"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Drove A Taxi in NYC–And Now I Am A Big Tipper

I have worked for a living only twice – once was selling clothes at Korvette’s.

The other was driving a taxi in New York City.

The rest of my life was spent as a well-paid International Development Consultant.  I traveled all over the world, ate in the best restaurants, spent leisurely weekends on tropical beaches, had love-affairs, adventures, and excitement.  I advised high-level government officials on how to reform and improve their national programs by day, and stayed in five-star hotels by night.  By no stretch of the imagination could that be called work.

             The Oberoi Grand Hotel Calcutta

I worked at Korvette’s because I needed the money.  My day job wasn’t enough to cover some short-term debts that I had incurred, so I took the 5-11pm shift in the Men’s Department in Kearny, NJ.  Korvette’s was one of the first big-box discount stores in the area, and in the 60s sold cheap clothes, accessories, records, cribs, strollers, kids bikes, and pup tents.  Everything in the store had rock-bottom prices because it was cheaply made.  The two-pants suits that I sold were half plastic, one-quarter wool scraps, and the rest reclaimed cotton from used Army twill. At the end of my shift my hands were all red and chafed from handling the merchandise.

Salesmen worked on commission, and the only way to make the job pay was to sell a lot of clothes.  I became good at selling suits that were too big, too small, or defective.  I learned how to hold up the jackets so that the irregular seams didn’t show.  As I smoothed out the lumps on the shoulders of a suit with one hand, I pulled in the extra fabric in the back with the other, giving a nicely tailored look as the customer checked himself out in the mirror.

It was a nightmare.  Lou Ruby, the supervisor, was a Brooklyn Jew whose father had been a tailor on Seventh Avenue, and whose grandfather sold used clothing on the Lower East Side.  Lou still hoped for a promotion to the front office, but his sales figures were never up to snuff, which is why he drove us like a plantation straw boss.  He watched us from behind the racks as we coddled, cajoled, wheedled, and intimidated customers.  He berated us for not being aggressive enough. “Ya gotta go for the jugular”, he said. We  didn’t know how to close a sale. 

Years later when I saw Glengarry, Glen Ross and heard Blake the Supervisor say the following, I thought of Lou Ruby:

The good news is - you're fired. The bad news is - you've got, all of you've got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Starting with tonight's sit. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. "Cause we're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. Get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads. Mitch and Murray paid good money, get their names to sell them. you can't close the leads you’re given you can't close shit. You ARE shit. Hit the bricks pal, and beat it 'cause you are going OUT.

Korvette’s was an airless, tube-lit hangar-sized converted factory.  After six hours under the fluorescent lights my eyes began to jump and see spots.  Not only were my hands red and raw from handling the suits, but my throat was a mess and my eyes itchy from the PCBs, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride in the air.  Customers looking for a cheap-shit bargain are not nice, and as much as I pushed to close a sale, they pushed back just as hard.

“How much off can you give me?”, they asked.  “Forty-five bucks is too much”.  Now forty-five dollars for a two-piece suit, no matter how misshapen and ugly, was about as little as you could possibly pay in those days; but most of these bottom-end shoppers from the Oranges and Newark couldn’t help themselves. Paying retail was simply not done.  My older colleagues never missed a beat.  “You want a discount? Go over to Orchard Street and buy from a pushcart.  Here you get quality”.

It took me six months of working at Korvette’s to pay off my debts, and I never appreciated my professional day job so much.  No matter what my supervisor said or did, he was a pussycat compared to Lou Ruby. No matter how how demanding our clients could be, they were nothing compared to the deep discount bottom-feeder customers at Korvette’s. I learned my first lesson in working for a living.  When Thomas Hobbes said that “the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short” he had Korvette’s in mind.

I always thought that driving the night shift in a New York City taxi would be the most romantic job in the world – nostalgie de la boue, slice of life, seeing how the other half lives, etc. It would be a welcome change from my white picket fence, Country Day, New England prep school, Ivy League background.  It was that and much more – far more than I could ever have imagined.

I picked up the cab from the garage at 4pm and headed to midtown to pick up early commuters or fares to the airport.  On the way back I headed up Fifth and Park to get the tony dinner crowd, then the theatregoers, the partiers, and finally the drunks, hookers, hustlers, and creeps. There is a great reality series on TV called Taxicab Confession, but the doped out transvestites, tipsy housewives from New Jersey, and happy talk hair designers were nothing compared with what crawled into my cab after midnight. 

Riders fucked, sucked, puked, shot up, and passed out in the back seat. I had to swab the cab with Clorox before I returned it to the garage.

That wasn’t the reason why driving a cab was work.  It was the ten hours in traffic, fighting for purchase with busses, trucks, vans, Jersey day-trippers, and other aggressive drivers. There was no air conditioning in the cabs when I drove; and it was hot, polluted, noisy, and punishing work. At the end of my shift my head ached, my back ached, and my stomach was sour and rancid from cheap coffee, pizza slices, and Orange Julius.  I was beat, knackered, and tuckered out.

Johnnie Footman was a New York cab driver for 68 years. He was my hero.

His hack license was 16337. People called him Spider, but his real name was even better: Johnnie Footman. With a name like Footman it seemed like he was destined to drive. And drive he did. He got behind that hunk of yellow from 1945 until 2013, and drove passengers wherever they wanted to go. He passed away this past September 11, at age 94. (Joshua Z. Weinstein, New York Times, 12.18.13)

People who work for a living are invisible in the upper middle class world of Washington, New York, or Los Angeles. We call, text, and check emails on cab rides and never even see who’s driving.  Motormen on the Metro are unseen, up front in small compartments with smoked windows.  Police are everywhere but incidental to our K Street or Madison Avenue lives. Self-check out has eliminated any contact with CVS staff.  The DC road crew comes and goes sanding, salting, sucking leaves, and filling potholes while we are at work. We want the checkers at Safeway to hurry up, scan and bag, and let us get to soccer practice; and we have no interest in who they are, how much they make, or the families they go home to.

This narrow perspective changed for me when I started to spend months in a small town in the Deep South where life there is more porous than it is here in DC. I met and spent time with truck drivers, waitresses, shoe salesmen, hair dressers, and bail bondsmen. Many work two jobs at low pay, and most are without health or disability insurance.  One misstep, one bad hurricane, one patch of black ice, and they are out of work, out of business, and out of luck. 

My short stints at Korvette’s and as a taxi driver in New York made me realize what ‘working for a living’ really means.  I can only imagine the life of those who punch the clock every day; who transfer buses three times; who nod off on the subway, put up with the PCBs, fluorescent lights, back seat jism and puke 250 days of the year; whose kidneys get beat to shit after 100,000 miles a year in the cab of a big rig; who eat Spaghetti O’s, Hamburger Helper, and canned soup; who shop at Dollar Stores, and for whom going out to dinner is a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. 

As a result of  Korvette’s and the NYC cab night shift, I am a big tipper. Cab drivers, garbage men, mail carriers, hotel maids, all get big tips.  Anyone who digs, hauls, stands on their feet all day, puts up with noise, abuse, and smell gets my money…and my respect.

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