NEW YORK – Welcome to the world of Melissa Plaut, a taxi driver who chronicles her chaotic, adventurous job in a blog called "New York Hack."
With words and digital photographs, Plaut offers a glimpse into the life of the New York cabbie, from the locker room where she and other drivers wait to begin their shifts to the pit stops they make and the gridlock and grueling 12-hour night shifts they endure.
One time, a Hare Krishna passenger gave her a foil-wrapped ball of chocolate he said was infused with herbs and spices. Then there was the time a guy gave her $140 for a $4.10 fare. She once dropped off a stripper at a date to see the musical "Wicked."
Dirt accumulates under her fingernails from handling money all day. She eats hot dogs and brings peanuts for snacking. Once, she had to make an emergency bathroom stop at a passenger's Brooklyn home.
"The whole way back to the city, I was filled with gratitude, mainly for the fact that I didn't pee in my pants, but also for the reminder that sometimes humanity can, indeed, be humane," she wrote.
So far, Plaut says, nothing she would consider "really outlandish" has ever happened while behind the wheel.
"Nobody had a baby in the back of the cab," she said between bites of a cheeseburger at a Brooklyn diner.
But her cab has gotten "egged," and another cabbie once punched her window. She said she has never been really frightened by a passenger — except the guy who got in wearing a ski mask on a cold winter day.
After a few minutes in her cab, he took it off. "He's like, 'Everyone's so afraid of this ski mask,'" she said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, it's scary.'"
Traffic accidents scare her more. Her mirror got clipped by a city bus, and she once saw a taxi get hit by an 18-wheeler.
It is difficult work, and Plaut says she doesn't like it most of time. The blog, which she started in August, "has really helped me cope with the job."
It has also given her readers — including some far from New York — a taste of the Big Apple. Her Web site gets between 400 and 900 hits a day.
One poster, "Danielle," wrote: "Maybe if I ever make it out of Iowa and get there you could be my cab driver!"
Plaut, 30, is an unlikely representative for the roughly 42,000 licensed taxicab drivers in New York: Just 197 are women. She hears some variation of "Oh, a female cab driver!" as many as 20 or 30 times a night.
The daughter of teachers, Plaut grew up in suburban Pomona, N.Y. After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1997, she moved to New York City, where she got a job as a writer and copy editor at an advertising agency.
She started driving a cab about a year ago after being laid off, which she says was a blessing.
"I needed to get out of there, but it was too comfortable to just quit," she said.
She couldn't bring herself to return to office work, so she stopped trying to figure out what she was going to do with her life and decided to "treat it as an adventure."
"Hopefully it's not what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life," she said.
Plaut spent roughly $400 to get through the licensing process, which includes a medical exam, fingerprinting and three eight-hour sessions of taxi school. After passing a test and an English proficiency exam, she officially became a New York cabbie — a move that didn't exactly thrill her parents.
In fact, she forbids her mother to read her blog so she won't worry too much.
That might be not such a bad thing.
Last month, she wrote about a high-speed car chase she "unwittingly drove into" on the way back from the airport with a passenger from Chicago. "When my heart finally started beating again, I turned to my passenger and said, `Welcome to New York!" she wrote.