The Newtown Pentacle

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Like the cops, you can never find a Taxi when you need one.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

With great interest has a humble narrator been following the dire news which the owners of Taxi fleets have been opining concerning the state of their industry. The first dagger in their hearts were the Boro Cabs – the now familiar fleets of green Taxi’s which are generally operated by independent owners which are forbidden from picking up passengers in Manhattan but can freely ply their trade in the other four boroughs. For one such as myself, the Boro Cabs have been a boon, as I seldom use a cab in the City, but often find myself short of time and needing to move between Greenpoint and LIC in a hurry.

The metered trip, combined with a guarantee that gear allowing the use of a debit or credit card in lieu of cash is onboard and in working condition, have vastly improved hiring a car in the outer boroughs and curtailed the old system of illegal street hails for private car services. The gypsy cab guys would always size you up and try to hit you with an outlandish fee for a trip of a mile or two (any further than that and I’m on the train or bus, yo). Boro Cabs are a giant “yes” check mark on the Michael Bloomberg Mayorality’s “How’d I do” list, IMHO.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ve always been interested in the Taxi business. A favorite Uncle actually drove a Checker Cab, having bought his medallion with his discharge money from the military after WW2. Tales of driving a cab in New York were always gladly related, and as I grew up in a fairly suburban and automobile centric part of Brooklyn (the Canarsie/Flatlands/Old Mill Basin section) there were lots of people I knew who plied the trade. Two close friends of my parents were dispatchers at a taxi company that transformed itself into a corporate “black car” business in the 1980’s as well. My next door neighbor Charlie, he drove a taxi. I even had a couple of friends during college who paid off their tuition by driving cabs on a four p.m. to four a.m. shift. A humble narrator is… shall we say… familiar with the industry – at least by association.

A bit of NYC trivia for you: medallion cabs were mandated to be painted yellow back in 1967.

Suffice to say, the Taxi biz prior to the 1980’s wasn’t exactly lucrative, but you’d make a decent wage. Only, that is, if you owned the Cab’s medallion and the car itself. If not, and all you had was a hack license, you had to work for one of the Fleets, and then as now – you got screwed daily.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s 62,000 yellow cabs in NYC, and according to the 2000 Census, some 82% of the drivers were foreign born.

Notorious scoundrels whose business practices and treatment of its labor pool are reminiscent of the sort of stuff you’d read about in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the Taxi fleets are essentially holding corporations with deep pockets that would instantly bid as high as they need to whenever one of the limited number of taxi medallions comes up for sail. They can afford to pay whatever it takes, and roughly half of all the medallions in the City are in the hands of just a few wealthy people. Wealthy people who make a lot of campaign donations.

Good honest graft, as it was known, has always ensured that they’d be able control and rig the game they played via political connections. Additionally… well, let’s just say that this used to be an all cash business which operated in a version of New York City that was fictionalizationed in films like Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas. There’s a reason why news stands, candy stores with comics racks, and coffee shops used to exist too. Cash businesses were good for business.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the late 70’s, real estate in what is now called Chelsea and Soho began to heat up and the real gangsters from Wall Street and the Upper East Side were involved. The Taxi fleets which used to operate out of these post industrial neighborhoods were priced out of their traditional homes. A migration began to Long Island City and North Brooklyn, where most of the fleets are based today. The Bronx was never a good choice, although one or two yards are there, as it was considered too far from Midtown Manhattan. LIC, in particular, was a perfect spot, with the Queensboro Bridge and Midtown Tunnel close by to allow a fleet’s quick trip to the happy hunting grounds of midtown.

