NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In spring, Bhairavi Desai, a middle-aged woman without a driver's license and thus an unlikely leader for thousands of mostly male drivers in the world's largest market for hired vehicles, delivered emotional testimony in front of New York City's Taxi & Limousine Commission about the mounting existential difficulties in her field.
The executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Desai had been a labour activist for 21 years but she had never seen anything like the despair she was witnessing now - the bankruptcies, foreclosures and eviction notices plaguing drivers who were calling her with questions about how to navigate homelessness and paralysing depression.
"Half my heart is just crushed,'' she said, "and the other half is on fire."
The economic hardship that Uber and its competitors had inflicted on conventional drivers in New York and London and other cities had become overwhelming.
For decades there had been no more than 12,000 to 13,000 taxis in New York, but now there were myriad new ways to avoid public transportation, in some cases with ride-hailing services like Via that charged little more than US$5 to travel in Manhattan. In 2013, there were 47,000 for-hire vehicles in the city. Now there were more than 100,000, approximately two-thirds of them affiliated with Uber.
While Uber has sold that "disruption" as positive for riders, for many taxi workers, it has been devastating.
Between 2013 and 2016, the gross annual bookings of full-time yellow-taxi drivers in New York, working during the day when fares are typically highest, fell from US$88,000 a year to just over US$69,000.
Medallions, which grant the right to operate a taxi in New York City, were now depreciating assets and drivers who had borrowed money to pay for them, once a sound investment strategy, were deeply in debt.
Desai was routinely seeing grown men cry, and she had become increasingly concerned about the possibility that they would begin taking their lives.
On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery driver in his early 60s, killed himself with a shotgun in front of City Hall in lower Manhattan, having written a lengthy Facebook post several hours earlier laying out the structural cruelties that had left him in such dire circumstance.
He was now sometimes forced to work more than 100 hours a week to survive, he said; when he had started out in the 1980s, a 40-hour week was fairly typical.
He blamed politicians - mayors Michael R. Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo - and their acquiescence to the rich for permitting so many cars to flood the streets. He blamed the Taxi Commission for the fines and hassles it imposed.
He had lost his health insurance and accrued credit card debt, and he would no longer work for "chump change,'' preferring, he said, to die in the hope that his sacrifice would draw attention to what drivers, too often unable to feed their families now, were enduring.
He had forecast all of this doom in columns he had written for a trade publication called Black Car News, he wrote, but few had listened to him.
Implicit in his testament was the anger he felt over the de-professionalisation of his life's work. Schifter had driven more than 5 million miles throughout his tenure, through five hurricanes and 50 snowstorms. He had chauffeured celebrities and worn a suit. He was not driving a car to supplement the income he was getting from his crepe business, and he was not trying to make a little extra money for a gym membership. He was not a participant in the gig economy; he was a casualty of it.
For at least a century, the suicide as spectacle, prompted by a reversal of fortune, has typically been the practice of the wealthy. In the months after Wall Street's crash in 1929, four people threw themselves out windows in New York (leading to the folklore that there had been many, many more such deaths).
Decades later, Bernie Madoff's son Mark hanged himself from a dog leash in his SoHo apartment. In 2016, Sanjay Valvani, a hedge fund manager accused of insider trading, slashed his throat in the bedroom of his Brooklyn town house, to much sensation in the tabloid and financial press. Poverty too often kills you without making you try.
In response to Schifter's death, de Blasio showed little sensitivity to the psychic harms of economic deprivation.
"Let's face it, for someone to commit suicide there's an underlying mental health challenge," he said. Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
For taxi drivers staring down an even bleaker future of driverless cars at a moment when Washington considers a weekly paycheck bump of US$1.50 an occasion to break out the layer cake, it is hard to see where the metaphoric Prozac will come from.
The problems facing the city's taxi drivers have become so bad, Desai said, that even on New Year's Eve many complained that they roamed around unable to pick up fares.
About that time she had received a call from a woman who runs a community radio station in the Bronx, with an audience made up mostly of Dominican livery drivers. Two drivers that the host knew of had killed themselves and other drivers were on the show talking about the isolation and fear they saw all around them.
In the days preceding his death, Schifter wrote about his decreasing faith in our politics and about his commitments to his spiritual life.
"Forget the cliché you only live once it is not true," he said in a Facebook post.
"The clues are all about you if you take the time to seek them."