Melissa Plaut is an anomaly. Out of New York City's 44,000 licensed cabdrivers, she is one of only 400 female cabbies who get behind the wheel every day. With women making up just 1 percent of the city's taxi work force, Plaut says many of her customers are surprised when they get this college-educated, native New Yorker as their driver.
"Most passengers comment on the fact that I'm female by just telling me that I'm female." said Plaut, who also happens to be gay and Jewish, in an interview with ABC News. "It's safe to say that I'm a bit of an anomaly."
However, a little more than two years ago, Plaut found a way to use her position to her advantage. Since August 2005, she has written about her experiences as a New York City taxi driver in her blog, "New York Hack." Originally intended just for family and friends, Plaut's blog took off, gaining popularity and attracting attention from even non-New Yorkers.
"I was surprised that people responded so positively to the blog, and that so many people were interested in it," she said. "When I started the blog, it was primarily just for my friends. I got a digital camera for my birthday, and I started taking pictures of what I saw on cab shifts. I started loading them online and e-mailing them to friends and putting in captions. They wrote more words. They asked for more words, and I started writing longer and longer stories after every single shift. So the blog turned into stories behind the wheel."
Eventually, Plaut's musings caught the attention of publishers at Random House, which landed her an offer to turn her Web site into a book, thus giving life to "Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab." "Hack" was published last August.
In the book, Plaut explains how she began driving a taxi at the age of 28, what she has learned on the job, and the memorable rides she has taken in her three years as a "hack."
From College to Cabbie
After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Plaut worked for an advertising agency writing ad copy, a job she says she was "never happy with." After being laid off and unsure of what to do with her life, she resolved to "have a series of adventures," the first of which would be driving a cab in New York City.
She attended taxi school, which included three days of classes, fingerprinting, drug screening and a final exam. She then took to the streets and never looked back.
"I do it because there is a certain adventurous aspect to it. I like the people, even when they're insane and obnoxious. I have a lot of freedom, and I have a certain intimate relationship with New York and its people," she said.
In her three years on the job, Plaut said she has never been robbed but has been threatened, sworn at, and seen some pretty unbelievable sights.
"In the back of my cab, I've seen people engaging in sexual activities. I've seen people doing drugs, buying drugs and selling drugs. I've seen a couple of body parts flashed at me," she said.
But none of that seems to faze her. Unlike many New York cabbies, Plaut sees her passengers as a source of entertainment. She likes to connect with them, if they will let her, by asking what they do or where they're from. If all else fails, Plaut can still eavesdrop and create stories about her "fares" in her head.
However, she says New Yorkers never cease to defy her expectations.
"I think people in general surprise me as a whole, and they constantly defy stereotypes and prejudices that I may have held. So I've learned from driving a cab that there's no way you can tell what a person is going to do once they get in the back seat," she said.
Seeing the City From Behind the Wheel
Plaut says her adventures behind the wheel have taught her a lot about New York -- its streets, its rhythms, its inhabitants. And driving a taxi has taught her to multitask in ways she never could have imagined.
"I'm looking nonstop for anyone with their arm up in the air, somebody shaking hands or kissing somebody goodbye, maybe they're going to walk to the edge and hail a cab. So I want to be ready for that. It's a constant sweep. I'm looking at lights, I'm looking at cars, I'm looking for cops, and I'm looking for passengers, primarily. And I'm trying to avoid accidents. And trying to get out of traffic. It's a lot to do," she said.
Perhaps most important, driving a taxi has taught Plaut a little bit about herself.
"I've learned that I don't have the best temper," she said. "I've also learned ways that I can just try to take it easy. I think that's the most important lesson that I've learned and carried out in my life: Try to take it easy. Take it as it comes and roll with the punches, because there's going to be a lot of them."
To read Plaut's blog, please visit http://newyorkhack.blogspot.com/.