Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Taxi Advisory Council - Two

At the Taxi Advisory Council meeting on August 30, 2010 Chris Sweis of Royal Taxi and Big Dog City was elected as the Chair and Barry Korengold of the San Francisco Cab Driver's Association as the Vice Chair.
The primary emphasis of the meeting was how to decide what to study as well as how to limit the study so that they could finish a report to the SFMTA by 12-31-2010

Studying the Pilot Plan

John Lazar of Luxor Cab pointed out that the process of selling medallions was already causing problems because the companies were being given no advance warning as to when a new medallion holder might take over a taxicab. He added that many of the buyers were choosing to run their cabs as "long term" leases instead of "gates and gas"  and this was causing regular drivers to lose their shifts.

Another potential problem could be what would happen to someone who had bought a cab under a long term leasing arrangement only to have the medallion sold out from underneath him or her.

It was agreed by the council that they should deal with the above problems in future meetings as well as the more general problems of the "long term" lease vs the "gates and gas" lease.

Athan Rebelos said that they should study what effects the Pilot Plan had on:
  1. Buyers
  2. Sellers
  3. The Riding Public
Dan Hinds thought that they should create "accountability" from future medallion holders by setting high standards for people on the list.

Jane Bolig thought that the the possibility of raising the Fixed Price might have to be explored if potential sellers held on to their medallions because they thought that the price was not high enough.

Director Chris Hayahsi said that the Pilot Plan ends when you "transition through all the buyers and sellers. Watch what happens and make recommendations."

One of Hayashi's famous visual aids (see photo) summarizes some of the things that the council will be studying.

During the public comments Mark Gruberg said that he was worried that the Driver's Fund hadn't been defined. He also said that the was offended by being left off the council. "The UTW is the oldest driver's organization," he said. "The MHA and the SFCDA both have representatives. The UTW should have one too."

MTA Board member Bruce Oka gave a short talk saying, "If the Pilot Plan fails, we're in a lot of trouble. We can't afford for that to happen ... the more input (from the Taxi Advisory Council) the better," he added, "we are listening."


For me, this was the most interesting aspect of the afternoon. After watching the last meeting, I posited the theory that TAC appeared to be controlled by an "old boys' and girls' network" of owners, stockholders and managers that outnumbered everyone else by an 8 to 7 margin.

This week my idea did not cut the mustard.

The 8 to 7 margin did hold for the election of the Chair but Chris Sweis was elected instead of one of the "old boys" like Jim Gillespie or Dan Hinds.  The real surprise, however, was that Barry Korengold was elected as Vice Chair when Athan Rebelos and Laurie Graham voted for Barry instead of Carl Macmurdo.

These people think for themselves. In fact, during the various ballots, at least five or six council members cast votes contrary to what my theory predicted. Well ... that's what trash cans are for.

Bill Mounsey said that there were a lot of talented, intelligent people on the council with contrary opinions and that, instead of belonging to one group or another, they needed to work together to evaluate the Pilot Plan and improve the industry.

Indeed, Chris Hayashi has put together a dynamic, talented and knowledgeable group of people. If they do end up working to improve the business instead of just serving themselves, no one would be happier than I.

On the Agenda

In his first real test as Chair, Chris Swies showed a little uncertainty as to how to proceed.

Athan Rebelos wanted to add the Driver's Fund to the agenda for the next meeting. Swies clearly did not want to do so. Under the rules that the council had established the week before, the TAC sets the agenda, not the Chair.  I think that Swies should have either asked Rebelos for a motion or opened the subject up for discussion. Instead he said that the Driver's Fund was something to be studied later and acted as if the matter was tabled.

However, Swies did acknowledge Barry Korengold, who also wanted to discuss the Driver's Fund, and said that they needed to determine on whom the monies in the fund were supposed to be spent. Korengold made a motion to add the matter to the agenda, it was seconded by Rebelos and the motion was overwhelming passed by the council.

TAC will also look at the new credit card plan and take on the question of whether or not a 5% charge should be passed on the drivers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Attack on the Muslim Taxi Driver

The creep in New York didn't attack a Muslim doctor, a Muslim lawyer or Muslim store clerk. He attacked a taxi driver. Of course, we make easy targets because most of what happens in cab takes place without witnesses. Nonetheless, you have to wonder if part of the hatred that Ahmed Sharif saw in the face of his assailant was directed at his means of livelihood as well as his occupation.

Cab drivers being assaulted, robbed or killed hardly ever makes the front page of a paper - certainly not as a lead story - yet it's a common event. The people who make lists shows taxi driving as only the 10th most dangerous job in America but most assaults on cab drivers and many robberies go unreported: partly because taxi drivers need to keep working in order to to earn their living and, partly, because many drivers don't think that the police can (or will) do anything anyway. It's only when a  driver is shot, stabbed or killed that taxi drivers get any attention.

