Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Strike Two

From today's New York Times:

October 23, 2007
Something Money Can’t Buy

Like all labor disputes, the one-day strike by taxi drivers yesterday turned on tangible matters, in this case credit card machines, global positioning systems and the like. But it was also about an intangible, something that cabbies often feel they are denied. It is called respect. It is called dignity.

“It’s 100 percent about respect,” said Jahangir Alam, one of a couple of hundred drivers who rallied in protest yesterday outside the Lower Manhattan offices of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. “There’s no respect for cab drivers. As a driver, you have no control. It’s like I’m a slave.”

Mr. Alam’s feelings were shared by others at the afternoon rally. Again and again, the two words — dignity and respect — came up in conversations and in labor leaders’ speeches.

“They never go to the drivers to ask what we want,” John McDonagh said of city officials. Mr. McDonagh said that he has driven a cab on and off since 1977. He gives the job a rest now and again, he said, “to reclaim my humanity.”

It will be left to others to decide whether the strike was the unqualified success claimed by its organizers or the dismal bust preferred by City Hall. Either way, New York’s technophilic mayor seems unlikely to change his mind about the new gizmos that he wants in taxis.

It was hard to see how effective any work stoppage of preset length could be; most New Yorkers can survive without taxis for 24 hours and not break into cold sweats. The drivers were also not helped by the de facto strikebreaker role that City Hall played.

To help maximize taxi availability, it allowed drivers who worked yesterday to charge special rates that gave them more money than usual. Those rates amounted to “a bribe” for scabs, said Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University who was once a cabby himself and recently wrote “Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

“The people who do this job are desperate,” Professor Hodges said. When an incentive like yesterday’s special fares comes along, “you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that that will breed strikebreakers.”

Obscured by the to-ing and fro-ing over the new machines is a more basic point, namely that many drivers feel like serfs, and maligned serfs at that.

Recent immigrants for the most part, they perform a tough, lonely duty that few native Americans want to do anymore — even those Americans who are perpetually out of work. “These people work like sharecroppers,” said Edward G. Rogoff, a Baruch College professor who has studied the taxi industry. “They take the risk. They do all the worst work, and relatively speaking, they don’t get much reward for it.”

What they get instead is a steady diet of being portrayed in corners of the press as nothing but fare gougers. They are the butt of lame David Letterman jokes. They run into the borderline racism of a tabloid column that referred contemptuously last week to a generic “crazed, Tagalog-speaking cabbie.” They put up with slanderous labels like one slapped on them in 1998 by the Giuliani administration, which called them “taxi terrorists” for daring to assert their right to protest city policies.

They endure brain-numbing innovations that only City Hall suits can devise, like those maddening Elmo messages of a few years ago, the ones that screamed at passengers to buckle up and take their belongings.

Now we have a new requirement that drivers accept a credit card system that forces them to pay an unheard-of 5 percent fee on each transaction.

They must also install, at considerable expense, G.P.S. technology that is in no way designed to help them navigate city streets. What it can do, in the spirit of Elmo, is blare enough commercials all day long to make anyone batty. If these devices malfunction, as some inevitably will, drivers must get them fixed fast or find themselves effectively forced off the road.

Granted, some cabbies are their own worst enemies. They could win a lot of friends by paying more attention to passengers and ditching their cellphones, which far too many of them use while driving, in violation of city rules.

But a more fundamental concern yesterday was those two little words. They kept surfacing, as they did in a speech at the rally by Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council. “This is never about money,” he said. For the drivers, he said, “we demand dignity and respect.”

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hi! How've you been?

I've been hesitant to post here lately, mainly because I've been too busy for the past two months promoting the book (which is, of course, available for purchase using the handy little Amazon link to the right, hardy har har). And I certainly don't want to let anyone down, but I have to say, if blogging paid the bills, I'd probably do it a lot more. Writing this blog has indeed given me so much, but the truth is that for the past year or so, the book advance and some overdue settlement money from a long-ago accident are what's helped me get by, with some supplemented income from driving a cab. Call me selfish, but this is the way it is. I live in New York, for fuck's sake.

Still, I've been extremely lucky. For the past two months, I've been doing non-stop interviews to get the word out about my book. I was really happy that people were so interested, but it was weird and exhausting running around like that, answering the same questions over and over and over. Eventually, I got used to it. Plus, it was easier than driving a taxi! In fact, it wasn't totally unlike those long shifts when every single passenger that got in my backseat quizzed the shit out of me with the same exact list of questions ("How'd you get into this? Where'd you grow up? How old are you? What's it like to drive a taxi? What's next?").

What's funny is that I was being asked about driving a taxi so much that I had no time to actually drive a taxi. The side-effect of all this, however, was that after a little while, I needed a little break from thinking about, talking about, and -- yes -- writing about the damn taxi business. Which is another part of why I neglected this blog so badly.

Of course, I still find the job fascinating, and I find myself always coming back to it, no matter how hard I might try to get away. In fact, I just finished reading a great book about the history of the taxi industry in New York. I highly recommend it -- it's called "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver" by Graham Russell Gao Hodges. It really put me in my place, in a good way.

But, despite my obvious addiction to all things taxi, I'm finally working up the nerve to move on to other things. This whole thing, driving a cab in New York, started in the spirit of seeking out adventure. There was no intention to start a blog or write a book or do a hundred interviews and somehow become the spokesperson for an industry I only entered three years ago. And there was never any intention to make a career out of it and do it forever. I want to hang on to that original mindset for the next thing I do and not worry about all the other stuff, because then it feels like a trap.

Of course, I'm still working on deciding exactly what my next step will be, but I'm so excited by the idea of embarking on a brand new adventure. I've got a few ideas that I'm kicking around, but I'm not ready to talk about anything just yet.

And lastly, I haven't totally quit driving a cab. I don't think I ever will, to be perfectly honest. Now that the journalists are bored of me, I can pull a normal shift again if I need the cash. Which will be soon. And then there will be something to blog about.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The best night ever

I had an amazing night on Tuesday. So many people came out and the store sold out of my book! The whole thing was pretty damn special. A few cabbies came out, one regular passenger was in attendance, lots of friends and family, and even a bunch of people I didn't know showed up. The room was packed, all the chairs were filled, and there were crowds of people standing in the aisles! It was probably one of the best nights of my life so far.

