The Non-Expert

Gypsy Cabs

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we help a nervous tourist understand that mystery of New York City transportation: the unlicensed car that will drive you either to your destination, or to your death!

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: My wife and I are planning on leaving our cold Canadian prairie province and visiting New York City for the first time. On the one hand we’re excited and on the other hand we’re freaked out. Just how safe is New York City and why should I be concerned about gypsy cabs? —Paul

Answers: Gypsies never seem to get a break. Viewed by some otherwise enlightened Europeans as thievish vagabonds, these continually persecuted, stateless people now have had their tribal identity attached to cars in the lowest taxi pecking order: unlicensed sedans roaming New York streets for illegal passenger pick-ups.

Tourists are fair game in New York. Everybody knows you’re on your way to becoming a New Yorker once you’ve mastered the ability to sneer at the unashamed lot streaming into the Times Square Olive Garden, but your membership’s not official until you’ve ripped off a nice family from Kansas. Those airport gypsy cabs are masters. There exist a variety of ways to get into the city: shuttle bus, yellow cab, and the Air Train, and yet gypsy cabs, those shady second-hand sedans, manage to hustle themselves onto the menu. To them, this Non-Expert raises his cup of tourist blood, which he will then drink to complement choice cuts of herb-roasted tourist babies. So is New York safe? Yes, indeed. Book your tickets now.

The Non-Expert has to admit to sympathies for gypsy cabs. For the most part, they are offering a badly needed service. You see, in a city of an estimated eight million people, there are only 12,487 taxi medallions authorized by the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission. In a recent auction, bids for individual medallions went for more than $360,000. These medallions can then be leased to drivers, who also have to pay for gas and other overhead. To recoup costs, the yellow cabs prowl Manhattan’s well-heeled areas for likely customers, leaving large sections of the city out of their territory. Licensed call-center-based car-service companies provide coverage for some areas but are not supposed to do impromptu street pick-ups. So gypsy cabs and licensed drivers who break the rules provide needed car-for-hire service in areas not usually visited by yellow cab drivers. Though the majority of New York neighborhoods are relatively safe, gypsy cab drivers (most of whom are struggling recent immigrants) know that there’s still money to be made in more neglected, riskier neighborhoods. They are willing to take this risk in order to earn a living that pays on average about $27,000 a year. Most can’t afford bulletproof partitions that might offer some protection. In the early 1990s, a softball league of Hispanic car service and gypsy cab drivers had the name of Liga de Los Taxistas Los Martires, or The Martyr’s Taxi League. Do you feel bad already for having ever been suspicious of these hardworking, life-risking drivers?

If their positive, tongue-in-cheek cameos in Wes Anderson movies are any indicator, the world has become a more accepting place for gypsy cabs. The Non-Expert, however, is capable of understanding your apprehensions. Yes, we’ve also seen movies that altogether have contributed to a horrific composite, which involves, in sequence:

1) unwary passengers stepping into a sketchy cab
2) a trip down a desolate street, always industrial
3) worried faces; car doors suddenly locked
4) fists banging against car windows
5) close-up of soundless mouths screaming
6) dismemberment

Still, a scouring of newspaper crime articles reveals an overwhelming occurrence of hapless cab drivers killed by murderous passengers. The Non-Expert can only assume that serial killer cab drivers almost never get caught because they are so good. How easy is it to dispose the bodies of a couple from Canada? Ever heard of the Gowanus Canal? The Non-Expert canoes regularly in this rich broth of petrochemicals that flows through west Brooklyn, and often has to free his paddle from mangles of resurfaced limbs. They don’t include details like this in the Frommer’s guide.

Face it. If you do find yourself in the clutches of a maniacal, knife-wielding driver, there’s not much you can do. Accept your fate and enjoy the rest of the ride. Think of calling for help on your cell phone? You don’t think these guys who spend hours traversing the city know where all the signal blind spots are? New York can be a cruel city. Those of us who live here are crushed slowly every day. Be glad that your suffering will only last a few more hours. If your cab driver is especially devious, you’ll only have another torturous week or so. Take the time to imagine the things you would have done in the city. You would have surely seen the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, maybe the Metropolitan Museum. You would have gone to Café Lalo, that cute place you saw in that Nora Ephron movie with that cute little squiggly-nosed, what’s-her-name actress. You would have visited the Carlyle Hotel and tapped your feet to the lounge music while the bartender makes you an old-fashioned. On the sidewalk, you would have sung and danced to the Broadway shows still ringing in your head. Look, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick taking a stroll with their baby against a preciously beautiful West Village backdrop! Repeat to yourself while you’re being disemboweled, or at the very least ripped off: I never got into an unmarked sedan at the far end of the parking garage. I never followed a hockey mask-wearing cab driver, who walked with a peculiar limp and breathed loudly through his mouth. At the luggage carousel, I never answered the question, “Need a ride?”