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A new kid in New York

Blurred picture of 1970s NY cab driving at night Image copyright ALAMY

The London-based US journalist Michael Goldfarb originally planned an entirely different career - as an actor. But while he waited for his big break in New York in the 1970s, he worked as a cab-driver. To begin with it seemed like easy money.

In New York, the New Year begins in August.

In the eighth month - when it takes a hurricane to rustle the exhausted leaves on the trees in Central Park - the city is regenerated, a new life cycle begins.

The kids arrive. Whole brigades escaped from the suburbs, from the flat prairie towns, from the places where conformity is the gospel and hypocrisy the ethical code. The new kids come to be actors, dancers, writers, directors, artists - to work in the world of "look at me." They come to tell the artistic truth and, truth be told, have the kind of fun they could never have back home.

They joyfully take jobs as waiters and cab drivers certain this won't last, it's only temporary. They transmit that joy to their customers, to their friends, to everyone they meet. The jaded ones smile and keep quiet, they know better but perhaps had this feeling once themselves.

By Christmas the new kids will have grown the first sceptical, seen-it-all-before New York lines in their faces. But in August that future is not known, not even suspected.

I know this because in the August of 1975 I was one of these new kids. Against all advice, I had returned to the city to be an actor. An earlier attempt had to be aborted - when a job offer with a real salary in public relations had been obtained through a friend of my family's. I had given it a year, and concluded that public relations was not my path in life. Neither was law school, neither was doing a doctorate in history and spending my life in academia.

With an energy and self-belief I no longer possess I arrived in the city and in a matter of days had rented a three-bedroom flat. It was a floor-through - the whole floor of a building - on Twelfth Street just off Third Avenue for a mere $300 a month. The plan was to share with some old university friends. I gave the landlord first and last month's rent, moved in and presented myself for shape-up at Dover Garage on the corner of Hudson and Charles Streets about a mile west, on the other side of Greenwich Village.

Image caption The actor's life: driving a cab and posing everywhere... posing here while propping up the Cedar Tavern bar

All young artists coming to the city face a pragmatic choice: how to earn a living and still have time to pursue your art. Back then it usually boiled down to waiting on tables or driving a cab. I had made that decision on my earlier attempt to work in the theatre. I chose the cab because, first, I love driving and hate standing up for long-periods of time and secondly, your hours were your own. Once you had the car, you could drive to a rehearsal, rehearse and then go back to work.

Entry-level requirements were minimal. A clean New York state driver's licence and passing a written test with such gruelling questions as, "Where is the Empire State building?" (You do know, don't you?) And "Which avenues run one-way uptown and which run one-way downtown?" (Amsterdam is up, Columbus is down.)

You had to find a garage to sponsor you. Dover was closest to where I lived. The interview went something like this, "Do you like to work, Goldfarb?" Yes. "Day shift or night shift?" Night shift. "OK then. Come in next Monday for shape-up."

Image copyright Getty Images

So I did. I handed my hack licence up to the dispatcher, waited for my name to be called. After an hour or two it was. I went back to the dispatcher's window, and was handed my licence back along with a trip sheet. "You know how to fill this out?" Yeah. "Fill it out right."

The trip sheet was crucial. We had to note where we picked up each fare and where we dropped them off. It let the boss double check our takings - of which he got more than half - and let the cops check what we were doing as well, if they had to - or if we got robbed. There were around 1,900 cab robberies a year in the mid-70s.

I walked over to the petrol pump where the last drops of fuel were being put into the cab - a Dodge. Pushed down the new-job nerves and drove up the ramp to Charles Street turned left - the only way you could turn - and before I could organise my change or find my pen to fill in the trip sheet, right on the corner of Charles and Hudson, someone got in, gave me an address uptown, and I was off. This was going to be easy money.

The late afternoon light, orange sun reflecting on brown brick, gave way to evening, a purple mixture of neon and natural light, and then indigo and neon as night descended, and I was just a pinball bouncing around the city, filling in my trip sheet. Hudson to Seventeenth and Fifth, Eighteenth and Sixth to Forty-ninth and Sixth (never ever call Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas when you're talking to me - I don't care that they renamed it, that's another city they're talking about), then back downtown, a long call to the upper East Side, maybe 25 trips entered.

