Listen, Mac: Taxi Driving and the School of General Studies

2009 Owl
Listen, Mac: Taxi Driving and the School of General Studies
By Robert Ast
In 1967 Brian Leary, editor of The Owl (then a student newspaper), wrote a column informing the public about the methods his colleagues used “to get the most money with the least effort in the most devious way.” Leary was not exposing a web of corruption or revealing the professional secrets of con artists; he was a New York City cabdriver.
 
Many of the tactics for increasing tips that Leary discusses are fairly innocuous: casually remarking on how cheap the last fare was, or the operation a fictitious brother is about to undergo, though terrorizing the fare into tipping appropriately by driving like a maniac can also be effective. Of course, any approach that successfully combines navigating the city and engaging passengers requires a certain degree of skill and intelligence[1]; it should come as no surprise, then, that many GS alumni have spent some time in New York’s most iconic profession. 
 
With no boss and a flexible schedule, cab driving held obvious appeal for students. Another former Owl writer, Ken Linden ’71, left a career as a freelance writer and part-time director-producer to drive a cab while returning to school at GS; former Senator Mike Gravel ’56[2] applied for a license after hearing that Jonas Salk put himself through medical school by driving a cab. In short, hacking—a term derived from hackney, or for-hire, carriages—was, as Christopher Gray ’75 puts it, “a wonderful, classical, mid-20th century entry-level job, unless you were a convicted felon. I just showed up at the Brechtian-titled ‘Terminal Cab Company,’ and a fat old guy with a cigar said ‘Yeah, kid, whad mages ya tink ya kin take out a car? ’"
 
“Kid”—although hardly applicable to most GS hacks (both Leary and Linden had served in the Army, as had Gravel a decade earlier)—is no exaggeration: in 1969 the minimum age for a hack license was lowered from 21 to 18, resulting in an influx of young, part-time drivers (including many with long hair, to the delight or consternation of their fares, as the New York Times reported). As Graham Russell Gao Hodges records in Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, the history of cab driving is a series of demographic shifts: the first cabdrivers (or proto-cabdrivers) were African-Americans who operated hackney carriages; by the 1840s they had been almost entirely displaced by Irish immigrants, a phenomenon that helped establish cab driving as a path to acculturation for later immigrant groups. The “taxi renaissance” that occurred during the late ’60s and early ’70s, the period when most GS students were driving, was also due to a demographic shift— not in age or ethnicity, but education.
 
Ken Linden’s statement that “there were more PhDs driving cabs than were employed at Columbia” is only a slight exaggeration; Hodges remarks that the drivers’ ranks were full of well-educated people who had turned their backs on the corporate world and finds similarities between the so-called “hippie cabdrivers” and the Depression-era “virtuosos,” former professionals who turned to hacking to eke out a living. Linden concurs: “I don't believe we were defining the job, as you might say, in our own image.... We were trying the preserve the job as it had always been—a very special relationship between rider and driver.”
 
Listen, Mac: Taxi Driving and the School of General Studies
 
By the late ’60s that relationship had become rather frayed. Robberies were common and murders not infrequent; many cabdrivers refused to travel to predominantly African-American neighborhoods, which led to a major increase (from 300 to 8,000 over the course of the decade) in unlicensed gypsy cabs, known for traveling everywhere. Some younger drivers, like Paul Gibb ’70 (another Owl writer) made it a point to counter the trend. “There were even African-American and Latino drivers from my garage who would not go in some neighborhoods,” he recalls. “I was out to prove everybody wrong and spent 70 to 80 percent of my time in those neighborhoods.” 
 
As Gibb points out, the “scariest thing was not neighborhoods,” but the state of the cabs themselves. Linden agrees: “There were more drivers injured by tires falling off, or blowing up, or brakes that failed, or steering that malfunctioned, than were killed or robbed by drug addicts.” Still, rather than improving the cabs, the newly formed taxi drivers’ union focused on having bulletproof dividers installed in cabs, against many drivers’ wishes. The protective shields “cut off your connection with the customer,” Linden notes. “Rather than sharing the space, we were each isolated in our private space. … It affected our income in a major way. Once we could no longer establish a personal rapport with the customer, the tips became smaller.”
 
