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NYC taxis; noise, filth, cold drafts and a wobbly seat. No sports radio!

The days of play-by-play and sports talk in New York cabs are long gone

So I left my home base in Fort Lauderdale yesterday, headed for New York. My Uber to the airport was clean and the driver polite. Uber charges about half what taxis do down there. Fort Lauderdale is still in need of a monopoly buster. For decades there were charges and reports of furtive and shady activities between the yellow cab operator and officials.   

Many drivers in Lauderdale are still appallingly discourteous. They’re poorly paid and seem to hate their jobs. The prices are so high and the drivers so ill-mannered, Ft. Lauderdale likely has the lowest tip percentage of taxi riders anywhere in America. Uber has been welcomed with open arms; albeit yellow cab ownership pushed back their arrival through political pressure.

It was about 60 degrees, a delightfully cool morning, when I left. New York’s weather was tolerable when I arrived but still a gusty 30 degrees served as a reminder that it’s mid-January. Forecasters are saying that nasty wintry weather is ahead and that on Monday the high will be 13 and the low 5; hardly the way to remember Dr. Martin Luther King who did his gutsily dangerous work in the sweltering south.

So on Monday, when the city is hit by an arctic wave, we’ll be thankful to Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills in Massachusetts; a man popularly credited with developing polar fleece. I guess Mr. Feuerstein had to find a comfortable way to attend those frigid New England football games.

By the way, it looks like Kansas City has been spared the predictions of punishing temperatures near zero for Sunday night’s AFC championship game. They’re now saying that it’ll be in the twenties; a veritable heatwave in the heartland. Still, Bill Belichick will patrol the sidelines with a blank expression, a puckered forehead and stark looking earmuffs.

No line of people yesterday when I arrived at LaGuardia. The only line was that of taxis looking for fares. It was as long as the eye can see. Winter or summer a lack of fares enrages drivers; producing verbal spats with anyone within an earshot of their ire. To my pleasant surprise, my beefy driver trudged from his car seat to help me upload my luggage into the trunk. 

As I parked myself in the taxi, the driver carped about having to wait two hours for a fare. But leave it to this New York hack. He tried to beat the system for his next LaGuardia fare. What a shock.

Idling at a crawl before taking off, he got the attention of the dispatcher, stopped momentarily and requested a shorty pass. (If passengers are dropped off nearby, shorty passes enable drivers to return to the front of taxi line when they’re back at the airport, without having to endure another exasperatingly long wait.) The cabbie implied that he’d drop me off just outside the airport in Elmhurst. The veteran dispatcher’s eye-test profiled me differently; an Upper East Sider. When I told the dispatcher after he asked, that I was going to Manhattan, it was the beginning of a long ride. The driver didn’t like my answer, his ruse was nipped in the bud. I wasn’t the accomplice he hoped. The dispatcher lip lashed the cabbie as we pulled off. If this was a basketball game and the dispatcher was wearing a striped shirt, the driver would have been issued two techs and been banned.

Welcome to New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. My taxi driver is still trying.  

Strikingly, once we left the airport, the flow of traffic was implausibly fluid. Traffic moved freely on the always busy Grand Central Expressway.

What also moved freely was the back seat of my taxi. It was old, worn, springy and not quite on its mooring. In other words, the seat wasn’t completely affixed against the back rest. I was able to squeeze my arm through the seat into the trunk.

When I tried to say something to the driver through the thick partition, he flashed his hand across his earlobe suggesting that he couldn’t hear me. 

After a couple miles, I felt this ice cold draft of wind blowing against my rear-end. The open vent through the off-kilter seat, I suspected; likely emanating from the trunk. My tush was beginning to numb. But I stoically ignored it as best I could, looking left and right only to be greeted by layers of dust in the door pockets and on the arm rests. I tried again to communicate with the driver but he was impervious to my exhortations.

