Raise the roof light

A typical weekend cherry-picker

A typical weekend cherry-picker

“So let me ask you something…”

“Yeah?”

“What’s the deal with the roof lights? Seems like half of the Taxis are off-duty right now but it’s Saturday night.”

“Well, not this cab. I don’t play that game and any cab driver worth his salt won’t have the off-duty lights on unless he’s legitimately going on break.”

I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve had this conversation or something similar to this since I started driving. One of the things we went through in Taxi school how was to go off duty, which involved three steps:

1) Lock the doors

2) Put the off-duty lights on

3) Log off and go take your break for as long as need be

Want to guess how many drivers actually do this? If I had to guess, I’d say that very few actually go by the rules like we’re supposed to. One of the perks of my job is that I can take a break whenever I wish, as long as my vehicle doesn’t have any passengers in it. It’s not something I do often but when nature or hunger pangs call, no one tells me to “get back to work” or to wait until a designated break time.

The big problem with the off-duty lights as currently construed is that it is *not* linked to the computer/gps that we have to log into before the start of a shift. What that means is that drivers can be on-duty with the off-duty lights on, with the ability to abuse the pickup of passengers via cherry-picking. Among all of the changes that the yellow cab industry will be undergoing in the next few years is an overhaul of this roof light system. In an ideal world, the lights would be gone and replaced with nice, bright LED green and red bulbs. The former would be for any cab available and the latter would cover cabs that would be occupied, off-duty, mechanically disabled, and so on.

Until then, the antiquated lights remain. For anyone unfamiliar with the way cabdrivers use them now, here’s a 101 on how to read them the next time you’re in the Big Apple:

1) Center light on, off-duty lights off: Cab is empty and read to take a fare. Hail away!

2) Center light off, off-duty lights off. Cab is occupied with a passenger.

3) Center light on, off-duty lights on: Cabdriver is most likely cherry-picking. God forbid you’re going to an outer Borough or to a place that the driver doesn’t want to take you to. You’re about to get an excuse from the driver that reeks of B.S., but you the passenger will be the one shoveling it once the Taxi speeds away.

4) Center light off, off-duty lights on: Cabdriver has taken a passenger to a spot that is more than likely within Manhattan or to a spot where the driver thinks he can “flip” (find another fare after discharging the passenger) the fare quickly.

Yes, it’s illegal to ride around cruising while keeping the off-duty lights on but if TLC got a complaint every time this happened, 311 would crash almost instantly. Keep in mind that the only time we’re supposed to ride around like in Option 3 is a half hour before the end of our shift, when the Taxi is on its way back to the garage and must be there at a designated time for the shift change. Lucky New Yorkers who live in Astoria, Long Island City, or Sunnyside can always get a ride across the Queensboro Bridge at 4:30 since hordes of yellow cabs are making their way back to their respective garages before the rush does them in.

I don’t worry about the changes coming – smartphone apps, outer Borough Taxis, the Taxi of the Future, or the new rooflights. Drivers who don’t own the medallions aren’t tied down to the vehicles and we have enough outlets to vent the problems that exist in our industry. If anything, Taxis need to change with the world around them and if it has to start with the way that passengers see and hail us, so be it. I just wish that all of these improvements would have more input from the people who actually make the system run instead of those who control the strings from above.

A checkered past

Checker Cab – Greenpoint

The fare hike that went into effect last week came and went without a lot of fanfare. Much was written about it over the summer when it was debated at a series of TLC meetings but many New Yorkers thought that those in my profession were due for a raise that was a long time coming. The big debate was not how much to raise the fare but what percentage of it would ultimately end up in the driver’s pockets and not in the hands of the medallion owners and garage operators. Lost amidst the hubbub of the hike and the throngs of groggy commuters returning to work this week was the other change that coincided with the new rates – that being the new logo on the side of the Taxicabs themselves.

The old Taxi look

For the last few years, all of the Taxis in New York had the look seen above, with the “NYC” in the official font next to the Taxi logo on the front door and the rate chart on the back door. On the back of cab was the strip as I call it – the checkerboard pattern that was found on cabs back when an actual company called Checker supplied the cars that roamed the city streets. As the models where replaced and the company went out of business, the pattern became smaller and smaller over the years, until it was finally relegated to just a tiny reminder of the way things used to be.

Until the fare went up last week.

The new Taxi look

This is how your ride in a yellow cab will now look on the outside. The “NYC” that was so prominent has been shrunken down, the fare chart has been simplified to two symbols, and the work “Taxi” has been replaced by a big, black “T”. The thinking behind it is that New Yorkers, and visitors, should know what a yellow vehicle that doesn’t carry kids around all day should function as, so why bother labeling it as such? All of the marketing wizards could do was come up with this but I guarantee that a bunch of us who actually drive the vehicles all day could design something just as informative and not charge the city an arm and a leg for it in the process.

