Magazine article The New Yorker

Talkback

Magazine article The New Yorker

Talkback

Article excerpt

Four words you should never say to a New York City taxi-driver: "Where are you from?" That, at least, was the consensus last Monday afternoon at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, on Varick Street, where WNYC was sponsoring a public forum titled "Out from Behind the Wheel." David Yassky, the newly appointed Taxi and Limousine Commissioner; organizers from the Taxi Workers' Alliance; and a hundred or so cabbies, holding cups of coffee and jangling heavy key chains, had gathered to discuss, in the words of a press release, "who cabbies are, their backgrounds, stresses on the road and strategies for coping, identity issues, and their suggestions on how to improve the industry." The idea, Kathleen Horan, a WNYC reporter, said, was "to try to bridge the gap between the cliche of the do-gooder who returns the priceless violin and the cabbie who has taken someone for a ride, so to speak." Horan and her co-host, Arun Venugopal, wanted to talk about the cabbies' life stories. The cabbies mostly wanted to talk about the various ways in which they are getting screwed. The world from the front seat, it turns out, looks like a big obstacle course, fraught with as much condescension and mistrust as it is with brake lights and potholes.

"How you doing, my name is Victor Salazar, I'm from Ecuador," one cabbie began. "Driving a cab is like mental aerobics." He said, to a smattering of applause, that it annoyed him when people got in his cab and immediately inquired about his background. "It's like an echo," he said. "Just like the monitors, the same commercial over and over again."

Vanessa Glover took the mike and seconded him: "I'm born and raised in Brooklyn. I'm like, 'Where you from?' "

The cabbies, most of whom were forfeiting an afternoon's pay to attend the forum, seemed less interested in sociological exchange than in seizing the opportunity, like players working a new ref, to make themselves, and their issues, known to Yassky. "We are here to send a message to the new chairman," Harbhajan Singh said, before the program began, standing near a spread of doughnuts. His friend Harbinder Singh said that he was upset that the entire industry's reputation had been tarnished by recent controversy over fares. …

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