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Checker Cabs Make Their Last Stand in New York City

The father, the mother, the daughter and the tiny white Maltese dog barreled across 49th Street brimming with intent, waving at the bloated yellow taxi that seemed to have materialized from the mists of some golden age of cabs, yelling for it to stop, stop, just stop, please stop.

What they flagged down could well be the last legal Checker cab in New York City.

''Now this is a real taxi,'' extolled the father, Stuart Sugarman, sinking back deep into the bench seat planted so far from the partition that you could almost fit the Brooklyn Bridge in there. ''This is a New York City taxi. Stepping into a Chevy is like stepping into a foreign country.''

He jiggled one of the twin round jumps seats.

''Brittany,'' he said, addressing his 9-year-old daughter, ''you will probably never ride in one of these again.''

Nor will hardly any New Yorkers. It is not news that the Checker cab is the dodo of the taxi fleet, a vehicle instantly recognized worldwide yet one headed, for many years, for certain extinction. But now things are getting really serious: since Tuesday, there has been just one licensed Checker out of the fleet of 12,053 yellow cabs.

The lone one is owned by Johann Struna, a 63-year-old Slovenian immigrant who has been a cabby for almost two decades and wants to make it just two more years.

''Something that was nice and likable is dying off,'' Mr. Struna said. ''It almost feels like a piece of me is dying off.''

There had been two Checkers, but one had its license temporarily lifted when it failed its inspection because of serious undercarriage rust. The driver, Earl Johnson, has 10 days to fix it and he is unsure whether he can afford the repairs.

The two Checkers were already saved from the brink of certain death earlier this month. Diane M. McKechnie, the chairwoman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, granted them special exemptions from the new taxi law that goes into effect April 1.

Under the law, any taxi more than three years old in a fleet or more than five years old and owned by an individual must be replaced with a new car. Because the Checker assembly line in Kalamazoo, Mich., closed on July 12, 1982, the Checkers would have been automatically disqualified.

Then a barrage of pleading letters from hard-core fans persuaded the taxi commission to allow exemptions for cars with distinct aesthetic or historic values.

But no rattletraps need apply. The commission plans to knock 3,000 older cabs off the road by August and hopes customers will notice they are no longer banging across New York's streets in rickety vehicles.

''We love the Checker as much as New York or the world does,'' said Alan Fromberg, the spokesman for the commission. ''However, a Checker is more than rolling history. It has to function as a safe vehicle.''

A third Checker already failed to win an exemption because the commission said it had a cracked chassis and a history of maintenance problems. The owner, Neville Russell, was too heartsick to discuss it.

''The new rule is crazy, stupid,'' Mr. Russell. ''I don't want to talk about it. I am not a Checker driver anymore.''

There were 10 in 1993. Call it 10 Little Checker Drivers. Who will be the last?

It is a question very much on everyone's mind at Mira Auto Body Repair in Astoria, Queens. Mira is to Checker cabs what plastic surgeons are to Hollywood stars, endlessly extending the careers of terminally sagging bodies. Drivers straggle by almost daily in quest of spare parts and the latest gossip. (There are scores of Checkers still used as private cars and even as the odd gypsy cab.)

Outside the garage, Rudolph Torres, who lost the license for his Checker a few years ago, sauntered up to Mr. Struna, the owner of the only legal Checker at the moment.

''There is a battle between you and Earl,'' Mr. Torres said. ''He said he is going to see you out so he can be top man. You better watch out so he doesn't sabotage your cab.''

Mr. Struna laughed at the thought. He can afford to. He has a distinct edge. His 1981 cab has 353,000 miles, while Mr. Johnson's 1978 model has more than 900,000.

Mr. Johnson said he would not mind outlasting the other drivers, although he would never resort to sabotage. ''I think my head would be up if I was the last one,'' he said. He was optimistic one minute that he could make the repairs, upset and worried the next that his Checker would be permanently knocked out.

Five thousand Checkers once roamed the city. As their numbers dwindled, the Checker drivers evolved into a loose fraternity. They still call each other or the garage regularly, checking for updates on the condition of someone in the hospital or the latest inspection results.

''We always meet at the shop and chat over things about taxis, things about the Checker itself,'' said Mr. Johnson, who immigrated from Jamaica in 1962 and at 59 is the youngest of the drivers. ''That means a lot to us. We get along fairly well.''

They all share similar backgrounds: older immigrants who have been in New York for decades and who used the cabs to make it here. They get no joy from another Checker getting knocked out of the fleet. One had already been lost this year. Fritzgerald Cajuste, a 63-year-old who came to New York from Haiti 34 years ago, stopped driving on Valentine's Day because of his spreading lung cancer.

The Checkers are as central to the lives of the drivers' families as to the men themselves. When Mr. Cajuste was in Mount Sinai Medical Center over the past month, his health deteriorating rapidly, his 4-year-old grandson climbed up onto his bed.

''He said, 'Grandpa, don't forget: if you die, I get the car,' '' Mr. Cajuste said, chuckling at the memory.

The drivers are among the most surprised that the Checkers have survived to become the taxi world's Geritol set. Built like small trucks, they tended to translate every pothole into a kidney punch.

But passengers worshiped the space. You could get five adults (legally) into one. Baby carriages rolled in without being folded.

''Every time I get out of a taxi I feel like I have to go to the chiropractor,'' said Maxine Groffsky, a leggy literary agent, ridiculing the thought that the experiment with a limited number of van taxis could solve the problem. The taxi commission has been trying to find a taxi that would approach the Checker's roominess, allowing about 60 vans and all-terrain vehicles to operate, most of them Honda Odysseys.

As a memorial, the Museum of the City of New York plans to make a Checker a centerpiece of its new building, suspending it from the ceiling of a main entrance hall, said Jan Seidler Ramirez, a deputy director at the museum. (Some aficionados think it altogether fitting that the Checker be displayed with no wheels on the ground, since many remember that as a hallmark of the driving of New York City cabbies.)

Lady Godiva astride a white horse would be hard put to jolt New Yorkers out of their ennui with the same force as a Checker these days. Heads swivel. Forks stop midway to mouth. Boyfriends unclench girlfriends and cry, ''Look at that cab!'' Occasionally, someone passing in front of one at an intersection will lean over and kiss the hood.

On one recent weekend, a fashion photographer who was shooting a catalogue for a German department store frantically waved down Mr. Struna in front of Tiffany's. ''I'll pay you like $20 to sit here for 10 minutes,'' he begged, while the art director gushed at her good fortune.

''I would never shoot these cars,'' Tanya Valerien, the art director, said, dismissively waving at the regular hacks sailing past. ''This one gives that old New York feeling, original. When you go to New York you have certain ideas how you want to see New York. It will always be that way.''

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