Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2003 / 23 Adar I, 5763

Jerry Della Femina

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Consumer Reports

In New Yawk, they are finally muzzling celebs

After years of listening to third-rate celebrities telling us to buckle up every time we step into a cab, the word is that New York City is finally getting rid of its taxicab voices. Bloomberg for President! I wrote this column years ago but now it's time to bring it back to celebrate our victory. | A few months ago I was standing on the corner of 51st and Fifth when the cab pulled up. The door opened, and a cane came out of the back seat, followed by an elderly man who was shaking his head. "Watch out," he whispered to me, "he's a terrible driver."

Ignoring the old man with a smile, I climbed into the cab and checked out the back of a turban in the front seat. That's when the voice from hell spoke to me. "Howii. This is Joan Riverrrrs ... can we tawk?"

"Dam-it! Joan Rivers again," I thought. "That's the fourth time this week I got Joan Rivers. Why me? I'm not a bad guy. I'm a family man. I work hard. Pay my taxes. Why do I have to get Joan Rivers four days in a row? I mean, why don't they have a warning sign on the cab that says, 'This is a Joan Rivers cab' or 'This is a Joe Torre cab' or 'This is a Judd Hirsch cab' or 'This is a freakin' Placido Domingo cab.'" Why don't they warn us as to what voice they've picked to torture us with?

Rivers droned on. She asked me to buckle up for safety. Have you ever met anyone who sat in the back seat of a cab and buckled up? If we were interested in safety, what the hell would we be doing sitting in New York taxicab in the first place? The driver was even more affected by Joan Rivers's words than I was. With every word coming out of her nose, the driver flinched. His back was shaking on the beaded headrest.

Then the driver turned his attention from the road and looked at me. Mournfully, he shook his head. Then he mumbled in broken English, "All day...all day." His eyes were glassy, and when they returned to the street, we were suddenly at the intersection of 51st and Sixth, and in front of us the light had changed to red. Too late, the driver slammed on the brakes; I came flying off the seat and hit the partition.

The driver turned to me to say in some foreign "cab" language that he was sorry. That was a bad move because when he did that he took his foot off the brake, and the cab rolled ever so slowly and just barely brushed the behind of a heavyset woman who was crossing the street. In a typical New York pedestrian maneuver, she took both her fists and started to bash in the hood of the cab.

Now my driver panicked, put the cab in reverse and slammed into the truck that was standing behind us. I was thrown against the back seat and ricocheted back to the partition.

As I reached for the door handle and jumped out of the cab, a couple held the door open and were waiting to take the cab. They were typical New Yorkers - they couldn't care less about the fender bender. They wanted that cab and nothing would get in their way. "Don't go in there," I warned them. "THE POOR DEVIL HAS BEEN DRIVEN INSANE BY THE VOICE OF JOAN RIVERS!"

The couple gave me the same wan smile I had given the old man and climbed into the cab. As I fled down the street, I could hear my new best friend, Joan Rivers, telling me to be sure to take my receipt and my valuables. I'm sure that the couple is dead now, and the driver is sitting in some asylum, straight-jacketed, mumbling, "I'm Joan Rivers, can we tawk? ... I'm Joan Rivers, can we tawk? ... I'm Joan ..."

Let's look at this voice thing from the perspective of the poor cab drivers. One day you're in Egypt, bopping around Cairo, flirting with camels and having one helluva time. The next day you're driving a cab in New York. The guy who took your money in return for getting you a license (even though you can't speak or understand a word of English, and you don't know Broadway from York Avenue) has disappeared. And, 60 times a day, when the cab door opens, you hear voices. How does it feel for an Arab to have to hear the voice of some Jewish guy named Jackie Mason, in a heavy accent, repeating the same thing over and over and over?

Having personality voices invade taxicabs with drivel talk would be considered unsophisticated in Cleveland. In New York, it's grounds for a public execution.

If I sound even meaner and more vindictive than usual, it's because this incredibly silly idea almost caused me to have a heart attack a few weeks ago.

I was late for a meeting, and my head was so cluttered that the things on my mind were taking numbers to see which one would get my attention next. I hardly noticed that I had hailed a "turban taxi" (that's a cab driven by a dude who's wearing a turban). Now, these turban guys are strange. They never talk. In fact, they hardly listen. I think they have short-wave radios transmitting messages to them from New Delhi under their turbans.

Anyway, I settled my butt into the back seat and was about to loudly tell the turban guy my destination when from behind my right ear I heard a loud, "H-I-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S..." I jumped out of my skin, screamed, and grabbed my chest. Now, it's normal to believe that if the guy in the front seat has a turban on, there's a good chance that his pet snake is hanging around the back seat. How was I to know that the hiss was Eartha Kitt pretending to be a cat?

What the hell is going on in this world when a 71-year-old woman goes around making pussycat sounds, and somebody records them and insists on torturing paying taxicab customers with them?

Do you want to know what my greatest fear is? I'll tell you. My greatest fear is that one of the idiots at the telephone company is going to sit in the back of a cab and think this recorded celebrity voice nonsense a good idea. And the next time you call information for a number (and let's say it's an emergency), instead of getting an annoying recorded voice followed by a human voice asking you to repeat what you just told the recorded voice (which I'm sure annoys the hell out of you the same way it drives me up a wall), you're going to hear the recorded voice of the late Henny Youngman and he's going to start the call with "HELLO, THIS IS HENNY YOUNGMAN. TAKE MY WIFE ... PLEASE. I GUESS YOU'RE CALLING FOR A NUMBER. HERE'S A NUMBER: 43. YOU DON'T LIKE THAT NUMBER? WOULD YOU BELIEVE 56?"

Don't smile, it's getting serious.

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JWR contributor Jerry Della Femina was recently named by Advertising Age as one of the 100 Most Influential Advertising People of the Century. He's perhaps the most sought-after advertising expert in the country, there is no network, no publication and no organization on which, in which, or before which Mr. Della Femina has not appeared. He is also the author of two books, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (a best-seller), and An Italian Grows in Brooklyn (a non-seller). Comment by clicking here.


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11/07/02: Here's a dirty little secret: Most Italians sort of like the Mafia
10/17/02: Bloomberg for Honorary Italian of the Year

© 2002, Jerry Della Femina