"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, March 31, 2011

City Cowboys


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.

28 comments:

Teresa aka JW said...

Wow, what an adventure. Wish I could have been with you.

T

Desiree said...

Hi Deb!

You have described, near perfectly, my own experience of being driven around Dubai in taxis.
The difference was in the fact that I sat in an almost constant state of catatonic tension, maniacally clutching my husband's arm. By the time we returned to SA, his arm was bruised black and blue, my phobia was full-blown and, ever since, I have become the most annoying backseat driver!

As always, your writing was so vividly descriptive that I swear I've broken into a nervous sweat from being transported back into one of those death-trap taxis!

Linda Hoye said...

It's always fascinating to hear about the experiences people have when visiting different areas of the country. Thank you for sharing your adventure!

kario said...

I love it! There is something special about New York cabbies. The ones in England are so prim and proper (although their cabs are spotless and they drive impeccably), and you can't even get a cab in Rome or Paris! Thanks for sharing this fun part of your trip, Deb.

Stacy Crawford said...

What an amazing trip. I felt like I was there with you. How fun to have that experience. That is definately on my lists of things to experience!

Pam said...

I visited New York when I was in my twenties, a long-held dream.
My memories were of constant horn blasting and no wonder reading this!
I admired one of my fellow Aussie student teachers who drove a group of us into New York in the hire car. I never could have done that...and on a different side of the road than we are used to here!
While in New York, I was taken by the elbow by a fast-moving man blathering some kind of street talk, away from my friends, but managed to escape and run back to them.
I loved New York and its famous yellow taxis.
I have your first photo as my screensaver today- it brings back such great memories! Thanks Deb - enjoyed your post!

Wanda..... said...

Even as a thumbnail on my sidebar, your first photois impressive, Deb. Have only ridden in a cab one time and it was a small town at that.

Jessica Nelson said...

Sounds fascinating! I have an idea of what you mean because the drivinng in Costa Rica was a little on the wild side too. :-)

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Isn't it amazing what happens when you cut through the formalities and REALLY get to talk with someone?

I loved this!

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

yaya said...

When I was in NY, I think I just roamed around with my mouth open and my head looking up constantly..and I grew up in Chicago! Good story and pics!

Retired English Teacher said...

Great post. You reminded me again of all the many exciting things you encounter in NYC. You are right, they are "city cowboys."

#1Nana said...

Didn't you love the big city? It's so different from my regular life. I loved every little adventure. I was surprised at how friendly people were...not what I expected. Maybe they just took pity on an obvious country hick!

Out of My Mind said...

Well, now, I've been there and done that. But I doubt that I would be able to squeeze out even one paragraph about my experience. YOU ARE GOOD! kt

Leslie said...

Deb, I have never been afraid in a NYC cab UNTIL I came extremely close to being killed in a Baltimore cab recently--the cab driver was busy talking to ME, and didn't look before pulling into an intersection. A car doing at least 60m.p.h. came with inches of slamming into the side of the cab I was riding in. From now on, it's seatbelts in cabs, always, even though everyone might think I'm a big geek!

Niki said...

haven't been to NYC in years, but I have enjoyed my visits over the years...quite a place!

DJan said...

Your description of the cab rides in NYC is really good, Deb! I felt I was there with you, and to think of all the amazing rides you had... well, it was fun to be in the seat next to you, rocking along in the experience!

I've had a few crazy cab rides, and they came rushing back as I read this post. Thanks for a great read!

Out of My Mind said...

Thanks for dropping by....
As for my pies....My grandmother made the most perfect Chocolate Meringue Pies. I would work right along side her trying to duplicate what she was doing.
I wrote everything down as we worked. (Mine you could drink with a straw.) kt

Barb said...

I like the image of cabbies as urban cowboys, Deb. I think the definition of adventure is to have adrenaline surges and manage to escape injury - sounds like a definition of your cab rides!

Amber said...

Wonderful and vivid!

We only took a cab once last year, when I went to DC. It was crazy like this! It must just be the way. But our driver did talk, and he told us in a thick accent he was from Congo. He was happy to be in the USA.

:)

Terri Tiffany said...

I've done this a few times and never enjoyed it:)0

Charlene: the Polarblogger said...

What an adventure you have had! It reminds me of the taxis in the Philippines where the drivers drive recklessly and take detours so as to get more money from passengers. But most of the drivers there are friendly and they are open to conversations.
Here in Sweden, everything is orderly and the drivers are careful and friendly too.

deb colarossi said...

Vivid , wonderful stuff.
I've experienced this a few times... the lasting impression was the driver who got us to the airport in time for our flight when one of the tunnels closed just as we were heading onto the ramp .. it was rush hour , and a storm was starting.
I was terrified and excited and humbled all at once.

Donna said...

I LOVE the way you write...I could read you forever!! Your style is like no other.
I feel like I have been there....Taxi warts and all!!
Great post!!!

Deborah Carr said...

I'm glad you were able to connect with at least some of your cabbies!

And so nice that you took the time to actually see and accept them as individuals. I can't imagine what life must be like as a NY cab driver, living in that rush of humanity every day.

Thanks for sharing your experience (I've never been to NY)...and thank you for dropping by my humble little blog. :-)

LauraX said...

What an adventure Deb... it takes no small amount of courage to get into a cab and trust that you will arrive at your intended destination safe and sound. I love your descriptions of all the different cabbies, each with a unique demeanor. Beautifully written...I feel as though I am riding along with you at times.

Cheryl said...

Hi Deb, I'm back and it's just like visiting old friends! My 3 month contract is over and I now have time to blog again and visit my favourite blogs. So glad you are still here to enjoy!

Katie Gates said...

Thank you for this! I just relived so many experiences from my years in NYC taking cabs. Wow. A death-defying drive down memory lane...

Kathryn Grace said...

You nailed it! Exactly how it felt to me too.

Knowing my propensity to gasp and yelp when a driver weaves into oncoming traffic, to preclude all possibility of our being thrown out unceremoniously, my NYC native friend made me cover my head while we were in a cab. I sneaked looks anyway, because I wanted to see New York New York! But I kept my lips glued shut, despite the rough and tumble. I don't believe I've ever been more car sick.