KEEP THE METER RUNNING
Two men stranded on a rainy New York sidewalk. One cab driver. And the decision that changed everything
by: Theo Travers
It looked to be a good night for Mohammad Abruzzo. Rain poured down in heavy sheets when he pulled out of the garage that afternoon. Stayed that way for the better part of his twelve hour shift. For a cab driver, rain meant money. People anxious to get out of the weather would fork over for the convenience of door to door service. Right away, Abruzzo picked up a fare on the corner of Ninth and Fifth Avenue. A college professor headed to the movie theater in Union Square, on a different day a pleasant five block hike. From there, a couple of balding guys in gray peacoats and bright colored scarves wanted a ride to Gramercy Park in a hurry. A female chef, still climbing into her uniform under an awning, waved him down for a ride to Trattoria Cinque in TriBeCa. From there, Abruzzo picked up three twenty-somethings, several drinks into their evening, and dropped them off at a friend’s house party in the West Village. And on and on it went with little interruption. Steady rain meant steady customers. And a healthy take for the day. But against better judgement, there was one passenger Abruzzo didn’t pick up.
Driving up Bowery near Delancey, a dozen or so blocks west of the Williamsburg Bridge, Abruzzo noticed the man as he stepped out from the bus stop shelter on the corner. His head was covered with a sweatshirt hood. Oversized Knicks jersey, sagging designer jeans, leather boots. Hanging from a shoulder strap, a large Puma Fitness gym bag. At first glance, one would guess the man was black. Dominican or West Indian maybe. He stood on the edge of the sidewalk, aggressively flagging his arm to catch Abruzzo’s attention. The cab scooted by, splashing sludgy puddle water. It wasn’t that Abruzzo didn’t see the man. Quite the contrary. But just up the block was another fare: a white man in a business suit and soggy rain jacket, with a large black umbrella fighting a losing battle against the wind. Two fares in the same block. As Abruzzo saw it, he had a choice to make and he made it. The cab pulled over for the businessman.
“Thank God you showed up when you did,” the business man exhaled as he climbed awkwardly into the cab, using his umbrella as a shield against the rain, then closing it. “I’ve been out here for nearly fifteen minutes. Thought I was gonna have to take the train.”
“Not the best neighborhood to be in this time of night,” Abruzzo responded. “Where to?”
“109th and Amsterdam, please.” As Abruzzo set his meter, there was loud, rapid knocking on the front passenger window. Shit. It was the hooded man from down the block. He leaned down, glaring at Abruzzo. “Yo, man, that’s fucked up. You know you saw me.” And with that Abruzzo hit the gas, taking off. Not without the man getting in one quick kick to Abruzzo’s tail light as the yellow cab sped away.
“What has you out at this time of night all dressed up,” Abruzzo asked as he headed toward Houston, trying to break the ice.
“I was at a fundraising event for this Chinese workers organization. Called NMASS.”
“National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. Workers rights. Insurance. Pensions. That kind of stuff. I’m just a money pusher. Look-” The passenger glanced at the driver’s picture and Identification posted behind the driver’s seat, pressed against the smeared Plexiglas. “Mohammad. May I call you Mohammad?”
Abruzzo peered into his rear view mirror, getting a better look at his passenger. Clean cut, wire-rimmed frames, wet hair pushed to the side. “My friends call me Mo.”
“Mo? I’m Cam. Short for Cameron. I have to ask you… That guy back there, on Delancy? You had to have seen him before you saw me, right?”
“So why did you drive past him to pick me up?” Abruzzo sighed. Obviously this was a touchy subject for him. Abruzzo, stuck at the next traffic light, turned around in his seat to look Cam in the eyes.
“You think I’m some kind of racist or something?”
“I didn’t say that-”
“But you had that kind of tone.”
“I’m just asking. You know, `cause I have black friends who say all the time that they can’t catch a cab in New York City to save their lives. They joke about it in the way all shared experiences come off to those of us peeking over shoulders. Of course, I had never seen an example of it. They would argue that it’s because I’m with them. Like my skin complexion was some sort of passport to hello. And I would suggest they were being, I don’t know –”
“No, no, not so much that as, well, exaggerated, you know? Like somebody got passed up once and now every cabbie gets thrown under the bus for it. I just didn’t buy it, you know? Not until I saw what you just did tonight.”
Abruzzo chuckled to himself. “I’m going to take the FDR if you don’t mind. There’s a lot of construction clogging up the west side.” Off of Cam’s nod of approval, Abrruzzo asked, “You know how cab drivers make their money?”
