Now listen up, you food vendors, you jaywalkers, you porn shop perverts, you Grammy Award executives, you New York Times reporters, you Winnie-the-Pooh-thieving Brits, you David Dinkins-Ruth Messinger-Mark Green lovers: Some day a hard rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.
If the Mayor didn’t hate cabs so much, you could see him at the wheel in Taxi Driver , bug-eyed and sporting a Travis Bickle mohawk, spewing invective as he trolls the darkened streets, scowling at the unseemly human dramas taking place in the world outside his control. Or you might imagine him admiring his muscular persona in a full-length mirror, snarling lines worthy of Robert De Niro as he points a sharp baton at one phantom enemy or another.
Having tested his second-term outrage on various municipal miscreants of the two-bit variety, Mayor Giuliani at last has found his new squeegeemen: cabdrivers.
Like those now vanquished symbols of urban disarray, the new squeegeemen are associated with motor vehicles. The old squeegeemen washed them; the new squeegeemen drive them. The only difference, of course, is that the old squeegeemen didn’t have to turn over the first $100 or so of their daily take to a middleman.
New York’s 45,000 cabdrivers are the latest targets of opportunity in Mayor Giuliani’s endless crusade to rid the city of anything that gives the appearance of disorder. And what a target they are: newly arrived immigrants with nonexistent political power, working at a grimy, sweaty job that the white collars of the Information Age regard with undisguised disdain. (Andrea Peyser in the New York Post referred to these working stiffs as “rabble,” while David Letterman takes a great squalling delight in belittling them-a sure sign that the drivers are incapable of hitting back.)
This being the 1990’s, the Mayor understands that few will ask impertinent questions as long as the job-that is, clearing the streets of curry in a hurry-gets done. To that end, City Hall apparently has its collective ear to the road. When the cabbies were threatening, in a refrain repeated again and again by Mr. Giuliani to “shut down the city,” city officials thrilled New Yorkers by announcing that they had inside information on these “taxi terrorists.” (That last epithet came courtesy of Police Department spokesman Marilyn Mode.) Could that possibly mean that the Taxi and Limousine Commission was relying on informants within the ranks of private business?
“I suppose you can say that,” Alan Fromberg, a commission spokesman, told The Observer . “They would in fact be considered informants.”
Nor was there an outcry when the Mayor deployed the Police Department, on May 21, barred cabs without fares from crossing the East River into Manhattan. (One defender of taxi drivers pointed out, convincingly, that thousands of cabs cross into Manhattan in the early morning hours-so how might cops spot the troublemakers?)
Mr. Fromberg said-and this is where he and the Mayor part company-the action was necessary because drivers were going to shut down the city. Of course, as he acknowledged, there was little in the way of visible proof, aside from the “propaganda” circulated by furious drivers. But who needs visible proof when your moles are on the job? “Without being at liberty to go into great detail,” he said, “we had some good intelligence that that was the plan.”
The plot was deftly foiled; drivers called off their strike. But the Mayor found another use for all that intelligence, demonizing the drivers for siding with the forces of chaos and disorder.
“The Mayor has the ability, and this is a political strength, to redefine people, to cast the opposition into a form that is to his great tactical advantage,” said City Council member Walter McCaffrey. “And they fit right into the stereotype [of lawless scoundrels] he set up for them.” By threatening to strike, Mr. McCaffrey said of the drivers, “they fell for it hook, line and sinker.”
In taking these actions, the Mayor has donned his threadbare white robes, posing as a reformer intent on bringing needed change to a corrupt and, worse, misbehaving industry. His get-tough regulations are presented as a welcome crackdown on the wild-eyed maniacs who are the ruin of a once-noble and indeed respected working-class job. For example, under the new rules, a cabby who accumulates six points on his license in 18 months will be sent to the taxi penalty box for 30 days. (The current threshold is 11 points.) Given that drivers work 12-hour shifts and already are subject to intense police scrutiny-check out the Police Department’s techniques outside Penn Station on any given morning-six points can be all in a day’s work. Speeding gets you four points; a traffic ticket gets you three.
Defenders of the industry, however, insist that cabbies aren’t the curb-jumping terrorists who haunt the city’s collective imagination. Ron Sherman, who owns 191 medallions and leases the cars to drivers, said an industry group survey found that 80 percent of the 4,000 drivers questioned had zero to three points on their licenses.
