But on the second Friday of Jazz Fest, invisible is exactly the way he felt. Lacen, better known as Tuba Fats, guesses that it had been around 2 a.m. when he left his gig at Donna's Bar and Grill. There were lots of cabs driving up and down Rampart Street, so he decided to stand on the corner and flag one down.
An hour passed. Sometimes a cab would slow down. But then it would roll right past him.
Lacen, who has entertained crowds nearly every day for 25 years from his bench in Jackson Square, says that there's no way his face was unfamiliar. "Some of these cab drivers -- they're people I see everyday. They know who I am. But they still wouldn't pick me up."
In the past, Lacen would have simply given up and walked all the way to his home in Uptown. But he couldn't physically do that this time, because his knees were starting to act funny. (Lacen has since found out that the tendons in his knees are destroyed, something that will be surgically repaired this fall.) So he decided to hobble down to a cab stand on Canal Street.
The walk was not easy, and it was not swift. At times, Lacen felt as though his knees were buckling beneath him and he had stop to lean against a building or a street sign.
Once he finally made it to a Canal Street cab stand, he was waved away by cab drivers, who said they couldn't carry him home. Before long, Lacen had company -- hotel workers getting off of the late shift. "The cabbies wouldn't take me and they wouldn't take them. They wouldn't take any blacks," Lacen says, exasperated.
There was no point in acting indignant and forcing his way into a taxi, says Lacen, because if a driver is determined not to ride you, that cab is not going move one inch.
As Lacen was waiting, he kept his eyes open for Taxicab Bureau inspectors. Yet he saw none. Bureau inspectors almost never patrol during nights and evenings any more.
Finally, after being rebuffed a number of times, Lacen -- along with a handful of maids, bellhops, and doormen -- gave up. It was now close to four. The small group walked over to the bus stop on Canal and Baronne and sat down to wait. City buses were due to start up at 5 a.m.
Lacen had been at the bus stop for maybe 15 minutes when a Royal Cab stopped at a red light front of him. Lacen tried to flag the cab and once again was refused. Lacen's patience was now wearing thin. He limped over to the car and spoke to the driver through the open window. "You're from the Holy Land," Lacen guessed. "Are you a religious man?"
The man nodded. "Then why are you discriminating?" asked Lacen, opening his wallet. "See? I have money. Why won't you take me?" The driver thought about it for a moment. "Come," he said. "I'll take you."
It's now August, months later. And yet the normally easygoing Lacen still gets ticked off discussing that night. There have been plenty of other nights when cabs wouldn't pick him up, he says, but this time was the worst -- he worked Jazz Fest the next morning, but was barely able to walk, even with the help of a cane.
"Something has to be done about these cabs," says Lacen, shaking his head.
Lacen's story is not uncommon. "Cab drivers are often what we call 'selective,'" explains Jim Szekely, head of the Canton, Ohio-based International Taxi Drivers Safety Council. "It's typical. Middle-aged women of color don't get picked up because drivers are afraid that they might live in bad neighborhoods. Locals can't get a ride to the grocery store because the driver would rather wait for a lucrative airport run. It's a serious problem in a lot of cities."
Which means that, on any given day, in nearly any city in the United States, a resident is standing on a street trying to flag down a cab and feeling just as invisible as Tuba Fats felt that night.
Artists with long or green hair and laborers in their work clothes find themselves passed by, but as a rule, it's black residents who are most ignored. Songs like Lenny Kravitz's "Mr. Cab Driver" demonstrate how poor treatment by cabbies has become an acknowledged part of being black in an American city. In November 1999, the issue made national headlines after actor Danny Glover was treated badly by a New York City driver.
If the situation is bad in other cities, it may be even worse in New Orleans. The city has a black eye even among those in the industry, contends Szekely: "A lot of regulators say, 'Oh, we know about New Orleans.'"