And I get to do it again next week! If you missed this event, or liked it so much that you want more, come see me read a whole different section of the book next Tuesday, September 18th, at 7:30 at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope, Brooklyn (267 7th Avenue). Brooklyn people: Come out and represent!

In the meantime, something else amazing happened on Tuesday: I had the honor of reading an essay of mine on NPR's "All Things Considered." You can read it -- and listen to it -- by clicking here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Come celebrate with me!

Please come celebrate with me tomorrow night! I'll be reading from the book at Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village, located directly across the street from my favorite late-night cabbie hot dog place, Gray's Papaya.

There will be a party immediately following, from 8 to 10, at a place appropriately called Happy Ending. It's at 302 Broome Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge, near the Delancey F and Essex J/M/Z trains. There will be drink specials.

I'll also be reading again next Tuesday, September 18th at the B&N in Park Slope, Brooklyn (7th Ave). It'll be all different material, so it'll be worth it to come to both if you can.

I hope you can all make it!

Thursday, September 06, 2007


There's a taxi strike going on in New York right now. Some cabbies are indeed working, but there are plenty who are off the streets until tomorrow at 5:00 AM. I hope, at the very least, that all the media attention helps our cause a tiny bit.

I'm reprinting here the op-ed I wrote that was published in the City section of last Sunday's New York Times.

September 2, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

An Unwanted Passenger
By Melissa Plaut

DRIVING a taxi in New York City can be a grueling, thankless job. It is also a unionless job. But on Wednesday, many of the city’s 44,000 licensed cabdrivers are planning to go on strike for 48 hours to protest the new global positioning systems being installed in the city’s 13,000 yellow cabs.

While the Taxi and Limousine Commission supports these devices and has mandated that they be up and running in the city’s entire fleet by January, many cabdrivers — myself included — see this new technology as one big expensive headache. Perhaps the commission should listen to cabdrivers before pushing a device that we’d be better off without.

The device has no navigational abilities. The monitor, which is set into the partition separating the driver from the passenger, cannot be seen or accessed from the front of the cab. It does not give directions or plot routes. All it does is keep track of where you are — both on- and off-duty — and this information is then stored in the commission’s databases.

Officials at the commission say the primary purpose of the devices is to track lost property and make sure cabbies aren’t taking passengers from point A to point B by way of point Z. Sadly, there are some bad cabdrivers out there who take visitors for a “ride,” but in reality, we have much more to fear from our passengers than they have to fear from us.

However, for me and many of my fellow drivers, privacy issues aside, it’s all about money. With prices ranging from around $3,250 to $4,000 to lease and install each unit, the initial costs alone are enough to drive some cabbies out of business. For private owner/operators, this could kill their year.

The costs continue to pile up after the devices are installed. The test drivers who already have the touch-screens have reported finding the monitors covered in spray paint, stickers, soda and scratches.

Even without vandalism, the technology is likely to break down. New computers are often plagued with bugs, and sometimes, as every cellphone user knows, satellites can lose their signals. Because these G.P.S. devices will be linked to the taximeters, when the screen is vandalized, the computer breaks down or the satellite connection is unavailable, the meter won’t work. The driver will be forced to go off-duty and bring the car in for repairs. In a business where lost time equals lost pay, this is unacceptable.

One fleet already using the system recently lost its satellite signal, putting about 250 cabs out of commission for nearly three hours until the problem was resolved. This translated not only into fewer available cabs on the streets, but also lower incomes for those already beleaguered cabbies.

For drivers like me who lease our cabs from privately owned fleets, there isn’t the burden of paying for installation or repairs upfront, but the costs may still be passed on to us in the form of “surcharges” or “tax fees.” However the extra costs will be labeled, it boils down to the same thing: our expenses go up; our income goes down.

The only potential benefit for passengers I can see in these machines is the credit card slide. Matthew Daus, chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, is happy to tell anyone who will listen that our tips are better as a result of this, but I beg to differ. Drivers have to pay a hefty 5 percent transaction fee while most stores and restaurants are charged an average base rate of about 2 percent. So those “bigger tips,” if they exist at all, simply don’t cover the costs. And since most cabs already have the ability to take credit cards, what’s the point of installing a whole new system?

The bottom line is, once we’ve installed the G.P.S. device, paid for its maintenance, ponied up for repairs and shelled out the transaction fees, what most cabbies will be left with is, in effect, a pay cut. The fare increase in 2004 just barely caught our incomes up with inflation, bringing us to just this side of a livable wage. We should not have to pay that back now.

By turning a deaf ear to the opinions and expertise of taxi drivers, the commission has approved a design for an impractical and costly device that ultimately does not provide any useful “service enhancements” to the public. So when cabdrivers go on strike this week, we can only hope that New Yorkers will stand with us in solidarity.

There are plenty of other reasons and arguments that I didn't have the room to include. Yesterday's Metro NY newspaper was one of only a few to hint at the relationship between the companies providing the systems and the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC):
One of the firms providing the devices is owned by Ron Sherman, president of an association of garage owners. That firm’s vice president is Jed Appelbaum, a former TLC commissioner.
Hmph. Interesting.

Another NYC cabbie blogger, G.S. over at Cabs Are For Kissing, has this to say, among other things:
I think it was in 1979 that a city ordinance turned all taxi drivers into "independent contractors". This meant that if you worked out of a fleet garage you were no longer an employee, you were "self-employed" (and the fleets were no longer responsible for any benefits). Instead of paying drivers by percentages of the money they booked plus tips, the drivers now had to pay the garage a leasing fee for the use of the taxi for 12 hours, plus pay for the gas. There was no cap set on what the garages could charge (until recently, which is a good thing), so the only limit the garage owners had on their fees was by attrition of drivers. Busy nights when there were more drivers available meant higher leasing fees. And a cab driver found himself working six hours before breaking even.

