ten dollars that someone will puke in the back seat before the night is over. A taxi ride in New York is still pretty cheap, though. Take one in New Orleans if you don't believe it. A New Orleans taxi driver tried to charge me $20 for a four-block ride from the train station to Lee Circle, about five blocks. I walked it. So it goes, as a famous author said too much..

I picked up a lot of famous people, including John Lennon, Bella Abzug, and Susan Sarandon (whom I asked for a date,) and some who were not famous at all, but historic personalities like the first Chinese ambassador to the United Nations on his first day at work. I drove John Lewis and Milt Jackson to the last concert of the Modern Jazz Quartet at Carneigie Hall. I picked up Philly Joe Jones the great drummer and dropped him and his wife at the Grammercy Park Hotel. They were very nice, and Phlly Joe said that Miles Davis was actually "a nice guy," but I had heard otherwise, though I still love his sound. I had so many movie stars in my taxi that I've forgotten them. Every now and then I see one in a movie and remember. "Hey, I picked that guy up in my taxi." Normal people don't usually believe me, because they never meet movie stars and imagine that they ride around in limousines all of the time. Most of them were pretty nice people, and some had driven taxis themselves when they were just starting out. I hit it off with Susan Sarandon because I knew she showed up at antiwar rallies. I took Dean Martin to a hotel in Manhattan with a woman who was not his wife. Harry Chapin and I drove at the same time out of Metro garage on 57th Street. We sat together at shape-up (waiting for your taxi at shift change,) and talked some. I never even knew he was a musician until his first album came out. I picked up opera stars and singers and ballerinas and pulled up at Lincoln Center hundreds of times but never went there once to see anything. My favorite famous customers were Geraldine Paige and John McEnroe. Two of the friendliest and most down-to-earth famous people I ever met. One early evening I was driving west on 14th Street when a lady with dark sunglasses and a scarf hailed me and got in.
"Are you incognito?" I joked.
"Yes! Do you recognize me?"
"No. What's your name?"
"Geraldine."
"Paige?"
"Yes, that's me. I've got curtain call in 30 minutes. Can you make it?" I told her maybe. "Take Eighth Avenue," she said. I told her that was a mistake, we should go up Tenth, but she said to take Eighth anyway, so I did, and hit a jam that was moving like an inchworm up a blade of grass. Everyone was going to the theater district just like us.
"Maybe you were right," she laughed. We were stuck. "So," she began the conversation by reading my hack license, "You are Michael Lee Havenar. Where are you from?" Thus began one of the best conversations I ever had with anyone. She was a lovely person. I don't remember all of what we talked about, Plays, literature and films, probably. The only thing I remember telling her was that the only actors I knew were Judith Malina, Julien Beck and Steve ben-Israel of The Living Theater.
"I went to acting school with Judith!" she exclaimed. "I didn't realize how heavy she was!" In those days, "heavy" meant profound. The Living Theater was an anarchist group involved in the social and political issues of the day. They had been beaten in Brazil and locked up in Italy for performing plays for workers that dictator-governments didn't like. The plays stirred them up and belittled the claims of capitalism and showed the cultural contradictions endemic to the rotten, antisocial and godless capitalist system. Oh, it was a wonderful 40-minute ride, and I still get a warm feeling about it, two decades later. By the time I reached her destination, 10 minutes late for curtain call, I was almost in love with Geraldine Paige. She wrote my name down and said she would leave two tickets at the boxoffice for me to see her in "First Person Singular." I couldn't make it, and gave them to my ex-wife, who saw it with her sister and said it was very good.