My cut was 43% of the meter. I could keep my tips. Just before we took our tests, the guy at the testing place had said, "No better feeling in the world then at the end of a shift when you feel those tips jingling in your pocket."

He had a point.

Image copyright Getty Images

The self-belief that got me housed and employed in under a week carried into my first steps towards an acting career: had photos done, made rounds - a fancy way of saying I wandered the corridors of buildings that no longer exist, knocking on agents' doors and, if they opened, handing them my headshots, sliding them under the door if they didn't. I signed on with an answering service, a professional phone number where other unemployed actors took messages for you. I bought the trade papers to find out about auditions … and at no time in this process did I feel the inherent humiliation. I was one of the new kids, happy just to be doing this.

In less than three weeks I had a message at my service. I had been offered a part in an off-off Broadway Equity showcase - no pay but sanctioned by the actors' union - a cut-down version of As You Like It, called Like It. It was a small part, the smallest in the play. But Shakespeare specialises in one-scene wonders that stop the show, get a laugh, and linger in the audience's memory. And a showcase was about that as much as the art. Getting someone to remember you.

One joy fed another. Shape-up could last more than an hour. Didn't bother me. Some nights the tips weren't so good. So what? I made my rent in the first work week of the month, the rest was gravy. This was the life I wanted and I had a part in a play.

The city was mine as I cruised through it. I possessed it like a lover, learned its rhythms, knew where to be and at what time to get a good fare, knew when to avoid Eighth Avenue and ride the sequenced lights up Tenth. Mastered the rear-view mirror - eye-contact with passenger, psychological assessment - and tailored my conversation accordingly: philosophy, flirtation, or silence. I learned the basic rule of New York's anarchic streets: what's in front of you is your responsibility, what's behind you don't worry about it - not your business.

Image copyright Getty Images

And, I was able to time my shift to get to rehearsal at the performance space above a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue in the 60's, a couple of blocks north of Bloomingdale's.

The mid-70's was the era of Shakespeare re-interpretation. We had all read Peter Brook's The Empty Space and agreed with his critique of "deadly theatre". Re-make Shakespeare for today, give it life! His plays were turned into musicals. They were chopped and changed to make contemporary political points and Like It was a feminist re-interpretation of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy. It focused on the Rosalind-Celia friendship. To do this it effectively cut most of the scenes with Orlando and his wicked brother Oliver out of the play - hence the chopped down title.

The production had been put together by the Coven - a group of women who appeared in one of the popular daytime soap operas. They wanted to be taken more seriously as actors - that's why they were doing Shakespeare. The men in the cast were happy to ride the actresses' coat-tails knowing that soap-opera casting directors from the networks would doubtless be turning up.

I didn't have to rehearse much. My character, William, only had the one scene - a rustic, he finds his true love Sylvia cavorting with the clown Touchstone and, after allowing himself to be verbally humiliated, leaves Sylvia to her jester. Oh, the laughter and the pathos! I milked that scene for all of it.

By October I was discovering the cab driver's life wasn't as carefree as all that. The cost of gas had gone through the roof over the two years since the Arab Oil embargo. Excessive empty cruising could jeopardise your gig. Gerry Cunningham owned Dover's fleet of 105 cabs (plus a few in some stage or other of repair) and he and his minions could look at your trip sheet and check it against how much gas went into the tank after your shift, and get on your back if you rode around empty too much.

To get the job I had to agree to work shifts no-one else wanted, the slow nights, Sunday and Monday. Monday was especially grim. The streets emptied after rush hour - actually they were pretty empty of fares during rush hour, as if the whole of solvent Manhattan had a collective fit of guilt over how much money they had spent during the weekend and decided to save a few bucks and ride the subway home.

Image copyright AP

The pressure on a Monday when I was rehearsing was intense. I had to make a good start on my night's bookings since I was going to lose a few hours in the middle of my shift.

