Saturday, November 16, 2013

Taxi Driving in New York

Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet

“…It’s Hooverville, honey, so anyone outside the military-industrial complex is likely to turn up driving for Dover…”

By Mark Jacobson

From the September 22, 1975 issue of New York Magazine.

It has been a year since I drove a cab, but the old garage still looks the same. The generator is still clanging in the corner. The crashed cars are still in the shop. The weirdos are still sweeping the cigarette butts of the cement floor. The friendly old “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE for all front-end accidents” is as comforting as ever. Danny the dispatcher still hasn’t lost any weight. And all the working stiffs are still standing around, grimy and gummy, sweating and regretting, waiting for a cab at shape-up.

Shape-up time at Dover Taxi Garage #2 still happens every afternoon, rain or shine, winter or summer, from two to six. That’s when the night-line drivers stumble into the red-brick garage on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village and wait for the day liners, old-timers with backsides contoured to the crease in the seat of a Checker cab, to bring in the taxis. The day guys are supposed to have the cabs in by four, but if the streets are hopping they cheat a little bit, maybe by two hours. That gives the night liners plenty of time to stand around in the puddles on the floor, inhale the carbon monoxide, and listen to the cab stories.

Cab stories are tales of survived disasters. They are the major source of conversation during shape-up. The flat-tire-with-no-spare-on-Eighth-Avenue-and-135th-Street is a good cab story. The no-brakes-on-the-park-transverse-at-50-miles-an-hour is a good cab story. The stopped-for-a-red-light-with-teen-agers-crawling-on-the-windshield is not too bad. They’re all good cab stories if you live to tell about them. But a year later the cab stories at Dover sound just a little bit more foreboding, not quite so funny. Sometimes they don’t even have happy endings. A year later the mood at shape-up is just a little bit more desperate. They gray faces and burnt-out eyes look just a little bit more worried. And the most popular cab story at Dover these days is the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here? story.

Dover has been called the “hippie garage” ever since the New York
freaks who couldn’t get it together to split for the Coast decided that barreling through the boogie-woogie on the East River Drive was the closest thing to rid-ing the range. The word got around that the people at Dover weren’t as mean or stodgy as at Ann Service, so Dover became “the place” to drive. Now, most of the hippies have either ridden into the sunset or gotten hepatitis, but Dover still attracts a specialized personnel. Hanging around at shape-up today are a college professor, a couple of Ph.D. candidates, a former priest, a calligrapher, a guy who drives to pay his family’s land taxes in Vermont, a Rumanian discotheque D.J., plenty of M.A.’s, a slew of social workers, trombone players, a guy who makes 300-pound sculptures out of solid rock, the inventor of the electric harp, professional photographers, and the usual gang of starving artists, actors, and writers. It’s Hooverville, honey, and there isn’t much money around for elephant-sized sculptures, so anyone outside the military-industrial complex is likely to turn up on Dover’s night line. Especially those who believed their mother when she said to get a good education so you won’t have to shlep around in a taxicab all your life like your Uncle Moe. A college education is not required to drive for Dover—all you have to do is pass a test on which the hardest question is “Where is Yankee Stadium?”—but almost everyone on the night line has at least a B.A.

Shape-up lasts forever. The day liners trickle in, hand over their crumpled dollars, and talk about the great U-turns they made on 57th Street. There are about 50 people waiting to go out. Everyone is hoping for good car karma. It can be a real drag to wait ........

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