by Nick Lewis
WRIT 1133: Writing and Research | Professor Carol Samson
1. The taxi driver, Richard, is driving my friend Cami and me back to our dorms. It is midnight. Tired and satisfied, the two of us have been swing dancing at a local favorite, the Mercury Café in downtown Denver; as we ride, Richard describes the city, our city, to us from what he calls the “front row seat.” He reads Denver from street level, remembering when he was maneuvering the streets during the 1998 Denver riots after the Bronco’s 39-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, his cruising past the first medical marijuana dispensaries on Broadway in the mid-2000s. Tonight, though, he just pulled up to the Mercury Café in his Yellow cab, a late model Crown Victoria, and found us, Cami and me, and we became two new strangers in his back seat. At first, all is ritual. Through the open plastic panel that divides driver from the passenger, Richard asks, “Where to?” But as we travel, Richard speaks of Denver flea markets, of construction projects that link Denver to the world, of immigration issues in our city. Together we move through the winter night, and he becomes a narrator, an anthropologist, a sort of mythic Mercury, guiding us from dark level to dark level.
In time, I have begun to see how Richard, the cabbie, showed me to read the territory, and I now understand a taxi as a yellow box moving through a concrete city box. I can argue it as a translation of things both public and private and also because Richard pointed this out, as a certain kind of sacred thing.
2. I must admit, though, that even before my ride in the Yellow cab with Richard, I knew romantic and historic tales of the taxi.
Thirty miles outside of Paris, the air was warm on the 6th of September 1914 until the weather began to change as a cold evening set in. Dew was forming on the open farm fields near the town of Meaux. Troops were tracking mud from the Marne River as the French Sixth Army, under French General Joseph Joffre, ordered the attack on the exposed flank of the German Army under the command of Alexander von Kluck. Meanwhile, a mere step away from this, the largest battle the world had yet to see, Parisian police officers were stopping cab drivers, telling their passengers to step out, instructing the drivers to head off to the Military College.
As many as three thousand Renault AC1 Landaulets, the most popular type of Parisian cab, each with the capacity to carry five men and with a top speed of 20–25 miles an hour, were transporting French troops to the world’s largest battle. In total, the Parisian cab drivers dropped off five thousand troops ready to attack the advancing German Army, aiding in this epic battle that ultimately blocked the siege of Paris and shifted the tides of war against Germany in the first Allied victory against the German onslaught (Hanc).
Yet, while the five thousand troops transported by taxis to the Battle of the Marne is significant, it does not come anywhere near to the one million men who fought in the war; and while the effort does make for a touching story of the power of a collective will, the taxi was, in reality, not the chief instrument in the French victory in the Battle of the Marne. It became, though, a story, a narrative that has persisted for one hundred years, one I learned in grade school and never forgot.
3. I understand that while some of us may connect cabs to world history, most of us connect taxis to money, to cost. The word “taxi” comes from the German word “taximeter.” The taximeter was an invention created by Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891 in order to calculate the price of the ride determined by mileage traveled by the customers. The history of the taxi as a means of transport is, of course, much older and richer. It extends back to Paris in 1640 when the original taxis were horse-drawn carriages, vehicles created so that the rich Parisian nobility could travel from the theater and back home without needing to buy their own carriage or to support a driver of their own. In England, these taxis were actually more commonly referred to as “Hacks,” which comes from the word “Hackney”; we can trace its roots to the French word “Haquenée,” meaning a cart-pulling horse. The term “Hacks” or “Black Hack,” which is still a commonly used term in England today, can be traced at least to the 1654 Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney Coachmen that regulated the quality and expectations of service from taxis in England. The history stretches all the way back to the mid-17th century. Although today’s taxis are relatively affordable and available to anyone, during the Battle of Marne in 1914, the soldiers were quite astonished to be riding in a luxurious Parisian taxicab which had been common practice since the first taxis and “hackneys” (English).
In terms of modern cabs, the first successful motor cab actually came from the same place the automobile itself originated: Germany. Karl Benz, of Mercedes-Benz, collaborated with Gottlieb Daimler, of Daimler Motors, to introduce a new model of car, the Daimler Victoria N, which was marketed specifically for the use as a motorized taxi and was paired with a taximeter, the same one designed by Bruhn. Though the 1915 cost of producing one was an expensive 5,530 marks, or the equivalent of $28,400 today, the first motorized cab was a commercial success, and within three years of operation, six more were built (English).1 The shift to modern cab design can be traced to 1907, with the start of the Yellow Cab Company, and to 1923, when the first Checker Cab rolled off the assembly line from Kalamazoo, Michigan (Kohrman). Taxis became an integral part of the city, where everyone’s eye was meant to be caught by the design of these cabs, a design that the Checker company is most famous for, which shifted the look of a taxi from a reserved and upscale “Black Hack” to the more playful and common “Yellow Cab.” And, thus, the icon was born.
