This story originally aired May 12, 2006. Since Steve Hartman first met "Taxi Ray," the cab driver says his life has changed. With all the attention he got from being on TV, he says, his 15 minutes of fame is now up to a full 16 minutes.
One New York cabbie admits he doesn't like his customers — and he doesn't charge anything for his service. As Steve Hartman reports in this week's Assignment America, that has turned out to be the formula for a very successful business.
You can understand why some people are skeptical. No one takes chances in New York — especially on something that sounds way too good to be true. Free taxi rides?
But for those trusting few who slide on in, the ride — at least the one down memory lane, is absolutely free.
A few years ago, Ray Kottner got tired of "working for the man." He bought a very used taxi — a 1982 Checker — and launched a brand-new business model.
But how does he make money when he doesn't charge for rides?
"People that ride with me are very generous," he says. "They give me more money than they give to the yellow cabs."
Ray works for tips while entertaining passengers as only an 80-year-old cab driver can.
"When I started driving a taxi 60 years ago, there were no buses," he says. "It was all eletric trolley cars running along the curb."
But, as he admits, "I do not like people."
Ray is every New York stereotype, boiled down to a bouillon cube.
He's got no patience for impatience ... and no tolerance for incompetence.
At one point, Hartman says he made the mistake of interrupting one of Ray's rides to double-check a camera. Ray's reaction? "These guys are stupid as hell," he tells a passenger.
It's a frankness that would never play in Peoria. But ir works well in the Big Apple. People come to New York praying to meet someone like Ray. And like most New Yorkers, somewhere beneath all that gruffness, Hartman says he's sure there's a real gentleness to him.
"I got lucky to get good people," Ray tells one passenger. "We got lucky to meet you, Taxi Ray," the passenger replies.
One thing that Ray doesn't plan to retire. In fact, he just bought another Checker cab.