Now here is the part that I consider to be a fundamental injustice: although the city made all taxi drivers "independent contractors" it retained the right to tell us what we can charge for our services. This is a blatant hypocrisy. How can anyone be an independent contractor when he can't charge what the market will bear for his services? How "independent" is that?

So it's phony. Taxi drivers are not independent contractors at all. We are actually employees who get no benefits.

But wait. It gets worse.

One would think that if the city government is going to create a taxi system that is unorganizable and then is going to mandate what we can charge for our services, a sense of fair play would ensure that the drivers are able to make a decent living. And be very diligent in increasing the rate of fare at timely intervals to keep up with inflation.

But the history over the last 29 years shows that the opposite is the case. We went from 1980 to 1987 (7 years) without a rate increase. We went from 1990 to 1996 (six years) without a rate increase. We went from 1996 to 2004 (8 years) without a rate increase. And during those years I was told very frequently by passengers in my cab that taxis in New York are much cheaper than in any other city they travelled to, reports that were verified repeatedly through all these years by industry journals and the NY Times.

What the city keeps saying is that we have to pay the 2004 rate increase back now. Apparently they only gave it to us to pay for these stupid, useless machines that we don't want.

This new technology could've been really cool, but it is being implemented in the worst and most expensive way. A good navigational GPS device costs about $500. Why do we have to pay $4000 for a system that doesn't even help us find our way when we're lost?

The taxi industry in New York is so fucked up, it's depressing. But the saddest thing of all, in my opinion, is discovering just how much the city disdains its cab drivers. Mayor Bloomberg talks about us with the utmost condescension, like we're all simple fools who know not what we do. It's offensive.

Rather than paying attention to what we have to say, he's been painting this work stoppage as our effort to "hurt" the city and its residents. We are not terrorists -- though sometimes we may drive like we are! No, rather, we are people who work under third-world sweatshop conditions in one of the richest, most sophisticated cities on the planet. But our billionaire mayor has always held a low opinion of New York's working people, so why should we expect any support from him now?

If the city displayed any faith in us at all and actually tried to improve our working conditions, our morale -- and our driving -- would also improve, and then there would be no need for such derision and no need for a strike.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Hack" + a shitty gold sedan

The book finally went on sale yesterday!!! Of course, I went to the store and bought myself a copy for good luck. I'm so psyched.

In the meantime, there was a big USA Today story about me and the book. It can be read here.

You can buy the book by clicking the Amazon link on the right of this page, or go to your local bookstore.

Thank you everybody! The past few days have been amazing, and it wouldn't have happened without the readers of this blog.

In other news, I pulled a shift Monday night (yes, I worked the night before my book went on sale) and this asshole in a shitty gold sedan (seen in the pic below) cut off all of Second Avenue, from right to left, so he could turn east, forcing about six drivers to stop short and almost causing a series of accidents. I figured I'd post his pic for old time's sake. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Human Computer

As part of maintaining a hack license, every three years cabbies have to attend a 6-hour defensive driving course. With September 11th being -- among other things -- the third anniversary of me becoming a cabbie, I recently took the class at my old taxi school, LaGuardia Community College's Taxi and For-Hire Vehicle Driver Institute.

Of course, six hours is a long time to sit in a classroom and I wasn't looking forward to it, but when I got there at 9:00 AM, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I knew the teacher. His name was Jim and he briefly had a great taxi blog of his own a while back but he took it offline for reasons unknown. Jim was a good, lively teacher, but that didn't make the day of traffic questionnaires and outdated videos go by any quicker. The boringness was only made worse by the fact that the classroom they had assigned us on this hot day in August was too small and the 20 or so guys (plus me) had to pack in there like sardines. Needless to say, the room smelled pretty ripe by 4:00 PM.

Over the course of the day we discussed such topics as the speed limit and why it matters, the effects alcohol has on the reflexes, and whether or not we thought of ourselves as good drivers. We also watched a couple of movies about road rage.

But really, the shining moment of the day was meeting a big Russian cabbie who called himself "The Human Computer." This guy had been driving a cab for ten years and his unique gift was that, if you told him your date of birth, he could instantly calculate which day of the week you were born on.

On one of the breaks, he took the opportunity to show us all a laminated New York Times article about himself that he'd brought along, and then he demonstrated his talent on each person in the room. When he got to me, he said in his thick Russian accent, "September 1st, 1975? --Have a happy Monday!"

Then he continued, "Now you tell me the birthday of your first, second, and third husbands, and I tell you which day they have." When I answered that I wasn't married, he said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I have very bad news for you: All good things must come to an end!"

Eventually, the million hour class came to its own end and I drove home with the knowledge that cars are dangerous weapons and I was born on a Monday.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Perfectly legal

I was in LA for a few days last week meeting my seven week old niece and playing with my two and a half year old nephew. I didn't do too much, but when I did go out, I drove my sister's minivan -- a big-ass Honda Odyssey complete with two baby seats and a great navigation system.

Every time I drove this thing, I had to go very very slow so that I could pay attention to the navigation system and figure out where the hell I was going. This, I'm sure, annoyed the shit of many a native LA driver. I most certainly slowed a lot of people down, and generally, when in New York and stuck behind someone like that, I myself have no sympathy.

But the most amazing thing -- and I never cease to be surprised by this no matter how much time I spend out there -- is that no one honked. Not one single person. Not even when the light was green for well over thirty seconds and I still didn't move, or when I was going 20 in a 40 trying to find the right street to turn on. Nobody got out and punched my window, no one gave me the finger. I didn't even get so much as a dirty look. It almost makes me want to move there.

Of course, the minute I got back to New York trouble found me. I landed at Kennedy Airport late Friday night and had to take a car service home. I over-thought the idea of taking a yellow cab, weighing which route would be better for me and which route would be better for the driver (basically, cheaper and more direct versus faster and more expensive) and decided I'd just use a car service based out of my neighborhood so I wouldn't have to direct him. I often find it very uncomfortable to ride in the back of a yellow cab ever since I started driving one myself.

