Cabriolet

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto argues that New York City is, for all it’s rough-and-tumble ways, a very conservative old Dutch city. Conservative, that is, in the sense of slow to change.

The example that I love is the cabbie, the guy with the hack license: stereotypically, he’s a gruff old Irishman with a cigar and an attitude. The attitude is not hostile, exactly, in my stereotype, but blunt and commercial above all else. And it is distinctively New York.

An example, a real one, from a diner waitress in a NYC suburb should serve to illustrate the point: A colleague of mine from the west coast was visiting and we were going out to dinner together. I suggested a nearby diner, since they’re a reliable standard choice. But my colleague was concerned because he’s a vegan; would they have something for him? I laughed, thinking of the 30 page menu; eating at a diner means that everyone can find something to eat.

So we go to diner and the waitress comes over to take our order. Nice funny lady, older, has worked there since it opened thirty years ago we find out later. But gruff in that NYC cabbie kind of way; she’s a battle-axe who’s had to deal with drunks and deadbeats and consultants and worse. So my friend starts to explain that he’s not sure what to order because he’s a vegan which means that he doesn’t eat any kind of animal products and are there items on the menu for him, blah blah blah. She glares at him, cuts him off and says, I swear to God, “Look, I write down what you want here [showing him her order pad], take it back to the kitchen, and they cook it. Just tell me what you want.” In other words, “shut up San Francisco!”

What’s interesting to me about this attitude, exemplified by that waitress and in the cabbie stereotype, is that it’s Dutch. Greeks, undoubtedly, run that diner, and who knows where the waitress’s ancestors are from. Irishmen used to drive cabs, but they don’t anymore. But it doesn’t matter; the Sikh cabdriver today has the same attitude, the same gruff, blunt, commercial stance that is characteristically New York and which The Island at the Center of the World identifies as Dutch. (Anyone who’s been the Netherlands can confirm that the Dutch tend to be, um, straightforward.) They’ve all inherited this stance from the Dutch. They don’t care if you’re a vegan, although they’re not going to burn you at the stake if you are. It’s an efficient, tolerant stance, egalitarian to an extreme. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

But not unaware. For example, people think that driving in NYC is a terror, a horrifying chaos of anarchy. This is not true. The rules are different, and NYC is different, than the rest of the country, but traffic in the city is very structured and efficient.

Which brings us back to taxicabs and hack licenses.

According to Wikipedia, Harry Allen imported the first taxicabs from France to New York. He coined the word as a contraction of “taximeter” and “cab”:

Taximeter, via French and German, is a combination word: taxi from medieval Latin “taxa” (to tax or charge) and meter from the Greek “metron” (to measure).

Cab is a contraction of “cabriolet”, a type of horse-drawn carriage with an open top. Our use of it is specific to a type: the “Hansom cab” which puts the driver in a high seat behind the passengers. This Hansom cab “replaced the older, heavier hackney carriage [as] the vehicle for hire of choice in Paris and London,” according to Wikipedia.

And hack, just to illustrate how conservative NYC cabbies really are, is derived from that older hackney carriage.