My first shift driving a yellow cab in New York was a Saturday in 2004. When I headed over the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan early that morning, it was still dark out. And though most of my memory from that first day on the job is dim, a few passengers stand out vividly, like the couple I picked up in Gramercy Park. They were in their early 30s, well dressed, and holding hands.
"Boyfriend and girlfriend," I thought. "Probably going to brunch."
I was already trying to "read" people, a skill some cabbies develop over the course of their careers, but I was delusional to think I knew anything that first day. When this couple got in, their destination told a very different story.
"Ground Zero, please."
"Oh right, of course. It's Sept. 11."
The date had been in the back of my mind all morning, but this brought it up to the front seat. As they settled into the cab, I remembered how, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was on my way to work in an office downtown. I got on the subway but, after a few minutes, the train stopped in the tunnel and didn't move again for nearly two hours.
Everyone on the train was clueless about what was going on above ground. We knew one plane had hit the World Trade Center, but we all somehow agreed that it must've been a freak accident. We grumbled and complained about the train delay, but no one panicked.
When we were finally evacuated around 11 a.m., I was shocked by the total insanity on the streets. There were cops yelling, sirens screaming, and lines of people waiting to use the payphone. What struck me the most, though, were the crowds that were standing around parked cars, listening to the news on the radio. It all felt apocalyptic. And when I looked down Fifth Avenue, the view was unreal. Twenty-five blocks away, there was only smoke where the towers should've been.
Three years later, on a placid Saturday morning in a cab, it still didn't seem quite real. But I realized as I drove that I was taking this couple to the memorial service marking the third anniversary of the worst day in the city's history, and they were going there to mourn their dead.
I pulled back into traffic and felt like a trusted chauffeur on an important assignment. They were quiet the whole way there, and in my rearview mirror I could see them looking out the window at the city as we passed through it. I lowered the radio and tried to make their ride as smooth as possible.
I delivered them as close to the site as I could get, coming up against all sorts of security boundaries and cement blockades that had been set up over the previous three years. Any other cabbie would've already known about these, but I was brand new, and I was afraid this was going to annoy or upset my passengers somehow.
They didn't care. In fact, when they got out of the cab, they thanked me warmly. It was a 10-minute ride over two tiny miles in Manhattan, but as I watched them walk away, I felt like I had given something back to the city somehow, by driving that taxi on that day.
And now, on the sixth anniversary of the attacks, and three years after that first shift driving a cab, I know all too well how to get to Ground Zero.
Melissa Plaut is the author of Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab.