New Orleans Cabbies Were Making the Big Easy Queasy, So the City Has Sent Them to Charm School

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is Saturday morning on the lake-front campus of the University of New Orleans, and the students come drifting in reluctantly, like combat soldiers for a lecture on "Why We Fight."

"Good morning!" chirps the teacher.

"Beautiful," snarls one student.

"I'm just tickled bleepless to be here," mutters another.

"I could teach this better than these pencil-pushers," grumbles a third.

Welcome to New Orleans' Cabbie Charm School, attendance mandatory

The storied old city of New Orleans has a special spot in its heart for its taxi drivers. It is not a soft spot, though Unlike New Yorkers, who take a perverse pride in their cabbies' diamond-in-the-very-rough manners, many people in New Orleans believe that their hackies are costing them money by being churlish, rude, hostile, unkempt, ignorant and occasionally crooked. Of course, these things are said of cab drivers everywhere, but New Orleans has special cause to take the complaints seriously. The city will play host to the Republican National Convention in 1988, and greater New Orleans is already raking in more than $2.2 billion in tourist money each year. Local businessmen believe they could do even better if some of the rank and vile began to bathe and groom more regularly and knew a little bit more about local geography. So when city fathers learned of a program called "Jazzy Cabby," they hailed it at once and persuaded the local business community to put up $100,000 to pay for it.

Jazzy Cabby is a three-hour course run by the Service Institute of St. Thomas of Villanova University in Miami. The program was born there in 1985 when its present executive director, Tom Murphy, took on the local cabbies in a course called, "Miami Nice." Since then, Murphy claims, Miami drivers have been such ladies and gentlemen that tips have increased substantially and complaints have dropped by 80 percent. This year the outfit will be conducting its driver-rehabilitation workshops in Boston, Chicago and Atlanta. In New Orleans the City Council made the course compulsory for all of the 3,000 cabbies, 300 limo and van drivers and 40 horse-drawn-buggy operators, who must pay a fee of $30 cash.

The cabbies are not, however, required to be delighted. On a recent Saturday some 61 drivers—hard cases guilty of a variety of professional misdemeanors and under orders to get Jazzy fast—met at UNO in mutinous forum, slouching grumpily, puffing on cigarettes beneath No Smoking signs.

"What's the golden rule?" asks Monroe Coleman, a taxicab fleet owner who is one of the local experts hired (at $100 an hour) to teach the course.

"Make money!" calls a driver.

Well, no, says Coleman. The golden rule is courtesy, which happens to pay. The drivers are skeptical.

Later the instructors stage a playlet. A woman runs down the aisle yelling, "Taxi!" Coleman, demonstrating how not to do it, sits scrunched in his seat, wearing an unruly Afro and a look of studied detachment. "Open the door and get in, lady," he barks. But no, the woman passes him up for a chair operated by moonlighting Police Sgt. Israel Fields, who is wearing a suit and tie and holding open an imaginary door.

Good manners having been thus reinforced, Coleman scoops up an armful of cologne, deodorant, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes: "Tools of the trade," he says. He also recommends jumper cables, business cards and establishing unthreatening eye contact.

And how do the cabbies feel about such basic instruction? By and large, they do not seem impressed.

"Someone on the City Council must want a new Mercedes, and we're paying for it," declares one driver, making eye contact that would shrivel a snake.

"I'm paying $10 an hour to be told I need to bathe?" asks another.

"I could've made three trips to the airport arready," mourns a third.

Undaunted, the thick-skinned instructors press on, and now it's question-and-answer time.

"I have something here that you're all familiar with," says Joanna Broussard, waving a fistful of dollars she will give to drivers who answer correctly.

"Yeah, my $30!" roars a driver.

Sorry, no money for that one. "How do you get from the Superdome to the Audubon Zoo?" persists the harried instructor.

"Take a cab!" some 20 drivers bellow in chorus. It is perhaps the single sentiment with which they all agree.

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