Hack

How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab

by Melissa Plaut

Hardcover, 240 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $21.95 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Hack
Subtitle
How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab
Author
Melissa Plaut

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

The author describes her reasons for becoming a cabbie and her experiences—good, bad, and strange—being one of the one percent of women taxi drivers in New York City.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Hack

CHAPTER 1

I was an hour into my shift when I picked them up. Two guys in their early twenties got in at Canal and Broadway wanting to go to the tow pound in Brooklyn Heights to pick up their car. It was 5:00 P.M. and I knew traffic would be bad, but I didn’t really have a choice. When they flagged me down, one of them held the back door open as he waited for the other to get a slice of pizza in the store. I started the meter but was already annoyed. It’s a shitty way to begin any ride when they hold you hostage like that.

It was only when they got settled in the backseat that I realized they had been drinking. They were loopy and happy, but maybe a little too relaxed.

“Holy shit, look! It’s a chick!”

“What?” the other one answered.

“Look! Our cab driver’s a woman!”

“Oh, weird.” They both gaped at me for a second, absorbing. Then, “Hey, can we smoke pot in here?”

I said no.

“Can we smoke a cigarette in here?”

Again, no.

I’ve never really understood why people want to smoke cigarettes so badly when they’re in a cab. It’s not like they’re gonna be in there for hours or anything. Most likely they’ll be in the cab for about ten minutes, maybe a half hour if there’s traffic. And at the end of the ride they’ll be able to smoke.

In the cab, however, it’s illegal. Not like I’m some stickler for the law or anything, but I’m not gonna risk a $200 ticket, plus points on my license, for some shithead who can’t stall his impulses until he gets out of my cab. The only reason to let people smoke is because you hope they’ll show their appreciation by giving a bigger tip. But the few times I’ve allowed it, it just wasn’t worth it. So what? They gave me an extra two dollars? Big deal. It totally didn’t make up for the stress I experienced the entire time they were smoking. Plus, the smell lingers in the back, and when you get upper-crust antismoking Park Avenue types back there after that, you’re screwed. They get upset and pretend to cough, and leave an even shittier tip than the shitty tip they’d already planned on leaving. It’s just not worth it.

Of course, I smoke in the cab. But only under special circumstances. Like when I’m alone on my way back from far out in the boroughs or something, and I know the NYPD and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) cops won’t see me, nor will they give a shit if they do. They really only care about stuff like that in Manhattan. And my reasoning is, since I’m stuck in the cab for twelve hours a night, I’m entitled to a smoke every now and then.

Anyway, we were sitting in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I heard that signature sound of beer cans cracking open. I called back to them, “Are you guys drinking beer back there?”

A guilty “No” reached my ears.

“No, seriously, are you? I heard the cans open and if you spill anything, you’ll be putting me out of business for the night. And if the cops see us, I’ll get a huge ticket. Please, just don’t spill it, okay?” At that point, it was the most I could ask for since I couldn’t really kick them out on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Actually, I probably could’ve if I really wanted to. Paul the crazy Romanian dispatcher once told me a story about kicking a passenger out on the side of the Long Island Expressway. They were on their way to JFK airport and the passenger got mad because there was traffic, so he did what many other irrational assholic passengers have done–he blamed it on the driver. He started saying, “I’m not gonna pay for this. You’re running up the meter. This is preposterous.” But all Paul was doing was sitting in traffic, trying to get to JFK as fast as possible.

Some people seem to think that going slow and sitting in traffic is good for a cabbie since the meter is running. This couldn’t have been more wrong back when Paul had his run-in, or during my first two years behind the wheel. The meter ran when the taxi was idling, yes, but it clicked off at a much slower pace than it would have if the cab had been moving. Traffic had an inverse relationship to our income, and we would essentially be losing money for the amount of time we were stuck sitting still. It was called “waiting time,” but it should have been called “wasting time,” since back then the rate for it hadn’t been raised since 1990.