Time has only increased the alienation: today any interaction between driver and fare must transcend the newest imposition, a TV screen in each taxi, as well as cell phones and the probable linguistic barrier (according to the 2000 census, less than 10 percent of cabdrivers were born in the U.S.). But the sense of fascination with cabdrivers continues. Cabdrivers occupy a special place in the national mythology, as inside sources on the “real” New York or amateur philosophers always ready with advice. They have been (and continue to be) portrayed on film and television far more than any other service industry profession. While cabdrivers have primarily been supporting characters, stars like John Barrymore, James Cagney, Harold Lloyd, and Spencer Tracy all had lead roles as cabdrivers, and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle remains one of the most vivid characters ever committed to celluloid. Cabdrivers appear with similar frequency and variety throughout American literature[3], and hack memoirs, reborn as hack blogs, have remained a popular genre.
 
At the end of the day, however, cab driving is simply a job, a fact that David Barrett ’75 recalls clearly. “My favorite customers were the prostitutes at the end of my shift who I would pick up on my way back to the garage and take them (two or three usually) back home in the Bronx or Brooklyn,” he says. “They were as happy to be finishing their shift as I was, and they always gave me a decent tip.”


[1] In an influential study, Eleanor Maguire, a researcher at University College London, found that the posterior section of the hippocampus, a section of the brain devoted to memory and spatial navigation, was larger in London taxi drivers than the general public—proof that driving a cab can actually increase the size of one’s brain. There was, however, a corresponding decrease in the anterior section of taxi drivers’ hippocampi—most likely caused by the stress of driving a cab.
 
[2] During his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Sen. Gravel returned to Columbia behind the wheel of a ’50s-era Checker cab for a segment on the Today show. Unfortunately the cab, supplied by NBC, did not have functioning brakes; neither he nor his passenger Jonathan Alter were injured.
 
[3] Clifford Odets’ groundbreaking play Waiting for Lefty was inspired by the violent 1934 taxi strike and remains the most vivid portrait of the Depression “virtuoso.” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—in which Holden’s quest to find out what happens to the Central Park ducks in winter pits him against cabdrivers with preposterous explanations—also offers a fairly accurate, though far less flattering, picture of contemporary cabdrivers.
 
Ten years after The Catcher in the Rye was first published, a trade publication conducted a survey of cabdrivers to find out what they actually thought happened to the Central Park ducks. Many came up with scenarios that surpassed Salinger in ridiculousness. In fact, nothing happens to the ducks—they simply stay in the park—but perhaps the most appropriate response was given by one driver: “Listen, Mac: this license is to drive a cab—not to be no information booth, for Christ’s sake.” 

Dispatches

I was driving south on Eighth Avenue and about 120th Street. A young black couple was in the back of my cab and they had been kissing the whole way. Suddenly they ducked down, which caused me to think they were getting really passionate—when I suddenly realized buildings were on fire all around me. A man dressed in a purple suit was desperately trying to wave me down as I stopped at a traffic light. He ran towards the cab and came close enough to see that I already had passengers, so he ran back to the curb. I heard a voice say, "Is that a white?" I decided at that instant not to panic and did not roll up the window or lock the door—assuming, perhaps correctly, that a display of fear would only make me more of a target. The light turned green and I sped down Eighth Avenue and Central Park West and dropped off my passengers. That was when I turned on the radio and learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.
 
— Paul Gibb
* * *
 
I picked up a middle-aged couple in the theatre district one evening. They wanted to go to the upper West side, through Central Park. I entered the park at 57th street and proceeded to drive it at a very brisk speed taking each turn and curve with perfect pitch so that the passengers were not jostled or tossed about in any way. The wife asked that I slow down, but her husband said, “Let him drive.” We got to their address without a stop, (my timing on traffic lights was flawless), and the husband congratulated me, in spite of his wife's protest, for a superb driving job. I was grateful for the compliment—most people would have sided with the wife—so I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm the movement coach for the Metropolitan Opera," he answered. "That was incredible driving." 
 
— Ken Linden
 
* * *
 
There are "wide street" people and "narrow street" people. Some people fear being blocked in on a narrow street and do not trust their own skills to avoid it; they take the (generally slower) wide crosstown streets. Other people trust in their own skills to avoid getting blocked in by some school bus or whatever, and anyway figure whatever happens is God's will. I go for the narrow streets; Allāhu Akbar!       
 
— Christopher Gray