The 19 men have come from as far away as Bangladesh
and as nearby as Brooklyn. For the next five days they will sit in a
small classroom papered with maps, watching videos and listening to
lectures as they prepare for a career vital to the functioning of New
York City. Today, on day one, instructor Andrew Vollo introduces himself
and tells his students: "Gentlemen, this is the most dangerous job in the
So begins another training class at the Taxi Driver Institute.
While the infamous reputation of New York cabbies --
cigar-chomping, invective-hurling, lead-footed drivers -- might give the
impression that no qualifications are needed to get behind the wheel of a
Yellow Cab, prospective drivers actually are required to spend 40 hours
in the classroom learning the rules of the road: do not smoke in the car,
carry a weapon, threaten a passenger or crash into taxi stands. In
addition, they learn how to prevent crime, understand traffic reports,
and make passengers, not to mention themselves, happy. Staying sane is a
tough task in a job where drivers are considered veterans after four
months and are burned out in 18 months.
"We teach them how to make money and how to stay alive," says
Vollo, who drove a cab for 15 years. "We want them to drive
intellectually, not emotionally."
The Taxi Institute, one of two private taxi schools in the city,
has graduated about 30,000 students since it opened in 1984. That was the
year the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the industry's regulatory body,
decided that cabbies should have better training.
"Before the school the industry was a wreck," says another
instructor, Gene Maul. "Drivers would go down to the TLC, answer 10
questions and not know where the Queensboro bridge was or where it
Now, for $150, prospective cabbies get a 40-hour class that is a
combination of geography, etiquette and conversational English. An
80-hour version is offered for students whose limited vocabulary doesn't
include "cruising" and "hailing." If they finish the class and score
least 50 percent on the final test they can get behind the wheel (about 35 percent do not pass).
Few of the future cabbies walking into the school have lifelong
ambitions to drive taxis. Former students have included political
dissidents, unemployed engineers, a gynecologist who escaped from Haiti
and a stock broker who got a license in order to drive a cab and raise
money to start a publication called "Taxi" magazine. Other students
say they are getting their licenses because they are unemployed and the
job market is poor, especially for new immigrants who do not speak good
"It's hard to find a job these days," says Nagim Jhowhury, a
newcomer from Bangladesh. "I'd just like to have a license and then I
will see if I want to drive or not."
But some actually do want to be taxi drivers. "I like driving and
talking to people," said 24-year-old Iniruo Tikili, one of two
American-born students in the class. He dropped out of a
computer-assisted drafting course last year, drove a truck for a few
months, and now wants to drive a cab.
Unlike Tikili, few of the students have actually driven much on
New York City's maze of streets, which means Vollo faces a formidable task. By
Friday the students should know the fastest route from Manhattan to
Queens, but today some do not know where Queens is. He tells them which
radio station has good traffic reports, explains what traffic reporters
mean when they say "bumper to bumper," and teaches themhow to avoid gridlock -- a
Manhattan term for severe traffic jams when absolutely nothing moves.
Vollo also gives some psychological training. For the students' sanity, he
says, "Make it a game, not a battle. Your taxi is a lethal weapon." That
means letting another taxi get in front occasionally, not getting angry
when they get cut off and knowing that when they are stuck in a traffic jam they should "just sit
back and enjoy it."
By noon, the students are sitting back but do not seem to be
enjoying it. The yawns are getting louder as Vollo promises to break for
lunch right after they watch a video. The program tells the students to
shower, dress professionally and treat passengers
"like people, not packages." Some look unconvinced when the lights are
turned back on,
so Vollo tries to add his own advice: Listen carefully and repeat the
destination or you might take them to the wrong airport. "Then what do
you do, eh?" he says with a little chuckle. "You don't want that to
The school also gives lessons designed to improve the ride for
the cabbies themselves. Pace is crucial, Vollo suggests. Do not try to
drive seven days a week. "One guy told me he was so tired he stopped for
a fire hydrant," he tells the students. "He thought it was a midget
Vollo, a self-professed health nut who always has a bottle of
water within reach, recommended drinking a lot of water and cutting down
on coffee. He says taxi drivers often have kidney problems because they
do not drink enough water and from the constant bouncing of the car. Bad
food and lack of blood circulation also take their toll on drivers, he
says; after a few years in the industry, hacks "still look like
they're sitting down when they stand up."
Even the most basic of concerns is addressed in the class, such
as where to go when nature calls. "Central Park?" offers one student when
the class is asked for ideas. "What? The oak tree?" replies Vollo to a
round of laughter. Vollo suggests swanky hotels instead, which have
"marble, mirrors, soap, hot and cold water." But he tells the students to stick to
hotels with lots of people in the lobby because security guards are less
likely to spot cabbies sneaking in and out.
The most important part of the course, says Vollo, is crime
prevention. In 1993, 47 cab drivers were killed in New York City. But in
the following two years combined, that number dropped to six. He
attributes the decline to an improved economy, more cops on the streets and safety
features such as a Plexiglas partition between the driver and the back
seat and a "trouble light" drivers can activate if they are threatened.
Crime does not worry Tikili, one of the two American students, who has the build of
a football player. Getting lost does. He says he will probably take
Vollo's advice and take a drive on a Saturday morning to learn quicker
routes around the city, especially in Greenwich Village, where even some
residents don't know how to find their way home.
"It depends if my Mom and Dad will let me have the car," says
Tikili. "I had an accident last week."
Columbia News Service Webmaster
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Debra Boyce is a Canadian graduate student. Before arriving in New York last fall, she
tried to see some of the world by reporting for a newspaper
in Canada's steel town of Hamilton, teaching English in Japan, doing
volunteer work in orphanages in Vietnam, and traveling through Siberia.
After graduation, she will move to Phnom Penh to work for an English-language newspaper called the
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