S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 April 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 

This Is Joe Franklin
Reminding You To Buckle Up



For an industry to which almost no children aspire, for which special workplace death counts are kept, and about which normal levels of reluctance to laugh at jokes based on class and race differences are waived, taxicabs, taxi drivers and taxi culture stake out a unique and honored place in world imagination. From rickshaws, hansoms and herdics to today's driver-shielded mini-tanks, the taxi has a long, conceptually vibrant history. At its best, boarding a taxi is an exquisite moment of personal consumption: the purchase of an absolutely disposable service whereby a magic box takes you from one place to another much faster than you could possibly hope to walk. That the experience hardly reaches this happy ideal — the discomfiture and relative extravagance involved making it feel like ten dollar bills are being cut from your skin — raises the question of why the taxi keeps appearing, in TV shows and movies, literature and real-world news, like some cultural object version of an even harder-working Warren Oates.

The answer is metaphorical ubiquity. Taxis can mean anything. A movie taxi rolling down a well-lit nighttime city street can be an escape hatch for a pursued hero or a serial killer trolling for action. A yellow cab pulled up in front of an apartment can be a loved one's return or the first jarring sign of their actually moving out. An idle cab may house a driver abdicating responsibility by taking a nip or keeping vigil over the sleeping city.

But one of the few agreed-upon symbols of urban culture around the world suffers, as per usual, from the dominance of a specific stereotype. Like a nation of reaching, transportation-obsessed Joseph Campbells, Americans have come to see cab drivers as cowboy-confessors, semi-romantic repositories of life wisdom there to entertain and enlighten while one worries about which bill will make for the smoothest, most impressive transition from vehicle to sidewalk. That the average cab ride doesn't offer much more than polite approximations of conversation and perhaps a strange, shared radio broadcast hasn't stopped television shows, literary journals and web sites from suggesting differently. When an entire movie that should debunk that image — Taxi Driver — gets turned around Gordon Gekko-style and used as its paragon, you know you're entering into the realm of the tightly-held belief.

And that's not the worst thing in the world. Casting an industry that's more regulated than the disposal of toxic waste as the home for rugged individualism is no more crazy than fixing a national identity on the mostly mythical activities of 19th Century cattlehands. But taxis deserve to be appreciated for so much more. For their benefit and our own, Suck calls attention to the hidden meanings of the Taxi.

Totem of the Working Class

Ralph Kramden may have driven a bus, but Archie Bunker drove a cab. Despite the fact that the former allowed Jackie Gleason the finest fat man outfit in television history (edging out Fred Berry), the latter was better narrative shorthand. In addition to letting Bunker shuttle onstage the occasional guest star like Sammy Davis Jr., the part-time nature of Bunker's cab experience highlighted the character's frustrated working-class aspirations even in negotiating more permanent jobs as a dock worker and small business owner. The television show Taxi tried to build an entire series out of economic frustration, ignoring more realistic models of an urban taxi crew while employing television's time-honored substitute for cultural and race differences — a cast of white people playing comedy archetypes such as "The Babe," "The Lug," and "The Travolta." The big-screen Mr. T caper movie DC Cab at least served as a visual corrective, showing that people of all backgrounds desire to work with Max Gail, be they Bill Maher, Marsha Warfield or Barbarian Brother. In part because of the hard work of these ensemble casts, the cab today not only is a world icon of thwarted ambition — recently played by the great Om Puri in My Son, the Fanatic — but has finally come full circle to being a costume in and of itself. Roberto Begnini's pumpkin rapist in Night on Earth wears his cab like a balloon hat.

In the last decade or so, two working class taxi images have dominated. The first is as a symbol for an obsessive, out-of-touch view of the world that keeps one ostracized despite holding a grain of truth — Donal Logue's famous MTV ad campaign or Mel Gibson's slightly precious turn in Conspiracy Theory. More subtly, the taxi has become an easy option for making bland white males appear aimless but salvageable, the same way an expensive camera is thrown at a beautiful woman in a TV movie to make her seem slightly less stupid. John Travolta in Look Who's Talking and Edward Burns in his own She's the One are your modern taxi working-class posterboys, that way by choice, appropriate symbols for an age where one's lack of employment options can be described as a personality disorder.

