seen @ 55 Stan, Long Island City, NY
The stereotype of the out-of-control New York taxi driver has been exacerbated in recent weeks as a result of a bizarre story that hit the front pages: a cabbie hit a cyclist in midtown Manhattan and dragged him partway down a block before hitting a pedestrian, severing her leg. The cabbie blamed the cyclist for the crash, but that didn't prevent him from getting a 30-day suspension. For a guy with a history of reckless driving, who admitted that he accelerated his vehicle in an attempt to get past the cyclist, 30 days doesn't seem long enough - and this was on the heels of two other taxi crashes throughout the city this summer alone.
The city has plans to update the basic taxi design, but what's needed more than improved taxis are responsible drivers, and the documentary Drivers Wanted seeks to redress the stereotype and show cabbies as regular guys like everyone else. The focus is on a single taxi garage in Queens called 55 Stan, in Long Island City, which was the site of last Saturday night's screening of the film, presented by the indie film series Filmwax, in association with the Queens World Film Festival.
A pre-show demonstration of some basic fitness techniques designed to keep cabbies healthy served to illustrate a greater fact: driving a taxi can be a physically demanding job. This Gotham Gazette article from last year tells the story:
Taxi drivers... are highly susceptible to a number of health problems because of their sedentary lives spent sitting behind the wheel, studies have found. Drivers are often forced to eat on the go, making fast food their easiest option. Few of them get any exercise whatsoever, and often suffer from back, hip and leg pain from sitting in a car all day. This lack of exercise combined with a bad diet has led to high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure among cabbies, according to health experts. Many of them even have kidney problems because they frequently can’t find a place to park when they need to use a bathroom. A 2001 survey by the New York Taxi Worker’s Alliance found that more than 20 percent of drivers had cardiovascular disease or cancer. And it is often difficult for taxi drivers to get the health care they need. Another study conducted by the city council in 2009 found that 52 percent of the city’s cabbies are uninsured, twice the rate of the average American.55 Stan is run by its octogenarian owner, Stanley Wissak. The film follows him as he dispatches drivers, recruits potential drivers from a nearby community college as they're about to take the required test, and be a lovable curmudgeon in general. According to the website, the business is the top-ranked taxi fleet in New York, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and Wissak himself was the subject of a 2012 New York Times article. In the movie we also see a rookie cabbie as he learns the ropes of the trade, as well as the oldest cabbie at 55 Stan, and indeed, in all of New York.
The taxi business in New York attracts a multicultural array of people, and indeed, Drivers also provides a look at the immigrant experience. The rookie driver is Chinese, and though he likes the simple act of driving, he also talks about some of his job-related fears as a foreigner to American shores.
Drivers is a pleasant enough movie, but I would've liked to have seen more about how 55 Stan maintains its high standards. Again, according to the website, the business offers things like a free in-house lawyer and accountant, as well as classes on how to make money as a cabbie. This is the sort of thing that I would've like to have seen, yet the movie only barely scratches the surface of such details. It felt more like a character study than a profile of a successful business, and while that's not inherently bad, I do feel like there was more that could've been shown. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein, who was in attendance at the screening along with his producer Jean Tsien, Wissak, and some of the cabbies, said it took him over a year to edit the film, and I wonder if this information was left on the cutting room floor.
I've written about LIC before. Like its neighbor to the north, Astoria, this is a community that's rapidly gentrifying, yet 55 Stan doesn't seem as out of place as you might think. LIC is still very much in transition, and as a result, it hasn't shaken off its industrial feel yet, despite the towering office buildings and high-rises that dwarf the areas near the 7 train and the river. (I hate the look of those.) In addition to the expected coffee shops and restaurants, there are not one, but two comedy clubs, and earlier this summer a terrific outdoor flea market sprung up that operates on the weekends.
|"Spider," the senior cabbie at 55 Stan|
As I said, QWFF was there, represented by festival head honchos Don and Katha Cato. QWFF, on their own, puts on a series of supplemental screenings throughout the rest of the year. They even had one out in the Rockaways last month which, I'm sure, was a nice shot in the arm to the area still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.
I saw my filmmaker friend Jules at Saturday's screening; you'll remember her as the young lady I met at this year's QWFF. I saw the movie with her and a delightful woman and friend-of-QWFF named Celeste, whom I met last year at Don and Katha's party. It was through Celeste that I met and had a brief chat with Filmwax's Adam Schartoff, the evening's host. QWFF-related events always feel very sociable, which is nice.
There's a website for Drivers Wanted where you can buy the DVD, and the site also has links to watch it on iTunes and Amazon.