In December 2006, the TLC finally agreed to an increase, doubling the waiting rate in order to almost catch up with the normal wage. But before this change took place, the meter used to tick off forty cents for every two minutes sitting still or in slow-moving traffic, which translated into $12 an hour. This was nothing compared to the forty cents we would get for every fifth of a mile driven while the cab was moving, which, if you were lucky–and fast–could bring in between $30 and $40 an hour.

The worst thing about the pre—December 2006 waiting rate was that it didn’t even come close to what we needed to cover our regular shift expenses. Each twelve-hour shift, cabbies pay what’s called a “lease fee” to take the cab, which is between $111 and $132, depending on which night you’re working. This is the money we have to make back, plus our gas expenses, in order to break even, and that takes up the first four or five hours of the shift–sometimes more, sometimes less. After that, everything we earn is ours to keep, but the stress of starting out at around $160 in the hole sucks. Before the TLC increased the waiting rate, if I sat still with the meter on for the full twelve hours of my shift, I would’ve ended up owing money to the garage at the end of the night.

So Paul kicked the guy out of the cab, luggage and all, right there on the shoulder of the highway in the middle of nowhere Queens.

But I wasn’t gonna do that, as much as I wanted to. These guys were assholes, but they were nice assholes. I mean, they weren’t trying to be assholes. They started getting rowdy in the backseat, punching each other and play fighting, calling each other dickhead and cocksucker and bitch. Which was all fine, except the cab was shaking from the motion and I was afraid their beers were gonna spill, so I started throwing out empty threats. “If you guys don’t chill the fuck out, I will kick you out right here. Calm down, okay?” If they forced me to, I would do it, but I really didn’t want to.

When they heard this, they started back in on the woman thing. “Hey,” one said, “I totally respect women. I think it’s cool that you’re a cab driver.” The other, perhaps the brighter of the two, said, “If you respect women so much, why do you feel the need to say that every time you talk to a woman? Don’t you see the problem with that?” Then to me he said, “Don’t mind him. He’s drunk, but he means well.”

It’s true I am sort of an anomaly. Out of the forty thousand licensed cab drivers in New York City, about two hundred are women, making up less than 1 percent of the cabbie population. It’s no wonder people make such a big deal when they see me.

When we finally got off the Brooklyn Bridge, I had to look at the directions they’d given me to find the tow pound. At one point, I ended up in the wrong lane, a left-turn-only lane that led onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I didn’t want that. We were at a red light and a minivan was on my right, so I put my right blinker on and tried to get the driver’s attention so that maybe he would let me over. Turns out he wanted to make the left from his lane, the straight-only lane, and didn’t see my signal, because when I pulled out in front of him, he stopped short and honked his horn at me. The guys in the back were like, “Oh shit, that guy almost hit you!” I said, “Yeah, I guess we were both sort of wrong there.”

As I continued driving toward the waterfront, looking at the directions, I realized the minivan had abandoned his intended left turn and had started following me. Not only that, he was weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic lane, trying to get next to me. He kept racing up, getting next to me, and then hanging back when a car would come against him. But he kept doing it, and when he’d get beside me, he’d then swerve toward me from my left side, as if he was trying to run me off the road. I’m guessing he was mad.

My whole body went on red alert and I gripped the wheel hard with both hands, trying to keep the cab under control.
This guy was making me a little more than nervous. He wasn’t backing down, wouldn’t just let it go, and I wasn’t sure what to do, didn’t know what he was capable of. The guys in the backseat starting freaking out and yelling at him, but I had already learned that this kind of thing only encourages psycho drivers.

I heard their window open and I turned and said sharply, “DO NOT talk to him. Do not taunt him or encourage him. Do not engage with him at all or it will get worse for all of us. Okay? Please just put your window back up. Don’t even look at him, okay?” They listened obediently and I heard the window go back up. If there was one thing I’d already learned in my short time as a cab driver, it was DO NOT ENGAGE. There will be thousands upon thousands of angry drivers on the streets, and whether they’re righteous or not doesn’t really matter, but the situation always gets worse if you enter into the verbal fight they’re trying to start. All it does is get your blood boiling and your adrenaline racing. Besides, though it usually pisses them off even more if you just ignore them, it also gives you the upper hand.
I have to admit, there was a part of me that sometimes got off on the fight, but I’d learned I needed to preserve my energy if I wanted to make it through an entire shift.