What bothers me the most is what’s on the back and that would be nothing. Like the automat , the subway token, and the old “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs, the checker pattern on a Taxi has now been relegated to the dustbin of Gotham’s past. In order for the Taxis to charge the higher rates, the exterior had to be changed along with the upgrades to the meters. A few of the cabs this past week still sported the old design, which only had one advantage: Smart New Yorkers knew that they were charging the old rates and would hail them instead of a upgraded Taxi. This won’t go on for long but given how expensive everything is today, I had a few people tell me that they were attempting to do that when looking for a ride.

Economics aside, the new design marked another indication of the homogenization and globalization of New York. Pictures and symbols continue to expand as more people from around the World continue to visit the Big Apple. The less English they have to come across, the easier they can get around. Soon, the subway will be fully automated, Street signs will get bigger than they are now, and smartphone apps will ensure that no one will ever get lost again when navigating the city. It’s bad enough that the cabs have maps, GPS’s, and endless commercials on the backseat screen, all in the name of progress. If nothing else, a Taxi should say what it is, let anyone think that a black car has the same role that a yellow one does on the city streets.

Soon, the Crown Victorias, SUV’s, and Prius’s will all be scrapped in favor of the NV200, a.k.a. the Taxi of the Future. What seemed so common today will be old hat in the coming decades as change will inevitably take hold and thrust all of us into the future. These “upgrades” will be fully present in a new fleet that will be more environmentally friendly, accessible, and better designed, but the real shame in it will be in the scrapping of what made Taxis so beloved in the past. As all of this takes hold in the next few years, one question never seemed to cross the minds of the designers:

Would it have hurt to keep the checkerboard pattern as it was?

Take a Hike

Soon to be a bit more likely

Well, it’s official: I’m getting a raise.

I shouldn’t put it in a traditional sense, since all of us who drive a yellow cab in New York are getting one too. The vote passed yesterday and once the end of September comes, it will take effect across the board.

Lots of people have asked me about it and had I not had previous commitments the last two days, I would have gone to the rally and meeting down in Lower Manhattan to watch the process continue to unfold but regardless of time constraints, it’s been an issue I’ve kept up with over the last few months.

Personally, I’m completely in favor of this. A lot of the comments on various publications covering this story were from irate people who were tired of the garbage that they put up with in Taxis – rude drivers, talking on the phone, aggressiveness on the streets, a lack of knowledge of city landmarks and geography, and an unwillingness to take anyone who required a crossing over or under a body of water. While this is true to some extent, I’ve said time and time again that not all of us are like that and a great deal of drivers take care of their passengers and only want the best for them, even if it’s easier said than done during the peak periods of traffic.

For all the legitimate gripes about the lack of raises over the years and silent erosion of our pay via inflation, it’s ultimately about the passenger; as it should be with any business. No one has to take a Taxi in a place that’s so well-covered by mass transit as New York but tens of thousands still do every day, even with all of the other options out there competing for their money. To drive a cab in New York is to run your own business in a sense. No, there aren’t any employees under my watch and I don’t have to pay for land and raw materials but in theory, how well I run it should determine how well I do and how long I can keep my head above water for. Because of the medallion system and the limited barriers of entry for owners, it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds and the high turnover rate among drivers is proof that it takes a bit more than elbow grease and an understanding of the city to make it in the long-term.

Will it help that my average fare will go up by $2 and the ride to JFK will increase by $7? Sure. I have no idea whether Taxi plan for the outer Boroughs will go through or if the extra medallions will be sold and on the streets, nor what the price of gas will be in two years. In spite of the (amazingly) good intentions of the TLC and the Mayor, there’s only so much that is in our control when it comes to this profession. So many have fought hard for our rights and a fair share of the revenue that flows into the coffers of the owners and operators. Now that we have a victory under our belts, we still need to remember that the fight for fair treatment and respect from all parties is still far from over.

Sliding Doors

Mind the gap!

“So where do you go when you’re driving this? I”m guessing Manhattan.”

“Well yes, that’s where I spend a majority of my time. Of course, I go wherever my passengers ask me to take them.”

“Which is anywhere in the 5 Boroughs, right?”

“Correct.”

“And you can pick up anywhere in New York as well, right?”

“Correct, that’s what yellow means – licensed to take street hails anywhere in the City of New York.”

“Unlike the Livery Cabs (black cars).”

“That’s also correct, but you don’t want to get me started on them.”

I’ll admit, I don’t go to the movies. Ever. I can’t remember the last time I plopped down $10 of my hard-earned money in order to have the pleasure of sitting in a dark room with sticky floors, random cellphone conversations, and unruly kids. I don’t get a lot of free time during the week and when I do, I tend to be a bit more interactive with the forms of entertainment that I enjoy.

However, I *did* see the movie that is also the title of this posting. Most of you are unaware that I attended Vanderbilt University in the late 90’s before I was unceremoniously asked to leave for academic reasons. During my 3 years in the buckle of the Bible belt, I struggled with many facets of my life, including my studies, my social life, my identity, and dating. On one of the few occasions that I headed off-campus with someone  I was interested in, we went to the movies and of course, the feature we ended up seeing was Sliding Doors.

