Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Review of the Basics

I am often pleasantly surprised that some passengers in my cab are quite interested in knowing the nitty-gritty details of the taxi industry in New York City. Since here you are, reading a taxi driver's blog, you may be just such a person. If so, let's take a minute to review the basics.

We are all familiar with the image of a street in New York City that is filled to the brim with yellow taxicabs. It's a part of the landscape here. How many taxis are there? 13,087 is the answer, a quantity that is determined by the city government. Why so many? (Or so few, if you've been standing in the rain for twenty minutes trying to get one?)

Well, Manhattan, the borough where 90% of these cabs can be found, is an island that is roughly 13 miles in length and 2 miles in width. About two and a half million people live on this island and nearly none of them own a car. There's no room for cars! So for many New Yorkers, a taxi is a daily means of getting around town. Add to that almost a million visitors - business people and tourists combined - who are here every day and you get an idea of why taxicabs are so important to life in the city.

In New York you can walk out into the street, wave your hand in the air (known as a "hail"), and before you can whistle "Big Yellow Taxi", a big yellow taxi will zip up to you and stop, making itself available for your grand entrance. Your carriage awaits you, sir! Or madam.

Think for a second of how marvelous this is. What convenience! In most cities you must call on the telephone for a taxi and wait for that taxi to arrive, if it arrives at all. But the population of Manhattan is so dense that it makes the street-hail system workable. Hand goes up, taxi arrives. Amazing.

And the driver of that taxi is required by law to take you anywhere in the city you want to go. He cannot legally refuse you. Of course, it is an imperfect world and if you want to go to Brooklyn at the height of the evening rush hour, you may be refused every once in awhile. In fact, you deserve to be refused if you want to go to Brooklyn at that time! But, generally speaking, your driver will take you anywhere in the city you want to go. Again, this is amazing convenience, if you think about it.

The rates that are charged are shown on a meter that is attached to the dashboard. There are four factors that determine the fare: 1) the "first drop" which is what you pay for the privilege of putting your rear end on a seat. It is currently $2.50; 2) the distance the cab travels from the beginning of the ride until the end, which is 40 cents for a fifth of a mile (4 city blocks), or, another way of saying it, $2.00 per mile; 3) the waiting time, 40 cents per two minutes of sitting still (note: the waiting time hasn't changed since 1990. Thus, the best deal in the city is to get in a taxi and not go anywhere!); and 4) surcharges, of which there are two: one dollar that is added to the fare if you get in a taxi between 4 PM and 8 PM, Monday thru Friday (the "rush hour charge"), and 50 cents if you are riding on any night of the week between 8 PM and 6 AM (the "night charge").

Most cabbies do not own but are leasing the cabs they are driving from a "taxi garage". They pay the garage approximately $120 for the use of a taxicab for a twelve hour period, plus they pay for the gasoline at the end of the shift. All other expenses, such as insurance and maintenance of the cabs, are paid by the garage. These shifts are normally from either 5 PM to 5 AM (the night shift), or 5 AM to 5 PM (the day shift). The driver may or may not drive for the entire shift - that's up to him - but that's what he has paid for. He will take about 35 rides during a full shift, usually with one passenger in the cab, but sometimes with as many as four, which is the legal limit.

About 25 years ago, the city changed some ordinances around to make all taxi drivers in New York "independent contractors". That means that, technically, taxi drivers are all "self-employed". (Even though the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the mayor reserve the right to tell us what we may charge for our services and then let as much as eight years go by without a cost of living wage increase.) Since we are all supposedly "self-employed", the garage owners do not have any responsibility for providing benefits. Taxi drivers have no health insurance unless they pay for it out of their own pockets. There are no sick days, no pension, and no overtime. And it should come as no surprise that there is no union. All of this is why your cab driver in NYC is almost certainly from a third world country.

Nevertheless, we have a system of thousands of taxis, all in competition with each other, cruising the streets and constantly looking for their next customer - anyone with his hand in the air. (Yes, I have stopped for people who were actually looking at their watches, pointing at buildings, or waving to their friends. And I have stopped not once, but twice, for a statue of a man hailing a cab on E. 47th Street!) Anyway, who are all these people with their hands in the air? What kinds of people get into taxis in New York City?

