2005_11_interview_melissa.jpgIn our book, one of the most knowledgeable New Yorkers would be the New York City yellow cab driver. Therefore, one of our favorite blogs about life in New York has been the taxi blog, New York City Hack, which is steered by Melissa Plaut

The Medallion
Age: 30
Profession: Yellow cab driver
Where you live: Brooklyn, NY

The Meter's Running
How did you get your start? When you first learned to drive, did you ever think you'd be engaging in modern day warfare by navigating the streets of NY?
I started driving a cab after losing my crappy corporate office job and using up all my unemployment benefits. The job market was looking bleak, and I didn't think I would survive another office job, so I took the plunge and went through the process of getting my hack license. This involved many steps, but my favorite part of it was going to taxi school. It was both educational and highly entertaining. The teachers were brilliant and hilarious, and the students were from all over the world, with all different backgrounds. I thought I knew a lot about this city before, but in taxi school, I learned more about New York than I thought was possible. For instance, I didn't know there are exactly 100 doorways on each major crosstown (east-west) block, or that there are 20 doorways on each vertical (north-south) block, creating one of the most perfect address systems in the world.

There's an actual algorithm you can use to figure out exactly which block any given house number is on. I memorized the 31 major water crossings within the five boroughs, and I studied as much as I could of the 6400 miles of streets. I also learned how to say the word "tip" in Persian, though I've never had an opportunity to use that little piece of knowledge.

The course was heavy on city geography and rules, but there's really no way to prepare anyone for this job. You just have to do it. I treated the whole thing as one big adventure, because that's what it was, and still is. I decided to stop worrying about figuring out what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and started focusing on what I wanted to do next. The taxi thing is what I'm doing now, but it's not forever (I hope). I plan to continue with it until I figure out what the next thing is that's worth doing. But for now, this is my job and my only source of income, so I'm sort of stuck with it anyway.

Do you think you're a good driver? And besides drivers from NJ, who are other drivers to steer clear of?
I'm an excellent driver, if I may say so myself. I've gotten quite a few compliments on my driving from passengers, so this is somewhat validating. Aside from Jersey drivers, people in Mercedes' are terrible. They drive like they own the streets. Also, middle-aged men in their mid-life-crisis-mobiles. They buy zippy little convertibles to make themselves feel young and wild, but they drive like the geriatric set, going two miles per hour and slowing down at green lights. SUVs are usually the wimpiest drivers on the road, slowing down for little bumps and potholes despite the fact that they paid $50k+ for an uber-macho "all-terrain vehicle." And Dodge Neons, they're probably the worst. It took me a while to figure out why this particular car was always causing traffic problems. Then I discovered that this is the model used by most rental car companies, so the drivers are almost always from out of town and have never driven in New York before. A hint for non-New Yorkers: There is no right turn on red in this city, so don't do it. Also, no sightseeing while driving, please. There are more than enough buses for that.

Do you generally chat with your fares? Do people usually like totalk? And is it mostly about the weather?
People talk about all sorts of things. About half of my passengers start a conversation by asking about my life, why I'm driving a cab, and commenting on me being female. I am painfully bored of answering these questions and of talking about myself in this way, so I always try to turn it around and ask about them. Some people are more interesting than others, obviously. My favorite passenger ever was an oddly-mannered late-middle-aged lady who told me she only watched shopping channels on TV. She rattled off all the different shopping networks (QVC, ShopNBC, HSN, etc.) and described the merits and drawbacks of each one. When I asked her how much money she spent on home shopping, she said, "Oh no, I don't buy anything anymore, I just watch. I used to buy from them. Ten years ago I drained a bank account, and a good bank account, too, but I don't do that anymore. Now I just watch them." I guess they warded off loneliness or something. Her husband, after all, was a Bush-voting, NRA-card-carrying Republican.

What do you think are the worst intersections in the city? Do you have any suggestions for the Department of Transportation?
There are way too many to name, but off the top of my head, the intersection of 34th, Broadway, and 6th Ave. All three converge right by Macy's and there are always a million pedestrians trying to cross when they shouldn't. The timing of the lights sucks and many drivers don't realize they're not allowed to make any turns there. If they try
to turn, everyone gets stuck, or a pedestrian goes down. It's not pretty.

>Instead of just asking you about "Taxi Driver," what NYC movies do you think capture the pulse of the city? Or is the TV show Taxi representative enough?
I kinda like the show "Taxi." Sometimes it's on very early in the morning when I get home from my shift. It's supposedly based on a real garage that used to be in the Village, that all the hippies and freaks worked out of in the '60s and '70s. But I don't think it's representative of what the taxi industry is like now. The same with "Taxi Driver." I do, however, understand how Travis Bickle could be pushed to shave his head and commit murder after driving a cab for too long. Sometimes the job makes you a little crazy.

Do you have your own car? Or would you rather take the subway?
I have a 1989 Buick. I drive it to and from work. Friends ask me for rides a lot and I usually say no because I can't stand to drive when I don't have to. But, like most New Yorkers, I am obsessed with giving directions, and with figuring out the fastest, shortest, smartest way from point A to point B. Force of habit, I guess.

Inside tips
Favorite route to drive:
It's not necessarily pleasant or fast, but it's interesting to go all the way down Broadway, from top to bottom, and see how drastically the city changes along the way. As a cab driver, though, I would never do this. I'd just get on the Harlem River Drive or the Henry Hudson Parkway and rip downtown. I guess my favorite routes, when they're
open, are the Central Park loop drives, which meander through the park from 59th St to 110 St and back. It almost works like a Xanax in terms of stress relief. And the passengers, especially tourists, love it.

Favorite restaurant for a quick, on the job bite to eat:
I rotate through three or four places: Punjabi on Houston and Essex; Joe's Pizza on Carmine and 6th Ave; Rosario's Pizza on Stanton and Orchard; and Gray's Papaya on 8th St and 6th Ave (I recommend the "Recession Special"). Every now and then, I'll go to Corner Bistro for a late night burger. And if I'm stuck out at JFK, I'll get something at the coffee shop in the taxi hold lot.

Favorite radio station for traffic updates:
1010 and 880 AM. Although, for some reason, 880 always seems to get staticky right when the traffic report comes on. It's spooky how often that happens.

Shortest amount of time a New Yorker in midtown Manhattan should budget for taking a cab out to JFK:
That depends on the time of day. If there is zero traffic, 30 minutes will do, but that's unrealistic because the Van Wyck is always backed up, both ways, day and night. During rush hour, I'd say an hour and 15 minutes, give or take another 15 minutes, just to be safe. There's a back way through Bushwick and East New York, which usually takes about an hour, but I only use that as a last resort.

When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone?
My apartment. I also like the High Line, but I haven't been up there in a while. I don't think you can get up there anymore without getting arrested.

Melissa drives a yellow cab. If you take taxi, take a look at her suggestions for tipping; if you drive a car or use your feet, here are her suggestions for driving and being a pedestrian. And read New York City Hack.