Those three dreaded letters…

The Yellow Sea

“Hey there, where to?”

“I’m going to J.F.K…”

There’s virtually nothing else that can be said in such a short span that has as bit an impact on a shift as the above quote. Entire nights can be made or ruined depending on what time the run out to the location formerly known as Idlewild is made. Some cabdrivers are known to speed away from people who wish to go there, before the trunk can be popped for the mound of luggage that will further cripple many a sciatic nerve and daily fuel budget. You, the intrepid reader, will no doubt already know that yours truly has never refused to fare to this locale, if for no other reason that some of the most memorable nights have involved a fare to the largest Airport in the Tri-State area.

In all seriousness, J.F.K. is a city unto itself. No map of the 5 Boroughs would be complete without it and it would easily swallow up Central Park’s 840 acres 5 times over with room to spare. Like the rest of New York City, the process of building and rebuilding there is never ending, especially with Terminal 6 having been recently torn down. We went over the fare system enough in Taxi School and it was only a matter of time after I started driving that I was guaranteed to get someone who needed to get there from Manhattan A.S.A.P. Sure enough, this mentality is what causes so much consternation and agita when it comes time to haul someone to their flight in time.

As I always tell people with a hint of humor and hubris, “LaGuardia is a bitch to get around but easy to get to while Kennedy is the other way around. It’s a Man’s Airport and one that New York can be proud of”. Much of the reason for this is the absence of the Bushwick Expressway, which would have made the run from Midtown a lot faster than the trek down the World’s Longest Parking lot and past the remnants of the ’64 World’s Fair. Man will probably walk on Mars and find a cure for the common cold before Mass Transit will overtake the auto as the preferred way of reaching New York’s International Gateway, even with the AirTrain fully operational for a number of years now.

J.F.K. presents it’s own unique set of parameters in terms of how it breaks up a shift. At rush hour, it’s every cabbies nightmare since every main route, alternate route, shortcut, and cut-through through a residential area will inevitably be met with red lights and/or traffic that will result in the passenger questioning the route that was selected. The $45 flat fare from Manhattan (it’s the standard rate from anywhere else in the city) sounds like a  great deal until the details are hashed out. Most passengers hate paying the toll, even though some MTA crossings can considerably shorten the ride. Some passengers will be in a huge rush and have no idea how long it takes to get there, since their inbound flight was a red-eye or was delayed for so long that the ride to their hotel or destination was lightning-fast on empty roads. A few will be from Europe and not bother tipping since, well…because it’s not customary to do that over there.

And then there’s the $64,000 question of how to return.

Once a passenger is dropped off at the proper terminal, the cabdriver has two choices:

1) Head to the dispatch line, a.k.a. Central Taxi

2) Get the Hell out of Dodge and back to Manhattan

But of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that…

Sure enough, the line of empty cabs waiting to head out of that line can be big and slow to move, leaving the occasional crazy cabdriver to hop up on his cab and take in the scene, out of sheer boredom. It’s like any other Taxi line, with a dispatcher and a “FIFO” (first in, first out) rule but the trick is figuring out how long it will take to get out. During Rush Hours, rainy days, or busy travel periods, it can quick and worth the driver’s time. Otherwise, I can catch 3/4th of a sporting event on the radio before I have to wake up, start the engine and pull out. Who doesn’t like saving on gas? Probably the same person who wants to wait around while at work. Yup, it’s just that exciting…

Passing the time at Central Taxi

This is the case if you’re close with the other drivers, and c’mon, lots of cabbies love to watch others, take pictures, and record what the world throws at them, right? That’s why I never managed to get in on the backgammon and domino games that can get pretty heated during the lean times in the waiting area. I’ve seen quite a bit of money get thrown around, to the point where I wondered if the drivers were going fast during the rest of their shifts to make up for gambling losses. Sure, I’m awful at these contests but apparently not enough to get roped in as a way for the others to make a few bucks. The only contact the others had with me was the queries whether I worked for TLC since I was taking pictures of the action. This, after a few of my passengers wondered if I was like the other cabbies when I forgot to shave and got testy easily. I guess I just can’t win sometimes…

All games aside, it’s nearly impossible to picture Gotham without Kennedy. Every ticket that we get from the dispatch booth proudly proclaims that J.F.K. is where “New York greets the world” and given that the Big Apple is home to people from every corner of the globe, it would only make sense that this slogan is what we see before flying down the myriad of ramps to pick up fares that have just arrived. One thing about the airports that I have to explain to people is that the long wait is only something that we have to go through once in a night. Anyone *not* going to Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx entitles us to receive a shorty ticket from the dispatcher at a given terminal. In other words, if I’m back at the Airport within 90 minutes, then I can cut the line and basically be on my way with a new ticket, within a matter of minutes. There’s been a handful of nights where I’ve had 4 shorty’s in a row and didn’t get the fare back to Manhattan until well after midnight.

For buffs of the past like me, nothing could compare to seeing Eero Saarinen’s old T.W.A. Terminal, even if it’s only from the outside. Arguably the greatest building constructed in the Big Apple in the 1960’s, it’s a reminder of how much air travel was romanticized before deregulation took hold, and how even modern architecture could become outdated so quickly. Even though it’s been integrated with the rest of Terminal 5 now, it’s painful to see this relic from the past as a gateway and a reminder of what used to be. There’s so much to be overwhelmed by in today’s security-conscious age that buildings like this and the original Penn Station mark their times not just by their design, but by how we viewed travel and transportation.

At the time of their apex, both of those gates of entry were the world’s greatest in the city that had the most people, the tallest building, and the best transportation system that the planet had ever seen. The almighty dollar certainly took over and starting with the monolithic boxes that spouted up during the postwar building boom, utilitarianism became paramount over all else. Nowhere is this more apparent than at J.F.K. Sure, it gets high marks from passengers for it’s ease of entry and mobility but let’s face it, when was the last time a trip to the airport was an exciting event for you? What makes the experience at Kennedy so mediocre is the harried aspect of the experience. Reflecting the cabdrivers who are herded like cattle to the passengers waiting for a ride, people today are treated more as numbers and statistics rather than fresh-faced arrivals from afar. If there’s any plus to having a return fare back to the city, it’s that I get to have an extended conversation with my passenger(s) as they make their way home or to a hotel. It’s will never be a re-creation of the past like Pan Am, but it is all I can do to greet the world as best I can.

The old way of taking flight at J.F.K.