The premise was simple – Gwyneth Paltrow plays a young Londoner who got fired from her job and had to take the Tube home afterward. The plot splits in two as she made the train in one scene and when it was replayed, she ended up missing it. The concept of a parallel universe came to life as the rest of the film alternated back and forth between the two tales that result from the incident in London’s underground. What started of as an incident that millions of urbanites endure on a daily basis reverberated throughout her life, affecting her image, love life, and vocation following her termination of employment.

The film itself was interesting and came out at the height of Paltrow’s Shakespeare in Love-induced popularity. While I can’t remember every detail about the movie or the person I was with that day, the idea behind the plot stuck with me. Every day, there are tons of decisions and services that rely on a set schedule that I use to traverse the Big Apple and surrounds. Most of these run like clockwork but in an imperfect world, obstructions and unplanned events always seem to throw a monkey wrench into the best of my intentions.

Then of course, there’s my work environment. From the moment I pull out of the garage and start my shift, there are big decisions to be made. Car Wash? If so, now or later? Queensboro or Willy B. to enter Manhattan? Uptown? Downtown? Should I just follow the traffic and not fight it? Many people think that drivers such as myself have a set pattern that I follow to start my day out but more than any other job that I’ve had, this vocation quickly puts to death the notion of monotony and normalcy.

The conversation that I penned above is one that I have quite often. As I’ve mentioned before, passengers love to ask me questions once they realize that I’m not typical and the ones dealing with where I go when I’m available is one that comes up often. Each day has a different pattern when it comes to human and vehicular traffic. If every person and form of transportation could be tracked, I’m sure that it would be easy to see where everyone went after work, and how the social life in the City proceeds on a given night. In an ideal world, all the cabs would start off in Midtown or Downtown and eventually work their way to the residential and cultural areas before heading to the trendy neighborhoods that people eat, drink, and socialize in.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Nights don’t progress linearly like that. Where my first fare takes me determines where I go pick up my second one, and that one has a hand in determining where my third one will be found, and so on. Since I average 30 fares in a 12-hour span, it’s easy to envision how the beginning of my shift can determine where I’ll end up physically and financially at the end of the night.

Last week, the traffic was some of the worst I had seen since Christmas. 20 minutes and change to cross the Willy B, only to have my first fare hop into my cab and send me back across the bridge to Williamsburg. I had a feeling that I was going to a less-than-desirable locale during the rush, given that the cab in front of me sped away from the couple when they told him where to go. Sure enough, I cut through the narrow grid of lanes that the Lower East Side consists of and 10 minutes later, I dropped them off.

The beauty of all of this was that my next fare was only a block away and wanted to go to the Upper East Side. At that hour, the Queensboro Bridge was starting to free up and since I had very little turnover time and traffic to impede me, I brought my two passengers and their bags up to 1 Ave in decent time. Within an hour, I was flipping my fares over relatively easily and on my way to a solid weekday night.

So many times, I’ve had to take someone that I despise. Too many people have zero patience during the time of day where many of the arteries of the city are clogged up. Now that I’m pushing a year of doing this job, I let most of it slide off but I have to constantly remind myself that everything evens out in the end. For every bad fare or passenger that has absolutely ZERO idea where he or she is going, somebody will come along later in the night to make up for it. What always amazes me is that I hated having the person early on that added to the Hell of Rush Hour but without that first or second domino being pushed, the ride that made me laugh, smile, and think at 2 in the morning would never have fallen into place.

Even when I don’t have someone, there are always decisions to be made that have ramifications. Touching down on Delancey Street from the Willy B brings a plethora of choices when it comes to where to turn. A majority of the vehicles will be headed crosstown to the Holland Tunnel so my objective is to move away, and toward a street without any empty Taxis on it. This is how I work for much of the night – separating myself out from the pack. More often that I first would have guessed at, marching to my own beat has resulted in finding a fare that was so close, and yet so far from the nearest available Taxi. Waiting in line has its benefits late at night but for the most part, avoiding the lemmings pays off in the end.

People think that my job is easy, since Manhattan is just “one big grid” and most of the streets are numbered and logical. To some extent, that’s true. However, what was an open way could have an accident, a parked bus, or a work truck on it the next time I have to go on it. Like a giant maze with movable partitions, the city is always changing. It brings new meaning to the term “rat race” since all of us are always trying to get ahead on a playing field that is constantly testing our memory and patience.

Some of my most memorable rides have come when I had an instinct to turn the corner, wait a minute in front of a busy establishment, or go a certain way just because nobody else was cruising in that direction. Whether it’s fate or divine intervention, those fares often tell me how I came at the right time and how lucky they were to have finally found someone. It’s on those nights when I feel that everything falls into place, and I don’t have to worry about any numbers that I need to hit.

