On my 18th birthday, I rose early, showered and tied my brown hair back in a long ponytail.
“Jernigan, you want a fried egg on a roll to take with ya?” my mother yelled from the kitchen. “You gotta eat something.”
“Sure, ma,” I yelled back. “I do wanna get going, so thanks.” In Brooklyn, yelling was the default mode of communication, at least in my house.
After dressing quickly — which in those late teenage years involved a dull green army jacket and a pair of seriously unwashed jeans — I walked the five blocks to the subway station and caught the F train. Twenty minutes later, I got off at the Whitehall stop in downtown Manhattan and entered the office building that housed the Taxi and Limousine Commission. At the desk, I produced my birth certificate and filled out a form.
Back in the ’70s, if you were 18 and had a detectable pulse, you qualified for an NYC Hack License. This was just before the massive influx of Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants, and taxi fleet owners were hurting for drivers. There was zero background check; it was apparently OK if you were, say, a felon.
Oh, yes, there was also a written “exam,” and even the quotation marks fail to capture its utter speciousness. A table outside the examination room held handouts with the answers to every question in order, and cabbie candidates were encouraged to take these with them into the test.
Within a week, freshly minted license in hand, I was driving a cab for one of the larger Brooklyn taxi fleets. Other kids dream of becoming a doctor, a ballerina, an astronaut. At 18, I was living my dream: I’d always wanted to be a taxi driver.
Like me, most of the cabdrivers who were based in one of the four outer boroughs made the daily trek into Manhattan to ply their trade. Why Manhattan? Well, I’m reminded of prolific 20th-century bank robber Willie Sutton’s succinct answer to a reporter’s question: Why did he rob banks? “Because,” Willie replied, “that’s where the money is.”
On my third day on the job, I steered the big yellow Checker into a midtown taxi stand for a quick bite at Ray’s Pizza. In a city renowned for the finest pizza in the country, Ray’s pizzeria was up there with the best of them. I was on top of the world: 18 years old, cruising — unsupervised, no less — the greatest city on Earth, meeting people, making real money. And, whenever I so desired, grabbing a few slices from Ray’s Pizza. Could life get any better?
I strutted into the restaurant and took a seat — Why eat on the run? I thought. The waitress, striking in her snug, red-and-white-striped uniform, approached my table. “What’ll it be, hon?” she asked.
Hon. I rolled the word over in my mind … sweet.
Grinning, I replied, “Just a couple of slices and a small antipasto, please.”
“How about a drink?” she asked.
“Lemme think a second,” I said.
“You wanna beer?” she suggested — suggestively, I thought. Of course, at 18, I registered every word out of a female’s mouth — if she was between 15 and 50 and unrelated to me — as suggestive.
My ego, already seriously inflated for no empirically evident reason, hit the roof. And she’s not even asking to see my ID, I thought. “Sure,” I replied, “I’ll have a glass of beer.”
“Got it, hon,” she said. “Do you want to make it a pitcher? It’s just another 75 cents.”
“Sure, why not?” I said, never one to shy away from a good deal. “Let’s make it a pitcher.”
Here’s the thing: Until that evening in Ray’s, I don’t know if I had ever had an alcoholic drink. At most, a little red wine. When I was coming of age in NYC in that post-hippie window of time, drinking was not a regular thing in my coterie of friends. We all smoked marijuana — regularly and with tremendous enthusiasm — but boozing was considered almost square. In any event, my experience with alcohol was practically nil.
The pizza arrived, steamy and delectable, along with the antipasto, the pitcher of beer and a mug. I dove in with gusto. The beer went down icy and smooth. I lost count of the mugsful after three. Man, this is fantastic, I thought. Why the hell don’t we drink beer all the time?
I paid the check, leaving a big tip for my honey, and found my way back to the taxi. I was feeling good, real good, my mind drifting and focusing in new and creative ways. At some point, I noticed I was driving up First Avenue and decided I should start looking for people hailing cabs. Silly me, I thought — I forgot I was working!
“Hey, cabbie — which street are you going to cut through the park? I’m not telling ya how to drive, but we are getting pretty far north.”
I glanced into the rear-view mirror to find an older guy sitting in the back of the Checker, awaiting my response.
Oh. My. Fucking. Lord, I thought, snapping out of my suds-induced la-la land. I didn’t remember picking up this man, let alone where I was taking him.
“Sure, sure,” I said, with all the nonchalance I could muster. “I’m gonna cut through at 65th. Does that sound good? Um, where am I takin’ you again, sir?”
“Eighty-second and Columbus,” he replied. The look on his face didn’t give much away, but I got the feeling he knew what was what.
“Eighty-second and Columbus,” I repeated, chalking this up to experience — the first of a lifetime of lessons learned behind the wheel of a taxi.