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Hell on Wheels

Your customers disrespect you, your coworkers want to kill you. A month in the life of a New York City cabdriver.

YOU COME TO THE TLC with a name, you leave with a number. You no longer have a name.” This isn’t prison—this is the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) putting prospective cabdrivers in their place before the final exam. Since the TLC has no qualms about disqualifying potential cabbies, my classmates and I aren’t giving the shrill test administrator any guff. I’m a few hours away from getting a hack number and hitting the roads for a month. After defensive-driving school and a week of classes at Master Cabbie Taxi Academy in Queens, the laminated grail is finally within reach.

One small problem: Last night I stayed out until 5 a.m., and I’ve been pounding Cokes all morning to stay awake—four cans before I pick up my pencil. Now I would like to use the restroom, but the TLC doesn’t allow bathroom breaks (cheating). It’s a serious policy indeed: Legend has it that two years ago, a man soiled himself in the middle of a test, and passed.

I make it through the first section without incident, but before part two begins, I’m rocking my grammar-school desk back and forth on the chipped tile floor. I rip through the hour-plus section in 10 minutes and make for the bathroom.

This isn’t the MCAT. I get my score a week later: 98 percent. Time to see if I can hack being a hack.

FIRST AVENUE AND First Street, 5:30 P.M. Awkward moments abound on my first day. I’m a vain lover behind the wheel, thinking every sidewalk gesture—a wipe of a brow, an arm through a sleeve, a finger pointing to a spire—is meant for me. More than once, I veer to the curb and find no fare. At 47th Street and Park Avenue, a statue fakes me out, a bronze businessman hailing a cab.

Finally, I pick up my first passenger. He seems harmless enough, a feckless yuppie about my age. Nonetheless, butterflies flutter in my stomach. I hope I know how to get where he’s going. “Eighty-eighth Street and First Avenue,” he says. It’s a straight shot north, and I’m relieved—so relived, in fact, that when I get to 88th and First, I look down at the meter and see that I never turned it on.

ASTOR PLACE, 8:05 P.M. An old lady gets in with her middle-aged daughter. The younger woman wears a big red sun hat, and Mom reminds me of Marge Schott—same Pete Rose bowl cut, same Marlboro baritone. “I love New York,” barks Marge, as we glide through animated weekend streets. “Just love it, don’t you? The shows, the shops. New York has everything.” Her daughter assents, and asks if I agree, which I do. Then I steer around Union Square, and a bus just about takes my back end clean off.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” yells Marge. “What the fuck! That fucking maniac! I’m sick of this city. Just get me where the fuck I’m going and I’m outta here!” She tells her daughter to stop talking to me. “When you’re driving,” she shrieks, “you shut your yap and you get me where I’m going.”

I recall the words of Amit Gogia, a Bangkok-born Master Cabbie instructor: “If you want to drive a cab, you got to eat the humble pie.”

FDR DRIVE, 3:45 A.M. A coked-up couple hails me at 86th Street and Third Avenue. When we turn south onto the FDR, I hear a zipper rip on the other side of the partition.

A cabbie told me that he once picked up a couple who’d just wed at City Hall. They consummated the marriage in the backseat. Afterward, the groom told the driver to park under the Brooklyn Bridge. “I want you to have sex with my wife,” he said, and the drive did as he was asked. Then the groom joined in.

I rotate my rearview mirror to get a better look at the woman’s blond head bobbing for apples. In my month of driving, this never happens again. The daily life of a cabbie is low-rent and run-down, and boring to boot.

TRIBECA GARAGE, 21st Street and 10th Avenue, 5 P.M. I have to climb a ladder to meet the eyes of the Bangladeshi dispatcher, who works behind greasy bulletproof glass that fronts his elevated booth. “My name is Abdul,” he says, chuckling, “not Mohammed.” He’s playing a joke—as much on himself as on me, the token white guy in the garage. I slide my hack license under the glass and laugh. I make a point of laughing at all of Abdul’s jokes so he’ll hurry up and give me a key to a cab.

You lease a car for 12 hours, from five o’clock to five o’clock, whichever shift you want, day or night. (I drive at night, ’cause that’s when the kooks come out.) The fee runs from $100 to $115, higher on weekends because of all the people out there partying. Garage owners don’t pay attention to what your meter says; all they care about is the lease money you pay at the end of your shift. You also pay for gas.

Seasoned hacks can net $150-plus on good nights; I took home $100 on my second time out. It’s not Wall Street, but if you’re an immigrant working seven days a week and living in a Bronx shoebox with 10 other people, this job is a goldmine—especially if you have generous passengers. Most cabbies average 25 to 30 fares a shift, so tips add up. Usually, people take care of you if you know where you’re going and mind your manners.

And if you know Martha Stewart, you know the importance of details, even in a cab. I met a driver who switches the cab’s radio to a station that he thinks his passengers will like—sizing them up before they even get in the car.

