NEW YORK — She is diminutive and dressed in all black, with a plastic tub of cashews by her hip, zipping through Lower Manhattan at night behind the wheel of a taxi with a ticking meter.
Honk! Honk! A cabbie in a car behind her sticks on her tail.
"What the hell is going on back there?" she yells. "This guy's honking at me. Why is he going crazy?"
This is the fast-paced life of Melissa Plaut, a college graduate and daughter of educators who grew up in the suburbs and now drives a New York City cab.
She got her hack license on her 29th birthday, after giving up a corporate advertising job. She began blogging about her adventures a year later.
Out of 40,000 cabbies in the city, Plaut is one of about 200 who are female. Most cabbies here are immigrants. She is gay and Jewish. Her blog got hundreds of thousands of hits. It became a window into the offbeat characters who come out at night in New York, catching the eye of the press, agents and publishing companies.
Last week, Plaut had a book released: "Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab," published by Villard.
"How you manage that?" asks a passenger she picked up on Houston Street.
"Well, I wrote the book about driving the goddamn cab," she says. "If it sells a lot, then I may never drive a cab again."
She adds with a sigh, "But I'm still driving now."
Plaut pulls over at 32nd Street and 2nd Avenue to let her three passengers out.
One tells her the book sounds nice and all, but he gets agitated when she doesn't pull closer to the theater.
"It's $8.20," she says.
His friend glares at her.
"What?" Plaut asks.
The door slams. They pay her $9.
"Bad tippers," Plaut mutters.
On her first day as a cab driver, a man stuck his hand through her passenger-side window, pointed like a gun, and said, "Gimme all your money." He walked away laughing.
Plaut is 31 now, and she has seen drug deals in her back seat, riders who refuse to pay the fare, and other cab drivers getting punched in the face. She once acted as an ambulance, rushing a girl with a sea urchin stuck to her foot to the hospital. Another time, she had to pull over and use the bathroom of an Orthodox Jewish woman who was her passenger.
Once another cabbie cut her off. Plaut stopped at a light and got out, leaving her passengers inside, to spit on the other cabbie's window.
She has suffered neck spasms, kidney pains and eye twitches from driving 12-hour shifts. She has scraped dirt from beneath her fingernails from handling so many dollar bills.
"After each shift I would come home and type," she says. "I would vent and complain and curse. I would bitch about traffic. I would bitch about cops."
Her friends had gone off to work high-profile jobs they loved. Her parents were embarrassed to tell friends their daughter drove a cab.
"I'm thirty years old. I live alone with two cats. And I'm a cab driver," Plaut writes in her book.
The job has taken its toll, but not everything about it depresses her. Along the way, she has learned a lot about people, the world and herself.
In her book, she describes driving an undercover narcotics agent, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, singers from the Metropolitan Opera, struggling actors, a DJ, a massage therapist, a federal judge.
She also drove former New York Mayor David N. Dinkins; actor Justin Theroux, from "Six Feet Under" and the second "Charlie's Angels" movie; and Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show."
When Stewart got into the cab, "I was so star-struck, I forgot to turn the meter on for nearly 10 blocks," she wrote, "but he turned out to be a very modest, nice guy, and left me with a very decent tip."
In Midtown this Monday night, Plaut pulls over, and two passengers get in. "Where to?"
They say they're headed to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill.
Plaut hands them a flier for her Sept. 11 Barnes & Noble book reading. She has stayed busy promoting on her blog (newyorkhack.blogspot.com) and on MySpace, and telling anyone she meets.
She crosses the Manhattan Bridge and pulls up to a brownstone. The passengers tell her congratulations.
Plaut pulls away, turning a new corner, looking for a fare.
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