Pop Culture
Jan 16, 2023, 06:29AM

Almost Forgotten New York

Time’s up for the taxicab industry. What Year Is It (#240)?

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Twelve days ago I got into the back seat of a Lyft—several years ago I swore to the garish sun above, Aeschylus, Honey Fitz, Boss Tweed, Teddy K., who quoted “Brenda Starr” rather than Shakespeare, Juliet, Cleopatra, Homer, Scuttle, Robert Browning and Jelly Roll Morton that I wouldn’t fall for the new “ride sharing” business (still don’t understand the “sharing” bit; you pay, the driver gets a fare), but “progress” has left me defeated on that score—and was taken aback when the fellow, Neeraj, greeted me enthusiastically and asked about the family. Turns out he was a former Yellow Cab employee who picked me up in North Baltimore for work or to take the boys and me to Fells Point at a time where there were still more than five businesses worth frequenting. It was fun catching up: he was incredulous that Nicky and Booker are now 30 and 28, as was I upon hearing that his son and daughter had graduated from NYU and are now a lawyer and accountant. He’s not crazy about Lyft—though the money’s almost as much as he earned in his cabbie days—but it’s a job, and unlike so many of my former regular drivers, he’s not ready to retire.

Those of us who were frequent patrons of cabs—aside from the unforgiving demographics—are nearing the point when the Yellow Cab sedans (Checkers bit the dust a long time ago; over the holidays we watched Scrooged, where David Johansen drives a Checker and it left me a little bitter) are a melancholy memory. It blows. I can’t recall the first time I took a cab, probably in early-1975 after arriving at Baltimore’s BWI Airport from Houston and splurged because it was past midnight and no friend was able to fetch me and go to Hampden, but it became a habit around 1985. In Baltimore, I called Sun Cab and four minutes later my beat-up chariot arrived; upon moving to Manhattan in late-’87, it never took long to hail a cab on the street, unless it was raining, which led to some grouchy exchanges. For the record, I’ve never cheated a person waiting longer than me, even in a downpour with no umbrella, although walking two blocks north or south was fair.

In the picture above, taken in Tribeca not far from our condo on Duane St., my wife Melissa, Nicky (holding a trademark fisherman’s hat) and partially-obscured Booker are on the lookout for a cab, which likely arrived 30 seconds later and as the photographer I might’ve almost gotten clipped. (We did have a Mercedes station wagon at the time, but it mostly sat in a very pricey garage, and was rarely used in the city.) This was a common scene for our family. Nowadays, while yellow cabs still prowl Manhattan streets for fares, it’s far less common, and traffic-related commotion is reserved for Ubers, Lyfts and food-delivery services (which I hate for the price-gouging and try to abstain from here in Baltimore), for the congestion and a “life-is-cheap” attitude toward bicyclists. In Baltimore, you almost never see a cab on the street, and even at Penn Station, where lazy drivers once lined up around the block, they’re sparse.

Towson-based Jimmy’s Cab still chugs along, although that well-regarded company has faltered as well. Last week, after a dentist appointment in Baltimore County, I called Jimmy’s and had to navigate a four-minute touch-screen/voice process on my cell to secure a ride—and it took 20 minutes to arrive. But the driver was cool, played an oldies radio station with soul hits from the 1950s and 60s, and we chatted amiably.

As noted above, there’s no sense in bellyaching about an ever-changing culture, but I do have a question for those, unlike me, who are pro-union and favor Uber and Lyft. Cabbies were/are union men and women; don’t they count, or is that an uncomfortable liberal non-concern?

Take a look at these clues to figure out what year this snap was taken: United States deploys troops to Horn of Africa; Queen Elizabeth gives an honorary knighthood to Rudy Giuliani; Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes dies; Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, the first "mumblecore" film, premieres; Interpol release their seminal debut album; Steven Spielberg releases two blockbusters; Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is executed in Pakistan; Jimmy Carter travels to Havana for a long gab with Castro; Kelly Clarkson wins the first American Idol competition; Sen. Paul Wellstone is killed in a plane crash; and Soul Train airs its 1000th episode.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • Love the pic. Minus the Simpsons shirt, could be from 30 years earlier. I'm guessing 01/02 from the clues. Ordered my first Uber (or "ride-share" of any type) just last month. Had a flat tire at my girl's school and had to get her to an after-school event so I downloaded the app and broke my luddite ban. Was good while it lasted.

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  • Your lament is right on especially regarding the great old Checkers. It used to really irritate me when they kept appearing in movies as iconic "New York" symbols subsequently, after they were gone along with the old NY cabbie philosophers. They were interesting characters and back then the only accent you heard in a cab was in the now-fading native New York dialect. The city was still predominantly Italian, Irish, and Jewish epitomized in city elections with tickets such as Beame-O'Conner-Procaccino. They are still around, at least on Staten Island, but that sort of practical, somewhat conservative Democrat is now nearly extinct. Their progeny now largely populate Long Island and mostly vote Republican. IMO the city worked a lot better with those old machine Democrat bosses than under pompous, clueless "progressives." The demographic shift from European to third world has been immense. I used to have some interaction with the taxi fleet owners. They were very powerful players with such enormous influence they basically controlled not only the industry but their regulators (the Taxi & Limousine Commission) as well. Interestingly they and the unions were also usually on the same page. Also fading away are the black car and limo fleet, once ubiquitous during an interim period before Uber. I used to use them frequently. If you set up an account they simply showed up whenever they were called, eliminated the hassle of looking for a cab. That was an early iteration of what evolved into the Uber/Lyft dispatch systems. You could ride in style, usually in a big black Lincoln instead of an undistinguished shitty small Japanese car. However today cabs are a cheaper and better ride. Uber started out cheaply, undercutting taxis, but after displacing them their rates rose sharply. The cost of an Uber now significantly exceeds that of a cab ride on the same itinerary. Nowadays using an Uber or Lyft from my Brooklyn neighborhood for a night on the town in Manhattan runs $50 each way or $100. It used to be possible to park on the street in the evening, i.e. close to Lincoln Center, but now they have made it virtually impossible. Yet still taking your own car to a garage costs half as much or less than a ride service. But that is increasingly arduous and unpleasant thanks to the stupid anti-car policies now dominating the city which are eventually are going to drive me away from the place where I was born. That’s another story.

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