Sunday, December 2, 2012

I Knew The Real Ignatowski


Saturday, December 17, 2005

I Knew The Real Ignatowski

People may think that that old TV show Taxi is all made up. Well, it is fiction but there is a shadow of reality to it. I know. I drove out of the Dover Garage for years and the real Ignatowski ( and the real Reiger and the real Mr. Cunningham) were still there. The show had already been a hit for years but it dawned on me when I learned the real boss's name was Cunningham that there was maybe more to it than met the eye.

The scene in Taxi where the cabs roll into the garage was shot on Hudson Street in the West Village. (A high rise stands on the spot today) but for years Villagers would hike a couple of blocks at shift change time and get a sure cab to anywhere they wanted to go.

Driving on the night line out of Dover had to be an education for anyone, and it was one for me. This was the last bastion of the educated English as a first language New York cabbie. Shape up was the time we sat around waiting to be called for our cars to go out into the evening and try and make our hundred dollars, or if we were lucky or extra hard working, more. There was a crew of old timers who would come around the garage at around ten at night. They'd play poker and wait for the early quits to come in. They'd go out off the books, no trip cards, behind a bribe to the night dispatcher and go hustle for a few bucks between one or two and five in the morning. Several of these guys slept in the parking garage upstairs.

Everet was a big fat aging cabbie with a gray stubble and a faint bad odor who usually ran the poker game that he held in the shop late at night. He would also provide the night dispatcher with a gratuity and then, as the house, he would proceed to fleece the hapless oldtimers, compulsive gamblers receiving various pensions and disability checks from other lives, and who came faithfully because to them, it was the only game in town.

Everet was the real Ignatowski. You might say at this point it couldn't be but Everet hadn't always been a panting, wheezing morbidly obese old man. No, I had the privilege of seeing Everet's earliest hack license and it was the spitting image of the TV character Ignatowski, or should I say the character was the image of Everet.

Now I was no psychiatrist, I was only a nightshift cab driver, but I knew not only that Everet was nuts, but that he was paranoid. I knew this because he would hold forth as to how the cops, Cunningham and "the 'mafiosi' from around here" were tracking his movements with microphones and satellite devices (this was 1983). As a student of life at that time, I took it upon myself to get to know the real Ignatowski. He would drive one or two nights a week and never be out of cash.

As time went on Everet told of his former life as a professional criminal. How he had been in on a fake billing scam that ripped off one of the Fortune 500 companies that used to populate Manhattan, and how he and two confederates got off with almost a million dollars before they got caught. He also told me about his younger days as a break and entry man, and his knowledge of locks and safes sounded impressive to the ears of this novice. Everet lived in a rent controlled apartment in a building next to the precinct on Charles Street, around the corner from the garage. I visited there a few times.

He had around ten cats, and the place stank. He had piles and stacks of old porno mags that he would buy from the second hand hawkers on Second Avenue near Saint Marks early in the mornings. He had boxes and cartons of cat food, spaghetti, jars of spaghetti sauce and cartons of powdered milk. He said his rent was faithfully paid a year in advance. Twice in those years I accompanied him to the big Pathmark down on Pike Street (actually that's the foot of First Avenue by another name) near the East River and the New York Post plant. He would stock up on his stash items and head back to Charles Street. Somewhere Everet had buried several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everet could not hold a conversation without touching on the following topics; The Italians of the West Village, their collective connections with the precinct and his landlord, the microphones that were always placed in the taxis he would get (and it was a different cab every night). And the satellite trackers he said they all had. Cunnigham would look at a screen and know where all his taxis were at any given moment, Everet assured me and anyone else who would listen. Another pervasive theme of conversation was the two dollar daily fee to the union, and how he hated it. When the garage failed in its first attempt to shake the union off time Everet began another steep decline. For a few months the garage had stoppped collecting the fee, which was payment to the Lease Drivers Benefit Fund, but the union got a judge to order the fleets to collect and turn over the money, including retroactively. Everet refused to pay up, and so Cunnigham had no choice but to send him away. (He still loitered on most nights and ran his poker game.)

In those days there were Israeli and Russian run garages up Ninth and Tenth Avenues that ran yellow painted old police cars and were not very selective as to their driver staff, as the cars would continually break down, and the owners were reputed to routinely refuse to return deposit moneys. There was a cohort of drivrers with very bad records (some with fake hack licenses) who circulated among these garages. These were the wide open days of Mayor Ed Koch, when the streets of Manhattan had become an open air crack bazaar. But I digress.

Everet joined this sad crew rather than ante up the few dollars he owed the union. You could not honestly say that most of Cunnigham's cars were death traps. The legit fleets, like Dover were in fact the desired places experienced cabbies would want to work out of, even with the brutal hours long shape up and these fleets could be selective. But again, I digress.

One evening I was drivng down upper Fifth Avenue from a run to Harlem when I saw Everet standing in the second traffic lane next to a broken down yellow painted cop car. He abandoned the heap and got into my cab. He had a mission at Pathmark. It was on this trip, to Pathmark that Everet told me some intersting things about his past life: After the scam got busted, he was sued civilly by the corporation as were his partners. One paid up, and another one was found in the Hudson River wearing a suit of bicycle chains. His share of the stash, Everet said, had never been found. But Everet inherited this friend's girl and car.

One day I was talking with Dan Monohan, the last full time Irish driver in Dover about the folklore of the place, it's history and the television show Taxi. He asked me who I thought had hit Everet's friend and put him into the river. The answer was unavoidable to me.

Two years later I got a passenger who was telling me about the bizzare cabbies he had met in his years in New York. One was an old fat guy with a gray stubble who wheezed and stank. He handed to the passenger a leaflet denouncing the Taxi and Limosine Commisssion for allowing the mafia to hound him and ignoring his complaints. The leaflet urged the passengers to call the Commisssioner and demand an explanation.

I met Dan again and he told me that Everet was out to get me because I had taken polaroid snap shots of him laid out on a sidewalk drunk and was handing out copies to all of the Italians on Hudson Street.

I knew the real Ignatowski.

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.