Today, ridesharing companies are making big changes that give us new words and new concepts of charges and risks. We call an Uber or a Lyft for a ride by using an app on our phone, which connects us to a nearby freelance driver who can choose to pick us up and give us a ride. We ride in car-cabs owned by the drivers. And, thus, these new services have become serious competitors to private hire vehicles such as cabs and limousines. And even as we call for them, knowing these new services are ubiquitous, cheap, and easy, we are oblivious to a subtle, but treacherous, cost.
4. As we ride through the concrete blocks of the city in the back seat of his yellow cab, Richard is telling us about his theory of these new operations, the threat to his livelihood created by Uber and Lyft. He is saying that this sort of ride sharing is dangerous mostly because it has the same dangers as riding in a taxi, but without the same insurance guarantees. Should something bad happen, Richard says, the traditional taxi company will insure the passenger and the driver against any injury or death and even supply additional insurance for others involved in the accident who may have not been in the cab. Over his shoulder, Richard tells us he once got T-boned by a driver who ran a red light and that he, Richard, is still going to the doctor for physical therapy. Yellow Cab, Richard says, is paying for all of it.
5. I know now that ridesharing services have caused quite a stir when it comes to safety issues for both passengers and drivers. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the city government is thinking of making these services have more regulated and frequent background checks on their drivers as well as requiring a company logo on each car (Deery). This legislation was initiated because of an incident wherein an Uber driver was pulled over by the police and, after an ensuing search, the police found both a gun and a knife in the driver’s vehicle. Another concern that recently affected the Denver area involved an Uber driver who was pulled over for driving while under the influence of alcohol. As Richard mentioned, over and above the looser regulations on drivers who work for independent companies like Uber, the regulated taxi companies argue that they incorporate the best of fuel economy, safety, and ease of transport—all of which is backed up with well-padded insurance policies. While Uber and Lyft drivers are required to have individual insurance on top of the additional insurance from their respective companies, studies show that their insurance is not nearly as extensive as what a real taxi company must pay.
Though the taxi industry is facing some new challenges with ridesharing services, these are not the first obstacles the industry has faced. While being a taxi driver can be a really well-paying job, the industry has severe drawbacks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a document, for example, that specifically details the dangers of being a taxi driver. Unfortunately, this occupation has the highest homicide rates of any occupation in the US. The article opens up with this sentence: “Taxi drivers are more than 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers” (“Preventing”). Taxi drivers—and ride share drivers for that matter—have to deal with the types of customers who are the most likely to get involved in a violent altercation due to known risks of the taxi job: working with cash, working at night, working alone, working in high crime areas, and working with people under the influence of alcohol. These factors combine to make the job far more dangerous than many other jobs.
6. While I did not hail Richard’s cab off the street, I did end up riding in his yellow American-made Crown Victoria, an American icon. On that night, I just needed a ride home, but I also knew that there is a certain level of mythology surrounding the taxi, that taxis are a strange presence in our lives. Take Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, in which Robert De Niro plays the role of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from insomnia and extreme disdain for the world and who makes his money driving a cab through the street of Manhattan. De Niro’s performance is one of the most iconic of all time, with the famous line “You talkin’ to me?” De Niro delivers this line when squaring up on his reflection in a full-body mirror like a madman and pulling a gun on his reflection, indicating his complete and total loss of touch with reality. The film explores the darker and more taboo sides of 1970s New York through the eyes of someone who sees the city best, the taxi driver. In the opening montage—in beautiful, non-continuous style editing—the audience has a view of New York City from the outside and inside of Bickle’s taxi cab. The city’s “trash” mingles in the rain where a shallow-depth field lens focuses on an extreme close up of the side panel of Bickle’s canary yellow cab. From here the city looks out of focus, but the viewer follows the bright yellow contrast to the dark murky brown of the streets. At one point in the film, Scorsese allows the audience to peer into cabbie life as Bickle picks up an affluent man who cheats on his wife with a young prostitute in the back of the cab; and, in such moments, the director works to conjures up a deep, intricate mythos surrounding taxis.
7. As we move along through the dark Denver streets in our yellow box, Richard mentions that he loves his job because he gets a front-row seat to watch how the city changes. Unlike De Niro’s Bickle, who abhorred New York, Richard speaks to the beauty of a bustling, prosperous city. He tells us, too, that another part of the taxi experience that is hard to ignore is its similarity to a confession box. While not every passenger capitalizes on this, Richard says many of his customers talk about heavy and personal things. Richard says that cabbies see and listen to all sides of life through strange, yet anonymous, passengers. The truth is, he says, unless you knew them beforehand, you’ll likely never see your cab driver again, so you can confess anything you want to them.
I find myself thinking of Frank Ocean’s song “Bad Religion,” which tells a story of confession to a cab driver:
You’re my shrink for the hour
Leave the meter running
It’s rush hour
So take the streets if you wanna
Just outrun the demons, could you?
Here the taxi driver takes on the role of a priest as well as that of a psychiatrist, and the lyrics suggest how powerful and impactful a listener a cabbie can be. In the dark confines of a cab, a mobile confessional, some people open up and seek advice they need.
