It was about 11:30 a.m. when Momadou Marong, a 51-year-old Gambian immigrant who lives in the Bronx, drove down 72nd Street and found himself facing an avenue on the East Side of Manhattan. He peered out the window to see what the sign said. “York Avenue,” he said, then nodded as if he had just recognized a famous New York celebrity. “Oh yes, York Avenue, there it is!”
Mr. Marong had heard about this York Avenue— east of First and only 32 blocks long — in the two-week Taxi School he completed a few weeks before, but until that moment, he had never been there. He steered his yellow cab around the corner and pulled over to pick up a passenger, his fourth ever.
“Good morning,” he told the ponytailed young woman who got in. “How are you today?”
Mr. Marong had been unemployed since he lost a job two years ago at DHL, the troubled shipping company, and he wanted to make a good impression. “Today’s my first day,” he told her, half proud, half apologetic.
New Yorkers, at least those who can still afford to take taxis, have probably been hearing that a lot lately: the number of people driving cabs reached a record high of 47,000 in mid-April, up from 44,000 in 2005.
Although a recent study from the Taxi and Limousine Commission said that cab revenue has stayed steady, many drivers say the recession has meant they have to work more hours to make the same money, with the stretch between passengers yawning longer and longer. A proposed $1 surcharge to help balance the Metropolitan Transportation Authority budget could make it even more of a challenge.
The ponytailed woman nearly got out of Mr. Marong’s cab as he fumbled to clear the fare machine of his last client’s bill — “I’m in a rush,” she apologized — but he reassured her they would be soon on their way. And then they were, lurching towards the West Side, with the woman politely but firmly guiding him: “Sir, you’ll want to get in the right lane — you want to get in the right lane now. Right lane. Right lane. Stay with that car so we don’t miss the light.”
Where was she off to in such a hurry? Spin class at an Equinox gym. Turns out she had been laid off too, last summer, from a finance job in Midtown. “But I’m trying to reinvent myself — like you are,” she said to Mr. Marong.
At times, the driver could barely take in the instructions the passenger was giving because he was focusing so hard on the congestion ahead. The air conditioning was broken, so the cab was sweltering. Mr. Marong’s seat belt was broken, which meant the seat-belt reminder signal went off loudly — bongbongbongbongbongbong — just when he was trying to concentrate most (state law says seat belt use is not compulsory in cabs).
He had almost decided to sleep in when the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. having been told to arrive at the taxi lot no later than 5 a.m. “But I thought no, I have to try,” Mr. Marong explained. Since leaving DHL, he had not been able to find a decent job, “at least not one that matched my qualifications.”
In Gambia, Mr. Momadou was a lawyer and a captain in the military, and then after a coup d’etat, he was imprisoned for two years. After being granted political asylum to the United States, he spent a year studying law at Howard University. He recently took the bar exam and is waiting for results, but in the meantime, he owes back rent on the room he rents at a house in the Morrisania neighborhood.
LIKE so many others, Mr. Marong is in a waiting game — waiting out the recession, for his luck to turn. And like so many others, he’s finding that these times challenge even his considerable resourcefulness: when every one else’s last resorts are the same, those last resorts may pay even less than they would have back when they seemed extreme.
By day’s end, Mr. Marong had cleared $50. He had had his first taste of the F.D.R. and laid eyes on Lincoln Center (“Lincoln Center! Oh! Yes, Columbus and Amsterdam between 62nd and 65th!”). He’d heard exasperated sighing in the back seat and active encouragement from big tippers.
About 2 p.m., Mr. Marong was on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 42nd Streets, surrounded by a sea of other yellow cabs, all of them with lighted vacant signs. He looked, frankly, as if he might be stuck there forever, along with everyone else idling without a fare. Then, mysteriously, the way cleared, and he surged forward, in search of whatever would come next.