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Into the Driver’s Seat: Tips from a Veteran

The march toward my yellow cab license continues – just one more trip to the DMV, finger printing, notarizing, and four hours at the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) to process my application.

Then (hopefully) the TLC will give me a ticket to taxi school, where I’ll spend 24 hours studying the fine points of New York geography – including map reading, water crossings, and highways – and learn how to work the meter. Then I have to pass an exam. I’m a little concerned about the geography section (One of the cabbies in my defensive driving class told me that after six years he still can’t keep track of all the diagonals in Greenwich Village).

I had no idea that yellow cabbies had to go through all of this before they can go behind the wheel. I’m impressed.

I’m even more impressed after spending six hours learning defensive driving from Joe Hennessey at the Team Systems Taxi Fleet garage. Joe – an Irishman who served in the US Army in the same regiment as Elvis Presley – has been driving a cab since 1963, and he had plenty of wisdom to share.

He told us that “the taxicab driver is the most professional driver out there. You have to deal with the public all the time, and it’s amazing what people want to talk about.”

Joe had a lot of other enlightening observations that gave me a better sense of what it means to drive a yellow cab:

1. Cab drivers are stressed as soon as they leave the garage. They have to pay to lease the cab for the day, and they have to fill up the gas tank. Only after they hit the $150 mark do they start making money for themselves (hence the 10-12 hour shifts).

2. “The biggest disgrace in New York City is the lack of public bathrooms.” Unless you count McDonald’s.

3. “Everybody’s out to get you. The city needs money.” Between the NYPD, the TLC, and parking enforcement, every cabbie who’s been on the job at least six months has gotten a ticket.

4. “To drive in Manhattan, you really have to be on the top of your game.”

5. “The taxi driver is the exception in life in every way. It takes a special personality to drive a cab. Some people are born taxi drivers. You need to have a lot of patience.” Uh-oh.

6. A “tremendous amount” of people want to be taxi drivers right now: “This industry is a true barometer of the economy. The worse the economy, the more people who want to drive.” In other words, there are more drivers than cabs to drive at the moment.

7. Don’t take the extra light. Stay out of the left lane on Park Avenue (to avoid a head on collision with cars nosing in between the islands). Be on the lookout for cops at 36th/3rd and 37th/Lex.

Am I a little freaked out after hearing all of this? Sure. But my fears are sharing space with visions of cool passengers and new food quests. At this point, the regret I’d feel about not getting my yellow cab license would be a lot more powerful than the uncertainty and the risks. I’d rather live with the latter.

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