I’m not a waiter. I don’t live on tips. But I sure do appreciate them. Usually, if I get a really nice tip, I’ll blow it on a really nice meal before the shift is over. Even if its a slow night in general, one good tip can convince me to go for a $12 pastrami sandwich instead of a $2 falafel. The other night, I got an unexpected $7 tip from a moody Frenchman, so I bought $22 worth of shrimp cocktails and raw oysters at Blue Ribbon instead of $2 worth of pizza at Joe’s. I know the math doesn’t add up, but I tend to seize any opportunity to splurge on food.
As a rule, your cabbie will expect at least a couple extra bucks if he does anything out of the ordinary for you such as waiting for more than a minute while your special lady friend runs upstairs to get her toothbrush on the way to your place. And a handsome gratuity generally follows if you say “step on it,” and your cabbie gets you where you’re going extremely quickly.
So I was anticipating a windfall last night when I picked up a couple on the west side who opted for me rather than an ambulance. The tall blond was propping up her slumping husband when she hailed me, and when she rolled him into the back seat I could hear his belabored, gasping breaths. “We need New York Presbyterian Hosptial, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!!” she basically shouted.
I’ve taken people to the hospital in a hurry before, and it is a pure adrenaline rush akin to sky diving. The last time I did it, I was a sweaty mess by the time we pulled up to the ER doors, and once they rushed out of the cab, I pumped my fist and shouted like I’d just won Fear Factor. Actually, I’ve always harbored a desire to be an ambulance driver, and I considered working for the International Committee of the Red Cross or the FDNY (but I get sick when I even THINK about broken bones, so I ruled it out). I actually live for those rare emergency fares.
As I racked up the traffic violations on my way to the West Side Highway, I suggested that I take them to one of a number of closer hospitals. “His surgeon is waiting for him at New York Presbyterian,” the woman sputtered. She seemed like she was out of breath as well. I put in my comforting “Songs to Help Me Sleep” mix as we waited for the light to change at the highway, and I offered him a sip of my Arizona Green Tea with Ginsing (she respectfully declined for him).
I think I got his heart pumping again as I weaved sharply through the highway traffic with the pedal to the floor. It was a liberating feeling to push my 2001 Crown Victoria with 219,187 miles on it to speeds near 100. It wasn’t just because driving fast is exciting, it was because I knew that if a cop stopped me, we’d just end up with a police escort, and that would be the sweetest thing of all time.
But we didn’t pass a cop. And I might have pushed it a little too hard, because as we exited the highway, we skidded past our turn on the slick asphalt. I had to throw it into reverse once we came to a stop, reassure my frightened passengers that everything was okay, and make the right onto 138th Street. I could hear that the man was breathing easier. I don’t know if it was the chill Lou Reed song or his kick start of adrenaline.
We pulled up in front of the hospital in record time, and, sure enough, there was a stretcher and a surgeon waiting at the door. Call me a lousy cold-hearted bastard, but I was expecting a huge tip.
Instead, I got $2.40. And not only did I get $2.40, but the woman WAITED while I got her $10 in change for the 2 twenties she gave me on the $27.60 meter. She WAITED, while her husband sat beside her (admittedly he was no longer gasping for air). Why not just give me the $12 and get a move on? She thanked me multiple times for rushing, even after we skidded 15 feet.
The overwhelmingly emotion was dejection. It was like a kick to the gut. I wouldn’t expect a tip if I were an ambulance driver, but I’m not one. And she even said, “We were gonna wait for an ambulance, but I figured it’d be faster to grab a taxi, and I was right.” I guess I did my civic duty, but isn’t it her duty as a fellow human to show her gratitude with something other than “thanks”? The $2.40 was just insulting.
My escargot at Florent disappeared with them as they passed through the swinging double doors. But I was in Washington Heights with almost $3 burning a hole in my pocket, so I made my way up another 10 blocks to Mambi’s for my favorite Cuban sandwich.
I found Mambi’s early on in my career as a cabbie, and I return any time I’m above 155th Street and don’t want to spend more than $3 on dinner. Last night, my heart still pounding from both the excitement and the disappointment, I walked up to the bar and ordered a cubano.
My one issue with Mambi’s is that they almost never put pickles on their cubanos. If you sell a cubano without any pickles, it’s just a ham and cheese sandwich in my book. And last night they did it again. Even though I asked them, in Spanish no less, for pickles, once I unwrapped it while I was on the road back downtown, I found it to be pickleless.
Still, a Mambi’s ham and cheese sandwich is utterly delicious. Two kinds of ham and fully melted cheese on a pressed sandwich is amazing even without the pickles. The Mambi cubano is spread with a strong garlic mayo that gives it a flavor like no other in Washington Heights. My belly was completely satisfied. But next time I take a fare to the emergency room at break neck speeds, I want to eat a 1492 Sampler at Victor’s Cafe.
Mambi’s, Broadway and 177th Street, Washington Heights, Manhattan
(El Duque is a real Cuban, an he likes Mambis! He pitched a gem last night. The Yankees should never have gotten rid of him. Neither should have the White Sox)
Visit www.famousfatdave.com for a smile or to book an eating tour
May is National Hamburger Month, and the burger-lovers at A Hamburger Today requested that I compile a “Best Of” list for the occasion. Since I call myself both Famous Fat Dave and The Hungry Cabbie, I thought I might transform “AHamburgerToday” into “ThreeHamburgersToday” for this exercise. So I spent an entire shift in the yellow cab searching for good New York burgers. I ate one for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner. And here you have it: The Hungry Cabbie’s picks for “Best Three Hamburgers” of the day, as recommended by my fares.
My first fare of the day, at 5:15 pm when traffic is at its worst, was a New Jersey soccer mom rushing home to pick up her kids. She asked if I would take her through the Lincoln Tunnel to Clifton, New Jersey. This is a fare that is incredibly time-consuming, and it is not required by law that I go to New Jersey (unless it is to Newark Airport). Usually when people request it, I decline and tell them NJ Transit would be faster.
However, I had already decided to go where the day took me and let fate decide which burgers would reach my eager belly. So I took her. And when I told her that I was really in the mood for a burger, she said there were a couple local places, but she couldn’t think of one tastier than the Red Robin Bacon Cheeseburger with onion straws at The Red Robin.
The Red Robin is a national chain along the lines of T.G.I.Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday’s, but not so obnoxious. I’d never heard of it much less been to one, but, apparently, I had been missing out. They have 25 different kinds of burgers, bottomless fountain drinks, and all-u-can-eat steak fries. Happy memories of Fuddruckers burger feasts on summer Saturdays after swim meets came rushing back to me, and I made my way there with a wide smile of anticipation on my face.
Although I could see the Empire State Building from the edge of the parking lot on Route 3, the Red Robin felt decidedly suburban. There was the teenage hostess who clearly said the same exact thing to everyone, the New Jersey radio station playing only the whitest hits, and the customers wearing fleeces and jean shorts. It seemed like middle America.
When my burger came my mouth began to water, and not just because it was 6 pm and I hadn’t eaten yet. It looked beautiful. It was big, but not overwhelming. It was loaded with toppings, but the burger was clearly the star.
And once I took a bite, I felt beautiful. The salty onion rings that came piled onto the bottom bun were a perfect complement to the hickory maple-smoked bacon and juicy burger. I had taken a chance on the suburbs, and it had paid off in a big way. My first burger of the day was a resounding success.
(Kicking off my shift right with my first bite of burger)
Getting back into the city, however, was a nightmare. I sat in traffic for over an hour, affording me time take in some great views of the skyline:
but killing any chance I had to make good money on the shift. By the time I got back, the rush hour was long over, and fares were scarce.
After a few fares who had no clue as to where to find a good burger, I picked up a glowingly happy couple on their way to a Broadway show. They were from Australia, Tasmania to be exact, and they were honeymooning for six months in America. They had come through Hawaii, California, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Florida, and Washington, and they were nearing the end of their trip here in New York.
I assumed they wouldn’t know any burger place since they were just tourists, but I asked them anyway. Thank God I did. They told me that every Australian in New York, whether living here or just passing through, goes to Ruby’s on Mulberry Street. Owned by a couple of expatriate Aussies, Ruby’s serves fantastic burgers and great coffee as well. They told me they’d been looking forward to a meal at Ruby’s their entire honeymoon, and when they made it there, they were not disappointed.
(You could tell this guy is a real Aussie by his accent and his smile)
Once I drove back downtown, I took their advice and ordered a “Whaley’s.” It came on baguette-like bread with a fried egg, pineapple, and beets (apparently, Aussies all grow up eating beets). I was skeptical, about the beets in particular, but the moment I took my first bite I was consumed with that rare feeling I get when I taste something so delicious that I get angry with myself for not having eaten it before.
The ground beef was so tasty that not only did my saliva glands switch into overdrive, but my tear ducts began to work. I can honestly say that the “Whaley’s” burger brought me to tears. The fried egg was genius, and the beets made me a believer. My only complaint was that the burger patty was smaller than the bread, leaving the last couple bites meatless.
The cappuccino made up for this one small negative though. I am not a coffee drinker because I’m worried about getting addicted to the caffeine, but Ruby’s coffee was so good it made me reconsider my lifestyle.
For the rest of the night, I couldn’t get a recommendation out of anyone. I started to think I’d failed my ThreeHamburgersToday adventure when I saw it was 2 am and the streets were growing desolate. I considered quitting and just going to Corner Bistro because I was hungry again. On my way crosstown, I was hailed on Christopher Street and Bleeker by a Dominican transvestite hooker and her pimp. They told me to go to Washington Heights, but we immediately got stuck in a traffic jam on Christopher Street.
At that point, a bunch of transvestite hookers recognized my fares and came over to chat with them at the backseat window. One of them, seemingly the queen bee, caught my eye and stood up from the window. She announced loudly, in a comically, Rosie Perez-esque accent, “LOOK AT THE CUTE WHITE CAB DRIVAUH. . . mmm, mmm, mmm, mmMM, MMMMM! You guuuuys. Oooooooh girls. Look at the CUTE WHITE CAB DRIVAUUUH!” I waved hello to the group.
She leaned into the frontseat window and asked, “Do you like girls? I’m a girl. Do you like me?” The traffic jam let up at that moment, and she rapidly said, “My name is Angelina, my number is 6464966540, I HAVE A PUSSY,” at which point she stood up and hoisted her camel-toed crotch onto the window sill to prove that she didn’t have a penis (unlike, presumably, the others in the group).
I can’t say that got me in the mood for another hamburger, but it did create a friendly rapport between me and my transvestite fare. I asked her if there was any place for a burger in her neighborhood at that hour, and she told me to get a chimichurri at the Dominican pork truck on 155th Street and Broadway. “Actually, I think I want one too,” she said.
So there I was, waiting in line with a transvestite hooker and her pimp at the Dominican pork truck in Washington Heights. I thought to myself, it’s moments like this that remind me how much I love driving a yellow cab.
The pimp bought me a $3 chimichurri as my tip, and I was very thankful. They told me everyone up in Washington Heights eat “chimis” late night, kind of the way people downtown get a slice of pizza. The crowd on the sidewalk was boisterous and rowdy, and my presence did not go unnoticed. But I wasn’t nervous because the pimp was with me (rather I was with the pimp), and I figured he wouldn’t let anything happen to me.
(The chimi lady liked me too)
My chimi was incredible. It was actually reminiscent of the Ruby’s burger in that it came on long bread rather than a bun and the meat was much more flavorful than your average ground beef. But whereas Ruby’s meat tasted so good because it was extremely high quality, the chimi was so tasty because they seasoned the low quality meat beyond recognition.
My Spanish isn’t particularly good, but I’m pretty sure it was beef and I’m positive they offered a chicken option (as did Ruby’s). I watched as she pressed it on the grill and loaded it with chopped red onions and shredded cabbage. But the defining characteristic was the sauce, a combination of Russian dressing (giving it a vague Big Mac quality), ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce that all liquified during the heating process. It was a mess, but my chimi was absolutely delicious.
I bid my new friends farewell, and headed back to the garage. Pleased with myself just for finding three new burgers in one day, I crossed the 59th Street Bridge feeling groovy (and a little queasy).
Here’s wishing you and yours a healthy and happy National Hamburger Month. So go out and celebrate today with a hamburger (or three).
Check out http://www.ahamburgertoday.com for everything you ever wanted to know about burger but were afraid to ask
Red Robin, 265 State Route 3, Clifton, New Jersey
Ruby’s, Mulberry between Spring and Prince, Little Italy, Manhattan
Dominican Pork Truck, usually parked at 155th Street and Amsterdam, Washington Heights, Manhattan (there are many others)
Check out http://www.famousfatdave.com for a chuckle or to book an eating tour