We Exist

“Walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist”

                                                                                                                                                                                -Arcade Fire

One out of many - Greenpoint

E Plurubus Unum – Greenpoint

“Hey there, where to?”

“We’re going t- hey, wait a second. You’re a native American!”

“If you’re suggesting that I was here before the white man arrived from Europe, you’d be sorely mistaken.”

“No, not *that* kind. You’re a native American, like…you’re from here.”

“Well, if you consider New Jersey via Wisconsin as being from here, then you’d be correct.”

“And your English is really good!”

“Well, I’d like to think it is. I’ve been speaking it for long enough.”

“Honey, can you believe this? We have a real American taking us home tonight.”

“Yup, we exist. Mind telling me where you’re going so I can drive ya there?”

This conversation (or something closely resembling it) goes on at least half a dozen times a week, every week since I started driving well over 2 years ago. I had a feeling when I first walked into the Taxi School and noticed that I was the lightest-skinned person in the room who wasn’t an instructor that I was in for a demographic wake-up call. Even after all of this time, I’m still amazed at how few native-born cabdrivers there are roaming the streets in yellow vehicles every night.

When I was growing up, the popular view of cabdrivers in New York held that they were old men, smoking stogies, and saying “Where to?” as someone in a fedora or some God-awful polyester and plaid ensemble hopped in and blurted out the destination in hurried tones. Old film noir movies would seemingly have a gangster or cop hurrying into a Checker Cab and ordering the driver to “Follow that cab!” as the vehicle sped away in hot pursuit of the bad guys. As I got older, my solo jaunts into the city quickly taught me not to jaywalk and to look both ways before crossing the street. Now that I’ve been behind the wheel, I realize that everything isn’t as black and white as those old films, or who’s right and wrong when it comes to who dominates the streets in the big city.

That would also include the drivers themselves. For generations, it was the Irish, Italians, and Jews that drove the Taxis of New York. As waves of immigrants from Far Western, Southern, and Eastern Europe came through Ellis Island, many of them chose to remain in the vicinity. Scores of tenements on the West and Lower East Sides of Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs were soon a patchwork of neighborhoods, each one defined by the group(s) that chose to settle there and become a part of the American melting pot.

Eventually, these groups did assimilate and later generations of them moved into the Postwar autoburbs of Long Island, new Jersey, Upstate, and elsewhere. Hours of pounding the pavement looking for fares gave way to white collar jobs, home ownership, extended native-born families, and cashing out the equity that could be built up through a Taxi medallion. As the number of Caucasian immigrants dwindled, those looking to make a better life in the New World came from new lands. Africans, Indians, Hispanics, and East Asians were coming to America in larger droves and like their predecessors inspired by The New Colossus at the base of Lady Liberty, they took up jobs that would allow them to partake in all that America had to offer.

Naturally, cabdriving was among those.

It was only in the last 20 or 30 years that the racial make-up of the drivers of New York City’s taxis really began to change. Even while watching reruns of Taxi or the bits and pieces of Taxi Driver that I’ve caught over the years (I still have yet to see it all the way through), it was apparent that in the 1970’s, Hollywood depicted cabdrivers as either being black or white. The former being the token minority of the day and the latter being the old-style persona that most people pictured behind the wheel in Gotham.

Today, they’re both minorities. Dana Rubinstein summed up the current demographics of Taxi drivers and passengers recently, and indeed it turns out that over 35% of drivers today are either from Pakistan or Bangladesh. India also turns out to have been a sizable origin country for many drivers and coming in at just under 6% is…

…the United States.

A deeper look into the 2014 Taxicab Fact Book reveals that 6% of the drivers who work a typical week driving a New York City Taxi reside in a place west of the Hudson River.

So to sum it up, having a native-born cabbie who calls New Jersey home isn’t so far-fetched.

Yes indeed, we do exist.

I never expected to be part of any majority when I decided to take this job on and it’s good preparation for what’s coming ahead in America. Already, there are 18 states that have a non-white race that leads that state in births and that number will rise in the coming years as the birthrate among whites continues slowly decrease. Sometime in the middle of this century, whites will cease to be a majority in this country and will a plurality instead. The number of blacks as a percentage of the U.S. population has also been decreasing and has shown sharp declines in many northern states as many of them return to their American roots in the south. The “browning” of America will continue as Asians and Hispanics continue their strong immigration here and racial barriers in leadership, corporations, governmental positions, and even in sports will continue to fall as demographic changes become fully apparent.

Even cabdrivers may become antiquated in the not-so-distant future, as Google is leading the way toward driverless vehicles that are on pace to debut by the end of the decade. It was conventional wisdom that drivers were one of the few jobs in America that couldn’t be outsourced or automated but what was a blue-collar bastion here for so long may go the way of stenographers, teletype operators, and money order agents as positions relegated to the history books and webpages of yesteryear. Driving has always been in my blood and one of the rites of passage for me that I’ll always remember was the first time I was able to go behind the wheel by myself and see as much of the World out there as a tank or two or twelve of gas would allow me to.

One of the big problems facing our nation today is what to do with the unskilled who are coming to our shores, willing to work but not finding enough jobs and tasks to perform for a living wage. The irony is that many of the positions that were available to recent arrivals may no longer exist within the lifespan of the current adult generation, as the drivers of yellow cabs may follow those of so many in the Big Apple. Blue collar and manufacturing work continues to dwindle in New York as newer low-wage positions now require more technical and trained proficiency, and offer less of a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Having all 13,000+ yellow cabs (and thousands more livery and green cabs) become automated would be a blow to those who would have used those vehicles as a stepping-stone to a better life for themselves and their families, even though the price of a medallion today has rendered ownership nearly impossible for those not willing to put in the diligence and 20+ years required to full pay off the purchase of one.

The joke that I mentioned at the beginning of this entry is one that I hear all the time, but it may soon be replaced by someone getting into a cab and punching in their destination into their phone or on-board computer. When the vehicle goes the wrong way, reads it incorrectly, or freezes up like a Windows computer, the person in the back seat would probably curse at the heavens and wish for a real driver, regardless of where he or she is from or how proficient the English spoken would be.

Hopefully, that day will never come to pass in the Big Apple.

Cliff - Greenpoint

Cliff – Greenpoint

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