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The Weekend Shift

Hacking NYC's Not-So-Mean Streets

Melissa Plaut

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Melissa Plaut begins her Saturday night shift
(Courtesy Melissa Plaut)

MULTIMEDIA SLIDESHOW: Follow taxi driver Melissa Plaut's journey through nocturnal New York City

Our next story is part of our Weekend Shift series, where we bring you stories of people who don't get to kick up their feet and relax on the weekend. Quite the opposite -- they're working hard, making it possible for the rest of us to get lazy. This is particularly true for New York City cab drivers, where weekends mean long hours behind the wheel, shuttling creatures of the night from one party spot to another.

Cab driver Melissa Plaut takes us behind the wheel as she shuttles people across the five boroughs:

Saturday night, and I'm stuck in traffic again.

But as I steer my yellow cab down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, traffic is the least of my worries. Saturday, it should be known, is not my favorite night to work. Sure, I'll make more money than usual, but it comes at a certain cost: The later the hour gets, the drunker, more strung out, and generally more obnoxious my passengers can become. And the more people drink, the more likely someone will puke in my back seat, or skip out on the fare, or even rob me. Still, I go to work, expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

My shift, which runs from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., starts out pretty mellow, ferrying Saturday afternoon shoppers between stores.

"So what are you up to today?" I ask a passenger as she finishes loading her bags into the back of my taxi.

"Well, I went to the flea market. And everyone asked me if I was a dealer, I bought so much. I said, 'No, I'm just a shopaholic. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs,' I said, 'but I shop.'"

By 8 p.m., I've already made what seems like a hundred trips to Bloomingdale's, Barneys and Bergdorf's.

The thing about driving a cab, though, is that it's utterly unpredictable and every shift is truly an adventure. From psychics to psychiatrists to psychotics, everyone in New York City eventually takes a cab. And most people are surprised to see me -- a young white American woman -- at the wheel.

"It's nice to see a lady. They're so much better than men."

I always agree with them.

Before this, I was stuck in a late-20s rut, working an unfulfilling corporate job that I hated. So when I got laid off, it was the kick in the butt I needed. I'd always thought about driving a taxi and imagined the New York City cab driver to be this sage-like figure that lived in the middle of all the action. So I enrolled in taxi school, got my hack license and hit the streets.

As the late spring sun begins to set, I gear up for the rest of the night, stashing my large bills in my sock and keeping my cell phone within easy reach in case anyone tries anything funny.

About 11 p.m., I pick up a group of lively young ladies outside Lucky Cheng's, a downtown dinner theater that features cabaret performances by drag queens. The women are carrying balloons in the shape of the male and female genitalia. And for the entire 10-minute taxi ride, they lean out the window and ask everyone we pass whether they can tell what the balloons are supposed to look like.

I simultaneously laugh and cringe, and hope their balloons don't cause any accidents. But they're harmless, and it's fun driving them.

A little while later, I pick up a good-looking black guy in the middle of an argument on his cell phone. I gather from his end of the conversation that when his girlfriend gets angry, she calls him the "n-word."

"You're not sorry," he says to the faceless woman on the other end of the line. "You use that word all the time -- what the @*^%?# is wrong with you?"

I have no choice but to listen in until he finally hangs up on her. I stay silent, trying to act like I didn't notice anything. It's always a little weird when I bear witness to such private moments. He eventually breaks the silence to apologize for his language -- and this is when, as one of my unofficial duties as a New York City cab driver, that I become a cut-rate therapist.

He says, "I must, like, have low self-esteem or something, I keep letting her back into my life."

I try to help, somehow. "There must be something that makes it worth it... No?"

"I don't know," he answers, "I feel sorry for her."

After a few minutes, he falls silent and our therapy session is over. I feel sorry for him but there's not much I can do except take him where he's going and leave him with his thoughts.

I'm relieved when he finally gets out, but mainly because it's already past midnight and nothing too bad has happened yet. The taxi gods just might be on my side tonight.

Next up, a middle-aged white couple gets in. They're on decidedly better terms with each other and opt not to wait until they reach their apartment to get amorous... explicitly amorous. It's funny -- people fool around in the back of my cab almost as much as they fight, and I always wonder if they're actually getting off on the fact that I'm sitting right there. But this happens like clockwork, every Saturday night, so I do what I usually do: turn up the radio, hit the gas, and hope for a big tip. Ten minutes later, a doorman lets them out of my cab and they take their party into more private interiors.

Eventually, as the night slowly ebbs into morning, the party dies down. Contrary to popular belief, this city does occasionally sleep.

I return to the garage where some of the guys are standing around as usual, swapping stories. This is my favorite part of the night. One of the guys tells how his last passenger tried to hit him through the partition with a skateboard. Another describes the junkies who took his cab to score and then ran off without paying. And another describes the accident he just had.

"I go this way, she goes this way -- she wants to turn around and hits me."

I got lucky tonight. After 12 hours on the streets, nothing too bad happened to me. I settle up my earnings and head home with a pocket full of cash.

It was a good shift.

More stories from our The Weekend Shift series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Susan Lifschutz

    From Pomona, NY, 06/09/2008

    Nice story Melissa. Be safe. Love, Mom

    By cheryl diegel

    From NC, 06/07/2008

    I get nervous just thinking about what it takes to do Melissa's job. We visit NYC annually, I hope I get in her cab someday. You're a strong lady Melissa, lead on.

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