A few years after the movie came out, there was an episode of my favorite show called Sliding Frasiers. Instead of the train, it’s clothing that makes Frasier’s day split into two. One day in the life of Doctor Crane has a wildly divergent sequence of events that are shown in alternating scenes until the end of the episode, when both parallel takes converge into the same end result. For all of the time making a decision and the  effects of it, Frasier still ends up at home, content at the end of the 24 minutes and change. In a way, it’s similar to how my day winds down. Every morning at around 4:55, I end up at the gas station. There, I break down the contents of my cab while filling up and then head over to the garage to cash out for the night. All of the runs around the Big Apple and surrounds, even with the accidents and wild rides tossed in for good measure, still tie up nice and neat when all is said and done.

Like my passengers, I always arrive at my destination safely – even if I never take the same way twice to it.

Stand clear?!?!?!…

Fare deal

The current fare structure

Much was written this week about the proposed rate hike that could go into effect over the summer. Most New Yorkers shudder when they see a service that they frequently use go up in price but many have also noted that there hasn’t been a rate increase since ’06 and an across the board hike since ’04. Although I’ve only been driving since late July, this is welcome news. Usually, I like to ask questions of my passengers, learning about what they do for a living and where they’re from. As soon as I stop, it’s their turn and many of the ones they will ask me will deal with what my shift entails and what I take home at the end of it. I’m taking a wild guess that many people reading this are thinking the same thoughts to themselves, so I may as well go through it on here for clarity’s sake.

Your average cabdriver will *not* own his medallion, for starters. As I’ve stated on here before, the cost of one has gone up dramatically in recent years. The typical one will now fetch well over 3/4 a million dollars and even with a down payment and financing backed by the revenue generated during shifts, it’s still out of reach for most drivers. Therefore, a majority of drivers (like myself) lease their cabs. Shifts are simple – 5 ’til 5 and even though we don’t have to keep the cabs for a full 12 hours, lots of us do to maximize our earning potential. As I work my way down 2 Ave. in the later hours, there are hordes of empty Taxis making their way over the Queensboro Bridge to go back to their respective garages, which is my way of getting a handle on how much the activity in Manhattan has tailed off for that particular night.

Leases involve a fee or as so many of my passengers put it, it’s what I pay in rent every night. It averages between $110 and $130 for the night drivers at my garage with the ones who work during the day paying slightly less for the privilege of driving a Taxi. All of the surcharges that go to the State and the MTA are added in automatically to each fare depending on the time and the destination and of course, we never see a dollar of them when the numbers are totaled up. Then there’s a $4.77 tax or as I look at it, another 1/2 fare deducted from my night’s take and finally, there’s the big misconception that so many people have about our industry:

You don’t pay for your own gas, right?

Don’t I wish!

The last thing I do at the end of a shift, right as the sun starts to come up, is top the tank off across the street from the garage. I’ll toss my extra receipts out, take my license out of the holder, and clean up if need be while I’m filling up, and then dig in to my take for the night to shell out the amount that it took to get around the city for 12 hours. If I’m driving a Crown Vic, it averages out to $53. Transit Connect? $35. The Hybrid SUV? Only $22. The vehicle I drive makes a big difference as to how my night goes since it’s found money if I can save on gas or be behind the wheel of something that will help me do the job more cheaply. Along with the Times, AMNY, Metro, and Crain’s, I almost always read the Economist, if for no other reason to see how the oil market is faring. Gas peaked at a notch over $4 a gallon a few weeks back but thankfully, it has slowly retreated as the summer driving season has started to take shape.

Most people have no idea of the little things that we also have to shell out for all the time. Dirty vehicle? Congratulations, a visit to the car wash is in order. I’m reimbursed $4 for each one but some cost more than that and yes, I do tip the workers who dry it off afterwards. Speaking of tipping, dispatchers and gas station attendants get some from us too. I don’t know and I don’t care what they make but handling the game of musical chairs that takes place around changeover time every day is much more stressful than anyone unfamiliar with the industry would ever realize. Taxis break down, need minor repairs and fluid changes, have broken meters, are regularly due for inspection, and the people who drive them are also prone to lateness and calling out. Not all taxis come back in the same order in which they leave so whatever is dispatched out depends on what’s on the lot and what needs to get off of it first. Only steady drivers get the same car every shift, which can be a pain when a certain driver is late getting back to the garage for the switch-off at changeover time.

Sure enough, I’ve had my unexpected surprises in the months that I’ve been behind the wheel. Broken ball joints, flat tires, a dead battery, and a ticket for having a headlight out have all thrown monkey wrenches into various nights that were running smoothly before the incidents took place. There’s no worse feeling than having to head back to the garage for repairs, knowing that the time lost can never be regained back and as the old saying goes, time is indeed money. Everything will average out over the long run but so many of us tend to look at what we make per night and forget that the big picture is what counts when earning a living as a driver.