Pearl Rollins hasn't had a lot of bad experience with cabs. Most of the time she takes the bus. But on Feb. 28, she was leaving Harrah's Casino and felt like splurging. "I happened to win," she says, "and I wanted to catch a cab home. I didn't want to carry that money on the bus." She walked outside the casino, where -- parked on a little side street -- sat Rollins Cab number 1290, a yellow minivan driven by Monique Billy.
Rollins tried to hail Billy, who drove by her, saying that she had another fare. But then, says Rollins, Billy "took the bend and I saw these three white men flag her down like I had tried to flag her down."
Rollins was not cab-less for long. A United Cab soon stopped for her, and the driver of that car drove up next to Billy's cab so Rollins could jot down the minivan's number. She used that number to file a complaint with the city's Taxicab Bureau.
And so, just after 5 p.m. on April 12, Administrative Hearing Officer Clarence Roby heard Pearl Rollins' testimony at one of the Taxicab Bureau's evening hearings, held most Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5 p.m. in the Bureau's offices -- City Hall Room 2W87.
Roby, a local attorney, is the person contracted by the city of New Orleans to administer the evening public hearings on behalf of the Taxicab Bureau. He generally gets high marks from hearing participants who call him eloquent, witty and fair. Some complainants note that he's black, so might be able to better understand how it feels to be ignored by a cab.
But not many average citizens even know about the hearings, much less about the results, which are not posted in any public location. Several hearing participants had complained to the cab company itself, with no results, before calling City Hall. In the average taxi on the street, the Bureau's phone number can only be found amid a gray-looking sheet full of rate information. And there is no complaints phone number posted at cab stands or on cab receipts.
During a typical month of evening hearings, a handful of drivers face complaints from citizens about overcharges and poor conduct. The remaining few dozen drivers have been called in to address bureau business, such as red flags on criminal record checks, drug checks or proof of insurance. No matter what's on Roby's docket, each night begins the same way: drivers and complainants arrive, sign in, and then wait in the small lobby and the adjoining hallway until their names are called.
For the April 12 hearing, Pearl Rollins and Monique Billy are the first people called. Rollins, dressed in her custodian outfit, has come straight from New Orleans Public Schools, where she works. After being sworn in, she tells her story, making a special effort to say that she's a mother, too, and doesn't want to harm Billy's family by causing Billy to lose her job.
Billy, who has been driving a cab here since 1993, makes no such allowances for Rollins. In fact, she contends, she has never seen Rollins before in her life. Rollins looks straight at Clarence Roby. "This is the lady that refused me," she insists. "I never forget a face."
Roby also recognizes Billy. She's been called into Bureau hearings before, most recently in January of this year (she was fined $50 for not waiting her turn at a cab stand) and in March of 2000 (her driving privileges were suspended for 90 days for refusal to carry passengers).
Billy, as a repeat offender, seems to particularly try Roby's patience. "I'm so tired of patrons at Harrah's telling me that drivers are picking and choosing who they pick up," Roby says wearily. He turns to address the driver in front of him: "Ms. Billy, you really make my job difficult at times. I've tried to give you the benefit of a doubt. I've suspended you in the past ..."
"Can I have a chance to tell you something?" asks Billy. "You're talking, I'm trying to understand what you are saying. During Mardi Gras, there are 200 people in the street; everybody with their hand up: 'I need cab; I need cab.' You could have 200 complaints."
"Is that what happened on the 28th of February?" asked Roby. Rollins shaking her head, jumps in. It definitely was not Mardi Gras.
Roby holds up his hands and stops the discussion. He tells Billy that he's going to give her five days off and that he wants her to provide trip sheets so that he can see if she's actually documenting each fare as the Bureau requires. "Ms. Billy, I'm going to get your attention eventually," says Roby, assessing a fine of $100.
"Where am I going to get that money from?" asks Billy. "I'm not supposed to work and still I have to pay $100."
"If you need time to pay your fine, they'll give you time," says Roby, firmly. The case is -- very clearly -- closed. Rollins and Billy leave the room and the next case is called, a limousine driver who tested positive for marijuana in his routine Bureau drug test.
