Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Strike Two

From today's New York Times:

October 23, 2007
Something Money Can’t Buy

Like all labor disputes, the one-day strike by taxi drivers yesterday turned on tangible matters, in this case credit card machines, global positioning systems and the like. But it was also about an intangible, something that cabbies often feel they are denied. It is called respect. It is called dignity.

“It’s 100 percent about respect,” said Jahangir Alam, one of a couple of hundred drivers who rallied in protest yesterday outside the Lower Manhattan offices of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. “There’s no respect for cab drivers. As a driver, you have no control. It’s like I’m a slave.”

Mr. Alam’s feelings were shared by others at the afternoon rally. Again and again, the two words — dignity and respect — came up in conversations and in labor leaders’ speeches.

“They never go to the drivers to ask what we want,” John McDonagh said of city officials. Mr. McDonagh said that he has driven a cab on and off since 1977. He gives the job a rest now and again, he said, “to reclaim my humanity.”

It will be left to others to decide whether the strike was the unqualified success claimed by its organizers or the dismal bust preferred by City Hall. Either way, New York’s technophilic mayor seems unlikely to change his mind about the new gizmos that he wants in taxis.

It was hard to see how effective any work stoppage of preset length could be; most New Yorkers can survive without taxis for 24 hours and not break into cold sweats. The drivers were also not helped by the de facto strikebreaker role that City Hall played.

To help maximize taxi availability, it allowed drivers who worked yesterday to charge special rates that gave them more money than usual. Those rates amounted to “a bribe” for scabs, said Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University who was once a cabby himself and recently wrote “Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

“The people who do this job are desperate,” Professor Hodges said. When an incentive like yesterday’s special fares comes along, “you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that that will breed strikebreakers.”

Obscured by the to-ing and fro-ing over the new machines is a more basic point, namely that many drivers feel like serfs, and maligned serfs at that.

Recent immigrants for the most part, they perform a tough, lonely duty that few native Americans want to do anymore — even those Americans who are perpetually out of work. “These people work like sharecroppers,” said Edward G. Rogoff, a Baruch College professor who has studied the taxi industry. “They take the risk. They do all the worst work, and relatively speaking, they don’t get much reward for it.”

What they get instead is a steady diet of being portrayed in corners of the press as nothing but fare gougers. They are the butt of lame David Letterman jokes. They run into the borderline racism of a tabloid column that referred contemptuously last week to a generic “crazed, Tagalog-speaking cabbie.” They put up with slanderous labels like one slapped on them in 1998 by the Giuliani administration, which called them “taxi terrorists” for daring to assert their right to protest city policies.

They endure brain-numbing innovations that only City Hall suits can devise, like those maddening Elmo messages of a few years ago, the ones that screamed at passengers to buckle up and take their belongings.

Now we have a new requirement that drivers accept a credit card system that forces them to pay an unheard-of 5 percent fee on each transaction.

They must also install, at considerable expense, G.P.S. technology that is in no way designed to help them navigate city streets. What it can do, in the spirit of Elmo, is blare enough commercials all day long to make anyone batty. If these devices malfunction, as some inevitably will, drivers must get them fixed fast or find themselves effectively forced off the road.

Granted, some cabbies are their own worst enemies. They could win a lot of friends by paying more attention to passengers and ditching their cellphones, which far too many of them use while driving, in violation of city rules.

But a more fundamental concern yesterday was those two little words. They kept surfacing, as they did in a speech at the rally by Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council. “This is never about money,” he said. For the drivers, he said, “we demand dignity and respect.”

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hi! How've you been?

I've been hesitant to post here lately, mainly because I've been too busy for the past two months promoting the book (which is, of course, available for purchase using the handy little Amazon link to the right, hardy har har). And I certainly don't want to let anyone down, but I have to say, if blogging paid the bills, I'd probably do it a lot more. Writing this blog has indeed given me so much, but the truth is that for the past year or so, the book advance and some overdue settlement money from a long-ago accident are what's helped me get by, with some supplemented income from driving a cab. Call me selfish, but this is the way it is. I live in New York, for fuck's sake.

Still, I've been extremely lucky. For the past two months, I've been doing non-stop interviews to get the word out about my book. I was really happy that people were so interested, but it was weird and exhausting running around like that, answering the same questions over and over and over. Eventually, I got used to it. Plus, it was easier than driving a taxi! In fact, it wasn't totally unlike those long shifts when every single passenger that got in my backseat quizzed the shit out of me with the same exact list of questions ("How'd you get into this? Where'd you grow up? How old are you? What's it like to drive a taxi? What's next?").

What's funny is that I was being asked about driving a taxi so much that I had no time to actually drive a taxi. The side-effect of all this, however, was that after a little while, I needed a little break from thinking about, talking about, and -- yes -- writing about the damn taxi business. Which is another part of why I neglected this blog so badly.

Of course, I still find the job fascinating, and I find myself always coming back to it, no matter how hard I might try to get away. In fact, I just finished reading a great book about the history of the taxi industry in New York. I highly recommend it -- it's called "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver" by Graham Russell Gao Hodges. It really put me in my place, in a good way.

But, despite my obvious addiction to all things taxi, I'm finally working up the nerve to move on to other things. This whole thing, driving a cab in New York, started in the spirit of seeking out adventure. There was no intention to start a blog or write a book or do a hundred interviews and somehow become the spokesperson for an industry I only entered three years ago. And there was never any intention to make a career out of it and do it forever. I want to hang on to that original mindset for the next thing I do and not worry about all the other stuff, because then it feels like a trap.

Of course, I'm still working on deciding exactly what my next step will be, but I'm so excited by the idea of embarking on a brand new adventure. I've got a few ideas that I'm kicking around, but I'm not ready to talk about anything just yet.

And lastly, I haven't totally quit driving a cab. I don't think I ever will, to be perfectly honest. Now that the journalists are bored of me, I can pull a normal shift again if I need the cash. Which will be soon. And then there will be something to blog about.