Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
TAXI dreams

No small portion of the taxi drivers currently cruising the streets of New York City owe their educations to Terry Gelber. At Master Cabbie Taxi Academy in Long Island City, which Gelber founded in 1996, over a hundred drivers arrive each month for the City's mandatory 80-hour licensing course as well as a variety of other driving-related classes. There, Gelber-a onetime driver himself- teaches them the nuts and bolts of the business (he has 20 talking points on picking up fares at Penn Station alone) as well as more intangible lessons about dealing with crazy passengers, meeting friends at JFK and keeping sane in a very difficult job.

What made you become a cab driver?
Back in the Eighties, I was working in the contracting business and that got kind of slow. I was a suffering starving actor during this period, so I thought I'd get a hack license and drive at night while going to auditions during the day. I think I went on one audition, but I drove that cab for three years.

Do you miss it?
Tremendously. I'm a night person and New York City is, to me, just enormously sexy. I mean, what can you compare it to? It's like the Las Vegas Strip, without the overtness of the big casino lights. It's that electric-in a more original way. Sometimes, when I can't sleep at night, I'll get in my car and drive around. Just to remember.

Driving around as a civilian doesn't give you the same kick?
Nah. It's like playing poker for no money.

So why did you quit?
The job is very difficult, very demanding, and a hard way to make a living. If you need to do it, you do it, but, given the opportunity to not do it, you don't.

How did you move into teaching, then?
A non-profit group for immigrants was starting a training class and was looking for teachers. I went in for an interview and I didn't even know what it was. But I was in a phase of my life when I was going to try anything. It was terrifying to walk into a room filled with people who didn't speak English and just invent a class. But I drew on what I knew and found that I kind of had a knack for it.

Is that the actor in you?
Oh, yeah. It's a blast-the taxi driver's ultimate performance.

You must have learned about cultures from all over the world over the years.
This has always been an industry of immigrants. When I started teaching, the Russian wave was in full swing. So was the South Asian wave- first Pakistani and then Indian and Bangladeshi. Now it's pretty much mixed.

Some of these people arrive with quite high levels of education. Do you ever encounter someone who's resentful of having to sit and learn taxi regulations? More often, it's the guy who drove a taxi in, say, 1973. He's been out of the business for 27 years but he's indignant that he should have to go to school. Generally, that disappears when they make their first mistake on a prep quiz.

What's the biggest misconception that people come into the industry with? Do they think it will be easy?
I don't think anybody thinks it's going to be easy, but I guess I was surprised by how hard it really was. I'm sure that every person has their own vision of what it's going to be. One of my obligations is to leave them with no illusions.

One of the most interesting things about Taxi Dreams, for a New Yorker, is learning about the sort of parallel cabbie universe that exists in New York. Like the idea of Kennedy Airport as a social hub. My favorite thing is when you pull into the holding pen [at Kennedy] and there's a soccer game going on: Eight men on each side, goals, referees, everything. And the guy's about to kick a goal and the light goes on in the dispatch booth and everybody goes scrambling for their cabs. It's the Kennedy World Cup.

The film also has scenes of taxi companies pitching themselves to your students. Is there a shortage of hacks?
It's always been a transitory occupation. You have a core of 50-60 percent of drivers who stay a long time, and then 40 percent who are college students, part-timers or in occupational transition. Given other opportunities, people leave.

When you drove, did you like it when your passengers would talk to you?
With me, the question was, 'Did they like it when I talked to them?' Sometimes, if you talk to a passenger, you might find out where they're coming from, which can be good. You might be picking someone up at three-o-clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere and find out there's a loft on the fourth floor having a party with 400 people in it. You've just generated work. You build a route based on things like that.

Do you call your buddy and tell him?
Never. You find a location, it's yours. But the word gets out pretty quickly.

If you could record one of those seat belt reminders they play in cabs, what would it say?
Hi, this is Terry Gelber of Master Cabbie. Don't forget to buckle your seat belt and give your driver an exceptionally nice tip.