Everyone! I've often had the thought that everyone in the world is standing in line in a single file. And then, one by one, they each get into my cab.

But there are two broad categories: residents and visitors. Off the top of my head, I would say that about 75% of my business comes from residents. That is, people who live here. Put them together with the visitors and the thing that is always apparent is variety. That is what New York is all about. I am convinced that every conceivable type of person from every conceivable place is well-represented in this city. It may be wide-eyed teenagers from Tennessee here on a school trip, or middle-aged groupies from England following Barry Manilow around the country, or an old couple from San Diego returning to the city after a forty-year absence. They all get into my cab. People from Greece, people from Brazil; people from Estonia, people from the Philippines; I actually once had a passenger from Liechtenstein, a country in Europe that is so small it would fit into the trunk of my cab.

And what happens during a ride in a taxi? There are three possibilities: the first: nothing. The driver drives and the passenger looks out the window. The second: fly on the wall. The driver finds himself being the sudden observer of a scene in the passengers' lives. Girls talk about boys. Boys talk about beer. Two movie stars hop in (Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper) and talk about... old movies! The driver is not a participant in the scene. He's just a fly on the wall. With ears.

Then there is the third possibility, and this is where it gets interesting. A conversation takes place. Cab drivers and their passengers find themselves in a unique human situation. It's a business relationship but, like barbers and hair stylists, it's a relationship that shares a close space for a specific length of time. Due to these factors, the thin shell that divides strangers from each other is easily shattered by the act of communication, and the potential for just about any kind of conversation exists.

Politics, sports, whatever's in the news - these are common grounds for discussion, as well as the endless entertainment of people walking by. Of course, you never know where a conversation may lead you. Sometimes it could take you into what might be called the fourth possibility: an adventure. Like the summer day I picked up a guy on W.56th Street wearing white shorts and holding half a dozen tennis rackets. He turned out to be Martina Navratilova's coach and was headed out to a club in Douglaston, Queens, for a practice session. Thirty minutes later I am standing on a tennis court with one of Martina's rackets in my hand, trying to return the serve of a tennis pro. And Martina herself sits patiently watching as her coach has some fun with me.

Other times, a conversation may flow so easily that the passenger and driver feel as if they are the closest of friends. I remember once bringing an elderly man, traveling alone, from LaGuardia Airport to Manhattan. There was a nice rapport between us, and this man told me about his life. He was one of the four Shorin brothers who had founded the Topps chewing gum company. He told me about the problems they'd had obtaining raw materials used in making gum during World War II, and of his unending love for his deceased brothers. "It was one for all, and all for one," he said, as tears streamed down his face.

Others - on the assumption that the driver doesn't know who they are and will never see them again - will spill their guts about things they probably wouldn't reveal to even their closest confidants. A man once bragged to me, for example, about how he'd cheated the city out of $80,000 - he broke his leg at home but claimed he'd tripped at a municipal construction site and used his girlfriend as a false witness. Another time a man jumped into my cab in a true frenzy. Bouncing through emotions of anger and grief like a rubber ball, he told me he'd just been in a fight in a bar - and he thinks he killed another man.

Still others, seeing in the driver some kind of resemblance to Ann Landers, will ask for advice about anything from career changes, boyfriends, and the stock market to how to buy a used car, how to make up a good excuse to his wife, or how to defrost a bagel. Amazingly enough, as years go by a taxi driver finds himself to be an expert in all these things and it turns out the passenger was wise to have sought his counsel.

So what it all comes down to is this: millions of people from every corner of the earth - from Katmandu to Katz's deli - are jammed together on a small island called Manhattan. They get into taxicabs and talk with their driver. Communication occurs. Revelations are revealed. Sometimes it might even lead into what might be called an adventure. As years go by, a cabbie, looking back, will realize that he has been having encounters, sometimes even connections, if not with every person on the planet, then certainly with every type of person.

He has been having, you might say, a conversation with the human race.


Anonymous said...

Wow !!! What an incredible exact description of what cabdriving is in New York City. G.S. ? You should write more and more. Thank you for the enlightenment. I look forward to much more of this. Sincerely,
Harry G

Gilighan Qabista said...

thank you for addressing this profession with such grace.