The “Happy Cabbie!” and other New York taxi adventures
There’s a decent chance that he’s driving out there as I am writing this…
Nearing dawn. As soon as we passed the tollbooths and the NYPD security checkpoint, and cruised out of the Midtown Tunnel and onto the LI Expressway, the interior of the car suddenly lit up with flashing disco lights on the ceiling, strings of colored lights lining the windows, and dangling tinsel. The driver, who’d been totally silent through Manhattan, also suddenly lit up: “I am the Happy Cabbie!”
He was remarkably thin, had a tufty beard, and wore a yarmulke. He turned up the volume of the Top-40 radio station to blast, and began to loudly sing along- turning his head to us sitting in the backseat, yelling questions to us. “Do you like Michael Jackson!?!?!” The taxi was gradually gaining speed and every so often, he’d return emphatically to the main theme, cheerfully shouting over again: “I am the Happy Cabbie!”. He certainly did seem happy- joyous at least. “Being miserable is a waste of time” he yelled over whatever pop-dance hit was thundering out of the speakers. This was about when our initial “wtf?” wariness began to dissolve. It was a cool night, we were tearing down the highway through the lights of Queens, and the wind was sweetly battering our faces. – What else to do? – We joined in- dancing and singing along in full force. It was a party.
Most New York taxi drivers keep to themselves, listening to the radio or having muted conversations through their bluetooths in any number of languages. This is usually a good thing. The taxi is a refuge of sorts, a moving oasis of silence amidst the city chaos. Sit back and enjoy the view….
But once in a while.
– – Going to a show on a late Saturday afternoon. One of those “master-of-the-road” drivers. Aggressively fast- ripping through red lights with total contempt of others. He told us that he called this car “Black Death”, but that he had another, “more badass” car, called something even more threatening. But sadly, the day before, in the early morning, he’d driven it into a cyclist in Soho. The poor guy was flung up against the windshield and thrown to the pavement, his bike mangled. Somehow, I guess it all worked out. The biker had apparently walked away fine, and the police presumably let this madman back on the road. Luckily, we were only in “Black Death”, and not the cycle-crushing beast. Still, this was of no comfort- recounting this sort of tale to your passengers while the speedometer is pushing 90 is more than a little unhinged.
Suddenly traffic came to a standstill, which gave him time to share his biography – his girlfriends, his nebulous criminal record… Eventually, after many rambling minutes, the topic turned to his beloved mother. He helped maintain her house, did repairs, etc.. Last Thanksgiving he was building something or other in her garage, and nearly hacked off his entire finger with a power saw. As the traffic cleared, and we suddenly hit 90 mph again, he insisted that we examine the scar. When we got to where we were going, he handed us his card. “Call me if you need a ride home. I’m available anytime”. One has to wonder if anyone ever takes him up on that offer.
Flat tires are always a strange surprise. Suddenly you’re stranded in some wasteland between here and there. You need to get going, but it doesn’t seem right to leave the driver high and dry. Though once it’s clear that a tow truck is coming, we bolt. No big.
This happened once on the middle of the Queensboro Bridge. High above the East River, the tire popped, the rims grinding the pavement. The driver managed to make it across the river and onto the shoulder of an exit ramp. Same deal – stay with the guy until help is coming, then get another car. This is a desolate area at night, and what’s more, we were in full Marie Antoinette-era costumes from the party we’d just hosted – powdered wigs and the whole nine. Total sore thumbs adrift in the industrial waste. Naturally, we grabbed the first car that came along.
It was only when getting home that I realized – my backpack was still in the broken taxi, now miles away, and surely towed. There are something like 40,000 yellow cabs in the city. You leave something behind and it disappears to who knows where. And if you don’t have the taxi’s medallion (ID) number, as was my case, there’s no trail to follow. The chances of recovery were nearly hopeless. But the items in this bag were quite important to me, so I gave it my full-on try. I called police stations, 311, lost and found, anywhere that might help. To no avail- the city information infrastructure is a shameful mess.
However – the next day, my friend was flipping through pictures on his phone – one of which was of the flat tire. and – The medallion number had barely made it into the shot!
With this number I could find the garage, who could find the driver. He’d saved my bag and we met at a corner in Manhattan. When I thanked him, he said with a heavy accent: “I do this for humanity”.
7H10 – I’ll not soon forget that number. Nor will I forget the other drivers who have gone out of their way to return misplaced things to us.
There’s a fading set of stereotypes of the New York cabbie. The no-nonsense tough guy driver. The talkative “how ’bout dem Yankees” driver. The therapist driver – reading their passengers and offering sage advice. The brooding nocturnal Travis Bickle, cursing urban depravity…
Of course, cab culture has changed dramatically. And nostalgics may pine for the past. But no matter what – there are plenty of colorful rides out there waiting to surprise, terrify, or inspire some hope in people.