You’d be lucky if you got in my dad’s taxi. He was a neat freak, and for all the 37 years he was driving, he cleaned behind the seats almost every night. (He turned 66 and retired in 2009.) He had a light hand with the air fresheners. If you left your wallet or cell phone in the car, he would get it back to you just as he found it. He wasn’t like Jimmy, the greasy MTV cabbie who would never shut up, and he wasn’t the angry driver from Seinfeld who kicked George out of the car twice, and he wasn’t the soulful Judd Hirsch type from the TV series. He was more in the Taxicab Confessions school. He would put on his Ella Fitzgerald, crack open the window, and ask you how you were doing.
It’s true what they say about New York taxis. Inside that back booth, New Yorkers would step out of their crazy routine—for four minutes or 45—and confess to the Jewish priest. They told him about bad bosses and sick cats and affairs—lots of affairs. He remembers one guy crying in the back of the taxi because he had a wife and two kids and his girlfriend had just now told him she was pregnant, what should he do? He picked up a beautiful woman every day for a week in front of her lover’s house. She was engaged to another man. In the early days, mothers would put their 7-year-olds in the backseat, give the address of the private school, and wave good-bye. He was the dream New York cabbie: bus driver, crossing guard, therapist, and beat cop all in one.
If he was in a good mood and you got him going, he could make you feel in awe of the city, as if it had secrets you’d never divine if you lived here 100 years. He knew where the drug deals were made and the best place to have sex in the afternoon. He knew which deli made the best sunnyside up on toast and where you could find a bathroom. He knew that Mrs. Onassis wasn’t a great tipper. He knew that Ray Charles drank Champagne in the daytime. He knew how Elliott Gould felt about Barbra Streisand after their divorce. He knew that James Gandolfini liked shorts and Edie Falco didn’t. In his last years, he only drove downtown because, he would brag, that’s where the new drivers were out of their element.
The summer after he retired, I got in a cab with my dad. We were going from midtown to Soho, and I could guess what he was thinking: This driver is too young, he’s Pakistani, he won’t know where he’s going, there are probably dead mice trapped behind the seats, etc. My dad was sure, you see, that he was the last of his breed. But the guy asked how we were doing, and my dad relaxed. He showed us pictures of his two little kids. They talked for a while about business and dirty cops and when it was best to detour to the West Side Highway, and then at one point, the guy broke into an Urdu song apparently making fun of the mullahs. My dad laughed—Jews have their version of mullahs too! And then he gave him a $10 tip, from one hack to another.