The Yellow Cab in Focus

Taxi drivers are a breed of their own.

Some are chatty and rather nice; others are silent with a morose face that gives you the impression that they are doing you a favour by accepting your fare.

In New York, however, the yellow cab drivers tend to engage more with their customers. In October 1986 Quartet published a compilation of stories gathered by the lovely Christina Oxenburg, who happens to be a close friend of mine. The book was simply called Taxi and received a great deal of coverage in the States, partly on account of Christina being one of the daughters of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia – the other daughter being the Hollywood star, Catherine Oxenburg – and partly because its subject matter had an appeal for New Yorkers.

In Christina’s view, New Yorkers regarded riding a cab in the city as a bit of an adventure and occasionally a risk. The hundred or so taxi stories she had gathered from either side of the partition, to represent both drivers and passengers, made that an understatement. To say all cab drivers are crazy would seem to be near to the truth from her examples. There was the intellectual who drove so he could subsidise his search for the ‘negative’ scienza nuovo of Giambattista Vico; and the immigrant who took the wheel because ‘it requires no prior experience, no knowledge of English and no familiarity with the geography of New York’. There was ‘Nico’, whose attitude was, ‘People are nice to me, I’m nice to them. But a lot of people, they try to take advantage of nice guys, so sometimes I have to break their ribs with a baseball bat. It’s not like I enjoy to do it. But a lot of strange people in New York.’

The writer Alistair Forbes once got into a cab and noticed the driver’s name was Giuseppe Verdi. Before he could say a word, the driver rounded on him with: ‘Don’t give me any more crap about my name. Every goddamn passenger tells me the same thing every goddamn day. And you know what, I HATE music!’

Helen Gurley Brown, the head of Cosmopolitan magazine, remembered how, when she first arrived in New York, a lot of people told her to ‘beware of cab drivers because they were difficult to get along with and if you didn’t like what you were faced with you should just get out and take another one’.

I always thought they were paranoid but, as the years have gone by, I have realised they are more right than wrong. It does seem that about thirty per cent are really seriously troubled.

Humorous experiences? I think mine are more apt to be tragic, which is likely to be the case with anybody who has lived in New York for many years. I have joined the paranoid ones and all I have are complaints!

Another driver was described by the author as ‘the living embodiment of urban paranoia’, but to judge by some celebrities’ responses to her request for stories, the tag could apply equally to many of the passengers.

A designer, John Weitz, declared, ‘I get into cabs with fear and trepidation: two great friends of mine, Irving Fear and Bobby Trepidation. I only hope I’ll get out with reasonably the same skin.’

There were those who refused the request for an anecdote, and who had the exact words of their refusals reproduced in facsimile, such as Christina Onassis, whose social secretary wrote: ‘Regrettably Mrs Onassis does not have a story to recount to you.’ The author could only assume this was because she had never ridden in a cab. Others who were more forthcoming included Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Diana Vreeland, Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol.

There was also Catherine Oxenburg, whose driver, in a bid to make a date, promised he could get her a spot on Dynasty if she would give him her phone number.

Taxi was fully illustrated with line drawings, which made it redolent of New York as the yellow cab it was describing. The back of the cab could serve as an arena for metaphysical discussion, for copulation, for homicide, for drug abuse, for literary quotation. Apart from the celebrities, there was the incontinent lion cub whose owner then panicked, stopped the cab, handed the driver a ten-dollar bill and decamped, leaving the result on the back seat. The cab was promptly rehired by an old lady. It had only gone half a block before it screeched to a halt and the old lady staggered out and began belabouring the vehicle with her umbrella. There was also Franco Rossellini’s puppy Gramophone, callously flung into a shop window by a demented driver during a row with its owner. As Christina said, the only thing that usually got flung was the tip you offered – back in your face. ‘Taxi driving is not a passive sport,’ she drily observed.

Diana Vreeland told her:

Compared to any other city, in the Western world anyway, there does seem to be something that makes New York taxi drivers unique. Perhaps it is just the pressure of driving in such conditions. I don’t know what it is. I’m beginning to think that they really are a breed of their own! There was a time, years before you were born, when there was such a scare about the Mafia that it was unheard of to take taxis after dark. Mobsters used to use them for their own purposes, like the St Valentine’s Day massacre.

Sharp observation and a diligent disregard for contributors’ requests to remain anonymous gave Christina’s book an edge when it came to press coverage. She knew everyone who mattered in New York and beyond. Her own publicity machine went into full gear. On publication it was almost impossible to open a newspaper or magazine in America without seeing a mention of Taxi and a picture of the author.

The first New Yorker to import an English taxi for use as a personal limousine was a banking heiress, Mrs Evelyn Lehman, who, when asked why she had chosen the boxy, high-roofed black cab in preference to a Rolls-Royce, explained: ‘Why would I want to own a car that is going to live longer than I will.’

When Taxi was published in London, however, the publicity was far more low-key. London had its own taxi culture and a high degree of interest in the yellow cab of New York could not have been expected. Even so, the gossip columnists were alert for nuggets likely to amuse their readership that they could lift from the book’s pages. Quentin Crisp pointed out what he considered to be an essential distinction between taxi drivers in London and New York:

In England, NEVER tell the driver how to reach your destination; you won’t be halfway through your instructions before he will say, ‘D’you want to drive the damned thing yourself?’ American drivers, on the other hand, expect guidance – but give it in a cooing voice.

A news story has just surfaced in New York to follow up on Quartet’s original idea of taxi stories of nearly three decades ago (not for the first time our backlist has been imitated).

Gene Solomon is one of the last American-born taxi drivers in New York City, having joined in 1977. Since then, he likes to say, he has acquired more stories than the Empire State Building. He had Frank Sinatra in the back of his cab. He has seen passengers overcome by desire, fornicate, have heart attacks and confess to murder. He has picked up mobsters, porn stars and Norman Mailer.

He recalls a young Leonardo DiCaprio, accompanied by four rowdy kids and a gorgeous female model, climbing into the back seat, smoking a cigar ‘that was bigger than his face’.

‘Don’t you know who I am,’ DiCaprio asked. ‘I’m an actor, man.’ As Mr Solomon dropped them off at a club in SoHo, DiCaprio asked: ‘Who was the biggest celebrity you had in your cab?’

‘John McEnroe,’ the driver replied. ‘He gave me double the meter.’

DiCaprio said, ‘I’m going to give you treble the meter.’

When Mr Solomon tells that story, passengers tend to fondle the upholstery, apparently hoping that some residue of DiCaprio still clings to the leather.

Lately, however, Mr Solomon has become something of a celebrity himself after the release of his book Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver. While he waits for the book to make him a millionaire, as most authors aspire to, he continues to drive a cab.

Passing the Flatiron building, he recalled a conversation with Paul Simon in 1980, in which the musician launched into a bitter lament about the management of the New York Yankees. ‘Afterwards, I thought if I ever get him in my cab again I will try to convince him to buy the team,’ Mr Solomon said. A few months later he picked up the musician again and made his pitch. ‘I don’t have that kind of money,’ Simon said. ‘You should talk to McCartney.’

Mr Solomon shakes his head. ‘That might be the funniest thing anyone has said to me. I look at Paul Simon, who has unlimited wealth. To him, he was just doing all right. McCartney, that’s the guy with money.’

Are you listening, Paul? Maybe that’s a tip you should follow. Or are you fed up with making more money all the time? It’s worth a serious thought, I guess!

In the meantime, I hope Mr Solomon, who appears to be a cab driver with a sense of humour, will have a bestseller on his hands and defy the odds to put these mega-rich musicians, who underestimate their wealth,  to shame.

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