My name is Adrian MacDonald. I am white, I am from Seattle, I am not Irish. I have a BA from Columbia University. For two years I have been a New York City taxi driver. Let’s get over the novelty.
The cab garage is a great center of world cultures. All nationalities are united under a democratic layer of road filth and grease. The waiting room scene is full of your basic cab drivers: Poker-playing Indians, Nigerians calmly reading the Post and scarfing down meatball sandwiches, Bangladeshis chuckling in half understanding of African-American sitcoms on the garage TV. I am a minority as a white guy, but when passengers single me out as an anomaly, they’re forgetting about the many wild-eyed, broken down old men who take up the job, shambling into the garage with tufts of grey hair adrift over their heads and jeans hitched up over their navels. A few of them seem to live in the garage; one, a tall, fat, bearded man with intelligent eyes, carries his belongings in a cart.
People talk about the demise of the old, seedy version of New York, where around every corner you ran into someone or something strange, revolting, interesting. I wasn’t there; I don’t know if it’s worth recreating. All I know is I needed a job, and the temp work was getting thin. Now, somehow, I hang out here.
The walls are sticky, the coffee vending machine spits out cups of lukewarm brown water (when it has cups) and the bathroom, which is at the end of a maze of machinery, spare parts, and girlie posters, is snowed in by heaps of used paper towels. Someone has taped a rear view mirror to the wall and written “Looka you ugly face.”
I like to sit outside to wait for a cab. There’s gas attendants and mechanics tooling around in coveralls, the elevated N train passing by under a soft purple sunset sky, and some fantastically mutilated cab carcasses lying around—they seem to turn up regularly, completely scorched, yellow paint melting into black metal.
My name comes up on the loudspeaker. The cab they give me is super. Grease on the steering wheel. French fries on the floor. Rice kernels stuck in the vents. Naturally, the alignment is spotty. I wipe up and hit the road. The radio goes on, the car becomes mine.
I only drive nights. The shift is 5pm to 5am. Plenty of time to stew in my own juices, see the sights. More than enough time probably.
Commercial radio in New York is unqualified garbage. I try to stick to the left end of the dial, which is filled with an assortment of bizarre little stations with no ads. You can’t complain too much if you’re sitting through another set of weird marginally rhythmic computer droning someone wants to call music — it still trumps a commercial for Trim Spa. I have all the DJ slots memorized.
I line up in the gradual ice flow of traffic through Queens Plaza, pull off a few antagonistic maneuvers, angle through the six or so converging lanes. At a certain point there’s nothing you can do. I’m riding a conveyer belt of cars into the great factory. I’m being pulled, slowly, cunningly, via tractor beam into the Death Star. I’m being sucked through the transformative vortex of the Queensboro Bridge to emerge on the other side sleek, clean, useful, urban. I take it in stride. This will be a good shift.
Ten o’clock Saturday night and Sixth Avenue is a moaning red sea of brake lights. I like the chaos, rise to the occasion. I’ve had three cups of coffee and K-Rock is playing its one and only decent program, techno beats synched in with 90s rock songs. I pick up a good-looking girl in a white fuzzy jacket and skinny black pants on Bleecker going to Williamsburg. The traffic is intense. Freaked out goddamn SUV drivers taking up half the road, trying not to let anyone scratch their paint. I cut a guy off and he howls indignantly. The road community communicates to each other in single petulant notes, eking out a language of rhythm, endurance, ferocity. The Bowery’s two pathetic lanes are taxed to the limit. I feel like a rock climber, looking for gaps. All you need is someone’s half a second of hesitation, and you have leverage. You’re home free.
Tonight passengers are everywhere, all of them tipsy, all of them looking for a buzz. Everyone is happy to see me. I chat with the fares, feel like I’m cruising around at a cocktail party. People have stories to tell. They’re as curious about me as I am about them.
Things are not always like this. The “city that never sleeps” is a tourist lie. Come back out Sunday through Wednesday after midnight and you’ll see a bleak ghost town populated by roaming cabs, their desperation broadcast by the “empty” lights on their roofs. Supply and demand hits hard. You start to feel like a starving animal in the forest. You snap up a much needed fare to the Upper East Side, netting you around $11, and then all of a sudden you find yourself in an armada of empty cabs cruising down Second Avenue, all returning from an Uptown fare, none picking up anything on the way back. On Sixth coming through the village, four cabs with their “empty” lights on appear at every intersection, filling up every lane, racing with each other. Someone appears on the curb with an arm up and there is a near collision in the frenzy to get to the customer first. In the dark of night, the “empty” lights look like insect eyes, amassing in sickening clusters around nightclub doorways. Everywhere you go, every street you turn down, a little “empty” light is there, hostile, staring you in the face.
But tonight I’m part of the vaunted city nightlife. My windshield is a movie screen, my rear view mirror frames the faces in close up. The action changes at random every five or ten minutes, brief encounters with people passing in the night. Partiers, tourists, working people, musicians. Bragging, crying, laughing, bitching. People unsure how to have fun, people assured of their own supremacy in that department. People talk to me when they’re lonely or drunk. “You’re the first white cab driver I’ve ever seen.” Yes, we’re rare specimens. And here it comes. The drawing in of breath. The surge of original thought. A need for data, a comparison of experience, how advanced are you, am I, in the maelstrom of New York… “So, what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you?”
The craziest thing that’s ever happened to me is that I ended up here, talking to you.
But for kicks, I guess I’ll say knife fight.