‘Taxi Driver Wisdom’ author talks lost cabbie conversations

Cabbies have offered Risa Mickenberg guidance in more ways than one.

Darting around Manhattan for advertising meetings in the early 1990s, Mickenberg’s taxi rides often revolved around 10 or 15 minutes of philosophical banter with her driver.

“I would have incredible conversations with these people from other places with vast amount of experience doing this job where they’re driving around thinking all day,” Mickenberg said. “And they would say something and I would think, ‘Oh my god, I have to write that down.’ ”

Those notes became “Taxi Driver Wisdom,” from Chronicle Books, a collection of one-liners — insights on love, pleasure, fate and other topics that drivers expounded on from over their shoulders to Mickenberg in the back seat. The book became a bestseller when it was released in 1996 and was reissued this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Mickenberg, a West Village writer, credits the book’s success to its ability to capture a quintessential commuter experience at the time: chatting with the front-seat philosophers in their yellow Chevy Caprices.

“Back then it was a completely normal thing to have a conversation with your cabdriver,” she said. “Everybody had great conversations with them and everybody had a story of something great their cabdriver told them. It was really this universal experience.”

The small black and yellow gift book features quotes from a driver in large font and an accompanying black and white photo of the 90s New York streetscape. It was conceived to be a prayer book for New Yorkers, of sorts. Mickenberg’s rejected titled was “Jean Paul Sartre Was A Haitian Cab Driver.”

Mickenberg enlisted her friend and photographer Joanne Dugan for art and Brian Lee Hughes to design the book. Chronicle nibbled. The title whittled down from Mickenberg’s original, to “Taxi Driver Philosophy,” until the parties settled on “Taxi Driver Wisdom.” And they had their hit.

The success empowered Mickenberg to leave her advertising job. She traded in taxi trips for a bike and became an advocate for safe streets, taking part in critical mass rides and eventually became a member of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives.

The book’s anniversary gave Mickenberg an excuse to try her hand at hailing once more — this time in a much different taxi landscape. Twenty years after the book’s original release, New York City’s taxi industry has been upended by the proliferation of e-hail app companies like Uber and Lyft. Consider there were 38,791 cars making app-based trips compared to 13,587 yellow and 7,159 green cars on city streets in 2015.

Mickenberg, now a Citi Bike devotee, said these shifts in the industry, as well as other taxi features, discourage the accidentally profound conversations she once had with drivers.

“It’s a little harder when everyone has cellphones and they have bullet-[resistant] shields in every single cab. They didn’t have when I started the book and they didn’t have those TVs and all the other stuff, like the celebrity voices and all these things that made it harder and harder to have a conversation,” she said. “It’s not the same thing.

“It’s a little harder to start conversations but I can still do them,” she added. “Sometimes you have to get into the front seat instead. It’s definitely a surprise to the drivers.”


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