We Checker collectors are quite a quirky bunch. Anybody who loves Checker Cabs has to have some form or personality disorder or are just plain down-right crazy. So was the case of Ray Kottner. He had a crazy idea and it actually worked for a couple of years. Ray was a NYC renegade.
Filmmaker Jena Starkes Noce wrote, regarding Ray “A ride with Ray in his Checker is truly a life event. Ray, alas, is probably the last of his breed.” And, as we all know, it’s a breed that is vanishing too quickly from our streets. Ray’s schtick was that he operated a free taxi in NYC.
Steve Hartman reported for CBS New in 2006 a feature story about Ray. In his video story titled Crabby Cabbie he reported the following:
You can understand why some people are skeptical. No one takes chances in New York — especially on something that sounds way too good to be true. Free taxi rides?
But for those trusting few who slide on in, the ride — at least the one down memory lane, is absolutely free. A few years ago, Ray Kottner got tired of “working for the man.” He bought a very used taxi — a 1982 Checker — and launched a brand-new business model.
But how does he make money when he doesn’t charge for rides? “People that ride with me are very generous,” he says. “They give me more money than they give to the yellow cabs.”
Ray works for tips while entertaining passengers as only an 80-year-old cab driver can. “When I started driving a taxi 60 years ago, there were no buses,” he says. “It was all eletric trolley cars running along the curb.”
But, as he admits, “I do not like people.” Ray is every New York stereotype, boiled down to a bouillon cube. He’s got no patience for impatience … and no tolerance for incompetence.
At one point, Hartman says he made the mistake of interrupting one of Ray’s rides to double-check a camera. Ray’s reaction? “These guys are stupid as hell,” he tells a passenger.
It’s a frankness that would never play in Peoria. But it works well in the Big Apple. People come to New York praying to meet someone like Ray. And like most New Yorkers, somewhere beneath all that gruffness, Hartman says he’s sure there’s a real gentleness to him.
“I got lucky to get good people,” Ray tells one passenger. “We got lucky to meet you, Taxi Ray,” the passenger replies. One thing that Ray doesn’t plan to retire. In fact, he just bought another Checker cab.
Unfortunately for Ray, the Free Checker party would not last much longer right after his CBS story. According to a New York Post story, Ray’s taxi was seized in June or 2007. The Post reported that 80-year-old Ray Kottner had his hack seized when Taxi and Limousine Commission investigators spotted him accepting a $10 gratuity from a grateful rider. Kottner had been driving a cab for 64 years but decided to quit “working for the man” a few years ago.
The Post also reported that representatives for medallioned drivers and medallion owners, as well as the TLC, felt that Ray Kottner was a crook, stealing money from legitimate cab drivers. Because officially he is not a cab for hire, he is exempt from purchasing a medallion that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, paying for the required insurance that licensed cabs must have, and passing the regular inspections that ensure that his vehicle is safe. The Post quoted David Pollack, the editor of Taxi Insider, “This guy is nothing but a crook, and we’re all glad he’s finally off the streets.”
In the end, Ray would keep on driving his taxi despite all the legal troubles. Kottner accuses the agency of being no better than carjackers for taking his Checker Cab. Taxi Ray had to post a $1,500 bond to get his car out of impound and pay a $185 fee for the cost of having an officer drive it there. He also faced an additional $400 in fines.
Sadly just one year later Ray would pass away behind the wheel of his 1982 Checker. The loss of Ray, represented a loss of a famous New York character as well as another Checker Cab operating on the streets of New York.