Q & A: Melissa Plaut, Cab Driver

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After a layoff from a comfortable, but mind-numbing, ad agency job, Melissa Plaut, a copywriter and editor, basically gave up on making a living through words. Instead, she decided to embark on a long series of adventures instead of slogging through a “career path” until retirement. The first one was to become a cab driver, which Plaut, 32, did in 2004. About a year later, she began blogging about her experiences, but just for her friends. Due to the blog’s unexpected popularity, it ultimately led to a Random House book deal. The result is Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab, out now.

Has your driving outside of work changed at all? Now I drive every car as if it were a cab. I can’t undo that sense of urgency and madness. You need to make a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. I’m also a terrible backseat driver now.

What surprised you about the job when you started? I went online and found the TLC [Taxi & Limousine Commission] and saw the list of things I needed to do to get licensed. None of it involved a driving test. In terms of what happened when I actually got in the cab, I thought it would be a little bit more dangerous than it is. It’s dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as bad as I had feared and maybe most people assume it to be. You know there’s so much money in the city now that there are fewer people actually robbing us.

Ever had any accidents or criminals in your cab? There are people who beat the fare, or try to beat the fare. I chased some kids. I’ve had a couple fender benders. I’ve had very many close calls that could’ve been very severe accidents. That’s just from being on the street so much. And I’ve never been held up or anything (knock on wood). I escaped this summer unscathed, with the guy who was going around pointing a gun at everybody’s head.

And how long do you think you’ll be doing this? I have no idea. I don’t want to drive a cab for the rest of my life, but I may feel like a cab driver for the rest of my life.

There was a long period of time when you were driving around without health insurance. Were you terrified? I wasn’t scared. I just prayed that nothing happened—and that if it did happen that it wasn’t my fault, and somebody else’s insurance could cover the bill.

What are some of the crazier things that have happened in your cab? They’re not like “somebody had a baby” or “there was a knife fight in the backseat,” or anything. A guy got in and wouldn’t tell me where to go, and just gave me money to just drive until the money ran out, and then ended up having me take him to a strip club and wanted me to come in with him. He gave me another 20, and I just left him there. People do have sexual relations. I don’t know if anybody’s had full intercourse in my cab. I don’t think it’s happened, but then again, I can’t say I’m sure about that.

Is that uncomfortable for you? It’s a little awkward, but I don’t want to say anything. Really, the best I can hope for is that they tip well and don’t make a mess.

How well do you know the other cabbies? I made a bunch of friends at my garage. And obviously not just anybody, but I have a little crew, a little clique or whatever; guys that just treat me like one of the fellas. And far as I can tell, nobody holds back in front of me. In the beginning they may have, but they know me well enough to know I can handle anything if they can handle it.

So what are the cabbies with their phone attachments stuck in their ears talking about? They’re talking about you.

Really? Yeah. Most of them. They’re talking about either if you’re interesting, or if you’re doing something interesting, shitty, stupid, annoying. They’re also talking about where they’re going, which is also where you’re going. You know, “This guy just got in. We’re going to Williamsburg.” They’re talking about traffic as well.

I always thought they were talking to friends from outside work. They’re talking to other cab drivers. The only people who are willing to talk on the phone with you for that long are the other people who are that bored for their 12-hour shift—isolated and frustrated. They’re like, “traffic on the 59th Street Bridge. Don’t go, use the lower level. I’m going to goddamn LaGuardia, it’s 5:30, I hate this guy. I hope he tips me.” It’s on and on. Whatever you’re doing, they’re talking about it.

How about you? I don’t like to because I get so distracted. And I find my tips are better because I don’t do it. If a cabbie calls me and he’s like, “There’s traffic, don’t do this,” or something, I will take that call for a second. I will also just talk to them, but in-between fares. And I’ll be like, “Aw, this stupid guy just got out, and he took me all the way out here, and he didn’t even tip me, and he was, you know, jerking off the whole way there.”

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