14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of NYC Taxi Drivers
More than 50,000 yellow taxi drivers navigate New York City’s streets each year, carrying residents, workers, and tourists from one destination to another. Each car will log up to 70,000 miles a year on the job [PDF]. Needless to say, the city’s taxi drivers have seen it all and then some.
To get a better idea of what their job entails, mental_floss asked 40-year veteran driver and author Eugene Salomon (Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver) to give us a glimpse of life on the other side of the partition. Here’s what he had to say about the tips, the tipsy, and why he sometimes has to call your mom.
1. THEY HAVE A SECRET SIGNAL JUST FOR POLICE.
Although cabbies aren't targeted for robberies as frequently as they were during the height of New York’s crime epidemic in the 1970s, drivers still need to take precautions. If there’s any sign of trouble, Salomon can hit a panic button underneath the dash to summon the nearest NYPD cruiser. “It's an amber light that flashes from the front of the cab, behind the grille, and from the rear,” he says. “I've never had to use it because I was in physical danger, but I have used it when I was in danger of not being paid the fare.”
2. LEGALLY, THEY DON’T HAVE TO GIVE YOU A RIDE.
If you’re swaying rather than standing on the curb, a taxi driver in New York City is under no legal obligation to pull over and let you hop in—cabbies can ignore anyone they feel falls under a drunk and disorderly label. “The skill is to be able to recognize the completely plastered person by their body language and lock the doors before they can gain entry into the cab,” he says. (Common giveaways: being held up by waiters or leaning on a parked car.) “Once they're in the cab and the person or persons who put them there have quickly disappeared, that drunk, who may well be semi-coherent, is now the problem of the cab driver.”
There’s a solution for that, however.
3. THEY CAN EXECUTE A REVERSE DRUNK-DROP.
If Salomon finds himself stuck with a slobbering, semiconscious drunkard who’s been stuffed into a cab in what’s known as a “drunk drop,” he may well decide to return the problem to the scene of the pick-up. That entails circling the taxi around the block and then carrying the inebriated passenger back to the bar or club where they were discharged from in the first place. “There have been a couple of instances in the last year in which I did recognize that a drunk drop was about to be perpetuated and I did execute the reverse drunk drop effectively,” Salomon says.
4. THEY'RE DRIVING IN A VERY SLOW RACE.
With so many cabs competing for street-hailing passengers—rather than the scheduled pick-ups found in smaller cities—it’s up to individual cab drivers to take the initiative and make aggressive plays for fares. “We get most of our business from street hails,” he says. “So if you drive a yellow cab, you are literally in competition with all the other yellow cabs on the street for business. The first cabbie to get to the passenger gets the prize. Most people don't realize that during many hours of a shift passengers can be hard to come by, so it's very competitive among the drivers trying to get to the silhouette of a person two blocks down the avenue who is raising a hand in the air. You could look at it as a NASCAR race in slow motion.”
5. THERE’S A SKILL TO HAILING A CAB.
Waving your arms like you’re sinking into quicksand is not necessarily the most effective way of getting a driver’s attention. First, step a bit—but not too far—into the street. “Then you must wave your arm, or another body part as circumstances may dictate, in order to catch the attention of the driver. Finally, you must establish eye contact if possible in order to signal to the driver that it is he with whom you are attempting to communicate and that you are not actually trying to get the attention of your friend across the street.” If your hands are full, Salomon says it’s permissible to hail using your nose.
6. SOMETIMES PEOPLE HAVE NO DESTINATION IN MIND.
Though it happens rarely, Salomon has had the experience of someone entering his taxi without a purpose. “I drove this particular woman around for an hour and the only words she said to me were, ‘Just drive’ until she finally said, ‘Take me back to where you picked me up.’”
7. DRIVERS HATE WHEN YOU …
Close the partition separating the front seat from the back seats. It’s considered rude, Salomon says, as well as pointless. “It does not in the least prevent sounds from being overheard.” Other dislikes: customers opening the back door while getting in but continuing to chat with friends; tourists who don’t know tipping is customary; and passengers suggesting they drive safely. “What a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?”