Another time I was waiting in line at LaGuardia Airport when three men with strange-looking bags put the bags beside me in the front and directed me to a hotel near JFK airport. I looked at the bags and asked, "What are you guys, mountain-climbers?"
"No, tennis," said one.
"Oh."
"You like tennis?" I said it was okay, but I had never played it.
"But I like this guy McEnroe," I said.
"Why do you like him?"
"I like the way he humiliated the British." That cracked them up.
"This is John here," he said, pointing to the man in the middle, who extended his hand and said thank you. We laughed at the coincidence for awhile, and the conversation got warm and personal. They were as interested in me as I was in them. McEnroe was really a warm and pleasant man. He was a middle-class guy from Queens who had stunned the upper class tennis crowd with his playing and a famous temper, but he was smart about it. Money and fame hadn't turned his head or made him forget his roots. A taxi driver sees this stuff.
"My sister-in-law's in love with you," I told him.
"Give me her phone number," he cracked. (I should have.)
When they left, he gave me an autograph I requested for Mary and a $20 tip. That was a good tip for a short ride. They were on their way to China for a meet, and wanted to be close to the airport for a morning flight. I loved seeing McEnroe on television--when I watched the damned thing-- and think that his talk show was one of the best.
John Lennon was the only famous person I ever froze up around, because I loved him so much I was afraid to say anything banal that might make him dislike me. (Self-esteem wasn't my strong suit.) It wasn't only his music, but his politics as well, that turned me on. I don't have idols (false gods,) but I do have heroes, and John is near the top of my list. I was coming down Second Avenue from Harlem at 2 a.m., tired as hell, when a man ran from the doorway of the bar, "Home," at 91st Street and flagged me down.
"I have a fare for you. I want you to take him to the Pierre Hotel." That's the one on 61st Street and Fifth Avenue where Rockefeller lived in a spaceship on the top floor. He started back inside, when the thought of cleaning up vomit occurred to me, and I asked if the fare was drunk. Bartenders offload their problem-drinkers into cabs all the time, and it's usually a pain in the butt.
"No, he's okay," he reassurred. He opened the door and said something and John Lennon emerged. He wore that colorful leather cap and his famous round dark sunglasses. He climbed in and asked, "Does he know where to go?"
"Yes. The Pierre Hotel," he said again.
Driving away with my precious cargo I met his sunglasses in the rearview mirror and said, "Hello John."
"Hello," he said.
I couldn't think of a thing to say to him. I was sure he'd heard it all before, how much they loved his music, and when were the Beatles going to get back together? I couldn't imagine the crowd that he hung with. At the time, I learned later, he was hanging in Home (where a yellow British Norton was usually parked on the sidewalk) with Harry Nielsen, and producing the album, "Pussy Cats." One of the things that John liked about New York, I'd heard, was that people pretty much left him alone and respected his privacy. We see famous people all the time, and it's not something that many New Yorkers gawk at or go ga-ga over. Tourists, maybe. I saw Walter Cronkite several times and never said a word to him. Once I saw Woody Allen standing on Park Avenue talking to a guy, and honked my horn at him. We waved, and I felt like I was in one of his movies. I merely nodded in recognition at Robert DeNiro walking the opposite direction on Ninth Avenue early one morning. I never would have approached any of them on the street and intruded into their lives. Public people do not belong to the public anymore than you or I do. So I clammed up with John, and he settled back into his seat. I did make an initial try at conversation but it went nowhere:
"I'm a lot like you, man," I said before turning on 79th Street.
"That right?"
"That's right," I affirmed. He said nothing else, and I felt silly having said it. He was a talented artist, and I was a cab driver. How could we have been very much alike? I shut up and concentrated on my driving.
I wanted to tell him about my mother the way he'd told us about his. I wanted to tell him I was sorry about the dispute he and Yoko had had with a taxi driver in L.A., which had been in the news. I wanted to say that I was overjoyed that he'd won his legal fight with the Nixon tyranny in the Supreme Court, and finally had a Green Card allowing him to work in the U.S. I wanted to say I liked his solo albums as much or more than I liked the Beatles, because they were truthful and brave. But I bet he heard that kind of stuff all the time, so I didn't say any of them. Still, I wanted to give him something in return for the gifts he'd given me, this great artist, who transformed all that he undertook with the magic blessing of art. But what could I give John Lennon? Somewhere between Lexington and Fifth Avenue, I hit on it. I would give him a free ride.
Another cab occupied the space at the canopy of the Pierre Hotel, where the doorman was assisting passengers getting out. I pulled in behind and even with the canopy for the Pierre Restaurant, which was closed and darkened.
"It's free," I announced, putting the vehicle in park and picking up my clipboard. There was no answer. I turned to see John curled into the fetal position in the corner, sound asleep.
"Hey, John," I called softly. Nothing. I said it a little louder. Still he slept. finally I shook his leg and said it again. He woke with a start and said, "Huh?"
"Here it is," I said.
"Where?"
"There," I said, pointing.
"How much?"
"It's free."
There was a pause. About four beats.
"Why?" I hadn't expected that. My voice felt strained and my chest was tight.
"Because I like you man." It came out sounding defensive.
Four beats.
"Thank you," he said, getting out and closing the door.
"You're welcome," I said.
As I logged the ride on the trip ticket, I looked left to see him groping to open the restaurant door. With those dark glasses, he couldn't see that it was closed. I thought he would figure it out and drove away. Halfway down the block, I realized he might be thinking, "No wonder it was a free ride. He brought me to the wrong place."
My next ride was two attractive women I picked up on Third Avenue. I was elated at having picked up John Lennon and told them of my good luck.
"Where did you take him?" they inquired excitedly.
"The Pierre Hotel."
"Take us there!" I told them that it was a fancy place full of expensive rooms and apartments, and they would never get in.
"How much did he tip you?" asked one.
"I gave him a free ride."
"You're a fool, man!" she exclaimed. But the other woman liked what I had done, and gave me her name and phone number in Sherman Oaks, California, and said to call her if I was ever out that way. A few years later, I was, and called her. But she was enroute to San Francisco, so we never got together. And I never felt like a fool for it. I had to give the poor guy something, and that was all I had to give.

1 comment:

Dave Emerson said...

Getting on a taxi will be my first choice when I planned to tour around the city.

Lexington Taxi service

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