On a recent trip to New York I was struck by a revelation – London cab drivers are the greatest cab drivers in the world.
New York City, USA – 11.30pm (4.30am GMT). We’d been on a plane nearly eight hours, we’d taken a bus from JFK Airport and we were outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 8th Avenue at the corner of 41st Street. It was raining. New York, from this angle, was a valley of steaming streets and shuffling dark doorways.
Try to blend in, my travel book warned. Good advice, but with airport tags still dangling from our bags and pockets that could barely conceal UK passports and cricket stumps, I may as well have been wearing a bowler with a knotted hanky plonked on top.
Yellow cabs were everywhere, but it turned out we did blend in. I was a fire hydrant or a hotdog stand with a bag; my wife’s outstretch arm was a streetlight, or a window awning, or a teapot. Long after the doorways behind us had evolved eyes and my nervous neck was as pliant as an owl’s, a cab pulled over.
Sweeping a can of coke and a soggy paper bag onto the floor, we shuffled in. The seat felt sticky.
‘Take us to The Belvedere Hotel, 319 48th Street, please.’
‘It’s 48th Street.’
‘I said: What avenue? You told me the street, man. What avenue?’
He was agitated, agitated in the way an hungry lion gets agitated before a kill.
‘Sorry I don’t know, it’s number 319 on 48th Street.’
‘That’s no good to me. Get out and shut the door, man. Get out and shut the goddam door.’ I saw his eyes in the mirror and felt like a gazelle on the savannah.
We slide out; he drove off.
The doorways crowded in, the eyes turning red. After some frantic, non-English, arm waving, another cab pulled up. The next guy took us as far as 48th street and stopped dead.
‘Number 319, Belvedere Hotel please,’ I said.
‘You say 48th Street. This 48th Street. There a million hotel in New York, how I know where 319 is?’
New York, as you know, is a grid: avenues go up the island, streets go across. So 48th Street will be just below 49th Street, assuming a northerly direction, and just after 47th street. On 48th Street, as with every street, the numbers go contiguously from East to West. Number 319, 48th Street, given this information, should be findable without the services of a Sherpa.
I pointed to a building: ‘That’s number 250 over there, next to 251 and just down from 249, so maybe it’s this way, my good man.’ I gestured in a westerly direction towards New Jersey.
The rain hammered on the cab roof, leaking in through a crack in the window. The man in front stared silently ahead. I caught a glimpse of a well-used baseball bat tucked down by the side of his seat and decided to disembark.
That’s when I had my revelation. I dreamt of an Hackney Carriage rounding the corner, of seeing the yellow light above the driver as it pulled over, of sitting back and stretching out my legs, of hearing the squeak of the upholstery under my tired buttocks as I nestled them down.
‘The Belvedere Hotel, please.’ I would say and we would be on our way.
‘The Belvedere, certainly. Lovely hotel, mate, close to all the theatres and the metro. Tough journey, was it? On holiday? What a day I’ve had, guv, the roadworks down Fifth Avenue are bloody murder. I just love that view of The Empire State Building, I helped build it, you know; killed a man in Nam, I did; personal friend of Clinton, that’s me, went for a couple of Stellas the other week…’
It was that night, as I soaked up the rain, that I finally knew the truth. Never again will I complain about the banter, or the charges on New Year’s Eve, or the shortage at closing time, these people are heroes. Point them north, south, east or west, slur a couple of directions whenever you feel like it on the way, and you wake up next day in your own bed. That is service. That is worth paying for.
Putting a New York cab driver in Piccadilly Circus at 10.30pm on a Saturday night and asking for The Trocodero, would be like asking him to explain the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Ask him to take you to the nearest, decent boozer, and his baseball bat would start to swing. That is not the same quality of service.
New York is a great city, or as many people have said, New York is the only real city. But let’s remember the only real cab drivers: they’re from London, they’ve all served time on the HMS Belfast and were all close friends of Princess Di.
God bless yer.
Here’s a painting I did when I was in New York