Q&A: Amy Braunschweiger, Taxi Confidential
Taxi culture is a big part of New York lore -- Jimmy Cagney, Robert DeNiro, and Ernest Borgnine are among the many memorable movie hacks -- but real cabbies don't get much attention unless they're delivering a baby in the backseat or something like that. Amy Braunschweiger's Taxi Confidential: Life, Death and 3 a.m. Revelations in New York City Cabs (671 Press) gives urban charioteers, and their fares, the Studs Terkel treatment. She talks to speed demons, philosophers, lifers, short-timers, and to people who've ridden with them (and been fed drugs, kidnapped, and had sex with them). Braunschweiger also maintains a blog on the subject, and reads at Bluestockings Books next Monday, November 30, at 7 p.m. We talked to her about life on the road.
You've got a lot of people in the book, from both sides of the lucite divider. We're sure they didn't all answer an ad in the New York Review of Books. It must have been some job to get them all. How did you manage it?
The passenger stories came pretty easily. For those, I pretty much would walk into a party, tell everyone what I was working on, and after a drink or two, they would come to me...
The cabbies were a lot tougher to track down. In short, I ended up doing everything -- I made business cards and gave them to my cabbies; I had my friends give my business cards to their cabbies; I posted adds on Craigslist; I joined a cabbie listserv; I went to the offices of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. I met cabbies for eggs, I met them for beer and for coffee. I talked with them for hours on my cell phone. Many wouldn't even remember the various experiences they had until at least 30 minutes into our conversation. And any time I connected with a taxi driver, I asked about his cabbie friends.
But this was after I got smart...
Before I got smart, I tried just taking cabs and talking to drivers. Unfortunately, one, there was never enough time for me to establish a rapport with the cabbie, so I got no stories, and two, I really couldn't afford to take cabs, anyway. Freelance writer, you know.
So I changed gears. I started contacting cabbie bloggers, knowing they'd be more open to speaking with me. And these guys (as cabbies are 99 percent men, after all) taught me about cabbie culture. I learned about the soon-to-be-implemented GPS system, about backaches from sitting so long, about where cabbies go to the bathroom, about the issues surrounding leasing, and about the cabbie lifestyle....
I kept waiting for different people to tell me the same story over and over again. But it never happened. The unique experiences the people in my book had consistently awed me.
Do you have a favorite subject? Someone who could have been a whole book by him or herself?
I had a lot of favorites, and met lot of great people. But someone who could have a book on his life is Ryan Weideman. He's the taxi driver equivalent of a street photographer. He came to New York to take photos and became a cabbie to pay rent. He ended up rubber-banding his camera to his sunvisor, and took pictures of his passengers, with and without their permission. His photos are in the permanent collection of a number of museums, and one has been auctioned off by Sotheby's.
He's tall, lanky, and talks very slowly, leaving lots of air between each work. He seems like a beaknik, he's ornery, and you never know if he's going to shout at you or hit on you -- and he will do both...
We always imagined a whole section of cab-sex stories would be straight-up porn. But the ones you got aren't like that at all: Some are poignant, some funny, some even romantic. Did that surprise you?
I did hear a lot of stories that were straight-up porn. But to be a really great story for this book, it needed something more. It needed either some sort of character growth or a revelation -- either personal, or related to cabbie culture. One of my favorite stories is about a couple who had sex in a cab that's going over the Brooklyn Bridge while the driver watches. But what's great about that story isn't just the sex -- it's the history of the couple and their power dynamic, and it shifts because of their experience in the cab.
I was surprised by the sweet and romantic stories. But I guess it does stand to reason that in this world, people -- even strangers -- care about each other. We're all interconnected, after all. And if someone is crying in a cab, or if you look sad, and your driver has a soft heart, he will want to help, to make you feel better. It's the type of story that reaffirms your faith in humanity.
We're loving the blog, but we think that Angelina Jolie story is bullshit. It reminds us suspiciously of some other stories about famous beauties who came on to ordinary Joes. What do you think?
When I first published the Angelina story, I wasn't that worried about it. My source was on the record, and I was planning on hunting down "Billy," the sexy Hungarian driver who allegedly turned her down those years ago. A few days after I posted the blog, my source told me she wanted to remain anonymous. That I didn't like. I want my source on the record. But I deleted my source's name, which certainly doesn't strengthen the story.
In the book, there are only two stories involving famous passengers -- Mel Brooks and Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee. Most of the stories I heard involving famous people were lame -- "I had Blondie in my cab!" "I drove around Wesley Snipes!" That's not really a story. That's a sentence. But in the Brooks and Van Der Zee stories, the celebrities ended up playing -- in some way -- a large role in the passengers' lives.
You said you "hope someday a cabby will let you drive." Why?
I like collecting new experiences. And driving a cab would be a great one. I drive probably twice a year in the city -- when I rent a car to blow out of town. So how would it be different driving a cab? Will other drivers cut me off more frequently? Will I need to drive more aggressively? I wouldn't legally be able to pick up passengers -- you need a drivers license to drive a cab, and a hack license to pick up fares -- but how fun would it be to do that? To take on a whole new persona? Because people make a lot of assumptions about you according to your job, and cabbie's one I haven't had yet.
Also, cabs are such an integral part of New York, like the Empire State Building, the Yankees and Junior's cheesecake. It would be thrilling to explore New York from that angle, and to be part of the fabric of New York in an even more intimate way.
I'm gushing, I know.