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Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet

Some of the old favorites are missing. I don’t see the guy with the ski tours. He was an actor who couldn’t pay his Lee Strasberg bills, and was always trying to sign up the drivers for fun-filled weekends in Stowe. Someone says he hasn’t seen the guy for a few months. Maybe he “liberated” himself and finally got to the mountains after all. Maybe he’s in a chalet by a brook right now waiting for the first snowfall instead of sweating and regretting at shape-up. Dover won’t miss him. Plenty of people have come to take his place.

“I don’t look like a cabdriver, do I?” Suzanne Gagne says with a hopeful smile. Not yet. Her eyes still gleam—they aren’t fried from too many confrontations with the oncoming brights on the Queensboro Bridge. Suzanne, a tall woman of 29 with patched blue jeans, is a country girl from the rural part of Connecticut. She got presents every time she graduated from something, so she has three different art degrees. When school got tiresome, she came to New York to sell her “assemblages” (“I don’t care for the word collage”) in the SoHo galleries. There weren’t many immediate takers and her rent was high, so now Suzanne drives for Dover several nights a week.

A year ago or so, any woman hanging out at shape-up was either waiting to report a driver for stealing her pocketbook, a Dover stiff’s girl friend, or some sort of crazy cabdriver groupie. In those days, the two or three women who were driving were banned from the night line, which is notably unfair because you can make a lot more money with a lot less traffic driving at night. Claire, a long-time Dover driver, challenged the rule and won; now fifteen women drive for Dover, most on the night line. There are a lot of reasons why. “I’m not pushing papers anymore,” says Sharon, a calligrapher and former social worker who drove for Dover until recently. “I can’t hack advertising.” Sharon says many more women will be driving soon because women artists need the same kind of loose schedule that has always attracted their male counterparts to cabdriving. At Dover you can show up when-ever you want and work as many days as you can stand. Besides, she says, receptionist and typist positions, the traditional women’s subsistence jobs, are drying up along with the rest of the economy. The women at Dover try not to think about the horrors of the New York Night. “You just have to be as tough as everyone else,” Sharon says. But since Suzanne started driving, and artwork that she used to do in two or three days is taking weeks. “I’m tired a lot,” she says, “but I guess I’m driving a cab because I just can’t think of anything else to do.”

Neither can Don Goodwin. Until a while ago he was president of the Mattachine Society, one of the oldest and most respected of the gay-liberationist groups. He went around the country making speeches at places like Rikers Island. But now he twirls the ends of his handlebar mustache and says, “There’s not too much money for movements, movements are gastunk.” Don sometimes daydreams in his cab. He thinks about how he used to dress windows for Ohrbach’s and how he loved that job. But this salary got too high and now he can’t get another window-dresser’s job. Don offered to take a cut in pay but “in the window-dressing business they don’t like you to get paid less than you got paid before, even if you ask for it. Isn’t that odd?” Now Don’s driving seven days a week because “after window-dressing and movements, I’m really not skilled to do anything else.”

A driver I know named David is worried. David and I used to moan cab stories to each other when I was on the night line. Now he keeps asking me when I’m coming to work. After four years of driving a cab, he can’t believe interviewing people is work. David is only a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in philosophy, which makes him intelligent enough to figure out that job openings for philosophers are zilch this year. The only position his prodigious education has been able to land him was a $25-a-night, one-night-a-week gig teaching ethics to rookie cops. David worked his way through college driving a cab. It was a good job for that, easy to arrange around things that were important. Now he has quit school in disgust and he arranges the rest of his life around cab-driving. He has been offered a job in a warehouse for which he’d make $225 a week and never have to pick up another person carrying a crowbar, but he’s not going to take it. At least when you’re zooming around the city, there’s an illusion of mobility. The turnover at the garage (Dover has over 500 employees for the 105 taxis; it hires between five and ten new people a week) makes it easy to convince yourself this is only temporary. Working in a factory is like surrender, like defeat, like death; drudging nine to five doesn’t fit in with a self-conception molded on marches to Washington. Now David’s been at Dover for the past two years and he’s beginning to think cab freedom is just another myth. “I’ll tell you when I started to get scared,” David says. “I’m driving down Flatbush and I see a lady hailing, so I did what I normally do, cut across three lanes of traffic and slam on the brakes right in front of her. I wait for her to get in, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. It was only then I realized I was driving my own car, not the cab.”


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