And, while increasing fines for speeding might meet with universal approval, drivers say that increasing the fine for smoking in cabs (to $125) hardly deals with larger problems in the industry.
It’s uncertain what fate awaits the Mayor’s crackdown. The Taxi and Limousine Commission will conduct a hearing on the proposals on May 28, followed by a vote. Of its eight commissioners, three are Giuliani appointees. Five votes are needed for passage. “There are some issues that have to be tempered or adjusted or postponed or reviewed in detail,” said Marvin Greenberg, a commissioner who stressed that he supports the Mayor’s initiatives. But, he added, “I’m not sure what I’m going to do on each and every issue.”
The administration, however, is certain that these changes will rescue passengers from mad-dog drivers. “This reform package is comprehensive and it really reaches across all strata of the industry, from drivers to owners to the structure of the industry itself,” Mr. Fromberg said.
Of criticisms that the reforms are directed at drivers, and not the industry as a whole, he added that suspending drivers who accumulate six points on their license would go a long way towards keeping taxis off the sidewalks. “The fact is, taxicab operators hold a professional license. It is absolutely appropriate and downright necessary to hold them to a higher standard than you or I. They have every opportunity to answer in D.M.V. [Department of Motor Vehicles] or T.L.C. [the taxi commission] court if there were mitigating circumstances that resulted in action on their license.”
What’s clear in all of this, however, is that cab drivers, the obvious manifestation of an industry that has changed dramatically since the days of the Mayor’s halcyon youth, have taken on the symbolic properties associated with the homeless, welfare recipients, City University students and other marginal characters. Once upon a time, when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and people walked on the green and not in between, cabdrivers were employees of the taxi companies, and received a guaranteed salary along with health insurance. Then, cab-driving was a respectable working-class job. Now, it is immigrant-based, entry-level serfdom. That’s not to say, however, that the fleet owners will emerge unscathed. Mr. Sherman estimated that his fleet will have to put up more than $10 million in bonds for damages not covered by insurance. (Each medallion will be required to post $100,000 in such bonds if the Mayor’s proposal passes.) If nothing else, though, the owners have been spared the mayoral sermons.
“The attack on the cabbies is much more visceral and uglier than almost all the other craziness,” said former city Consumer Affairs Commissioner Richard Schrader, a Dinkins-era appointee. “The bottom line is, it’s a tough industry and it needs strong regulation. But this kind of attack is bitter and hysterical and has an ugly side to it. [The Mayor] is an inch away from attacking these drivers as people who are not one of us, as outsiders.”
Most of the drivers may be new to the city, but they understand exactly what’s happening to them. Taking a break at a taxi stand on Lexington Avenue and 28th Street-where the local restaurants serve Indian and Pakistani food-driver Naeem Gunda vented his spleen in language suggesting that the assimilation process is well under way: “Giuliani insulted us,” he said. “He puts these tapes in the cars-that fucking Joan Rivers-and he’s telling us we don’t speak English. I speak fucking 10 different languages-French, English, German, Arabic. I speak English better than the Mayor does. And he’s telling us we don’t speak English?”
When drivers indicated that a bit of civil disobedience would be in order, Mr. Giuliani clearly relished the challenge to his authority. He announced forthwith that he would consider allowing livery drivers to hail fares-a move that would deflate the value of highly prized medallions. Just two years ago, as a revenue-booster, the Giuliani administration sold 400 medallions for $90 million, reserving 40 percent of them for individual owners. About 160 or so immigrant entrepreneurs borrowed or scraped together the cash to become owner-operators. But when the drivers threatened to protest, the Mayor tried to flood the streets with livery drivers. “The notion of selling 400 medallions, then turning around and threatening to destroy their value with a simple stroke of a pen, is rather disturbing,” said a former city official.
While every Information Age Manhattanite has a favorite cab horror story to tell (they often are exchanged in the same tones that another generation used for such events as being caught in a shallow foxhole the day the Germans burst through the Ardennes), industry insiders insist that their terrible reputation is undeserved. Mr. Sherman, the multiple medallion owner, said that “we move 365 million passengers a year, and there are under 12,000 complaints.”
Then again, there’s gold in them there complaints. According to Mr. Fromberg, the total projected revenue for the Taxi and Limousine Commission for fiscal year 1999 is approximately $36 million, with about $8 million coming from fines levied on all facets of the industry, including livery cabs and yellow cabs.
Some day, a hard rain will come …
Additional reporting by William Berlind.