Pay The Fare: Life Lessons en Route
It’s an amazing fact that most people today, in the first quarter of the 21st century, derive their understanding of the world through newspapers, magazines, television and the internet. But to keep abreast of current events takes time and discipline.
They could save themselves many hours of their lives by doing a simple thing that New Yorkers and millions of others worldwide take for granted: hail a taxi. The presence of a hack license in an automobile often ensures the invitee of the latest in news, weather, sports and entertainment. Cultural commentary is included with the receipt.
A few years ago a ride to Foley Square began a running commentary on the new Mayor, Bill de Blasio. “He’s no good”, said my chauffeur, “wait and see. He went to Cuba on his honeymoon, I mean, who does that?” I had to admit that it was a bit unusual. “The city’s going to suffer, you heard it here first”. Turns out my cabbie was something of a psychic. It must come with the profession, the ability of taxi drivers to feel the pulse of the body politic.
When I was in London in 2012 I left the Victory Services Club for an evening appointment. As I got into the cab the driver said “Where to, Yank?” I said “White’s. Excuse me, how did you know I’m an American, the accent?” “No,” he replied, “You could be Canadian. It’s the button down shirt collar. Only Yanks wear ’em”. This guy was good I thought, Sherlock Holmes good. The talk drifted to international relations and his very low opinion of the European Union. “We’ll have a vote one day”, he said, “and we’ll get out of it”. As I tipped him he concluded, “Don’t worry, we’ll get our country back, you’ll see”.
Brexit was four years away.
My stay in Paris that year was also memorable. In France one sits next to the driver to show “solidarity”. I didn’t know this so I climbed in the back. This brought a smile from Phillipe who was French by way of Gabon. It was raining, naturally, and it happened to be the inauguration day of the new President, Francois Hollande. My driver wanted to have fun with the tourist. “God is crying”, said Phillipe, obviously not a Socialist. “Tomorrow Hollande will probably go see the boss”. I was confused; “The boss? Where’s the boss?” I asked. “The boss is in Berlin” he answered. Sure enough, the very next day President Hollande made his first state visit – to see Angela Merkel. I was impressed by Phillipe’s expert knowledge of European affairs.
Often silent but always observant, these roving students of human nature can be quite perceptive and extremely opinionated. Take for example a ride through Times Square on a Saturday night some years ago. Passing a movie marquee displaying the name of a famous actress brought a declaration I didn’t expect. “She’s a whore” my driver shouted, “They’re all whores!”. I said I thought that was rather harsh. “Whores!”, it went on like this for five blocks at which point I realized that I was in the presence of the real Travis Bickle. The renaming of the Ed Sullivan theater to the Stephen Colbert ignited another firestorm in the front seat of a vehicle for hire. “That’s not low class, that’s no class!” was his pithy theater review.
Restaurant critiques are also available. Leaving Sardi’s by taxi after dinner was a mistake, the meal, not the ride. “Why did you go there?” came the question from my frustrated chef on wheels. “The food at Patsy’s is better“ he said, “especially the veal”. When I thought about what I had just paid for my repast I concluded that he might have a point.
Sometimes a taxi can take you to unexpected destinations. Disembarking on Broadway and 52nd Street I closed the passenger door just as Tammy Grimes ran up to catch my ride. The cab pulled away as I apologized for not holding it for her, but, I added, “the driver obviously didn’t recognize you”! She laughed. She was beautiful and funny and we agreed to have a cocktail at Gallagher’s Steak House. It was a perfect New York afternoon.
Politics is a minefield especially when you’re captive in the back seat. I try to avoid the subject whenever possible. However, sometimes the topic is thrust upon you so be forewarned, it’s not always a friendly fight. “Did you vote for Nixon”? came the question. “Well, I wasn’t old enough at the time”, I answered. He wasn’t buying it. “Nah”, he said, “you’re the right age. You just don’t want to admit it. You know what you got? Voter’s remorse, that’s what you got”! They say silence is golden, in this case it was platinum. I can only imagine the analysis that went on in some taxis during the most recent presidential campaign.
Leaving the 7th Regiment Armory in uniform one evening was an awful error. A lady cabbie, something of a novelty, picked me up for my trip home. “You in the Marines?” she asked. I replied in the negative. “Good. They’re all murderers, every single one of them”. What followed were tales of military brutalities inflicted on the good people of Panama on the scale of Tamerlane. I had just finished dinner and began to pray for this history lesson to cease as we careened through Central Park. I needed two whiskies to settle my stomach when I arrived home.
In a life where either for reasons of convenience or comfort I’ve journeyed in yellow, black, green and checkered cars, I can truly state that it’s been its’ own kind of education.
So stick out your arm and prepare for your lesson; you never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn. These rolling universities await their next students.