All Balled Up

Written by Taki on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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

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.

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.

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.