Janet Lee

Janet Lee
Photo:Janet Lee, injured by a taxi partition.

Friday, April 01, 2016

"My Fathers' Gun" Excerpt with commentary about undercover cops as cab drivers

About the same time (1970) there had been a rash of robberies and murders of taxi drivers in New York. Cabbies, concerned about their safety, refused to work the late night shifts, causing a shortage of taxis on the streets. Those who did drive at night equated black people with crime and often refused to pick them up. They also sped away from fares with destinations in high-crime neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. 

The city began discussions of allowing off-duty cops to work as cabbies on the night shift, when most of the crimes occurred. It was not an original idea. In Philadelphia the program had been instituted some years earlier with great success. As in Philadelphia, the New York cops would carry their revolvers.

For Frankie and other industrious cops, the program was a god-send. Once he obtained his taxi drivers’ license, he could just show up at night at any number of cab companies and be assured of work. Even though the moonlighting cops were mostly assigned cabs without a Plexi-glas partition – this innovation came about in response to the wave of violent crimes – the money was good, even terrific. Cabbies in those days kept 49% of all they made plus tips. On the average, Frankie was taking down $100 a night from his second job. With extra money like that coming in three, sometimes four nights a week, a down payment for a home was squarely within his sights.

With no overhead, he had a big advantage over his harder working co-workers.

Pam wasn’t thrilled with the idea of spending so much time alone, not to mention that her husband was now working two of the most dangerous jobs in New York. But, she too was excited by the prospect of a home of her own, and she tried not to worry.Though it meant incredibly long workdays, sometimes stretching to seventeen or eighteen hours, Frankie enjoyed driving a cab. 

Frankie worked the same long hours that regular cab drivers always work, but had several advantages that were not available to the lowly 'ordinary' cab drivers. His cab was free. Regular cab drivers need to earn the rent and gas before realizing any profit. His cab driving miles were twice as profitable as those of regular cab drivers. Frankie also was allowed to exercise his second amendment right to be armed, not so for regular cab drivers. Cab regulators had decided that the second amendment of the US Constitution would not apply - to those most at risk of being murdered on the job,cab drivers. To 'enjoy' being the most at risk for eighteen hours a day indicates the cash reward was considerable. It was.

It gave him an opportunity to learn the city, the location of landmarks, of good restaurants and hotels. He learned the streets – knowledge that later on in his career would prove invaluable. He learned the fastest routes to the airports, and knew his way around the maze of Greenwich Village. He even learned the outer boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens. 

It's a strange concept for the average person to grasp, but cab drivers know the streets better than cops. I have had cops stop me to ask for directions.

Whether because of his desire to make as much money as he could, the swaggering confidence he had as a tough guy and a cop, or the revolver strapped to his ankle holster, he never refused a fare, no matter how dangerous the destination or what the color of the skin of the hand waving him down.

Being absolutely indiscriminate is easy... crazy, but easy. It is also mandatory in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. It is, of course, absurd to think that anyone has the authority to compel an independent contractor to work - if he chooses otherwise - at any time, for any reason.

One night, after dropping a fare off in the theatre district, he drove up Eighth Avenue, where a man flagged him down. He pulled over, and the man held the door open as two other men appeared from a doorway and jumped into the back seat. Something was wrong. He asked the destination and one of the men said only:“Just drive uptown.” Frankie watched his three passengers in the rearview mirror. 

If this was my cab I would have insisted on a destination before departing. Driving to an unstated destination is crazy. Of course, it is also illegal in New York City for cab drivers to ask for your destination.

• Refusal Law From Driver Rule 54-20 (in PDF): It is against the law to refuse a person based on race, disability, or a destination in New York City. A taxicab driver is required to drive a passenger to any destination in the five boroughs.  

At one point his eyes met those of one of the men, and they held each others’ gaze for some moments. Again, Frankie asked them where they wanted to go, and again, “Uptown” was the only answer. Frankie gently reached down his leg and removed the revolver from his ankle holster, then slid it between his legs. Every fiber of his body, all the experience of his two years on the street, told him that this situation was not good. 

Ask yourself one question. If you are labelled as unarmed, what do you do now? My normal reaction is to stop the cab before we are isolated in an area with no witnesses and order them out.

He kept watch in the rear-view mirror as furtive glances were exchanged among his passengers. He decided he had to do something to put himself at the advantage.
He casually removed the revolver from between his legs and held it against the steering wheel, then turned again to the backseat and in an overly friendly tone asked the destination once more.

He demonstrated that he was armed. Guns are not for 'show'. This was a stupid move. The suspects could have shot him then. My guess is that they intended to, at worst, evade fare payment. If I was the passenger I would have filed charges of menacing or intimidation.

“Right here!” said the spokesman of the three. “You can leave us right here, man.”Between them, they barely had enough for the two dollar fare, paid in nickels and dimes.

Most ironic of all aspects is the fact that this 'program' was ended when police unions objected to the risk of armed officers doing what regular cab drivers are required to endure, while unarmed. Elist, paternalistic and nepotic taxi regulation.

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