Going back to the issue at hand, I’m in favor of a hike as long as a few stipulations are met. The first is obvious, and that’s whether the Mayor and TLC Chair are in favor of it. Last I heard, Bloomberg and Yassky were on board with this because of the rising costs of gas and lease fees the last few years that we’ve had to fully eat. Second is whether those lease fees will also concurrently go up as well. If the garage and medallion owners take out too much of a chunk of the increased revenue, then there isn’t a benefit for those who drive at all. Owners were up in arms when the Outer-Borough Taxi’s were formally introduced recently and should the plan go through, they will have the right to take street hails anywhere in the city outside of Manhattan below Central Park North. Since that’s expected to cut into medallion revenue, the owners were bitterly against this plan when it was proposed and now that seems to be coming into fruition, they will need to come up with a way to make up for the lost income…which naturally, would have to come out of our pockets somehow. It’s an endless battle that will only intensify once these apple green-hued cars hit the streets in the not-so-distant future.

Finally, there’s a meeting this week. This bleary-eyed driver will probably drag himself into the city and down to Beaver Street to see what the city, drivers, and any passengers who bother to make it in will have to say about the changes. There’s a chance that I’ll speak, if for no other reason than to toss my two cents in for the drivers who won’t even bother to make it or do anything about their salary. Even though many of my “coworkers” could use a few more lessons in etiquette and civility, I know a ton who work their asses off to earn a living and only want the best for themselves and their families. Hopefully, this hike will be a first step into making it easier for us hacks who provide so much for a city that isn’t always grateful to us in return.

Taxi TV – Lots of revenue but none for the driver

Yellow with NV

Not to be confused with the Taxi of Tomorrow

“Hey there, where to?”

“Nice cab you have here!”

“It’s not mine, but thank you.”

“This must be that Taxi of the Future that I keep reading about. It looks so European.”

“I’ve never been to Europe so I can’t vouch for that but you’re incorrect. This is a new Taxi but not the “new” new Taxi – that’s not going to be out for a year and change.”

“So this isn’t the one that one the citywide competition?”

“Nope, that’s a Nissan. This is a Ford Transit Connect.”

“A Ford what?”

“Transit Connect.”

“What kind of a name is that and how did a foreign model get the contract for New York?”

“Lady, I’m not from Dearborn and I don’t know the Mayor personally. You can seek them out if you wish to know.”

And so it goes.

I’ve had at least 50 variations of this conversation over the last month, ever since I was given the long, round key to the above model vehicle and asked if I wanted to let ‘er loose on the on the streets of the Big Apple. Now, I don’t have any kids (as far as I know) so driving “the van” was a bit of an odd concept to me at first. Thankfully, it hasn’t been difficult to navigate and it’s nice to be noticed by New Yorkers, instead of just having them dart out in front of me at all hours of the night.

Eventually, the topic that always arose during this exchange was about the new model of Taxi. Was there really a citywide competition? Would it be ADA compliant? Most importantly, would there be a day where *all* the yellow cabs in the citywide fleet would be identical?

Yes, yes, and if the TLC gets its way, yes.

A little background first for those of you unfamiliar with the vehicles that transport people from points A to B in the 5 Boroughs. Most of what you currently see on the street are the last of the workhorses known as the Ford Crown Victoria. At one point, it WAS the only model in the city fleet and if you were pulled over by a police officer of rented a car at a major airport, odds are that the vehicle in that fleet was also a Crown Vic, as we refer to them. Popula , durable, and fast, they were a staple across the land for decades and could handle the wear and tear that millions placed on them over the years. Unfortunately, they had one big drawback:

They were lousy on gas.

I drove a Mustang for years, so I’ll admit that I have a bias for the automaker that started out making mobility available for the masses. It had a big engine and wasn’t the best on fuel economy but I didn’t spent a majority of my time on thoroughfares that could double as logging trail pathways. Eventually, the price of gas spiked up and greenies became powerful enough to change the vehicles found in Taxi fleets.

Enter the change.

Soon enough, the Toyota Prius, Ford Expedition, and a whole host of other models entered the mix and could be found on the streets of New York. One of the questions that I was often asked when driving the vehicle pictured above is whether it cost more for the passenger since it was “ADA compliant and all that”. No, it was the same as all the other Taxis but when I saw people choose the Crown Victoria over that when we both pulled up to a hailing passenger, I knew there was a problem with how people perceived it. I still laugh at the rich bitch on the Upper West Side two weeks ago who “couldn’t slide the door open” and gave up after one halfhearted attempt to enter my wheels on that night. The point to remember is that Taxis are yellow and have the same rate for one reason:

Standardization.

Of course, that was out the window once competition entered the Taxi marketplace. While I don’t buy and sell medallions like owners do, drivers like me *are* the public face of the industry so when I’m on duty, I see enough to know what works and what doesn’t.

