I am writing this column fresh from attending our latest annual Driver Recognition Ceremony, held once again at an amazing venue owned and operated by Tishman Speyer. Having already experienced the splendor of Top of the Rock last year, this time around we enjoyed the spectacular beauty of the Rooftop Garden at 620 Fifth Avenue, which overlooks picturesque Rockefeller Center.
Of course, as anyone who was there would tell you, as beautiful as the surroundings were, as sumptuous as the Patina Restaurant brunch was, and as generous as the gifts and raffle prizes were, it was all about the people. If I had to tie this year’s event together thematically, the common thread that would accomplish it would be the words “unsung heroes.” It was readily noticeable that this year, our honorees’ contributions were not necessarily material for tabloid newspaper headlines and talk shows. What we honored was the fact that these individuals, by all accounts, did things that were truly extraordinary in terms of the lives they touched. For example…….
There was Mr. Jose Parra, recipient of the TLC’s Professionalism Award, who picked-up a medical professional who had only $2 with her, but who was running late to offer flu shots to a group of needy individuals, putting her job at risk. Mr. Parra saw someone in distress, and became her knight in armor, offering her his cell phone (which saved her job!), forgiving her the fare, and even offering her words of encouragement to calm her considerable anxieties.
There was also Mr. Boris Kleyman, a 1978 émigré who drove a taxi cab in his native Russia, and who has driven here in NYC since 1981, who received one of two Humanitarian Awards. On November 16, 2006, Mr. Kleyman watched as an older gentleman hailed a taxicab from the corner of South and Fulton Streets. He is showing some signs of distress, but regardless of this, traffic continues to whiz past him. As Mr. Boris Kleyman’s cab approaches him, the gentleman loses his balance altogether and falls to the ground. Thinking quickly, Mr. Kleyman positioned his vehicle in such a way as to protect the elderly man from further traffic. He then jumped out and, with the assistance of passersby, helped the large man to stand and regain his composure. The very impressed witness who recounted Mr. Kleyman’s deed in a letter goes on to say that he then gently helped him into his cab and on his way. “Many cabbies would have run from a problem….this man helped. It was good to see this New York minute.” We heartily agree.
Mr. Paul Louis, recipient of the TLC’s second Humanitarian Award, was heading toward LaGuardia Airport when he noticed a taxicab broken down on the highway shoulder. Despite the potential danger and inconvenience, Mr. Louis pulled over and tried to assist his fellow taxicab driver. Disappointed that both he and the stranded driver were unable to successfully get the cab running again, he did the only thing he could do to be of assistance……he took that cab’s hapless passenger to the airport so that he could catch his flight home. Counting independence as his favorite aspect of driving a taxicab, Mr. Louis came to America from Haiti in 1980, and began driving professionally in 1986.
One of the truly great moments of the ceremony was when we paused to honor Mr. Michael J. O’Sullivan with the TLC’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The first thing you need to know about Mr. O’Sullivan and his involvement with the taxicab industry is that he holds a four-digit hack number when new taxi license applicants receive eight digit numbers. Mr. Sullivan was born in County Kerry, Ireland in 1924, and became a proud US citizen in 1953. Only a year later, he purchased medallion 4B87 in 1954 for the considerable sum of $20,000. His passenger “fans” are legion for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he embodies an insatiable love for “his Bronx” and is a veritable walking encyclopedia of knowledge on New York City’s most popular and interesting buildings. Celebrities such as Henry Kissinger, Brian Leich and countryman Frank McCourt have enjoyed rides in his taxicab, but his most important “Lifetime Achievement”? His marriage of 51 years to his bride, Eileen.
It has been reported to the TLC by a most grateful passenger that, after letting her out at her destination, Mr. Mahji Graja, recipient of the TLC’s Customer Care Award, noticed a threatening individual in her vicinity and quickly brought her back into his cab to ensure her safety. Together, Mr. Graja and the relieved passenger circled the block until the area was secure, allowing her to ultimately disembark and return home, safe and sound, thanks to Mr. Graja’s conscientious caring.
Of course I have saved the best for last in the form of our Driver of the Year, Mr. Alande Nicolas. On the evening of January 17, 2006, Mr. Nicolas saw an injustice that he was not about to let go unanswered. It was at Riverside Drive and West 106th Street that a large truck struck a parked car so hard that it was smashed and pushed-up onto the sidewalk, and then fled the scene. Mr. Alande took down the truck’s license plate number, and followed it to West 135th Street, at which time he reported the incident to a police officer. He then returned to West 106th Street and with detective-like skills tracked down the damaged vehicle’s owners to let them know what had happened and to give them all the details they would need — except, modestly, for his name.
Mr. Nicolas is a married father of three (Allen Abraham, 2; Eliane Nicholas, 21 and Christopher Nicholas, 23), and came to the US from Haiti in 1979. He has driven a taxicab since 1999. Mr. Nicolas recently shared that helping people is his favorite aspect of the job, which he admits is the most difficult he has held. Most importantly, Mr. Nicolas said, is that “we are blessed if our families are well and healthy,” a sentiment that is closest to his own heart, considering the fact that his 24-year-old eldest son, who joined us at the ceremony, survived major cardiac health issues last year, and is today a thriving heart transplant recipient.
As in years past, Mayor Michal R. Bloomberg proclaimed March 29, 2007 “Drivers Recognition Day” citywide, in appreciation of all that our licensed taxicab and for-hire vehicle drivers do to keep New York City moving.
I should also mention that we were fortunate enough to have Ben Bailey with us, whose name you may recognize as the host of Discovery Channel’s hugely popular “Cash Cab” game show. For someone whose fame stems from comedy, Ben spoke quite seriously of being privileged to not only represent drivers on the little screen, but also of his having actually earned a TLC hack license, which was a condition of “Cash Cab’s” method of operating. His presence truly added to the event.
In closing, I would say that we at the TLC were only too happy to sing a song of these unsung heroes this year, and are already looking forward to next year’s event. Until next month, be well!
The best of the best!
Commissioner Matthew Daus (center) congratulates “Driver of the Year” Alande Nicolas (right) and his son, Christopher.