Doing the Right Thing

One of the things people ask me about when I tell them I'm driving a yellow cab here in New York City is whether I've had any famous people in the car. Well, after Saturday I can say yes.

Late Saturday morning as I was waiting at the traffic light on 18th Street and Park Avenue South, who do I see walking up to my cab but Spike Lee, the director. I found myself thinking, “is that really Spike Lee?—yep, it definitely is”, and then he got in the car with a boy I presume must've been his son, maybe 6 or 7 years old. I said “Good morning Mr. Lee, it's a pleasure to have you in my cab,” and he said thanks and gave me very specific directions to get to an address on East 63rd Street (he is a director, after all).

In New York we pride ourselves on respecting the privacy of celebrities, and thus I tried not to be star-struck and reminded myself to pay attention to my driving as I drove up Park Avenue towards the Park Avenue tunnel, with the inevitable repeated lane changes necessary to navigate around double parked cars in the right lane and vehicles stopping to make left turns in the left lane.

Spike was talking to his son, who had a small baseball glove on, so I didn't try to say anything to him, but when I noticed they'd stopped talking in the back I turned and asked him what he was working on these days. He told me he'd just finished a documentary on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

I told him I remembered how he first broke onto the scene with She's Gotta Have It from my own early days in New York City (I moved here in 1984), and that I once saw him walking down Fifth Avenue during the days he was making Malcolm X and I'd heard he was having problems with the studios over the financing of a film with a strong black activist theme. I complimented him on his work and said that I thought it was important, and admitted that though I hadn't seen all his films, I'd enjoyed the ones I had seen and remarked that I'd probably be motivated to go check out a few more after this ride. He asked me if I'd seen Inside Man, and mentioned that it was on DVD.

Then Spike asked me a few questions about cab driving, how I was doing at it, and I told him about my interest in exploring how driving a cab was a metaphor for themes in Buddhist practice. “Like what,” he said, and I told him that for example driving a cab was very compatible with Right Livelihood, and that I was sharing a tiny bit of his life's journey by safely facilitating his and his son's travel from point A to point B; I also said that it was an interesting way to study how we respond to the constant highs and lows of life, for example losing a fare to another cab who swoops in ahead of you or getting a long ride to the airport—how the idea is not be attached to the outcome, whatever may be happening.

We also got onto the subject of cab drivers turning down riders going to Brooklyn, who are of course often black. I told him I made it a point of honor to always take people to the outer boroughs, to which he said “Thank You!”, and went on to tell him that an ex-girlfriend of mine was black and had told me about how it sucks to not be able to get a cab to go home to Brooklyn where she lives, and that I'd heard similar stories from other riders.

I did explain to Spike how the economics of the taxi business usually cause the cab driver to lose money on outer borough rides, and that given that the taxi lease system is already an exploitative work arrangement , that it is understandable a driver who's feeding five kids and sending money home to his family in another country might decide to turn down outer borough riders. I told him about the book I'd read recently on the subject (Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City) and he asked me for the name of it.

We arrived on 63rd Street and Spike gave me a twenty dollar bill for a nine dollar and something fare and said “Keep it!” Then he got out, turned around, and before his son got out of the car he extended his hand to me—I said “it was a pleasure to meet you Spike,” as we shook hands. Then his son got out, smiling and saying “Bye!” and I drove off, knowing that I would definitely remember this day in my cab driving career. And if Spike's next movie is about a Buddhist New York City cab driver, you'll know where he got the idea.


words: Eleventh Hour Sol, New York (Buddha Cab Blog)
photo: Steve Wing, Florida (sand shadow)

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