From the Mixed-Up Files of Professor David R. Wheeler



As the national college media conference in New York came to a close last week, I took a shuttle from my hotel to the La Guardia airport, along with eight other people.

As I stepped into the van, a sign caught my eye: “Tips are appreciated for excellent service.” It wouldn’t have caught my eye, except for one thing. The word “excellent” had been scratched out.

Not removed. Not professionally erased.

Scratched out.

Scratched out in the way young children scratch things out. Scratched out with the silver-colored Crayola marker.

An inauspicious beginning, to be sure. But the driver was patient and friendly, making small talk, helping everyone with their bags. An older gentleman, well past retirement age, he seemed to take pride in his job. He turned on the oldies station, and we were on our way.

This was excellent service so far. Why scratch out the word?

After taking several taxi rides in New York, I’ve realized that, yes, you can make the light. Yes, you can swerve into the other lane even when a car is right beside you. And yes, you can shoe-horn a cab through the seemingly three-foot space between those two trucks. Yes, you can, no matter how deadly the experiment looks. So after a few cab rides, I no longer involuntarily point and yell profound statements such as: “Uh…ahh…but…the…watch…we’re gonna…”

Instead, I relax, because I know that cab and shuttle drivers have magical voodoo powers to use at their discretion.

As the driver got on the off ramp to La Guardia, none of the eight people in the car thought to tell the driver to watch out for the line of stopped cars in front of him. What’s the point? It would immediately give you away as a first-timer.

But there was still a line of stopped cars, and we were going about 20 miles per hour. The cars are 200 feet away, then 100 feet, then 50.

It all happened at once: He noticed, we spoke up, and the van hit the car in front of us.

Soft impact would be an understatement. The four-year-old behind us was unaware that we were just in an accident. “Are you okay?” her dad asked.

"Yeah," she said, puzzled at the question.

The driver apologized, then got out and started talking to the person whose bumper he tapped—a cab driver who seemed to relish yelling at this older man.

Then the people in the van started chiming in.

"I cannot miss this flight!” said the woman in front of me. He apologized.

A few minutes later, names and insurance information had been exchanged, but the cab in front of us hadn’t budged.

"He’s not moving," the driver told us, apologetically.

"Well, he would be if you hadn’t just hit him!” somebody said.

Even though we lost about 15 minutes, the total drive time was about 45 minutes, which was exactly what the hotel said it would be.

At the terminal, he helped people with their bags, apologized again, and told them to have a good flight. They walked away silently.

I reached into my pocket and gave him two dollars.

He was startled.

Hey, I was just following the sign. Tipping is appreciated for, well, any kind of service.

This is in contrast to the cab driver who was impatient with me when I was giving him an address. “I’m going to Chelsea between…” and I looked for the exact address. Before I could say “Eighth and Ninth,” he said, “There is no ‘Chelsea between!’ There is no ‘Chelsea between’”!

No tip.