Thursday, July 26, 2007
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.