As I waited outside the Delta terminal, there were about five or six car service drivers parked there, standing in front of the doors and soliciting people for rides to Manhattan. This, you should know, is totally illegal. It is basically poaching rides from the yellow cabs who have been waiting in the big holding lot for who knows how long, and who, when finally dispatched to the terminal, line up and wait for people to get on a line and get inside them. And the whole time, they are being monitored and controlled by a taxi dispatcher who keeps them all from cheating, competing, or otherwise causing chaos at the terminal.

These car service guys, on the other hand, are straight off the black market, completely unregulated and working hard only to hustle the unwitting out of their hard-earned bills. Car service drivers are, by law, allowed to respond only to radio calls. That's it. Picking up street hails or waiting curbside at the airport without a prior appointment is the sole domain of the yellow cab. That's what those little metal medallions -- the ones that cost about $600k last time I checked -- give us the right to do. And every time a car service driver breaks these rules, he not only breaks into our business (and therefore our incomes), he also depreciates the value of each and every medallion, making it a waste of money to buy or lease one.

Anyway, this big burly car service driver in a pink button-down shirt kept offering me a ride, saying, "Taxi? Taxi?" while I kept denying. I stood there waiting as he offered a ride to everyone who walked out the doors until, finally, I turned to him and said, "Isn't that illegal? Offering rides like that?"

He looked around at all the other gypsy drivers there and grinned, saying, "Illegal? No! It's perfectly legal."

I said, "Doesn't the TLC have rules about that? You're not supposed to solicit rides like this. You might want to check your rule book."

"TLC? Look at my license plate! It says TLC."

I replied, "I'm pretty sure you're wrong on this."

He smirked and said, "Why? You TLC?"

At this point, it was around 1:30 in the morning. I was exhausted and annoyed by this dude, and all of sudden I remembered all the times a fare that would have been mine got poached by one of these guys. They all stacked up and accumulated in my mind, and I got pissed. Don't ask me why, and I know I'll probably end up in Bellevue for this, but as I looked over at the long line of empty yellow cabs with all these tired, bored drivers inside, I decided that it made sense somehow -- that it was practically my duty to those cabbies -- to pretend that I actually did work for the Taxi & Limousine Commission.

I said, "Yes, I am. And you're lucky I'm not working right now."

Of course, he didn't take me seriously at all. And why would he? The TLC certainly doesn't do much except ticket cabbies and cash in on corporate contracts (seen a TV screen in a taxi lately?). They don't give two shits if we lose money to these guys.

He let out a huge bellow and still persisted, saying, "It's totally legal. You can't do anything!" Then he gestured to the other gypsy drivers there and said, "There's a lot of people here. What can you do? ...Nothing!" Then they all started grinning and chuckling, clearly entertained by me, and with good reason, I suppose. I did indeed look a little ridiculous , standing there in worn-out jeans and a backpack, all of five-foot-four, acting like I was some figure of authority.

But, of course, I couldn't back out of it now. I took out my phone and pretended to call some other imaginary figure from the TLC, presumably someone who could come give these guys a ticket. In reality, I called Diego.

"Hey Diego, let me ask you something: It's illegal for car services to solicit rides at the airport right?"

"Hell yeah it is. Why? What's up?"

"Okay, can you send someone over to the Delta terminal?"


I walked a few feet away and whispered, "I'm pretending to be from the TLC. I want to scare these guys away so they don't steal rides from the cabs waiting here."

Diego wasn't the slightest bit fazed. "Oh. Okay. Yeah. Those guys are such assholes." He continued, "Just last night I picked up a guy in Manhattan who got totally ripped off by a car service driver from the airport. The guy wanted to go to Weehawken [in New Jersey] from JFK and the car service driver tried to charge him $240! So the guy decided to go to the ferry terminal in Manhattan instead so he could take the boat over to Jersey. But then the driver tried to charge him $180 -- to go to the west side of Manhattan! Finally, the guy bargained him down to $80. But can you believe that shit? Eighty dollars! To go to Manhattan! You should totally call the cops on those guys for real."

In a yellow cab, a ride to Weehawken, New Jersey, from Kennedy Airport would cost about $80, plus tolls and tip. A ride to anywhere in Manhattan is a flat rate of $45, plus a $4 toll and tip.

I remembered a story Elliott told me once about a Japanese man who got totally swindled by another car service driver at the airport. He got conned into one of these gypsy's cars and told him he wanted to go to Staten Island. The driver charged him $250 and dropped him off not in Staten Island, but in the middle of midtown Manhattan. He hailed Elliott and told him what happened and was clearly very confused. Elliott took him down to the Staten Island Ferry because it was the cheapest option for him at that point, and I don't even think Elliott charged him for the ride, he felt so bad for the guy.

Anyway, I stayed on the phone chatting for a while as the car service drivers wandered around the terminal doors offering more people "taxi" rides. The line of yellow cabs remained sitting across the median unused.

Miraculously, not five minutes after I called Diego, a cop car pulled into the terminal with its lights flashing, making all the waiting cars move out. I was delighted with this lucky coincidence. It was almost as if I had actually called them, and my insane impersonation of a TLC bureaucrat was validated. Diego, too, was psyched. He said, "You should tell the cops that they were offering rides to Manhattan for $250!"

At that point, however, I didn't really feel like getting into it. I just stood there and watched as all the "perfectly legal" drivers fled from the airport doors and dove into their respective cars, like a bunch of cockroaches taking cover when the bathroom light is turned on.

I did, admittedly, have a moment of gloating as I waved at the driver in the pink shirt and called out, "It's totally legal, huh? Why don't you stick around and tell that to the cops?" He waved at me and then gave me the finger as he jumped into his Lincoln Town Car and flew out of the terminal.

I waited a few more minutes for my car service to show up and watched as a line of travelers slowly formed in front of the yellow cabs that were still sitting there. One by one, they too pulled out of the terminal, each, thankfully, with a passenger.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Amazon is being difficult

I'm getting a bunch of emails today about how my book has been delayed for a year according to Amazon. This is NOT true. The book is still coming out this fall, on August 28, 2007.

