tagReviews & EssaysNew York Taxi Driving Tales Ch. 01

New York Taxi Driving Tales Ch. 01


You get a job. You become the job.
- Peter Boyle as Wizard in Taxi Driver, 1976

It was the spring of 1979, I was twenty-three-years old, and I was driving a New York taxi on the night shift. Actually I had left the garage in Queens around three PM and it was still full daylight. I was cruising down the middle of Ninth Avenue, I think, looking for a fare. At this point I had been doing this job for over a year, on and off.

It must have been a weekend because I remember the traffic being on the light side. That condition made it possible for my next passenger to pull off a stunt that might have gotten her run over on a weekday. I saw a young, dark-haired woman dashing across the lanes to intercept me in mid-street while waving her arms desperately. I had the sense that her state of mind, not some objective emergency, was the reason for her behavior.

That was confirmed when she got in and started talking. She was afflicted with some kind of mania and even though I could understand her I was sure that it was a drug-induced condition. I got her destination in Brooklyn Heights and then she started a rapid yet rambling conversation that I could barely follow. I responded enough to be polite although she seemed to be beyond caring.

I figured her substance of choice that evening was not alcohol or marijuana, and I had seen junkies nodding off so I knew it wasn't heroin. Cocaine, perhaps? During my high school and college years most of the people I knew well were not druggies, so I didn't have vast experience of using or observing the effects of the many drugs available in the city. Like Will Rogers, I mostly knew what I read in the papers.

I used Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan to get to the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was there on Chambers that she passed out in her seat. The silence started abruptly, and I stopped by the curb to check out her condition. She didn't respond to my voice, so I got out and opened the back door.

I had to make a decision - the nearest emergency room was at Beekman-Downtown Hospital a few blocks away. I considered whether to take her there. It appeared to me that she was asleep but breathing normally. That was all my amateur medical knowledge could offer me to make an opinion. I decided to continue the trip and cross the bridge.

There are some memories of doing that job that make me cringe, usually involving something that somebody said or did that bothered my thin-skinned self. In that case on Chambers Street, something more serious was at stake; for a few minutes this woman's life was in my hands.

If I had been older and more experienced in life I might have handled it differently. I'm not going to justify my actions of nearly forty years ago. All I can say is that job of driving a cab, or perhaps the way I perceived it, demanded a lot of responsibility but seemed to offer no authority. I wondered what how she would react if she woke up by the emergency room door and didn't believe she belonged there. "There's nothing wrong with me, why did you bring me here?" I thought about what my dispatchers would say if I used up a chunk of my shift doing this.

Studies have shown that the "bystander effect," the supposed indifference of city dwellers to the plight of their fellow citizens, is lessened when there is only a single individual observing. And I was that single individual. I must have hoped or prayed that I made the right call and then I drove on.

On the Brooklyn side she started to recover and she asked me to stop on one of the main Heights streets, probably Montague. She seemed to be looking for a store to buy something. I was stopped at a corner and there, standing in a doorway, was a police officer. Sometimes there really is one when you need one. My passenger was fumbling with her purse and talking to herself.

I got out and approached the patrolman, one of the younger members of the force. He looked in at her and said, "She's on drugs all right." Then, "There's nothing I can do. Take her to a hospital if you want to."

I thought, There's nothing you can do? What exactly is it that you do do then? I understood the pressures cops are under, but I have seen them micromanage the most trivial things and at other times blatantly ignore the most provocatively crazy situations. Anyway, at this point in the city's history, with cutbacks and layoffs, the morale of the NYPD was at a low point. I'm taking a guess that that nowadays cops like to report these little interventions in their daily logs because it helps their careers in a way that may not have been true back then.

When I got back in the car she seemed to have recovered enough to be lucid. Instead of being manic she was calm but appeared tired and woozy from coming down from her high. I remember it was dusk when we reached her destination a few blocks south of Montague. She used up a few more minutes going through some photographs she had in her purse and then she paid her fare and left.

She said nothing to me indicating there was anything unusual about the trip, that she had been on the edge or actually into an overdose, or that I had anything to do with the outcome of her misadventure. Maybe she eventually forgot about it or perhaps she used it eventually as an anecdote at an N.A. meeting. But it was one of those incidents from the job I have remembered.


Maybe I was more unequivocally a savior on another night in 1979. Or perhaps I was just scammed, although I think that was the less likely truth about the event. I remember it was cold, there may have been snow on the streets, and it was fully dark. I was driving south on either Lenox Avenue or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a black woman in distress came up to my cab. She wasn't as visibly agitated as the Ninth Avenue lady, but when she got in she seemed truly upset. I tend to take people at face value to the point of gullibility, but yet my upbringing in New York has also influenced me to be skeptical too. Perhaps I'd have been happier in a smaller place where trust is easier to give.

I did believe her - although there are people who are capable of Tony-award level performances if they need to produce one. Her story was that she had been robbed in the street and that she had just left the police station. (There was a precinct house nearby on West 135th Street.) She had lost her purse and her money and she asked for a free ride home. It wasn't that far away - I think it was up in the Hamilton Heights area - and I decided to do it.

She talked about the experience convincingly on the way up there. She was articulate but in shock about the crime. When we got there she said "God bless you," which somehow always pleases my agnostic self. I still have from my Catholic upbringing the hope that good deeds result in chips that can be redeemed at the celestial cashier's window.

I'm sure that she will always remember that night clearly.


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bygunhilltrain© 6 comments/ 2176 views/ 2 favorites

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by Anonymous

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by gunhilltrain08/18/18


Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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by thewinedarksea08/18/18

I enjoyed this thoughtful vignette.

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by gunhilltrain08/13/18

Thank you electricblue66 for your comment.

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by gunhilltrain08/13/18

Dear anonymous:

There are no names because I never knew them and no dialogue because I could only remember what the police officer said.

i wasn't sure if the administrators would approve the topic but I noticed thatmore...

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by electricblue6608/12/18

I think the first anon missed the point.

Sometimes it's enough to contemplate events that happened over a lifetime, little snippets of reality, made real as you have done here - it's important to getmore...

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