“Night cab driving,” says Malik, “the first three hours is important.”
Malik, 46, is at ease in the driver’s seat of his yellow cab cruising over the Triborough Bridge. He drives with one hand on the wheel, one hand on the gearshift, and talks about life as a taxi driver. As he talks, he glances up in the rearview mirror, a practiced cab driver routine that enables him to see what’s on the road as well as who’s in his cab. His large molasses brown eyes look kind, rather like the eyes a child might draw if asked to make a picture of friendly eyes. He wears a gray hat, a button-down shirt, and loose-fitting pants.
Manhattan sparkles in the night across the river. “It is a beautiful city,” he says.
Malik explains how the first three hours of the nightshift, from 5 to 8 pm, make or break a cab driver. If you find enough passengers then, you’ve made enough to break even and the rest of the night is profit.
The city’s 24,000 active yellow cab drivers earn their living through a very complicated system. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) requires every yellow cab to have a license, also known as a medallion. First issued in 1937, medallions are private property and thus transferable, creating a market that has inflated their value to well over $300,000. At such prices, individual drivers rarely have the capital to invest in their own medallions. Instead, they lease the right to use one from a “broker” who may own as many as fifty of the 13,028 medallions in circulation.
Drivers, who must also be licensed by the TLC, enter into a number of different types of agreements with these brokers for the right to use their medallion. The most common arrangement is for a driver to lease both the medallion and the car by the week on either the dayshift or the nightshift at rates ranging from $500 to $800. Another common arrangement is a daily lease, which varies in price but is more expensive per day than the weekly rate. A third option, and where many drivers lose a lot of money, is to lease the medallion but purchase the cab from the broker through a high-interest loan. The pitfall of this last arrangement is that maintenance costs are borne by the driver and can be quite considerable. Moreover, each lease arrangement carries a night differential that penalizes the driver: the nightshift lease is $100 more per week than the dayshift because brokers argue that the earning potential is higher. At night, every fare earns an extra 50 cents; between 4 and 8 pm, an extra $1.
The net result of this complicated system is that drivers begin their shift in debt. Whether leasing weekly, daily, or as owners of their own cabs, the cost of the medallion means at minimum a $100 deficit before their first fare. Add in the cost of fuel (at least $30 a shift), and most drivers spend the first several hours of their twelve-hour shift just breaking even.
By 11:30 pm on this Monday night in late January, Malik knows it is not a good night. “The weekend is okay, but regular days nobody’s out. At 11 o’clock everybody goes home.” He says some drivers go to JFK International Airport to try to find a good fare there. “Sometimes in the city there is no business,” Malik explains, “so the cab drivers go to JFK, get some rest, and when they get a passenger at least they have $45.” He heads there now.
Originally from Pakistan, Malik has been driving a New York City taxi for more than twenty years. “I started with the taxi. That’s all I’ve ever done,” he says softly. He speaks in almost a whisper, drawing listeners physically nearer in an attempt to catch every word. It’s the combination of the intonations of his native tongue, Urdu, and the timidity he feels speaking English. “My English is not too good,” he says, though it’s fine.
Malik says he left Pakistan when he was “20 or 21” years old. “It was a long journey,” he says, “to come from there to here.” Malik traveled first to Mexico, then paid a coyote to help him cross the border into the United States. “It was very expensive,” he says. But for him there was no alternative. “It’s very hard to get a visa,” Malik says softly. “If you are poor, you don’t have a bank balance, you don’t have the background. All the students, the parents are rich and they can afford to have their kids here. Like me, cab drivers, everyone is from poor families.”
His first job was on a farm near Los Angeles. “We didn’t go out,” he says. “They said, ‘Don’t go out. The police will catch you and send you back.’ That’s why people like to go to agriculture areas because there are no cops. You do your work and make money.” Malik pauses a moment. “But that life is very hard.”
Malik applied for amnesty in the 1980s, received his legal status as a farmworker, and came to New York City.
From the start, Malik says he loved New Yorkers. He tells the story about the first day he drove a cab, laughing heartily, almost loudly. He was driving days then, leasing his cab from a large Manhattan garage on Canal Street and First Avenue. He had no idea how to navigate the city. “I didn’t know where to go,” Malik admits quietly. “One gentleman, my first fare, said, ‘Don’t worry, I will teach you how to go.’ He gave me directions and he was so polite.” At the end of his shift, Malik remembers, he could not find the garage. With twenty years of experience and a compass on his dashboard, Malik no longer gets lost. But he does grow animated, if still barely audible, describing the city’s controversial plans to outfit yellow cabs with global positioning system (GPS) devices.
Generally, Malik can make more money on the nightshift than during the day. But it is still risky. “If the roads are clear and you have a long fare, you make good money. And sometimes you are just burning gas.” Also, he says, you have to drive weekends. “Friday night and Saturday night,” he says, “We depend on those two nights.” By contrast, dayshift drivers, “don’t have any problem. Every day is the same.”
Malik glides past La Guardia Airport, heading east, then follows the signs for JFK airport. “I will tell you one thing about the taxi business,” he says. “You will make money, but you will lose a lot of relationships, friends. Sometimes I feel like I’m human, but sometimes I’m greedy. Like my friend will call me up, and say, ‘Come out,’ but I think, ‘It’s Saturday night.’ Sometimes my body is not good, but sometimes I’m greedy to make money and I go. Sometimes I feel like money is okay, but you lose friends.”
It’s not normal, because your body is not made to work at night.”
It’s a crisp night in November and Cliff the Cabbie, as he likes to be called, has just put his yellow cab in gear. He continues, “You’re supposed to be sleeping at night and working in the daytime. It’s not normal.” After a sigh, he adds, “Well, it’s how I make my living.”
