By Jon Cronin
Six cabbie suicides in almost as many months have left the taxi-driver community shaken.
Abdul Saleh, 59, of Brooklyn, was the most recent taxi driver to take his own life. Similar to his desperate brethren, his hails had become too seldom and his overdue bills too high. Saleh was discovered by a roommate after he hanged himself with an electrical cord on June 15.
Prior to Saleh, two Queens hacks took their lives and left families behind. Maspeth’s Nicanor Ochisor, a Romanian immigrant, was the first in Queens to commit suicide. He was discovered by family members after he hanged himself in his garage on March 16. Ochisor and his wife drove a yellow cab together in 12-hour shifts and still couldn’t make ends meet. Friends and family members started a GoFundMe account to help his wife.
Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow was the second cab driver to commit suicide in Queens. He was last seen on May 11. His cab was found in Manhattan about a block from the East River. Eleven days later, his body was identified after washing up under the Brooklyn Bridge. His family started a GoFundMe account to help his wife, who is fighting stage-four cancer.
John, 49, a cab driver and Queens resident who didn’t want to give his last name, is a close friend of Chow’s brother, Richard, who is also a yellow cab driver. John said that Chow had $580,000 left on his medallion mortgage and had to clear $5,000 a month just to cover its cost.
“[We’re] not even talking about house payments,” John said. “You have to make $10,000 a month just to survive. It put tremendous pressure on him. In this industry, any yellow cab driver is like a brother to me. We will be making less and less money. There are people dying left and right. Where is the industry heading? I thought I owned a piece of New York City. Now my dreams are being taken away. Things are not looking good for us.”
In the past 10 years, the medallion—which allows cabs painted canary yellow to legally pick up passengers—rocketed to a value of more than $1 million apiece. It became an untenable situation for private owners to take out a mortgage on it at such a high price. With the debut of driving apps, such as Uber and Lyft, in 2010, the price of the medallion began to crash, and so did the dreams of its owners.
A 25-year veteran yellow-cab driver, Wain Chin, a native of Burma, is contending with these high costs. He was also a friend of Chow.
“We would see each other almost every day in the airports or at lunch,” Chin said. “I knew him for six or seven years. It was very sad to see him go that way. He looked stressed. His wife had cancer. There are too many bills to pay, with the mortgage and rent. Before, you would work nine or 10 hours, and then go home. Now, it’s over 13 hours. I was hoping that, one day, the worth [of the medallion] would come up. Right now it doesn’t look good. A lot of owners file for bankruptcy. It’s not worth it.”
Chin lives in a rental apartment in Brooklyn with his wife and their three boys, ages 5, 11 and 13. Every morning, he leaves his Brooklyn apartment early and heads to one of Queen’s airports.
“It’s not easy like it was before,” Chin said. “There are too many cars on the road.”
Cabbies live all over the five boroughs, on Long Island and in Westchester County, Connecticut and New Jersey. They drive around the city all day, but most of them begin their 12- to 15-hour shifts at either LaGuardia or John F. Kennedy International Airport.
According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s factbook, 125,330 taxi drivers called the five boroughs home in 2016, and 51,486 of them lived in Queens.
Like many Queens residents, John is an immigrant. He moved to the United States at age 9 from Myanmar. Today, he has a wife and two children, ages 9 and 7, but also a mortgage on the condo in which he and his family live.
“It’s a lot of pressure on myself, but not as much as Kenny,” John said.
John and Chin said that they hope some regulations are placed on app-driven transportation services with base fares.
“I’m staying above water,” he said. “There’s still time for me, but Kenny ran out of time. I hope the city wakes up and regulates Uber and Lyft. They should do something. This is not fair. They pocket money and close their eyes. Level the playing field.”
Some advocates—such as Bhairavi Desai, a founding member of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA)—are fighting for the rights and prosperity of city taxi drivers, The NYTWA union represents approximately 15,000 cab drivers and is trying to get the city to create legislation that would ease up on fees and create grants that could help medallion owners keep their heads above water.
Desai said the City Council is starting to listen, but that for the past three years, “it’s been a wall of silence.” She said that the city would previously auction off medallions to make money—but today, banks are repossessing them and auctioning them off for less than they’re worth.
The Queens Tribune reached out to Queens councilmen Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) and Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), both of whom sit on the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, but neither of them responded by deadline.
On June 14 at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in Flushing, 139 medallions that had been seized by a bank from the former Taxi King
Evgeny “Gene” Freidman were auctioned off. The trustee of the medallions accepted a stalking-horse bid on 131 medallions at $170,000 apiece.
Without the stalking-horse bid, Maltz Auctions, which was conducting the event, was only selling medallions in packs of 20 for $250,000 apiece.
“I don’t know why they are limiting the sale to only hedge funds,” said Desai, adding that she suspects only hedge funds would buy them in bulk. “The reorganization that is taking place is a reorganization of wealth. The shame is that medallions have come down to a value that individuals can afford, but they are being locked out of purchases.”
She added that the city let app-driven transportation options, such as Uber and Lyft, operate unregulated over the past five years, and now the city is in the midst of an “unprecedented” crisis.
“Most individual owners are not ready to give in. They just want a fighting chance,” she said. “What’s their option? Work for a garage? Uber or Lyft don’t pay very much.”
In the taxi-driver community, Desai said that drivers bow their heads with the news of each suicide, but they are not necessarily in shock. They saw this coming.
“It’s that feeling you get when your worst nightmares come true,” she said. “I’ve been saying for a while that there is a real growing despair among the drivers. It’s not so much shock that the suicides have occurred, but a feeling of betrayal by the city. They are a workforce that serves a million people a day, and they are what make this a global, 24-hour city. I don’t expect corporate America to be merciful, but I expect politicians to have mercy when poverty is spreading.”
The NYTWA has stated in the past that many of its members who are owner-drivers struggle with expenses—as much as $6,000 per month in payments—and that 80 percent of medallion owners mortgages are financially under water. It is the union’s hope that the city will ask lenders to “lower interest rates and extend payments, waive licensing fees and find emergency grants to avoid foreclosures and bankruptcies. The City Council must also establish a commission to oversee predatory lending and stop inflated values.”
John bought his medallion in 2007 before the inflation. He purchased it for $420,000 and now owes approximately $200,000. He was hoping that the medallion would retain some of its value and then, on his own terms, he could sell it and retire with the sale.
“Right now, for me, it’s not a big problem,” he said, “I had a few good years and was able to pay it off.”
He noted that when the medallion was worth $1 million, he could have put it down as collateral and bought a new car.
“Now, it’s below $200,000,” he said. “I’m not selling it or will sell it. The bank won’t take it now. Why would they want it?”
Chin came to the United States in 1987 at age 19. He was fortunate enough to buy his own medallion in 1993 for approximately $150,000.
He said that he’d expected to have it paid off by now, but has been forced to take out more loans for new cars and other expenses every five years. He now owes more on the medallion than the amount it was originally worth.
For these hacks, with or without the support of the city, the grind goes on. The yellow cab is a staple of the New York City landscape. It is woven into the fabric of every artist’s iconography of the city, yet those cab drivers have never reaped the rewards of that fame.