Confessions Of A New York Taxi Driver
What the guy on the other side of the Plexiglas really thinks.
I know the look. Whenever a passenger gets in my cab, hears my local accent and then checks out the name – Patrick Johnson – on my hack license, they want to know how a nice guy like me ended up driving a cab. The short answer is: this has been my job for the past three years, and I took it up as a way to pay off my loans for school. I graduated from Columbia with a degree in history in May 2010, and this has been my only occupation since.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t begin my day by staring in the mirror and saying, “You talkin’ to me?” Instead, I commute an hour and a half every day from suburban New Jersey to my garage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and drive the 5pm to 5am shift. Since taxi drivers aren’t salaried, what we make depends on how much we pull in during a given shift. After paying out the lease to use the cab for our 12-hour allotment, state tax, tips and filling up at the end of the night (yes, we pay for gas out of our own take), whatever is left over is what we take home for the work that was put in. On most nights, I pocket more than $200 and usually make more than $250 on weekend nights, but that’s because I drive nearly straight through from start to finish.
I’m not going to get rich. Still, I love my job. It is a unique vantage point on the city. I am my own boss and call my own shots when it comes to when I work and where I cruise around. My shift goes fast and I’m rarely bored. I like having a job where I’m a part of the fabric of the city and help make it run. Here are the answers to the questions people always ask about my life in the not-so-fast lane.
Who is the best type of customer?
My two favourite types of customers are tourists and artists. Tourists ask the best questions, are the most enthused to be in the Big Apple and give great tips. Artists – writers, actors, painters, musicians or anyone else in the creative field – make up a minority of people I take around, but seeing them squeeze out a living in this day and age reminds me that the almighty dollar is not all that people are driven by when it comes to their careers.
What is the worst type of customer?
“Alphas” and Upper East Siders. Alphas are any type of person who can also be described as über-competitive. Finance workers, lawyers, corporate types, those with silver spoons in their mouths, bigwigs, the entitled and the overly-driven are all alphas who don’t really take no for an answer and don’t have a great idea of how the world works. They’re the most likely to talk down to the person operating the vehicle, play back-seat driver, and are the rudest when it comes to common courtesy.
The Upper East Side is one of the most expensive Zip codes in the nation and many residents who call it home come from old money. They give exact directions for how to get to their old stately buildings. Even if the weather’s perfect or it’s a pain to have to go to the other side of Park Avenue to get them to the front door, they demand it and won’t come out until the doorman has opened the taxi door and escorted them out. They’re not the best tippers either and the words “please” and “thank you” are missing from their vocabulary quite often as well.
Is there any type of person that you avoid picking up?
Contrary to what most people believe, it’s really rare that I discriminate based on race. What I do discriminate against are those who are staggeringly, outrageously drunk. I call them “pushers” because they’re often pushed into my vehicle by a friend who wants to see that person get home safely. When I get one, I know it is going to be a long, long ride home as I will ultimately have to get the drunkard out and on to the sidewalk at the end of the fare.
What’s the best way to hail a cab?
Stick your arm out and use it – confidently, not like a third-grader hoping to avoid being called on. Also, you’ve got a light on your iPhone, use it – we can see you from farther away.
How has the job changed since you started?
Most notably the types of cars we drive and the way that Uber and Lyft have shifted the balance of power between taxi owners and taxi drivers. With more taxi drivers becoming Uber drivers, the odds of getting a cab to drive on any given night are getting better. The way the relationship between driver and garage currently works is that if too many drivers show up on a given night, someone has to get sent home once the steady (regular) drivers take over their cars from the day-shift drivers. Because of Uber and Lyft siphoning away licensed cab drivers, there are fewer drivers turning up each night, so it’s really rare that I have to make the trek back to New Jersey empty-handed. As one of my fellow hacks put it this New Year’s Eve, “We used to be here for the garage, now they’re here for us.” Medallion prices – the price an owner pays to transform an ordinary car into an official New York City taxi that can pick up street hails – have fallen from a hair more than $1m a couple of years ago to around $860,000 today.
The cars have changed, too – primarily from the Ford Crown Victoria to a hodgepodge of cars, vans and SUVs, now that the last of the Crown Vics are nearing the end of their service lives. As of a few weeks ago, a judge ruled that something called the “Taxi of Tomorrow” programme can proceed, and soon the Nissan NV200 will be the only model that medallion owners will have to buy as the older vehicles are taken out of service. The Crown Vic was a sentimental favourite of mine because it was the only type of cab in New York for so many years, but now I drive one of four models on a given night, with the Toyota Camry being my favourite since it runs so smoothly.
What are your favourite pit stops for food?
The only places that I eat at have wheels on them – carts or food trucks that primarily cater to those in my field. The Halal Guys on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue is the one that is the most famous and does the most business. The workers are nice, it’s centrally located and its reputation is so good that passengers have gotten into my cab and told me to take them to “the cart”.
There’s another halal cart that’s my go-to place off 10th Avenue in Chelsea. It doesn’t operate as late during the week, but parking is plentiful and the food’s even better. Once in a while, I grab Mexican food from the “taco truck” on 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan or from the ones on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg on my way back to my garage.
Has a customer ever come on to you?
“We’re here. That’ll be $23.”
“I’m not leaving your cab until you kiss me.”
“Um… I’m all right. I have to get back to work and, besides, you don’t want to do that. I have cooties.”
Simply put, yes. It doesn’t happen very often, but some people are either so drunk, lonely or enamoured with seeing a red-blooded American male cab driver that they’ll come on to me out of the blue. I’ve had a few put their heads through the partition or attempt to pull me through, but it’s not something that I ever asked for. We are professionals and I never overtly hit on someone when I’m driving. The few times I’ve given a woman my number, most haven’t called, but I’ve gone out with a few over the years and one is still a good friend of mine.
Love is something that supposedly exists in the Big Apple. Once in a blue moon, I get to see it actually take place in the back seat of my taxi. And no, I’m not talking about those rare instances where couples are getting it on. I mean the real thing, where I can tell that the couple is at peace – with their lives, each other and the world around them, and I don’t have to ask anything until I get them to their destination.
I’ve always hoped that one day someone would get into my taxi and fulfil the promise that I’ve heard about for so many years. That she’d make me forget about every ticket, pothole, fender-bender, non-paying fare and ungrateful passenger that has made me want to turn the meter off and pull back into the garage for the last time.
To this day, I’m still hoping to come across her.
For more of Pat Johnson’s writing, check out Gotham Chronicles: A cabdriver’s take on life, liberty, and the pursuit of the next fare
Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni