My family came to the United States during the early 1990’s recession. My father had been a railroad engineer back in Russia, mostly working the geriatric section of the network, the track between Moscow and (then) Leningrad. In the States, he discovered to his chagrin that the railroads and the train industry were in the crapper, and so the only job he could find that matched his education and skills was for a custom air-conditioning company, which offered him $8.25 an hour with no benefits — provided he first worked for them for six months without pay, “as a volunteer”. And so, like many youngish Soviet immigrants at that time, my father became a livery driver.
His first job was for a hole-in-the-wall car service in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood heavily populated by Hasidic Jews. He was required to provide his own vehicle and pay for the gas; the car service gave him a small cut of the fares. There were no benefits, no paid vacation, not even a reimbursement for vehicle maintenance. And so, my family spent whatever was left of our savings after renting an apartment on a ginormous 1979 excrement-brown Buick, which required a virtual Niagara Falls of fuel to run, and he went to work.
He generally made about $40 a day, and worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. The customers were mostly local residents: Hasidic families who always took FOR-EVER to arrange their observant asses in the vehicle according to the Halacha, fellow immigrants and crabby old ladies going to doctors’ appointments; they never gave more than a few pennies in tips. This was a time before cell phones (or, at any rate, before cell phones that livery drivers could afford), and so drivers waited for their calls in the company office — a small dingy room with a couple of couches that a hobo would hesitate to sit on and an old AC unit left over from the prior tenant, which was never, ever turned on. The owner of the car service operated as a dispatcher from a small air-conditioned booth in the back, an unpleasant taciturn man who, my dad’ co-workers whispered, was only always angry because he couldn’t satisfy his wife.
In the summer, the floor-length windows of the car service would heat up the room so much, you could smelt iron ore in it. Still the owner wouldn’t allow the drivers to turn on the AC. “What am I, made of money?” he would snarl if some newbie dared to ask, “What is this, a pleasure resort? Want the electric bill to be paid out of your wages?” No one wanted to pay the AC electric bill out of their wages. Not even the old guy with a heart condition, who gasped, his face meat-red, in the triple-digit heat.
After about a year of this, my dad got the necessary papers and began driving a yellow cab. It was more money, though between the cost of the medallion rental, the special taxi insurance, and the never-ending harassment by the cops and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (the TLC), it took him awhile to learn how to break even.
A couple of years went by — and then New York City’s illustrious mayor, Rudy Giuliani, having largely wrapped up his assault on squeegee men and street vendors, set his sights on the cabbies.
In retrospect, Giuliani’s war on the cabbies looks like a test run for the Trump movement. If you are wondering where Trump got his ridiculous anti-immigrant rant about Mexico’s “bad
hombres hambres”, he almost certainly learned how to stoke hate, and how to get large numbers of otherwise proper and correct people to come along for the ride, from Rudy Giuliani.
If you are wondering about Giuliani’s motivation, his idea of Making New York Great Again involved turning the city into a cross between a glitzy, Trump-style country club, and a prison camp for those necessary to service it. To that end, he pursued “quality of life” initiatives relentlessly. That’s why he wanted to get rid of street vendors, the squeegee men, the hot dog carts. He did “get rid” of the homeless, but what most of his adherents didn’t know (and I do, because I actually became involved in relevant litigation straight out of law school) is that the homeless were housed in hotels by the JFK airport, to the tune of something like $140 per room, per night, for years. This policy put the city deep in the hole and did nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness, but the Mayor didn’t care; his job, as far as he was concerned, wasn’t to be some bleeding heart social reformer. He just wanted to superficially clean up the city and make it look nice for the millionaires, and his idea of “nice” was invariably weird and kind of in line of the Trumpian notion of classiness.
He banned kite-flying along Belt Parkway by the shore of the Upper New York Bay, a long-time Brooklyn tradition, on the ground that the kites distracted drivers and caused accidents. There was no evidence, actually, that kite-flying did that. The Mayor simply thought kites were stupid; the chrome-and-mediocre-steak set hates spontaneity and is extremely suspicious of people who haven’t been properly vetted having fun in unapproved ways. The kites banished, he had the City place horrific wreckages along the side of Belt Parkway as a warning to passing motorists against the evils of drunk driving or inattention. That was a stark change in scenery, swapping the joy and innocence of kites for the grim display of violent death; the pushback was intense, and the policy was rescinded not long after.
One of Giuliani’s more bizarre proposals to the City Council was to institute a variable toll for vehicles entering the city, where the amount of the toll would depend on the year, make and model of the vehicle — the older and cheaper the car, the higher the toll. Another was to eliminate municipal and free street parking in favor of all-permit parking. Permits, naturally, would be very expensive and only go to “deserving” people. That way, there would be no cheap bridge-and-tunnel Chevys parked anywhere where they could be seen by Manhattanite women and children. Both proposals died in committee, probably because laws like that would be so unconstitutional, they wouldn’t pass a lawyer’s “blush test”.
As far as the livery business, the Mayor was friendly to upscale limousine companies, and hated the cheap yellow cab. His ideal vision was a city devoid of traditional, low-cost taxis. Only luxury limousines had a place in his ideal New York.
The city had, at that time, around 45,000 cabbies. Almost all of them were recent immigrants, without connections, social clout or financial leverage to resist an all-out-assault by a man who hated them with the heat of a thousand supernovas.
In the mid-1990’s, Giuliani and his goons began systematically demonizing cabbies on a daily basis, describing them virtually as vermin, pests, criminals, enemies of the community and the root of everything that was wrong with the city. It baffled people like our family; livery drivers provide an essential service, so this hostility was, at first, incomprehensible. Then it became terrifying.
Andrea Peyser, of the New York Post, New York City’s classiest right-wing rag, referred to cabbies as “rabble”. Giuliani’s police commissioner, Howard Safir described yellow cab drivers as “terrorists”. (Safir’s tenure was marred by an unprecedented spike in police brutality, particularly against African-Americans. The torture of Abner Louima and the shooting of Amadou Diallo both occurred on his watch, eventually causing him to resign in disgrace. Years later, the man who declared cabbies to be outside of humanity for the crime of reckless driving would find himself under criminal investigation for a hit-and-run, of all things. On a pregnant pedestrian. He was, of course, cleared.)
The complaints against cab drivers were numerous. They were accused of driving too fast. They were also accused of driving too slow, in order to churn their fares. (The NYC yellow cab meter uses both distance and time to calculate the fare. When the cab’s speed falls below a certain threshold, the meter switches to a time-based calculation.) They were accused of taking round-about routes, even though this was almost always done to avoid traffic, which would result in a higher fare and an irate customer. They were accused of speaking poor English. Of having weird accidents. Of dressing casually. Of dressing ethnically. Of being unfriendly. Of not getting out of the cab to open doors. Of being foreign. Of only being in the livery trade for the money (a bizarre accusation to be made against any profession, but for some reason heard quite often). Of driving uninsured, which was false on its face.
The dehumanization was daily. My mother stopped turning on the news at night, because it seemed like every channel, every day, featured a segment on how awful and dangerous cabbies are. The SNL, our day’s bastion of anti-Trump resistance, then did a shameful skit where Giuliani himself played the part of a grotesquely caricatured cab driver.
Then came the laws. Fines were upped, insurance rates quadrupled. The worst was the fine for “discourteous behavior”, a regulation so vaguely defined, discourteous behavior was whatever the customer said discourteous behavior was. Giuliani and his acolytes used the media to encourage the public to report discourteous and rude cabbies. A common scenario in those days: someone uses your cab as a toilet, and when you protest, you get hit with a fine for being rude to a customer; plus a fine for having a filthy cab.
In 1999, Danny Glover filed a complaint with the TLC against a driver who refused to let him ride in the front seat. New York City cabbies HATE having passengers ride in the front seat, because it defeats the purpose of the bullet-proof partition, and is known to be a sure way to get robbed. My father was robbed at gunpoint by a passenger whom he permitted to ride in the front seat. Since most cab drivers are recent immigrants, it’s quite possible the driver simply didn’t recognize Glover as a famous actor. Whatever the case may be, Glover claimed that he was discriminated against because of his race. The media and the Mayor’s office reported it to the public as Danny Glover being refused a ride altogether in favor of a white customer. They made it seem as if the cab blew past Glover and stopped for a white person’s hail instead; Glover himself certainly did nothing to dispel that myth. The administration pounced, launching its infamous Operation Refusal, which involved suspending the licenses and taking away the vehicles of cabbies accused of racial discrimination.
Summonses against drivers were adjudicated in almost cartoonishly unconstitutional secret courts, where cabbies were not allowed to present evidence or introduce witnesses, not allowed to employ lawyers, and assessed a separate penalty for disputing a charge. Customer complaints were presented in a fashion so vague, it was impossible to recall the incident, and no way to mount a meaningful defense. When, in 1998, a reporter from the New York Law Journal (a publication that’s as non-polemical and apolitical as it gets) tried to infiltrate the TLC courts in order to observe the proceedings, he was roughly removed from the premises. Once Operation Refusal got under way, cabbies’ licenses and vehicles were yanked without even a pro forma hearing, on the strength of a mere accusation.
At the same time, cabbies had no recourse against abusive, non-paying, even violent customers. Technically, it was illegal to not pay a fare or assault a cabbie, but the cops made it very clear they had no interest in protecting or assisting the people their Commissioner designated as “terrorists” — and the TLC severely penalized cabbies who complained about non-paying or violent passengers. Moreover, people who filed false complaints were never punished for it.
Operation Refusal, ostensibly against racist cabbies, was in itself one of the forms of retaliation for the 1998 24-hour strike by the cabbies, which drew national attention to the issue. Exhausted by all the hate heaped on people like my father, who worked 16-hour days providing for his family, I had high hopes for the strike. I thought it was a chance for the cabbies to tell their side, and for the people to listen.
Instead, the prevailing attitude in the liberal, progressive, enlightened New York City was:
FUCK THE CABBIES. They are foreign. They are vermin. They are pests. They are not part of the community. They only drive their filthy cabs because they want money.
After Danny Glover, the charge of racism was heaped on top of that pile. It was, perhaps, the most bewildering of all, for two reasons. First, Russian cabbies like my father notwithstanding, the vast majority of yellow cab drivers were, and still are, people of color. The idea that the cabbies were a white KKK mafia oppressing African-Americans was insane, and New Yorkers knew for a fact it wasn’t true, but believed it because, well, that’s what they needed to believe in order to rationalize their hate. Second, all that hate against cab drivers was in and of itself unmistakably racist. That an administration infamous for its mistreatment of African-Americans was pushing this “cabbies be racist” narrative should have been a clue that it was bullshit. But it didn’t matter. People needed to believe cabbies were evil, because otherwise, they would have to re-examine their own prejudices.
Cabbies did occasionally refuse fares, which was illegal, but it had more to do with destination than with race. Now, granted, there is a lot of overlap between destination and race, but those still aren’t the same thing. African-American cabbies were no more keen to drive to some industrial wasteland like Hunts Point, or Red Hook, or Gowanus at 1 a.m. than whites. Giuliani’s tuff-on-crime fame notwithstanding, some areas of the city were notorious for cabbies getting robbed and murdered, and drivers were understandably reluctant to drive there, particularly at night. And particularly with someone who insisted on riding in the passenger seat.
It was remarkable how Rudy Giuliani was able to cultivate racism, othering and hate in a city normally renown for its tolerance and acceptance, even enthusiastic embrace of rejects, the weird, “the other”. This is, again, something that offers a clue to how Trumpism was able to take over America. In the wake of Giuliani’s relentless dehumanization campaign against cabbies, customers became unbearable, and there was huge uptick in bogus complaints. (Those confiscated vehicles made some sweet bank for the City, which needed to pay for all those hotels by the airport, where it warehoused the homeless.)
Any profession dealing with a stream of customers can be frustrating, while rude, obnoxious customers are a fact of life, but the late 1990’s opened by floodgates to cabbie abuse by customers. My father shared stories of near-constant matter-of-fact cruelty, sadistic taunting, threats, insults, and more threats. In his view, the customers were becoming more and more like a lynch mob.
Late one night, he picked up a couple in their 20’s wearing evening attire, for a ride to Williamsburg, which was just then becoming fashionable among the well-heeled hipster crowd. The guy spent the entire ride calling my father “garbage”. You are garbage, you are nothing, you are worthless. Got anything to say? Huh, garbage? Speak any English? Why aren’t you responding to me? That’s discourteous, I’m gonna report you. You wanna get reported, garbage? They’re gonna arrest you and send you back to your country, garbage. What do you think about that, garbage? Your English sucks. What is that accent? You are garbage.
The guy ranted, the girl giggled and whispered encouragements.
Somewhere just over the Manhattan Bridge, my father pulled over, buried his face in his hands and began to sob.
“Okay, okay, you are not garbage,” the passenger said condescendingly, “Can we get going? Would like to get home sometime today. You can continue your meltdown after you drop us off.” His companion squealed with delight.
Now, it’s true this is just a story. What was remarkable to me was a near-total absence of sympathy for cab drivers in the public discourse — in the media, on television (there was no social media back then). The whole city regarded cabbies as, at first, a menace, and then, a convenient target for gleeful bullying and mockery. It was unfathomable. Yes, some cabbies were rude and some monkeyed with their meters. But by and large, these were just ordinary blue-collar people doing a job so shitty, no one who could speak English without an accent or accept latte orders would take it. And cabbies were much likelier to be victims of crime than perpetrators. EVERYONE seemed to be ganging up on the cabbies, including the self-professed “liberals” who, in the abstract, had very correct ideas about the the poor and the working class, and felt passionate distress at the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh. Of course, once those Bangladeshi garment workers came to the US and became cab drivers, they stopped being martyrs and became “garbage”.
If the cabbies don’t like it, the popular wisdom went, they can quit. And just like that, all those people who wrote florid college papers arguing that capitalism is evil, embraced the principles of dog-eat-dog capitalism with gusto. Perhaps the Bangladeshi garment workers can quit, too.
Which brings me to Uber. (I apologize for taking so many paragraphs to get to the point, but I feel I really needed to, as lawyers say, lay a foundation here.) It baffles me that today, not that long after Giuliani’s crusade against the cabbies, so many people hate Uber, especially for how it treats drivers.
I should mention, by way of an epilogue, that the yellow cab drivers ended up unionizing, and taking Giuliani to court. The ensuing decade-plus-long courtroom saga ended with most of Giuliani-era cabbie regulations being ruled unconstitutional. (Giuliani himself, ordered to appear for a deposition on the matter in 2011, claimed to have no memory of anything having to do with cabbies.) Still, many of the conditions of being a cabbie are about the same now as they were then. It is a grueling, dangerous blue-collar job with high costs and narrow profit margins. The TLC, though humbled somewhat, is still rapacious. The City is still looking to its most politically vulnerable workers to provide it with revenue.
Neighborhood cabstands are still around in the outer boroughs. These days, drivers get jobs on their smart phones, and no longer have to languish in the office. But other than that, the conditions at those companies are about the same. It’s an extremely low-paid job with no benefits, done by the poorest of the working poor, many of them recent immigrants.
With that in mind, I find it bewildering that people’s sympathy seems to be directed exclusively at Uber drivers. My father, who now drives Uber, describes it as definitely the least horrible driving gig he’s ever had, and that includes luxury limo. Whatever shenanigans Uber is up to, they pale in comparison to the exploitation and abuse that cabbies and car service drivers endure. Why are they being treated as invisible or insignificant? And where was everyone’s righteous outrage when my father was still driving a yellow cab? Note, this is not like, for example, the criticism often lobbed at feminists for not spending enough energy fighting gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Cabbies and neighborhood livery drivers exist in the same space as Uber drivers, yet all the public’s attention is trained on Uber. Why is that?
Is it because people have really evolved over the last fifteen years, and are NOW more likely to view livery drivers as human beings? Or is it because everyone loves to hate a big multinational corporation? I have been wondering lately, and it’s not hard to see why, whether there is even such a thing as empathy. Perhaps what we perceive as empathy, particularly within ourselves, is just well-rationalized narcissism. And there are people in this world who are very, very good at manipulating that narcissism — that the most enlightened and compassionate people are just as likely to mistreat the vulnerable and feel good about themselves doing so, as they are to call for the vulnerable to be protected. Ultimately, it’s all about one’s ego.
And for that reason, I view pretty much all criticisms of Uber as profoundly disingenuous. Uber is mean to its drivers? Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago you kicked those drivers when they were down, folks. Uber is deceiving the government? Right, but the TLC operating secret unconstitutional courts and taking poor working families’ only assets without a hearing was okay, I guess. Uber is disrupting the transportation market? That market is brutal and unfair to begin with. Way I see it, Uber mostly hurts the rich — cab company owners, medallion investors, limousine corporations; in other words, the exploiters. The drivers, if anything, get more leverage and more options with another major player in the market.
So, my Gentle Reader, before you self-righteously delete that Uber app, ask yourself some questions. Uber did not invent the livery business. Livery drivers have been around for as long as automobiles have been a thing. When exactly did you start feeling so strongly about what the conditions of drivers’ employment are like? And how much, exactly, do you know about it?
P.S.: As a senior in high school, I wrote a letter to Mayor Giuliani. In the letter, I said my father was a cab driver, that he was not a criminal, or a cheat, or stupid, or animal-like. I told him that my father was a highly educated man of cultural refinement, who liked to read Gogol and could quote the classics of poetry on the fly. I told him my father worked unspeakably long hours trying to provide for his family, that he was not an enemy of the community, but part of it, that he was an honest man who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. I told Mayor Giuliani that his incendiary rhetoric was scaring me, that between the increasingly hysterical public, the abusive TLC and a police department which had explicitly described cabbies as “terrorists”, I was beginning to be afraid for my father’s life, and the lives of other cabbies. I asked him why he was viciously attacking the City’s most vulnerable workers, and what could be done to resolve the conflict without violence, humiliation or hateful rhetoric. I know you have a difficult job to do, I said, and that you only want what’s best for the City, but could you possibly be a little less mean about it? And not lash out at innocent people in the process?
The Mayor’s office did not respond.