Night Owls: The Secret Life of a New York City Cab Driver

By Alyse Borkan  |  Aug 25, 2014
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Forever famous in New York City is the yellow cab. It is the ultimate method of transportation for Manhattanites — to and from work and play, through rain or shine, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

An idea snagged from Europe, the first yellow cab company came to fruition in Manhattan in 1909, but the largest fleet of cabs reside in Chicago, Illinois. In 1907, John Hertz (creator and future owner of Hertz Rental Cars) had a university conduct a study on what color would be the most eye catching from a distance.  Unanimously, yellow won.  Chartreuse came in at a close second.

So what’s it like behind the wheel of yellow cab?  Billy Kellston*, veteran New York taxi driver, shared the secrets of working the night shift with Casper . . .

I was in grad school studying music at the time. I had had a decent office job, but the company was acquired and I had a little bit of severance to get by until I figured out my next step. I really didn’t want a boss anymore, and I definitely didn’t want to be a barista. I had read that composer Philip Glass was a cab driver in the seventies, so that’s where I got the idea to drive. I know my way around the city and I liked the idea of driving around and being outside, so it just made sense.

There’s more to it than just cruising the streets. Thanks to GPS technology, navigating one’s way around a borough is easier than ever — but that doesn’t mean a cabbie shouldn’t know his away around town. Drivers are required to go to cab school to receive a Hackery Carriage license

Cab school was awesome. The class was 25 hours or something — like three or four days. You learn the TLC rules and cover a lot of memorization stuff about the city, like the order of East River bridges from North to South, which is basically prep for the hack license test. Everybody knows the Brooklyn Bridge, but the Macombs Dam Bridge and the University Heights Bridge never get any love!

Cabbie Kellston got into the business because he thought it would be a good way to make money and not have a real boss. His expectations didn’t exactly match reality.

It’s like having 40 bosses a day. Sometimes people are in a rush, any time of day or night, and think they know the best way to get everywhere . . . but then you get stuck behind a garbage truck or something and suddenly you’re getting screamed at. They taught us at cab school to always ask the passenger which way they wanted to go, so they can’t blame you for sitting in traffic, but they still get impatient, even if they make the decision.

Unless one owns a Medallion — which can range from $750,000 to a cool one million — a driver has to lease a car at up to $1,000 a week. The driver takes home anything on top of those costs

The tips are also pretty shitty. A lot of people just round up the dollar, which sucks, but you get to keep all the fares plus tips, minus the 50 cents per-ride MTA surcharge, but after the cost of leasing the car for the day and paying for gas, it’s not a cash bonanza.

What was it like working in the city that never sleeps, when everyone else may be asleep?

The shifts are all 5 am to 5pm or 5pm to 5am, but you can finish up whenever you want. So, when you do night shifts, you pretty much just try to make money during rush hour. You want to do as many rides as possible during rush hours because of the $1.00 per fare rush hour surcharge. You never really have to work past midnight — at least, I didn’t. Day shifts are always 12 hours, though. You never really go home early on a day shift and you always have to start on time. So, oddly enough, day shifts affected my sleep schedule more than anything else. Waking up at 4:00 a.m. sucks. And if I didn’t get to the garage on time, they’d give my car to someone else.

Did anything bizarre happen while on the job?

I thought there would be crazy stories and sociological insights, but it turned out that it was actually very ordinary. A lot of listening to NPR and making small talk with strangers. Because I was a young white guy, a lot of people were curious and asked what I was doing driving a cab. A bunch of people thought it was the game show: Cash Cab or TaxiCab Confessions, and they always seemed upset when they found out that, no, I was just a normal cab driver. No one ever did anything crazy in the car. Only one guy ever puked, but he politely asked me to pull over first. A lot of people fart in cabs and think the driver won’t notice. I definitely noticed. All drivers do.

The most expensive cab ride ever?

During the UN General Assembly in 2010. I picked up a guy and his wife in the afternoon. They were very nice people from Eastern Europe. We had to go to their embassy or consulate or something on the Upper East Side to get some package that they needed to bring to Queens. President Obama was speaking at the UN and he was coming down the FDR or across the Midtown Tunnel or something, and everything was closed off. Standstill traffic. So they decided not to go to Queens, but somewhere else in the city instead, but we kept getting caught in traffic. So this guy and his wife, every time we got caught in another traffic jam, would change their destination and just ask me to take them somewhere else. In the end, they were in the car until I had to go home that day, which was a good four hours and then some. The fare wound up being close to $100. And in the end, I dropped them right back at their hotel. They didn’t get anything done. They were really cool about it, though. Gave me a nice tip and they were really very good company, just asking about the city and stuff.

As for safety on the job, Kellsten was lucky. He was never robbed during a shift, but if anything were to happen, help was only a button push away.

A lot of people might not know is that there’s a switch under the steering wheel that activates a flashing light hidden in the grill of the car to communicate with cops if you’re getting robbed. I never had to use it.

As for getting out of the industry, Kellsten made a graceful exit, and gently pumped the brakes.

After about five years I got out of the business. I’m an editor at a foundation now.  I still have my license though, and I could go back to it if all else fails, which is nice to know. The money I made during my last year of driving paid for the engagement ring that I gave to wife, too, so all in all it was a good experience. I didn’t have to be a barista at a coffee shop, and it’s made for some pretty interesting conversation topics, and I still know the best route to anywhere in the city.

* Names changed to protect night owls’ identities.

Randi Newton is based in New York City.  She currently is a contributor to The New York Observer, and also writes for LA Weekly, Newsweek, TheFix, and TheGloss.com.  You can follow her on twitter at @WorldOfRandi, and visit her blog.

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