When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

17 June 2007

A Social History of the New York City Cab Driver

Taxi drivers are the most enduring oppressed minority in New York City history. Race, ethnicity and religion are not sources of the oppression. It lies entirely in the nature of the work. Trapped for about 12 hours each day in the worst traffic in the United States, taxi drivers must suffer the savage frustrations of jammed streets, double-parked cars, immense trucks, drivers from New Jersey — and they can’t succumb to the explosive therapy of road rage. Their living depends on self-control.

At the same time, they face many other hazards: drunks behind them in the cab, fare beaters, stickup men, Knicks fans filled with biblical despair, out-of-town conventioneers who think the drivers are mobile pimps. Some seal themselves off from the back seat with the radio, an iPod or a cellphone. All pray that the next passenger doesn’t want to go from Midtown to the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. They hope for a decent tip. They hope to stay alive until the next fare waves from under a midnight streetlamp.

In this informative, solid history, Graham Russell Gao Hodges traces the story of the cabdrivers from 1907, when the first metered taxis appeared on New York streets, to the present. He writes with obvious sympathy, having driven a hack himself before moving on to academic labors as a historian at Peking University and Colgate. Loneliness is a running theme in “Taxi!”: if the title were not already taken, Hodges could have called his compact history “One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Curb Job, Pete Hamill, New York Times, June 17, 2007

Even back in the day, there were few people who hacked as a career; for most people, it was a transitional job.

In recent years, the jobs of taxi drivers have become so marginalized that you often find yourself in a medallion cab with a driver who barely speaks English and needs directions to anything that's off the Midtown grid and isn't a major airport. (Such as, for example, anything in the neighborhoods in which I live and work -- Greenwich Village and the Financial District, respectively.)


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