YOU TALKIN' TO ME?
May 27, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers taxi drivers.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The interesting thing about taxi drivers is that they never get better or worse or different. Tax drivers constitute the same cultural phenomenon today as they did 50 years ago or 80. I say this by way of introducing a bit of New York City news. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is waging a war against New York cab drivers.
MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI: Nobody controls this city. You can do without anything if you have to. And there are pluses from not having the taxis. And maybe they're saying something to us.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: It seems that he wants them to drive safely, to be something other than themselves. And they, of course, protest. They have held demonstrations and have spent at least one day not working at all. Citizens noted that they liked the city better without cabs but they really don't mean it. Taxi drivers are New York's most enduring symbols of madness, inefficiency, and danger; the city could not live without them. So the mayor is bound to lose his war because taxi drivers will be taxi drivers now and forever. Hollywood has known this for decades. Whenever a taxi enters a movie, chaos follows. A criminal is pursued in the city streets. "Follow that car," says the pursuer to the cabby, who is now given license to drive even more recklessly than ordinarily. Remember Red Skelton in the "Yellow Cab Man?." You don't get much nuttier than Red unless you also remember Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver." In a way, DeNiro was the epitome-the Michael Jordan of cab drivers-crazy, dangerous, yet also mad and heroic, mayhem was his business.
ACTOR: You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: Yet, at the end of the movie, with bodies strewn everywhere, he drives on in total self-satisfied confidence. You talkin' to me? And there was the taxi driver in the Bill Murray movie about a bank heist, "Quick Change," who spoke no known language--another attribute of the profession, demonstrated most memorably by Andy Kaufman, who played "Latka" in the television series "Taxi."
ACTRESS: So why do you guys put up with this?
LATKA: Because in my country there is a belief and, rightly so, that the only thing that separates us from the animals are mindless superstition and pointless ritual.
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: Today, the voice of Judd Hirsch, the former star of "Taxi," comes to you in the backseat of New York cabs, telling you to buckle up for safety. I wonder if the drivers chuckle when they hear Hirsch, Eartha Kitt, Joe Tory, or Placido Domingo, whose recordings give the same voice? So does Dr. Ruth, who has a different view of safety. And that sort of advice too is often necessary in the backseat of cabs.
ACTRESS: I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so rude. Thank you for picking-
ROBERT ROSENBLATT: In Brian DePalma's "Dressed to Kill" Angie Dickinson behaves badly with a stranger in the backseat of a cab. An entire documentary HBO series was devoted to taxis-chaos, madness, menace. The Empire State Building? Never heard of it. Taxi drivers never change. This is no small feat in a culture that changes its icons moment by moment. The used car salesman used to be a cultural icon of sleaziness and crookedness, but even he has changed in recent years, because used cars have gotten better. The gas station attendant has changed as an icon, because he rarely exists anymore. Serve yourself. But the taxi driver goes on forever-eternally aggressive, infinitely aggrieved-and so do you and I in our relationship to him. As soon as we enter the taxi we are in a conspiracy with the driver. "Do you see that jerk," he says, pointing out some innocent in front of him, as he swerves onto the sidewalk. "Yeah," we say, putting ourselves on his side, in the same mobile nuthouse. My advice to Mayor Guiliani is, give it up-not because it's wrong to demand better drivers but because it's a lost cause. Besides, as the mayor should know, it's the way the city is. Picture God peering down on the great metropolis and giggling as he watches little yellow dots zigzagging through the streets, knocking everything out of their way. Picture a cab driver glancing heavenward and saying, "You talkin' about me?"
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.