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Street Smarts

[Times art — Christian Potter Drury]

For drivers of London's Black Cabs, what they do is much more than a job. How else could they feel after passing a years-long test that forces them to learn every inch of the city?

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

The London Taxi

The London taxi is a relic

For which my zeal is evangelic.

It's designed for people wearing hats,

And not for racing on Bonneville Flats.

A man can get out, or a lady in;

When you sit, your knees don't bump your chin.

The driver so deep in the past is sunk

That he'll help you with your bags and trunk;

Indeed, he is such a fuddy-duddy

That he calls you Sir instead of Buddy.

* * *

A couple of years ago, several London cabbies walked into a hospital and had their heads examined.

Researchers at a local university wanted to find out who had the biggest brain, so 50 volunteers, including 16 London cab drivers -- the study's target group -- agreed to have their gray matter analyzed under an MRI to determine their cerebral size.

As it turns out, London cabbies have big brains, indeed.

Some might argue that they just have big heads and no one needed an MRI to establish that. They also might argue that the big-headedness that sometimes befalls cabbies and compels them to shout opinions has nothing to do with oversized hippocampi.

The hippocampus is the area where memories are made. In birds, this part functions as their nucleus of navigation; it instinctively pilots them along their exact migratory route each season. London taxi drivers have strained their brains to increase their navigational function by enduring the Knowledge, a massive examination that all the nearly 24,000 drivers had to pass before taking the wheel of the 20,000 London Black Cabs.

The test is a memory marathon made up of a series of oral exams that can take up to four years to complete. And it may indeed result in a larger hippocampus, in which to store all the new info.

Knowledge Boys, as the students are called, learn the 1,242 square miles of central London fanning out in a 6-mile radius from Charing Cross, London's epicenter. This includes 25,000 streets, on which the cabbies learn restaurants, pubs, landmarks, butcher shops, pet stores, music shops and retirement homes.

They learn hardware stores, coffee shops, shoemakers, dental offices, electronics stores and plumbers. They have to identify a little-known office on the ninth floor of a little-known building. They have to know where the blue plaque (noting a historic site) for Oscar Wilde is and where the blue plaque for D.H. Lawrence is, and the shortest distance between the two.

Like the Black Cab itself, the Knowledge is a London institution, a rite of passage rooted in 150 years of history and having more to do with the journey than the destination. As defined in Jack Rosenthal's award-winning play, The Knowledge, students set out to learn London and end up learning about themselves.

"The Knowledge never leaves you," says Derek O'Reilly, a London cabby for 12 years who heads the team of trainers at the Knowledge Point School, a Knowledge college of sorts.

"I can still smell the examining rooms. I can still see their (examiners') faces."

Kebabs and kinsmen

He's waiting for Gary Zylberszac, who has called and is a little miffed to find that Shenholds did not order kebabs for him, as he'd asked.

Shenholds, a.k.a. Bozo One (Zylberszac is Bozo Two), hangs up the phone and digs in. "We do this about every Friday night. There are loads of cabs here. Sometimes about 30. Between 8:30 and 10, this is where I'll be."

Sitting in the back of the cab gobbling kebabs, the foot traffic in and out of the car is picking up. Zylberszac finally shows up and sandwiches his huge frame into the back of the car, balancing his kebab plate on his knees the way Shenholds does.

Mentes Safaoglu, a British citizen from Cyprus, climbs inside, as does Alan Farey, a.k.a. Kentucky Fried Chicken (he sports a Colonel Sanders goatee), although both are kebabless.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, a cabby for 26 years, is fed up. Says he is a London taxi driver only because it is a job that offers flexibility.

"You can't get away from (the job). All of a sudden something will happen, and then I hate this bloody job," he says.

Before he steps out of Shenholds' cab, he asks if anyone wants a collection of London Black Cab memorabilia that he can't seem to stop collecting. He doesn't really like it. He doesn't know why he collects it. He's thinking about selling the stuff on eBay. "I have about 80 pieces, even glass ones. I even have a Black Cab candle," he says.

Where is Bonjour Billy, someone asks. Bonjour Billy was expected to show up, but no one has seen him tonight.

Zylberszac is swapping stories with the others about fares they've had, but no one tops his story about the person who got into his cab as a man and exited as a woman.

"It was a bloke that got in. When she got out, it gave me a shock, it did," he says.

He talks about having to make a court appearance and wonders if he will have to wear his badge, an oval brass emblem worn over the left breast that makes Black Cab drivers the five star generals of London's roads. Shenholds assures him that he will have to wear it.

They talk about which taxis they like best.Zylberszac and the others like the newer ones, and Shenholds just likes everything taxi.

