It's a summer day in D.C., and I'm thinking Amtrak: I've got to be in New York by afternoon. On Connecticut Avenue, I see a smudge of orange slide up to the curb. It's a cab.
"Where you headed?" barks the driver. "Manhattan," I reply. In a cloud of angry exhaust, he's gone.
But, just like that, I've decided. I'm going to find a DC taxi—any taxi—with a sense of adventure. There will be no musical cell phones, like on the train, no bruises from people's bags. And it'll be door-to-door, direct to my destination on 45th Street.
In minutes, I've got three more turn downs, but then I see a rattling Highland Cab screeching to a stop. The driver, Joseph Davis, twists in his seat when I ask my question.
"What about Baltimore?" he says.
Davis makes it sound like an easy first leg. Plus, his Grand Marquis is spotless inside, with naugahyde upholstery and a forest of tree-shaped French vanilla air fresheners. Davis needs to see some ID—for security, he says—but we shake hands on 100 bucks for the trip. We're off.
Davis has had fares to Philadelphia "sometimes" and "some people want Richmond," he says, "but I won't go." Near Oriole Park at Camden Yards, we pull up next to a local Baltimore cab. Both buzz windows down and I'm passed off like a baton.
"I'm going to New York," I warn the new guy, Sam Aramideh of Yellow/Checker/Sun/Jimmy Cab. "That is good," he decides, peeling out. "This will be $450."
I shuffle some bills, and shake my head. "How about Philadelphia?"
I can see that Sam is thinking. He is adding secret cabbie numbers while he drives. "How much you pay for New York?" he says finally. I try $300. "$350," insists Sam. "$325" I say, "tip included." Sam agrees.
Now we can relax. I try a sketch of the back of Sam's head and erase it. Sam taps a rear-view mirror tassel that looks like it came from a fez.
Sam's real name is Mohammed, he confides, and he's from Tehran. "I am a judge there," he says, "before I escape in the revolution. Then I have a restaurant in Chicago. Then I drive the cab."
Sam is delighted with his employer. "Only Yellow Cab is very good discipline," he tells me, tapping the tassel. "Some of the other company drivers, they use the drug. Not with Yellow/Checker."
I'm happy about this. And, in truth, Sam does seem scrupulous. While Davis tailgated, Sam drives deliberately. The judge at the wheel. "In 11 years," he tells me, "I have only one accident. Maybe two."
We're on I-95, passing signs that say "Heightened Homeland Security Alert." As we cross into Delaware, Sam plays a tape of an Iranian singer that he calls Pervin. "She died," he says sadly. But hearing the nightclub notes I'm not sad. I'm happy.
I feel like we're taking a taxi to Tehran. When Sam holds up a box of cigarettes and asks to smoke. I say okay. "I like to take the beer," he tells me. "Every day the beer." I'm on edge about this, wondering if Sam will crack one open. But now he's talking about wine from Iran. "It is called Shriz," says Sam.
"Shiraz?" I ask back.
"No," he corrects. "Shriz."
With all this talk, Sam has somehow taken an exit. We're on I-295—not I-95—and bumper to bumper. "I do not know," says Sam, "how to go to New York this way." He wants to backtrack. But I vote no. It's already 2:30 and we're barely halfway.
I hand up a package of Ritz Bitz to try and calm him down. "Too much," he protests, but soon I see him crunching and humming.
As we pass a "Cherry Hill, New Jersey" water tank Sam is checking signs. "Peter," he quietly asks. "Do you know which exit is Manhattan?" We need directions and in Woodbridge, New Jersey, Sam pulls off to let me ask a Shell station clerk.
When I come out, Sam is gone.
A couple of minutes go by before I start to sweat. Sam's got my duffel, I realize, and the $325 I paid in advance. It just can't be. Yellow/Checker has good discipline. Sam wouldn't drop me and run.
I find a bank of pay phones and feed each one a quarter. Broken, broken, smashed. I borrow a cell and just as I'm dialing the cops, I see a flash of orange out of the corner of one eye. A horn honks. Someone's waving a brand-new box of Middle Eastern cigarettes.
Eventually we find the Lincoln Tunnel. Soon we're into Manhattan where Sam is twisting the wheel and nervously swatting his tassel. On 41st Street, New York cabbies give our taxi the eye—we've got a Baltimore medallion—and pedestrians want to flag us down.
"Go faster," I suggest. "This isn't Maryland." The suddenly speedy Sam turns the wrong way onto Fifth. We skid, avoid a Sabrett hot dog cart and swirl into a miracle U-turn that lands us only a block from 45th Street and the end of our trip.
I've missed my 4 p.m. meeting. It's now after 7. But Sam and I share a sense of triumph. We shake hands.
It's a solemn moment. It's almost dark now, and the dome light on Sam's taxi has automatically flashed on. Sam tries to give me back the rest of my Ritz Bitz. But I won't take them.
"They're yours, Sam," I say. "It's going to be a long ride home."
Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and the author of nine books for kids including the new bestseller about summer barbecues: Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).