But the key to raking it in: Don’t ever leave your cab. Hungry? Grab a falafel and eat it while trolling for fares. Need to use the bathroom? Hold it. Or take the Manhattan gas station tour. If you’re up to it.

ORCHARD STREET, 5:26 P.M. No matter what I do, cops, pedestrians, and other drivers hurl epithets at me because I’m at the wheel of a cab, a conical advertisement sitting on my rooftop like a dunce cap on a mischievous student. I obey a stop sign, and a cop, in a rush for a slice of pizza, slams into my back bumper with his cruiser. I swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian on Sixth Avenue, and he flips me the bird. A driver cuts me off heading down Varick Street, inviting me to perform illegal acts on his dog as he goes.

I stop at a red light alongside another cab, and the driver rolls down his windows. He sticks his big, bald black head into the light breeze and asks how my day’s going.

“Slow,” I say.

“I’m gonna quit,” he says. “Move upstate.”

“Not worth the hassle, huh?” But the light turns green, and he’s already gone, cutting me off and getting a jump on the next block’s fares.

“There’s no brotherhood out there,” a veteran cabbie tells me back at the garage. “I don’t want to make eye contact with you. I don’t want to speak to you. I might have to cut you off. I’d cut my mother off for a fare.”

CANAL STREET AND Mott Street, 1:35 A.M. Travis Bickle said some day a real rain would come and wash all the scum off the streets—and figured he’d be the one doing the rain dance. I’m starting to realize that I, too, have become a disdainful observer of the people on the streets, reveling in that same imaginary power.

Travis had guns, lots of them. All I have is my off-duty switch, which I’m only allowed to turn on at the end of the shift. But sometimes I can’t help myself. A guy in a black turtleneck hails me. He sees my off-duty light and pleads silently as a I approach, his cell phone a totem between praying hands. I shake my head and drive on, taking bizarre satisfaction in denying a New Yorker the one thing he thinks he can always get: access.

TWENTY-SEVENTH STREET and 10th Avenue, 4:11 A.M. Until now, being held up has been the least of my concerns. I’m more worried about not knowing how to get to Battery Park City, not having change for a $20 bill, or not knowing how much to charge for a trip to Newark airport.

Then I pick up this guy outside the techno club Twilo—cue-ball head, thick silver chain around his neck, arms resplendent in red and orange hot-rod flame tattoos. Snaking around the red-velvet ropes, he stares at me, wild-eyed, and hops in my cab. He looks like he’s between gigs with the house band at Rikers Island.

Once, over lunch at Blimpie, Stuart Shinbein, of Master Cabbie, explained how I would come to recognize a sketchy fare. “You’re gonna develop that seventh sense,” he said, leaving me to guess about the sixth. “It’s called a cop’s stomach.”

Right now, I’m experiencing a spot of indigestion, so I ask the fare where he’s from.

“Edmonton,” he says.

“What’re you doing in town?”

“I’m a hairdresser. I’m here for an Aveda conference on styling products.”

Some day a real rain will come….

TRIBECA GARAGE, 21st Street and 10th Avenue, 5 P.M. Some drivers own their cars. Cabbies who lease full-time usually arrange for the same car every shift. But part-time hacks like me get whatever the dispatcher throws our way. And these cabs are time bombs. The first passenger on one driver’s shift opened up the back door and said, “Uh, mister, you have no backseat.”

Today, my off-duty light doesn’t turn on. My window doesn’t roll down. The meter’s temperamental, too; it rattles with every inconsistency in the road. There’s no seat belt. My door doesn’t unlock from the outside. The blinkers don’t shut off automatically. A Bic pen cap serves as the radio’s volume knob. The car drifts hard to the right. And I don’t even want to think about what’s happening under the hood, but the “check engine” light won’t shut off.

NINTH STREET AND First Avenue, 11:13 P.M. A guy wants to go to The Monster, a gay club in the West Village. He catches my eye in the rearview mirror. “But you gotta work, right?” he says.

Ask any hack: Gay guys hit on cabbies late at night. As one driver put it, “You’re their last chance at getting laid.” Most hacks will tell you that homosexuals are their preferred clientele—no macho bullshit, no problems, good tips.

A driver told me about the last time a passenger invited him up to his place for a beer. They downed a few, and the guy said, “Look, I’m gay. A couple of my friends are coming over later and you’re welcome to stay.” The driver said no thanks, went out in the hall, and waited for the elevator. When it opened, three behemoths got off and headed into the apartment he’d just left. “They were linebackers, man!” the cabbie told me. “I narrowly escaped.”

TRIBECA GARAGE, 21st Street and 10th Avenue, 5 P.M. Two drivers sit at a Formica table, talking and listening for Abdul to announce their names over the static-choked PA system. “I’m from Saudi Arabia,” says one, stabbing a finger at his friend. “We don’t fight each other. We kill only white people.” He glares at me from across the garage.

Five o’clock is always a car wreck of nationalities, with everyone crowding the dispatcher’s booth to get their keys. Africans, Arabs, Indians, a few Eastern Europeans—all communing in cliques. I feel like a dodo bird, and my passengers also know something’s up:

“No, really, whose cab is this?”

