Thursday, August 30, 2007

Taxi Strike

There will be a taxi strike in New York City for two days next week - Wednesday, Sept. 5th and Thursday, the 6th.

Although I have not intended this blog to be particularly political - I am interested in stories about the human condition and hope - I do have some hard-won opinions in this area based on being in this business for 29 years and there are many people who read this blog, so I'm going to take this space to air out some thoughts. Or perhaps I should say, "to rant"!

I support the strike. Not so much because of the particular issues involved, but because any semblance of unity amongst the 44,000 cabbies of New York would be the best thing to ever happen to them in the long run.

What are the issues involved? There are some major technical changes which have been mandated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that are about to go into effect.

1) Each of the 13,087 yellow cabs will be required to have a GPS tracking system installed through which all the travels of the vehicle can be identified even if the cab is off-duty or if it is being operated by a private owner for personal use.

2) All cabs will be required to take credit cards and the drivers will have to pay 5 per cent of those fares back to the credit card companies.

3) All cabs will have a TV monitor in the back seat for passenger information.

4) All cabs will have an electronic message system in the front by which drivers can receive pertinent traffic and business information.

These systems must be installed at the expense of the taxi owners and any breakdowns of the devices will cause the meter to stop working and thus render the taxi out of business until it is fixed.

Okay, let's take 'em one by one.

1) The GPS tracking system. The purpose here is not to help the driver find difficult destinations. It is supposedly to locate any cab so lost items can be recovered. I don't buy it. It is too much of an expense to install and operate for the relatively few times items need to be recovered, plus the absent-minded passenger would still have to know the medallion number of the cab he'd been in. And if he's forgetful enough to leave his umbrella on the back seat he's not likely to remember the cab's number, either. Plus, don't forget, we cab drivers need those umbrellas! It rains a lot in NYC.

And it's probably unconstitutional, anyway.

2) I have three problems with credit cards in taxis. First, the give-back to the finance companies. This amounts to a pay-cut for taxi drivers and in the economy we operate in, that is unthinkable. Second, I fear it will further congest the traffic in the city. What could be faster than a passenger giving the driver a ten-dollar bill for an $8.60 fare and saying, "Keep the change"? Proponents say the swipe is fast, but I'm not so sure. Third, what is the driver supposed to do if the card is expired, invalid, or for whatever reason just no good? This situation, which will surely happen, has not been addressed.

I admit, however, that a certain amount of additional business is likely to be generated from what is now the domain of the corporate "black cars". If an employee has a corporate charge card he may be more likely to use it in a yellow cab than wait for the black car to show up.

What I think would be workable would be to add the 5 per cent finance charge to the fare (if that's legal) and require that credit cards be accepted only on fares over a certain amount, like $20.

3) TV monitors. Oh, please! This has already been tried and has failed. Many people complained that the previous incarnation, a DVD that played over and over and over again, gave them motion sickness. I guarantee that this will become just another form of "noise" that will annoy both passengers and drivers alike. And come on, don't people watch enough TV as it is? Being in a NYC taxi is an opportunity to look out the window and see the parade of humanity passing by plus have a fascinating conversation with a strange person (your driver). Isn't that enough stimulation right there?

4) The electronic message system. I think it's a great idea and I have no problem with it whatsoever.

If taxi drivers were playing on a level field with other American workers (such as NYC bus drivers) I would not think these issues would warrant a strike. But we're not on a level field. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The working conditions of NYC taxi drivers are far below the standards of American labor. And that is the reason, and no other reason, that 91 per cent of the drivers are immigrants from third world countries.

The main reason for substandard working conditions in the taxi industry is that there has never been anything you could call a real union.

The taxi system we operate under was created in 1937, a time when there was great labor unrest in America. This system divided New York's 11,787 taxis into two groups of about equal numbers - the fleet cabs, and there were many fleets, and the individual operators. (Reference the book, The New York Cab Driver and his Fare, by Charles Vidich.)

