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Meet NY's oldest cabbie, still going strong at 92

WHEN he first took to the wheel of a taxi 75 years ago, it cost two dimes to travel a mile and racism was so rampant that many white people shunned him.

Now a spry 92, Johnnie 'Spider' Footman, New York's oldest yellow cab driver, has seen plenty of change on the streets of Manhattan but has no intention of handing in his medallion any time soon.

These days, the cigar-smoking and impeccably dressed taxi man picks up fares only at the weekend, preferably in the morning when the streets are quiet, and he tries to avoid long drives out to the airport or outer suburbs.

But the famous New York streets and avenues are as familiar now as they were in 1937, when he first began driving after being sent away by his irate mother to live with an uncle because he was too much of a handful.

Over the years, Mr Footman has driven hundreds of thousands of miles, and ferried numerous passengers, including movie stars John Wayne and Rock Hudson, always dressed in a shirt and tie.


"In those days, everyone took taxis," he says. "If you didn't ride a cab in New York you couldn't say you had been in New York.

"I remember John Wayne was very tall and polite. I picked up another famous guy -- Rock Hudson. There were a lot of others but I can't remember them now.

"The buildings have changed in New York, but the same roads are here. There are more cars, and they run much faster. The cars at that time, they only went 40 or 50 miles an hour. There were trolley car tracks up on 42nd Street. They went in around 1940.

"Franklin Roosevelt was president then. He was a good man -- he did a lot to make it easier for black people to make a living.

"Black people were second class in some states then. The whites were on one side and the blacks were on the other side.

"Race was a big issue in New York too, but it was sneaky compared with the south. I would be sitting there at a table in a diner and I would see white people go to sit down then see me and just walk by.

"I didn't really see it start to change until the 1940s, 1950s.

"But the passengers were at least very polite back then. We got along good. I would be able to park the cab at the side of the road and take their bags upstairs to their apartments for them.

"You can't do that now. Back in the day people tipped bigger too."

Always waiting politely to be spoken to before starting a conversation, Mr Footman generally receives a good response when he mentions his age, and he enjoys chatting to those he drives.


Last year, however, one irate passenger reported him to the authorities when he refused to allow him to open the cab door into traffic.

When Mr Footman was summoned appear in court, the judge took his side and the case was dismissed.

But the incident alerted the taxi commission to Mr Footman's advanced years.

Alarmed, they sent him a letter demanding he be examined by a doctor to check he was safe to drive -- he was given a clean bill of health and his licence was renewed until 2014

"The doctor said I could hear a whisper from six feet away," he said.

Mr Footman got his nickname of Spider after the Harley Davidson he once rode.

These days his vehicle, with large stuffed toys salvaged from the road tied to the front and rear, just drives to work four days a week at the 55 Stan taxi company in Queens from his apartment in Harlem, five miles away.

When he's not out on the road, Mr Footman hangs out with colleagues at the 55 Stan taxi company in Queens.

He is unimpressed with the current, smaller design of New York's taxis, saying there is no room to fool around in the back.

Once a self-confessed ladies man, Mr Footman separated from his now 75-year-old wife Valerie in 1968, leaving his 10-year-old son behind, but the two never got around to formally divorce.

"I fooled around, she fooled around," he said.

"I never fell in love with a woman -- I just dealt with them until they got tired of me." Asked when he would stop driving, he said: "I've still got the spirit to keep going. What would I do if I didn't? I don't know anything else.

"I know my limits and I keep safe.

"My mind is still sharp and I can see where I'm going, even if my reflexes are a little slower."