As local cabdrivers see it, if you want to find a working person who really has something to complain about, just look behind the steering wheel of a New Orleans taxi.
The same locals who gripe are the people who think it's okay to call a cab and then leave the house before a car arrives. They're jones-ing addicts who ask the cab to wait as they conduct an obvious drug deal. Worst of all, they're thugs who hail a cab with one clear destination in mind: that cabby's wallet.
About three years ago, United Cab driver Russ Ross had a bad street hail. "A crackhead," he says, "looking to stick up a cab driver." Luckily, Ross explains, the plan was foiled as soon as Ross looked in his rearview mirror and recognized his passenger. They had known each other decades ago when Ross was working a stint in his uncle's drug store in the Seventh Ward. His passenger's family had been his customers.
After they'd talked for awhile, the guy admitted to Ross that he had hailed a cab with definite plans to hold up its driver. "Well you can't rob me," Ross said to him, "because I saw you growing up."
That was the closest Ross has ever gotten to being robbed. He's says that he picks up "pretty much anybody and everybody," but that he does make a few exceptions: anyone who's extremely intoxicated and anyone who's shoeless, filthy, or wearing certain gangster accessories.
Russ Ross has been driving for United Cab for five years. But 15 years ago, he wouldn't have been driving for them at all. Until about 12 years ago, the only people behind the wheel of United cabs were white middle-aged men.
"Absolutely true, without a doubt," confirms United President William Kerner III. "But now we're really the rainbow coalition. We have a lot of black drivers who drive United -- I'd say 30 to 40 percent -- and we have Arabs and all in our organization."
United Cab, with 400-some cabs in its fleet, is the largest of the 28 cab lines licensed in New Orleans. New Orleans controls the number of cabs by issuing what are known as Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNC) numbers. The total number of New Orleans CPNC numbers devoted to cabs -- 1,600 -- has stayed virtually the same since the 1960s or so. So new people who want to enter the cab business must either rent, lease, or buy a CPNC number from an existing owner.
Purchasing a CPNC is not a small investment. In the mid-1980s, CPNCs were reportedly going for $5,000; one recently sold for $42,000.
None of the drivers quoted in this story own a CPNC number, nor do many of the other 2,800 drivers on the streets of New Orleans. Depending on their agreement with their cab company, some of them pay more than $300 weekly to lease or rent a CPNC-licensed car and to cover things like liability insurance, dispatch services, a radio, meter, and maintenance.
Drivers can bring home good money. If they work really hard, they can take in $200 on a normal day, and $350 during boom times like Jazz Fest. But those weekly payments hang over their heads all year long. As a result, during the sticky summer months when business is slow, every carful of tourists on an expense account and every $24 airport run can seem so essential that cab drivers have come to blows over them.
Among cab drivers, it's no secret that certain cabs won't go to certain neighborhoods. Most drivers won't speak about it on the record, but veteran United Cab driver Richard Farley is candid about how he works. Farley -- who recently turned in his cab in preparation for a move out of town -- says that, six years ago, he was trained in by an older black United Cab driver who told him, "If you don't like the way somebody looks, pass 'em up."
Farley says that -- whether picking people up at their home or stopping for them on the street -- he learned to slow down. "I go by what I see in somebody's eyes," he says. "If I don't like what I see, I leave. Because you know those little hairs on the back of your neck, the little voice in your head? Nine times out of 10, they're right."
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), cab driving is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In fact, cabbies are 60 times more likely than other workers to be murdered on the job. Taxi-l.org, a Web site that tracks issues related to cab driving, calculates that U.S. and Canadian taxi drivers are currently being killed at the rate of one a week.