It's a system that makes it perhaps impossible to have a real union. With thousands of individual drivers and dozens of fleets, how could a threatened strike be enforced? Where would you put up the picket lines?

And so the taxi industry, with no clout to oppose City Hall and no one looking out for the welfare of the drivers, evolved into an occupation with these working conditions:

- 12 hour shifts

- no medical or dental coverage

- no paid vacations

- no overtime

- no pension after working 25 years

- no profit sharing or anything resembling a bonus

All of this would be acceptable if taxi driving was a well-paying job (like in London) and the cost of these benefits could be paid out of one's salary. But taxi driving is not a well-paying job in New York. And this is the part that really gets to me.

I think it was in 1979 that a city ordinance turned all taxi drivers into "independent contractors". This meant that if you worked out of a fleet garage you were no longer an employee, you were "self-employed" (and the fleets were no longer responsible for any benefits). Instead of paying drivers by percentages of the money they booked plus tips, the drivers now had to pay the garage a leasing fee for the use of the taxi for 12 hours, plus pay for the gas. There was no cap set on what the garages could charge (until recently, which is a good thing), so the only limit the garage owners had on their fees was by attrition of drivers. Busy nights when there were more drivers available meant higher leasing fees. And a cab driver found himself working six hours before breaking even.

Now here is the part that I consider to be a fundamental injustice: although the city made all taxi drivers "independent contractors" it retained the right to tell us what we can charge for our services. This is a blatant hypocrisy. How can anyone be an independent contractor when he can't charge what the market will bear for his services? How "independent" is that?

So it's phony. Taxi drivers are not independent contractors at all. We are actually employees who get no benefits.

But wait. It gets worse.

One would think that if the city government is going to create a taxi system that is unorganizable and then is going to mandate what we can charge for our services, a sense of fair play would ensure that the drivers are able to make a decent living. And be very diligent in increasing the rate of fare at timely intervals to keep up with inflation.

But the history over the last 29 years shows that the opposite is the case. We went from 1980 to 1987 (7 years) without a rate increase. We went from 1990 to 1996 (six years) without a rate increase. We went from 1996 to 2004 (8 years) without a rate increase. And during those years I was told very frequently by passengers in my cab that taxis in New York are much cheaper than in any other city they travelled to, reports that were verified repeatedly through all these years by industry journals and the NY Times.

And also during those years I myself, who had been the individual owner of one medallion taxicab, found that after seven years I could not keep up with the expenses of my business and was forced to sell the medallion. And that was just fine with the credit union which had financed the medallion at a 17 percent interest rate and could now start a new loan with a new owner from day one.

It is one thing if hard-working people are victimized by unscrupulous individuals in private companies. But it is quite another thing if the people who are holding you down are your own elected officials and the people they appoint.

This is what taxi drivers in New York find so galling. This is what is in the back of their minds when they demand dignity and respect.

So you may be wondering how there can be a strike next week when there's no union. There is a group called the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (, but their website appears to be down) which does look out for the welfare of the NYC taxi driver. It has no official authority but it does have moral authority. They have been in opposition to the GPS tracking system for some time and are now calling for this two-day work stoppage using flyers as the way of reaching drivers. I have been checking with other drivers to see if they are working next Wednesday and Thursday. Not one I spoke with is.

The same thing happened in 1998 when a one-day strike was called for by the Alliance and it did occur. Which, when you consider the diversity and disorganization of the drivers, was kind of a miracle.

And it will happen again this week.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Bad And The Beautiful

You know, you drive a cab and people get in and people get out and most people are okay or even better than okay but then one comes in who is really, I mean really, something God must have created when He was sitting on the crapper. When somebody like that enters my cab, I put up with it and within ten minutes they are gone and happily out of my universe forever. But if a short time goes by and then another one gets in, I know what's going on. I have hit an unexpected squall of bad karma and, like a fisherman in a storm, I have no choice but to ride it out and hope I can stay afloat. So to speak.

