ROBERT SMITH, host:
New York City is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motorized taxicab this year. Well, celebrating maybe is an exaggeration. Most New Yorkers are more worried about finding a cab than wishing it a happy 100th birthday.
(Soundbite of indistinct conversation)
SMITH: After work in midtown Manhattan, commuters do this bizarre urban dance to capture the cabdriver's attention.
Unidentified Man #1 (Resident, New York City): Yeah, you jump in front of it.
SMITH: You got to jump right in there.
Unidentified Man #1: No, I mean jump in front of the car. Their eyes are so straight. They don't even think about looking to the side.
Unidentified Man #2 (Resident, New York City): Get in front of a hotel or a bank.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Resident, New York City): Run in front of people and just - and not steal their cab but run in front of people and be aggressive. Yeah. You steal it.
SMITH: For 100 years, New Yorkers have known the reality of the old joke: You can always find a cab until you actually need one.
Professor GRAHAM HODGES (History, Colgate University; Author, "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver"): Cabdrivers are a part of city life that people either take for granted or I'll say have sort of a love-hate relationship.
SMITH: Graham Hodges should know. He was a cabdriver in the 1970s. Now he's a professor of history at Colgate University. He wrote the new book "Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. In fact he points out that the first metered cabs arrived in 1907 because of an irate customer.
Prof. HODGES: There was a young financier named Harry N. Allen, who was built one night, and he and his girlfriend were coming back to the theater and they were charged $5, which was an extortionate amount for a very short ride.
SMITH: Allen got his revenge by importing 65 shiny red cabs from Europe with a feature that ensured he would never be cheated again - the taximeter clicking away every tenth of a mile.
(Soundbite of film "Speedy")
SMITH: Early silent films from the time show how successful his idea was. In this Harold Lloyd classic, "Speedy," our hero swerves a cab through the chaotic streets of New York.
(Soundbite of film "Speedy")
Prof. HODGES: There were no traffic lights, no parking regulations, so add to these new high-powered metal machines and yes it could be very dangerous and very difficult to comprehend.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: And this was when the stereotype of the modern cabdriver was born -aggressive, pushy, willing to do anything for a buck. In the 1930 film "Taxi Tangle," a policeman gives a cabdriver the third degree.
(Soundbite of movie "Taxi Tangled")
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As policeman) Didn't you hear me blow that whistle?
Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As cabdriver) No, so sorry sir. I'm sorry I'm a little bit deaf.
Unidentified Man #3: (As policeman) I ought to give you a ticket but I don't suppose you can read either?
Unidentified Man #4: (As cabdriver) Also.
Prof. HODGES: Early on, it was very easy to get a license...
(Soundbite of whistle blowing)
Prof. HODGES: ...all you needed were - as one person described - a couple of greasy letters of recommendation and off you went. So there was no sense or a limit on the number of cabs on the street and it was a job for which native-born Americans and recently arrived immigrants so their sons could quickly get a toehold into New York life and make some fast money.
SMITH: The streets were filled with cabs, especially during the Depression, when driving became one of the last hopes for the unemployed. In the 1930s, it became clear that regulation was needed. New York City capped the number of taxis in the city. When the war came, those limits plus an economic boom saved the industry.
(Soundbite of movie "On the Town")
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (As unidentified character) Taxi, taxi.
SMITH: In the 1949 movie musical "On the Town," we're introduced to a strange new creature - the female cab driver.
Unidentified Woman #2: (As unidentified character) Sorry, no more fares today. I'm turning in the cab. It's overdue.
Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As unidentified character) Oh please, mister. Hey, he's a girl. What are you doing driving a cab? The war is over.
Unidentified Woman #2: (As unidentified character) I never give up anything I like. Get in.
SMITH: The drivers weren't the only thing that was changing. The cabs themselves had gone from red to brown and white, to yellow and, of course, the famous Checker cab, and the public perception of cab drivers changed. They weren't just portrayed as criminals and dopes in the movies anymore, but as lovable streetwise philosophers, dispensing tourist advice and folk wisdom. Training films from the '50s touted it as a respectable profession.
(Soundbite of a 1950s training film)
Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As unidentified character) It is a highly competitive business and the perspective operator should study the field carefully before making an investment.
SMITH: Even Popeye got its hacked license.
(Soundbite of TV show "Popeye")
Unidentified Woman #3 (Voice talent): (As unidentified character) Yoo-hoo, taxi.
Unidentified Man #7 (Voice talent): (As Popeye) Well, I'm not missing this fare.
Unidentified Woman #3: (As unidentified character) Twentieth Street and (unintelligible) Street, Driver.
SMITH: Driving a cab was one way of making it in America. Remember those limits on taxi medallions, the city put into effect? Those medallions became extremely valuable quickly. In the film "The Catered Affair," Ernest Borgnine plays a cabdriver.
Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (As unidentified character) You own your cab, do you?
Mr. ERNEST BORGNINE (Actor): (As Tom Hurley) Well, I have plans of buying one, yes, but first you got to get this medallion and the going price right now is in the neighborhood of $8,000.
SMITH: But even at that price, it was a great investment. The medallion today could be worth as much as $600,000, but the tough times were not over for most cabdrivers. Historian Graham Hodges started driving a taxi in 1971.
Prof. HODGES: New York City is going through a nightmare phase in the 1970s and early 1980s. During the period of heavy drug addiction, they were targets.
SMITH: The iconic portrayal of the dark side of the profession came in 1976. Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."
(Soundbite of movie "Taxi Driver")
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): (As Travis Bickle) All the animals come out at night, muggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venom. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.
Prof. HODGES: My argument about "Taxi Driver" the movie is that whereas before Hackmen(ph) has always been seen as part of the New York City community. Now, they're not. They're seen as dangerous and somewhat psychotic. And so when New York City drivers become more immigrant in the 1980s, the arrival of Pakistanis and Indians, of West Africans, race becomes a mix with that perception that cab drivers and other Americans are not going to mix.
SMITH: These days it's more common to have your cabdriver talking on a cell phone to relatives on the other side of the world than philosophizing to the passengers in the backseat. But still, it does happen occasionally. Earlier this week, I caught a cab to Penn Station and got into a conversation with my driver.
Mr. ROGER MONANI(ph) (Cabdriver, New York City): My name is Roger Monani.
SMITH: And you've driven a cab for how long?
Mr. MONANI: A year and a half.
SMITH: For a hundred years, cabdrivers have been complaining that it's a lousy way to make a living. Yet there are still people who line up to do it, why is that?
Mr. MONANI: I guess it's a quick way for cash and most of the drivers they're not qualified or educated, and they're all immigrants basically. I'll drive as long as I can or I have to.
(Soundbite of taximeter)
Mr. MONANI: 12.90.
SMITH: 12.90. Well, there you go. You can keep that. Thanks.
Mr. MONANI: Thank you. Have a good day.
SMITH: Monani eases his taxi back into traffic as cab drivers have done now for 100 years, looking for a fare and headed uptown.
You can read more about how the modern taxicab system in New York City got its start at npr.org. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.