I love reading fellow blogger Nina Mishkin’s accounts of her day-trips into New York with her husband. They bring to mind my first, and so far only, trip to New York, many years ago.
At that time, I was in the USA three or four times a year on business and I was more accustomed to touring the meeting rooms of gleaming office towers and sprawling business campuses. But this particular trip was pure vacation, albeit a challenging one, as it involved three locations – New York, Atlanta and New Orleans (plus, as bad weather conspired against me, an unscheduled and thoroughly disagreeable stopover in Chicago, more of which another time).
It was the mid 90’s and I had never before been to New York. I was due to stay with my cousin but all I had was an address, in the Stuyvesant/Peter Cooper towers on the East Side. So it happened that I hauled my luggage out to the taxi rank at JFK (or was it Newark?) after a seven-hour flight. As a Brit, my first culture shock was the inexplicable absence of an orderly queue. We Brits queue for anything and everything. To us, it makes perfect sense – it’s orderly and equitable and, unlike the airport cab rank, it has nothing to do with survival of the fittest.
It was like trying to get into a lifeboat on the Titanic. As each Yellow Cab screeched to a momentary halt at an angle to the kerb, revving to maintain the ferocity of the fumes belching from its exhaust, people would take a run at it, sling their bags through the door and leap in before it wheel-spun away in a cloud of grit and dust. Okay, I exaggerate, but only very, very slightly.
I stood, bewildered, incapable after seven hours in the cheap-seats of heaving my own half-ton of luggage into any vehicle in the three seconds apparently allocated, especially one already pulling away from the kerb. A dozen cabs came and went and I didn’t even get close. I was beginning to look like the weakest cub, the runt of the litter that gets left left behind to die.
But then everything changed. Another cab ground its tyres into the gutter. A muscular giant of a man with no visible neck flung the door open, lurched out of the driver’s seat, grabbed my case from my hand and threw it into the trunk without so much as looking at me. I had no choice; I had to jump in before he disappeared with it. I slammed the door shut behind me and heard the locks set. I found myself on a rigid bench in, basically, a cage, which was by then accelerating at warp speed down the ramp.
‘Where ya’ goin’?’ the driver boomed through the steel mesh and bullet-proof plastic which separated us and imprisoned me. I told him. He grunted.
It was about three minutes before I realised he hadn’t set the meter.
Now, I’m a worldly-wise woman. I’m from a big city myself. I’m accustomed to transatlantic travel and not generally lacking in confidence. I’ve cheerfully driven solo on the wrong side of the road (for me) across Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. I’ve negotiated public transport in countries where I have only a half-dozen words of useful language; I’ve even shared a cab with a total stranger in Hong Kong. But to say I was unsettled by this incredible hulk, propelling me into the New York suburbs in a cage from which I was unable to exit without his permission, at speeds I didn’t know Yellow Cabs were permitted, or able, to achieve, and apparently not expecting to charge me an officially sanctioned sum, was an understatement.
I looked around for the driver’s licence or cab number – something, anything. I couldn’t see it.
It took another few minutes before I summoned the presence of mind to breathe. At this point I’ll say I’ve definitely watched too many movies. All mature logic and common sense seemed to have deserted me. I think my blood was giving my brain a miss too. I actually thought, where is this all going to end up?
When I eventually found my voice, I squeaked, ‘Is your meter not working?’
‘Ma’am, it’s a flat rate into the city,’ he replied. ‘Don’t use the meter for the city.’
Under the circumstances – or at least, my interpretation of the circumstances – his use of the word Ma’am was absurdly comforting; even more so his revelation. My heart-rate begun to decelerate, as, eventually, did the Yellow Cab. As he drove towards the city, the cabbie chatted amiably about my visit and what I was hoping to see, grumbled about the traffic and eventually dropped me off on the street-corner I needed and directed me into the estate of red brick towers.
My view of NYC had been coloured by decades of stories of hostility and rudeness, violence and gang crime. I’d begun my journey from the airport thinking I was entering a war-zone. I’d ended it feeling, frankly, a little foolish. The cabbie got a generous tip.