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Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: A Columbia Grad’s New Life as a Hack Driver

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Everyone romanticizes the New York City yellow cab driver, but what about the unsung hustler-heroes of the “outer boroughs,”- the hack driver? It’s these men (and a handful of intrepid women) driving black town cars that the locals of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx depend on when they’re running late or feeling a little lazy, who work as hard if not harder than the glorified cabbie, yet still have such a terrible reputation as drunks, cheats, morons, and all around assholes.  The cabbie gets Taxi DriverNight on EarthCash Cab; the creepers that honk at you whether you want a ride or not, never have any idea where they’re going, or speak any English—they get nothing.

Luckily, though, you have me to step up to (de)mystify the car service driver.  After getting my MA from Columbia in Film Studies (so far, no use), I decided to finally live out my Taxi Cab Confessions dream by becoming a driver, and one of the first things I learned was that it’s much cheaper to become a car service driver than to get your yellow cab license.

Allow me to guide you through the crooked streets of the car service driver (sex! money! drugs! and to how score questions)  Consider this part exposé, part baptism by fire; along the way, you’ll encounter some interesting characters and locations, learn some surprising things (or not), and hopefully imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of a profession that’s as demonized as it is dependable (or not).

First, let’s just go ahead and clear the air as far as “car service”, “black car”, and “gypsy cab” go.  Legally, these are horses of different colors, and I received a crash course in their distinctions my first night when a cop gave me a soliciting summons for calling myself a “taxi”.

Here’s the deal: people calling  into a car service mostly pay in cash; black cars on the other hand 90% of customers use credit cards which is tantamount to driving for minimum wage cause the owner ends up getting a big cut of that; gypsy cabs who are not affiliated with any operative save for one’s loose moral codes are the true rogues of the industry—license, dispatcher, radio, who needs ‘em?!  This then  leaves the domain of the street-hail entirely to the yellow cab.

Most nights my dispatcher is not overwhelmed with calls to the office, so we work in “groups” (essentially waiting for your assigned number to come up, which sometimes can take up to an hour), or “lines”, where you literally wait in line at a certain intersection and wait for your dispatcher to “throw out a call” (and there’s hell to pay if you don’t “call in” fast enough on your radio; the dispatcher throws the call to another line, and the menacing men brooding behind you jump down your throat).

Okay, now that you know why you sometimes see black car drivers lined up sleeping with one eye open in your neighborhood, we’ll move on to the truly fascinating nuts-and-bolts of the job: characters and locations. Take a deep breath…

At our office (or “base”, as we call it), a sign that reads “Ni Gays En La Oficina” (“No Gays in the Office”) welcomes you.  This is where you’ll find the guys spending their off-time, playing cards, drinking Cerveza, and shooting the shit.  Nobody uses each other’s name in this business, only their radio number, so Louie-Louie-Louie-Luis the dispatcher (the closest I’ll get to Taxi’s Louie) is 227, the jolly big Latino Godfather of the group is 137, whom we all turn to for advice when we get a ticket, I am 81 (or as some affectionately call me, “Shaggy) and so on.  (Good luck remembering these numbers if you’re convinced you have number-dyslexia, and good luck trying to explain that to these guys if you don’t know Spanish).

Then there’s the real characters. Take driver number 37 or otherwise known as the ‘baby driver.’ Baby driver cause his father was a legit gypsy cab driver who used to hide him as baby under the front seat of his Town Car. One Saturday night he took me aside and gave me a shot prior to my shift and proceeded to explain now that I was in the game I was entitled to certain fair game practises which included selling passenger I phones that get left behind in as he stoically termed it ‘our cars.’ He proceeded to explain to me that this week alone he had come across three I phones in his car but thought better of it before offering me another shot and a slap on the shoulder wishing me good luck.

Driving a car service is like any service job—when it’s good, it’s good, when it’s bad it’s bad—though a little different in that you start each week out in the hole (I pay $250 rent of the car, $20-$45 gas per shift, $100 to my dispatcher per week).  Like, say, waiting tables on a slow night, it’s easy to end up resenting the customers who finally decide to mosey on in so you can bend over backwards for their chump change, and whoever’s jumping in your car could be a bag lady or a Pulitzer winner, so adaptation or “service” is the only hard and fast rule.  And like any job, it comes with its fair share of hazing and rites of initiation, going through a series of occupational hazards until you inspire sympathy from your coworkers or at least a little bit of Schadenfreude.

After a month that included fender benders, flats, hookups, pukers, offers of sexual favors, four tickets in one day, customers leaving their violin in my trunk, yellow cabs poaching my calls– blah, blah, another night on earth– I think it’s safe to say that I earned the shot my fellow drivers offered me mid-shift one night: One of us!  One of us!  We accept you!  One of us!

What else?  How much money I make is my business; suffice to say, I had to punch a crack head till he gave me another crumpled up dollar bill, which I then framed and hung on my wall (this was after I took him to score, then let him “get comfortable” (get high) in my car; fists flew once I realized he could was only going to give me $20.)

The way to make money is to be like the chubby, the 19 year old I work with, who tricked out the old Town Car he bought to escorts the escorts (“all you gotta do is park outside some place with a bathroom open 24/7 so the girls can do their makeup, smoke a cigarette, whatever.”)  There’s no real test to get a license.  I use a GPS only when I need it.  Yada, yada, yada. A fine catch if you get my drift…

I could wax on and on about the material I’ve gathered from this job (and don’t get me started on this livery bill situation, don’t even get me started)  but I think this is a nice introduction.  There have been many bumps in the road, but in the end I am there to see the hard edge of New York ease a bit.  I serve the schizos, the drunks, the mugged, the downtrodden, the diehards, the night owls, the early birds, the backseat driver and those of you who, when asked which route they prefer, say “It’s your job to know directions.  You’re the driver.”  And every morning after my shift I get to walk into the sunrise and spend the day as I see fit—in bed.

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  • Anonymous

    hmmmm