SPEEDY WAITS FOR ANOTHER FARE to get in the backseat and tell him where to go. His is the last cab in a line of about a dozen outside 30th Street Station. A fog of tailpipe steam drifts between bumpers, occasionally cut through by a homeless man in tatters, begging. Speedy and I have been riding together for more than two hours, and the November night outside is growing long and turning cold. He motions that he wants to show me something.
Fumbling through the scattered ephemera of his dashboard, he pulls out his cell phone and brings up a photograph on the screen. It’s of Jamaica, the country of his birth, and he allows the image to sink in, glowing in the silent dark of his cab like a tiny pixelated flame. White sand and impossibly blue water, a few wind-bent palm trees, waves breaking against the paradisial shoreline.
“That’s my beach,” he says, touching his finger to the small, grainy photo. “I live right across the street from this.”
Brought from Jamaica to West Philadelphia by his parents at the age of nine, Speedy — or Gresford Speid, as his license reads — started driving a cab at 18, maybe 19; he can’t recall exactly. Taxis offered Speedy the type of freedom he says runs in his blood. And for a while, he tells me, “This business was a joy, a pleasure.” Back then, 20 years ago, driving a cab meant independence and more than a modicum of pride. Back then it was possible for him to go home at the end of the week with more than $1,000 in his pocket.
Speedy says driving a cab in Philly “is now torture.” The freedom, the adventure, the pride — gone. These days, he says he’s lucky to end most weeks with any profit at all, and it’s been this way for five years now.
That’s how long the Philadelphia Parking Authority has controlled cabs here. I hear Speedy’s lament echoed again and again by other drivers, who are universally frustrated and angry.
And there’s another problem, one that became obvious to me on a recent weekend in the taxi capital of America, New York City. My girlfriend and I slid into the backseat of a shiny yellow car parked outside Penn Station — into a backseat with room — and my eyes immediately landed on something arresting: a bright, recessed monitor positioned in the middle of the cab’s divider. When I touched the screen and it came to life, I giggled like a little kid.
During a dozen or so rides up and down Manhattan, I found this toy in every backseat, and like some naive, wide-eyed bumpkin, I played with each one — checking weather forecasts, monitoring our present location on Google Maps, and even watching a Vampire Weekend video to pass the time. It was, frankly, awesome.
Taking my next Philly cab was like finding coal under the tree on Christmas morning. It was an old, cramped Crown Victoria with the same old mysterious odors, and warnings and notices pasted on a divider an inch from my knees, and no glittering monitor. I was back in Philadelphia, and I just had to accept it.