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Talking With Taxi Drivers

You come to New York City, you walk the streets and you see a sea of yellow taxi cabs.The first time I looked out a window on the 20 something floor of a building and looked down on that yellow ocean dotted with other cars I thought how could you tell them apart? Yellow cars, all alike. that is until you ride in one. And if you get a chance, you can talk to the drivers to realize they are not the same.

To avoid more injury to my arthritic knees and a shoulder recovering from rotator cuff surgery (and physical therapy that feels like it is from hell) I take a lot of cabs. I mention my infirmity so that they don’t try to rush me. But I have noticed, at least in the past year or two, taxi drivers are not the crazy speed freaks portrayed in movies and on television. They have become quite mellow.

“Take your time,” is said to me more often than not getting in and out of the cab.

On occasion, drivers have gotten out and opened the door for me or helped me out without my asking.

When I leave for work I suggest we take Riverside Drive. Less traffic than the very busy Uptown Broadway. Riverside is residential, trucks can’t travel on it and in the spring and summer, the trees in the endless Riverside Park make for fine travel viewing.
But there is a notorious strip of the Drive where cars speed up because it is a bridge. It is also where they have lowered the speed limit to 25mph and cops steadily patrol, often standing near their unmarked cars with speed guns.

As a courtesy, and so I won’t be killed I guess, I warn each driver to be careful in this area. They always thank me, tell me about other speed traps in the city and then start a conversation about NYC traffic and what goes on when they are driving.

For a while I was subjected to rants about Uber and how it is taking away their business. I learned from the drivers, some who had even tried to work for Uber, that it is more difficult to make money with them than driving a cab in NYC. Uber steals the taxi business, according to the taxi drivers, by something undercutting their prices. The drivers don’t make as much as Uber claims they do.

And then taxi drivers tell me Uber drivers aren’t professional.

Most of the time the conversations are about how NYC is changing. Many of the drivers tell me about their neighborhoods, how the rents are changing or about how they feel about gentrification. Recently a driver complained that the new condo owners in his building hate him because he  is in a rent stabilized apartment and the head of the tenants association. At the end of the conversation he confessed that they really hated him because he had the biggest apartment in the building and they were figuring how to get him out legally.

They had no ground.

Another driver actually complimented my ensemble one spring like winter day and reminisced with me about his childhood in Africa where his father was always impeccably dressed. He had story about his grandfather’s picture and the way he looked. Dressed for success he said.

Then there are the drivers that complain about the streets of the city. And there is a lot to complain about. they have narrowed many roads to create better traffic patterns but they seem to create more mess. They complain about the Citibike rentals, which, even in winter, take up a lot of parking spaces.

And of course there are always potholes to talk about, people crossing the street on cell phones and not looking, and drivers from other states.

I sit, I listen, I talk and sometimes I share. It makes the ride less boring and makes taxi drivers seem more human than that movie character played by DeNiro.

But there is always one to ruin it, to make you wish you hadn’t given them the advice about the speed trap. They are human as well, but quiet and caught up in their own world. They take your money after they take you to your destination and they did a typical NYC thing: they never made eye contact. They never spoke to you.

That’s when I sit back and try to enjoy the ride and remind myself that it takes all kinds.

I also wish that everything heals soon and I can stalk the subway system. I miss the things one can see down there.

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Minnette Coleman is a writer, actress and singer born in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of two novels “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” and “No Death by Unknown Hands.” She resides in Harlem, New York and is a member of the Harlem Writers Guild.

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