Friday, January 29, 2016

Taxi!

Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver
©  2007 Graham Russell Gao Hodges
225 pages



No film set in New York City is complete without scenes of Manhattan traffic, dense with yellow cars -- the patrolling ranks of the cabs, shuttling a third of the city hither and yon.  Taxi! is exactly as it describes itself, a social history of New York cabbing.  The author begins in the early days of the automobile and moves forward to 2001.  Much of it is predictable but as-yet unexplored, the tale of cabdrivers' woes throughout the economic turbulence of the 20th century, their struggling to make ends meet against declining social status.  The author has a keen interest in unionization, devoting an entire chapter to it and touching on it several other times.   He sees a failure to successfully unionize as part of static or declining fortunes among cab drivers, although the failure is less political than structural. Cabs are not factories, and the abundance of independent owner-operators sapped what strength was found in bringing together the drivers for the large taxi fleets.  When economic pressures prompted the fleets to reduce their men to independent contractors, the attraction of cab-driving was further diminished as a career, and it became more the occupation of those looking for part-time work, or (in the case of immigrants) for any entrance into the American economy.  That grim economic trend is slightly offset by the author's continued examination of cab drivers in popular media, from the first days of film on. Who knew Babe Ruth once did a cameo in a taxi film?   The films tend to portray cab drivers as lonely commentators on the social scene, and sometimes shed light on cabbys' interesting connections with the criminal world.  In the roaring twenties and the Depression, cabbies sometimes earned extra money by connecting interested passengers to prostitutes and liquor.  The contentious relationship between cabs and cops that Melissa Plaut commented on in her Hack evidently has a long history, though where it begins is a chicken and egg quandary.  Taxi! is  quick read, dry in parts but largely informative and entertaining on the whole, aided by the author's latent passion for a job he once undertook himself.

Related:
Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab, Melissa Plaut

2 comments:

  1. Yes, the most ordinary everyday things make such fine subjects for fascinating books. I've read books on corn, oysters, and molasses; each book was a first-rate entertaining eye-opener. Perhaps I now need to move on to reading about taxicabs. Thanks!

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  2. The best taxi book is yet to come, I think. No immediate plans, but "Mean Streets" will probably be the next taxi book I try.

    There's a LOT of good 'microhistory' books, though they're hard to label. The first one I ever read was "Coal: A Human History". Its what created my goods/services tag.

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