But, for whatever reason, Amazon has two pages up for my book, and one of them has all sorts of incorrect information, including a June 2008 release date. Unfortunately this is the page everyone pre-ordered from.

I've been trying to get Amazon to get rid of that stupid wrong page for weeks now, to no avail. They certainly don't make it easy to get in touch with them, and I've also asked my publisher to try and fix the problem.

So, for now, if it's not too much of a hassle, please just cancel that order and re-order it here or from the link at the right (same difference). This goes to the correct, good, not fucked up Amazon page. You could also get to it from the link on the myspace page if that strikes your fancy.

Sorry about all this. I hope you'll find the book worth it!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Fun times

I had a good night.

I realized just now, as I wrote those words, that I don't think I've ever written them before. If so, I certainly don't remember it.

But tonight was great, actually. I had perfect luck and a stable mindset throughout the whole shift. And the biggest shocker? Traffic didn't totally suck.

All night long, each good ride led to the next. It started out early, when I got over the bridge and someone took me to Union Square. From there, I picked up a woman who wanted to go way up to 125th and Amsterdam. I overheard from her cell phone conversation that she'd been going on auditions all day. We made it up to her building in record time.

As I passed Columbia on my way back downtown, I got flagged by a very pregnant, thirty-something lady dressed in hospital scrubs and a stethoscope. She had a phone to her ear and, when she got in, said, "59th and Amsterdam." But then a second later, she said, "Actually 59th and 3rd." And then another second later, "Let's make that 59th and Lex."

Finally she hung up the phone and said, "I'm sorry. My husband was barking orders at me on the phone."

We didn't talk for the rest of the ride.

Downtown, a very young, probably late teen or early twenty-something blonde girl got in. She had one of those blue boots on one foot, the kind you wear on a broken part of your body instead of a cast. On our way over to 5th Avenue and 10th Street, I got to listen in to her end of a phone conversation. It went something like this:

"Yes, he was coming to propose .... Are you still at Burberry? .... Oh, for your therapist? .... Fun times, Fun times."

Then she launched into a whole tirade about how her friend Aaron got into an argument with the promoters at the club Marquee and how he had to be kept separate from Jordan. It was just starting to get juicy when I dropped her off. Sadly, I'll never know what finally happened with them. Damn.

Moving on, I took some girls from the Upper East Side to dinner in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. As we got close to the restaurant, one of them said to the other, "Oh wow, there actually are nice parts of Brooklyn."

On my way back from that, as I was approaching the Brooklyn Bridge, Diego called and said, "Laguardia's stripped," meaning the airport was empty of cabs. He went on, "All these flights were canceled, so tons of people are dying for cabs. Someone actually offered me $800 to take them to Toronto! Can you believe that?"

Apparently the intense heat and haze had caused problems with visibility or something and it grounded most of the planes in the New York area, so the airport was lucrative chaos.

I said, "Don't tell me you're on your way to Toronto right now."

"Hell no! You kidding me? That's a two-thousand dollar job. No, I got someone to midtown and then I'm racing right back. You should go."

I hopped on the BQE and sped over there. It was still stripped and I got someone going back to the city. He was coming from Atlanta and had been sitting in his plane on the runway for four hours before they finally took off for their hour-and-a-half flight. I remarked on his mood, saying, "You seem pretty happy for someone who just sat on a plane for that long."

He replied, "I've had a few drinks."

Later on, I ended up getting extra lucky when I got a job to Edison, New Jersey. It's always good money when you take someone out of town. The guy was from California and got screwed over on his hotel so he was staying at the Hilton out there.

When I dropped him off, I got out of the cab to help him with his bags. As he left and went inside, some fat middle-aged dude with a cane came up to me. He'd been standing outside the hotel, and as he approached me, he said, "Are you the driver?" I said "Yes," and then he looked around, leaned in real close, exhaled his cigarette smoke, and said, "I'm looking for a strip club around here."

Apparently he'd had a few drinks too. Sorry to disappoint, I told him I was a New York cab driver and couldn't help him in this area. He hobbled back to the sliding glass doors as I got back in my cab and hauled ass back to the civilized world.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Book update

This is a just a quick update about the book, because that's what's been consuming me and my time lately. But, as a side note, I don't really want this space to be used too much for book stuff, so I've crossed over to the dark side and created a MySpace page. This is where I will post updates, information, reviews (only if they're good, of course), and any other crap that relates to the book. Go and befriend me! The page is at www.myspace.com/melissaplaut.

But for now I need to share something here because it's kind of big news: The book is going to be published as a hardcover after all! Fucking awesome, no? And it will still be out on August 28th so I'm getting pretty damn excited.

Anyway, now the thing will cost $21.95, which is still not too out of control and I hope you will all still consider picking up a copy. I'm not sure how this change affects the Amazon pre-orders that have already been put in, but I imagine -- and this is just a guess -- that they'll probably send out an email giving those people the option to buy the book at the new price (that is, when Amazon figures out that there is a new price). As far as I know, they don't charge your credit card until the book ships anyway, so you won't be screwed over.

Also, a few New York readings and signings will be happening in September. The first is at the Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village, on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, right across the street from Gray's Papaya, where I've eaten many a late-night cabbie dinner of hot dogs and papaya juice with my buddy Diego. It's also across the avenue from the McDonald's in which I've peed on many desperate occasions. Plus, there's a "taxi relief" stand just up the next block. So it's a pretty good spot for my first official book reading.

The event will take place on September 11th at 7:30 PM. Definitely not the happiest day in the world, but it was what the store had available, and who am I to be picky? Plus, in a way it almost makes sense since it will be the third anniversary of my very first shift in the cab back in 2004. (I got my license a week and a half earlier but I was too chicken-shit to start right away.) So this B&N reading will be a cool confluence of events that relate to my career as a cab driver.

There will be another reading the following Tuesday, September 18th, also at 7:30. That one will be at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It's my home borough so hopefully all the Brooklynites will show up and represent!

