When I moved to New York, I told myself I wouldn't spend any money on cabs. I was an intern at a TV network, and thus didn't have what one could describe as a steady income: One week I'd be in the office for seven straight days; another, I was lucky to be there for three. Either way, I was making less than $10 an hour. When I finally got a better gig, the occasional late-night cab ride became one of the easiest luxuries to indulge in, especially when I had already indulged in a few drinks; at particularly indulgent moments I'd stand dangerously on the side of the road and wave my arms in the hope that a taxi would screech to a halt.
I noticed, as many probably do, that almost all cabbies were talking on their cell phones, even though New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission has banned the devices – even hands-free ones – for years. Their conversations are free-flowing, constant things, often in languages I don't speak, and in time I became fascinated with the habit. Did they talk on the phone merely out of boredom? Did they just speak to other cab drivers about where to go and where to avoid? Who could possibly sustain such a seemingly never-ending dialogue with another human being?
So I started asking cabbies about who they were talking to. Here are three examples of how that went. (At their request, the interviewees' names have been abridged or changed.)
Lived in New York for: Five years
Who he's always talking to on the phone: His friends, who are fellow cab drivers
Farooq, I have to admit, was an accidental subject. I had no intention of profiling him. I was in Alphabet City last month on a weekend night, and hailed his cab to take me over the Manhattan Bridge to my studio in Fort Greene. Once I had finished describing the route, he didn't waste a second before continuing a phone call I had obviously interrupted. He looked noticeably flustered – he kept turning his head to glance back at me – and I decided, in a moment of both concern and curiosity, to see how he was doing.
"Who's that?" I said, nodding in some general direction toward his headset. "On the line, I mean. Is everything all right?"
Normally, Farooq told me, it would have been his best friend from Pakistan, who was another NYC cabbie. They would be discussing any number of predictable topics: the best places to find fares, which clogged streets to skip, the brutality of a long day or night, the passenger who just vomited out the window. Tonight, though, his pal was delayed returning from the Middle East, and his wife was giving birth. Farooq was on hold with the hospital in Queens where she was in labour.
"First," he said, "I'll drop you at your building. Then I'll go to the emergency room."
"Just let me off wherever," I replied. "I'm serious."
It took him some more convincing, and offering way too much in the way of gratitude, he eventually let me out five minutes from my place.
Lived in New York for: 25 years
Who he's always talking to on the phone: His brother, a fellow cab driver
The next time I got a chance to talk to a cabbie was when I was with two friends and running late to a show. After buckling myself into the passenger seat – yes, I buckle up in cabs, read the signs, dude – I turned to the driver and asked who he was talking to.
"With my brother," Omar said. "He's the only family here. Because he drives a cab too, I never see him." He gestured to my friends – a guy and a girl – in the back seat.
"He's got a lady," he said. "Where's yours?
"We just broke up," I said. "How about you?"
"They're in Senegal," he declared. "I have two."
He has five kids too, ranging in ages from one to 18, and just like his brother does with his own kids, is trying to save up enough cash to send them all to college in the States. Omar's oldest son, he told me, goes to a university in South Carolina, and on his school vacations the kid will come stay with him in Harlem, where Omar has lived for over 20 years.
"I used to get mugged in Washington Heights once a week," he said. "The 80s and the 90s weren't great. A passenger would get in the front seat and put a gun to the side of my head."
"What would you do?"
"At first, nothing," he said. "Then I bought a pistol. But it wasn't worth it."
"And now," he said, "I have a phone."
Lived in New York for: 19 years
Who he's always talking to on the phone: His fiancée
On a Sunday afternoon, I flagged Mory down in the East Village, on the corner of St. Mark's and First. He was already on the phone when my friend and I entered the back seat, and after we explained where we were going in Bushwick, he went back to chattering into his Bluetooth. As he drove onto the Williamsburg Bridge, he asked us to repeat our destination. My friend told him the address, and I took the opportunity to squeeze my head into the small opening in the plastic divider separating the front of the car from the back.
"Can I ask you something strange?" I said, as politely as I could. "Who are you talking to on the phone?"
Mory held up his iPhone to show me the face of a beautiful woman and then dropped the call.
"That's my girlfriend," he said. "She's still in Guinea. I'm going back to my country in two weeks, and we're going to get married."
After they tie the knot, his wife will wait six months and then move to the United States, where she will live as a permanent resident for three years before becoming a US citizen like him. He was worried, though, about the logistics: He recently borrowed $600 to fund his trip back to Guinea, and now he only had two days left to pay back the bank. As a result, he had no other choice but to get as many fares as he could in the next 48 hours. He told me most of his riders are "complete fucking assholes," but his soon-to-be wife's voice puts him in "the right state of mind." He insisted the best hours to work are between the hours of 2 AM and 2 PM, and she also helps him stay awake during that period, as few of his riders ever want to have a casual chat.
The job, he explained, is often tiring, though it's much less exhausting than his previous occupation as a truck driver. He'd trek across the country, pulling over just to eat fast food, briefly sleep, and pick up women, mainly in Las Vegas. Mory followed this same routine for almost a decade, but he eventually decided to settle in Crown Heights, dive into a long-term relationship, and never get near an 18-wheeler again.
When we left the cab, Mory thanked me half a dozen times.
"No one ever talks to me," he said. "They just tell me where to go."
I waved goodbye. After I closed the door, Mory put his earpiece back in.
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