All Balled Up
The first law passed once the Greek colonels had overthrown the government on April 21, 1967, was the one prohibiting Greek cabbies from driving in their underwear. Athens gets rather hot in the summer, and the Greeks, a practical people, have learned how to stay cool by never overdressing. Taxi drivers, needless to say, are among the most practical of Greeks, and by the time the colonels had come to power, the cabbies were staying cool by driving almost in their birthday suits.
Their reaction to the new law was one of outrage. Taxi drivers by tradition are very right-wing. They are the quintessential free-marketeers, great believers in putting in long hours to make more money. They are also great freedom lovers. They work inside their own environment with no one telling them what to do and when to work. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher's most loyal constituents were the cabbies, voting almost to a man for the Iron Lady.
Cabbies hate anarchy, especially when it involves street demonstrations. Pre-1967 Greece was one long demonstration, preventing free-marketeers in the transport business from doing their work. Mind you, Greek taxi drivers were not the WASPy type. They did not wear boxer shorts with all sorts of cute designs on them. To the contrary: theirs were the original "ball-huggers" and, in the sweaty hellhole that Athens becomes in summer, not the prettiest of sights.
Still, the right-wing colonels were wrong to punish their most ardent backers. So, having managed to secure an interview with tank brigadier Stylianos Pattakos, a member of the troika that ruled Greece, the first question I asked was just that. Foreign tourists expect Greeks to wear loincloths, I told him. He got furious. "We are the oldest civilization of Europe, and we have become the laughingstock of the world because these people drive around the city in their horrid undershorts."
Well, the colonels had their way, and Greek taxi drivers went to work like little Lord Fauntleroys, or at least that's what they thought. Years later, with poor old Pattakos (he's now out) rotting in prison, new regulations came in. These were from the European Union dictators, the busybodies who keep occupied living the high life off the suckers who pay European taxes. The last decree was that all EU countries should have taxis that are able to carry the handicapped in their wheelchairs. "In" being the operative word. Now, the only taxis I know of in Europe that have the room to accommodate a person sitting in a wheelchair are the British black cabs. A ramp has been fitted and the wheelchair and its occupant can be pushed up into the vehicle. Greek taxis, however, are on a par with Noo Yawk ones. They are filthy, uncomfortable and impossible to enter for anyone except Toulouse-Lautrec.
When I asked a Greek cabbie how he plans to conform with the latest EU ukase, he gave me the kind of look one gets when asking around 32nd St. where the Empire State Bldg. is. Which brings me to the point I wish to make.
City Journal is probably the best quarterly in the nation. In the spring issue, Steven Malanga writes on how to fix Gotham's taxi mess. It is by far the best report I've read about what Noo Yawkers consider to be an insoluble problem. Malanga not only solves it, but in the process manages to find a solution to the corrupt system that fuels the mess. In brief, here's what he has to say: A medallion (the license that transforms the car into a cab) that originally sold for $10 now costs $200,000. Yet despite high taxi fares, the drivers who lease the taxis can hardly earn a living. In fact, at times they operate at a loss. The reason for this is a system that is rent control in reverse. The powerful medallion owners, especially the 20-odd owners of big fleets, are among the biggest political donors to City Council and mayoral races. By generously giving to the politicians, they retain their slave-owner rights to lease rates, so much so, in fact, that many owners at times are willing to let their cars sit idle rather than lower their rates to the slaves that drive them. The result is that a profession in which drivers can no longer earn a living is bound to attract the inexperienced, among whom turnover is high.
The solution according to Steven Malanga is easy. All the city has to do, without expropriating the system, is come up with a new set of licenses to be granted only to actual drivers. Such licenses would replace medallions and be renewed every year. To institute this the city would need to buy back all its current medallions, at the price the owners paid for them. The medallion owners might squeal like the pigs that they are, but in reality they are getting a very fair deal. They've sat back and collected for years, squeezing the drivers by charging them close to $30,000 per year in leasing fees, yet refusing to provide new and clean cars or qualified drivers.
The city would charge taxi drivers a licensing fee?$5000-$10,000 per year?and would also raise the number of taxi licenses. A bond offering would finance the buyback of medallions. Needless to say, the ones opposed are the medallion Fagins, and they will put pressure on the pols to resist change. Here is an opportunity for Bloomberg to show some gumption. My guess, alas, is that he won't, and one day soon New York taxi drivers will resemble their Greek brothers by driving in their underwear. But this time out of poverty.
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