It was a little sobering, in January, to re-enter the parking lot at Team Systems, my old taxi garage in Long Island City, Queens, remembering those dark, nervous mornings before my shifts, and the exhausted walks over that asphalt after I would turn in the taxi.
It was sobering, too, to see the old Ford Crown Victorias replaced by hybrid Nissans, also known as the ‘Taxis of Tomorrow’. (Yes, the Crown Vic was a beast, but it was a loveable beast. To drive it was to feel firmly weighted to the street, and connected to cab drivers past – even if you knew you were guzzling too much gas.)
I felt like an intruder in the Team waiting room: My favorite cashier, Daniel, wasn’t working that day. Allen, the dispatcher who hired me, had retired several weeks earlier. Mike, the dispatcher who never failed to greet me and every cab driver on the roster with a radiant smile, was out sick, and had been for six months.
I was resting on the bench against the cinderblock wall across from the dispatcher’s window, taking in all of this news, when Afam sat down next to me.
Before he started working as a jack-of-all-trades at Team, Afam told me he drove a yellow cab for ten years. “It was a mixed experience,” he said. “I thought I knew New York before I started driving. Then I got behind the wheel, and it was like ‘Crown Heights – what’s that?’”
Over time, he mastered the geography, and he developed his intuition when it came to passengers (“I’m a driver. I know when somebody needs a ride.”) and food.
“As a cab driver, you learn exactly where you can eat good for cheap,” said Afam, who was born in Nigeria and now lives in Queens. “The guys at the garage are always asking me where I get my lunch.”
That day, he’d eaten a smoked turkey leg that only cost five ninety-nine a pound from a supermarket on Northern Boulevard between 86th and 87th Streets.
When he was still driving, he’d discovered “the best African restaurant around” — a place called V-Chris/New Combination, on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the dishes are Nigerian, and they have at least six soups, and pounded yam, on the menu every day.
And did I know about the good food on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, between Franklin and Nostrand Avenues, at the African restaurants around the Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque? And what about Accra Restaurant in the Bronx, where they do the catering for all the African embassies in midtown?
“Accra?” I said. Well, as a matter of fact–
The dispatcher summoned Afam over the garbled loudspeaker.
“Food?” he said, on his way out the door to test-drive a newly repaired Taxi of Tomorrow, “Now this is the knowledge that lingers!”