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One of the Most Dangerous Jobs in New York: Gypsy Cab Driver

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By Richard Marosi

Columbia University News Service

In the livery cab softball leagues of Upper Manhattan, players' numbers are often retired. But unlike the big leagues where great players are honored after long, glorious careers, the tributes for gypsy cab drivers are sudden, unexpected -- and more frequent. They happen every time a driver is murdered while on duty.

"Almost every car service has at least one driver who has been killed," said Santiago Vargas, an assistant manager at Seaman Car Service in Washington Heights.

"The dead driver's number is never given out again. It's like retiring a number in sports."

Driving a gypsy cab is one of the most dangerous jobs in New York City. Since 1990, 180 drivers -- an average of over two a month -- have been killed while on duty, according to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.

At Seaman so many drivers have been killed--four in the past 6 years -- that the company softball league is named after them. It's now called Liga de Los Taxistas Los Martires, or The Martyr's Taxi League. At Broad Dyckman Car Service on Dyckman Avenue, four drivers have also been killed in six years. The most recent death was in November, when 38-year-old Jose Leonel Beato was shot in the head in the South Bronx.

At Audubon Car Service on Amsterdam Avenue, it's the same story. The manager of the service, Nelson Camacho, pulls out a roster sheet of the company's 200 or so drivers. In the world of gypsy cabbies, a driver's dispatch number is his identity. If a driver is asked his name, he replies with the number he hears every day over the two-way radio. Even long-time friends call each other by their numbers. (Twenty-eight will give sixty-five a message: 309 left with 183 20 minutes ago. He said to wait for him.)

Camacho points to a few crossed-out lines on the roster sheet.

"Number 5, number 9, number 60," he says going down the list. He reaches number 22 and pauses, "He was just a kid when he was killed. Only 21 years old. He played shortstop."

Most of the taxi drivers who were killed in New York City this decade drove gypsy cabs--the unmarked cars that go anywhere for a fare. The term "gypsy cabs" once referred to illegal taxis. These days the term usually refers to any driver who is licensed and works for one of the hundreds of legal car service companies in the city. Unlike the yellow cab drivers, who rarely work north of 116th Street in Manhattan, the gypsy drivers cruise some of the meanest, bleakest streets in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and Washington Heights. To them the yellow cab drivers are, well -- yellow.

"They're scared to come up here," said driver Nelson Ramirez as he headed across the 159th Street bridge into the South Bronx.

Judging from the statistics, the yellow cab drivers have reason to be. Out of the 85 total cab drivers killed in 1992 and 1993, for instance, only 12 drove yellow cabs. Since 1994, no yellow cab drivers have been killed, but the death list of gypsy drivers has grown by another 49. And this year it only took a few days to continue the deadly pace. On January 4 a livery-driver was shot dead during a robbery in Brooklyn.

According to an organization of Hispanic livery-cab drivers -- La Associasion de bases y choferes--75 percent of its 15,000 members have been the victims of crimes--anything from robberies, to beatings to being jilted on fares.

Despite the risks, there are no shortage of drivers willing to brave the dangerous streets of New York. For most of the 32,000 livery cab drivers, it just boils down to simple economics.

"We know it's dangerous," said Camacho. "But there's no other way to support a family these days. There's not enough jobs."

Most drivers are independent operators. They own the cars -- usually late model-sedans -- and pay the car service a $35 to $45 fee to keep them busy with fares. After deducting the various expenses -- gasoline, oil, maintenance, taxes, insurance -- a driver is lucky to make $80 per day. And $30 days are not uncommon on weekdays. The average driver working 12-hours per day, six days a week pulls in $300 to $500 per week.

Most of the drivers are immigrants, reflecting the ethnic make up of the communities in which they are based: Dominicans in Washington Heights, Colombians and Ecuadorians in Queens and Haitians in Brooklyn. Many drivers don't speak much English, so their job options are limited. Besides the language barrier, drivers complain that too many legal restrictions prevent them from making a decent living. Unlike yellow cabs, gypsy cab drivers can only pick up fares that have telephoned for a cab. Street hails--picking up people off the street--are against the law, and gypsy drivers are often ticketed by police. Picking up fares off the street also increases the chance of a driver being assaulted. Even so, most drivers do it.

"I have to," said Ramirez. "I have to make a living, don't I?"

Ramirez has been robbed twice in his 17-year career. On a recent night while giving a passenger a $5 ride from 170th Street and Audubon Avenue to the Bronx County Courthouse, he recalled the "tour" of the South Bronx he was forced to give one passenger.

"He stuck an Uzi machine gun in my gut and made me drive around for one hour looking for a safe place to rob me," he said.

The man took $90 and stole his car.

Another time he was held up by two attractive, well-dressed young women in Washington Heights. One stuck a gun to his neck and demanded his money.

They robbed him of $170 and also stole his car.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "They were so good-looking."

Many gypsy cab drivers have felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against a neck or a belly. They know how to act meek; how to beg and plead for life. After years of driving the poorest streets of the city, the feelings of humiliation, anger and fear rise within many drivers, erupting occasionally in violent incidents of vigilante justice.

"If we have to fight, we fight," said Ramirez.

When a gypsy cab driver radios in an emergency, he doesn't have to wait long for help; his fellow drivers arrive within minutes.

Some show up well prepared for battle, swinging bats that come in handy for more than softball games. And bats aren't the only weapons used by gypsy cab drivers.

"They'll use bats, machetes and knives," said Victor Mendoza, a detective at the 33rd Precinct in Washington Heights.

Sometimes they block the street to hold off police, he said.

"There are often 12 livery-cab drivers converging on one scene with bats," he said. "We're then forced to subdue not two people, but 15."

The gypsy cab drivers, most of whom have been victimized at one point or another, he said, are often treated like perps--cop slang for suspects--and arrested.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "The victims become the perps."

Though relations with the police have been bad in the past, drivers say the situation is improving.

The police have held sessions for drivers, giving them tips on how to avoid dangerous situations and how to act when assaulted. Now most cabs--gypsy and yellow alike --have a yellow warning light near the rear license plate that drivers can turn on surreptitiously to alert passing police when they are in trouble.

Police also recommend installing bullet-proof partitions in the cars. But most gypsy cab drivers haven't done so because they're too expensive and they make the ride uncomfortable for the drivers.

And because many gypsy cab drivers are fatalistic.

"They figure if someone wants to assault you, they'll do it with or without the partition," said Santiago Vargas.

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Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
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Richard Marosi is a former wire-service reporter in San Francisco and general assignment reporter in Palo Alto, California. He writes frequently on business and economic issues as well as the Hispanic community in New York City.

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