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TAXI dreams

If New York's cab drivers represent a cross-section of the entire world, poet Robert Scott nearly accomplishes that goal all by himself. The son of a diplomat, he was born in Bolivia, learned English in Australia and earned a bachelor's degree in comparative literature at Alderson-Broaddus College, in West Virginia, before coming to New York and earning his hack license. Around the city, he is known as the "hack poet" spinning out epic verses about the life of a driver. Currently, he's attempting to link some of his poems into a one-man theatrical work. In Taxi Dreams, he acts as a sort of Virgil-guiding the audience through the sometimes dark, sometimes funny trials and tribulations of life behind the wheel.

How long have you been driving?
I guess about 15 years now.

And how long have you been writing poetry?
Well I was always a writer. My heroes have always been writers and literary figures. Before I was a cab driver, I was a proofreader. I switched to driving because I thought that it would make it easier for me to write the Great American Novel-of which I have several half-finished versions tucked away in a drawer.

Did you ever write any proofreader poems?
No, actually. Not in the way I have with taxi driving.

What do you think it is about the life of a driver that lends itself to versifying?
I'm not sure. I think part of my problem before [becoming a cabbie] was that I hadn't really had any difficulty or hardship in my life. In some respects, there wasn't a lot of real-life experience for me to draw on. Driving a cab has kind of opened me up and taken me away from that protected naivetÈ that I had for most of my life.

That seems like a pretty big sacrifice to make in the name of art.
I guess it is, in a silly way. I'm not romanticizing suffering or anything. It's more about getting life experiences and a little bit of street smarts. But that wasn't necessarily the reason that I got into it; I just thought the flexibility would give me more time to sit down and write.

Do you think driving a cab in New York is different from anywhere else in the world?
Manhattan can be overwhelming to a stranger-or even somebody from the Boroughs or Long Island or New Jersey who only comes into the city on rare occasions. It's an amazingly different world from almost anyplace else. That's why it's great when you really get the lay of the land, know the different sections of town and feel the pulse of the city. You get so you can almost spot where people are going: Whether it's Penn Station or the Upper East Side or Brooklyn Heights...

You mean you can guess where a fare is going before they even get in the car?
It's not something you look for; it just sort of comes to you. There's a different look between a Penn Station businessman from Long Island and a businessman from the Upper East Side that I'm not sure I can even put into words. Maybe there's a sharper edge in the Manhattanite; the Long Island guy may be a little softer. It's a game I play with myself.

Do you often read your poetry to passengers?
I wouldn't say often. I've been working on this longer, more theatrical piece, so I haven't been doing too much poetry. When I used to have the flyer [for his local readings] up, people might ask and I'd do a poem.

Are you generally a talker?
If the passenger initiates a conversation, I definitely talk back. But I usually try to give people their privacy. Sometimes people just sit in a cab for 15 minutes to collect their thoughts.

On the whole, are New Yorkers good to their drivers or bad?
I've found that, in the past few years, passengers seem to be nicer and more sympathetic than they ever were. Maybe it's because the cars are in better shape. If people are sitting in a rattling box of tin, they're going to automatically take it out on the driver.

In your poems, you talk about "the Warrior Hack." What does that mean?
Metaphorically, going out to drive a cab is, in some respects, a war. You're at odds with pretty much everything around you. You try to get into the flow, but there are always obstacles-street signs, garbage trucks, fire engines, delivery trucks, other cabs, wandering pedestrians, bicycle messengers, sometimes even the passengers.

So, it's you against everybody?
That's often the feeling you get.

If you could record one of those messages asking passengers to fasten their seat belts-in rhyme-what would it say?
I would love to do one of those. [thinks for several minutes] Okay:
Penn Station in five
buckle up and close the door,
I guarantee we'll get there in four
You're in a rush,
uptown and back,
hang on to the strap
I'll sound the attack.
Your safety is important to Warrior Hack.