There were some fun moments, though. I especially liked the tremendously corny video “I AM New York: Becoming a Professional Taxi Driver,” in which a wise man in the rear view mirror shows a surly cabbie how to charm his passengers (“To all outsiders, you ARE New York.”).
According to our instructor Jim, a former Wall Street computer programmer who was born in Canada, as taxi drivers we’re “basically on the hustle” and “it’s your job to notice things.” Is your passenger carrying a truckload of luggage? Is she making the deal of the millennium via cell phone?
However, Jim was quick to point out that “the point of paying attention isn’t tips. The point is enjoying your job.”
By the time we transitioned out of driver/passenger relations and into map reading, I was fairly riveted. But even as my inner nerd rejoiced when Jim taught us the secrets behind the building numbering system in Manhattan (if you’re curious, email me and I can explain it to you), I started to get overwhelmed.
If you want to show your next cab driver some mercy, please give him or her a cross street. In the absence of a GPS, it takes a few brain somersaults to find a place with only an address (at least in Manhattan).
I remember reading somewhere that when British researchers used MRIs to measure the brain sizes of London taxi drivers, they found that cabbies with the most experience had the largest posterior hippocampi – the area associated with memory. Because taxi drivers have to memorize the layout of a geographically complex city and need to recall that information every day, they literally build bigger brains.
By the end of the school day, I could totally understand this phenomenon. My brain didn’t necessarily feel bigger, but it was definitely swollen.
On the way home, I stopped by the Falafel King of Astoria’s street cart for a falafel (I won’t be the first woman to get behind the wheel of a cab, but I’ll probably be the hungriest). The King’s hot sauce is smashing, and the pickled turnips he stuffs in the sandwich give it a good sour bite, but the breading is a little heavy on the falafel itself.
I made it about 50 yards before I ripped open the package to taste it: butter and honey were doing all the right things, the filo was still crispy, and finely chopped walnuts brought it back to earth. Mind-blowing. I did an about face.
I had to tell Maria Buta, the woman who makes Yaya’s baklava, what I though of her pastry.
She looked at me matter of factly, “I know.” Her tone and her big brown eyes said, “Didn’t you know? Where have you been?”
Would that we could all be so matter-of-fact about our talents. She grabbed my takeout box, piled in all the baklava that would fit, handed me a Greek donut (which was also quite tasty – not too sweet with a density somewhere between a U.S. donut and a bagel) and basically shooed me out of the store.
If you live anywhere within a 50 mile radius of Astoria, get your butt to this bakery. And if you know where to get baklava that tastes better than Maria Buta’s, please tell me – it’ll be the first place I go after I get my yellow cab license.
King of Falafel & Shawarma
30th Ave & Broadway – Astoria (Queens)
Hours: 11am-9pm, Mon-Sat
28-46 31st St. – Astoria (Queens)
Open: 7 days, 6am-9pm