It's been fifteen years since the last Checker cab operated in New York City, and I think the joke has gone on long enough. I don't care how it's going to be done, but the Checker cab should come back in service.
The Checker Cab itself is a bit of a myth. It refers to a New York City that never was. NYC's streets have always been run by cars other than the Checker. In the '80s and '90s, Caprices clogged the avenues, and mainstream big American land yachts have ruled the streets of NYC pretty much since we gave up on electric taxis a hundred years ago.
Watch any old movie set in NYC and you'll see full-size Plymouths and Chevys and Fords and whatever else was big, cheap, and common at the time.
That's how it is now, with Crown Vics and Camrys everywhere, and that's how it has always been.
But that is the New York City that's experienced by people who live in New York City. It isn't the New York that exists in the minds of everyone else on the planet.
This is the New York of the imagined past, a grimy shithole where things happen, even if those things are the girl you met at a diner kills herself and you get blamed for everything and your head shaved and chased through a trash-strewn SoHo by a mob and an ice cream truck all because you lost all your money when it flew out the window when you getting a ride by a crazy guy driving your cab cab. Yes, a Checker cab.
It is the taxi of the dreamed-of important New York.
The Checker cab (officially the Checker Marathon) was a crude old car even when it was brand new. Built by an independent manufacturer from Kalamazoo, Michigan, the cars had a lot of room and not much else. It was so big in the back there was room for an extra set of foldaway seats.
The Marathon taxis were phased out through the '90s. The company had stopped making them in '82 and the last one served its final fare in the summer of 1999. The Checker was just too dirty, too noisy, too clunky to survive in the increasingly clean, modern New York.
Modern plans for a Taxi of Tomorrow are much more tenderhearted. The Nissan van that the Taxi and Limousine Commission has been pushing on the city for years now is a very fine vehicle. I've ridden in the back and it's spacious, comfortable, and there are even USB ports for you. It is eminently fuel-efficient and practical.
But at the heart of the issue is a question about New York as a whole. I'll quote a section of the 1980 essay Within The Context Of No Context and you'll see what I mean.
The New York Times Book Review published an interview with a woman whose novel had been given the place of honor in the Book Review that week. Her novel, according to the Times, traced a woman called Vida through her years in the Movement. Of the Movement, the author of the novel remembered this:
"I remember walking around with the other organizers and fantasizing about what we would do after the revolution with all the buildings, what human uses they could be put to. What marvelous daycare centers and hospices they would become."
This woman was talking about New York City. Her idea had been that the revolution would bring better parks to New York, and beautiful places to live, and day-care centers, and hospices. Her idea was that New York should be human. Now, this is simply a mistake. New York is an inhuman machine put together to serve the most ambitious interests of a certain part of American secular society. It has human aspects, because human needs must be met before ambitions can proceed toward realization, but the fulfillment of those human needs is an uninteresting precondition of the life of the ambitions. In human terms, there is no reason to live in New York, and if New York were to become a city in which day-care centers and hospices were the dominant institutions it would soon be depopulated.
And that's the crux of it right there. New York has spent the past fifteen years trying to fill the void of the Checker with something nice and clean and human and it just hasn't worked.
Brand-new videos, short films, and movies keep coming out with Checker cabs rumbling around imagined NYC streets. Tourists and locals point and gawk when a Checker drives by. You still see them around, like I did at this taxi depot on the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge a few years back.
There is no good reason why this Checker shouldn't be operating today.
Look, I don't know how New York City would get Checkers back on the road. I'm sure you could convince the T&LC to make it happen by cramming some hybrid whatever under the hood instead of a wheezy old V8. London gets away with building a modern lookalike of their classic cab and the world loves it. We could do whatever they've done. We could promise to refurbish old Checkers (or manufacture new ons) in Brooklyn. Or just stuff a huge wad of cash in some bureaucrat's face. Or whatever Nissan did to keep their never-ending court cases going in their favor.
There's no point in fighting it anymore. It's time NYC gave up and went back to the Checker.
Photo Credits: the Associated Press (one of the last five Checker cabs in NYC history, shot in '82), Shutterstock (apple), IMCDB (North By Northwest and Taxi Driver), Nissan (Taxi of Tomorrow), Raphael Orlove (Queens cabs)