Selected Skirmishes: The Untouchables


After The (New York) Daily News was hit by a strike last October, it continued to publish but had difficulty with distribution. Circulation fell from 1.1 million to 400,000 according to official statistics, even lower by private estimates. The paper was not sold at newsstands. Vendors understood, after just a few dozen acts of violence, that selling the News during the strike would not be a healthy thing to do.

Until the end of the strike in March, the only way I was able to buy a copy was from homeless people, who were recruited in large numbers to hawk the tabloid on street comers and in subways. The unwritten rules of New York were vividly on display: Indians and Pakistanis who arose well before dawn to run tiny, cluttered kiosks dispensing news, breath mints, and lip balm to a busy world were perfectly legitimate objects of physical abuse. But it was not politically correct to rough up the homeless.

The Village Voice actually applauded the evil, establishment New York Times for once going two full weeks without making any mention of union violence. Joining a conspiracy of silence was the least one could do for the working man. That the union was thumping innocents to protect $100,000-a-year pressmen, who featherbedded one worker in three, or that black reporters largely broke through the pickets, having had even worse luck with union racists than with management's crackers (read the black Amsterdam News on this), served only to bolster the confidence of the progressive crusaders, who are quite accustomed to speaking up for egalitarianism while ensconced in homogeneous enclaves of wealthy white people, that this was indeed a good place to take a stand against greed in post-Reagan America.

I continued to purchase The Daily News (whose information gauge is constantly on "empty") throughout the strike, on the grounds that helping the homeless while (anonymously) challenging a militant cartel for a mere 25 cents was a great bargain. (With the post-strike cost at 40 cents, and with the ancillary benefits gone, I'm priced clean out of this market.) But from the News I did learn this: In New York, the Untouchables are untouchable; the rest of us are fair game.

Taxi drivers are better than newspapers, however, as a source of practical information. They will speak with amazing frankness. I merely suggested to Yves that driving a cab must be a pretty good job provided one was careful during the wee hours. He shot back, "I am very careful. I don't pick up the blacks."

"Excuse me?"

"Those black kids, in the sneakers," he said in French-English. "Like that kid over there. See him? I no pick him up." Yves was a West Indian and appeared to be quite black all over.

All the cabbies have their rules, and most are now equipped with automatic door locks which they zealously guard until they have gotten a look at you. This is ironic, in that they search for potential customers like madmen, swerving wildly to snatch them, and routinely beep at passers-by who just might like a taxi. But I have seen cabs zip right past well-dressed, thirty-something men sporting Burberry coats and expensive briefcases…and black skin. Drivers of every shade inform me that they will stop for no one they "get a feeling about." A black cabbie told me about picking up the great Herbie Hancock one very stormy night. The jazz musician had spent forever hailing in the rain to no avail. Herbie understood that at each fateful moment of eye contact, he was "just another nigger" to a long string of New York taxicab professionals.

I heard no shame expressed. Even from the Middle Easterner who told me about being brought up on charges: An African woman he had passed as she desperately tried to flag him down (getting close enough to jot down his TLC number) complained about his discrimination before the appropriate city board. "Yeah, I see her. But she give me a bad feeling. So I lie and say 'No, I never seen her before.' What are they going to do?" He won his case, and he was out picking and choosing new fares by the afternoon.

Call me a honky (as a particularly opinionated street person recently did), but I imagine that, after soaking in a rainstorm for an hour while failing to procure a cab due to a permanent feature of my skin, I would develop an even worse attitude than I already have. I would not be mollified by the fact that the mayor would, but for his chauffeur, share my problem. Yet the hostility exhibited on this score is invisible; it is apparently a non-issue in a city convulsed by Bonfires of racial politics and idiotic agitations and an overarching urban unpleasantness.

Technically, New York City maintains a police force. But the cabbies are aware that this calendar year 2,250 persons—more than six per day—will be murdered on their streets. And so these working stiffs from every dot on the globe—Sierra Leone to Greece to Guatemala to Brooklyn—resort to their own crude measures for security. Of the scores of cabbies I talked to, all had one thing in common: They were alive. They take this as evidence that their racial rules of thumb are prudent. On the streets of the city, the hypothesis is that the principle of survival is winnowing out the liberals. New York, New York. It's a helluva town.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis. He recently completed a sabbatical at Columbia University.