Tuesday night was like that.

It started with my second fare. She was a particular type of character whom I have run into occasionally and whom I dub the Woe Is Me Person, sort of a professional victim. This is someone who is perpetually "suffering" from one malady or another and by cleverly making you feel guilty about it is able to manipulate you if you're not too bright. She was sixty-something, built like a boxcar, and had that "I am in such pain but don't mind me" thing going on. Sitting next to her was the cowed lackey whom I suspect has been saying "Yes, dear" for the last thirty years, her husband.

They got in on the west side of 56th and 5th and she told me their destination was a deli at 57th and Lex, a thankfully short ride. She mentioned the name of the deli. Did I know it?

"M'am, I don't know delis by their names, except the famous ones like the Carnegie Deli. But I do know 57th and Lex. I'll take you there." She spoke to her husband just loud enough for me to hear, "He doesn't know the deli." I ignored the invitation to an argument and started to drive.

It was 93 degrees Fahrenheit (that's damned hot for those of you who use centigrade) that day but fortunately the cab I had for the shift had excellent A/C and the compartment was quite comfortable. We drove less than a block, and then, her suffering voice:

"Driver, could you turn off the air conditioning, please? I have a cold and I need the windows open. Thank you."

It wasn't a request. It was an order. Turn off the A/C on a sweltering hot day.

What I should have done was to have told her that she can shut off the A/C button which controls the flow of air in the rear of the taxi herself while I close the partition to keep the cold air in the front of the cab. That would have stared the tiger in the face and probably put an end to my upcoming karma situation, but instead I complied and told her she was probably the only person in New York City who didn't want air conditioning today. My oblique comment was ignored.

I made a left on 54th Street and headed east. It was rush hour and the traffic was bumper to bumper. As I pulled up to stop at the red light at Madison Avenue, I heard this:

"Driver, please don't drive too fast. I have a bad back."

What I should have said: "Lady, do you have bad eyes, too? Look, the traffic is at a standstill. I couldn't drive too fast if I wanted to. And I do want to."

What I did say: nothing.

When you're dealing with the mechanics of karma, this is a mistake. Taking it on the chin is a way of keeping the negative energy in your own space and that makes you a magnet for the next lousy thing to happen. But I didn't realize this at the moment. I just adopted the mode of suffering saintliness myself and drove them to the damned deli on 57th Street and then shot invisible arrows through her bad back as she exited the taxi and walked into the deli by herself, leaving her husband/servant behind to pay me the fare.

Well, good riddance. But it didn't take long for her replacement to arrive.

I drove down Lex and within five minutes was hailed by a middle-aged woman at 45th Street - a woman who seemed okay at first but turned out to be another type of character I encounter from time to time: The Evil Jockey. This is a passenger who assumes you are a moron and takes control of the navigation aspect of the ride by telling you not only the route to take but which lane to be in, what speed to drive at, and where exactly to turn left or right. Sprinkled in with this will be comments such as, "Come on, you can make that light!" The passenger is the jockey. You are the horse.

She was a businesswoman going to 33rd and 6th who had not given herself enough time to get to what she said was an important meeting. When the ride began, she was conversational and pleasant. In fact, I even made the mistake of telling her I'd been driving a cab for twenty-nine years when the talk went in that direction. But when we became stuck in heavy traffic at 42nd Street (due to the explosion a couple of weeks ago that shut down Lexington Avenue between 42nd and 39th Streets), with the speed of a light switch she became the bitch from hell.

"You'd better change lanes. You're in the slow lane."

Bingo. With that single disrespectful communication she turned me into a driver who cared about getting her to that meeting on time to one who didn't particularly give a damn if she was late or not. Not that I intended to sabotage the ride. But the mental machinery was turned on that seems to control whether things go right or things go wrong. And wrong it went.

First, it took three minutes to get through the light at 42nd Street. But the tension in the cab made it seem like fifteen. Next, when I told her I intended to take 5th Avenue downtown she ordered me to go straight on 42nd and make the left on 7th Avenue. Then, after circumventing heavy traffic at Broadway and making the turn she ordered, she took issue with me for not turning on Broadway since it would have taken us more directly to her destination. I started to lose my cool.

"Look, you told me to take 7th Avenue, so that's what I did!"

"Broadway would have been more direct."

"You told me to take 7th."

"You've been driving a cab for twenty-nine years and you don't know that Broadway is more direct? I don't buy it."

"I don't care if you buy it or not. You told me to take 7th and that's what I did. And anyway, there was heavy traffic at Broadway and if we'd taken it we'd still be back there waiting to make the left turn."

In divorce proceedings this would be called "irreconcilable differences". We had reached a point, after being together in a cab for only twelve minutes, of hating each other's guts.

"And now you're going to tell me you can't make a left on 34th Street?" she asked in a hostile tone. (She had ordered me to stop on 7th Avenue at 34th Street and there's a no left turn sign at that intersection until 8 pm. It was then 7:30.)

"That's right."


She handed me a ten dollar bill for a $9.10 fare. I handed back to her 90 cents in change, not expecting or wanting a tip. She had decided she'd rather walk the long block to 6th Avenue than endure any further futility with a retarded taxi driver and left the cab with no further words exchanged.

But those invisible arrows were flying all over the place.

What I didn't tell her was that if we'd driven down to 32nd Street and made a left, I could have had her within a short block of her destination in thirty seconds. But by this time, of course, I was rooting for her not only to be late, but to lose her job and wind up sleeping in a cardboard box on the street.

So it seemed that with the way the shift was going, I was being set up by forces beyond my control to have a completely disastrous night. Who knows what else might happen when you start pulling in people like this? A flat tire? An accident? The cab breaks down in the Bronx?

So I confronted what was going on. Yes, I was somehow attracting negativity. I couldn't see two monsters like this in a row as being a coincidence. But wait, by simply observing this I could bring an end to it. There was no need for me to take a karmic whipping. I could simply decide that okay, that's it, no more bad rides tonight. I'm a good guy. I'm a great cab driver. No need for these things to happen to me.

And right away my night turned around.

Immediately I picked up a great fare who was all smiles and seemed to think she was just the luckiest woman in the world to have me as her taxi driver. And then there was a Japanese couple who were big Yankee fans. And a man from Philadelphia who discussed with me the importance of Alexander Hamilton to United States history. I was having one great fare after another, culminating in this at 10:30:

Pictured here are newlyweds Eric and Sabina and Sabina's parents from Poland. I drove them (and a lot of flowers) from a restaurant on the West Side where their wedding reception had taken place to their apartment on 40th and Lex. Eric and Sabina had been dating for about a year and decided to get married to coincide with Sabina's parents visit to the United States. I want to tell you, if you drive a cab you can't get a ride that's more joyous than this.

So it taught me a lesson. You don't have to go into agreement with what would seem to be the inevitability of bad karma. We're not the dimwits of destiny. We write the words to our own music and we dance the way we damn well decide we want to dance.

Right? Right!

I continued to drive on into the night wondering if I could get anything to top a bride and a groom being in my cab. What could come next? How about a Hollywood film director who decides he wants to use me in his next movie about taxi drivers? Maybe Martin Scorcese himself! My mind began to wander... Taxi Driver 2... hmmm...

The night went on. A little after midnight I was hailed in front of a gay bar called "Therapy" on 52nd between 8th and 9th. Some guy was saying goodbye to a young lady and kind of escorted her into my cab. (It has become fashionable in NYC for girls to hang out in gay bars.) She told me her destination was in Astoria, Queens, and after a brief discussion about the best way to get there, we were on our way.

I was still in a great mood and wanting to communicate with everyone, so I attempted to start a conversation with this person but found, after a couple of failed tries, that she was not the chatty type. So I put my eyes on the road and just drove. C'est la vie.

