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Cabbies On Phones

Returned to Manhattan for the weekend and found out Mayor Bloomberg and the Taxi Commission have started cracking down hard on cabbies and their cell phones. No hands-free or blue-tooth either. There’s a $200 fine for a first offense, some kind of reeducation camp for a second offense plus license suspension and permanent loss of license on a third offense.

Along the way to researching this little post, I found out there is a lot of hostility toward cabbies out there. I ran into a taxi-passenger blog in which the writer talked about how virulently horrible it is that taxi drivers talk on the phone all the time, and besides, they often “talk in a foreign language.”

I personally have never minded cabbies talking on the phone, much less hands-free. I’ve never had a near-miss in a cab or ever seen them get lost or miss my stop because they were distracted. But it is an angry public; convinced they are at death’s door when a taxi-driver is chatting on a blue-tooth. And they are encouraged to turn cabbies in. Mayor Bloomberg gives you a phone number to call on the little TV/credit-card set-up where you can also get news updates from the local TV station while you’re in the back seat. Frankly, I’d rather hear a guy talking Ethiopian to his girlfriend than have to listen to yet another local TV newscast, but, apparently, that’s just me.

I’ve had some really great conversations with cabbies through the years and have documented some of those chats on this very web site.  I’ve never viewed them as antiseptic chauffeurs. They have lots of great stories and each one is like a fascinating character study. But increasingly, in New York anyway, the city seems to be trying to do everything possible to keep cabbies and passengers apart. They raised the height of the glass separating driver from passenger. They put in those god-awful TV’s in the back seats.

Ironically, if these people who hate cab drivers so much would bother talking to them- guess what? They wouldn’t be on the phone because they’d be talking to you! Oh, but then conversation is probably a deadly distraction too.

I suppose it’s a lot safer, technically, that cabbies are now supposed to be silent mutes ferrying human cargo from point A to point B. Somewhere along the way, though, it seems to me we’re losing some of our humanity.

Conversation with a Cabbie

November 11, 2009 1 comment


Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry used to use a clever literary device in his pieces in which he would simulate conversations on the great issues of the day with…cab drivers. These blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth folks would always ask the pertinent questions the punditry class would somehow miss. Mr. Raspberry was on to something. I will now borrow that device, only this was an actual conversation with a cabbie recently.

We’ll call him Johnny. Interesting gentleman; African-American, 54 years old, graying hair and glasses, Vietnam veteran. As we’re stuck at a traffic light at 46th and Broadway, a Rastafarian fellow with flowing dreadlocks walks past us. Johnny’s window is rolled down. He looks toward the guy, “’Sup dred?” he asks. “Ok, mon,” responds dred. That was kind of charming, I thought to myself.

A block later Johnny spots a small storefront advertising stress-curing massage services. We’re not talking “special” massage services; this is the real thing. So as he pulls away he calls them right up on his cell phone. “Hey, I just saw the sign in your window. The one offering the $30 services for 61 minutes? That’s for stress relief, right? Because my back hurts all the time and I’m not really sleeping that well. You guys open on Saturdays?” A man of action, Johnny.

“Hey, I hope it helps,” I told him. That was all he needed to launch into a lengthy riff on life and retirement. “I like this job,” he started. “Been doing it a long time, 14 hours a day, six days a week. It’s tough on your back. Got a house in Pennsylvania- that’s where I’m going to retire. I’ll have it paid off in about five years. And I got this medallion. I’m an independent driver, you know I can lease the medallion out. That could be my form of income, because, you know, social security, there ain’t gonna be any when it’s our time,” he explained. Medallions are the metal discs that are affixed to the hoods of New York City taxi cabs. They sell these days at auction for between 600 and 700K. The guy has a better retirement action plan than I do, that’s for sure. Honestly, I was kind of counting on the social security.

“Because if you got your house paid for, you know, you’re pretty much set. I worry all the time about not having a roof over my head.” You and me both, Johnny. “You know what gets me? Seeing these retired people out on the streets collecting cans. Breaks my heart. You know they’re the type of people that would never beg a nickel off anyone. So there they are, collecting cans.” He sighs. I think about this for a second. Wow, that would really suck.

As we near my destination, he turns off the meter and pulls around the corner to put me right in front of the door of the Conde Nast building, which was very nice. The meter reads $9.50 plus the new 50-cent surcharge. I reach in my pocket for cash. “I’ll give you $12,” and hand him a twenty. He thanks me heartily for the conversation and hands me back a five and two one’s. Hmmmm, that would be $13 I just paid him. But as I put the change in my pocket I remember the whole thing about his bad back and having trouble sleeping, the worry over not having a roof over his head, the sad image of elderly people stooping down to collect recyclable aluminum cans.

“Thanks, Johnny, you take care of yourself,” I say as I step onto the sidewalk. And my inner voice says, “Let him keep the buck Robert, let him keep the buck.” Building good karma one cab ride at a time.