Cab Culture 101
On the streets of Manhattan, visitors are easily detected by the manner in which they struggle to hail taxis: their I-Heart-NY-bag-laden arms flail wildly from the safety of the sidewalk as they direct shrill screeches of “Tax-EE! Tax-EE!” toward any yellow vehicles in the general vicinity—completely oblivious to the sacred code embedded within the rooftop lights.
Resident New Yorkers, on the other hand, remain calm, burying their hands warmly in their pockets until the perfect cab is spotted from afar: the one with the solitary middle light, a twinkling beacon indicating its availability in a sea of taken or inconveniently off-duty rides. They’ll descend upon the asphalt at just the right time, casually salute the driver, and steal the coveted cab from right beneath the tourists’ frostbitten noses.
Then in true cabbie form, the driver will hurl his car into the maze of rowdy vehicles without bothering to see if his passenger is securely ensconced within its interior, leaving him to possibly lose a digit or two. In NYC, that’s what we call karma.
New York’s concrete jungle is populated with creatures unique to the island—umbrella sellers, I-bankers, homeless men attired in saran wrap. But the yellow cab is the one beast that reigns supreme over this urban animal kingdom, preying ruthlessly on all its inhabitants.
Taxis are as symbolic of the Big Apple as the Statue of Liberty, cheesecake, and Duane Reade. You haven’t had a true New York experience until you’ve waited patiently to cross a street, only to leap back as a cantankerous cabbie graciously takes it upon himself to remind you of your mortality—by slamming on the gas and swerving at you as a yellow light dissolves into red.
A near-death-by-cab encounter is a veritable hazing ritual in Manhattan life, and a night isn’t truly over until your driver has chased other vehicles up First Avenue, zigzagging across lanes at breakneck speeds, spitting out invectives in foreign languages, all the while propelling you back and forth, left and right, up and down, leaving you to splatter up against the glass divider when he screeches to a halt at your corner.
But as fierce as they are, taxis also a quintessential part of New York living, providing an indispensable service to get you from point A to point B—provided you can get one, that is. Good luck scoring a free cab on a rainy day, or a frosty day, or a particularly hectic day—basically, any time you could really, really use a cab in shining yellow armor.
Only in New York would someone win a fight over a cab by challenging his rival to a duel of rock, paper, scissors. Only in New York can a 10-block ride suddenly turn into an unpredictable and deathly terrifying rollercoaster ride through the streets—sans all safety measures. Only in New York does an Egyptian cab driver moonlight as a matchmaker for his lonely passengers, and with a commendable success rate at that. Only in New York could a basic mode of transportation turn into a great story, a terrific tale you’ll be recounting at cocktail parties for years to come.
Important lessons I’ve learned about NY cab customs: When you’re at a crowded corner filled with people looking for a ride, keep walking, ideally in the direction you’re trying to go. Wait until you’ve shut the door to tell the cabbie your destination—at that point, it’s apparently illegal for him to turn you down and relinquish you to the cold. Don’t ever take the black town cars that always appear when you’re desperate; they’ll only rip you off and they always strike me as shady. Oh, and don’t bother trying to strike up a conversation in Urdu with the Pakistani uncle behind the wheel. He’s not interested. Just shut up, listen to his crackling Bollywood tapes, pay, and leave.
But no matter how much people may complain about cabs, it takes a trip outside of New York to suddenly miss their omnipresence. Good luck getting a cheap, efficient, quick ride in Syracuse. I’ve tried.
Final lesson, students: Outer lights mean off duty. No lights mean full. Center light means available. Happy hailing! Class dismissed.