September 13, 2009

Being born and raised in Manhattan, I have an innate understanding of how taxicab etiquette works. Recently, a mild-mannered friend of mine from the Midwest was complaining about having a cab 'stolen'. He said he had been patiently waiting on the corner, when a skinny person jumped out of nowhere and intercepted the approaching cab. My friend politely announced it was his taxi. "Oh, it's YOUR taxi?" the interloper sneered, before jumping in.

There are few things in life that I am tenacious about, but when it comes to cab etiquette, I turn into a shark. This happens all the time in New York. Cab-stealers are the scourge of the city and you have to be assertive and stand your ground or you'll end up defeated and emotionally flattened. Even worse: you'll be on the bus.

Whenever this rudeness occurs I swiftly race around to the other side of the car, open the door, and get in. At this point, the cab-stealer either gives up or they'll get in as well. Then both of us sit there and duel with destination instructions to the cab-driver who will sit impassively. Sometimes he'll take a side but only if the fare is substantially better. For instance, if the other passenger is on their way to the airport. That trumps going to the Upper West Side.

Usually, though, the driver won't move until one of us relents. It becomes a Mexican stand-off.

The cab stealer always has a really good reason for needing the cab more than you. They have to get to the hospital. Or a funeral. Or they're late for a job interview. I've heard it all. The most common excuse is they'll claim they have to catch a train. I'll give them a look and say, "Really? Where's your suitcase?"

If only I was half as aggressive with my career as I am with getting a taxi, I'd have a chauffer-driven car by now.

People who steal cabs always have a sense of entitlement too. Wherever they're going, it's more important than your destination. One time I was dueling with a make-up artist who tried to pass her cosmetics wheelie bag off as a suitcase. When I didn't buy it, she confessed she was on her way to a photo-shoot. She stood with her hands on her hips and announced: "It's fashion week." Her tone suggested she was serving her country. In her mind, backstage at a fashion show was like being deployed to Iraq.

There are several factors that contribute to successfully hailing a cab in Manhattan. Location is key and so is time of day. If you're thinking of getting a taxi at 5pm or 6 pm, good luck. You're more likely to get a private jet.

The cabs drive around with the "off duty" light on on their way home and if you're lucky enough for one to stop for you, you feel indebted to him for life. You tell them where you're going, and plead with them to take you. Sometimes they'll agree. I always feel special when this happens. But the flip side is an exercise in humiliation. After begging for a few minutes, they'll listen and give you hope only to suddenly shake their head and drive away. Why even stop then? That five minute interaction is like reliving every bad relationship I've ever had.

Once you're actually in the taxi, if you're delivered to your destination without a need for disc-replacement surgery from the wrecked suspension and pot-holed roads, consider it a success. People say all the time I have to take risks in life and I feel I do. I'll take a New York Taxi at night on the West-side highway when there's no traffic and nothing but green lights. Speeding 90mph with the driver on his mobile phone and no spacial awareness? That's more extreme than a bungee jump off Niagara Falls.

Of course in London, it's an entirely different experience. Taking a black cab is a luxury. The way some people are willing to spend money on facials or gadgets or shoes, I indulge by taking taxis. I've been known to go on the black cab diet. This entails only ordering an appetizer when eating out so that I can afford a cab home.

Also, thanks to The Knowledge, the London cabbies, know where they're going. Whenever I've tried to tell them the route, they roll their eyes. "You're from New York, aren't you?" It's like telling a pilot how to fly the plane.

So the other day a British friend of mine was complaining about how 'rude' the London cab-drivers have become. Why? Because the cab driver didn't bother to get out and open the door for her. This is like when my British friends complain about how 'dirty' London is. There's only one response: Have you ever been to New York?