Driving a taxi in New York City is inextricably linked with the subject of race. While it is true that no subject is more vexatious for society as a whole, the taxi driver is forced to confront the issue in a way few others are. Though few New Yorkers have not been victimized by black or Hispanic crime, it is the taxi driver who still has the lion’s share of horror stories to tell. Even other small businessmen, many of whom carry licensed handguns, are not in quite the same position as the taxi driver, who is prohibited by law from carrying a licensed firearm or anything else that could be construed as a weapon. This vulnerability to crime leads to an expected and understandable set of beliefs: as people who converse with them know, there are few drivers who could be called liberal.
When I started driving a medallion cab about ten years ago I was in the process of abandoning my liberalism, but my views had not quite reached their present pessimistic state. I had by then lived in Manhattan for several years and did not consider myself naive about its dangers. But, then, I had not yet been mugged and had had relatively limited contact with blacks. In those early days I would stop for almost anyone who hailed me; I didn’t know any better. I found the night shift to be less demanding and stressful than the day shift and, since I was leasing a taxi from a private owner, was working without the bulletproof partition separating the front of the cab from the back. But most of my fares proceeded without incident, and I began to think of it as almost a kind of game in which customers were forced to pay me in exchange for my driving them to their destination. My innocence still amazes me, and I consider myself fortunate to have survived that period.
Blacks have become associated with violent crime to such an extent that even being alone in a car with an unknown, young black male sitting behind you can be a terrifying experience. If the black customer were silent, my paranoia would go to work and convince me that he was plotting to rob or kill me. I would take note of his behavior, looking for clues. He’s whistling and gazing out the window. That seemed to me a good sign. Or he’s reading a newspaper. That also was encouraging. Sometimes when I was scared I would begin humming audibly or tapping my fingers to the music of the radio, hoping he would perceive me as a relaxed, simpatico fellow with much to live for and would shelve any plans for mayhem. In a few cases, the combination of being in a bad neighborhood, late at night, with a silent young black man sitting behind me felt so ominous that when he simply paid me and departed, the same as anybody else, I felt I had been granted a reprieve or that I had used up one of my nine lives. If they knew how terrified I had been, they never mentioned it.
Needless to say, it took only a few incidents of this kind to make me more selective in choosing my customers. But unlike many white drivers, I continued to pick up with some frequency respectable looking blacks. Black women, at least, were as unthreatening as white women and, as long as I was unafraid of my customer, and as long as I felt that I was driving a reliable car, it did not especially trouble me to drive into a minority neighborhood.
But black men were another story. Deciding which ones to stop for was a tricky matter. When hailed by a black man, I would sometimes slow down and scrutinize him, paying particular attention to his eyes, trying to discern whether he might be harmless. I still believe it is possible to learn a great deal about a person by looking into his eyes, but considering the stakes, I couldn’t afford to be wrong, even once. Sometimes I world actually stop for black men, only to get second thoughts, and drive away just as they reached the door. From their reactions, I’m sure they thought I was deliberately trying to humiliate them; in fact, I was only responding to what I felt were honest doubts and a desire to err on the side of safety.
But having to make quick decisions on the basis of inadequate evidence is a surefire formula for mishap. One night, while stopped at a red light at 96th Street and Columbus Avenue, I opened my doors to a garishly dressed black man: I immediately knew I had made a mistake. He was going to 125th Street and Eighth Avenue but wanted me to take the West Side Highway instead of the direct route, Central Park West. I was immediately suspicious because not only is the highway darker and quieter than the city streets, but the fare would probably be four or five dollars more, as well. After giving me his destination he said nothing else, and so I glanced at him in the mirror: nothing in his appearance or demeanor reassured me.
I found myself wishing I had chosen some other line of work. I started driving west on 96th Street but had no intention of getting on the highway. I drove slowly, considering my options. I could ask him to leave, perhaps telling him I’m afraid to go to Harlem, but I knew that if I refused to take him where he wanted he had the legal right to sit in my cab all night. I could try to persuade him that another route was preferable. Or, as a last resort, I could take the advice that more than one cabdriver had given me: stop the car in the middle of the street, gather my belongings, and head for the hills on foot.
When we reached Broadway I summoned my nerve and said to him, “I’m not going to take the highway. I’ll take Broadway instead.” I expected him to at least verbally abuse me, possibly threaten to report me to the Taxi-Limousine Commission (TLC) or maybe, as in the old joke, just rob me there. He seemed unsurprised and said mildly, “Okay, then I’ll get out here.” I still believe he had plans to rob me.
At the fleet where I now work part-time, there is little interaction between the white and black drivers. The work force appears to be roughly 40 to 50 percent black (primarily African and West Indian), 50 to 60 percent nonblack, and everyone seems to accept this segregation as normal. (The nonblacks, of course, include contingents of Indians, Orientals, and Hispanics.) As we mill around the garage, waiting for the dispatcher to call our names, there are no racial incidents, though there are few nonblack drivers who do not speak disparagingly of blacks.
The nature of the job also seems to produce a need to talk about work, and when taxi drivers congregate before or after work a large part of the conversation consists of war stories. One hears tales of traffic jams, of breakdowns, of accidents, of finding money in the backseat, of being cheated out of fares, of being stopped by the police or by TLC inspectors, of arguments with passengers, of lucrative fares to New Jersey, of celebrity customers and beautiful women. And occasionally one hears of a robbery or reads in the newspaper about a murder of a cabdriver. As with other cases of violent crime, that the perpetrator is black or Hispanic is simply assumed. Though it is true that most of the drivers who have been killed on the job have been livery and not medallion drivers, this is because they are forbidden by taxi regulations from working in midtown Manhattan and are thus forced to work in high-crime areas, but this provides us small consolation since we too sometimes work in those same areas.
Crime is never far from the minds of city dwellers these days, and I have found few people who are unsympathetic to the taxi driver’s plight. When I tell people I drive a taxi, one of the first questions liberals and conservatives alike invariably ask is whether I pick up blacks. “Sometimes,” I answer, explaining that I’m cautious, and so far I have managed to escape without a lecture on racism. Though the hypocrisy of liberals is a byword of our times, everyone to the right of William Kunstler seems to understand that no one can be expected to risk his life for a few dollars.
Most blacks, it is well to remind ourselves, are decent and law-abiding, and most victims of crime are themselves members of minorities. It is also true that I have had many regrettable experiences with whites. But these incidents have generally been merely unpleasant, not potentially dangerous. The unfortunate truth is that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable risk and, given their high-crime rate, blacks constitute the unacceptable risk.
One can’t help but sympathize with blacks who have difficulty hailing a cab. Black youths sometimes call out, “Please stop,” “Be brave,” or “We’ll give you a good tip,” as taxis speed past them. I have seen black cabdrivers hail a taxi by waving their license. But even if the overwhelming majority of blacks are law-abiding, so long as the majority of urban violent crime is committed by blacks, there will remain a problem. And since drivers have more to lose than they do, we will continue to pass them by.