As I made a left turn on Front Street, the guy turned with me, still on the wrong side of the street. My fear was building and I thought maybe I shouldn’t go straight to the tow pound, which is in a relatively deserted area. Instead, maybe I should find the nearest police precinct and just park there until he got tired of wanting to kill me.

I went slow and he swerved in and out, behind me, then next to me, and even tried to stop short in front of me from time to time. I still wouldn’t look at him. I refused to make eye contact and I continued pretending like he wasn’t there. If he wanted to kill me, I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of cursing me out first.

My passengers, however, had no problem looking at him, and finally, when he was next to us again, they yelled, “OH SHIT! HE’S A COP! Look over there, he’s holding a badge!” I looked over and, sure enough, the guy was holding up a black leather wallet with a metal shield attached. I honestly didn’t know if this made the situation better or worse. Worse, I think, since now he could kill me and get away with it if he wanted to. It’s one thing to be almost run off the road by a road-raging psycho minivan driver, but when that driver is also an off-duty cop, there’s something just so much more horrible about it. It’s like he has a right to fuck with you, and you have no defense. If you fought back somehow, it wouldn’t be considered self-defense, it’d be considered a crime.

Still, when I saw the badge, I slowed down. It’s not like he was gonna give up anytime soon anyway, so I figured, let’s just get this over with. If he wants to kill me, so be it. I was already fried from the whole ride.

I opened my window a little as he pulled up next to me, and he just started screaming, “You fucking bitch. You piece of shit whore. What the fuck is wrong with you? You almost hit me back there. You stupid fucking cunt.” He went on like this for a minute, and I just replied, “I thought you saw my turn signal. I didn’t mean to cut you off, I thought you saw me. Sorry.” But there was no defending myself against his onslaught of whores and cunts and bitches and suck-my-dicks. Very becoming behavior for one of New York’s “Finest.” Looking back now, I wish I had gotten his badge number. But I just sat there and absorbed his insults until he finally got his fill of abusing me and peeled out and away.

We were near the tow pound, but I didn’t move for a minute. I felt like I had been punched. My heart was racing from all the fear added to the emotional beating I had just taken, and I was upset by my inability to defend myself. The guys in the back got serious. One of them said, “Look, I think we’re close now. We can just walk from here. Don’t worry about it.” I could tell they felt bad for me.

I said, “No, I’ll take you. It’s no big deal.” I just wanted to get them there and get them out, but I didn’t want them to get out right there, like that. It didn’t seem right, and felt even more like a defeat if I couldn’t complete the ride. Still, I couldn’t get rid of them soon enough, even though the rest of the way, they were being very sweet and nice, saying, “That guy was a lunatic. I can’t believe he was a cop. That was so fucked up. Are you okay?” I nodded yes, I’m fine, thank you. I just needed a minute to put my head back together.

When we pulled into the tow pound, the fare was $11.90. They got out and stood by my window and continued trying to comfort me. I just said, “Please, it’s fine. Can you just pay me? I gotta get back to the city.” They shoved two $20 bills at me and said, “Keep it. And don’t worry about that guy–he was probably a loser in high school.”

I pulled away and carefully made my way back to Manhattan. Back in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, I lit a hard-earned cigarette and smoked.
On my very first day as a cab driver, a man stuck his hand in the open passenger-side window, made it into a gun shape, and said, “Gimme all your money.” Then he pulled it back out and walked away laughing. My passenger thought I knew the guy, but I didn’t.

Also on that first day, I saw a cabbie get punched in the face. There was a minor collision between a van and a cab, one having sideswiped the other, but who knows whose fault it was. Still, the cabbie always gets the blame. Both vehicles were stopped in the middle of the street and the two drivers stepped out of their cars. As I was passing through the intersection behind them, the van driver went up and punched the cabbie hard. The cabbie tried to block the punch, but it was too late, and he went down. I had a passenger in the back, and there was really nothing I could do anyway, so I drove on without stopping.

The plan when I got into this was to live life without regrets. To not settle for anything. To not get stuck behind a desk with a job I hated just because it paid well. In terms of life choices, I believed I’d rather regret something I did do than something I didn’t do.

