One of the first thing that drivers are required to do after entering Taxi School is to obtain a 5 Borough Atlas and study the hell out of it. A few of the questions – both open and closed book – are on the exam but as I always tell everyone who asks me, the real test begins when you put the key in the ignition and start taking fares. The rule book is a pain in the butt because, well, it’s a rule book and the odds of ever having to pull it out are slim to none. The most important thing to remember is where drivers are obligated to take people, where it’s illegal to pick up fares, and what to do in case of an accident. Traffic laws should be common knowledge before one decides to pursue this vocation so a violation of some combination of these above rules are what tends to end a lot of driver’s careers.
Streets are another matter. Like most New Yorkers, I had a really good idea of how Manhattan was laid out and worked long before I ever decided to drive a taxi. Even numbered streets went east, odd ones went west, and with rare exception, the Borough was arranged in a logical and orderly fashion. Hizzoner’s recent adjustments to Broadway and Sadik-Khan’s love affair with bike lanes have caused havoc for many of us but like most adjustments in the City, that has softened over time. For all the griping and grunting, those of us who have to navigate thoroughfares on a daily basis get accustomed to them and move on.
What the atlas didn’t tell you is what these streets and neighborhoods look and feel like. That only comes with experience and after all the passengers that I’ve met so far, the biggest learning experience for me is how these arteries function. Metropolitan, Bushwick, Bedford, and Nostrand Ave’s were only Subway stops in my lexicon before I drove them on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. Knowing where they were became secondary to knowing how they were and are evolving into. Restaurants would open weekly and bars that were empty a year or two ago would suddenly emerge as the next hot spot in the neighborhood; and potentially into a social locus.
For all the studying and reviewing what went where, nothing could have prepared me for what I confronted on a daily basis. Queens Boulevard is commonly known as the “Boulevard of Death” because of all the pedestrian fatalities on it in recent years but it was only when I started driving that I understood why it gained that moniker. Fourth Ave. in Brooklyn was mostly garages, gas stations, and industrial buildings but I can see Park Slope continuing it’s westward bleeding into it every time I make the right off of Flatbush Ave. and venture southward. As today’s Huffington Post New York elaborated on, many cabbies still refuse to take people out of Manhattan. Those that do are pathogens in the corpus that is New York, never leaving the heart and making their way to the capillaries that extend all the way to the Big Apple’s edge.
It’s not my business to worry about what other drivers do and don’t do. After Saturday night, it became apparent that I need an attitude adjustment in the other direction. At around 4:30 in the morning, someone in the exact spot pictured above said “Excuse me” and like a good driver that doesn’t mind giving directions (I’ve done it countless times since I started this job), I rolled the window down. Sure enough, it was an ambush and as the 4 punches landed on my face, I could only wonder what the world was in it for the person who assaulted me. The night dispatcher at the garage thought it was part of a gang initiation or an attempt to look tough for friends. A few of the other driver’s thought he was drunk or high on something. I was so shaken up and cleaning up the blood that dripped from my nose that I didn’t care and for the first time since I started work, I called out the next day.
Most victims of an assault are probably reluctant to return to the scene of the crime but in this line of work, the thick skin that eventually forms will prepare you for anything – including this. I had no problem making the same turn, and taking this shot of the corner from the same viewpoint I had when I foolishly gave the invitation for my assailant to have his way with me. I had a damn good night before then and my two shifts since have been about as smooth as can be. New York in the 70’s probably saw a lot more of these events take place every night and I’m certainly glad that those days are in the rear-view mirror of the city. For all the risk that comes with being out at night, nothing can take away from the feeling I get when I enter a new neighborhood or see a new street for the first time and continue to see the beautiful diversity in people and the structures that they live and work in.
For anyone wondering, the President ate on the same street where this took place, three days later. Like most people who conduct business in the Big Apple, he’ll eventually forget where his meal took place and will only carry the memories of what transpired. The remainder of us who conduct our lives in New York will continue to watch lines and labels on a map come to life and eventually, work their way into our consciousness. We should be thankful to help record the wonderful narrative that is New York, even if most of the scenes aren’t recorded in any medium but our minds.