When I say "fake cab", what I mean is this: he drives around in a yellow Ford Crown Vic that has a rooflight on the roof and rates posted on the doors. There is a meter on the dashboard. It looks just like a real NYC taxi. And, in fact, it is a taxi - but it's not a New York City taxi. It's registered somewhere outside the city limits and cannot legally do business in New York.
Fortunately there are very few of these cabs around. And they don't usually seem to last very long. I might see a guy driving a fake cab once or twice (an experienced eye can pick them out) and then I never see him again. But not this guy. As I said, I've been seeing him for years.
A few weeks ago I was cruising up 1st Avenue at around two in the morning and there he was. I didn't have a passenger in my cab, and neither did he, so I set off after him. I followed him for about a mile, and then I had an idea. I realized he'd make a good interview for the blog. I mean, here's a guy who could be thought of as being the underbelly of the underbelly in New York City. Kind of like a vampire. He comes out late at night and sucks the blood from the economy of the already overworked legitimate cabbie, and then disappears when the sun comes up. It might make good copy.
So I did something extraordinary, considering that I'd been this guy's nemesis for years. I pulled up next to him and said hello. I didn't speak angrily or condescendingly. Just some taxi driver chit-chat. I showed him my digital camera and asked if I could interview him and take some pictures. And he was totally obliging. In fact, to put it mildly, he was quite eager to talk. It was as if he'd been on a long, long journey and here at last was someone who was willing to listen to him. We spoke for over an hour.
I've always had an appreciation of the character who is a likable scoundrel. The Falstaff character. The rogue who takes short cuts around the law but does no serious harm. And this guy was him. His name is Marvin. The image you see of him here is exactly the way he has looked for all the years I've seen him on the street. Same hat. Always a lit cigar in his hand. And his cab perpetually filled with smoke. (His passengers must love that.)
His mode of operation is this: his car is, in fact, licensed to be a taxicab in a town in Westchester County. Getting the license wasn't difficult. All he had to do was open a post office box and fill out some forms from the town clerk. He doesn't work for a taxi company. He's just a one-man-band in business for himself. He does have the insurance required to operate a taxi business (although he sometimes lapses on the payments).
Marvin has a few steady customers up in Westchester, but what he mostly does is drive down to the city and cruise the streets late at night. He tries not to be noticed. His rooflight, like NYC taxis, is illuminated when the meter is off so potential passengers will notice that he's available. But, unlike New York taxis, his rooflight is set up so that you can only see the illumination from the front. From the back, the rooflight is dark. This means that taxi drivers coming up behind him will think he's already got a passenger in his cab and won't think of him as competition. Sneaky. And clever, I must admit.
His way of charging for his services is sneaky, too. Marvin has rates posted on his doors that look just like the decals that are attached to the doors of New York cabs. But upon closer inspection it turns out the rates he's charging are higher. NewYork taxis are currently authorized to charge 40 cents for a fifth of a mile. Marvin charges 40 cents for a sixth.
It is, of course, illegal for any vehicle other than a real medallion taxi (the yellow taxis you always see in pictures) to pick people up on the street. But it's not illegal for a taxi from another town to come to the city and simply drive around. So for Marvin to actually get in trouble, his act of picking up a passenger from the street must be witnessed by a cop or a Taxi and Limousine Commisssion officer. And that is why he is careful not to be noticed. He usually cruises only on streets where there are no other taxis around. And certainly no police cars in sight. Marvin does a lot of looking in his rear-view mirror.
I was curious how he wound up in this racket and he told me his story. He had been a legitimate NYC taxi driver back in the early '80s and, in fact, had owned three medallions. (The medallion is the license from the city to own one taxicab and to operate it according to the rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. The medallion can be bought and sold by individuals and are quite valuable, today trading for over $300,000. Like houses, they are usually purchased by taking out a loan from a bank or a credit union.) But he ran into financial problems with his partners, couldn't make his payments on his loans, and lost the medallions. Disgusted and broke, he kept driving one of the cabs without a medallion. Eventually he was caught, arrested, and fined. But what flipped him over to the "dark side" was that he was spoken to rudely by the TLC officer was caught him. That was the final straw.
Since then, Marvin has been a renegade cabbie. But what amazed me was how long "since then" has been - 1984! In other words, Marvin has been cruising the streets illegally and making some kind of living at it for over twenty years. He said he'd been caught a few times and has paid a few fines. But nothing that would stop him from continuing. To me, that is amazing.
I felt a certain amount of admiration for the guy. I myself had once owned a medallion and found dealing with the city and dealing with my drivers to be unendurable. And here was Marvin kind of giving the finger to "the man". But my admiration was abbreviated when Marvin, blathering on, perhaps told me a bit too much. He pointed to his taxi meter, which was not like the ones we use in the city, and bragged that he has it rigged with something that is called a "zapper". That means that whenever a hidden button is pushed, the meter clicks. So Marvin's passengers are winding up paying about double what they would pay if they were in a real NYC cab.
"Why hit a single when you can hit a home run?" was Marvin's justification for doing this.
Well, that was where he lost me. It's one thing to screw the system and get away with it. It's another thing in my mind to victimize your own customers. My opinion of the guy dropped like a stone when he told me this. Still, the thought of Marvin brings a smile to my face. He is a character. Even if he is a vampire.