The Park Bench
Every Friday, we discuss, debate and dissect the week’s themes and stories here, on The Park Bench. It’s a place where we take you behind the scenes with our journalists and subjects; where we curate the comments that you post on the site, as well as your longer reflections that you send to us via email.
What’s a Girl Doing Here? — Beirut Edition
Responding to Diana Diroy’s documentary about female taxi drivers, a reader from Spain shared “Pink Taxis in Beirut,” a piece about women driving cabs in a very different city.
The Piano Tuner
In The Piano Mover, Brendan Spiegel mentioned that 76-year-old piano mover Carl Demler also owns a 34,000-square-foot piano warehouse in the Bronx. Filmmaker Mayeta Clark wrote to Narratively to share her short documentary about that warehouse and the eccentric charcters who work there and in Demler’s Midtown store. Mayeta’s project is a beautiful example of multimedia storytelling, integrating text, photos and video to form a compelling narrative. Check out part of it—a clip about a long-time piano tuner—below. Here’s a link to the whole project: Piano Rites
* * *
A female cabbie reflects, 40 years later
Responding to “What’s a Girl Doing Here?”–Diana Diroy’s documentary on female cabbies–Maxene Fabe Mulford reflects on her own “hack” days.
I drove a cab 40 years ago in the very early 70s…
I had been itching for a way to quit my job doing publicity for children’s books so I could write my novel, Death Rock, and the children’s book department I’d worked for offered me a contract to do a second book—a young adult bio of Helena Rubinstein called Beauty Millionaire in their Women in America series.
I already knew of a woman cab driver/writer because her articles had begun to appear in The Village Voice. Then it hit me: I could make my rent of $119.23 a month (ah, rent control!) by driving a cab three days a week, and write the other four.
At first, I drove days. That meant showing up at 6 a.m. for the shapeup in the garage, which was walking distance from my house—West 21st Street between 7th & 8th. There were rules posted all over the walls: you must drive nine hours; have the cab back by four with a full tank; when you handed the dispatcher in his “cage,” the money you’d logged onto your trip sheet, the bills had to be sorted—large denominations on top and presidents’ faces up. You got to keep your tips, of course, the $50 pile of quarters, nickels and dimes still remaining in your cigar box.
The romance wore off quickly, but at first I found a way to make the most of that: when the left front wheel of my cab caved in on Lexington just above Bloomingdales, I wrote my first article for the Village Voice about the nonexistent safety inspection standards in the taxi industry.
It didn’t take long for my article to create a stir. I was taken out for coffee by an official in the taxi drivers’ union (becoming a member was mandatory). At his suggestion, I went to a union safety hearing. There, I also met the sullen Young Turks of taxidom, who comprised the Taxi Rank and File Coalition. With a union election coming up, I soon learned, they were running their own New Leftist candidate for president; their platform consisted of earmarking a dime out of each meter drop for worker benefits.
There was another woman driver among the Rank and File. She drove nights and, with simple math, soon convinced me to do the same: “Drive longer, make more money.”
There were lyrical times— magical drives out on the B.Q.E. along the moonlit Verrazano narrows; there were times I carried famous people: James Beard, Anais Nin, Bernardo Bertolucci. Those were the days of the flimsy plastic partition, which you could slide open and talk to your passengers.
There were the colorful old-school cabbies, full of tales of hitting the daily double out at Aqueduct, and who knew all the meter-inflating routes back from the airports. There were the shady cabbies who claimed to know how to disconnect the meter so you could “make it for yourself.” (Though that could prove to be tricky. I knew a cabbie whose wires shorted, his cab so engulfed in flames that by the time the dispatcher sent a tow truck all that remained was a charred and twisted shell.)
There were taxi hangouts: the Belmont cafeteria on lower Park, the Empire Diner, Ratner’s on the Lower East Side, Chinatown for after hours.
And there was the annual bonanza known as New Year’s Eve.
Still nearly every day you’d read of armed robberies in the New York Daily News. Cabbies shot at close range. It was grueling and exhausting. When you got off work, your fingernails were black; when you closed your eyes, you saw the afterimage of speeding pavement; in your dreams, on every street corner, a succession of ghostly prospective fares, their right arms hailing you into eternity… Taxi! Taxi! Taxi.
Ultimately, even driving nights, for the length of time you had to drive, it wasn’t close to being worth it.
That’s when I turned to writing horror comics for DC to make my rent. But that’s another story.
* * *