Taxi drivers also have one of the highest rates of nonfatal assault -- 183.8 per 1,000 -- surpassed only by police and private security guards. Some municipalities keep their own sets of local statistics; the New Orleans Taxicab Bureau does not yet compile such data. But in July, New Orleans drivers were again reminded of the grim realities of their job after Roderick Williams, a White Fleet driver, was shot and killed while going to pick up a fare near the St. Bernard housing project.
City law doesn't address tricky passenger situations. In fact, New Orleans City Code Chapter 162, which governs cab drivers and other drivers-for-hire, makes absolutely no exceptions within the New Orleans area. "No operator of any taxicab," it reads, "shall refuse to take any passenger to a destination within ten miles outside the city limits or to a municipal airport."
Most drivers say they shouldn't even have to defend decisions not to serve certain people. Their answers can be blunt. "I don't like riding across the river (to the West Bank) for anyone," says one longtime driver, "but I for sure won't ride any niggers that way. Too many bad things have happened there."
Drivers point to the death of Roderick Williams as a reinforcement for why they refuse all fares to housing projects. Some cabbies, like Farley, would take people to the edge of the projects, but he wouldn't pick up there. "And I won't," he emphasizes, "drive inside. It's a long drive out when you have a gigantic lit-up sign on top that screams, 'I have money in my pocket.'"
But United Cab's Russ Ross can relate to riders ignored by cab drivers. Because once Ross steps out of his car, he joins their ranks. "Here I am, a cab driver," he says, "but it can be extremely hard for me to catch a cab simply because of my hair -- dreadlocks -- and my skin color. The average tourist could catch 20 cabs on Canal Street before I could catch two in the same location."
Driver Richard Farley says cab drivers would be fools not to be cautious. He says that his experiences on one night -- Aug. 14, 1997 -- can explain that caution better than anything else. In fact, he says, he still has nightmares. The evening was hot -- typical August -- and Farley had stopped at a Decatur Street bar to pick up a fare. The two of them were talking, so it didn't seem long before Farley's cab reached the stoplight at St. Andrew and Magazine streets.
Once there, Farley noticed something unnerving. "I saw a Yellow-Checker Cab with its driver's door open, and something sticking out." Farley grabbed the big spotlight he kept plugged into his cigarette lighter -- indispensable for finding addresses at night -- and aimed it at the cab. He saw that the car's driver had fallen halfway out of the car, with his head on the ground turned sideways away from Farley. Adrenaline hit: "I called dispatch immediately. I screamed 10-8, which is the code for an emergency. I told them to call Yellow-Checker."
Farley looked around. No one looking out the windows of the houses, no one standing on the street. He ran across the street to check on the driver, and his heart sank. "He was totally drenched in his own blood, all except a small area on his back. I heard later that his throat had been slit by someone who robbed him of something like twelve dollars."
Farley realized the driver, a man in his early 60s, was still alive. "He moved his eyes and looked at me," says Farley, "and I said, 'Stay with me, they're coming. Stay with me. Stay with me.'"
Typically, say drivers, your colleagues are the first on the scene. Sure enough, Farley says, Yellow-Checker drivers reached the intersection within minutes. Then came the cops, and then the EMTs. One took a pulse and shook his head at the cops. The driver was identified as Joe Johnson, who'd been driving cabs off and on for 30 years in town.
Farley couldn't take it. "I started bawling. I felt bad -- I'm a cab driver; he's a cab driver. But I couldn't do anything to save him."
Jim Szekely had an eerily similar experience. "I'm a survivor," he admits, explaining that, back in January 1984, while driving for Yellow Cab in Tampa, an assailant came after him with a knife: "He cut my throat and got me twice in the back; by that time I got turned around in the seat and we started fighting."
After a long stay in the hospital, Szekely emerged determined to fight for safer conditions in cabs. He has for more than a decade been the self-admittedly long-winded and zealous director of the International Taxi Drivers Safety Council, which advocates for organized drivers and for cab safety.
