I was somewhere between exhilaration, outrage and heartbreak when I walked away from the WNYC-sponsored “Out from Behind the Wheel” event for NYC cabbies at the Greene Space last week.
The forum brought together licensed cab drivers, newly minted Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky, New York Taxi Workers Alliance co-founder Bhairavi Desai (the most eloquent person in the room), researchers and civilians interested in the city’s cab culture.
Exhilaration came from watching the video pasted above featuring WNYC reporter Kathleen Horan (which she and co-facilitator Arun Venugopal used to kick off the event). Not only did I agree with everything the cabbie said, I understood it first-hand.
Outrage stemmed from listening to other cabbies point out the injustices inherent in the profession. Why does the NYPD give a parked cab driver a ticket for speaking on his cell phone and refuse to go after gypsy cabs for illegal street hails? Why is the 50-cent MTA tax listed on the meter as an ‘extra’ – thereby making passengers think we’re overcharging them – instead of being rolled into the base fare?
Most of all, I was heartbroken when two cab drivers named Mohammed said that after 9/11, they could no longer tell passengers their first names without provoking hostility. To avoid getting stiffed, they started referring to themselves as MD while driving. They still do.
When our first driver insisted that he was only a part-timer and was reluctant to tell us anything about himself or his food, we got out and hailed another cab.
Our second driver’s name? MD.
Mohammed won the green card lottery in Bangladesh seven years ago and started working at Dunkin’ Donuts upon arriving in New York. I didn’t ask him when he’d started abbreviating his name. Was it before or after he began driving a cab four years ago?
The cabbie told us that he’s heavily involved in the Bangladeshi community in Astoria, where he lives, and that his favorite thing to eat is pizza on the corner of 37th Ave. and 74th St. in Jackson Heights.
Unfortunately, Mohammed couldn’t remember the name of said pizza place, but it’s possible that he was talking about Pizza Boy (which is practically next door to La Porteña, where I’m going to be sussing out Argentine empanadas, so I’ll check it out).
When we asked him where he likes to eat while he’s driving, the cabbie didn’t hesitate. Every single shift, he stops for Bangladeshi food at New Shezan Restaurant on Church St. in Tribeca. He laughed when we asked him to take us there.
A group of Bengali-speaking men in dark suits walked into New Shezan after us. Inside the 6-tabled storefront, an Indian soap opera unfolded at high volume on the flat screen and two women in saris stood behind a glass-enclosed buffet.
When Kira and I asked about each dish, the younger of the two patiently explained what was what and reluctantly revealed her favorites (Mohammed hadn’t been very specific about his preferred dishes). We both ordered a combination platter: one meat, two vegetables and basmati rice.
A few bites in, we were both overwhelmed by the saltiness in our spinach and split peas, mustard greens with pumpkin, and chicken and fish curries.
Even after we squeezed lemon over everything, it was hard to get past the salt. I slathered on some chili sauce – then all I got was hot and salty. In the end, I finished half my platter and was grateful it had only cost $7.
Maybe we’d ordered the wrong thing? Maybe we should have invited Mohammed in and asked him to point out the dishes he likes best?
I wasn’t sure, but when a man walked into New Shezan carrying an infant in his arms and asked me if the food was good, I couldn’t lie: I told him he might be better off trying the Pak Tea House across the street.
New Shezan Restaurant
183 Church St (between Duane St & Reade St) – TriBeCa
Credit cards accepted
All dishes less than $10