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July 21, 2008

Hacking It in New York

Unlikely taxi driver Melissa Plaut recounts the pleasures and perils of driving for a living.

Matthew Patin

A lot of weird shit has happened in the back of Melissa Plaut’s cab—well, not that weird, considering what’s bound to happen when drunk and horny people are driven from place to place by indifferent strangers. (Plus, Taxicab Confessions has desensitized most of us, anyway.) What is genuinely shocking is that no one, Plaut says, has ever barfed in her cab. “I’m probably the only cabbie in New York who can say that. That’s my claim to fame.”

That, plus the fact that she’s probably the only female, Jewish, college-educated, gay cab driver. And you can add blogger, published author, and cabbie strike on-air insta-spokeswoman to that list, too. Plaut, a 32-year-old Bushwick resident, has used her blog, New York Hack, to chronicle her nightly voyages through the streets of New York. Some highlights include dealing with assholes, getting fares from celebrities, and even playing herself (or, at least, a cabbie) in a film project starring Tilda Swinton.

Melissa Plaut. Photo by Meghan Folsom.
"Justifying myself to other cabbies was not so much about class or race; it was the fact that I didn’t have a dick."

Melissa Plaut. Photo by Meghan Folsom.

When blogging wasn't enough, Plaut wrote a book, Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab. Gelf talked to Plaut about her book deal, road rage, and nutty taxi-school professors. (You can hear Plaut speak at the Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, July 24, in the Lower East Side.) This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How is the taxi-driving hierarchy set up? Is it as lucrative as the vast, seemingly inexhaustible pool of willing immigrants would suggest?

Melissa Plaut: No, I don't know if there is really a hierarchy. There's the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which tells the taxi drivers what rules to follow. And then there are the fleet owners, the guys who own the garages. [One rule is] you aren't supposed to be driving 24 hours in a day.

GM: Have you ever pulled a 24-hour shift?

MP: No. I've avoided that, but I have worked without having slept the night before. There were points where I didn't know what was going on. It was probably dangerous.

GM: Why are immigrants from certain countries, such as Pakistan, so well-represented within the industry?

MP: I have no idea. Taxi driving has always been an immigrant profession, and for people who are just starting out and trying to make a life for their kids. It's just a matter of whichever new immigrant group is coming over and who's more willing to work 12-hour shifts and deal with the abuse.

GM: In the continuum of unskilled labor, where does taxi driving fall?

MP: It's not totally unskilled. First you need to know how to drive and how to be a decent driver, and you need to know how to drive in New York, which I'd venture is a skill. After driving for a while, I developed a sixth sense for street patterns. I think cab drivers have a sense about what's going to happen on the street, [so it's] not totally unskilled labor. The biggest skill I ever totally mastered was patience. If you don't have that, you're going to go nuts.

GM: Did you get your license at the Master Cabbie taxi driving school—the self-described "largest taxi driver training center in America"? What's it like?

MP: I got my license at a taxi school at La Guardia. School was a crazy trip. I actually think my teacher was totally and completely brilliant and insane. He gave everyone nicknames based on their ethnicity, which was sort of horrifying. I didn't know [the city] nearly as well as I got to know it. It just starts to become tattooed inside your brain.

GM: What was your nickname?

MP: I was just white, so it was kind of boring. I was Young Sweetheart. Then it was Princess. Then I was Our Star, because everyone started asking me questions in class.

GM: When you first got your license, how long did you think you'd last?

MP: I didn't really have a time frame set out. I had gotten into it because I had decided "to hell with advertising and a desk job, and to hell with deciding what career I'm going to do for of my life." I was thinking maybe a year, maybe a little more than that. I don't think I ever would have done it if I thought I was going to do it for the rest of my life. It's been four years. I'm not actually driving the cab anymore. I still have my hack license, and I'm going to renew it. I guess I'll always consider myself a cab driver.

GM: You possess all of the advantages in life that immigrant drivers dream of acquiring some day in the distant future: stability, citizenship, an education, the choice to easily opt out if things aren't going well. How do you explain to them why you've chosen this line of work? Have you faced any resentment?

MP: I haven't really faced any outward resentment. No one really required an explanation from me. The only thing I've ever had to justify is the fact that I'm a woman. It's not so much about class or race or citizenship: It was the fact that I didn't have a dick. I feel like I was generally accepted by everyone. The fact that I was female was the only obstacle, but even that wasn't that big of obstacle. There were one or two—at maximum—females at the garage, and most of them didn't last.

GM: Do you hang out with any of the other drivers socially?

MP: Yeah, it's not like we hang out all the time, but we'll go out to lunch or have a beer or something.

GM: How random was it that CNN spoke with you during the taxi strike in 2007? They had a graphic of your book superimposed, despite the interview being "live."

MP: The interview was live, but it was prearranged the day before. It just so happened that my book had come out that week. It had gotten so much press that they were aware of me. They put me in full makeup. It wasn't supposed to be like, "We stopped this cabbie on the street," so it wasn't random at all. I really lucked out with the timing of it.

GM: In one post on your blog, you write, "Tonight was pretty good overall. I mean, it wasn't perfect. I did indeed get my window punched by some stupid angry road raging bitch in Williamsburg (because I wouldn't let her cut me off, mind you), but that's so annoyingly typical, it barely merits mention at this point." Why do we take driving slights so personally?

MP: God, there's just so much ego involved. It's all about ego and all the problems that come out of it and the anger and the rage. There's a me-first mentality, especially in New York, when someone gets behind the wheel. It's a total mess. I think the car makes you feel protected and it's an extension of your body. Driving is stressful, especially in New York, and anger is just bubbling under the surface.

GM: How did your book deal come about? How much material is included from your blog?

MP: It happened totally organically. There's no other way to say it except that I got incredibly lucky. For a year people kept saying I should write about [being a cabbie]. And I would get really self-righteous and uppity about it: I don't have to write about this! Why can't I just do it and experience it? Then I ate my own words and started the blog, and it got noticed by Gothamist and Gawker, and through those sites I was getting contacted by media people. And then the Associated Press came along and did a big story on me and it went global. I was approached by a few editors and agents and I got a recommendation from a friend for a good agent and I liked her. The whole time before that I was like, "I don't know if I can write a book." I guess I decided that I wanted to tell more of the full story of who I was, and the blog was just little stories. This way I could write the longer stories and the stories I could never tell on the internet.

GM: How has this job informed your opinions of New York City and New Yorkers?

MP: There's a lot of abuse and a lot of crap and a lot of angry people out there. But I was pleasantly surprised by how many good people there are, on the flip side. New Yorkers are pretty nice, pretty cool, pretty smart people in general, I think. I think this city has some of the best people who exist. I think it attracts people who have something they want to do and accomplish in life.

GM: What's the most shocking revelation you can offer from your experience?

MP: I think there's just so much sex and drugs that go on in the back of a cab that its no longer shocking. I did find it curious that people engaged in amorous situations two feet from me in a cab. I don't see it as shocking, though. I think most people expect to see it, as well. The most shocking thing was when people didn't tell me where they wanted to go. There are a lot of crazies in the streets, and every now and then they hop in a cab. The crazy people are usually the ones that shock me most. The sex and the drugs are kind of expected.

Matthew Patin

Matthew Patin is a writer (sometimes) and editor (kind of) in New York City.







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Article by Matthew Patin

Matthew Patin is a writer (sometimes) and editor (kind of) in New York City.

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