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Last New York Checker Turns Off Its Meter for Good

The last day of the last Checker cab in New York should have been full of nostalgia and romance, the storied retirement of a much-loved machine integral to the city's lore and lure.

Instead, it was filled with hassles.

First there was the gnawing pain in Earl Johnson's left knee, a twinge of gout that made it wrenching for him to fold his 6-foot-1-inch frame into the driver's seat of the 1978 classic, and even more agonizing to get out. Then there was the awkward moment when Mr. Johnson stopped abruptly at a Jamaican restaurant and his fare, a woman late for work, followed him inside to find out what he was doing (every cabdriver has his favorite pit stops).

Perhaps inevitably, there were the special problems that come with owning a rolling institution at the end of its era. Having decided that the cab had become too expensive to fix to meet the city's standards, Mr. Johnson spent the day juggling interviews so that each journalist had a solo ride-along, artfully avoiding questions about how much money he had made in the Checker or might make selling it. He even had to wait while a photographer in the caravan following him through Central Park was stopped by the police for a broken brake light.

''I'm losing so much money today,'' Mr. Johnson, 61, complained as he declined a fare for fear of missing yet another appointment with the press. ''I'm willing to go along with everybody, but I am just one person.''

These were the low points. There were lovely moments, too.

The fares who shared poignant childhood memories. The drivers who leaned out of their windows to shout good luck and God bless. The comrade cabby who stopped at three successive stoplights for her own snapshots of history.

And two hours with Roberta Horton and James Donnelly, social workers who rode in Mr. Johnson's Checker to their wedding and celebrated their second anniversary yesterday reliving the moment in the back of the cab.

''The Checker is the ultimate urban luxury,'' Ms. Horton, 47, said as she held her beloved's hand during the drive up the East Side of Manhattan to the Conservatory Garden in the park. ''It's such a grand car. It's a vehicle that belongs to New York.''

Not anymore.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission says his Checker, which is on its third engine and nearing one million miles on the odometer, needs a new chassis. Mr. Johnson's mechanic says that would cost $6,000 or more. Mr. Johnson says the car is fine and the commission's requirement too strict, but that it seems to be time to fold up his jump seats.

''I'm not looking for handouts, I'm finished,'' he said yesterday as he limped around, shaking hands and posing for pictures. ''I'm ready. Ready, ready, ready.''

Other cities still have Checker cabs, the bulbous vehicles with the ponderous 1950's design. There are Checkers around the city that are no longer cabs, painted pink or purple or even checkered all over. There are companies called Checker Cab, even if their cars are Dodges and Fords. But since production at the plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., ceased in 1982, 60 years after it began, the Checkers have been a dying breed.

As of this morning, pedestrians can no longer hail a symbol of New York on New York streets.

''He's retiring,'' a concierge told a doorman at the Mark Hotel, gesturing at Mr. Johnson and his cab as they dropped off Ms. Horton and Dr. Donnelly for their anniversary lunch. ''I think that's him. This is the last one. He's been in the news for like three days now.''

Mr. Johnson, who has a tuft of white hair above his forehead and a few gray whiskers in his beard, started driving a Checker in 1973, when 5,000 of the classic cars made up almost half of New York's yellow taxi fleet. He was born in Jamaica and had been in this country for a dozen years. He started driving a cab after dreams of opening a restaurant fell apart for lack of money.

''The riding public likes the Checker and it lasts longer,'' he said, though the first car lasted only five years before it was felled by a problem with the flywheel. ''There's more room for myself and the passengers. You're sitting up above all the other cabs.''

Also, he has learned in the 26 years behind the historic wheel, the police rarely stop Checkers. Doormen at fancy hotels pull them up to the front of cab lines. And while the fare on the meter is exactly the same as in any other cab, the tips tend to be better.

Yesterday, as usual, Mr. Johnson left home in Rosedale, Queens, about 7 A.M. and went to Kennedy International Airport. He picked up a Delta passenger and took him to midtown, which was convenient, because he was meeting a television crew in the East 60's for an interview.

Then he took a woman across town to Times Square, found three men heading to a show for men's clothiers at Pier 94, and then picked up Tina Landau, a writer and director going to the Joseph Papp Public Theater near Astor Place.

It started out well enough.

''When I was a girl growing up in New York, we used to look for them purposely,'' Ms. Landau said as she stepped into the cab, which sits high above the traffic. ''They were the cab.'' The back has enough leg room for a couple of pro basketball players, and there are also a pair of adorable little jump seats. ''I saw you coming, and I almost didn't get in. I haven't seen one of these in so long, I thought, is this real?''

Then Mr. Johnson pulled over on Ninth Avenue at Jam's Jamaica Restaurant and said he would be back in a minute. After a minute, Ms. Landau went inside to check. She came back quickly, the cabby on her heels.

''I tell you it's a second, you just wait a second,'' the driver snapped.

''I don't get in a cab to stop midway,'' Ms. Landau retorted. ''I could call the commission.''

Empty threats for a man headed for retirement, scheduled to be feted by the taxi commission next week. By summer's end, Mr. Johnson plans to be back in his native Montego Bay, where he and his wife run a bed-and-breakfast called Grace Villa.

The Checker, which originally cost about $9,000, will probably stay behind. A German museum has made inquiries, but Mr. Johnson wants the car he nicknamed Janie after a long-ago sweetheart to remain in the United States, preferably New York. He is talking to Sotheby's, and dreaming of numbers with lots of zeroes. As for Taxi Medallion 1N11, Mr. Johnson plans to lease it and is counting on the retirement income of about $1,400 a month.

What he will keep are the memories.

Picking up Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at her Fifth Avenue apartment (he didn't recognize her at first) and taking her to Elizabeth Arden. Walter Cronkite riding down Broadway for a dozen blocks (''I was kind of excited to look up and see the same guy I see on the TV.''). Getting yanked out of line a couple of years ago at the Pierre to drive Muhammad Ali to the Citicorp Building (''I just said, 'Hi, champ.' '').

There was the $500 fare to Boston and the $700 trip to Ithaca, a 225 miles trip, when a businessman with a pending deal could not get a flight out of Kennedy Airport because of the weather.

''I was young and strong and didn't think about anything,'' Mr. Johnson said, laughing the laugh of a man older and wiser. ''If there was 10 feet of snow it didn't mean anything. Now I'm scared to go from here to Queens.''

There were dozens of weddings and sightseeing tours, actors whose names he cannot remember, and appearances -- by the Checker, not the driver -- in movies he never saw. And, once, a $20 tip on a $7 fare.

''He got out of one cab and got into my cab because that guy didn't know where he was going,'' Mr. Johnson said of the long-ago banker in a rush to go from a midtown hotel to Wall Street.

Yesterday there were no celebrities except Mr. Johnson himself, who first came to public attention in 1993, when there were only 10 Checkers left in New York.

He has been featured in many articles since then, and it is no accident that he outlasted Johann Struna, the second-to-last Checker cabby, who retired in December because he, too, could not afford the repairs.

So Mr. Johnson smiled for the snapshooting tourists from Cleveland, shook hands with the teacher out for a walk on the Upper West Side and waved happily to fellow cabdrivers beeping their best wishes.

It was all he could do to get to Queens by midafternoon to refill a prescription for his aching knee. ''I can't even move from the seat, it's all swollen,'' he said. ''The only reason why I'm out here now is because it's my last day.''

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