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Last Tuesday, on the sixth anniversary of September 11, the West Village Barnes & Noble was packed with 40 or so seriously stylish downtown dykestattooed, pierced, donning asymmetrical hairdos and trucker hats. They slacked against the bookshelves and watched as one of their own, Melissa Plaut, former advertising writer turned cab driver, blogger, and novelist, read from her debut tome, Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab.
Plaut, an out lesbian, has been in demand since starting her popular blog New York Hack, detailing her experiences behind the wheel of a yellow cab, and has become something of a mouthpiece for all things cabbie, reading an essay on NPR's All Things Considered, doing interviews with Leonard Lopate and USA Todayeven writing an op-ed for The New York Times in support of the taxi strike earlier this month over the proposal to install credit-card and GPS tracking systems in local cabs.
"I don't feel like I am the best spokesperson," she says. "I've only been driving three years. There are plenty of cabbies who know far more about the industry and its ins and outs."
At the reading, her mother, members of her family, and her best friend Ariel Schrag (the basis for Allie in the book) sat in the front row and listened to her read a section about the complicated steps one must take to get a hack license.
Not surprisingly, there appeared to be a few hacks at the reading. And there was even a former passenger, a woman who worked across the street at the garage and took a ride home every day at four. "She's a good, steady customer and good tipper and a really nice lady," says Plaut.
Two of the hacks had read about her in the paper. They were both aspiring writers. One cabbie had a bald head, wore a bright orange shirt, and looked like Mr. Clean (though his name was Ton). "I'm a taxi driver in a small village in the Netherlands. Most of my passengers are not tourists or people who live in New York. They are elderly and disabled people," he said. "It's very different."
The other, David Bernstein, claims to have one of the oldest licenses in the city; he'd gotten it when he was a college student in the '60s. He went many years without using it, but, he says, in between jobs "it was my insurance to fall back on. It was a nice feeling."
Plaut even had a crushed-out fan, a woman who came "just to see what she looks like." She stared for a few minutes.
Afterward, everyone headed to Happy Ending, a bar located at Broome and Forsythe. Naturally, Plaut took a cab there, and the driver got lost despite her meticulous directions.
At the bar, DJ Timmy played a medley of Britney Spears ("I'm trying to boost her up," he said of the fallen pop star) while the motley mix of tattooed lesbians and grizzled older cab drivers rubbed shoulders. "I am friends with all these middle-aged men," says Plaut. "We have such strong common ground. It's really weird. I really like it."
One of her middle-aged male friends, John McDonagh, works at her garage in Long Island City, where there are clippings of articles about her posted on the wall. He wore a Mets jersey and talked in a thick New York accent. McDonagh pointed out an older man walking in. "That is a fellow hack from the garage. Can't you tell?"
When he encountered a blank stare, he added: "Does he look like a lesbian? C'mon! We stick out."
He had a point.
He thought Plaut had done some crazy stuff in her short stint as a cabbielike following people out of her cab when they didn't pay. His advice?
"Keep the door locked, the window up, and your finger like this"he raised his middle digit "and keep rolling."
The night ended with another jaunt in a taxi. But this ride turned out to be more fortuitous: Plaut and pals hopped in and found a familiar face. "It was Howie from my garage," says Plaut. "It was the best way to end the night."