Falling in Place

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

In the 30 years he has been driving a cab, William Lindauer has watched himself fall out of the middle class. Born in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, Mr. Lindauer, 60, is a wiry, slightly impish man, with a loud voice, a smoker's cough, startling blue eyes and a taste for the theater. He can also do a good impression of a blueblood with lockjaw, even though he is missing most of his upper teeth. 

 A week from tomorrow, Mr. Lindauer and 40,000 other licensed yellow-cab drivers in the city will get their first raise in eight years. When the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a 26 percent fare rise last month, it stressed the need to give drivers a ''livable wage.'' Most of the increase will end up in drivers' pockets, because the commission also ruled that lease caps -- the maximum amount that fleet owners can charge drivers -- can be raised by only 8 percent. The other day, over a rare dinner out -- red snapper and baked potato at the Malibu Diner in Chelsea, the neighborhood where he lives -- Mr. Lindauer explained how he's been living on his current income, and what he hopes to do with his extra cash.

 I GRADUATED from Northeastern University in 1965. I studied English. I used to do reporting and editing for trade magazines, and I was the editor in chief of a porn magazine called Man's World, but it went out of business. Then I wrote ad copy for a P.R. firm. I wasn't making any money. I asked for a raise, and they didn't give it to me. I decided to drive a cab and see how it is. Then you get in a rut. I started driving in the mid-70's. I don't remember which year. Maybe I want to forget it.

  I drive 10 hours a day, six days a week. I'm on the road at least by 7:30. Some guys in my garage start at 5 in the morning and turn in at 5 in the afternoon. I don't like the populace out there at 5 in the morning. They're not going to work. They're up from the night before, and they're likely to do unseemly things in your taxi.

 A Broadway show has a nut, a certain amount of money they have to make to meet expenses. My nut is $99 a day, Monday through Friday, for the lease and on Saturday and Sunday it's $85. This is going to change with the fare hike. They can make it $105 for the lease. Gas is a big expense, especially these days. I pay $1.99 a gallon. It's $17 to $22 a day, but when you have the air-conditioner on, it's going to eat up more gas.

 My average take-home is $75 a day. If I get a ticket, there goes my day's work. I rely on tips for 15 to 20 percent of my income. Some people have this bizarre notion that you just round it off. If it's $4.70, they round it off to $5. The people on the Upper East Side are notoriously bad tippers, especially on Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue. Rich people think they're the only ones entitled to their money. They probably think cabs should be free.

 I have no discretionary income. If I buy any clothes, it's something essential, like underwear. I'm not buying suits and ties. Giorgio Armani cannot depend on me for his livelihood. Money runs out. It's the little things. They nickel-and-dime you to death. If I want a slice of pizza at Ray's, it's $2. I'm not talking about dining at Jean Georges or Bouley.

 I was married 18 years. My wife died in 1989. She got lymphoma. She did not work after the birth of our child. I was able to support our family. We even had an occasional vacation. We went to Switzerland and had a great time. We used to go out to dinner once a week with this couple. We even occasionally went to a Broadway show. It seems like ancient history. Thirty years ago on a good day I made $100. Now on a good day, I still make $100, and it buys a hell of a lot less.

 My daughter graduated last May from the State University of New York at New Paltz. I paid a small amount of her education, but she did go out and get loans and scholarships. You know what textbooks cost these days? Five hundred dollars a semester!

 I declared bankruptcy a few months ago. I couldn't afford the assessment and maintenance on my co-op, and I couldn't keep up with the mortgage payments. I could not meet the minimum payment on my credit cards after a while. I owe some money to a couple of friends. I didn't want to face the truth that I couldn't live in a fairly modest manner. I make $18,000 to $20,000 a year, and I'm about $75,000 in debt. When you have a lot of money, it's complicated, and when you have no money, it's complicated.

 I live on 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth. I've been here since 1972. I have to sell the co-op and hopefully find someplace, I don't know where. I'll probably go to Queens.

 Moving is one of the most traumatic experiences in life, like losing a loved one or losing a job. When I moved into this neighborhood, there was one Chinese restaurant, with a big flashing sign that said ''Lo Mein.'' That was it. The neighborhood was at its nadir. Now it has been gentrified. I made the perfect real estate investment, but let's assume I was paying rent. I could easily be out on the street.

 WITH the fare hike, hopefully, I'll get $2 to $3 more an hour. That could be a significant amount. It still lags far behind what is really necessary. The first thing I'm going to do with my money is pay my bills. Funny thing about that.

 I might go to a Broadway show. I'd love to see ''The Producers.'' I'd love to get medical and dental. I have no insurance. I had a doctor in my cab the other day. That's the last time I saw a doctor. I'll probably get some dental work done.

 I want to go to Pearl Oyster Bar and Mary's Fish Camp. I hear the lobster roll is good. I'm making a little money on the apartment, I should be able to buy myself a lobster roll.

 These days, if I go on a date, it's Dutch. I used to pay for the woman. But with the raise, I don't know. If I say no, I'm still going to go Dutch, I'll never get a date. It depends on my circumstances. At my age, you don't get too many dates anyway. It's hard to be an old roue if you don't have money.