Want to make a NYC driver happy? Turn off Taxi TV, the seat-mounted monitor in the back that plays programming and commercials in a loop. All day. Every day.
8. SITTING IN THE FRONT CAN GET WEIRD.
Rare is the solo passenger who decides to climb into the front seat to sit alongside the driver. “I would say it would be frowned upon more by passengers than by drivers, as it changes the relationship between the two by reducing the space between them,” Salomon says. “The passenger in the back and the driver in the front implies a certain professional relationship, whereas both in the front almost automatically assumes a friendliness between the two, which I think most passengers would be uncomfortable with.”
Salomon believes gender plays a role in the seating arrangements. “There is a gender factor involved in this. When four passengers are getting into a taxi, meaning that one of them will sit in the front, it is by far more often that a male will be chosen to sit in the front seat next to the driver. I think most females feel uncomfortable sitting that close to a man they do not know. “
9. THEY MIGHT CALL YOUR MOTHER.
While virtually anything you can think of has been left behind in a taxi, the most common item is a cell phone. “Hopefully the owner will call his own number while the phone is still charged,” Salomon says. “Then returning it is easy. Otherwise, the only hope is if the phone isn't locked. Then you look in their contacts for someone named ‘Mom’ and call that number.”
10. A CAB CAN BE RETIRED IN AS LITTLE AS THREE YEARS.
While drivers don’t have a mandatory retirement age, their rides do: by law, taxis in the city typically have to be taken off the road after three years of service, though various exceptions can stretch it out to five or seven. "It's only a short life span in terms of time,” Salomon says. “In terms of miles driven, and brutal miles at that, it's around 200,000 miles, which when you think about it is not a short life span. I've driven cabs with over 300,000 miles.”
What happens to the orphaned taxis? They might be stripped for parts, sold to private ride services, or bought (unwisely) by a private party. “Since a New York City cab has had about as much wear and tear as a car can conceivably get in three years, the person buying it, known in technical terms as a ‘sucker,’ is usually getting a bad deal. But he is also getting a life lesson, which from the seller's point of view, is part of the deal. The lesson being, don't ever buy a used cab from the owner of a taxi garage.”
11. THEY’D PREFER YOU NOT CHANGE CLOTHES IN THE BACK.
Every so often, Salomon will get a passenger who, Clark Kent-in-a-telephone-booth style, will want to swap out their attire for reasons the police would probably find interesting. “My most stellar example was of a woman who was a respectable-looking escort on Central Park South change into her [street walker] outfit en route to 11th Avenue.” The escort explained that there was more business on that side of town and that she had to look the part.
12. THEY DON’T REALLY CARE IF YOU’RE IN A HURRY.
Telling a driver to “step on it” is a waste of your oxygen unless you’re willing to pay them a little extra for rush service—and most passengers aren’t. “I learned from experience that they won't tip appropriately for my risking a ticket or performing spectacularly as a driver,” he says. “They would just tip normally or even below average … Therefore I will just patronize them and drive as I normally would drive. No running red lights, no illegal turns, no speeding.”
13. THEY HAVE A HAND SIGNAL FOR OTHER TAXI DRIVERS.
Contrary to rumors, cabbies don’t have special horn signals. (Unless, Salomon says, laying on the horn counts as a “signal.”) But if the aforementioned help light is flashing and a fellow driver sees that they're not in any distress, they’ll make a specific gesture. “He lifts one hand up and opens and closes a fist in rapid succession. This is universally understood as meaning, ‘Your help light is on.’ Theoretically, a cabbie could get a ticket from a cop having a bad hair day for this error. So it's greatly appreciated by the other driver.”
14. THEY'VE STOPPED FOR STATUES.
Drivers have a muscle memory when it comes to scanning the streets for potential passengers: any vague shape of someone with their arm in the air is going to get them to pump the brakes. “I have stopped not once, but twice, for a statue of a man hailing a cab that used to be on 47th Street between Park and Vanderbilt,” Salomon says. “Thought he was going to LaGuardia.”
All images courtesy of iStock.