Meanwhile, I plan to work tomorrow night if Richard has a cab for me, so I should be back to bitching about traffic and jaywalkers and gas prices by Wednesday.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Thanks Oprah

When I got to the garage last Thursday afternoon, my old friend Gary (seen above in deep concentration) was back from Vietnam, where he's been living and teaching English for the past five months. We caught up for a bit and then he went into the waiting room to play a game of chess.

I got out after an hour and a half of waiting, but spent another half an hour sitting in traffic on the 59th Street Bridge. I tried to think of Gary and his new Zen approach to driving and traffic. It actually helped a little.

Business was pretty steady all night, but I had a long lull when I made a few back-to-back trips to Brooklyn. The first was to Midwood, a suburban-ish neighborhood largely occupied by Orthodox Jews. It was a decent job but it took forever to get there for some reason, so I hustled back to Manhattan as fast as I could. When I finally got over the Brooklyn Bridge, I turned south down Broadway and was immediately hailed by a Hasidic man.

When he got in, he said, "I'm going to Brooklyn, take the tunnel." He was, of course, going to Borough Park, just a few neighborhoods west of Midwood.

Later on, when I talked to my fellow cabbie Allen about this turn of events, he said, "What? You picked up a Hasid?" Allen himself is an Orthodox Jew. "And he went to Borough Park?" When I said yes, he laughed and said, "Well, what did you expect?!"

Again, it took me forever to get back. The BQE was backed up so I decided to take the surface streets instead. Nearly 60 blocks later, in Park Slope, I picked up a passenger. I felt lucky for a second, thinking he was going to the city, but as it turned out, he was only going a short distance, out toward the Brooklyn Museum, a six dollar ride.

He was a young guy, good looking and a little drunk. When I asked what he'd been up to that night, he said, "Oh there's a group of us that started a gay volleyball league. We had a game and then went to the bar."

Then he launched into the very astute observation that I am a female cab driver, and asked if it was harder for me in terms of having to pee. I said, "It's not the easiest thing in the world, mainly because it's hard to park."

He said, "You know it's funny, because I was just now talking about this with my friend and it was the last conversation I had before I left." He gave me some backstory. "Okay, so apparently Oprah has this word for her crotch -- she calls it her vajayjay. Have you heard that?"

I said no, and he went on, "Well my friend made up a parallel term for guys and so before I was leaving tonight, he was telling me about his majeejee."

O-kayyy. I figured he was talking about the penis, and having not much to say on the matter at the moment, I just nodded and watched the street.

He continued, "Yeah, because he was about to go on a date with some guy he'd never hung out with before and the conversation centered around whether or not he should clean out his majeejee."

It took a second to sink in, and I said, "Oh! Wait-- You mean?-- Ohhh...I thought you meant like the front. But I guess you're talking about the back. Huh. Okay." I wasn't quite sure what to say from there, but he was eager, seemingly happy to be communicating, and continued, "Yes! It's our 'mangina.' Hence, majeejee."

Then he stopped for a second, looked around the cab, and said, "Wait, I'm not on 'Taxicab Confessions' right now or anything, am I?"

I said, "No. But you should be."

I dropped him off, raced back to the city, and didn't have a ride back to Brooklyn for the rest of the shift.

Thanks Oprah.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

One block

Sometimes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge isn't all that bad.

There are many ways to get through the long 12-hour shift. Reading a book while stopped in traffic is only one of them.

Tonight was pretty good overall. I mean, it wasn't perfect. I did indeed get my window punched by some stupid angry road raging bitch in Williamsburg (because I wouldn't let her cut me off, mind you), but that's so annoyingly typical, it barely merits mention at this point.

Otherwise, business was steady and people were in good spirits. My favorite fare of the night originated in the theater district. A somewhat elderly couple flagged me down in the middle of 45th Street just as the area began spilling over with the post-theater crowd. They instructed me to go to 79th and Lex and then began an animated conversation with each other about how much they hated the play they'd just seen.

He said, "Well, I didn't think the acting was too bad."

She disputed this. "It was dismal! How could it be any good when they had such terrible material to work with?"

They carried on trashing the play the whole ride uptown and then, as we crossed east on 79th, they told me they were actually going to make two stops. The man would be getting out at Park Avenue and the lady would get out a block away at Lexington. No problem.

When the man closed the cab door behind him, the lady addressed me and said, "Oh goodie, this way he makes sure I get to pay."

I responded with something vague yet polite like, "That's not so nice of him."

She said, "No, actually it's okay. We used to be married and we see each other practically every night so we just switch off paying."

I asked the obvious: "You see each other every night but you're not married anymore?"

"Yeah," she said, "after 42 years, we realized that we get along much better when we live apart." I guess they only needed one city block to make their relationship work.

She continued, "Our kids think we're bizarre." I agreed with her kids and then, as her doorman approached to let her out of the cab, I said, "Just out of curiousity, what play did you guys see tonight?"

"'Deuce.' The one about tennis. It was lousy!" And with that, she got out and the doorman closed the door behind her.

Friday, April 27, 2007

I hate Second Avenue, but I still love New York

So, I finally drove a cab again after all this time.

When I showed up at the garage for my first shift back yesterday afternoon, my buddy Sam updated me on the situation on the streets these days. This is what cabbies do at my garage. They tell each other where the cops are waiting to give tickets, where there's construction, where they found good fares, and so on. But yesterday, knowing I hadn't driven in a while, Sam warned me about the recent surge in traffic, saying, "When you get out there, you'll find it a lot harder to move than the last time you worked."

I caught my first passenger right away, at the bottom of the 59th Street Bridge. He was a young, hipsterish-looking guy with long bleached blond hair. He was going to Central Park West and 73rd and when he got in, he politely asked me if he could eat his sandwich there in the backseat. I said, "Sure, as long as you don't get it everywhere." He promised to eat it over his bag, and I felt lucky that my first passenger in all these months was a nice guy with good manners. Though I was trying to keep my expectations low, it made me almost hopeful for the rest of the shift.

Of course, things took a turn slightly for the worse an hour later when I had my first near-accident/near-death experience of the shift. I was on Third Avenue and 23rd Street and there was a shitty Hyundai on my left that was running into a construction area and decided it wanted to be in my lane. It looked like they were about to rail right into my door but I had no room to get out of the way, so I just slowed down, leaned on the horn, and braced myself for the hit.

Luckily, at the last second, they skidded to a stop in front of the orange cones and waited for the flow of traffic to break so they could get in. It's a totally regular occurence on the streets of New York but still, I hadn't driven a cab in so long, I wasn't used to the aggression other drivers direct towards cabbies and I found myself a little shaken up.

Then around 5:30, I decided that I despised Second Avenue. It was the third time in less than two hours that I got caught in a bad jam there and I realized Sam wasn't kidding about the traffic. The only saving grace was the increase in the waiting time/traffic time on the meter that happened back in December. It made a significant difference and allowed me to relax a tiny bit despite sitting in hellish traffic. Without that increase, we would all be screwed and I don't think there would be many cabbies left in New York.

But things perked up again a little later. I was taking a guy to a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival downtown on Chambers Street and along the way we realized we both grew up in Rockland County, New York, about an hour north of the city. He was fifteen years older than me, but we had both gone to the same junior high and high schools and chatted about that for awhile. He was running late and we were trying to figure out the best way to the theater from SoHo and we agreed we absolutely must avoid Canal Street. It was just past 6:00 PM and Canal is always backed up because it lead in to the Holland Tunnel. It's seriously like a recurring nightmare for any cabbie.

So we went down Mott with the idea we would cross west at Worth, but Mott, of course, was backed up so we were like, fuck it, and turned down Canal anyway. And -- will wonders never cease -- Canal was clear! We were psyched, and we laughed about how sometimes New York can really suprise you. But, seriously, how pathetic is it that the big gift New York offered us last night was merely no traffic on Canal Street at 6:00 PM?

At 7:00 I passed another female cab driver as we were inching down Broadway, but she looked miserable and so I did not say hi.

At 7:45, I was turning past a couple standing on the median on West Street and overheard them say, "She's kinda young to be driving a cab."

At 9:30, I dropped off a passenger in Elmhurst, Queens. I called Diego to chat on the way back since I was empty but, turned out, he was dropping off just a few blocks away from me in the same neighborhood. We decided to race down to JFK since the hotline said they needed cabs there and it would give us a chance to hang outside of our cabs.

When we got there, it was like a big family reunion. I ran into Joy (pictured above), a female (obviously) cabbie I met three years ago, right after I got my hack license. We used to call each other every now and then but then lost touch. She seemed to be doing well and it was nice to see her again after all this time.

Then Diego and I went inside to get some food in the cafeteria and it was a madhouse as usual. Being in there is sort of like being a Moroccan souk or something, with the Greek guys behind the counter calling out prices and food items as fast as auctioneers and a motley crew of drivers mobbing the coffee urns and registers. I managed to skip most of the line since I only got a bottle of water and a bag of pretzels.

Outside again, I ran into another cabbie I knew. He does a Reggae radio show late night on 93.5 and I met him through another cabbie buddy John who does a radio show on WBAI. We all stood around talking shop and bitching about the TLC -- the usual. It's moments like that when I realize that I didn't so much miss driving the cab itself these past few months, but I missed the drivers, I missed the culture and ultimately, I missed the city.

Anyway, I got a good job out of the airport after only about a half hour and the night ultimately ended without any real mishaps or shake-ups. I considered it a good welcome back.

This makes me remember something else Sam said yesterday afternoon at the garage: "This job is like being a drug addict. You have one great night and you're hooked and keep coming back for more. But when you have those bad nights, you just wish you could quit."

I had a decent night. I'll be coming back for more.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Cover!!!!!!!!!

How fucking exciting! Of course, the actual book is not out yet. Plans for a hardcover edition have been scrapped so it will be a paperback original, which means it'll be more affordable. And it looks like August 28th is the big date, but you can pre-order it from the Random House website by clicking here.

I seriously can't wait.

In the meantime, I'm off to the garage for my first shift in a good long while, so there will hopefully be a story or two here tomorrow, but for now I just needed to say HOLY SHIT I WROTE A BOOK.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Not happening

I went back to the garage today. It had been the first time in months and I was all geared up to work the shift. When I arrived, it was busy and bustling like always and all my old buddies were there. We stood around and caught up for a while as the day drivers trickled in and Richard dispatched the night guys out.

I found myself actually feeling a little nervousness, since I hadn't driven a yellow in so long. I knew I was rusty and wasn't totally confident I could find my way around as easily and naturally as I used to. Luckily the garage has this sign (shown above) posted on the wall outside, just in case.

Not too much else was new around the old garage. The only exception was the sign shown below. I guess the level of general retardation has risen pretty drastically, along with the gas prices.

After about an hour, Diego got his cab and took off. Here he is, trying to look mean but not really accomplishing it. I hung around a little while longer until I heard my name over the loudspeaker. I went inside, but it was a false alarm. Turns out Richard wasn't gonna have a cab for me today after all. He was overloaded with too many guys and not enough cars and had, in fact, already sent a few other drivers home. I couldn't really be upset about this since I did just sort of show up at the garage unannounced.

Oh well, it wasn't a huge deal. I'll work next week and it'll be fine. Plus it was great to catch up with everybody and see their faces again. I do kind of love just hanging out at that garage sometimes. Really the only shitty part was that, as much as I've been dreading and procrastinating getting back in the cab, I was actually pretty disappointed to not work tonight. I mean, I wasn't fucking heartbroken or anything, but I had gotten myself all psyched up to get behind that stupid wheel and make some money. Oh well. So now my big prodigal return to cabbing will have to be postponed for one more week. I better enjoy it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Civic duty

So shit is finally slowing down, thank goodness. The book has finally been sent to the printer to be made into bound galleys. After much back and forth (and stressing out on my part), it is officially titled HACK. There is also a subtitle, which is: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with my Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab. I think it's coming out on August 28th but I'm not totally sure about that.