And this was what I had signed on for. I had to get used to it. I was scared and nervous and clueless that first day, but it was everything I wanted. My only regret so far was that I hadn’t hit the gas and torn that motherfucker’s gun-shaped hand off while he was sticking it in my window. But this was only the first test of my patience, and for the next two years, I alternated between an almost Zen-like mind-set and hair-trigger anger. I was trying to find some livable balance between my temper and a sense of calm, but instead of getting better with experience, it only got worse.

I got my hack license on my twenty-ninth birthday, September 1, 2004. I had spent the previous month, along with my last $400, going through the licensing process. When passengers ask, and they do all the time, why and how I became a cab driver, I know they’re expecting some great story, whether it be some hard-luck bit or something about how cab-driving was passed down to me through the generations. That, or they think I’m a student romantically working my way through school. I feel confident that my tips would be exponentially larger if I let them believe any of these things, but unfortunately, the truth is much more boring.

The real story is that I grew up in Rockland County, New York, a suburb an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. My parents both grew up in the city, but they moved my sister and me to the suburbs when I was one year old. They divorced when I was nine and both remarried within the next five years. They worked in the New York City public school system and commuted across the George Washington Bridge every day to their respective jobs in the South Bronx and Harlem. My mother was a speech pathologist, helping special-ed kids overcome their stutters and lisps. After twenty years in Harlem, my father moved on to become the principal at one of the city’s most progressive public schools on the Upper West Side.

Their jobs were difficult, and all through my childhood, my parents told me to “never become a teacher.” Of course, when I started driving a cab, they changed their tune. My father would send me newspaper clippings about how to apply for the New York City Teaching Fellowship, and my mother was eventually banned from suggesting other jobs, any job other than cab driver, every single time we spoke on the phone. Both are now happily retired.

I went away to college, first to the University at Buffalo, then transferring to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque because it was cheap and off the East Coast. Unable to rest there and be satisfied, I spent my senior year abroad as an exchange student in Norwich, England.

I returned to New York after graduation and held a series of random jobs through the whole “Internet boom.” After every company I worked for ultimately folded, I took a crappy corporate office job as a copywriter at a small ad agency down on Broad Street by the stock exchange, and I hated every second of it. But, despite the overwhelming dullness of the job, it was comfortable and easy and the money wasn’t bad. I couldn’t bring myself to quit, much as I wanted to.

When I graduated from college, I promised myself three things: (1) Never sell out; (2) Never settle; and (3) Never work in advertising. Actually, these three are all the same thing, but I was twenty-two and I felt strongly about it. By twenty-six, I had done all three. I settled into a comfortable but shitty job as a sellout writer in a shitty advertising company. I had failed my younger, more idealistic self. So when they laid me off three years later, I didn’t cry.

Instead, I collected my unemployment benefits until they ran out, and wasted a few months just aimlessly screwing around, hanging out, and not getting much done by way of my life. It was only when the money was almost gone that I decided I needed to figure out what was next. And that was the thing. I realized that up until that moment, I’d been trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, what sort of career I could get away with, and everything I had done so far was something I’d just fallen into by pure chance and luck. The jobs were nothing I felt passionate, or even particularly good, about. I needed a way to make money, and I guess I wanted some sort of security, but I didn’t really care for any of the jobs I had done. I probably could’ve successfully continued on in the advertising industry, but I would’ve been committing to doing something I hated.

My best friend, Allie, always knew what she wanted to do with her life. She’d been drawing comics since she was a kid, and self-published her first book when she was a sophomore in high school. Since then, she has experienced a small degree of success with her later books, which were picked up by a legitimate comics publisher.

Early in our friendship, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my “thing” was. Her thing was comics, and she was really good at it. I desperately wanted a thing of my own to give me some sense of purpose and meaning, but up until then, I had never found it. We would sit around and try to come up with ideas.

When I was a kid, I never had an answer for what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I just copied my older sister, who knew since the age of four that she wanted to be a doctor. I coopted her dream, and it annoyed her, but I didn’t hang on to it for long. She eventually did become a doctor, while I scattered myself in a million different half-assed directions.

