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 common that many white people shunned him.
Now 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 on the weekend, preferably in the morning when the streets are quiet, and avoids long drives to the airport or outer suburbs.
The city streets and avenues are as familiar now as they were in 1937, when he first began driving after being sent away by his mother to live with an uncle because he was too much of a handful. Over the years, Footman has driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and picked up many famous passengers, including actors John Wayne and Rock Hudson.
“In those days everyone took taxis,” he said. “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.
“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.” He added: “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 to 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.