Thursday, March 31, 2011
Yellow cabs as far as the eye could see, lifeblood coursing through New York's arteries, all driven by men of color with names like Geronimo and Mohammed and Elvyss. Both cars and drivers seemed battle weary, and battle ready. When I stepped into the first taxi of the trip, I wasn't thinking about all I'd heard over the years about the wild rides people received at the mercy of these men. My seat belt wasn't completely fastened before it all came rushing back.
Two speeds: all out and stop with no transition between. Lanes and lights and pedestrians seemed to have little impact on the drivers' decisions. The idea of using a car length as measurement for caution was clearly not in their vocabulary. If the front bumper didn't make contact, with either metal or flesh, that was good enough. If there was an inch or two between cars, a driver could easily, somehow, merge into that space. If a light still held even the memory of amber, that's the color the drivers would see as they coaxed a little more speed from their taxis.
A surprising number seemed to not know their way around, often needing directions, not just our address. I found myself wondering what would happen if Suzy hadn't been able to provide the information they asked for. We were told, by the guide on the tour bus, that only tourists use the yellow cabs and that the drivers are always looking to pad their fares on the backs of their passengers' ignorance. He also offered to take us, after hours for a fee, to the places where designer goods could be found for dirt cheap, so he may not have been the most reliable source.
Some were friendly, including one man who asked us what we were grateful for on a particular beautiful morning. After Suzy and I had given small-talk answers about the weather and our adventure, he said it was his turn and proceeded to tell us he was grateful to be alive. This just a few days after the tsunami in Japan, and we spent the rest of the ride, the three of us, talking about the state of the world and how fortunate we are in our lives.
Many were mute, making the whole trip feel like a long elevator ride in which everyone looks ahead and no one makes a sound. Our friendly greetings were often met with silence, and the understanding of our destination indicated with a grunt. Not even a thank you for a generous tip, perhaps because the cab was already in motion the minute our bodies were completely out.
There were lots of conversations on cell phones, spoken in whispers or other languages or accents so heavy they might as well have been another language. One driver ate his lunch with the hand that wasn't on the steering wheel. Another laughed frequently in the front seat, and it took me most of the ride to figure out the source of his amusement was my oo-ing and ah-ing at the sights blurring past us: Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Station.
We rarely had to wait long for a cab to stop, although I never did get used to the fact that all that was necessary to secure a ride was to stand conspicuously on the edge of a street with an arm in the air. A couple of times, drivers wouldn't take us because they didn't want to leave the uptown area. And there were times when it seemed no cab would stop no matter what. But that was balanced out by times like the driver who stopped even though he was on his way home.
Ironically, I never felt afraid. I'm not entirely sure why, just as I'm not clear how we got through every single one of those rides without being in an accident. I looked forward to each new driver and each new ride as another great part of the whole adventure. The cabbies seemed like city cowboys to me: independent, unconcerned with convention, and beholden to no one or nothing beyond the trail and its call. And that's a life to be admired, whether lived in the manmade canyons of Manhattan or the ones born of the elements in the West.