I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised. The weather was beautiful — the Pope was scheduled to arrive that weekend, and his advance team had obviously used his considerable connections to chase away the rain and cold and bring in temperatures in the 70s — so rather than hail a cab, I decided to walk the mile from Penn Station to my hotel, over on 52nd Street and Madison Avenue.
I was staying at the Omni Berkshire — a hotel that would normally be so far beyond my means that it would be all I could do to press my nose against the glass and look so forlorn that perhaps some symapthetic millionaire would take mercy on me — but I had lucked into an astonishingly reasonable rate, and strode into the place and checked in like I had never stayed anywhere else. I even authoritatively grabbed an apple from a nearby bowl as I walked to the elevator, then looked around to see if anyone was going to say anything about it. To my disappointment, no one had even noticed me owning the place with such decisiveness. Darn it.
I spent most of the afternoon just watching and wandering, and even lounged around in the room for a while (I figure if I’ve paid for it, I’m using it). I read for a while, then stood at my eighth floor window watching the people coming and going down on 52nd street (with Billy Joel providing a soundtrack for them in my head) — and all the while I was casually watching the bedside clock until it was time for me to start getting ready to change for my event. I was planning to start changing for my 6:00 p.m. talk at 4:30 or so, then catching a cab in front of the hotel at around 5:00. As I closed the blinds on my window, I just happened to glance at my watch and realized the clock in the room was thirty minutes slow. It wasn’t 4:30; it was already slightly after 5:00 p.m.
Now, understand that when it comes to arriving some place on time, I am the world’s biggest pain in the ass. If I have to be somewhere by 6:00 p.m., chances are good that I’d like to leave at 4:00 p.m., just in case weather, accident, or Godzilla attack impede my normal progress toward my destination. In most cases, it means I arrive an hour before I really need to be there; at other times, it’s paid off in spades, as I’ve hit a major traffic snarl on the DC beltway, and still made a train or airplane with room to spare. Right now, however, I was in a panic. I hadn’t changed — forget showering at this point — and it was Friday rush hour in New York City.
I dressed quickly, grabbed my briefcase containing my speech and my well-thumbed book, then sprinted out the front door of the hotel to hail a cab. Unfortunately, no cab traffic was moving on 52nd Street. The bellman regarded me with a shrug — “Rush hour, man,” he told me. “Maybe you’ll have better luck over on Fifth Avenue.”
I hustled over to Fifth, but things weren’t much better. Every cab that passed me was already occupied by passengers who seemed to look at me smugly as they went by. I briefly considered making a break for it on foot, but my destination was still 40 blocks away. Still, some progress was better than none, so I just started walking down Fifth Avenue, doing that crab-like walk where you’re looking sidelong for a cab while still moving in generally the direction you ultimately need to go.
Finally, one of those bike cabbies pulled up next to me and asked me in a thick voice where I was heading. “Forty-seven Fifth Avenue,” I told him — which, as I discovered later, was my first New York Rookie Error of the night.
“Hop in,” he told me, gesturing to the open back seat.
“How much?” I asked.
“Twenty bucks, flat rate,” he said. I now made my second rookie error of the night, and climbed into his cab seat. (“You’re the only person I know who’s actually ever taken one of those cabs,” my agent told me later, trying hard to ooze sympathy rather than sarcasm.)
Only minutes later, as we passed through Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, my cab driver asked me on which side of the street I wanted him to drop me off. As I looked at him stupidly, he pulled up on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. “Here we are!” he beamed.
As I learned later, one does not provide cab drivers with actual street addresses. My request to be taken to 47 Fifth Avenue had been translated by his cabbie brain as “47th and Fifth Avenue” — a destination only about five blocks from where I’d started. While I might have my fits of laziness, even I can walk five blocks.
“No, no, no!” I told the driver, “I need 47 Fifth Avenue. Four-seven. On Fifth. Not 47th and Fifth.”
“Oh,” came the response. That was it.
“How much, then?” I asked, knowing full well what was coming.
“Twenty bucks, flat rate.”
“Yes, but you didn’t take me to my destination,” I said with a slight edge in my voice that I hoped said Don’t f**k with me.
It didn’t. “It’s 20 just to get in,” he told me blankly. Useless.
“This is a bill of goods,” I said, and angrily handed him my money. He offered to hail a cab for me “to make up for it.” I told him I didn’t want him to miss any other scandalous opportunities and to be on his way. “Whatever,” he shrugged, and off he went, standing in his pedals as he chugged away, in search of new victims.
With a visible black cloud over me, I began the crab-walk again, and finally spotted a minivan cab dropping a family off in front of a hotel. I ran over just as he was flicking on his “Out of Service” light and stuck my head in his window. “Any chance I can get a ride straight down Fifth Avenue?” I asked.
“Where you going?” he asked, lifting his cap slightly and rubbing the top of his head, the universal sign for You’re Really Putting Me Out.
“Salmagundi Club, 47 Fifth Avenue,” I said, clearly articulating each word.
“Forty-seventh and Fifth?” he said, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the intersection behind us. “That’s right there.”
My hands slowly curled into fists.
To be continued…