Szekely says that despite his near-death experience, he believes that cabs must serve everyone. Anything less, he says, is inexcusable: "If a hotel worker in New Orleans can't get a ride home, then the cab driver isn't fulfilling his obligation under his city permit." And yet, Szekely says, he vividly recalls how some fares made him feel so uncomfortable, "it's like a thousand-pound weight lifted off your chest when they get out of your cab."
In his opinion, it's all linked together. If cabbies don't feel safe enough in their cabs, they will always refuse too many loads.
Last year, there was national acknowledgment of the need to protect taxi drivers. In May, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman stated that violence against taxi drivers bordered on "epidemic." She then released a list of 10 safety measures recommended by her agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The list included bulletproof shields, automatic cameras, cashless transactions, silent alarms, and global positioning systems that track each cab's location on a computer screen.
Nearly all large cities have already mandated one or more of these devices. New Orleans drivers shouldn't be left out, argues Szekely. "Safety equipment should be installed into every cab so that drivers can do their job, their chosen profession. Which is picking up hitchhikers for a living, total strangers, taking them anywhere they want to go, 24/7. That's what a cab driver does."
Szekely advocates all safety devices, particularly shields and cameras. He notes that, after a cabby murder in 1995 and then again after a 1997 rash of five cab-driver murders, Mayor Marc Morial advocated bulletproof shields in every cab. Research conducted by the Safety Council shows that 86 percent of assaults and robberies occur from the back seat, and cities that have mandated safety shields have seen marked results: Boston and New York both had 70 percent drops in assaults; Baltimore saw a 56 percent dip.
Shields are the most tried-and-tried way of limiting assaults, but most cab drivers -- and passengers -- don't like them. They limit driver-passenger conversation, and thus a driver's tips. They cut into a passenger's leg room. And they block the flow of air conditioning to the back seat.
In the past several years, automatic digital cameras have made big strides. They received a burst of national publicity in May 1999, after a kid robbed a Yellow Cab driver at gunpoint in Houston. Images of the hold-up -- captured by the taxi's camera -- were broadcast on the local news, and his mom ended up turning him in.
The most popular cameras are about the size of a pack of cigarettes and are mounted above each cab's rearview mirror. A sign on the rear window warns each passengers that their pictures will be taken as soon as they enter the cab. A Houston cab company with more than 1,400 cabs saw crimes against drivers drop by nearly 60 percent after it installed cameras in 1999. Washington, D.C. and several other cities now require that drivers install either cameras or shields.
Brian Cain, deputy director of the New Orleans Department of Utilities, which oversees the Taxicab Bureau, says he's well-versed in the pros and cons of safety devices, but he sees no mandates in the offing. "The city has considered mandates for cameras and for partitions. But it's sort of a democracy, and normally when there are going to be sweeping changes in the industry, we go to the industry to get input. Because it's not the city driving the cab."
But would taxicab owners ever voluntarily install safety devices? Edward Rogoff, a professor of management at Baruch College in New York City, has been studying the cab industry for 25 years. He laughs out loud at the idea. "Cab owners don't have much incentive to provide these devices," he argues, "because there's an ample supply of drivers who are willing to take the risk of driving a cab."
Rogoff emphasizes that the cost should fall upon the person with the CPNC number. "Basically, the question that I think the city should ask is, 'Here are these licenses that are worth $42,000. Isn't it reasonable to require people who own these licenses to invest in a $600 camera or other security systems for the drivers?'"
Rogoff warns that CPNC holders will also be the people with the most muscle in City Hall. Drivers fear that this means they will be picking up the tab for any city-mandated safety devices. Besides, they add, mandates have very little chance of making it into City Code, because cab owners are such political insiders.
United Cab President William Kerner disagrees. He says that they're hardly the only business that makes contributions to city officials. And he decries speculation that United would stand in the way of any mandates. "That's baloney. I'd like the cameras. I'm for any way to protect the drivers and so is the whole board at United."
Any smart cab company should be for safety devices, says Jim Szekely. There have been numerous lawsuits filed across the country by injured drivers and cabby widows, he says. "Every one of them, without exception, has been settled out of court -- cab companies don't want the issue to get in front of a judge."