A month or so after the Transit Connect entered the rotation of vehicles dispatched to the nightly drivers at my garage, there was a big hullabaloo about the coming attraction at this year’s New York Auto Show. No, it wasn’t an electric car or a roadster from a famous movie. Of course, it was this…

Soon coming to a street near you

Ladies and gentleman, this is it – your Taxi of Tomorrow. It was tucked way into the corner of the exhibition space and was only found by me since as usual, yellow wasn’t a popular choice of exterior colors on next year’s models. You’ll also notice the glass around the edges, so I wasn’t able to sit inside of ‘er and see how well it felt for the person who might actually have to drive it.

Once the initial amazement wore off, it was time to give this model a good inspection. Press releases for the vehicle touted its accessibility, large sunroof-like window for sightseeing landmarks around the city, and recycled tires used in the floor mats. As a sign of the times, it has USB ports for charging electrical devices too and a built-in GPS and meter which does show some input from the driver’s perspective. A few shots of the promo video that accompanied the vehicle featured it in locales such as Times Square, seamlessly fitting in with the traffic and neighborhoods that it will inevitably have to pick up and discharge passengers in. While models and renderings are always pleasing, the Taxi will be just like me when it finally comes down to hard labor and brass tacks since real test will come once the key is turned and the grind of 12-hour shifts takes its toll.

Nearly every model of cab has its drawbacks from what I’ve experienced firsthand. The Crown Vic is a fuel hog and has a turning radius the size of a 747. The Prius? I’ve seen a few at JFK take two pieces of luggage before the passengers took them out and found a cab that was up for the task of transporting international arrivals home without feeling like a sardine can. The SUVs? Guess what – they’re small on room too, once they carry 4 people. Hybrids are great too but God forbid you’re deaf or blind – you’ll be next to one and have no idea that it’s actually moving until you find it or it finds you. Oh, and that Transit Connect pictured way at the top? The one I drove two Saturdays ago had to go in for brake service halfway through my shift, and it had an astounding 14,000 miles on it.

The city is taking a *huge* risk by standardizing the Taxi model with an unproven design that might not be ready for the wear and tear of the streets of New York. Yes, a standard model is the best way to go but to make it fuel efficient, modern, stylish, made in the U.S.A. (I was informed that Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee will be manufacturing all the NV 200’s for the Big Apple), and durable would not be an easy task for anyone. To do all of that and make it ADA-compliant would inevitably result in something like this:

The tank, a.k.a. the MV-1

Thank God I don’t have to explain this to my passengers…yet.

Angela

Your average cabdrivers in 1978

“So how long you’ve been doing this?”

“7 months.”

“Surely you’ve seen Taxi Driver.

“Nope. I don’t have time for movies. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve been in a theatre to see a new release and that’s not changing anytime soon.”

“How could you not see a movie in that long? That’s so odd.”

“I’m a white cabdriver and I’m talking back to you. Isn’t that odd enough?”

And so it goes. The above gets repeated often enough that I needed to put it on here and I can spit out the routine word-for-word, even after pulling a 5-shift week. Even though I don’t have any desire to see any movies anytime soon, I have gotten around to a certain TV show that somehow, has become near and dear to my heart.

For those of you that never bothered to dust off your 8-tracks and bell bottoms, Taxi aired from 1978-83 and won a slew of Emmy awards, given it’s relatively short run. It was on ABC for the first four seasons and then moved to NBC in 1982 before it’s final cancellation a year later. Like The Wonder Years or Soap, it seemed to have run for ages because of the legacy that left behind and the careers that the show helped to launch, which is probably a telling sign of a sitcom’s true legacy.

So sure enough, I got the DVD’s of each season and went through them – one by one, following the story arcs that were loosely woven through each season and looking between the lines for any trends that someone else may have missed. You’re probably thinking “Pat, it’s a sitcom. Seriously. What could be taken out of it beyond the 24-minute dosages of entertainment that were meant to be consumed and digested?”

Glad you asked.

Much like Sesame Street, Taxi was one of the few shows that gave me my first impression of the Big Apple. Many people growing up today have no idea how truly, awfully bad New York in the midst of the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s. Garbage on the streets, Subways covered in graffiti, a sky-high crime rate, and don’t even get me started on the South Bronx. Yeah, the Yankees had a nice resurgence but as Howard Cosell noted during the World Series, the Bronx was indeed on fire.

That was about the most excitement the city saw during that time. Go ahead and watch the closing credits of Barney Miller, The Jeffersons, or All in the Family. Notice anything? The City looks like shit. Total shit. The air is dirty, cars are really big, and damn, those buildings are boxy, giant, and unimaginative. No wonder everyone wanted to get out and go away from New York – even to suburbia. I can still remember the commercials during those shows when I was kid and couldn’t find anything else when flipping the dials on the cable box around. A Native American cried as litter was being tossed out of a car, Milton Glaser’s iconic ILOVENY logo was plastered all over everything as a hopeful catchphrase, and Mayor Koch made a simple plea: “New York, let’s clean up New York”. It was a world of few channels and much effort to bring the city back from the brink of collapse.

And much of it could be seen on Taxi.

