Taking a cab in New York is rarely a pleasant experience. The roads look as if they’ve been pounded by B52s, the drivers are surly (often in Bangladeshi or Croatian) and the aggression palpable, as everyone jostles for a little crack of space. And should you happen to live in Brooklyn—forgeddaboudit. I was recently treated to an Oscar-winning performance by a driver whose car mysteriously ‘broke down’ at the sight of heavy traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. ‘Engine gone sir, no good,’ he said, gesturing hopelessly at his vehicle. I cursed him thoroughly, but to no avail. He even went so far as to get out of his car and start languidly kicking his tyres. I was about 20 feet away from him when I heard the sound of his engine start up and turned in time to see him execute a smart U-turn across three lanes of traffic and speed off back into Manhattan.
For better or for worse, there is rarely such a thing as an uneventful journey, and the incidental pleasures can make up for the inconvenience. One particular delight is the regular Scorsese-style shouting matches that occur; there’s nothing quite like hearing two Indian cabbies screaming at each other, ‘Go screw your sister!’
You’ll also be drawn into the intimate web of their personal lives and pet obsessions. There was the Sikh who, for 40 blocks, played what sounded like Ravi Shankar imitating Motorhead, and kept turning his head alarmingly to ask me: ‘Isn’t this wonderful music?’ This turned out to be no idle rhetorical question, for until I had vigorously confirmed each time that this was indeed the case, he continued to stare at me, ignoring the stream of cars, rollerbladers and homeless hurtling towards him. Or there was the haunted-looking young man who announced, as we speed away from the curb into the path of an 18-wheeler truck, ‘Last week I was in Serbia; all my family are dead. What worse could happen now?’ Or the Jewish guy who had been driving a cab since ‘the second Sunday before Easter—that’s Easter 1960,’ and had written a history of the Checker Cab. ‘I’m the last English-speaking cabby in New York,’ he said. ‘I ought to put a sign on my door.’
This last statement turned out to be not quite true, however, when a week later I discovered the second-to-last. Not only did he speak English, he was interested in a lengthy discussion on the semantics and etymology of the mother tongue as spoken by ‘an authority.’ ‘Funny how one term means one thing over here and another over there,’ he mused, pointing in what was I assumed the general direction of England. ‘And it’s the same language! I mean, tell me honestly, would you guys ever make a movie called “Free Willy”?’ he had evidently given such issues a great deal of thought.
‘I had one English lady scream at me once, at the lights: “Open the boot! Open the boot!” When she got in, I was pissed at her, so I said: “Lady, this is America. We speak a different language here.” She said: “Oh, what should I have said?” I said: “Open the fucking boot.”‘