By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
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Frank Mancuso has signed out a cab for the last time. After driving in this city for 17 years including a stint of 14 months when he helmed a cab seven days a week he's hanging up his hack gloves. His license was up for renewal, and that meant going to a courtesy class and submitting piss for a drug test, which Rudy Giuliani and the Taxi and Limousine Commission made mandatory back in July. The class, which he ended up taking, was bad enough; the urine test was worse. Mancuso, a die-hard pothead, says he could have passed it, but why bother? Enough was enough. And so it is that the mayor's fetish for order has cost the city one of its odder characters another of the cranky, renegade cabbies who helped make New York infamous.
Mancuso once planned to go into medicine, but he got fed up with school and began driving a cab to support himself. Those were the wild years. "People smoked marijuana in my cab up until 1986 or so, but the 'Just Say No' Reagan years must have taken their toll, because soon after drugs in my back seat disappeared completely," says the 39-year-old now ex-cabbie. "There are still plenty of drinkers out there, though. Pukers, too. I've had as many as fare beaters, but the former are always more memorable."
Mancuso didn't start smoking in his cab until 1988, and soon after was toking regularly as he drove, sometimes lighting up his trusty dugout filled with pot between fares. It soothed his nerves. "Cab drivers are like Blanche DuBois; always dependent on the kindness of strangers. A person would leave a meager tip and I'd be yelling 'Anesthetic!' to no one in particular. I don't know how my ulcers would have held up otherwise."
He's like a cabbie from another universe, albeit one that also has a Brooklyn. Raised in Bed-Stuy. Went to Bishop Loughlin, same high school as Rudolph Giuliani. Pure New Yorker, knows how to drive, and like any good cabbie never cares about breaking the rules when he thinks they are unfair. There's the legal way to do things and then there's Frank's way, and some 12-hour shifts the twain didn't always meet.
During the holidays he'd turn off his meter to negotiate fares, a practice that is illegal in New York City. "Why not have a market rate for taxis?" he asks seriously. "It's a case of supply and demand. If some idiot can't find another cab and wants to pay me 25 bucks to take him three blocks, why should I say no? It works the other day around, too. Try driving Christmas day," he adds. A hack could rake in the bucks when nobody else worked, but nowadays the streets are populated with taxis driven by people who don't celebrate the holiday. "Ramadan is the best time to work if you're a hack," he says with a wink.
But he won't be driving any more Christmases or Valentine's Days or Easters, for that matter. Cab drivers are more vilified than food-cart vendors in this city, and he's tired of being dumped on. The fines for leaving receipts in the meter and the loss of valuable driving time for returning a cab late were annoying. But the cabbie courtesy test he was required to take in December of '97 truly pissed him off. "Thirty guys watching a TLC instructor in a wheelchair rolling up to four plastic chairs." And the TLC guy could walk. "It was insulting!"
Besides, Mancuso's a lot more concerned about quality of life issues for drivers than for passengers. If he had his way, the law would require bars and restaurants to allow anyone with a valid hack license to use their facilities. He also feels cabbies should be able to beat a double-parking ticket with a "had to pee" excuse. He discusses these and more on his biweekly public access television show, The View From Here, which gives him the chance to rant about the system and dissect theater reviews from his collection of pages from The New York Times.
Mancuso knows most people are going to be glad he's off the streets. First there's the weed medical reports say it clouds peripheral and night vision, and causes space and time anomalies that are great judgment killers (Mancuso thinks it helps him drive better). Then there are the games he played while driving like "I'm Not Gonna Take You Anywhere Unless You Have a Good Ride for Me," (you had to be going in the direction of his garage), or "Park Avenue Beauty Contest" (if he didn't think you were gorgeous, forget it).
What's next? Mancuso's dream job was directing traffic; in April of '91 he took the traffic enforcement agents exam and scored a perfect 100. But when he was finally called in '97 he failed a hair test for drugs. He's lucky: his corporate-lawyer girlfriend helps support him, and he's lived in his East Village apartment for 15 years, so his rent ain't bad. Last December, he took out one last cab and drove an uneventful shift. At 4:50 a.m., he picked up his final fare: two Times Square partiers he dropped off on the Upper West Side and Harlem. Rushing to get his cab back to the dispatcher in time, he ran two red lights.
Research assistance: Vrinda Condillac