The muted color palates, Checker cabs, and desperation that the drivers on the show faced were the signs that hit close to home. Elaine worked in an art gallery, back before skinny Europeans and millionaires took them over on the Far West Side. Tony was a Boxer in the days when the Golden Gloves could lead to a career that people aspired to. Bobby was an actor who actually studied Shakespeare and wanted to be on Broadway more than anything else. What they all had in common was that they drove a cab in the hopes of ultimately landing full-time jobs as blue-collar workers. A lifestyle like that was worth slaving away for in those days, when one could pull a Madonna and come to Manhattan with nothing. Squatting and crashing on couches was the norm for many then, even if one never saw his or her dream fulfilled.

And that’s where Taxi stands out among it’s television brethren. Looking back on the sitcom format now, there’s zero doubt that shows with a laugh track are 20th Century relics. All of life’s problems aren’t tied up neatly at the end of each show and social issues aren’t meant to be addressed on a “very special episode” with the laugh track turned off. It’s heartbreaking to watch Elaine get jilted by another guy or to see Jim grieve at the end of an episode, only to watch the credits roll to the sound of Bob James’ melancholy theme. It also hits close to home to me because I have nights where I want to pull over, put the cab in park, and just let out a good cry, knowing that I’ve been given a bigger dose of humanity than I can handle.

Although I haven’t made to the end of the series, there are no surprises lurking around the corner on the show. No happy weddings, no babies, no endless introductions of new characters to pump up sagging ratings. When the show concluded in 1983, all of the drivers are still working at the garage, even though none of them planned on being career cabbies. For many of us, this vocation is not something that we plan on doing forever but as I’m fully aware of, it’s easy to get hooked on the money, the steady hours, and the abnormal sense of a routine that driving a yellow cab brings. As the show went on, it was easier to see everyone as a cabdriver and not hacking to get by in the meantime.

Your average cabdrivers in 2012

Even the set lightens up over the seasons as well. The biggest shame in Taxi was that it was cancelled a year before The Cosby Show launched. Thursday night on NBC became “Must See TV” and included such hits over the years as Cheers, SeinfeldERFriends, and fittingly, the last great sitcom in Frasier. Taxi could have lasted quite a while longer and possibly, the success of one of the main characters could have been written into the plot. Of course, that would just be wishful thinking given how the series concluded.

Just as no sitcom comes close to depicting real-life conditions, Taxi isn’t an exception to that rule. I don’t go out for a beer with my coworkers when I get back to the garage, I have yet to play a game of cards, and the vehicles I drive don’t go through the streets of the city at 20 miles per hour. The show was great at showing New York at a key point in its history, before the building boom of the 80’s remade much of the business district with more colorful skyscrapers and a rehabilitation of the city’s crumbling housing stock. It’s during the bumpers that I appreciate the love of New York seen on the show – either during shots of streetscapes that are radically different in the 21st century, or in buildings that look the same now and have been wonderfully preserved for future generations.

Taxi took place in an era when much changed in New York and at a time when the City had to help pull the nation of a recession, which could also be said of today. I’ve seen enough of these changes in the 7 months I’ve been behind the wheel even though nothing ever seems apparent at first. Shifts turn into weeks and into months, and what seemed like a way to get by eventually became a routine, and ultimately, a lifestyle. For some odd reason, all of it never really bothered me, even though I’m pushing two years since I finished my undergraduate studies.

After all, it’s not like I’m going to be doing this forever.

A current shot of the garage site used on Taxi – 534 Hudson St

Those three dreaded letters…

The Yellow Sea

“Hey there, where to?”

“I’m going to J.F.K…”

There’s virtually nothing else that can be said in such a short span that has as bit an impact on a shift as the above quote. Entire nights can be made or ruined depending on what time the run out to the location formerly known as Idlewild is made. Some cabdrivers are known to speed away from people who wish to go there, before the trunk can be popped for the mound of luggage that will further cripple many a sciatic nerve and daily fuel budget. You, the intrepid reader, will no doubt already know that yours truly has never refused to fare to this locale, if for no other reason that some of the most memorable nights have involved a fare to the largest Airport in the Tri-State area.

In all seriousness, J.F.K. is a city unto itself. No map of the 5 Boroughs would be complete without it and it would easily swallow up Central Park’s 840 acres 5 times over with room to spare. Like the rest of New York City, the process of building and rebuilding there is never ending, especially with Terminal 6 having been recently torn down. We went over the fare system enough in Taxi School and it was only a matter of time after I started driving that I was guaranteed to get someone who needed to get there from Manhattan A.S.A.P. Sure enough, this mentality is what causes so much consternation and agita when it comes time to haul someone to their flight in time.

As I always tell people with a hint of humor and hubris, “LaGuardia is a bitch to get around but easy to get to while Kennedy is the other way around. It’s a Man’s Airport and one that New York can be proud of”. Much of the reason for this is the absence of the Bushwick Expressway, which would have made the run from Midtown a lot faster than the trek down the World’s Longest Parking lot and past the remnants of the ’64 World’s Fair. Man will probably walk on Mars and find a cure for the common cold before Mass Transit will overtake the auto as the preferred way of reaching New York’s International Gateway, even with the AirTrain fully operational for a number of years now.

