We are the product of our experiences
Though the experiences described here were challenging and at times threatening, they were so rich and instructive to an emerging and formative young man – me. Each of us have opportunities to learn and to assimilate that experiential knowledge into the practice that becomes who we are.
In 1976, I was driving a yellow taxi cab in New York City. There were nearly 2,000 murders in New York that year, many of them cabbies. New York was a rough and tumble town, lawless and nearly ungovernable. It was the year the movie Taxi Driver, with Robert De Niro, was released – a violent, gritty window into the underbelly of the New York I was navigating each day. I did drive days. Most of the cabbie murders were at night.
I started before dawn. If I hoped to get a cab for the day, I’d have to show up at the Corona Queens garage by 4:30 am. We were in the middle of a nasty recession. I’d be there with twenty to thirty others for shape-up. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s where a group of people (at that time, mostly men) show up in the hope of getting work for the day. Once, I saw a man break down and cry, because he didn’t get picked, didn’t get work that day. I was chosen. I thought about giving up my spot to him, but honestly, I was scared that they wouldn’t give it to him anyway and I’d be banished from ever getting a cab again. That was the scene.
I, like a lot of people I knew in those days, were already attuned to maneuvering through rough situations. Driving a yellow cab was no party. I saw a lot of people get a cab for a day and discover (and excuse the pun) that they just couldn’t hack it. Not only did you have to navigate those mean streets, but you needed to establish enough of a rapport with the dispatcher to get a car, and with the mechanics to get one that wasn’t a smoking, clanking bomb that the doormen at the hotels and luxury buildings, and even those on the street desperate for a taxi, would wave by.
To this day, I can remember the dispatcher. He sat behind a glass, like the ticket-seller at a movie theater. He always sat on a pillow, leaning to one side. I felt that he must have actually worn his butt out driving for so many years…until he couldn’t stand it anymore and got the job behind the glass. He always looked like he was in pain, yet you dare not offer any comfort, as that would call attention to his situation. He had a miserable disposition, and though I was always looking for that tiny crevice to slip through a scrap of humor, kindness or comradery, I could never find it. All I could do was speak the language of Brooklyn and Queens, my native dialect, and be respectful. That alone seemed to payoff…at least to get a cab for the day. And, I managed to book enough money on the meter to get a car again two days later and two days after that, and after a few weeks, I was booking enough money consistently to get a regular shift.
Booking enough money meant that you had developed the wiles to aggressively hit the streets, hunt the fares, find your way through the maze of time and space and danger. My first day was intimidating, even frightening. Where to go…what to do. I had established enough of a relationship with the cabbies in the garage to get their philosophies. Some liked going to the airports, waiting on line and getting a big fare. Others thought that was a big waste of time. They preferred to head directly into Manhattan. “That’s where the money is kid,” they said. If you were lucky, you’d get a fare along the way into Manhattan, but, “Don’t waste time lookin’” they said. “Just head straight to the city.” And, that’s what I did.
You lose some control – you have to go where your fares take you and you have no control over traffic. But, you begin to get the feel of the terrain and where the fares can be had and at what times, and, if you were lucky, no one took you out of the Manhattan, because that’s where the action was. Back and forth, uptown, downtown, east and west. And, just when the evening rush hour is beginning, you have to get the cab back to the garage for the night shift. When I closed my eyes to go to sleep that first night, all I could see was the red, yellow and green lights of the traffic signals.
As the weeks and months wore on, each challenge tested me. Small ones, like getting through to the guy who got chicken grease all over the steering wheel on the night shift, without a fight and with enough persuasion to get him to change that habit. There were the cars – they were ragtag. One hot June day,
I drove the entire shift with a heater that would not shut off. If you were lucky enough to get a parking spot at the cabbie stand to go to the bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, you moved quickly and with your wits about you at every moment. In those days, the Port Authority was a combination homeless shelter and hangout for criminal predators of all stripes. (And, yes, bus lines and scared commuters went in and out of there as well.)
And then, there was dealing with anyone in New York City who might step into your car.
The greatest challenges and greatest delights were the customers. There were the two middle-aged guys having a fist fight in the back of my cab. They told me, “It’s alright, we’re brothers.”
I told them that it wasn’t alright and if they didn’t stop they had to get out. They stopped…for a while, then it erupted all over again. I pulled over and threw them out of the cab…not physically, but I made them get out.
There was the not so sweet old lady in her fur coat, who was screaming at me because I was stuck in gridlock. She was yelling, the horns were honking in a symphony, and there was absolutely nothing
I could do. It was total gridlock. As I sat there in the absurdity of it all, I started laughing out loud. I never forgot that. It was great to just laugh, though it did get her to yell extra loud.
There was the woman who dropped her cigarette that smoldered and filled the car with smoke, making me think the taxi was on fire. One of the most frightening situations was the passenger who pulled a knife out and started waving it and ranting as I drove along the FDR Drive. There was no immediate exit in sight, nowhere to go. When I finally exited onto a service road, he darted out of the cab and ran. I didn’t chase him.
One morning, a commodities trader rushed into my cab on the upper east side. I got her down to her Wall Street office in twenty minutes in the middle of the morning rush hour – a miracle. But, she was late and enraged at me. She said it was my fault, that I had taken her out of her way. “Do you know how much it costs me to be seven minutes late,” she spewed at me. I had to talk her out of reporting me to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
The stories go on and on. And there were some very kind and generous people as well. The stormy day I picked up Lynn Redgrave in the driving rain on the northwest corner of Columbus Circle. I had one of those rickety beat-up cars, but she got in with elegance. She was grateful and graceful and kind. I felt like I had a princess in my car, and she treated me like a prince.
And the wealthy young woman, who, though I got lost several times, was kind and patient and understanding. You remember that kind of simple kindness and grace…the rest of your life. I try to emulate it in times of stress.
Those were formative times, and if we remain open and searching and interested, our formative times never end. How they form us depends on the window we look through; our view of life and humanity filters the experience and gives it meaning. Sometimes, we reject a challenge outright, when grit and perseverance can see it through and open up great new horizons. The choices of anger and condemnation versus patience and understanding or even laughter; seeking rapport or looking down as different or lesser. And yes, if we stop and think, these can be choices. In our everyday lives, we can dare to change a way of looking at the world…just one filter tweaked one little bit can open new pathways of perception for the rest of our lives.