Cliff, 46, is a largish man with a quick laugh and the gift of gab. A Jamaican immigrant, Cliff speaks with the lilting English of the Anglophone Caribbean. “You always say you’re gonna get out of the business,” he confesses. “And you get out for a month or two, but then you go right back. You fall into a rut. You can’t get out.” He references a story from Jamaica to make sense of his dilemma. “You ever hear the story about the bucket of crabs?” he asks. “You get a bucket and you put a dozen crabs in it, you’re not gonna make it out of that bucket, unless you’re going into a pot or something. The other crabs are gonna be dragging you back into it.”
Cliff idles at a red light heading north on Third Avenue. He used to drive the dayshift, but as he says, “It’s too much stress. I can’t do it anymore.” The traffic lights all along Third Avenue turn from red to green, like an ascending chain reaction, giving Cliff a clear shot north. He has no traffic, nothing to slow him down. He smiles into the rearview mirror and says, “I’ll take my chances on the nightshift.”
In fifteen years behind the wheel of a yellow cab, Cliff has seen his share of curiosities on the nightshift.
“A lot of strange things happen on the nightshift,” he says, “but most of them are sexual encounters.” One night, a young couple hailed his cab to go to Hoboken, New Jersey. “So I’m driving down West End Avenue and I don’t know whose it was, but I saw a leg pop out through the little window in the partition. I said, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ I just kept driving. I didn’t say anything to them because I thought, ‘These people are not gonna stop, if they can do that in that little space.’ And it’s a little space,it’s not a big space. I thought, ‘Man, these people are contortionists.’ ” Once in Hoboken, the couple asked him to keep driving. Cliff refused, laughing now at the memory, “I said, ‘No, this is it, man. Get out. This is over. You need to go inside or get a hotel room or something. I have work to do.’ This was 2 or 3 in the morning. They paid, a good tip, but I should have charged them for the room.”
Not every fare is good for a laugh. You have to be careful, says Cliff.
After a moment’s hesitation, Cliff admits he sees discrimination all the time. “I don’t want to pick on any race of people, but the Arabs, they do it a lot.” He pauses again. “But you have to look at it the other way too. Sometimes you have problems with black people or minorities. You do get problems with them, and I guess some of these guys don’t want to go through the headache.”
Discrimination has been a much-publicized problem among New York City cab drivers. In 1999, the actor Danny Glover tried and failed to hail a cab on multiple occasions. In his outrage and with his celebrity status, he raised awareness about this practice of African Americans being passed over for white passengers. In response, the TLC initiated Operation Refusal in which TLC officers posed as prospective passen-gers, often one black and one white. If the driver passed the black passenger in favor of the white one, they gave the driver a ticket or suspended the driver’s license on the spot.
A member of the organizing committee of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Biju Mathew, suggests in his book Taxi! that Operation Refusal was a failure. In his view, TLC did not reach out to drivers but instead enacted a sting operation aimed at shoring up its public image. Whether the word was out or taxi drivers did not engage in this practice as much as people thought, they did not catch many drivers. Mathew argues that drivers themselves met with Danny Glover and his lawyers to address the very real issue of racial profiling among nonblack taxi drivers. Their argument was simple economics. Drivers begin their shifts in debt, and therefore prefer a high volume of short trips during peak hours rather than fewer long trips out of Manhattan that inevitably become bogged down in traffic. Even recent immigrants behind the wheels of yellow cabs learn quickly that white customers are more likely to live in Manhattan than nonwhite customers. Nonwhites, even those of the same ethnicity as the driver, tend to live further from the center and are therefore more costly over the course of a driver’s shift. Drivers’ response to Operation Refusal was to demand a more equitable arrangement with the TLC and brokers to make their livelihoods less dependent on shorter trips.
Cliff drives past a number of restaurants and bars on the Upper East Side. “What a lot of drivers do is go to restaurants and bars and just hang out. Just park and hope for the best.” But that’s also when he starts thinking about going home for the night. “As soon as 2:30 comes, I start preparing myself to go home. Tuesday night I’ll do the same thing. Wednesday I’ll stay a little later. Thursday I don’t want to go home until like 5. A lot more people are out, so you make a lot more.”
“You make it work for you,” Cliff says. “Even though some nights, Monday nights, Tuesday nights, you get discouraged that you’re not making enough. Some nights I make like $6, $7 to go home with. Sounds incredible, but it happens once in a while. Three weeks ago, Monday night, I went home with ten bucks. After I paid gas that’s all I had left.” Cliff smiles, shrugs, and says, “But then Saturday night, I had $200 to go home with. That’s how it is.”
Malik pulls up next to the chain-link fence that surrounds the Central Taxi Hold at JFK airport. He explains that the holding lot can sometimes be a good bet when you’ve had a slow night, but he is reluctant to take his place at the end of the line. Everyone has to wait in one of fifty-four lines for a ticket with a terminal number on it. Once he has the ticket, he can go to that terminal and pick up a passenger.
The holding lot has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that if you wait it out you’re guaranteed a passenger and, if they’re going to Manhattan, a $45 fare. There’s even a shop where you can buy coffee or food. You can sleep, read, get out of your car, sit with another driver and chat in the other driver’s car. But with space for seven hundred cabs in the holding lot, drivers can sometimes be in line for hours. This is especially true late at night when the arrivals at JFK are fewer and further between. And then, says Malik, “you’re stuck and you cannot make money.” You can leave and return to the city, but you’re giving up that potential $45 fare. “But in the city,” Malik counters softly, “sometimes you make more than that. It’s a gamble. You don’t know.”
ContributorsRussell Leigh Sharman
Russell Leigh Sharman is an associate professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College.Cheryl Harris Sharman
Cheryl Harris Sharman is a freelance writer and researcher (cherylharrissharman.com).