J.F.K. presents it’s own unique set of parameters in terms of how it breaks up a shift. At rush hour, it’s every cabbies nightmare since every main route, alternate route, shortcut, and cut-through through a residential area will inevitably be met with red lights and/or traffic that will result in the passenger questioning the route that was selected. The $45 flat fare from Manhattan (it’s the standard rate from anywhere else in the city) sounds like a  great deal until the details are hashed out. Most passengers hate paying the toll, even though some MTA crossings can considerably shorten the ride. Some passengers will be in a huge rush and have no idea how long it takes to get there, since their inbound flight was a red-eye or was delayed for so long that the ride to their hotel or destination was lightning-fast on empty roads. A few will be from Europe and not bother tipping since, well…because it’s not customary to do that over there.

And then there’s the $64,000 question of how to return.

Once a passenger is dropped off at the proper terminal, the cabdriver has two choices:

1) Head to the dispatch line, a.k.a. Central Taxi

2) Get the Hell out of Dodge and back to Manhattan

But of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that…

Sure enough, the line of empty cabs waiting to head out of that line can be big and slow to move, leaving the occasional crazy cabdriver to hop up on his cab and take in the scene, out of sheer boredom. It’s like any other Taxi line, with a dispatcher and a “FIFO” (first in, first out) rule but the trick is figuring out how long it will take to get out. During Rush Hours, rainy days, or busy travel periods, it can quick and worth the driver’s time. Otherwise, I can catch 3/4th of a sporting event on the radio before I have to wake up, start the engine and pull out. Who doesn’t like saving on gas? Probably the same person who wants to wait around while at work. Yup, it’s just that exciting…

Passing the time at Central Taxi

This is the case if you’re close with the other drivers, and c’mon, lots of cabbies love to watch others, take pictures, and record what the world throws at them, right? That’s why I never managed to get in on the backgammon and domino games that can get pretty heated during the lean times in the waiting area. I’ve seen quite a bit of money get thrown around, to the point where I wondered if the drivers were going fast during the rest of their shifts to make up for gambling losses. Sure, I’m awful at these contests but apparently not enough to get roped in as a way for the others to make a few bucks. The only contact the others had with me was the queries whether I worked for TLC since I was taking pictures of the action. This, after a few of my passengers wondered if I was like the other cabbies when I forgot to shave and got testy easily. I guess I just can’t win sometimes…

All games aside, it’s nearly impossible to picture Gotham without Kennedy. Every ticket that we get from the dispatch booth proudly proclaims that J.F.K. is where “New York greets the world” and given that the Big Apple is home to people from every corner of the globe, it would only make sense that this slogan is what we see before flying down the myriad of ramps to pick up fares that have just arrived. One thing about the airports that I have to explain to people is that the long wait is only something that we have to go through once in a night. Anyone *not* going to Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx entitles us to receive a shorty ticket from the dispatcher at a given terminal. In other words, if I’m back at the Airport within 90 minutes, then I can cut the line and basically be on my way with a new ticket, within a matter of minutes. There’s been a handful of nights where I’ve had 4 shorty’s in a row and didn’t get the fare back to Manhattan until well after midnight.

For buffs of the past like me, nothing could compare to seeing Eero Saarinen’s old T.W.A. Terminal, even if it’s only from the outside. Arguably the greatest building constructed in the Big Apple in the 1960’s, it’s a reminder of how much air travel was romanticized before deregulation took hold, and how even modern architecture could become outdated so quickly. Even though it’s been integrated with the rest of Terminal 5 now, it’s painful to see this relic from the past as a gateway and a reminder of what used to be. There’s so much to be overwhelmed by in today’s security-conscious age that buildings like this and the original Penn Station mark their times not just by their design, but by how we viewed travel and transportation.

At the time of their apex, both of those gates of entry were the world’s greatest in the city that had the most people, the tallest building, and the best transportation system that the planet had ever seen. The almighty dollar certainly took over and starting with the monolithic boxes that spouted up during the postwar building boom, utilitarianism became paramount over all else. Nowhere is this more apparent than at J.F.K. Sure, it gets high marks from passengers for it’s ease of entry and mobility but let’s face it, when was the last time a trip to the airport was an exciting event for you? What makes the experience at Kennedy so mediocre is the harried aspect of the experience. Reflecting the cabdrivers who are herded like cattle to the passengers waiting for a ride, people today are treated more as numbers and statistics rather than fresh-faced arrivals from afar. If there’s any plus to having a return fare back to the city, it’s that I get to have an extended conversation with my passenger(s) as they make their way home or to a hotel. It’s will never be a re-creation of the past like Pan Am, but it is all I can do to greet the world as best I can.

The old way of taking flight at J.F.K.