Bass Player Affirms Right to Take Taxi
Music & Politics
Volume CVIII, No. 9September, 2008
Ritt Henn was refused a ride in a cab. He fought it and won at a hearing. Photo © Cassandra Jenkins.
How many musicians can fit in a cab? Last April, at about 9 p.m., bassist and Local 802 member Ritt Henn had just finished his regular Monday night gig with pianist Richard Jenkins at the St. Regis. Not wanting to schlep his upright on the subway, he approached a minivan cab parked across the street. He asked the driver to take him and Jenkins to their homes uptown.
Henn asked the driver to open the hatch, assuring him the bass would fit. He knew this because he owned a similarly-sized vehicle. However, without provocation or explanation, the cab driver said “no” and drove off.
Before the cab driver could get away, Henn got the cab’s license number and filed a complaint with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission the following day. Within five days the commission had responded by scheduling a hearing for Henn and the driver.
As the union’s political action director, I attended the hearing, serving only as an observer to the proceedings. After all parties were sworn in, Henn gave his side of the story, which was corroborated by Rich Jenkins.
The hearing took an interesting turn when the cab driver gave his testimony. Even though the affidavit supplied by the cab’s owner identified the driver by name and hack license, the driver insisted that it wasn’t he who refused to take Henn and Jenkins to their homes. He claimed to be in the Dominican Republic at the time. To bolster his story, the driver provided his passport, which showed that he traveled to Santo Domingo and to Haiti in February, returning to the U.S. in March. At that point the judge reminded him that the incident occurred in April.
While the driver eventually admitted to being in the U.S. at the time of the incident, he was at a loss to explain why the owner’s affidavit and driving record identified his name and credentials and placed him in front if the St. Regis Hotel at the time of this unfortunate event.
Within 20 minutes, the judge found the driver guilty of violating two taxi commission rules:
1. A driver shall not refuse by words, gestures or any other means, without justifiable grounds…to take any passenger to any destination within the city of New York, the counties of Westchester or Nassau or Newark Airport.
2. A driver, while performing his duties and responsibilities as a taxicab driver, shall not commit or attempt to commit, alone or in concert with another, any willful act of omission or commission which is against the best interests of the public, although not specifically mentioned in these rules.
The driver was fined a total of $350 and received three points on his license. In addition to being on the wrong side of the truth in this matter, the driver forgot one important tenet about credibility: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, especially in court.
Henn told Allegro, “After the case was settled, there was a tune I recorded with Dean Stevens that rang loud and clear: ‘Let justice roll down like a mighty stream.’ I’m sorry the driver had to pay the fine, but I’m sorry the guy was a jerk, too. Now let’s get after the M.T.A. and those turnstile cages at the unmanned subway stops that you can’t get a bass through.”
This was a victory for all people who use anything larger than a laptop to earn a living. However small it may seem, small victories set precedents. As I wrote in my last column, decisions are made by those who show up. Henn wisely chose to see his grievance through from the initial complaint all the way to the hearing. His story was credible, as was Jenkins’s corroboration. The driver’s account was an easily discredited assortment of denials, willful deceit and contempt for the truth. As a result, Henn’s wisely chosen battle brought both victory and justice.
Musicians are one step closer to winning performance rights when their music is heard on the radio, the same right that songwriters already enjoy. In a major victory, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property passed H.R. 4789, the Performance Rights Act, on June 26. The next step is for the bill to be voted on by the full House Judiciary Committee. The victory proves that there is strong bipartisan support for a performance right for musicians.
Renters unite! Local 802 is supporting the Real Rent Reform Campaign. The goals are ambitious: repeal vacancy decontrol; reform the rent guidelines boards; give New York City the right of “home rule” over rent and eviction rules and save affordable units in expiring Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 projects. The campaign is headed by the Metropolitan Council on Housing and also Tenants and Neighbors. For more information see www.MetCouncil.net and www.TandN.org.