Manhattan transfer: New York by cabbie

A new book by one of the Big Apple's legion of yellow-cab drivers reveals a close-up view of life on the city's streets. Sophie Lam goes along for the ride

There was a time in London, not so long ago, when you would hail a taxi and ask to go to the other side of the Thames, only to be refused with a curt, "I'm not going south of the river". It wasn't worth the risk of delving into the deep unknown and schlepping back north without a hope of picking up a return fare.

The same could have been said of New York City when asking a yellow-cab driver to cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. No longer. Not only are neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and BoCoCa (Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens) drawing Manhattanites and visitors east with their speakeasy-style bars, farm-to-fork restaurants and one-off boutiques, but it's also now against the rules for a New York cab driver to refuse a fare. So when I meet Gene Salomon, a New York-based and bred taxi driver, I can only send him in one direction: "To Brooklyn please."

Gene, one of New York's 40,000 taxi drivers, has just published his memoirs, Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver, bursting with anecdotes from a 36-year career that spans hitmen and heart attacks, via Paul Simon, Norman Mailer, a llama and a coyote. He hands me his card (yellow, of course). It reads: "More stories [sic] than the Empire State Building." The ubiquitous canary-yellow New York taxicab is as singular an icon as the 102-storey Art Deco skyscraper itself, its image immortalised on film by Robert de Niro's portrayal of the unhinged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Gene rolls his eyes, "I hate that film") and in countless other "follow that cab!" celluloid scenes.

More than just an icon, they're woven into the fabric of everyday life. Manhattan, just 13 miles by two, is a sardine tin – there's barely enough room for the 1.5 million inhabitants, 1.6 million commuters and one million daily tourists amid the tightly packed skyscrapers, so private cars can forget it. Taxis are relatively affordable and you rarely have trouble hailing one.

I flag Gene down outside the W Downtown hotel, a new soaring addition to the shifting Ground Zero landscape. As I settle into the front passenger seat of the classic Ford Crown Victoria (it's not even three years old and there are 191,000 miles on the clock) that Gene leases from one of New York's 30 or so taxi garages, he points to a Greek revival-style Roman Catholic church across the street.

St Peter's dates back to the mid-19th century and is incongruously stately among the glass and steel of the Financial District. "It's one of my favourite landmarks," he tells me, and motions to a modest tombstone in the graveyard outside. It's the resting place of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It's now dwarfed by all that surrounds it.

Gene and his peers probably know the city better than anyone else. While commuters duck into offices, Subway train drivers channel underground, tourists gawp skywards and residents look down at their smartphones, it's the taxi driver who plies the streets everyday. We pass a sidestreet and he laughs. "See that street? I dropped a passenger down there the other day and it was the first time I'd ever driven down it. I couldn't believe it!"

We approach the Brooklyn Bridge. "By 1995 I became aware of an ominous trend which had seeped into the trade. People started to get into by cab... and tell me they wanted to go to some destination in Brooklyn on the expectation that I would actually be willing to take them there," Gene retorts in his book. As we cross the bridge and exit on the "wrong" side of the East River, we're in the second most expensive place to live in the United States and – if it was a separate city rather than one of New York's five boroughs – the nation's fourth biggest.

"Its proper name is Kings County, in honour of King Charles II; Queens, above it, was in honour of his wife," Gene informs me. In Brooklyn Heights, we're surrounded by Italianate brownstone homes, low-rise gothic and Greek revival houses and 19th-century mansions. We stop at a typically elegant junction near the river and Gene tells me to get out and walk to the riverside promenade. The view opens up to reveal downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge in magnificent high-rise vision.

Further north in Dumbo, he stops at a cobbled dead-end, streaked with antiquated trolleycar tracks, at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Here, I get a different aspect of the monster Manhattan vista, this time with the fairytale addition of a pristine 19th-century carousel encased in a glass pavilion, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. Well-circulated images of the glass cube surrounded by flood water during Hurricane Sandy became a metaphor for the city's resilient spirit.

We loop down to the riverside neighbourhood of Red Hook. Unlike Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo there is no Subway, so gentrification has yet to take hold in this part of the borough. Gene scans the broad roads for his secret turning, then drops right to reach Valentino Pier.

There's nobody around, so we park by a row of warehouses under a no-parking sign, then walk to the end of the pier. Right in front of us across Upper Bay is the Statue of Liberty, her right arm held aloft towards us. This is the only point in New York City where you'll get a full front-on view of her, as she salutes France, which gifted her to the city. Behind is Staten Island, which Gene jokes was named "when the Dutch arrived by boat and one mariner asked, 's'that an island?'"

Gene takes the Ocean Parkway south to Coney Island, a five-mile boulevard to the Atlantic which he describes in his book, driving a man he calls "Joe Cool" accompanied by two "gorgeous chicks" on a similarly rainy ride. The passenger was cool and cocky, until the girls were dropped off and he and Gene came across an out-of-control car spinning towards them in the wrong direction, at which point Joe Cool becomes Joe Terrified and hugs Gene for dear life while screaming "Whooooa".

Happily, our ride to the sorry-looking boardwalk is less eventful. The hammering rain seems to have driven all human life away from the amusement park, but Hurricane Sandy has afflicted it with an even more forlorn air. As a token of the devastation, Nathan's Famous Frankfurters, home to the renowned annual hot dog eating contest and normally busy year-round, is boarded up for rebuilding.

On the way back to Manhattan, we travel through Brighton Beach, a Russian neighbourhood full of cyrillic shop and restaurant signs, then Borough Park where the pavements are almost exclusively roamed by orthodox Jews, one of the largest communities outside Israel. In Williamsburg, the hipster takes centre stage.

Not content to stop at Brooklyn, Gene calls my bluff. The Newtown Creek separates us from Queens, which we cross via the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Here, in Long Island City, is the magnificent old Silvercup bakery, its huge vintage sign still in place with "Studios" affixed beneath it. Gene, who now lives in New Jersey, takes great delight in telling me that this is where the interiors scenes from The Sopranos were filmed.

We continue back towards Manhattan. Brooklyn Bridge might be New York's most iconic river crossing, but it's the 59th Street Bridge that delivers the most rousing views of the city and is Gene's bridge of choice when ferrying first-time visitors to the city. "I'll always take the upper level to get the best view," he tells me. From the approach, the forest of skyscrapers seems almost impossibly tightly packed, then as you get closer, the Art Deco Chrysler building pops up and all of a sudden, you're inside it. And in a yellow taxi, too. New York doesn't get much more iconic than that.

'Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver' by Eugene Salomon is published by The Friday Project, £7.99

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer flew with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310;, which flies from Heathrow to both JFK and Newark. British Airways (0844 493 0787; operates the same routes. Delta (0871 221 1222; flies from Heathrow to JFK; American Airlines (0844 499 7300; from Heathrow and Manchester to JFK; and United (0845 607 6760; from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester to Newark.

Staying there

W Downtown, 123 Washington Street (001 646 826 8600; Doubles from $169 (£106)

Visiting there

Brooklyn Heights Promenade:



More information

Gene Salomon's

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Coordinator

    £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum cares for one of the largest...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PSV Coach & Minibus Drivers

    £12500 - £24500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Drivers wanted for a family run...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager (FP&A) - Surrey - £45,000

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful leisure company is seek...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionist, Bar and Waiter / Waitress & Housekeeping

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The positions above are available either part ...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash