Thursday, January 31, 2008

Goodbye, Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani has dropped out of the presidential race and, like the Munchkins who showed up after Dorothy's house came in for a landing, I feel it's safe to emerge from the hole I've been hiding in since he announced he was running over a year ago, and air it out about this guy. Actually I was going to write this post whether he won or lost in Florida, but the fact that I no longer have to worry that Giuliani is going to be our next president does make me feel a bit more comfortable at my keyboard, I must admit.

I have an unique perspective about Giuliani, one that you wouldn't hear from the usual political commentators. I can write about him from the point of view of a taxi driver who was directly affected by him for the eight years he was in office, from 1994 - 2001. When you're a taxi driver in New York, although you're deemed an "independent contractor", in reality the conditions of your working life are very strongly influenced by the government agency called the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which is headed by its own Chairman. This person is appointed by the mayor and, if the mayor is a strong-willed, hands-on guy like Giuliani, he pretty much does whatever the mayor says he should do.

So in a sense a taxi driver is only two steps down from having the mayor as his boss. Therefore, to that extent, I know Giuliani.

For the first four years, I liked him. The changes I noticed about New York were that the "squeegee" guys disappeared and the numbers of hustlers and destitute on the streets were greatly reduced. This was attributed to his policies. But then, from the moment he was re-elected in 1997 (and could not be elected again due to the term limit law), it was as if an acorn had dropped on his head and he just went wild in taking New York from being not merely a safer place than it had been before, but to what many were saying was a similarity to a police state.

The first sign of trouble I noticed was this: only a couple of weeks into his new term in 1998, a man got in my cab who was in a state of agitation and apparently needed to tell anyone who would listen what had happened to his brother the previous night. His brother, he said, owned a bar on the Upper East Side. A man and a woman whom he'd never seen before entered the bar, put a quarter in the juke box, and started to dance. This dancing was witnessed by two people sitting at the bar who turned out to be undercover cops. They promptly got up and wrote his brother a summons for $2,000 for allowing dancing in his bar when he does not possess a cabaret license.
It turned out this was a law that had been sitting on the books for a hundred years and up until then had rarely, if ever, been enforced. And it was not an isolated incident. I heard numerous similar stories as time went on and concluded that this was part of a citywide sweep that could only have come from the mayor himself, as no police commissioner in his right mind would ever dream of sending his cops out to do such mean-spirited and absurd enforcement. It has been conjectured, and I believe it, that the two "dancers" were themselves cops, which would have made this operation nothing better than a set-up.
One thing is not conjecture, however. If you go into any bar in New York City today and look around at the walls, you will find a sign that states quite clearly for all to read: NO DANCING PERMITTED.
It turned out this no-dancing-in-bars action was a harbinger of things to come, particularly for taxi drivers. Within weeks we were hit with a bolt from the blue. The mayor announced new rules for taxi drivers and taxi owners. Using statistics about increasing traffic accidents (which turned out to be false) as his justification, these were some of the conditions we suddenly had to contend with:
1) If a taxi driver was being ticketed for a moving violation, he would receive not one, but two summonses. One from NY State, like always, and an additional one from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. One offense, two tickets. (Many months later, this was struck down by the courts.)
2) If a taxi driver accumulated six points on his driver's license within 18 months he would automatically have his hack license suspended for one month. Six points is normally the equivalent of two moving violations. This rule applied not only if you were ticketed while you were driving your taxi, but also if you were driving your own personal car. Thus a taxi driver could make an illegal turn in Wyoming and lose his job for a month in New York City. (This rule still stands, except it's been reduced to 15 months.)
3) Owners of taxi medallions were required to submit a list of all their personal assets to the government.
Following this decree from Giuliani, resistance, previously non-existent, began to build. A group formed calling itself the Taxi Workers Alliance and made attempts to protect the rights of taxi drivers. Using nothing but word of mouth and flyers distributed by hand, they called for a one-day strike in May, 1998. Amazingly, the word spread like fire and on that particular day it was impossible to find a yellow cab in the city.
I considered this to be a labor miracle. I had been saying for 20 years that the biggest problem of the taxi industry in New York was that there was no union. Drivers were powerless to stand up to the whims and injustices perpetuated against them by the powers-that-be and yet here, at last, was at least a real attempt to correct that situation. I was exhilarated.
Giuliani went on television that night and with a crooked smile on his face made this sarcastic comment: "You know, the streets were nice and empty today. It was nice. They should do it more often."
He then stonewalled the people who were trying to represent the drivers. He wouldn't even speak with them.
However, he did do this: he sent his police force out to ticket taxi drivers for any imaginable offense for the next two years. There was no question, if you were a taxi driver from 1998 through 2000, that "the heat" was always on. Even if you were not pulled over yourself, on any given day you could observe in disturbing numbers the other cabbies who had been. Plus there were the endless stories you heard from these drivers and even from passengers about the harrassment taxi drivers were being subjected to.
I heard stories of drivers being ticketed because the receipt paper sticking out of the meter from the previous ride had not been torn off. Or an entry was missing from their trip sheets. Or a driver was wearing a shirt with no collar. Or he was wearing sandals. A friend of mine who had been a taxi driver for 25 years was pulled over by one of the TLC patrol cars and written up for several such tickets. Rather than sacrifice his own sense of dignity by paying them, he instead mailed his hack license in to the TLC, quitting the business.
It was abundantly clear to me that taxi drivers as a group had been singled out by Giuliani as targets for punishment. But whenever the subject came up in my cab (and it was a daily topic of conversation), the question I always heard was, "Why?"
What did Giuliani have against taxi drivers, anyway?
I never had an answer for that question.
Not until a passenger in my cab volunteered some information in the year 2000 that made sense to me. He was a middle-aged man going on a long ride up to the North Bronx and in the course of conversation mentioned that he was a police officer who worked "in the mayor's office". This interesting statement of course led to an in-depth conversation about Giuliani and eventually this man asked me a rhetorical question: "Why do you suppose," he asked, "the mayor has been so tough on three groups - the taxi drivers, the food vendors, and the video store operators?"
I didn't know the answer yet but I did know that aside from my own group, these other two industries, particularly the food vendors, had often been under attack during Giuliani's reign. The answer then given to me by my passenger was this: "These groups currently all have within them large numbers of Muslims. The mayor sees Muslims as being terrorists."
I don't repeat this comment as if it were a matter of fact or anything that Giuliani ever said in public. It can easily be dismissed as hearsay. I'm just saying that, given everything I knew about how Giuliani conducted himself, this statement was the only explanation I ever heard that made sense to me. It fit, in my opinion.
Of course, this conversation took place well before 9-11 and in hindsight some people might say Giuliani was right. But obviously it is fundamentally wrong - and dangerous - to lump entire groups of people together and make them targets for attacks from government agencies because some of them may be criminals. That's how genocides get started.
So I was deeply concerned that this man could possibly get his hands on the United States military and the nuclear arsenal. And even more concerned when he was actually leading in the polls. I had serious questions about the ability of the voters to see through a person like this.
But I was wrong. Rudy put all his resources into the Florida primary and came away with only 13 percent of the vote and one delegate to the convention. And then he quit. The voters had more sense than I had given them credit for, and it has rehabilitated my confidence in the democratic process.
So in that sense, now that he's lost, I'm actually glad he ran.
The "streets" of political thugs are much emptier now.
It's nice.
Maybe he should do it more often.
Then again, maybe not.

But one thing anyone should seriously consider doing more often is clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Three Strikes And You're Out System

Quite often, after a passenger learns that I've been driving a cab in New York City for thirty years, they will ask me if I've ever been held up.

"You mean tonight?" is my usual wiseass reply.

"Noooo... ever!"

"How many times would you guess?" I ask.

They think about it for a minute, doing some kind of math based on a thirty-year time span.




Wrong again. Sorry to disappoint anyone who's hoping to get a juicy tale out of me, but the answer is actually ZERO. Throughout all those years in the '70s and '80s when New York had such a high crime rate, I was driving cabs that had no partitions to protect me from passengers and I was taking people to the worst neighborhoods in the city almost every night, yet I have never been the victim of a robbery. I've had people rip me off by not paying the fare, sure, and once a kid on the street tried unsuccessfully to grab the money that was in my shirt pocket, but I've never had a passenger pull out a weapon or in any way attempt to separate me from my money. Never.

When I tell people this, what I usually hear is, "Knock on wood."

Like hell I will. If I thought it was luck, then I would also think that any day now my luck is about to run out. It isn't luck.

I have a system...

Many years ago - I think it was in 1978 - I had a conversation with a passenger in my cab which may have saved my life. The passenger was a woman who was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Our conversation had to do with violent crime, a subject that was on everybody's mind in the city in those days. She told me she had prosecuted hundreds of violent criminals and had come to this conclusion: the one you think it is, it is.

"The one you think it is, it is." Those words remained in my consciousness, big time, and it led to the development of my taxi driver's anti-crime system. What she meant was that people who commit stupid, violent crimes look the part. And holding up a cab at gunpoint or knife point in the hope of getting, what? - a couple of hundred dollars? - is a really stupid crime because the idiot is risking years in jail in order to get so little.

The beauty of it, if you want to call it that, is that someone who is that stupid is also not smart enough to dress up in a three-piece suit in order to fool the cab driver. Because if he was smart enough to do that, he wouldn't commit the crime in the first place. He'd commit a different kind of crime, like stealing pocketbooks in restaurants, instead.

After you drive a cab for six months or so you begin to become quite familiar with the various types of passengers you tend to get on any given day. Generally speaking, your customers are people who can afford to pay the fare and fit into certain categories, like business travelers, tourists, working New Yorkers, etc. So the odd person who does not fit into one of these categories stands out like a sore toenail and that is the person you pay careful attention to.

And that is where my system begins.

STRIKE ONE: the passenger looks like Godzilla and I would have driven right past him without stopping, but somehow this guy (it's never an unaccompanied female) made it into my cab anyway. Maybe I was stopped at a red light and he got in or maybe he got in before the previous, departing passenger could close the door, but one way or the other, there he is in my cab. I am stuck with him.

When I say he "looks like Godzilla" what I mean is that he looks like a thug. This is a guy who, to my eye, looks conceivably like someone who is low-life enough to think it would be worthwhile to stick up a taxi driver. It is a judgement call by me based on years of experience. I do not compromise my own reality.

However, this is only Strike One. I do not make any attempt to get him out of my cab or give him a hard time. I merely ask him where he wants to go and start driving in that direction. If the place he wants to go is a well-populated street in a decent part of town, I have no problem with it. Even a stupid criminal is smart enough not to try to stick you up in the middle of Herald Square. But if he wants to go to the South Bronx at two in the morning, then it's...

STRIKE TWO: he's taking me to a bad part of the city at a time of the night when I don't feel safe going there. If the guy is planning on holding me up, this is where he wants me to be. He could direct me to drive into a dark, deserted street in an area where he feels safe and commit the crime there.

When a passenger has two strikes, I have a distinctly uneasy feeling about him. The fare seems wrong. My instincts tell me I am heading into trouble. This is the critical time for a cab driver. The incorrect thing to do is to "hope". You don't want to find yourself in that dark, deserted street with this guy. On the other hand, it would also be wrong to refuse to drive him there. Maybe he's okay. But you don't know that yet, and what must be done at this point is to find out.

I emphasize "must be done". Finding out if this guy is intending to hold you up is the difference between being at Cause or being at Effect, possibly even between life and death. And you must remain at Cause in this situation. How can that be done?

I do it by forcing myself to have a conversation with him. I will just start talking to this guy about ANYTHING. It could be sports, politics, the weather, the economy, traffic, giraffes, people passing by on the street, the color of my true love's eyes, if Burger King's fries are really better than McDonald's... ANYTHING. As I am talking to him, I am carefully watching his reaction to my communication in the mirror. I am trying to determine, by his response or lack of response, what is going on in his mind. I am trying to get a "feel" for the guy.

Interestingly, 99 percent of the time he turns out to be okay. I can see by the way he talks that he does not have an evil intention. I continue on with the ride and he pays the fare. But what about that one percent? What if the guy speaks with some hostility, is sarcastic, or won't communicate at all? What if, after forcing myself to converse with him, I still have a bad feeling about the guy? Then it's...

STRIKE THREE: he is out. I must get this guy out of my cab and I must do it in a busy place where there are lots of people around. How to get rid of him? There are three basic ways:

A) Overtly. You pull up next to a police car and announce to the passenger that you don't like the feeling of this ride and you're not continuing on with it. You don't charge the guy for the ride but if he has a problem, there's the police officer. Or, if there's no cop around, shut the partition and lock it and order him out of the cab. Again, no charge. Make sure you stop in a place where you can pull away the moment his foot touches the pavement.

The overt method is not recommended. It could lead to a confrontation or a ticket for a refusal from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Better than that are the other two methods, the sneaky methods, both of which require a little acting skill...

B) Covertly, Part 1. There is something wrong with the car. Years ago, when I owned my own cab, I had a cut-off switch installed in the taxi. Whenever I hit the switch, the engine would stop running and wouldn't start up again. It was (and still is) illegal, of course, as it could be easily abused to refuse fares you don't feel like taking. But that was the perfect tool. However, if you can't get a cut-off switch installed, there is another way.

Press your foot lightly on the emergency brake to the point where the red "brake" light appears on the dashboard. It will not affect the movement of the car if the pressure of your foot is very slight, but the red light will come on nevertheless. Then announce to the passenger that the brake light just came on and the brake pedal is going all the way down to the floorboard when you step on it, so you're going to have to end the ride and call a tow truck. Don't charge him for the ride as he leaves the premises. Then lock the doors, put your off-duty light on, and drive away.

C) Covertly, Part 2. There's something wrong with you. One way of doing this is the fake cell phone call. You pull out your cell phone and pretend that you're having a conversation with a family member. There has been a terrible accident and a relative has been taken to the hospital. You must get there at once. Sorry, but you're going to have to drop him off right now. No charge.

And then there is the most drastic, yet effective, way of all: "Very sorry, it's really embarrassing to say this, but I have diarrhea." No need to elaborate! Just remember to do this only in a busy place with lots of people around.

So there it is. If you are a cab driver yourself, I urge you to study and practice the Three Strikes And You're Out System even if you have a two-way radio in your cab. (In New York, we don't have radios - all our business comes right off the street.) And if you know someone who is a cab driver, please print out this post and put it in his or her hands. You never know, you might be saving a life.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Celebrity Stories From My Passengers

There are certain subjects that are common grounds for conversation in a taxicab - the weather, traffic, sports, politics, whatever's in the news, things that you see on the street. Dogs. And celebrities.

New York is a celebrity town. Nonchalant New Yorkers may not gawk at or bother the celebrities they encounter around the city, but just about every New Yorker has a personal list of celebrities they've spotted. And I have found that asking a passenger if they've ever seen a celebrity on the street is an almost foolproof method of starting a conversation with that passenger.

As a taxi driver for many years, I have a very long list of celebrities I've either had in my cab or seen walking around. And I've posted a couple of these stories already. But I've never written about a celebrity story that was told to me by a passenger. In the last couple of weeks, though, I've heard two stories that I thought were exceptional enough to pass them along. So here goes...

A few days before Christmas I was taking a forty-something man across town when the song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" came floating out of my radio. I mentioned to my passenger that about 25 years ago I had the man who wrote that song in my cab (J. Fred Coots) and I told him about the ride. I like telling that story because it's so exotic. I mean, the celebrities you might expect to see or meet would usually be movie stars, musicians, or TV talking heads. Who would ever expect to run into the author of a popular Christmas song? It was a very unusual category of celebrity.

My passenger, not to be outdone, told me a story of his own. He said he works in the New York Public Library and one day a few years ago a woman came up to his desk who wanted to apply for a library card. She looked familiar, but he wasn't sure who she was until she filled in a form and he read her name.

It was Monica Lewinsky.

Other people in the library had already spotted her and were kind of staring at her through the corners of their eyes, he said, and then she suddenly turned around and addressed them. "Yes," she exclaimed, "it's me!"

Monica Lewinsky - now that is an exotic celebrity sighting. Ms. Lewinsky is the sole occupant of her own particular category of celebrity.

And then last Saturday night there was another one. I picked up a middle-aged man and a younger woman in Midtown and drove them down to Soho. The lady got on her cell phone with her mother and excitedly told her that she'd just come from a restaurant called Cipriani's and had made a celebrity sighting - Tony Bennett. When that conversation ended I mentioned to her that I'd once had Tony Bennett in my cab and told her about what that was like. I then asked her if she'd ever spotted any other celebrities and she thought about it and said, "Well... there was O.J. Simpson..."

There's another celebrity who has a category all to himself. But my passenger hadn't merely spotted him. She actually had an interesting story to tell.

She said she used to be a nanny for a couple of children whose parents lived just down the street from O.J. Simpson's house in Los Angeles. Yes, that house. In fact, she said, the children she was caring for often played with the Simpson's children. And she would see Nicole and O.J. frequently at things like soccer games. And then she said that she had actually seen O.J. Simpson and Nicole Simpson on the night of the murder. Both he and Nicole had attended, separately, a ballet recital that their daughter was participating in. And my passenger had been at that recital.

It reminded me of another story I'd been told by a passenger years ago. He said as a teenager in Dallas, Texas, he had seen John F. Kennedy drive by in his motorcade just minutes before he was assassinated.

Only in retrospect do we realize that the person who had been standing next to you on the street was Fate.

However, no retrospect is needed to click here for Pictures From A Taxi. You could just do it right now.