I tried a third time and he shook his head, gestured with his shoulder and pulled his earlobe lightly, a halfhearted, ‘I can’t hear you.’ When he had enough of me, he produced noise pollution; activating the terribly outdated portable video screen that’s on the partition and annoyingly right up against the passenger’s face. For those who haven’t experienced it yet, thank your lucky stars.  It’s a blend of vocal static and a snowy picture reminiscent of a 1950s TV set. So the audio blared, the backseat felt like a seesaw in a playground and gusts of cold air numbed my behind. Thankfully, there was no traffic. The ride was short.

Still, when I arrived in Manhattan, my backside felt like it had a shot of Novocaine, my ears were ringing and my legs were aching from a thirty minute uncomfortable crouch battling a wobbly seat.

I’m hankering back! When I got into taxis in the 70s, they had the ballgame on, in the 80s they had Art Rust’s sports-talk show and in the 90s Mike and the Mad Dog. Now, if a yellow cab is equipped with a radio, it generally doesn’t work or passengers can’t hear it through the thick partition.

Back in the day, you’d hear Mel Allen or Bob Murphy on the Yankees and Mets, Marv Albert on the Knicks and Rangers, Marty Glickman or Merle Harmon on the Giants and Jets. Those fellows were music to passengers’ ears. With no partitions, drivers would also provide color. ‘Ah, they’ve got to get rid of the coach,’ ‘What do you think of the wife swapping duo, Kekich and Peterson’ or ‘Frazier baby, he’s gonna do it tonight!’

They also kept their taxis somewhat clean, especially when they owned the medallions which for years accelerated in value. Uber has now tanked medallions’ values and sadly a few owners actually committed suicide the last couple years when they lost their life’s savings. 

In old New York, baseball and football were on radios constantly. Cablecasting of games not on conventional television  didn’t begin until the 70s. When it was introduced, team announcers like Scully, Rizzuto and Kiner didn’t engage. The systems sent their own crews of announcers. The were generally inferior. The teams took the dough from the cable companies and didn’t seem to care much about anything else. In the early years, there wasn’t much to care about; cable had little penetration and a tiny viewership. Later, of course, cable and mainstream team announcers were bundled.

You’d watch games at home on fidgety black and white sets. It produced a mystique of sorts. When you’d arrive at the ballpark, you were overawed by the lush and manicured grass. 

We would do our homework listening to Marv Albert doing a Rangers game on Sunday nights and a Knicks game on Tuesday nights. He was so good that we didn’t feel we missed a thing.

But not everything was great. The morning paper went to press at midnight. West coast scores weren’t available immediately the next morning. The only place you’d see a Smartphone was on television’s Get Smart. Sports radio wasn’t an embryo. And the internet, are you kidding? Even Don Adams knew nothing about it then.

In New York and elsewhere all-news radio was born in the 1960s. Washington DC had the nation’s first all-news station. WINS went all-news in 1965. Luck went its way, you might say. That November, there was a major utility blackout in late afternoon, early evening. The streets were chaotic. WINS helped the citizenry get home. In January, 1966, there was a subway and bus strike; again the all-news station served as an indispensable asset to commuters backed up on New York highways and byways. In short order, New York and later Los Angeles had two all-news stations. It was the beginning of an eruption of information.

For fans, it meant sports and scores every thirty minutes. It was huge. Get up in the morning and the latest was readily available. 

All sports radio hit New York in 1987. The industry gave it no chance of surviving. Many predicted a quick crash after takeoff. Decades later, every market seems to have a couple of ‘em.

WINS Radio was a favorite of New York taxi drivers; headline news, weather, traffic and sports.

Get into a cab today,  there’s a video screen with noise pollution and for me yesterday, a wobbly seat and continuing gusts of arctic wind up my rear end.

If you’re not in a cab this weekend, enjoy the football and basketball.  

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
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Michael Green

I went to school in New York City, 1988-92, and boy, do I remember those cab rides! Occasionally, you would get some sports on the radio. I would miss that, too.

Anyway, this triggered my memory of hearing Marv Albert do the Rangers on the radio. I grew up being able to watch some LA Kings games, and I knew Bob Miller was terrific. But Marv was amazing–so fast, so on top of things.