For decades, immigrants arriving to New York City saw in the yellow taxi medallion —which used to give cab drivers exclusive rights to pick up people— their golden ticket out of poverty and into middle class life. But with ride-sharing apps like Uber, the price of the medallion plummeted, sinking the dreams of many along with the price.
This is the premise of Rebecca Blandón’s debut documentary Run the Meter, which will premiere May 16 at the Workers Unite Film Festival in New York City. The night of the screening will be dedicated to taxi or driver related films, from Uber to undocumented immigrants striving to obtain their driver’s licenses.
“It’s actually perfect because it fits in with the whole purpose of the story,” Blandón told Latino Rebels, referring to the blue-collar nature of the film festival. “It’s not like a flashy documentary, right? It’s about workers’ rights and about showcasing the perspective of working class people living in New York City.”
With Uber’s first initial public offering (IPO) taking place last week and Uber drivers striking about that news, the film by this Bronx-native Latina comes at a timely moment and provides an intimate look at the struggles of workers thrown into the gig economy. It is also as much a film about New York’s yellow cab drivers fighting against the city’s lax regulation, as it is a homage to Blandón’s Nicaraguan parents, who immigrated in their teens to the U.S. in search of the American dream.
Blandón shared that when her parents first arrived to the U.S., they didn’t have high school schooling and didn’t have a clear idea about what to do. Her mother worked as a seamstress, while her father did a range of jobs, from painting houses to delivering Avon, until he started driving a truck, a job he hasn’t stopped doing for close to four decades now.
“Doing this story felt especially close to home because not only was it obviously in New York City and it was about immigrants, but it was about drivers,” she said. With her father’s truck driver’s salary paving and enabling Blandón’s way through life, it just felt natural to document the story of the yellow cab drivers.
“I don’t know if that’s a Latino thing or like an immigrant thing or a me thing, but I feel that in everything I do paying tribute is always in the back of my head,” Blandón said. “There’s always an obligation in my mind to at least hint at the history of my parents and where they come from. And you know, this piece wasn’t about Nicaragua, but it was about the dedication that people have to their families when they came here. The aspiration to like have a good life.”
The documentary, which will also be screened on June 6 at the NY Shorts International Film Festival, follows the lives of yellow cab drivers Nino, Nicolae and Solomon, each representing a different stage of the overall story arch.
Nicolae is a Romanian immigrant who bought his medallion and has been driving for 30 years, and is suddenly forced to share the streets with the Uber, Lyft and Via ride-sharing app drivers who were also given the right to pick up people on the streets, a right that used to be exclusive to him and other medallion holders. A normally timid man, at a certain point of the almost 40-minute documentary, he brazenly challenges the camera:
“Why should I be afraid? Why? I have nothing to lose anymore. I lost everything I had; my retirement, the value of the medallion. What do I have now? Three more years of life, who knows, five, ten? What more can I lose? My life, that’s it. Nothing else.”
Nino is a Peruvian driver who came to this country with the hopes of going to school, and ended up buying his own medallion after hearing through friends how great of an opportunity it was. Now, he is going through similar hardships as Nicolae, compounded by the loss of friends through suicide, like Yu Mein Chow, who was found dead in the East River and is believed to have jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge to his death in May of 2018. Known as “Kenny,” Chow had taken out a loan seven years ago to buy a $700,000 medallion. Now worth as little as $175,000, the medallion once sold for more than $1 million, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
And finally, Solomon, a Jewish American man with Romanian background, embodies the younger generation of taxi drivers. He is a medallion holder because it got passed down through generations.
“And so he kind of inherited a debt really,” Blandón said. “He inherited the debt because his parents basically gave him something that’s not really worth anything anymore or it’s in the negative numbers because of all the money that his parents spent paying back towards the medallion.”
After spending the better part of her 2018 summer days in the co-pilot seats of these drivers’ cabs, interviewing and obtaining footage, Blandón heard all sort of zany stories. Anecdotes about people giving birth in the backseat or having to rush a hurt person to the hospital. Her reflection is to not underestimate the importance of cabbies or transit workers: “We take it lightly that a cab can get you from point A to point B. But when you think about a place like New York City or really any city, transit and traffic and the people who get you from point A to point B, they’re like the veins of the city. If the veins have some sort of clog or if they’re not functioning anymore, the city dies.”
Emily Corona is a digital intern at Futuro Media. She is a journalist and translator from Mexico City, pursuing a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She tweets from @daminijo.