All of this is bad for your writer’s distance and your actor’s instrument, to say nothing of your self-respect; but nothing is as bad as premonitions. Sometimes a driver would not show up at Dover shape-up for a couple of days and when he came in he’s say, “I didn’t drive because I had a premonition.” A premonition is knowing the Manhattan Bride is going to fall in the next time you drive over it and thinking about whether it would be better to hit the river with the windows rolled up or down. On a job where there are so many different ways to die, pre-monitions are not to be discounted. Of course, a smile would lighten everything, but since the installation of the partition that’s supposed to protect you and your money from a nuclear attack, cabdriving has become a morose job. The partition locks you in the front seat with all the Fears. You know the only reason the thing is there is be-cause you have to be suspicious of everyone on the other side of it. It also makes it hard to hear what people are saying to you, so it cuts down on the wisecracking. The partition killed the lippy cabby. Of course, you can always talk to yourself, and most Dover drivers do.
When I first started driving, cabbies who wanted to put a little kink into their evening would line up at a juice bar where they gave Seconals along with the Tropicana. The hope was that some Queens cutie would be just messed up enough to make “the trade.” But the girl usually wound up passing out somewhere around Francis Lewis Boulevard, and the driver would have to wake her parents up to get the fare. Right now the hot line is at the Eagle’s Nest underneath the West Side Highway. The Nest and other nearby bars like Spike’s and the Nine Plus Club are the hub of New York’s flourishing leather scene. On a good night, dozens of men dressed from hat to boots in black leather and rivets walk up and down the two-block strip and come tumbling out of the “Tunnels,” holes in the highway embankment, with their belts off. Cabdrivers with M.A.’s in history will note a resemblance to the Weimar Republic, another well-known depression society.
Dover drivers meet in the Eagle’s Nest line after 2 a.m. almost every night. The Nest gives free coffee, and many of the leather boys live on the Upper East Side or in Jersey, both good fares, so why not? After the South Bronx, this stuff seems tame. Besides, it’s fun to meet the other stiffs. Who else can you explain the insanity of the past nine hours of your life to? It cuts away some of the layers of alienation that have been accumulating all night. Big Fear cabdrivers try to treat each other tenderly. It’s a rare moment of cab compassion when you’re deadheading it back from Avenue R and you hear someone from the garage shouting “DO-ver! Do-ver!” as he limps out to Coney Island. It’s nice, because you know he’s probably just another out-of-work actor-writer stiff like you, lost in the dregs.
So it figures that there is a strong feeling of “solidarity forever” in the air at Dover. The Taxi Rank and File Coalition, the “alternative” cab union in town (alternative to Harry Van Arsdale’s all-powerful and generally despised Local 3036), has been trying to organize the Dover drivers. Ever since I started cabbing, Rank and Filers have been snickered at by most drivers as Commies, crazy radical hippies, and worse. A lot of this was brought on by the Rank and File people themselves, who used to go around accusing old-timers of being part of the capitalist plot to starve babies in Vietnam. This type of talk does not go over too big at the Belmore. Now Rank and File has toned down its shrill and is talking about more tangible things like the plight of drivers in the face of the coming depression, and members are picking up some scattered support in the industry. Dover, naturally, is their stronghold; Van Arsdale’s people have just about given the garage up for lost. Suzanne Gagnes wears a Rank and File button. Suzanne says, “It’s not that I’m a left-wing radical or anything. I just think it’s good that we stick together in a situation like this.”
Last winter a bitter dispute arose over an incident in which a Dover driver returned a lost camera and the garage allegedly pocketed the forthcoming reward money. The Rank and File leaders put pressure on the company to admit thievery. The garage replied by firing the shop chairman, Tom Robbins, and threatening the rest of the committee. Tempers grew very hot; petitions to “Save the Dover 6” were circulated. Robbins appealed to the National Labor Relations Board , but no action was taken. There was much talk of a general strike, but Rank and File, surveying the strength of their hardcore membership, decided against it. Now they have another NLRB suit against Dover and the Van Arsdale union for what they claim is a blacklist against Robbins, who has been turned down in attempts to get a job at twenty different garages in the city.