We the Ambassadors

By  |  March 22, 2017
“The Girl with the Yellow Tractor” (1999) by Alexis Vasilikos “The Girl with the Yellow Tractor” (1999) by Alexis Vasilikos

In front of the Superdome sits a black hearse carrying an empty coffin. A stout woman in a mourning dress, hat, and veil smiles broadly next to the open passenger door as another woman snaps her picture and people convene to laugh. WE SHALL NOT REST IN PEACE MAYOR MITCH reads the sign taped to the hearse’s window. Behind the hearse, a line of at least one hundred taxicabs, in every shape and size, runs down Poydras Avenue: black and white minivans, yellow station wagons, red Suburbans, brown sedans. The crowd gathered near the Superdome is also strikingly diverse, if largely male; their stretch of 500 feet likely contains a broader range of nationalities than any other swath of the city. Skullcaps and baseball caps, arguments and jokes in various tongues—for one overcast morning, the Superdome sidewalk looks more like Queens than the Big Easy. In a city forever debating the relationship between blacks and whites, the taxi industry offers a complex palette.

Today, October 25, 2012, we wait for what the cab drivers are calling a “motorcade,” their rolling protest against new regulations proposed by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and approved by the City Council in April. By January 1, every taxi must be equipped with a surveillance camera, credit card machine, and GPS unit. No car older than ten years—seven, by the end of 2013—will be granted a renewed certificate of public necessity and convenience, or CPNC, required for cab drivers. All drivers will be subjected to background checks, and new procedures will standardize the processes of inspection and renewal, and the maintenance of trip logs. 

One driver approaches me with a box of Mardi Gras beads he’s selling to raise money for the family of a fallen comrade, a cabbie who was fatally stabbed a few weeks back. The motorcade protesters have adopted the man as their collective symbol, hence the coffin and hearse; although publically celebrated as the city’s “most important ambassadors” by Taxicab Bureau chief Malachi Hull, the drivers feel victimized by the city. Standing on a Superdome entrance ramp, protest organizer Monroe Coleman, in an outback hat, sunglasses, and a red golf shirt emblazoned with the logo of his Coleman Cab company, appeals to the crowd for donations to cover the $2,400 permit fee for another motorcade in November. 

“The permit is going to cost us more money because it’s Saturday and we’re going to have more cabs in the motorcade. Now, are we in agreement that we’re going to continue this effort until the city comes to the bargaining table?” After the crowd roars its approval, Coleman outlines the day’s route and the motivation for the protest. “The theme of this motorcade is the wrongful death of the taxicab driver. The administration is killing us slowly but surely.” He denounces the background checks that penalize longtime drivers for youthful infractions. “We are not going to stand by and let [the mayor] take the liberty from each of us. He will shoot you down, one by one! They trying to get the independents out of this cab business. So are we together or not?”

“Are we together?”

Other drivers complain about the short timeline for implementing the reforms, and the city’s perceived hypocrisy. The Landrieu Administration wants the cabs upgraded in time for the next Super Bowl, set for February 3, in New Orleans, yet drivers argue that the city isn’t doing enough to help them comply. The purportedly business-friendly reforms weren’t accompanied by training programs to ensure that cabbies get their paperwork in order—to teach them, for example, how to set aside money to pay taxes and how to register for and renew permits—and properly account for the new credit card machines. The administration, Coleman says, ignores the small businessmen who keep the city moving.

A little before 11:00 a.m., six pallbearers take the casket out of the hearse, and the motorcade, led by two motorcycle cops, begins to move down Poydras to the corner of Loyola Avenue. I ride shotgun in Coleman’s Escalade, driven by his longtime accountant, Dina, while Coleman walks with the pallbearers. On our left we pass City Hall, where Mayor Landrieu has begun a press conference to mark the one-hundred-day countdown to the Super Bowl. Surrounded by his deputy mayors, Landrieu declares the city “well on our way to being one hundred percent ready,” with all planned projects on schedule. “The idea is to make sure that New Orleans shines its brightest light at this particular time when we are on the world’s stage,” he explains to reporters. “The idea is, from the moment a tourist steps into the city of New Orleans, or a customer from anywhere … that they have a wonderful experience. When they come in on the plane, they walk onto a concourse that is newly renovated. … They get into a cab that is clean and safe.”

He lists the improvements to the Superdome, the reopened Hyatt, and the expected $400 million increase in revenue for the state and city as contributions to “one of the greatest stories of resurrection and redemption.” He says New Orleans is now “the coolest hotspot in America.” Taking their turns at the podium, Landrieu’s deputies assure the media that new construction at the airport, in the French Quarter, and along the new streetcar line will be completed in time for the big game. The deputy mayor for operations, Michelle Thomas, describes “sweeping taxicab reforms,” to “give our residents and our guests the type of ground transportation experience that they deserve and that one would expect from a world-class tourism city.”

Dina navigates through the streetcar construction at Loyola and Poydras, where a man helms a large saw that whines fiercely into the concrete. Behind us, hundreds of car horns squawk as we creep through the Central Business District, past office workers on early lunch breaks, puzzled tourists, and two boys on bicycles. I wonder about the situation at the airport, and Dina tells me that during last week’s protest, the company received 170 calls in two hours from people desperate for a cab.

When the motorcade reaches I-10 near the Morial Convention Center, the police make a U-turn and lead us back toward the French Quarter. On the way, Dina picks up Coleman, who’s waiting in the median, which in New Orleans is known as the neutral ground. He asks me to hand him his beads, which are black and gold. I dig through the boxes and boxes of colored beads on the back seat of the Escalade until I find them, then I pass them to Coleman, who stands up through the open sunroof, so that all I can see are his black pants and “C” belt buckle, and starts tossing beads to pedestrians like a carnival-float veteran. 

We stop in front of the Canal Place mall, at the corner of North Peters, and a motorcycle cop approaches and tells us, “Y’all keep stopping and we’re going to cut it off. Supposed to be 150 cars out here, there’s 500. You’re killing us.” But we continue into the Quarter, where no one tries to hail a taxi. Outside the Best Western across from Armstrong Park, tourists wait to board a shuttle while more tourists ride by in a lavender horse-drawn carriage. Turning onto Canal from Rampart Street, we run into more streetcar construction—stacks of rail lines, giant drills, dust-caked utility tracks, and piles of copper piping. 

When we reach North Claiborne Avenue, Coleman says from the sunroof, “They still got cabs on Elysian Fields,” two miles away. Another cop approaches the Escalade to speak to Coleman, and I hear him say, “Not my decision, I’m just a soldier.” He says the call came down from the police chief: The protest is too large and must return to the Dome. “We really need cameras now,” Dina says. “We paid for a route and they cut it.”

A week later, I ride with Coleman as he drives a fare out to the suburbs. From Broad Street to the interstate and back to the Central Business District, he expounds on the bureaucratic high-handedness that fuels the protests. “You’re teaching people to be angry at you,” he says of the administration. “You’re teaching people to talk about you like the dogs that you are. You doggin’ me, so I’m gonna dog you to the people coming in for business. We the ambassadors. If I’m telling people, ‘The city’s a dog, don’t come here, don’t do business with them,’ who do you think they’re going to believe? You know taxicab drivers know. We the first and the last."

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Brian Boyles is the creative director of the People Say Project. He is currently working on a book about New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII.

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