The legendary Black Cab. It is the definitive icon in a city of icons. It is nothing a car aspires to be, neither sleek nor fast, yet its style is enduring. Intoxicating.

The same model was produced for nearly 50 years, and the hallmark largesse of the design ensured that a gentleman could get in without removing his bowler hat. It was replaced by an updated version in the late '90s; it costs about $48,000.

A few years ago, unregulated cabs -- called minicabs because of their size relative to the Black Cab -- snuck onto the streets and have been a nuisance to London cabbies ever since.

"I 'ate it when they call 'em 'cab drivers,' you know what I mean?" says London cabby John Purdue. "I ain't got no time for them, and I ain't got time for the people who ride in them.

"If you was ill, you wouldn't call in a witch doctor, would you, to make you better? You'd go with the hospital and all that. These guys ain't got a clue where they're going!"

Recently, the city has moved to regulate the tens of thousands of minicabs, hoping to force out the undesirables. But London cabbies are unswayed.

Like his father, Shenholds has been a London cabby his whole life. It is who he is, how he defines himself. Everything he does is about the London taxi.

As a side business, Shenholds rents his cab for movies, as does Zylberszac, and sells Black Cabs to private citizens, even shipping a few to America. Cabbies also can make an extra $3,000 a year by splashing advertising on the outside of their cars, a contentious move for purists who prefer Black Cabs to stay black.

There are, on average, a whopping 31,000 people in London needing a cab at night, and many are American tourists who have been told to get into only a Black Cab. Taking the advice literally, they let the estimated 30 percent of Black Cabs that sport advertising, or are painted another color, pass by.

The 'Corridor of Fear'

Not all London cabbies swap stories over kebabs in the back seat of their cabs. Many prefer the few remaining cabmen's shelters, the lilliputian edifices that bring to mind the White Castle burger joints that popped up in the United States before the Great Depression, except they're smaller by at least half.

Built about 130 years ago as a means of keeping cabbies out of the pubs, regulations specified that they could be no bigger than a horse and buggy. Hence, up to 30 men sometimes squeeze themselves into a building the size of a Fotomat.

Nine of these historic landmarks are left, and the cabbies still flock to them to grab a bite to eat, rest and unload.

"I like the camaraderie. Everybody is in the same boat as you. They all understand the difficulty of dealing with the public," O'Reilly says.

While the veterans unwind at the cabmen's shelters, a host of Knowledge Boys are at the Public Carriage Office, circling like dogs around two suited men who have just emerged from their respective Appearance Days, a 15-minute exam that takes place in what has for years been known as the "Corridor of Fear."

The examiners ask pickup and dropoff points, and the Knowledge Boy must recite the most direct route, a challenge, as one London newspaper described it, akin to "walking blindfolded up a down escalator."

So the other Knowledge Boys, who study London's tangle of streets on mopeds with maps fastened to their windshields, want to know what was asked. Were you asked about the Finnish church? What about the American Peanut Council -- did they ask you where that was? What about the Ice Cream Federation?

"You go out every day, every morning, and pick up the points, new points," Knowledge Boy Tim Yildiz says. "But then you go down there (for an Appearance) and you forget everything. It wakes me up at night.

"We just want to finish the Knowledge and have a life again."

Trainer O'Reilly agrees that doing the Knowledge is all-consuming, citing a student who said that her husband complained because she accidentally screamed out street names during times when he would rather have heard heard his name.

The Knowledge Boys' Appearance Day nerves will be nothing compared with their first-day jitters. Purdue, who has been driving about 25 years, says he was so nervous he was nearly sick. And O'Reilly drove around for about an hour, afraid to put the taxi light on.

The examiners are drill sergeants, testing the mettle of Knowledge Boys as much as their knowledge of streets, hence a 75 percent dropout rate.

To get more drivers on the streets, Mayor Ken Livingstone has proposed making the Knowledge easier, but even the Knowledge Boys don't want that, despite the 60-hour weeks, the abandoned relationships and the crippling nerves each Appearance Day. It is a personal challenge as much as a professional one.

"The Knowledge is what makes London's taxi drivers what they are: the best in the world," says proud cabby Shenholds.

Knowledge Boy Yildiz still has to endure a few more Appearance Days, writing in a recent e-mail that homeopathic remedies and a gentle examiner helped ease some of the angst a few weeks ago over his most recent exam.

He doesn't know if he will celebrate with friends first or go out on the roads right away, but if all goes as planned, Yildiz expects to join the ranks of "London's best" this summer, whereupon, after a brief ceremony, he will pin the brass badge over his left breast and climb behind the wheel of a London Black Cab.

Then, stepping in line with an old tradition, Yildiz will let his first fare ride for free. Once he turns the taxi light on, that is.

-- Patricia McCracken is a freelance writer living near Vienna.

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