June 1, 2008

Taxi Times & Political Crimes

I can't write about driving a cab without getting into dissident politics, because it was so much a part of my life and thinking then (and now.) When I first started driving for Chase on 47th Street and then Cadet at 210th, the Taxi Rank & File, a dissident group of socialist-Marxist-anarchist men and some women drivers, was challenging the corrupt Taxi Drivers Union, which had sold us out for the dime, and challenging the companies as well, demanding fair practices, more money and better cabs. We all were antiwar protesters of one sort of another, and pretty much shared the same opinions about things. I hung around with them at shape-up and sometimes after work. We had long discussions at the West End Bar near Columbia University or in someone's apartment. The group published a small rag and distributed it free to drivers in various garages or at airport waiting lines or places like Bickford's Cafeteria on Lower Park Avenue, where drivers met all the time. Bickford's was around the corner from the meeting place of the Taxi Drivers' Union in the old Tammany Hall. It's been gone, and it's too bad. The bosses hated us and began to assign us the worst cars and find any excuse to let us go. There was no use complaining to the union about it. The union was 50% of the problem. We all opposed the Vietnam War that was still going on despite the fact that a majority of the American people wanted it finished. The government had known since 1964 that it was unwinnable. (Former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara admitted this in his 1990's book, "In Retrospect.") Some Marxists saw the taxi union as a fertile field to make alliances and plant a crop of rebellion and strikes, but I knew better. Taxi drivers all over the world are notoriously and cynically conservative and opportunistic. They work alone. They have oddball and quirky ideas, like my own. I knew it was useless by then, but that spark of hope that was nearly extinguished by the assassinations of progressive leaders like Malcolm X, Martin King, Bobby Kennedy and lesser-knowns refused to go out. I went to a couple of demonstrations anyway, but in less than a year the group was defused and defunct. In the mid-80's I was driving again and decided to revive the effort. I was involved with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) at the time and my activism was returning the way power returns to Batman when he hangs upside-down. I looked up one of the original guys, and he gave me all his old copies of the TRF newspapers. Myself and a Peruvian man were the only members. We worked for Chad in Long Island City. I wrote a piece named, "Between A Rock and A Hard Place," and he translated it to Spanish. We mimeographed it and left it around in garages and the usual places for drivers to read. The garage confiscated every copy it found, but at my insistence we kept a low profile, and they didn't know who was behind it. It described how the Union was the rock and the Company was the hard place. I said that strikes and traditional picketing were useless and doomed to fail, because cops take the company's side and prevent us from blocking the gates to stop the business and lower the bosses' profits. It's an old story and why union actions so often fail. It's illegal to "impede commerce." So scabs would continue the business and drivers would only lose income, until they were forced to return to work, with no gain and increased demoralization. Few drivers had the courage, consciousness, or commitment to strike, unify, support one another, and make the sacrifices necessary for cohesion, correct strategy and tactics, and success. And the union would fight us as well, because it was controlled by a bunch of gangsters who never read a book in their lives. To solve this delimma, I proposed what I called "the secret parking lot." It was a novel tactic that accomplished the purpose of a strike: to shrink the bosses' income. On a given and prearranged date-certain, the night shift would not return with the cars. The secret parking lot was anyplace we could hide the taxis. Simple and effective. The original unionists would have done it in a second. We discussed the idea with some drivers, and they laughed at the simplicity of it. Others objected that it was auto theft. I scoffed and said that if a couple of hundred drivers did it, it wasn't auto theft, but a labor action. It would make an interesting court case and would draw beaucoup publicity. It was the kind of thing that the old fighting unionists would have pulled off--if they had been faced with the present-day situation--and taken their lumps for, as long as it hurt the bosses and produced results. The companies could raise hell, look for the cars, have drivers charged and arrested, but they still wouldn't have the cars--their "means of production." Lenin would have done it. I considered myself part-Lennist, then, with a dollop of anarchism. It was a contradictory self-image, because Lenin hated anarchists more than he hated capitalists; but I've seldom been uncomfortable with my own contradictions. Nothing came of the idea, of course. Men are too selfish and unconscious at this point to work for solidarity in our individualistic and antisocial society. Unions have suffered such defamation and internal corruption over the years that they have a bad name. But it's the only path sensible for the American workers. I have been torn for years