My real, illuminating experience as a NYC taxi driver

Illustration: Renee Godyn
Illustration: Renee Godyn
Illustration: Renee Godyn

One was a veterinarian on her way to give a walrus a gold cavity filling, another an ex-banker who had recently quit his job to start a cybersecurity firm, another paid a $12 fare for a three block ride and another wanted to make an insurance claim against me, having just been rear ended. These were some of the passengers that I encountered while driving a New York City taxicab.

You have two options: the day shift or the night shift. Both lasting a grueling twelve hours, the former shift from 5AM to 5PM and the latter from 5PM to 5AM. You must pay the medallion owner a renter’s fee for driving their car and, on top of that, gas isn’t included. This means that you start your day with an approximately $160 deficit before you even press the gas pedal. To put that in St Andrews perspective, at a rate of around $30 per hour- you would have to work more than five hours before you can pay for the VIC’s entrance fee. And while coffee can serve as a source of caffeine, what keeps you truly awake and alert is the constant fear of getting a $500 fine from yours sincerest NYPD for the slightest traffic wrongdoing. However the greatest hazard of the job is just blinking. After being eleven hours into the shift, the greatest risk of all is closing your eyes for even a second too long, falling asleep behind the wheel, and plowing into a pedestrian. As a taxi driver, you must always be vigilant and uphold the responsibility to public safety, for you truly do determine life or death for all in your surrounding area when operating a two-ton vehicle.

I could never have imagined the gravity of the work when the idea first originated those many years ago. The inspiration came from hearing the extraordinary tales of a friend’s father who himself had been a driver in the late 1960’s and has since gone on to a successful corporate career. What struck me, evident by his enthusiasm of recounting the stories, was that taxiing is an experience that he did not forget even fifty years later. Though dressing in business casual to a summer internship may evoke a mature adult feeling, I didn’t see the appeal. As a family friend in private equity said, what credible firm would actually give meaningful work to a first year university intern? Furthermore, as an economics student, I will most likely work in a fluorescent-lit office building in some metropolis for the next forty years. Why rush to that? And thus it was upon one Aikman’s Sunday, with all these factors in mind, that I decided to go unconventional, become a taxi driver and have a grand experience that I would hopefully recount with great enthusiasm some fifty years from now.

In hindsight, that Aikman’s Sunday me was rather idealistic as the scheme proved easier said than done. The entire process of getting the taxi license from walking into the Department of Motor Vehicle (Satan’s embassies on Earth- for those unfamiliar) to driving my first passenger took two months. And though that is nothing compared to London’s notorious 34 months taxi licensing process known as The Knowledge, it was still quite challenging. There was waking up before sunrise. Commuting an hour and a half into the city, and attending an eight hour course at Taxi Academy. In a class of thirty-three, I was one of two born in the United States and whose native language was English. The others came from all walks of life: Ghana, Bangladesh, Tibet, Pakistan, Qatar, Algeria, Haiti and Senegal to name a few. Then there were days of waiting in bureaucratic lines for paperwork approval; peeing into cups for mandatory drug testing. Long hours studying the geography of New York City as the usage of GPS devices and other digital maps is forbidden. The final step was taking and passing the Taxi & Limousine Commission regulated examination.

I chose the morning shift. Waking up before sunrise, I would zoom down empty superhighways from sleeping suburbia into the city that would be clogged with rush hour traffic by the day’s first light. I would punch my card, collect my yellow 1998 Crown Victoria and look for that quintessential cab-hailing wave. While I was on the job, conversing with the passengers was the absolute. Making money, on the other hand, was irrelevant. I would often start with a basic “where to, sir?” and “how is your day, ma’am?” and a friendly chat would follow. Many of my passengers immediately recognized that I was not a normal cabbie, as I wore a Brooks Brothers jacket, tie and pair of RayBan sunglasses. I wanted to look professional. We would inquire about each other, their profession, my academics, discuss the trivial or philosophize on life. On one noteworthy fare, we listened to and discussed classical music on the stretch from Midtown to The Bowery. And though it was but a $17 trip, they firmly insisted on giving me $40. Later that day, I would get into my first car accident, having been rear ended on the West Side Highway. And it was in that moment, as a furious two hundred pound man who could have easily knocked my teeth in was verbally assaulting me, I realized that this was one of those unteachable moments that builds character. So I politely traded insurance details and then cursed him out.

But above all, my respect goes out to those I met in my taxi class. I remember talking to one student, an Indian man well into his fifties. Before emigrating, he was in the Indian Navy and was an electrical engineer but now he runs a gas station in Brooklyn. And though his current employment is far more difficult than his former jobs, he was content with all in life. His daughter was studying law at Dartmouth and his son medicine at UC Berkeley. He dedicated his life to the betterment of his children, having sacrificed personal comfort, leaving his family for years, saving every penny and was finally able to afford bringing his family to the promise land—an all too common story as I talked to more and more taxi drivers. I sometimes wonder what they would think if they were to see St Andrews and the disconnect from reality as it is. So while I can’t quite encourage others to become a cab driver, I hope it at least expands your understanding of the industry, and humanizes the drivers. They’ve had a long day—please remember to always tip.


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