I had a call - that's what we called a trip - that took me way up the Upper East Side. When I dropped the person off I slipped over to Fifth Avenue around 100th Street and started to slide downtown. The lights are well-timed on Fifth and when traffic is Monday night light you can make time - green lights all the way. I got into the flow, always looking to my left under the awnings for the tell-tale sign of the doorman starting to stride towards the kerb to hail a cab. Nothing. On the corners, pedestrians - not even looking up. As I slid further down the avenue more and more cabs - empty - swung in from the side streets. Yellow platelets clogging up the richest artery in the world.

I was way behind on my booking for the night and needed something … now. The great hotels around the Grand Army Plaza - Pierre, the Sherry-Netherland, the Plaza itself - bound to be something there. Nothing. Down through the fifties the forties, the thirties - the great department stores were closed. Past the Empire State Building - corner of Thirty-fourth and Fifth, but you knew that - a couple of cabs ahead of me got business - nothing for me. Eighty blocks empty going down Fifth - I'm in trouble. At Twenty-third Street, a major cross-town block, hang a right, meaning head west. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING. In anger I started to speed up and nearly missed a couple standing in front of the Chelsea Hotel flagging me down even though I was going in the wrong direction. Twenty-third Street was Monday-empty as well. I slammed on the brakes made a wide-angle U-turn and picked them up.

The man gave me an address on First Avenue in the 60's. A decent trip for a Monday night and it would leave me just a few blocks from the theatre. I started east along Twenty-third to First.

I was still boiling from the long empty cruise and didn't start my rear-view mirror passenger assessment straightaway. When I did I saw an elfin, bald, middle-aged man, close-cropped crown of flimsy white hair, and a stunningly beautiful woman, dark hair, dark eyes. They were speaking in low voices in French - I eavesdropped a bit trying to figure out the relationship - he was old enough to be her father but there was something else going on. They were giggling,

We made eye contact directly, via the mirror, and he asked in an English accent, "Are you an actor?" I still had that new-kid glow and from time to time fares asked me that. "Yes," I said. "In fact when I drop you off I'm going to rehearsal."

Image copyright Thinkstock

"What are you rehearsing?" As You Like It. A nod of appreciation. "What part?" Oh, you wouldn't know it, it's a very small part. "I might." William … and here, the man told me everything about the part, the number of the act and scene in which I appeared and so on. You're very knowledgeable. do you work in the theatre? The young French woman giggled again and gave him a nudge in his little round belly. "Yes." And what do you do? "I'm a director." Oh, what's your name?

"Brook."

A beat.

Peter Brook?

He nodded. We were now zooming up First Avenue the lights showing green for 20 blocks. I couldn't let this opportunity get away. "Mr Brook, look are you in a hurry? I could drive you around for a while and do my audition pieces for you." (All actors keep a half a dozen Shakespeare speeches polished and ready for auditions - I was thinking my Caliban would work a treat for him but couldn't think how to drive safely while transforming myself into a hunchbacked, duck-walking monster.) I was frantic and serious and I must have seemed very funny because the two of them were laughing - not at me but at the comic performance.

Peter Brook politely declined, gave me a nice tip and wished me luck. He had an "only in New York" story to take back to Paris with him - and I had the first of dozens of near misses.

Image copyright Getty Images

Like It was a hit. We had a big review in the Village Voice and the tiny theatre instantly sold out. The fellow playing Oliver had another job to go to so I was given the part - and kept the part of William as well. This meant I played the William scene, exited up the theatre aisle in one costume and almost immediately entered down the same aisle in a different character and costume. Everyone who saw my double act loved it.

Unfortunately, none of them were casting directors.

We closed in mid-November. Weeks went by and there were no messages at my answering service. I drove and drove and the realisation came, I would be driving for quite a while yet. I wasn't a new kid any more.

Michael Goldfarb writes and presents Trip Sheets as part of Radio 3's The Essay series, on Monday 29 September at 22:45 BST - or catch up on BBC iPlayerHe is a former London bureau chief for National Public Radio, and the author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.

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