POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 10, 2014
NEW YORK » The cabbies huddled beside space heaters in the break room of a garage in Queens, playing a Ghanaian version of checkers before their shifts were to begin.
"Greek. African. Couple of Haitians," said Stanley Wissak, the longtime president of the cab company, 55 Stan, gesturing toward each yellow taxi driver he passed.
"Mr. Stanley, how you doing?" one cabby asked. Wissak nodded as the man walked away.
"Egypt," the boss said.
The American-born cabby, long a stalwart of the industry even as immigrants began to dominate its ranks, has now just about vanished.
Today, only 8 percent of New York City taxi and for-hire drivers were born in the United States, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission said. According to records released in December by the commission, the dearth is particularly pronounced among yellow taxi drivers; of them, 6 percent are native-born.
The numbers are a far cry from 1980, when 62 percent of taxi and for-hire drivers in New York City were born in the United States, according to census figures cited in a 2004 report by Schaller Consulting. By 1990, the figure fell to 36 percent; by 2000, it was down to 16 percent.
The shift to a near-uniform immigrant workforce has had a profound effect on the taxi industry, even reshaping the relationship dynamics between driver and passenger.
Archetypes of a generation past have largely receded from view: the New York know-it-all, the fledgling actor making do between auditions, the student working his way through college behind the wheel.
Former and current drivers said the trend could be traced in large part to changes in cab leasing terms in the 1970s. With rules that now often require much of a long day's work - a standard shift is 12 hours - just to cover the daily rental rate, there is far less latitude for students, performers or other young New Yorkers to drive cabs for part of the day as supplemental income.
"I went into this thinking it was a steppingstone to something," said John McDonagh, 59, a cabby who was raised in Queens. But his more than 35 years as a taxi driver have led him to instead perceive his job as a springboard "to the end of my life."
Another consequence of the lease changes: Taxi operators were once far more invested in the success of their cabbies.
"It was just a much better job," said Tom Robbins, a journalist and author who drove a taxi in the 1970s. "When I had a good day, the boss had a good day. When I had a bad day, the boss had a bad day. Once leasing came in, the boss never had a bad day."
Robbins once worked out of a Greenwich Village garage, known as Dover, that served as the inspiration for the television series "Taxi." According to a New York Magazine article, personnel included a college professor, a former priest, a calligrapher, the inventor of the electric harp and "the usual gang of starving artists, actors, and writers."
The Dover garage is long gone, replaced by a seven-story condominium building. And the native-born drivers who remain on the job tend to be like McDonagh, old-timers who are aging out of the industry, or the recently unemployed who have few options.
Wissak, 86, said many American-born drivers who joined the industry now were "basically over the age of 55 to 65" and recently out of a job in another field.
And most immigrants do not look to cab driving as a top choice.
"I don't think it's the first option for any worker, native-born or immigrant, because the conditions are so difficult," said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. "It's the backup plan."
According to the commission report, the most common country of origin for yellow cabdrivers is now Bangladesh. More than 23 percent of drivers were born there, the report said, compared with less than 14 percent in 2005. In that year, the highest concentration of drivers came from Pakistan.
The report, which included demographic information on drivers and passengers, suggested that riders tend to be young, male and affluent. Surveys conducted on back-seat television screens found that more than 40 percent of riders had a household income of more than $100,000, not including 17 percent who preferred not to answer. About 70 percent of riders were found to be 35 or younger.
"The opportunity of a sympathetic relationship between a young stockbroker and a 50-year old from Bangladesh is pretty remote," said Graham Hodges, a taxi historian and a former New York cabby.
In an age in which television screens are among many potential back-seat distractions, the shift in rider-cabby relations may have as much to do with the passenger as the driver.
"People get in the cabs, and they're talking on their cellphones," Robbins said. "They're missing out on a lot."
For some native-born cabbies, the decision to drive has taken a toll. Chrishna Sooknanan, 28, from Brooklyn, said his father had got a taxi medallion around 1980 after emigrating from Trinidad and Tobago. With his father's help, Sooknanan secured his own medallion at age 21.
But he has remained ambivalent about the industry, he said, even engaging in a heated argument recently with two passengers who questioned why someone born in the United States was "doing this job."
Sooknanan was reminded of his childhood, when he first told friends what his father did for a living.
"They laughed at me," he said. "They think it's like a peasant job."
The scarcity of American-born drivers seems to have bound some together. John Abrahams, 52, from Brooklyn, recalled a run-in with a fellow cabby on Park Avenue.
"I looked over, and there was a white guy," Abrahams said. "We both burst out laughing. He said, 'I always tell my fares that there's one other white guy in the city. I found him.'"
Matt Flegenheimer, New York Times