However, as I was crossing the lower level of the 59th Street Bridge, I became alarmed at something - I could no longer see her in my rear-view mirror. I turned around to see what was up and saw that she was lying face down across the back seat. Oh my god, she was a vomit candidate.

"Are you all right?"

Her head tilted upward slightly. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm just tired."

I wasn't convinced. Sometimes people who are drunk and on the verge of barfing in a cab are afraid the driver will throw them out if he thinks they're about to be sick. So they con the driver with lies.

"Listen, if you feel like you're gonna be sick, just tell me so I can pull over."

"I'm okay. I'm just tired," she said in what was almost a whisper.

What can a driver do in this situation? You can't just throw somebody out because you think she's going to vomit. Maybe she was just tired. I had no choice but to keep driving and hope she was on the level.

It took six or seven more minutes to get her in front of her apartment building on 28th Avenue. I looked back at her and observed the seat, half-expecting to see barf on it. But the seat was clean. The girl, however, was still sprawled across it and was now out like a light. I had to yell at her to get her awake enough to realize she had arrived at her home.

She opened her eyes. And then she sat up.

And that was all it took. The change of position of her body was the impetus that sent about a gallon of creamy puke spilling from her mouth, down her arm, and all over the back seat.

I sprang like a leopard to the back door and opened it in the same way that cops do when they're raiding a house where drug dealers are living. I was outraged, to put it mildly.

"Oh, shit!" I screamed. "Why didn't you tell me to pull over? Dammit!"

But my rage drew nothing but a pukey blank stare. The alcohol had kicked in and she was out of it. It took her about five minutes in her semi-conscious state to find the money to pay for the fare and kick in an extra twenty dollars at my not too subtle suggestion. And all the while covered in her own vomit.

She then stood up, took a few steps toward her building, and collapsed on the sidewalk. As pissed off as I was, I still did the right thing and took her by the arm and guided her to her place and made sure she got into it all right. I then had to wipe her puke off my own hand and deal with the mess she'd left me. Just fucking wonderful.

I went to work with my paper towels, Windex, and air freshener spray. After about twenty minutes of disgusting, humiliating labor, I thought I had it licked (pardon my choice of words) and went back to work. But after a passenger asked me if someone had thrown up in the cab, I had to confront the fact that I needed to bring the damn thing back to the garage. There the hard-working Tonio, one of the all-night guys, helped me remove the back seat and hose both it and the floorboards down. The fact is, her vomit had seeped under the seat through the seat belt openings and onto the floorboard. After we wiped it down with cloth towels, the job was finally done for real.

I took a few more fares that night, but that was basically it. The puker had put a pretty heavy exclamation point onto what had already been a very memorable evening.

And what that exclamation point meant to me was this: remember all that stuff I was saying about how we write the words to our own music and all? Well, who or whatever's in charge of that karma thing doesn't seem to like hearing talk like that. It might be a good idea to keep your voice down when talking about all that free will stuff, all right?

Just a thought.

Of course, we still have free will to click here to see Pictures From A Taxi. Right?

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Man Who Bought Third Base

I had three memorable rides last night (Saturday).

The first was a woman who didn't know left from right - literally. She was an attractive, thirty-something with two small children taking a short trip up 8th Avenue from 34th to 47th. When I got within a couple of blocks of the destination I asked, as I always do, if she'd like to be dropped off on the left or the right side of the one-way road.

"Which side is the right?" she asked.

I looked at her in the mirror. She had a puzzled look on her face and she was making motions with her hands as she tried to figure out which was left and which was right. I thought she might be joking around with me and was about to laugh out loud but then I observed that she was quite sincere in her effort to solve this problem.

I pointed to the right side of the avenue and told her that unless something had drastically changed since the morning, that was the right side. She indicated that that was the side she wanted and I immediately pulled the cab over to the curb.

"Thank you," she said as she paid me $7.00 for the $4.90 fare. "Sorry." And with that she carefully ushered the two children onto the sidewalk and was on her way.