In elementary school, I wanted to be “the Fonz.” That was about as close to a career decision as I had gotten to by then. By junior high, I had decided I wanted to become a rock star. I took guitar lessons and learned every Metallica and Iron Maiden song possible, until I realized just how bad I was.

Throughout high school, I was obsessed with the Mole People, who lived in the New York City subway system, and I wanted to join them. I was also interested in monkeys, and had fantasies about going to study them in Africa somewhere, but I didn’t pursue it because of my intense phobia of bugs.

In college, I took human rights courses, and spent my time focusing on homelessness, visiting shelters and trying to come up with alternative housing options for people on the streets. I also grew interested in ancient history and mythology and wanted to go exploring around Iraq, since it was where the fertile crescent had been and, supposedly, where the last few remains of the Garden of Eden were. I saved up money so I could travel, but instead of Iraq, I went to Europe and Morocco and tried to see what the world was like outside my little self-obsessed bubble.

Drugs were another big interest of mine, and I spent a good couple of years doing them. But eventually they stopped bringing me any sort of remote happiness, so I abandoned that pursuit too.

When Allie and I became friends, I did the same thing to her that I’d done to my sister. I copied. I developed romantic fantasies of myself as some sort of artist, but since I couldn’t draw, I decided maybe photography would be my thing. I took darkroom courses at the New School and SVA as part of their adult education programs, but I was never that good at it, and the hobby just sort of petered out after a while.

Then I thought my talent might lie in video, so I bought a digital video camera. Allie and I would sit around my bedroom inventing little skits and playing them out for the camera, which we propped up on top of the TV so we could watch ourselves while we acted. I taught myself how to use a bootlegged copy of Final Cut Pro, and spent hours editing our plays into two-minute spots that no one but us thought were funny.

After that, I switched over to thinking about math. That was something I had actually always been good at, so I bought a bunch of old calculus textbooks at the Salvation Army and sat at my kitchen table working out equations and reteaching myself everything I had forgotten from high school. But still, it was more of a hobby than anything else. I still couldn’t find my goddamn thing.

My problem was an existential one. Each thing seemed as good as the next. It was just an arbitrary decision that, in the end, had no meaning anyway, so why bother? I wasn’t driven by some intense passion like my sister, and didn’t have any innate talent like Allie. I wanted so badly to believe in the idea of a true calling, something a person could spend their days feeling passionate about and engaged by, but it just didn’t exist for me. Unlike Allie, I was driven more by cynicism and restlessness, and it had no outlet. I was stuck in a pit of indecision and there was no place for me to put all this energy, so I ended up spending a lot of time being mad at everybody.

Eventually I got the horrible advertising job, and a part of me had just given up. My soul was being sucked out on a daily basis in the corporate world, and I stopped caring. I had resigned myself to a passionless life in a boring office doing something I hated. It was the antithesis of a “thing.” My life seemed more meaningless and purposeless than ever.

After I got laid off, I decided to stop. I was no longer going to try to figure out this “rest of my life” bullshit. Instead, it was all about what was next. It was as simple as that. I was gonna treat life as the adventure I wanted it to be. I wanted to try to get as many experiences as possible under my belt before I was dead, and I didn’t want to die in some office somewhere in the Financial District. Just working there was a death in itself.

I had always thought about driving a cab, just thought it’d be interesting and different, a good way to make money while getting to see the city in a totally new and intimate way. In fact, I’d considered trying it out the last time I was unemployed, five years earlier. But it always just seemed like a fleeting whim, a funny idea, something I would never actually do.

When I told Allie I was planning on getting my hack license, she didn’t think I would really follow through with it. I had come up with so many un-followed-through-with ideas up until then, she thought this was just another caprice, another fantasy, another example of me trying to figure out what to do with my life without ever actually doing anything about it. But I had reached my breaking point. I felt an urgent need to waste no more time. Since I couldn’t decide on one thing, I would do everything, or as much as I could get away with in one lifetime. And I had to start somewhere. I went down to the main TLC office in Long Island City, Queens, and got the application.