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are also keeping an eye on the situation in New Orleans. If the Taxicab Bureau doesn't do a better job of getting cabs to pick up locals, they could also face legal action. "The courts are a last resort," says ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Joe Cook. "But if the city is aware of the problem and hasn't done anything about it, it then becomes a shameful neglect of public duty."
Rogoff suggests safety devices and closer regulation may be only part of the answer. The City Council, he says, might want to consider issuing more licenses in order to serve the entire city. "If drivers don't want to serve the housing projects, or if they don't want to serve certain neighborhoods, say 'Okay, fine.' Take (unlicensed) gypsy drivers who are currently serving these areas and legitimize and license them. All of a sudden, you'll see that the industry will want to serve those areas. They'll say, 'Oh man, now they're serving the projects, but pretty soon they'll be at the airport, taking our fares away from us.'"
Above all, say Rogoff, the city should not back down from its requirement that everyone deserves a ride. "It's the standard that the city should set. Drivers have a license to serve the whole city. And they should stop for anybody who hails them who's not obviously drunk, who is not leading an elephant in tow, or who has any other obvious reason to not be allowed into the cab. That's the deal."
For his part, Szekely says that the good and decent cab drivers in town will appreciate more strict regulation, as long as it's fair and without favoritism. Regulation, when done correctly, protects cab riders and drivers alike. And in the long run, adds Szekely, it also protects the honor of his profession: "I think that being a cab driver is a special calling, like being a cop or a nurse. You're a cab driver, but you're also other things -- you're a social worker, you're helping people with their problems, you're listening to what they have to say and giving them advice."
"I don't think that everyone has the heart to be a cabby," says Szekely. "That may sound melodramatic, but I think it's true. And a rogue cab driver -- who takes the customer out of his way, cusses at him, or drives by him on the street -- he, or she, can ruin it for everyone."
Loren Burt thinks that more than a few drivers are giving the taxicab industry a bad name. He hails cabs on a regular basis. He says it isn't easy.
Burt is an audio-visual technician for many of the major shows and conventions that visit New Orleans. Yet when the shows have wrapped for the day, Burt will often be unable to get a ride outside the convention hotel or alongside the Convention Center itself.
"After a seven-day show of 12-hour days, with my suit and briefcase and everything, almost no one will stop to pick me up. I can call for a cab and they'll drive right by me and pick up a white person."
If he tries to flag a car from a hotel cab stand, drivers are armed with a litany of reasons not to give him a ride. "They tell me that they don't go to that area of the city. They say, 'I'm getting off work,' and then I watch them go right up the street and pick up somebody else. Another thing they tell you is 'I'm waiting for a fare' and then they sit there empty 15 or 20 minutes."
On Dec. 17 last year, a doorman at the Hyatt whistled for the light blue and white Crescent City Cab driven by Wafik Hichem, and Burt got in. But, Burt says, Hichem would not take him all the way to his house on Derbigny Street. Instead, he insisted on dropping him off a few blocks away, at the gas station at Esplanade and Claiborne. Burt filed a complaint.
And so, on March 15, Burt and Hichem find themselves seated across a small table from Clarence Roby. Burt tells his story. Hichem responds, saying that the doorman told him that Burt was going to Esplanade and Claiborne. Roby looks Hichem in the eye. "When you have a fare, you take them to the address they request."
He stops to note that this incident is part of a larger picture. "There are certain parts of the city," he says, "where cab drivers just will not go." He fines Hichem $50, puts him on a 45-day probation, and asks him, right then and there, to refund his passenger the amount of the cab ride.
Burt thinks that Hichem got off easy. At one point, he says, he seriously considered suing the cab driver and his company. Not for money, which he says he would have given to charity. But to make a point.
"A lot of black young men will tell you -- cab drivers treat them bad," he says. "I think it has gotten to be the norm."