New York

Elegy for a Cabbie


New York has always been famous for guys like Leo Lazarus, nonstop talkers with big grins, a million stories, and a tune ever on their lips. They were the men who fought hunger during the Depression and then fought the enemy overseas in Europe and the Pacific. Of course this Greatest Generation, as it’s now called, is fast slipping away, and we know we are the lesser even though there is nothing to be done for it.

Movie directors used to like to place such characters behind the wheel of a New York City taxicab, and that’s exactly where Lazarus spent almost 40 of his 90 years before he pitched over on a Queens street last month, dead of a stroke.

In many ways, Leo Lazarus was a model of his much celebrated generation. Born into poverty in Coney Island, he became the family breadwinner when his old man dropped dead trying to squeeze a living out of a restaurant where no one could afford to dine. He quit high school after he kept falling asleep riding back and forth on the train between his job and his classes. When his ailing mother died, he was promptly drafted. He’d never held a gun in his life, but the army made him an infantryman, and he fought his way across France, through the Battle of the Bulge, right to Berlin. He came home, knocked around in a few jobs, then got his hack license and spent most of the next four decades driving a cab, talking up a storm to any passenger who climbed into the backseat. And if the spirit moved him, which was often, he’d break out in a bar or two of “It Had to Be You,” or his generational anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

But the same reasons that make the life of Leo Lazarus, the singing cabbie, worth noting also make him a tough entry on most rosters of heroic Americans. That’s because among his brave generation’s other accomplishments was a brutal blacklist for those on the political left. And no two ways about it, Leo Lazarus was a Red, a card-carrying commie who saw the world in stark black-and-white, with workers on one side and capitalists on the other. In between bantering with his fares and crooning his own hit parade, he never stopped pitching trade unionism and giving his rap on capitalism wherever cabbies gathered to gab.

“I didn’t want to work in an office or a factory, that was all just monotonous. Driving a cab was made-to-order for me,” he told Maggie Bowman, a young friend and labor organizer who took him to the StoryCorps booth at Grand Central Terminal a couple of years ago to put his oral history on a compact disc.

The labor part of Leo’s story went something like this: In the mid 1950s, when he started driving, a hack license entitled you to little more than a spot in a grueling war dance among competing cabs on the city’s streets. Earnings depended largely on tips, which encouraged big smiles and good talk. Taxi fleet owners, often aided by underworld allies, fired union organizers as quickly as they could spot them.

“They had dossiers on me, I’d get fired. There were times it was kind of rough,” he recalled.

But he stuck it out, and in 1964, Harry Van Arsdale, the powerful head of the city’s Central Labor Council, obtained backing from then mayor Robert Wagner for an organizing drive that finally put the city’s 35,000 taxi workers into a union. That was Local 3036, AFL-CIO, Harry Van Arsdale, president.

The union’s first contract gave drivers a shot at a respectable living, a 49 percent share of the meter, and health care for those working regular shifts. But the backsliding began right away. Ensuing contracts cut pay for new drivers, and while most cabbies worked part-time and didn’t qualify for benefits, Van Arsdale let fleet owners pay for them by snatching a dime from the driver’s take every time the meter’s flag dropped.

In a raucous 1971 meeting at the old Manhattan Center on West 34th Street, Lazarus was one of those yelling loudest when Van Arsdale’s goons cut off the microphones while members were asking tough questions about those dimes. Angry cabbies hurled chairs onto the stage as the union boss and his crew fled. That was the night Lazarus encountered a crew of younger drivers, many of them college educated, steeped in activism, and eager to challenge Van Arsdale’s top-down unionism.

“I think Leo was as happy to see us as we were to see him,” said Kate Turner, one of 75 former cab drivers and their friends who held a memorial service for Lazarus this month at a Brooklyn hall.

The Taxi Rank and File Coalition drew its recruits from younger workers answering the call for casual labor. But older, veteran drivers looked at them askance, reasoning that these kids wouldn’t be around long enough to catch hell for the trouble they were making.

Gray-haired, grinning Leo Lazarus helped bridge that gap. Even though the youngsters disavowed much of his old-school Marxism, he threw himself into the group’s activities, peddling its paper, The Hot Seat, at the garages or on the long lines of cabbies out at the airports.

“Leo would say what he thought. He didn’t care who was listening. So the union’s flunkies would come after him, and a few times I had to step between him and them,” recalled Paul Friedman, a tough Vietnam War veteran and one of the coalition’s founders.

Of course, hacking was dangerous enough already. A dozen times Lazarus was robbed. A good friend was shot dead on the job. “I would tell them, ‘Put the gun away, here’s the money,'” he said. But when cabbies reported the incidents to their garage, the question was about the health of the taxi, not their own. “All they wanted to know was, ‘Is the cab OK?'”

Righteous anger about those encounters and the union’s laissez-faire attitude about member gripes in general boosted the dissidents’ reputation, and they decided to run a candidate against Van Arsdale in 1971. They chose Lazarus. No one gave him much of a chance, but when the ballots were counted, he had 37 percent, enough to give the old guard a good scare. And if they lost that race, Lazarus and his cohorts won other, smaller battles, forcing the union to hold elections for shop committees and to go to bat for those unjustly fired. When the union echoed the fleet owners’ line that their biggest problem was the gypsy cabs working the streets where most cabbies feared to go, Lazarus stood up to object. “They’re workers just like us, trying to make a buck,” he said to applause at another hectic meeting.

The fleet owners eventually figured out a way around both the union and its dissidents, leasing their cabs to drivers who paid up-front fees for the privilege of driving. Local 3036 faded away as the older generation retired and the militants went on to other pursuits. But in the 1980s, as immigrants from Pakistan to Haiti took over the now leaner and tougher jobs, Lazarus was still driving. And when he couldn’t push a hack anymore, he helped show a new crop of industry dissidents how to do it.

“When I first started organizing in 1996, Leo and Steve Seltzer, another longtime driver, were my guides to the garages,” said Bhairavai Desai, co-founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, which led a one-day taxi strike in 1998. “We used to stand outside on the street talking to drivers. He’d be out there with such amazing energy and confidence. You’d see this tall skinny man, and if you only heard his voice and his energy, you would’ve thought he was a man in his twenties. I feel blessed to have started out with him.”

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