The past few months were pretty hectic. In the midst of finishing up the last edits of the book and dealing with the whole confusing "publishing process," I got called to jury duty. The last time I had been called was about six years ago when I lived in Manhattan. I was dismissed after two days and all I really remember of my time there is that the chairs were comfortable, the lunches were long, and there was a guy sitting near me whose name was Jack Russel. Also, no one had cell phones really, and only a handful had toted along their clunky laptops.

This time, I arrived at the Kings County Supreme Court Building at 8:30 in the morning and waited in a great long line to get through the security metal detectors with a few hundred of my fellow unlucky Brooklynites. Then I proceeded to the Central Jury Assembly Room which, according to the sign on the wall, has a maximum capacity of about 600 people. I'd say, by the time everyone had filed in, there were about 400 of us. We watched a low-budget instructional movie starring Diane Sawyer and a perfectly diverse cast of characters. I think it was supposed to get us all excited about performing our civic duty, but I got distracted because Diane was so obviously reading her cue cards, it was disconcerting. But I guess it was a good thing because, with the lights all dim, it was the only aspect of the movie that kept me from falling straight to sleep.

When the movie was over, a large man with a white goatee sat down behind a grand table at the front of the room and slowly read through the categories that would qualify one for exemption from jury duty. He would call out each category over the microphone and then would wait for the people from that category to get up and file out through some doors to his side. He started by saying, "Are there any jurors in this assembly room who no longer live in Brooklyn? Please come forward."

At this, one lone guy got up in the middle of the giant room and made his way to the front. As he was walking, the guy with the microphone joked, "When you go through the doors, you're gonna have to write an essay on why you left Brooklyn." Everyone in the room gave a tired little chuckle as we watched the poor guy leave. Then he moved on to the other categories, which included non-citizens, caregivers, felons (about 40 people got up), people who've performed jury duty less than four years ago, and people who had a medical reason to not perform their duty.

The last category was apparently his favorite because he kept referring to it the entire time and telling us it would have the largest response: "If anyone in this assembly room has difficulty understanding English -- or understanding me -- please go through the double doors." A hundred people got up and went through the double doors. How they knew to go through the double doors was a mystery to me, but it didn't phase the guy in charge. When they were all gone, he smiled and said, "I told you that category would clear the room. But don't move over to their seats just yet -- the majority of them will be back." And then with a little wink, "They're just giving it a shot."

An hour later, I got called with 70 other people to go up to a courtroom. When we were out of the big room, our attendance was retaken and I thought it was funny how almost all 70 of us responded to our names by simply saying, "Here," except for the two people who felt it was important to distinguish themselves by saying "Present," and the one jolly old man who said "Good morning."

Up in court, we were told we were gonna be interviewed to see if we could sit on a murder trial. Of all the questions they asked, and all the answers given, I was surprised by how many people answered yes to the one about "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?" More than half of us had been, with the crimes mainly being burglaries and muggings, though one person had been held up at gunpoint, and another woman had the misfortune to witness her godson get murdered right in front of her. It was all pretty depressing. They also asked if the police got involved and how we felt about how they handled it, and it was even more depressing that almost all of us were less than thrilled with the NYPD's actions regarding each of our cases.

At one point in the selection process, the judge instructed us on what "prejudice" means. Naturally, he used cabbies in his example, saying, "Suppose you hold the belief that all cab drivers are terrible drivers." At this, there were a few nods of the head and even one "amen" muttered in the galleys. Ignoring this, the judge continued, "If there is an accident between a cab and another car, you might automatically blame the cab driver, right?" More nods. He went on, "We don't want you to do that here. You need to see the man in front of you as an individual human being and look at the facts of the case. Do not judge him based on what you think him to be beforehand -- that is what prejudice is -- when you pre judge someone based on your beliefs."

The day ended up running long and the lawyers hadn't been able to agree on twelve people so they made those of us who hadn't been interviewed yet (which included me) come back for a second day. The next morning, when the lawyers finally got to me and asked what my occupation was, I said "writer and cab driver." The judge did a double-take, then smiled and said, "Sorry about my cab driver example yesterday." I just said, "It happens all the time."

Around 2:00, the lawyers decided that most of us were not what they wanted on this particular jury and I was, much to my relief, dismissed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Stars fell on Alabama

It's getting down to the wire with the book. I'm almost there. Just a few more tweaks to the last chapter and then I only have to spend the next few months plagued with self-doubt and insecure thoughts about how much it probably truly sucks. Oh, and it turns out Villard doesn't love "New York Hack" as the title... Don't really know what to do about that for now since I haven't been able to think of a non-suckass alternative.

In the meantime, while I continue to procrastinate getting back in the cab, I've found myself driving around the city here and there in a friend's car. (I got rid of my Buick a month ago. Junked it and even made $25 off the transaction!) But, what I've realized is that, even though people hate you and drive against you when you're behind the wheel of a yellow cab, you still at least get a little bit of respect. The car I've been driving lately is quite possibly the least respected car on the road: a white Volvo station wagon with motherfucking ALABAMA license plates. Shit, I don't even respect myself when I'm driving that thing. It's just embarrassing.

The worst part is, my sensibilities and ego are so offended by the other dickhead drivers, mainly because I know they think I'm some hick driver from down south. I have never been cut off more in my life than I have been in this goddamn car. And now I understand why out-of-towners say New York drivers are assholes. Because it's true, WE ARE ASSHOLES. I would probably even cut myself off if I was behind me in this car. If that makes any sense.

But aside from the unfortunate vehicle, for the past few days I've had zero tolerance for being in a car at all, regardless of whether I'm driving or passengering. This is because I have finally gone ahead and quit smoking. It's been fairly easy so far and, surprisingly enough, I've actually been feeling pretty mellow and spaced out...except when I'm in a car. Then, all of sudden, it feels like I'm at war with the world, everyone is an enemy -- or just frustratingly stupid -- and I lose my shit entirely. It's a pretty ugly scene. So my plan for now is to just take the subway everywhere until the war ends and hope that I'll be able to eventually get back to work without feeling tempted to smoke my stupid brains out.

Or maybe I should just give up the cab for good and drive down to Alabama where I clearly belong.