Then from out of nowhere, Richard is confessing things. He is telling us that being a taxi driver is his only source of income, which he does only on the weekends. He is saying that he uses the money to pay for his own place and to take care of his son who he cares for on weekdays. As we watch and listen, Richard is reaching for something, a trinket he keeps in his cab, and he is handing it to Cami and me so we can inspect it. It is a slightly worn $20 bill. You can tell just by looking at it, even under the dim cabin light, even at midnight, that this bill is a counterfeit. Richard is confessing that one night, he was driving some large men who kept arguing with each other the entire night. After he dropped them off, he noticed the bill they used to pay for their fare was a fake. Richard got out of the cab and chased these guys down. They responded promptly by drawing their guns on him; finding himself facing death, Richard realized that it was just a $20 bill and that he didn’t need that $20. What he needed, he says, was to get home to his boy. He keeps the counterfeit bill around, he says, to remind him what is important.
8. So I come, at last, to a theory by Michel Foucault who, in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” argues that we live in an age of connectedness, of intertwined networks connected by sites which are “relations of proximity between points” (2). We live in a world where there are spaces that function within spaces like boats drifting on an ocean or taxis racing through a city. Some of those spaces become heterotopias, places outside of all places, places like cemeteries that define themselves as within, but different from, the space that surrounds them, places like museums that, filled as they are with artifacts removed from time and origin, take on their own interpretive meanings.
I see now that Richard’s taxi is just such a space, a dynamic heterotopia. It navigates the city, retraces patterns, and yet remains its own defined arena. It is a product of the city and a release from the city. As a passenger, I can ride in it knowing it as a public conveyance but also as a hidden and private venue. I can speak to the driver, or not, and I know that, if I do speak, we change the meaning of the space forever. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ride in this modern heterotopia, this other space within our city space, and we meet a man like Richard who can open something inside us, make us ponder the taxi journey as both dangerous and soothing, the cab itself as confession box or Scorsese movie set. When this happens, we come see the taxi windows as photographic lenses, its surrounding city an amorphous thing of beauty, and its small talk, spoken in the dark in a comically yellow-mustard-colored car, as not so small after all.
1 My monetary conversion calculations from German Marks to USD comes from Professor Harold Marcuse’s Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page using January 1915 conversion rates.
I would personally like to thank everyone who helped me with this piece, starting with my parents for pushing me to get the ball rolling. Thank you both, Mom and Dad. Next, I would like to thank my WRIT 1133 professor, Dr. Samson. First and foremost, you drove me to keep after this piece and helped me to write the best version of this essay, and for that I am grateful. Lastly I would like to thank Carly Post for helping me edit my piece and retain my voice.
Featured Image © pimpic | Shutterstock.com
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
David Foster Wallace’s masterful interrogation of the Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster” draws out the most fascinating and perplexing insights into all things lobster. As a Biological Sciences major, it had been about a year since material like “Consider the Lobster” challenged my “right brain” creative thinking skills, but this kind of thought was to be expected in WRIT 1133.
After reading pieces such as On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, and “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, my mind was challenged in new ways with a particular fascination on the grand implications of something as trivial as the lobster. For me, taxis were an intriguing relic, speeding along city roads, the passenger simultaneously separate from, yet unequivocally an integral part of the city at the same time. The passengers are isolated and connected in a paradoxical way. It was exactly these paradoxes that prompted me to write about the taxi, so please enjoy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Lewis is a sophomore at DU pursuing a degree in biology. He grew up in Arvada, Colorado, and enjoys skiing, swing dancing, rock climbing, ultimate frisbee, cars, music, and more skiing. Despite being on the pre-med track, Nick has always had a soft spot for film and cinema. Some of his favorites are There Will be Blood, The Dark Knight, Looper, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and The Princess Bride.
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English, Bob. “Classic Cars: All Hail the Birth of the Taxi in 1897.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. 5 (Oct. 1984). Rpt. Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22–27. Web. 20 Oct 2015.
Hanc, John. “A Fleet of Taxis Did Not Really Save Paris From the Germans During World War I: The Myth of the Battle of the Marne has Persisted, but What Exactly Happened in the First Major Conflict of the War?” Smithsonian.com. 24 July 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Huet, Ellen. “New Laws Push Uber and Lyft to Bump up Insurance Coverage, but a Collision Gap Remains.” Forbes. Forbes.com, 1 July 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Kohrman, David. “Checker Motors: Taxicab Makers.” Kalamazoo Public Library. Kalamazoo Public Library, May 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Marcuse, Harold. “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page.” Harold Marcuse. University of California Santa Barbara History Department, 19 Aug 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Ocean, Frank. “Bad Religion.” Channel Orange. Def Jam Recordings, 2012. MP3 file.
“Preventing Violence against Taxi and For-Hire Drivers.” OSHA Factsheet. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. 1976. Film. Sony Pictures. 2007. DVD.