“Take longer routes to run up the meter. Like going up the east side of the city for a west side address.” Abruzzo knew that was a dig at him, but took it in kind.
“Touché. But a couple extra ticks on the meter ain’t gonna put food on my table, buddy. Look it works like this: I rent this cab from the company. Twelve-hour shifts. I pay them for it and the rest goes to me. How I make my money during the shift really has more to do with how many rides I get during the shift, not the distances. Put it another way. On an average night, I can get anywhere from three, four, sometimes six rides in an hour here in Manhattan. And on a night like this? When it’s raining, everybody’s trying to catch a cab. When it rains, it rains. Probably where that saying comes from.”
“Make it rain. Man, you don’t listen to hip-hop?”
Cam looked back at Abruzzo’s reflection nonplussed, so unhip he doesn’t even know dated slang. Poor guy.
“Anyway, if I picked up that hoodie-looking fucker we saw back on Delancy, you know where he’s going? Way out to Brownsville, East New York, or some shithole block by old Yankee’s stadium in the Bronx. That’s taking me a good thirty, forty minutes out of my way. And do you think I’m picking up any fare on my way back? Hell, no. Nobody’s leaving Brooklyn at one a-m to go into the City. So that means a good hour or more out of my shift is gone and I’ve only got one fare to show for it.”
“But still,” Cam said, “A ride from here to Brooklyn would net you what, thirty dollars plus tip?”
“You want to talk about tips? I’ll tell you about tips. Black people don’t tip.”
Cam laughed at Abruzzo’s incredulity. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard today.”
“Just because it’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You can sit back there and be all Mr. We Are The World, I love black people, Kumbaya all you want. I’m the one out here driving the streets everyday. And I can tell you from experience: black people don’t tip. It’s a known fact. Those fucking Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are the same way. They’ll throw an extra dollar on top of a twenty-five dollar fare thinking they’re doing me a favor. Now, I can’t ask for a tip, but less than ten percent? Get the fuck outta here. I’d rather you not give me anything than to insult me with that.
“And another thing. You take these hoodlums who walk around with scowls on their faces, their hands dug down in their pockets, going out of their way to look hard. Then the moment you even hint that they look menacing, or like they could be a threat or something, everybody wants to call you a racist. How can I be a racist? After 9/11, do you know how many times I’ve been called a terrorist? I’m from Newark, man. I don’t know even know what a terrorist looks like.”
Cameron shakes his head with disapproval. “Look, I live and work in the City. I can tell you for a fact that I see people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, what-have-you, who live and work here in Manhattan who are honest, hardworking people and don’t cheap out on tips. You mean to tell me every time you see a black guy hailing a cab you assume he’s going to Brooklyn?”
“It’s not just about skin color. It’s about overall appearances.”
“So you’re profiling?”
“Damn straight. Let me ask you something, Cam. Every restaurant in this city has a sign posted in their business that says, ‘We reserve the right to refuse service.’ And on what grounds do they refuse to serve someone?”
“Well, I guess if someone comes in rowdy or drunk. Or If they don’t have clothes on.”
“Right. Or if they looked like they just climbed out of a fucking sewer or something. Nobody wants to eat next to a smelly homeless person. Let’s not tiptoe around it.” Cam chuckled a bit, slowly warming up to Abruzzo. “So if every restaurant in the City can do that, why can’t I? What do you think I see crawling out of the bars and stumbling out of apartments at this hour? Sure as hell not the same clientele hailing a cab at noon in Times Square. And have you ever tried kicking an angry man out of a moving car? Or had to clean up a stranger’s puke and blood out of your back seat? There are all kinds of considerations I have to make before letting someone get into the back of my car. I don’t take that decision lightly. As far as that gangsta wanna-be we saw downtown. I’ll tell you why I drove past him.”
At that moment, Abruzzo hit the exit ramp at 96th. The pause almost seemed like it was deliberate, being done for dramatic effect, when in reality Abruzzo was just being cautious merging into congested surface street traffic. Not uncommon for Saturday night. “For the past few weeks, word on the street is there’s this guy going around jacking cab drivers.”
Cam shifted uncomfortably. “What are you talking about?”
“Cabbies? We talk, man. There’s some dickless piece of shit out here going around hailing cabs and sticking them up for cash. At least, as I hear it, it’s one person doing it. No witnesses left to say otherwise.”
