By Jeff Hodges
In 1971, when I took the New York City taxi driver test, I didn’t know whether Fifth Avenue traffic ran uptown or downtown. But I knew where the Empire State Building was, and that got me my hack license.
I attended college during the day and drove at night. My teenage years had been spent fishtailing on dirt roads and spinning doughnuts on frozen lakes, so I was an experienced driver. Our cars served as portable bars, living rooms, and bedrooms throughout the endless New England winters, so spending long hours behind the wheel wasn’t much of an issue either.
My main problem was passengers not paying their fares at the end of their rides. Kids would open the doors and scatter to the four corners of Brooklyn; guys in suits would plead forgetfulness and run upstairs to get their wallets, never to return.
Some of this was offset by going “off the meter.” Almost every fleet cab had a doctored wire running from the meter to the light on the roof. At the beginning of my shift I’d unwrap the electrical tape and install a kill switch so I could turn off the roof light and make it look like the meter was running. As long as your receipts were respectable at the end of the night, you could spend part of your shift working for yourself by offering a flat rate to your passengers and pocketing the money.
I loved driving a cab. I had my own set of wheels in New York City and I could kill the meter and take joyrides with my friends. A number of times I parked the cab and joined a fare for a drink. Once a guy started hassling me from the back seat and I asked, “You wanna drive?” He retorted, “You bet I do!” So I hopped in the back with his wife and he drove us home.
Every night was a vertiginous adventure. In those days the city was peopled with a lively demimonde whose members always seemed to end up in my back seat, drinking and smoking, laughing and crying, and praying and cursing as I drove to the far reaches of the outer boroughs or the worst parts of the inner city. I discussed literature with prostitutes, religion with revolutionaries, poetry with gangsters; I escorted staggering drunks into hotel lobbies and drove burglars back to the Bronx. I’ve always said I learned more from driving a cab than I did in four years of college.
One night in Spanish Harlem I picked up a kid who’d taken a bullet. Every time I hit a pothole he screamed, but his friends called him a pussy and told him to shut up. I turned around and said, “I hope he’s not bleeding all over my back seat,” but he just had a small hole in his thigh with a big round bloodstain. When we got to Metropolitan Hospital they dragged him out of the cab, dumped him on the curb, and took off. I had to walk him in and hand him over to an orderly.
I didn’t bother trying to collect the fare.