Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How to Hail a Cab in New York, Part I

I've been thinking about doing this for a while--cab etiquette is one of the great mysteries of New York, and I think the whole world could use a refresher--but the whole thing was catalyzed when I couldn't come up with a quick and easy mnemonic for my brother-in-law to explain how he was to know if a cab was available or not. Now, it was a joke--we'd just had a great meal at Prune in NoHo, and he was asking me to come up with something in meter that rhymed--but I figure that just 'cause I suck at poetry doesn't mean that I can't create a handy, dandy guide to hailing a cab in the Big Apple.

So I'll start with the first question: how do you know if a cab's available?

Let's start with the basics. As anyone who's seen an American movie in the last sixty or so years knows, New York taxis--at least the ones you can hail on the street--are yellow. Let's have a picture:

Modified from a photo by msspider66 on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

So here we have a good sample of the species. The red circle points out the part you'll want to pay attention to when you're hailing a cab on a rainy day in Manhattan. It's the rooflight, the thing that tells you whether or not the taxi's available. Taking a closer look:

Photo by mokolabs on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

You'll see the rooflight is split in three parts. In the middle, you'll have the cab's medallion number--four digits, mixing letters and numbers. On the sides, you have the off duty lights, helpfully marked "Off Duty." When the middle section is lit, the cab is empty; when it's dark--as it is on the rooflight above, the cab has a fare and is unavailable. Below, you'll see what a cab looks like when just that middle section is lit:

Photo by wallyg on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

From a distance, it looks like a short bar of light in the middle of the roof console. When you hail a cab like this, it should stop, pick you up, and take you wherever you want within the five boroughs. If it doesn't, it means that either the driver didn't see you, or you've been the victim of racial profiling. Man, I wish that was a joke.

However, don't rush to curse the cab driver as a racist just because a cab that had some lights on passed you by. If all the lights on the rooflight are on, you're not likely to get picked up, either. It looks like this:

Modified from a photo by magnus* on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

As you can see, the middle number is lit, but so are the "Off Duty" lights marked by the pointers. From a distance, this looks like a single, long bar of light, which can be hard to distinguish from the light of an on-duty unoccupied cab. When all the lights are on it means that even though there isn't a passenger in the cab, the driver isn't looking to pick up a fare, and they'll typically ignore anyone trying to hail them. This is usually because it's the end of the driver's shift, and they're headed home or back to the taxi company where another driver is waiting to start the next shift. When all the lights are on, the cab isn't supposed to be picking up passengers, but sometimes drivers will stop and roll down their window to ask you where you want to go--they're hoping to grab one last fare before ending their shift.

Depending on whether there are other available cabs around, this practice can be a great blessing or a big nuisance. Unlike when they're on duty, the cabbie isn't obligated to pick you up or take you anywhere, so if you're not going the cabbie's way (toward his home and/or base) or if he just doesn't like the look of you, the cab's doors will remain locked (to keep you out) and the cabbie will drive away. When that happens, all they've accomplished by stopping in front of you is to waste your time and block you off from on-duty taxis who would be obligated to take you where you want to go--it's very frustrating. But if you're making a short trip or headed in the right direction (Houston Street and Hell's Kitchen are popular destinations during shift changes, because there are taxi companies located there) an off-duty cab can be a godsend.

The final way you can find the rooflight signifies that a cab is occupied and off-duty. Then the two "Off-Duty" lights are on, but the middle section is dark. Looks like this:

Photo by faz the persian on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License.

This state is only relevant to you when you happen to be near a cab that's letting out its passengers. When an on-duty cab lets off its passengers near you, it's pretty much an invitation to take a ride--just remember that, no matter how ugly the weather is outside, you need to let the passengers get out before you enter the cab. (This sounds like common sense, but if you live in New York long enough, someone will eventually jump into the back seat while you're trying to calculate how much of a tip to leave, guaranteed.) But if a taxi's dropping off a fare and has its off-duty light on, it's almost impossible to change the driver's mind, no matter how persuasive you think you are.

So, as per my brother-in-law's challenge, I will try to reduce this to rhyming couplets:

Short light--you're good as gold;
No lights--you're stuck in the cold;
Long light--you'll have to beg and plead;
Two lights--you're screwed, indeed.

Hey! Stop that. I warned you I suck at poetry.

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