This city can be intimidating. It is chaotic, loud, messy, and crowded – a never-ending display of all things busy and bizarre, and to survive, you need to know a few things. The public transport system is huge and works like magic. The subway system is a maze of tunnels and an ant’s nest of trains running in almost every direction. And then there is always “Plan B” – the famous yellow cabs.
The city’s iconic yellow cabs first hit the streets in the early 1900s. They were originally painted red and green, but later yellow to improve visibility for users. And it works – at any given time you can see those yellow ‘submarines’ fighting their way up and down the sea of traffic in the busy streets and avenues of NY, as visible and adamant as a Namaqualand daisy in a dry landscape.
I prefer using the subway, as it is faster and cheaper. But every so often, when I am running around frantically to get to all my castings, I take a “break” and hail a cab instead. I will never forget the first time I tried to hail a cab (my first visit to New York was in 2011). My only frame of reference was what I’ve seen in movies or TV series. It took me about 20 minutes (I have to admit embarrassingly). But, by now I am a professional and the secret is this: do it with confidence! You do not have to wave frantically or have a stare down with a driver. Just stand tall, right off the sidewalk, and have your arm out like you are about to smell your armpit (which won’t even be a weird thing to do in this city). If luck is not on your side (the available cabs’ lights on top of the car will be on), then walk a block or two in your destination’s direction and try again.
Once you have a cab, there is always this slight fear of whom your driver might be or what state the car is in. The cars are usually in an okay condition, but every so often you sunk a bit too deep into those worn-out leather seats. And I always get homesick in a cab – the ride is so bumpy that it reminds me of all the potholes in our roads back home. The drivers too, sometimes seem a bit worn out. They are legally supposed to speak and understand English, though I have learned that is quite relative.
I’ve had my fair share of weird run-ins. One driver had six fingers on his one hand. Six fingers! And I once got into a cab that smelled just awful, making me use all my hand-sanitiser in one go. I ended up sniffing my hands the whole way, hoping the alcohol in it will have some hallucinating effect to make the ride somewhat durable. Just yesterday I got into a cab and the driver was listing to his radio on full volume. The problem wasn’t just that it was insufferably loud, but that it sounded like some political up sweeping of the nation, with a man yelling who-knows-what in a foreign language and crowds cheering. It scared me stiff! I ended up asking him to just drop me at the next corner because the broadcast was so loud and upsetting that I couldn’t take it anymore.
It was on one such occasion, in the back of one of these famous yellow cabs, that I thought about how little I really know about these taxicabs and their drivers. So, I have done some research and found that 40-year veteran driver Eugene Solomon wrote a book called Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver. I wanted to share with you some of the interesting things he wrote about.
- They are not obliged to give you a ride.
If you are suspiciously swaying rather than standing on the curb, a taxi driver is under no legal obligation to pick you up. “The skill is to be able to recognise the completely plastered person by their body language and lock the doors before they can gain entry into the cab. Once they are in the cab and the person who put them there has quickly disappeared, that drunk, who may well be semi-coherent, is now the problem of the cab driver.”
Even so, it appears they have a solution …
- They can perform a reverse drunk-drop.
A reverse “drunk-drop” is when the driver decides to return the problem to the scene of the pick-up. That means driving around the block and then carrying the inebriated passenger back to the bar or club. “There have been a couple of instances in the last year in which I did recognise that a drunk drop was about to be perpetuated and I did execute the reverse drunk drop effectively,” Salomon writes.
- Stopping for statues.
I guess it has to do with muscle memory when it comes to scanning the streets for potential customers: any vague shape of someone with their arm in the air is going to make the taxi driver hit the brakes. “I have stopped not once, but twice, for a statue of a man hailing a cab that used to be on 47th Street between Park and Vanderbilt,” Salomon writes. “Thought he was going to LaGuardia [airport].”
New York would not be the same without these yellow cabs! It is “part of the furniture” and as synonymous with this amazing city as its distinct landmarks. Here, where everyone has places to go and people to see, the city is run by the cabs. And I bet each cab driver and passenger have some crazy and interesting stories to tell about the other.
Peter Shaffer said, “If London is watercolour, New York is an oil painting.” And I bet that very stylish painting has a distinct cab-yellow colour to it …
Love and light,