I first went to New York in the late 1980s. I was the singer in an indie band and we were doing a small East Coast tour. We played the legendary CBGB's and several colleges. Back then New York was dangerous and exciting. It's still great but things have changed. CBGB's is now a boutique store and the only way I'd get mugged is by the stupid prices in nearby, trendy SoHo.
The most noticeable change is the New York cab. Back in the day, should you be lucky enough to get one to stop, you would find yourself sealed into an almost airtight container on the bench seat in the back. There would be a bullet-proof barrier between you and the driver that would render communication impossible. This didn't really matter because the driver was normally a gentleman who had arrived in the United States three days earlier, spoke no English and had learned to drive while bullet-dodging in Kabul. Despite New York's grid system making it perhaps the easiest city in the world in which to find an address, the late 1980s cabbie would get increasingly lost and eventually deposit you somewhere north of Harlem having charged you for indeterminate toll fees.
Today's New York cabbie is different. First, the fear of armed assault seems to have eased and you are even allowed to sit in the passenger seat. Second, they all speak excellent English – in fact they can't stop speaking it.
I had at least three cabbies constantly correct every statement that I made to my kids in the back until I just gave up and sat in a sulky silence. This was a big mistake as they took my silence for an inquiry into every aspect of their lives. Most popular would be "Are you from the UK? All my family is in the UK. They are doctors and lawyers. I have two houses in Luton." One was a big fan of Imran Khan, produced a large mobile phone and started trying to tune into Pakistani television to show me the live demo in Islamabad. This wouldn't have been too bad if he hadn't been hurtling up 6th Avenue at 70 miles an hour at the same time.
My favourite, however, was the driver who asked me if I liked Indian music? I nodded non-committedly and he slammed in a CD of a woman wailing vaguely melodically. "THIS IS MY DAUGHTER. SHE IS BIG BOLLYWOOD STAR!!" He screamed over the eardrum-shattering noise. "SHE IS VERY RICH WOMAN!!" When he eventually turned it down I asked him why he was still a New York cabbie? Didn't he want to live in India and be looked after by his rich daughter?
"No, the food there is bloody awful, makes me very sick. I am now too used to Western crap, rubbish food." I nodded sympathetically and pointed out my hotel, an Upper East Side boutique establishment. "Why you stay here?" He asked. "This is rubbish hotel." I tried to exit but he wasn't having it. "I take you to proper hotel, they know my daughter, give you great rates." He finally let me go, after trying to charge me for an "Uptown toll." Thankfully, some things never change.