The four of us shuffled into the doctor’s office. An old man gazed at us from behind his thick glasses.
“Drop them!” He growled. “And the underpants!”
We complied as he gazed at our bare junk.
He then stamped our forms and ushered us out. I had just passed my medical exam to become a New York taxi driver.
After I got fired from Bloomingdale’s I needed a job, so I became a cabbie. In 1977, it was a lousy job. The shifts were 10-11 hours and the cabs were falling apart. Often, they wouldn’t start, and if that was the cab assigned to you, you couldn’t work that day. And when it did start, it was a sheer joy to drive—it lacked shocks, had streaky windshield wipers, and as an added bonus, the heater blew burning air on my right foot while the hole on the left ensured my other foot was permanently frozen. My dispatcher was an animal and would look at my takings and accuse me of malingering and not picking up enough fares at 5 a.m. Because he scared the shit out of me, I finally figured out that wealthy people went to work or the airport early in the morning, so I started frequenting the East side of Manhattan, especially the area around the UN.
Finding your way around Manhattan is fairly easy (as long as you can count) but the outer boroughs, especially Brooklyn and the Bronx, were nightmares, so I often tried to avoid them.
One of the few nice things about driving a taxi is that you start earning money on your first trip. The other “perk” is that you get paid for making mistakes. As long as the meter is running, you’re OK. Other drivers warned against taking certain people (i.e. blacks) up to Harlem. This was a time when cabbies were robbed and sometimes shot, and populist racism always blamed the blacks. I never heeded that advice as I needed the money and a ride was a ride.
A good ride was out to JFK airport, as it was a high fare with a guaranteed ride back if you didn’t mind waiting. The airport rides saddened me as other people were flying somewhere and I wasn’t. (Ironically, a few months later, I was sent by Macy’s on a buying trip to the far east and the taxi driver who picked me up was a colleague of mine, one with whom I had shared nakedness at the doctor’s office. He didn’t recognize me in my new suit and hairdo and as I didn’t want to embarrass him, I kept silent during the ride.)
One day I dropped a ride off outside Bloomingdale’s, the store that deemed me unfit for employment after Christmas ended. I had been a supervisor from central wrap. This meant that I was in charge of delivery for every piece of paper or box needed on the main and basement floors. As you can imagine, Christmas at Bloomingdale’s was a zoo and for its employees, a pressure cooker. There were many stations set up to do holiday wrapping and I had to make sure all were properly stocked. One morning, the day before Christmas, I heard a commotion in the men’s shirt department. On investigating I came across the shirt buyer, a young man in his mid-twenties who was apparently having a tantrum. He was screaming and throwing shirts and boxes all over the floor. This happened a few minutes before opening and there were hundreds of people outside the door and windows watching this event. I immediately called my boss who promised to come right up. The cause of his meltdown was the fact that although one of my staff had delivered the requisite quantity of red gift boxes to the department, in his haste he forgot to remove the brown paper wrapping that held the bundles of boxes. This was the straw that broke the poor buyer’s back. He snapped and chaos erupted. My boss arrived, surveyed the scene, and said to the guy, “Why are you so physically perturbed?” This made him howl even more. Some medics soon arrived, calmed him down, and removed him to the New York Home for the Bewildered, never to return.
I did have one scare once, in the cab. Two men flagged me down and gave me an address downtown in Alphabet City (Avenues A, B, and C.) This was a really poor, run-down, drug-infested neighborhood. Tomkins Square Park was a dangerous place and no one I knew would venture into it. When we arrived on East 10th St. and Ave. B, I was ordered to stop. One of the riders jumped out and ran into the park. A few moments later he reappeared, jumped in and yelled, “DRIVE!” I drove. This was repeated another three times and I was beginning to sweat when one of them bellowed, “Do a U-turn and stop.” I did as I was told and they leapt from my cab and ran away. As they left, one of them threw a wad of bills at me. When I counted the notes, there was over $100.
I only drove a cab for three weeks before I lied my way into Macy’s.