An all cash business, and one which trafficked in small denominations for that matter, was welcomed by the unofficial economy hereabouts as well. Large specimens of currency could easily be exchanged for “clean” money. Not saying that’s what happened, by the way, but that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve always been told, by a truly odd but direly serious fellow, that he was “working for the United Nations on combatting the gray aliens” so grains of salt are always offered on heresay.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like my uncle, a pretty good number of the old Checker drivers seemed to be of the Jewish ethnicity. Always a working class job, “outer borough ethnic white guy” was the fellow who drove a cab when I was a kid. Sort of fellow who said things like “terlet” and “boid.” Despite their abundant populations, there seemed to be few Black or Puerto Rican drivers, as I remember it, until the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Presumptive discrimination ended sometime in the middle 1980’s. That’s when the Taxi industry seemed to turn over its entire workforce (it’s also about when my Uncle retired so it might have been a generational thing) and nearly every cab driver seemed to be from the subcontinent. Indians were replaced within a few years by Pakistanis, who have recently begun to be phased out in favor of Spanish speakers from Central and South America. Industry veterans point to this sort of ethnic turnover claiming that it’s all about union busting, and committed in the name of finding new groups of immigrants willing to drive a cab for a few dollars less per shift than the previous generation. Modern day cab drivers have described a pretty miserable set of rules and conditions to me as set down by the fleet owners – which includes a twist on the old “one minute late, you’re docked an hour’s pay” practices – the sort of thing that went out of style in the 1930’s. That’s the reason why you can’t get a cab between three and four in the afternoon – they have to get back to base and exchange the cab with another driver, and if a minute late…

Uber, Lyft, and the rest of the new taxi services have put a serious dent in the yellow cab business recently. The price of Taxi medallions has actually fallen for the first time ever. Again, half of all medallions are in the hands of a few. This is the latest dagger in the Fleet owner’s collective heart, and they’ve used all of their influence to combat the new competitors. As it happens, many of the drivers for these new services are their former employees. Just like the green Boro Cabs, I’ve found these new services to be efficacious. I’ve also noticed that parked in and around the Fleet lots, there are a lot of obviously not road ready cabs on display sans medallions. The Fleets have actually responded to the competition, it would be noted, by creating their own smart phone apps to compete with the new players. They’ve also continued to happily buy up any medallions that become available, the price of which continues to plummet due to the arrival of Uber and the others – they say.

The Fleet owners are fairly disagreeable people, I am told. Mayor Bloomberg is reported to have been particularly peeved by them – “Bloomberg famously told one of the industry’s more notorious barons that he would “destroy” his “ fucking industry” upon leaving office” as reported by Capital New York.

If business was really as bad as claimed, wouldn’t these cars we see parked on the street be actual ready to work models, rather than dinged up models missing stickers and trimmings? If things are as dire as they are meant to be, wouldn’t the Fleet owners be selling – rather than buying – medallions?

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

January 6, 2016 at 11:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. Mitch, great writeup as usual and I love the photos. I would like to clarify a few things though. First, the the green cabs did not really have much of an effect on the yellow cab business. As you said though, it did bring much needed improvement to the outer borough livery services.

    Next, there are only a little over 13,000 yellow taxis. You may have been thinking about the number of licensed drivers with that much larger number. The reality of the Uber effect is that the number of yellow cabs out doing business have dropped by 10 to 15%. Not getting the daily/weekly lease fee from drivers is what’s driving the increasing number of loan defaults.

    While the value of medallions has fallen, no-one really knows what they are really worth today since so few are actually changing hands. Also, it’s not really clear that the existing owners are buying more of them. Why would they when they are busy figuring out how to pay their own medallion loans?

    What is really appalling is that the TLC and the Mayor are allowing the app companies to use predatory pricing on the black car side while the yellow and green cabs have no way to discount their fares (i.e they must charge what’s on the meter). The obvious result is that drivers make less and the medallion owners take a bath. While I also do not have much sympathy for the fleet owners, the result will be financial hardship for drivers and eventual price gauging of the riders.

    Finally, if you and your readers want to learn more about those great Checker cabs, just visit http://www.checkerworld.org.

    Keep ’em coming!
    George

    glaszlo10003

    January 6, 2016 at 10:41 pm

  2. The green taxi can pick up in Manhattan as long as it is below 14th (I think) and above 96th street (I think)

    Sent with Peace and Love

    >

    Joe Schaal

    January 10, 2016 at 12:18 am


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