“What are you doing speaking English and driving a cab?”

“You’re not really a cabdriver. What are you, a writer?”

FORTY-THIRD STREET and 11th Avenue, 4:32 A.M. This rocker hops in, wearing a black cotton T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a studded black-leather bracelet on each wrist. “Name’s Damien,” he says. “Wanna have some fun?”

He points me to the Market Diner, where I turn off the engine and leave the meter running. A half-dozen transsexuals patrol the parking lot, waving to passing cars and hooting at pedestrians. We sit on the cab’s trunk, and Damien starts talking to Africa, a John Leguizamo lookalike in a firehouse-red dress. A trannie wrapped in blue sequins squeezes her boob, and a dollop of goo squirts from the nipple. “I’m lactating,” she says.

Mimi, an Asian he-she in a geisha wig, sashays up to Africa, who grabs Mimi’s hand and rubs it against her crotch. Mimi’s eyes light up. “El grande,” she says, rolling the r. Africa then spreads Damien’s legs and moves in close, revealing the silver-dollar hickey on her collarbone. “I wanna get fucked,” Mimi says to me. “You have big dick?”

I look over at my fare. Africa is wrapping her fingers around his manhood, which pokes over the waistband of his black pants. With a free hand, she’s running her fingers over Damien’s teeth and gums and tongue, and he’s eating it up. Behind us in the diner, people put away forkfuls of home fries.

CLINTON STREET AND Houston Street, 8:15 P.M. I pick up two people who later turn out to be my new neighbors. It’s strange how many friends I see randomly on the street, how many degrees of separation occur in the cab, how many people I find I know.

But I never pick up a celebrity. A fellow cabbie was smoking pot one night when he picked up a famous R&B artist. He extinguished the joint right before the guy hopped in. “I smell that,” said the musician, as they roared up the street. “Send that back here.”

BROADWAY AND 51st Street, 2:57 A.M. As I approach the end of my month-long stint, I find myself becoming as brazen as a mobster. My driving philosophy: If someone can be bullied, bully them. I don’t own the car, and it’s beat-up anyway. I can drive as fast and loose as I want. I can get away with anything.

I pick up a friend who knows how to get where he wants to go, so I toss him the keys. (Penalty for letting a civilian behind the wheel of your cab: possible revocation of your license and a fine of up to $1,000.) I’m staring down a tough decision: He’s taking me to Flashdancers, a subterranean midtown strip club with a one-drink minimum, and if I drink and drive, there goes my license.

Five Buds and five lap dances later, the club’s closing and they’re kicking us up the crimson-shag stairs. In the cab, we throw back a nasal-sabotaging cocktail of Altoids and Japanese hot peas, just in case we get pulled over. The internal combustion sparks a revelation: As the strippers leave the club, we can actually pick them up and drive off with them—the strip-bar patron’s seldom-realized fantasy.

I swing by the club’s entrance and cut in front of a dozen cabs. (Penalty for jumping a taxi line: $50.) The strippers walk out, and I recall a trick I learned at Master Cabbie. “I speak English!” I yell. “Take my cab.!” (Penalty for soliciting a fare: $50.) “We already got a ride,” says a curvy Brazilian dancer, pointing to a guy strutting like a stud toward a parked taxi. I lock eyes with him and he storms over to my cab. Then he smiles.

“I remember you, yo,” he says. It’s Frank, who graduated with me from Master Cabbie. “You gotta come here every night at 4, yo.”

FIFTY-NINTH STREET and Fifth Avenue, 3:30 P.M. I hail a cab, and a prune’s at the wheel. Whenever I take cabs now, I’m always getting the driver going on some story. I ask this guy how long he’s been a hack. “A coupla days,” he rasps. “Ha!… Coupla thousand.”

We drive past a cover girl standing in front of Saks. “Oooh, wouldja look at her,” says the prune. “When I was younger, back in the ’50s, me and my friends would drive around in my cab, messing around. We’d see a hot broad on the sidewalk and yell out, ‘Hey, cookie!’ She’d turn around, and we’d say, ‘Not you, dog biscuit!’ Ya know, take ‘em down a notch.”

KING STREET AND Sixth Avenue, 12:20 A.M. All this driving is messing with my head. I haven’t exactly mellowed. I’m just duller—not really awake, but not asleep either. It’s my last night.

I’m cruising in a cabbie coma of zero sleep and perpetual motion when I stop for yet another fare. The traffic light turns yellow, so I gun it. But one of the two passengers I’ve picked up, a middle-aged exec, has only one foot in the cab. Down he goes, ass-first, in his camel-hair coat and Brooks Brothers three-button. I drag him half a block before processing the screams of his colleague in the backseat. Skidding to a stop and looking through the open back door, I see the guy stand up. His right pant leg has a gaping hole and his knee’s gushing blood as he falls into the cab. May passengers yelling murder, all I can do is punch the meter and keep moving forward.