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Night-Shifting For the Hip Fleet

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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 ga-stunk.” 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.”

David has the Big Fear. It doesn’t take a cabdriver too long to realize that once you leave the joy of shape-up and start uptown on Hudson Street, you’re fair game. You’re at the mercy of the Fear Variables, which are (not necessarily in order): the traffic, which will be in your way; the other cabdrivers, who want to take your business; the police, who want to give you tickets; the people in your cab, lunatics who will peck you with nudges and dent you with knives; and your car, which is capable of killing you at any time. Throw in your bosses and the back inspectors and you begin to realize that a good night is not when you make a living wage. That’s a great night. A good night is when you survive to tell your stories at tomorrow’s shape-up. But all the Fear Variables are garbage compared with the Big Fear. The Big Fear is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible showcase will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office every since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after twenty years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver. The typical Big Fear cabdriver is not to be confused with the archetypal Cabby. The Cabby is a genuine New York City romantic hero. He’s what every out-of-towner who’s never been to New York but has seen James Cagney movies thinks every Big Apple driver is like. A Cabby “owns his own,” which means the car he drives is his, not owned by some garage boss (58 per cent of New York’s 11,787 taxis are owned by “fleets” like Dover which employ the stiffs and the slobs of the industry; the rest are operated by “owner-drivers”). The Cabby hated Lindsay even before the snowfalls, has dreams about blowing up gypsy cabs, knows where all the hookers are (even in Brooklyn), slurps coffee and downs Danish at the Belmore Cafeteria, tells his life story to everyone who gets into the cab, and makes a ferocious amount of money. But mostly, he loves his work. There aren’t too many of them around anymore. The Dover driver just doesn’t fit the mold. He probably would have voted for Lindsay twice if he had had the chance. He doesn’t care about gypsies; if they want the Bronx, let them have it. He knows only about the hookers on Lexington Avenue. He has been to the Belmore maybe once and had a stomach ache the rest of the night. He speaks as little as possible, and barely makes enough to get by. He also hates his work.

The first fare I ever had was an old bum who threw up in the back seat. I had to drive around for hours in miserable weather with the windows open trying to get the smell out. That started my career of cabbing and crabbing. In the beginning, before I became acquainted with the Big Fear and all it attendant anxieties, the idea was to drive three days a week, write three, and party one. That began to change when I realized I was only clearing about $27 for every ten-hour shift. (A fleet driver makes from 43 per cent to 50 per cent of his meter “bookings,” depending on seniority, plus tips; please tip your cabdriver.)

There were remedies. The nine-hour shift stretches to twelve and fourteen hours. You start ignoring red lights and stop signs to get fares, risking collisions. You jump into cab lines when you think the other cabbies aren’t looking, risking a punch in the nose. You’re amazed what you’ll do for a dollar. But mostly you steal.

If you don’t look like H. R. Haldeman and take taxis often, you’ve probably been asked by a cabdriver if it’s “okay to make it for myself.” The passenger says yes, the driver sets a fee, doesn’t turn on the meter, gets the whole far for himself, and that’s stealing. Stealing ups you Fear Variables immeasurably. You imagine hack inspectors and company-hired “rats” all around you. Every Chevy with black-wall tires becomes terror on wheels. The fine for being caught is $25, but that’s nothing- most likely you will be fired from your garage and no one will hire you except those places in Brooklyn with cars that have fenders held on with hangers and brake pedals that flap. But you know that if you can steal, say $12 a night, you’ll only have to drive three nights this week instead of four and maybe you’ll be able to get some writing done.

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, premonitions 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 because 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.


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