From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

New York Cabbies

New York cabdrivers are legendary. Countless jokes have been made at their expense about the way they zip through traffic, narrowly missing other cars and fixed objects, coming within inches of any pedestrian foolish enough to think he can make it on a flashing “don’t walk” sign. And anyone who has ever been a passenger knows that wrenching feeling of speeding up to go one short block then stopping short to avoid a car stopped ahead. Somehow, cabbies never seem able to remember the adage that you can only go as fast as the guy in front of you. And no New Yorker is ever surprised when a cabbie leans his head out the window of his taxi and offers some important comment on another’s driving ability or indeed on his personal attributes or lineage!

But three months after September 11, when I spent a week in New York City, the cab rides I took were slow, the cabbies quiet, subdued. I asked a few of them where they were and what they did on September 11. One driver didn’t want to talk about it; then he did. In fact, he had so much to say that when we reached my destination, he put up the meter and I just sat there listening.

“Traffic came to a complete stop that day. No busses or cabs or cars could go anywhere. Which is just as well because it was a hell and no one knew where to go to be safe. I was at midtown, stopped in traffic, and I had a fare when the first plane hit. We heard it first, then saw it. Both of us thought it was an accident. Who knew . . . ?

“But then the second plane hit. I dropped my fare and got out of my cab. By then there were so many sirens and emergency vehicles headed south, you couldn’t move. So, like everybody else, I watched from the sidewalk. Then . . . then they started to come down! It had been a beautiful sunny day but the air changed in a minute. Suddenly it was black and gray and you couldn’t breathe. I turned my cab around to head north. People banged on my window. I told them to get in and we just drove away from it. I don’t remember where I left them off.

“Someone flagged me down—stood right in front of my cab. He flashed an ID. He was a doctor and he wanted me to take him to NYU Med center. I did. There was a line of cabs at the hospital. The police wouldn’t let us leave. So we all went in and gave blood. Later, the only vehicles allowed out were ambulances. I said, ‘I’m a good driver. Let me help.’ They put me on an ambulance with another driver. We started taking supplies down to NYU Medical Center downtown.

“Later that day, I got my cab and drove around. There were people all over, just walking dazed and crying. I couldn’t do anything for them except give them a ride so I did. Many of them were going from hospital to hospital trying to find a family member who had worked in the WTC. I took one group—a father, mother and two sisters—to five different hospitals. At the last place, I left them because there was someone who fit the description of their loved one. I never found out if it was him. . . .”

I tried to take notes the whole time the man was talking but I couldn’t write fast enough. So I just listened. I know I got the whole story. It wasn’t one I could forget.

Another cabbie told me how he spent his time trying to take people home. “They were walking, walking anywhere—across bridges, in the middle of the streets. People were leaning on each other. I stopped and took an elderly man and the person he was leaning on to the Upper East Side. They looked like walking dead. . . . We picked up some others along the way. One lady said she had to stop to tell her son that she was okay. Her phone wouldn’t work so we stopped at his office around Fiftieth Street. He was outside, just staring south. When he saw his mother, he started crying. The lady decided to stay with him. So I looked for some more people to take.”

I had heard that in the hours and days that followed, New York came to a standstill. There was no public transportation available for days. But every one of the cab drivers I spoke with was busy in those hours—taking people home, carrying medical supplies, and transporting emergency personnel. Whatever any of these able-bodied people could do with or without their cabs, they did. They found ways to help. Of course I didn’t have to ask if they ever let the meter run during any of those trips. They would have been insulted if I had.

The cabdrivers of New York City are a microcosm of society. They are black, white, Indian, Muslim, Hispanic—every race, creed and color imaginable. They go about their day like most people, earning a living, getting the job done. For the most part, they are ordinary people. And ordinary people find ways to do extraordinary things when called upon. A lot of people did a lot to help others that day. They used what skills they possessed to save lives, give hope, help others. Those skills included being able to perform emergency surgery and being able to drive a cab. Each was needed and important in the aftermath of the horror of September 11.

It’s absolutely true what they say about New York cabdrivers—they are legendary.

Marsha Arons

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