“Wait. I read about a driver getting stabbed in Washington Heights a couple nights ago. But the paper said it was probably drug related.”
“Of course that’s how the cops are spinning it. They don’t want the news to catch on to the fact that several cab driver murders and robberies could be connected. Especially not right before tourist season.”
“Isn’t every season tourist season in New York?”
“Okay, Mo, times out. You may have had a compelling argument a few blocks ago. But if you’re suggesting that you thought that guy back there was some sort of serial cab driver hit-man or something, then you lost me. That just doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t know what he had in that gym bag. What if it was a sawed-off? Huh? My ass would have been toast.”
“You kidding me? Listen to what you’re saying.”
“I am listening. And from where I’m sitting, I sound like a reasonable fucking man. You can call that racial profiling if you want. I call it self-preservation.”
Cam leaned forward, earnestly. “Okay, let’s say for example what you’re saying is true right? There’s some guy out there sticking up cabs. If that’s true, then the guy you left back there in the rain doesn’t even fit your profile.”
Cam looked out of the cab as they jetted up Amsterdam, windows streaked with rain water. Despite the weather, the Columbia kids were still out drinking. Bodegas and restaurants lit up like pinball machines under the streetlights. Cam said, “Make a right when you get to 109th.” Abruzzo hit his turn signal. Slowed down. Leaned into the turn off the main strip. Dark. Lined with honey locust trees. The sidewalks littered with its long, brown seed pods.
“Where are you?”
“Up near the end of the block.” Many of the brownstone windows were in black. Cam’s neighbors either still out or tucked in for the night. The rain continued to pour. “So like I was saying… If that guy back there on Delancey was a serial armed robber targeting cab drivers, he doesn’t fit the profile.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, it’s just like you said. It’s all about judging appearances. And if a guy’s going around preying on cab drivers, what’s the first thing he’s got to do?”
“Be an asshole.”
“I don’t know. Hail a cab?”
“I don’t get your point.”
“Mo, I told you what I do for a living right? I raise money for a small non-profit. I have to hit people up for money all the time. Just like this robber you’re talking about. Let me put it another way. If I was a robber hitting up cabs, you know what I would do? I would dress up nicely. Wouldn’t give the driver a reason to drive past me. Help him to assume I’m a good tipper, you know? And I’d do it on the end of a night like this when it’s raining out. Because like you said, there’s a lot of people catching cabs when it rains. A lot of rain means a lot of cash. Plus it’s hard to hear someone scream for help when it’s pouring out. You can stop here.”
Abruzzo let what Cam was saying sink in. He chose to ignore the unsettling feeling he had in the pit of his stomach. The cab slowed. Abruzzo stopped the meter. “That comes to $28.57.” As the receipt printed, Cam stuck the barrel of his Glock into Abruzzo’s cheek. “Nothing personal, Mo. Hand over the money bag, your wallet and cell phone.”
“Please just take it and go. I promise I won’t say any-” Before the Abruzzo could finish, Cam stepped up from the car, fired twice into the back of his seat. Pop! Pop! First the blinding flash. Two sharp pinches. A slow, warm and painful itch spread as blood filled his lungs. Abruzzo couldn’t breathe. He slumped over the on steering wheel. And the world went black…
Paramedics rushed Abruzzo to St. Luke’s trauma center. He had one bullet lodged in his lungs, near his heart, the other buried in his liver. Of course, on a messy night like this, the hospital’s intake was triple what it usually is, in large part due to weather-related accidents. The residents and nurses that were on call did everything they knew to do to keep Abruzzo from bleeding out. But to no avail. At 3:43 a.m. that morning, they called time of death. One of the exhausted attendees that fought to keep Abruzzo alive stepped out into the hallway. She looked over and saw walking into the trauma center none other than the man that was left behind on Delancey Street, still sporting his bag and urban street wear.
“Where the hell have you been,” the attendee shouted.
“Chill. I just came from the gym. About to change now.”
“Dr. Allen, you knew we were short-handed tonight. Just lost a patient in Two. We could have really used a trauma surgeon. You being here might have made a difference.”
Dr. Allen cursed under his breath, shaking his head. “Sorry. I would have been here sooner, but I couldn’t catch a cab.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theo moved to Los Angeles after working as a television news reporter in Memphis, TN. Coolest moments include interviewing Barack Obama one-on-one and going undercover with police on drug busts and prostitution stings. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Theo currently writes for Showtime’s HOUSE OF LIES.