GETTING AROUND

Taxi Driver
He may be on his cell phone with a BBC reporter when you flag him down. He'll give you the skinny on New York en route to The Plaza. And he'll swing by Coney Island on the way to LaGuardia, just so you can see it. This is one cab driver you wish you'd land.
by Nancy Branka – SkyGuide GO – 02/01/03

Peter Franklin has been driving a cab in New York City for 30 years. For the last 15 years, he's also been a radio personality on 400 stations and networks in 71 countries. For just about as long, he's run a colorful tour company. And he has something to say to travelers who think a cab driver is just a schmuck trying to rip them off.

Franklin's radio career began one day in the mid-'80s when he stopped to pick up a fare near Wall Street. A BBC World Service journalist hopped in and asked for an interview, explaining he wanted to talk with a "typical" cab driver. Franklin's tell-it-like-it-is response: "I'm not typical—I speak English." The "Gabby Cabby" was born.

On the day we spoke, the Gabby Cabby's docket included 12 interviews— beginning at 6:30 a.m. with the BBC Cleveland in the U.K., and ending at 10:00 p.m. with KMOX in St. Louis. (And don't forget the 3 p.m. to 5 a.m. gig driving the taxi.) Franklin will take radio calls from wherever he is at the time—at a little league game, in the cab...anywhere.

The broadcasts are all unrehearsed and are tailored to the station. On his Web site, Franklin posts a list of stories he's "up" for during the current week. Journalists look at the list and pick one or more topics that may interest their listeners. The journalist calls Franklin at a pre-arranged time, and they just talk.

The day in November that we spoke, he said he'd picked up two hookers who'd knocked off work early the previous night (election day), and were looking for a ride to the polls. "Now, this is not a story for every station because it may offend," admits Franklin.

Other stories open for discussion that week included why New Yorkers on the street were actually unhappy about the city being selected to host the Olympic Games. Or his spotting of Christina Aguilera at a swanky night-spot.

Franklin says the taxi work is essential—besides putting the food on the table, it's where he harvests stories worthy of airtime. "I never make anything up," he says. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The weeks following September 11, 2001 were very different for Franklin. He conducted more than 300 live broadcasts in those early days after the tragedy, relaying New Yorkers' stories to his "family" of listeners around the world. And he admits it was strange moving away from the "funny guy" persona he adopts on normal broadcasts, to that of a more traditional reporter. Franklin and his wife received hundreds of e-mails from listeners who had followed his radio show before 9/11, wanting to know if he and his family were safe.

The radio work doesn't pay, but Franklin clearly enjoys the notoriety and uses the publicity to market his tour business. "[The radio] is a lot of fun, but I figured out early in the game how I can get something out of it," he explains. The exposure from the radio pulls in business for his tour company, like the two elderly Canadian ladies whom he'd just shown around the city—they couldn't visit New York without meeting the Gabby Cabby.

Franklin will take a party of two to six people on an eight-hour insider's tour of New York. (Book a tour or get details at http://www.gabby.com/.) "I like to get people on the first day they're in New York," he says. "That way I can teach them how to use the subway and advise them on the rest of their trip."

Tours are completely tailored to interests of the individuals. If you mention your favorite TV show is Seinfeld, he makes sure the group grabs a hamburger at the Seinfeld restaurant. If your grandmother lived in the Bronx, he suggests detouring to track down the house she grew up in. If you're interested in ceramics, the tour stops in Harlem to see a woman creating ceramics in her studio.

And then there's the payoff for the Gabby Cabby: "Nothing thrills me more than getting the hugs and kisses at the end of the tour."

Cab Smarts

After 30 years in the driver's seat, Peter Franklin has some tips for taxi passengers.

- Know the city. In other words, buy a map. "Chances are, when you get into a cab, the driver is a decent, hard-working person," says Franklin. "The problem is that he may not know New York City." (Most are new immigrants, according to Franklin.) Even tourists need to take the trip into their own hands. For example, it may be faster to walk the final couple of blocks of a ride but your cab driver may not tell you. Take charge, and tell him you want to get out. Or your destination may be much easier to get close to than to hit exactly (usually because of one-way streets or traffic impediments). Be prepared to suggest a "close enough" route and walk.

- Be patient with the driver. Remember that he may only make $250 a week. "Be a nice guy," says Franklin. Tip fairly, and sometimes with generosity. Franklin gets irked when he drives a little old lady to Bloomingdale's—someone obviously ready to spend some serious money—and she leaves a 30-cent tip.

- Allow plenty of time. Franklin says he always does his best to get there fast—especially to airports—but passengers have to do their part by avoiding a rush. He says a couple of times he's had a passenger who is late to a job interview. He's called the personnel office from his cell phone and said, "So-and-so is in my cab, and I'm doing the best I can to get him there, but I wanted to let you know that he'll be late." While the strategy may have embarrassed the candidates, the personnel people get a chuckle out of it and are forgiving.

- Consider public transportation. Especially in New York, the quickest route between points A and B may be the subway. Worried about your image? "There are plenty of rich people who take the subway," Franklin says.

- Be careful when using a car service. Because there is no meter, it's a very good idea to find out beforehand how much your trip will cost.