Now what I found remarkable here was that this was not a translation problem - English was her natural language - and she conducted herself as a normally intelligent person in all other ways. It was just that for some reason I will never know she had not mastered "left" and "right".

This must have been the person they had in mind when they invented GPS.

The second memorable ride was a teenager in a Yankee shirt whom I took to 75th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. This kid had been to the Yankee game earlier in the day and had caught a foul ball which he held in his hand. He told me the ball had been hit by a player on the Kansas City Royals in the second inning and it occurred to me that, since I had been watching the beginning of the game on TV before starting my work day, I must have seen this very ball on my own television. He gave it to me to hold for a minute and so it was as if the baseball had come through the screen and wound up in my own hand, like they do in animation or computerized graphics. Very cool!

It was the third ride of the night, however, that was the most remarkable. At 10:15 I picked up four middle-aged tourists from Huntsville, Texas, and drove them over to Rockefeller Center. They were in good spirits and doing the usual tourist things, this being their first time in New York City. A particularly jovial fellow sat up front with me who seemed to have a permanent smile on his face.

They, too, had been to Yankee Stadium that day and our conversation was mostly about that. This was the game where Alex Rodriguez ("A-Rod") had finally hit his historic 500th home run, an achievement that is, of course, a very big deal in the world of baseball. My passengers told me they had been sitting only two rows away from the spot where the home run ball landed and were actually in the swarm of maniacs trying to get it.

So, having come so close to catching the ball, they decided after the game to stop by one of the shops in the stadium and purchase a couple of souvenir baseballs. But they were told as they came up to the counter that the shop's entire stock of baseballs had been sold out. However, as fate would have it, at that moment an announcement was made in the shop that the bases that had been used in the game were now going on sale. And so the man sitting next to me in my cab on a total impulse had decided to buy third base.

At first I didn't really understand what he meant. "You mean they sell the bases that were actually used in the game?" I asked incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.

"Yup. That's right."

"How do you know it's really not some other base?"

"Because they have an official major league insignia on it."

"Do you have the base with you?"

"No, they send it in the mail."

"And they only sold the three bases?"

"Yeah, I took third because that's the position A-Rod plays."

"How much did you pay for this?"

My passenger hesitated a bit before answering. I sensed some embarrassment here. "Uh... two thousand dollars."

"What!" I exclaimed, "you paid two thousand dollars for... a base!"

He laughed and said, "Yeah, I know, there's a sucker born every minute, right?"

And then one of the wives chimed in that not only that, they had also bought "Rolex" watches on the street earlier in the day and did I think they were real?

Oh my god! These people were from some movie where country bumpkins arrive in the big metropolis and within an hour have had their pockets picked clean by quick-talking, city-slicker con men. I decided to try a sales pitch of my own.

"Did you know," I asked, "that the city council has approved a plan to sell shares in the Brooklyn Bridge? It's going to be like a condominium. It will be owned by private investors who then will be able to charge a toll for crossing it and the profits will go to the shareholders."


"Yeah, and they have authorized certain veteran cab drivers to accept application fees. If you give me your names and mailing addresses, along with the fee of a hundred dollars, I will see that the forms are sent to you. So... do you want to buy a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge?"

There was what is called in the theater a "pregnant pause".

They looked at me. I looked at them. And then told them that I was kidding. Of course!

Not that they really believed me anyway. They weren't that stupid. In fact, they may not have been stupid at all. The man on my right went on to tell me that his two grand also bought A-Rod's actual signature on the base, a hologram on the base that is the same hologram that was used to identify the ball that was hit by A-Rod for the 500th homer, and a certificate from Major League Baseball that verifies that this was the base used in that particular game. In the crazy world of baseball memorabilia, the damned thing may already be worth more than he paid for it.

Maybe that's why the man who bought third base never stopped smiling.

I've heard a rumor that if you click here for Pictures From A Taxi you may never stop smiling, too.