Icons of Civic Virtue

Taxis and their drivers find themselves consistently cited as the public face of your hometown, the mobile front line between a city's image and the rest of the visiting world. While a New York taxi followed a Jaguar R1 in the streets of New York as a publicity stunt for a Formula One race in Indianapolis, Hoosier taxi operators were being asked to bone up on how to serve the needs of the expected international audience. Such caution from city officials made one think that standard Indy taxi policy involved driving loops around the local bypass liquored up and blasting Sawyer Brown from every window. In San Diego, opponents of driver and cab appearance rules termed the proposed changes racist, or at least insensitive to differences in culture, while civic proponents argued that rules about odor and collared shirts would at least help San Diego avoid at all costs looking like New York — a strategy built in part on some perceived lack of New York City tourism. Meanwhile, Beijing officials have encouraged spotless behavior from their cab drivers, perhaps in the hope that immaculate taxis might somehow distract Olympic selection committee members from the sight of young people setting themselves on fire near Tiananmen Square. Love our taxis, love our city, spend your money.

Gateways to Mystery

If officials in San Diego were insensitive when trying to apply clean-up laws to their city's cabs, it may be because they're habitual moviegoers. Very few movies come right out like Ghostbusters and Men in Black and suggest that cabbies themselves are different because they are, in fact, monsters. But several ascribe mystical status to the cab ride — from David Johansen's ghost squiring Bill Murray in Scrooged! to the doomed inevitability of the cab rides of in the Denzel Washington murder-mystery vehicle The Bone Collector. The real world occasionally replicates the "ride of doom" image in depressing, grisly detail of the kind that fuels ghost stories — or at least tourist warnings — for decades. Even the occasional lost item story retains some sense of the timelessness and anonymity of a cab trip. Although driver identification numbers are more easily accessible than the ones used in your average federal prisoner transfer, objects left in a cab seem lost to some shadow world encompassing the entirety of cabdom, like items lost at sea. One can only imagine couples who have a child returned staring at it to see if they've been given a goblin baby. One reason Steiger and Brando reach their transcendent moment of understanding in On the Waterfont just may be because they're interacting in sacred space.

Vehicular Rats

Bruce Willis' cab driver of the future and National Comics' great serial feature Space Cabbie indicate that some believe taxis are eternal and inevitable contributors to civilization. However, the roles taxis play in many cities and towns outside East Coast urban centers indicate that taxis may be better viewed as cockroaches than as inalienable rights. Cabs find work where other transportation fails. Some city cabs do their best business in regional metropolises where the buses stop running before the bars close. And while many may hail a cab from the revolving door of a Macy's, it's the local grocery store that offers a phone line to move bags and citizen to a neighborhood residence built uncomfortably far from stock necessities. In small towns, cabs may be viewed as a last resort even on the free night of New Year's Eve, a sobering admission that your friends have moved away, passed out, or don't like you anymore. Private automobiles undeniably gained when trolley systems were dismantled nationwide in favor of buses; people forget that semi-private automobiles came right along with them.

Our Shared History

In popular novelist John Marquand's 1958 Women and Thomas Harrow, the protagonist laments the New York of his youth, a lamp-lit fairyland of Barrymores on stage and Edwardian Age gentlemen visiting private social clubs. The vehicle for that self-indulgent time travel is a taxi. Essay writers occasionally link the use of cabs as an emblem of urban life from a certain period. The lead in director Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 uses cabs as part of her exquisitely-maintained Parisian lifestyle, the same sort of cabs from which Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly blooms outside Tiffany's in her own made-up lifestyle.

The curves and sturdy bodies of a classic Kalamazoo-built Checker Marathon are easily fetishized for nostalgia purposes. Anyone over five feet tall, crammed into the truncated space left by a security shield in a converted car flagged down on Chicago's Miracle Mile, will grow wistful for the legroom of yesteryear's cabs. Taxis' undeniable historic contribution was to help provide automobiles with improvements in body construction, windshield wipers and even street lights. But the pleasing aesthetic feel of the big body cab sparks warm feelings towards the last century's MVP of cultural significance that have nothing to do with the history of transport. In the way that cowboy stories are our way of drawing pictures of ourselves into an Old West best exemplified by the horse, taxi culture and all its hidden meanings may exist merely to justify our own presence to these wonderful, horrible machines.



Courtesy of 40th Street Black
40th@suck.com


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