between sympathy and contempt for the working class that I'm a member of. It would rather fight dog-eat-dog for profits, and ignore the workers left in the gutter, than change; rather watch some dumb sports event they won't remember next week than go to a labor picnic and meet people and listen to ideas. To me, unionism means solidarity with other workers in one's own job, and also with workers in other unions and other lands. That's "internationalism," (and why Fidel sent the Cuban army to help the Angolans fight against the CIA-sponsored UNITAS.) These days, I don't care much what happens to the American working class, though. The way I see it, they are getting pretty much what they deserve, and have to learn a lesson the hard way (don't we always?) What was the war in Vietnam, except a war against workers? And who gave it the most support? American workers. The same is true today of the butchery in Iraq, where the unemployment rate is competing with the International Space Station for altitude, and most American workers are either cheering it on or indifferent to it--or worse, want to win it.
Being in this frame of mind at the time, my attitude was often critical and unbounded by conventions or inhibitions against sarcasm and confrontation. Besides transporting people like John Lennon, whom I liked, there were some I didn't like. One of these was Mr. Tische, the guy who built the World Trade Center. One day I responded to a hail by the doorman of that fancy mens' club up the block on 61st Street from the Pierre Hotel. As he opened the door for a portly, important-looking gentleman, he said, "This is Mr. Tische. He built the World Trade Center." Okay, everybody knew who he was. He'd made sure of that. It may come as a surprise to many, and maybe some people won't admit it now, but a lot of New Yorkers hated those overlarge buildings that penetrated the New York skyline like giant penises. I was one of them. It happened that the rider before him had given me a $100 tip (my one and only,) and I was flipping out over it. He was a lawyer who had asked me what he could do to entertain and bond with his four-year old son, and I had told him, "Take him camping."
"He's only four!" I told him that I had taken my son camping in early Spring on Bear Mountain when he was about that age. That we had built and maintained a warm campfire, that I had kept him bundled and warm, that we had slept the night away laughing in my good North Face tent, and in the morning we had walked up the mountain and seen deer and a bubbling stream that had delighted him. The lawyer had loved the idea. He loved camping too. Thus, the surprising generosity.
"I just got a hundred-dollar tip!" I exclaimed.
"And you didn't give him the change, right?" Tische said nastily.
"No, man. It was a tip. The guy liked something I told him, that's all." I showed him the lawyer's card.
"Let me see that!" he snapped, snatching the card from my hand. He scrutinized it and said, "I'll remember this guy. I'll never hire this bird."
I snatched the card back and read him my version of the Riot Act:
"Why you pompous sonofabitch," I said. "Who do you think you are, you silly old bastard, God? You think because you're rich you are higher than the moon? I don't care if you have a billion dollars, it just means you're an asshole with a billion dollars. When you get where I'm taking you you can pay my fare and stick the tip up your fat ass."
Mr. Tische apparently was unused to being spoken to in this manner. He sat there in his hundred-thousand-dollar suit and glowered at me in the mirror while I added a few touches. "I'll tell you something else, you greedy fucker. I don't like those fucking buildings, either. They are too big. What are they, a monument to your ego? They don't have any style. The older skyscrapers make them look like giant cracker boxes with a tin foil coating."
All that was lacking in Mr. Tische's poisonous look was him chomping a dead cigar. It was a brief ride. He stuffed the fare into the small drawer in the partition instead of handing it to me and got out and slammed the door and huffed past the doorman whose greeting went unanswered. I gave him the Bronx cheer. I was hoping he'd turn around so I could give him the finger, too.
God, you know that felt good back then. Almost up there with Mrs. Thompson's science test. But he probably went upstairs and flogged a slave. He steamed me up. As if a hundred extra dollars for a cab driver was an indication of bad judgement and precedent. A betrayal of his class credo. He would take it upon himself to penalize the lawyer if he ever had the chance. I was probably wrong to be so abusive, but I didn't think so at the time. I was still too much the former marine from the quarrelsome South. I wanted to beat his ass. But it was a different time. I thought of myself as an activist, but I see now I was a poor one, because I had too much in me that was antisocial and withdrawn. I studied a lot of books and read a lot of newspapers (I still do,) and I could sense plainly what the Tisches were doing to our world: cheapening it, dividing the classes back to the nobles and the peasants of Louis Fourteenth. It pissed me off then. But I hardly ever get angry anymore about that kind of thing. I accept almost everything as it is. I just watch, read, study, analyze, think, write, and wait. When are we going to do something about these guys? One of these days?

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