During my career, I've had numerous incidents:
  • There have been 3 attempted robberies.
  • I've been assaulted 3 times.
  • 3 people have threatened to kill me.
  • I've had so many people threaten to assault me that I couldn't possibly count them all.
And, I'm a big friendly guy. You climb into my cab and you get greeted with a smile and a warm, "Hello."

Hmmm - I'm feeling myself beginning rant and I have to start my shift, so I'll make it short.

I think crimes against cab drivers should be classified as hate crimes. It's class warfare. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Update on Francoise's Update

Julie Rosenberg, Manager of the SFMTA Hearing Secton, says that the SFMTA sent an e-mail to Francoise this afternoon informing her that her application has been approved. She can pick up her medallion on Friday.

Now that's what I call expediting.

As the Bard put it, "All's well that ends well, I suppose."

Francoise reportedly is very excited and is finally beginning to relax.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Francoise Update

I think the best thing about cab driving is the marvelous people you meet: sometimes in the cabs, sometimes behind the wheel, sometimes at meetings. For me, 2009 and 2010 have been especially good for unique, marvelous and extraordinary humans. This year, I'm getting to know Francoise Speigleman who, in her quiet way, might be more special than any of the others.

I can't imagine carrying the responsibilities that she has shouldered over the last 10 years. Nor can I imagine accomplishing what she has with the burdens she's carried. During that period, when she averaged about 1,800 hours a year of cab driving, she's raised three kids, earned a Bachelor's degree, taught art in the schools and continued working on her own art.

From 2000 to 2004, she drove taxis five days a week from 4 am to 2pm. From 2:30 pm to 6:30, she taught art to pre-schoolers. At 7 pm she'd finally get home to take care of her kids. She says that she didn't teach art for the money. She only made about $70 day doing it. She could have done just as well simply by getting a better taxi shift.

Francoise taught because she believed that children need art in order to grow into complete human beings and she did it until she became so exhausted that she couldn't do it any more.

About the only good aspect of her situation is that it should result in hearing officers becoming better trained in the future. Both Barry Korengold and Victoria Landsdown wrote to Manager of the SFMTA Hearing Section, Julie Rosenberg who said that she and the other hearing officers "would like the opportunity to ride in taxis" so that they could understand the cab business better and improve "the application process." Rosenberg also said that she had "instructed Officer Chin to expedite his review and, assuming there are no problems, we will have a decision next week."

"Expedite?" Francoise has already waited 10 days and could wait another 10 before she discovers her fate. What would truly "expedite" the situation would be a dose of common sense. Would a medallion applicant, who only needed 800 hours for proof, fake 2,300 hours worth of waybills?

This means another week of tossing and turning. Everyone, including Francoise herself, thinks she will probably get her medallion but the uncertainly is excruciating. She still feels "like a victim of an inquisition" and doesn't know if they'll claim that she's never driven a cab at all - despite the fact that she's obviously done so for 20 years.

Francsoise borrowed the $1,700 to pay for the medallion three months ago. Her kids no longer live with her but one of them just graduated from college and still needs help now and then. The medallion will cure these financial problems when it arrives.

Francoise should have had her medallion a year ago. Can you imagine her stress and disappointment? Yet she always greets you with a warm and charming little smile.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The First Taxi Advisory Council (TAC) Meeting

The first Taxi Advisory Council meeting took place Wednesday, August 18, 2010 with Director Chris Hayashi acting as temporary chair. Although most of its business was administrative in nature, there were a few things worth noting.

Deputy City Attorney Mariam Morley gave a brief talk on the rules of San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance which begins by stating,  "Government's duty is to serve the public, reaching its decisions in full view of the public."

Morley went on to explain that, under the rules of the ordinance, members of the council should not discuss council business, aside from official meetings, if more than a quorum of eight or more of the fifteen members are present. This means:

  • They shouldn't discuss official business at group meals or other similar gatherings.
  • There should no be mass e-mailings or mass chats among the members.
  • The members should be careful even about discussing council business in small groups because (let me do the math) if 3 members discuss an issue, than each of the 3 talks about it with 2 other members, they would be violating the Sunshine Ordinance.
A righteous ideal.

The council also had its first skirmish when Barry Korengold of the SFCDA motioned that, instead of appointing one Chair to head the council, the Chair should rotate with a different member leading each meeting. Korengold said that he was concerned that a permanent Chair would have too much power to affect the proceedings.

Such a plan probably would be unique and difficult to work with but I believe that Barry was reacting to the bias favoring ownership that is built into this council. While Chris Hayashi clearly has bent over backwards to fill the council with a "variety of voices and viewpoints," it can't be denied that either seven or eight of the council members own, manage or own stock in cab companies. (I'm not sure if Ramp Taxi Medallion Holder Laurie Graham owns stock in Yellow or not.)

Indeed, sides in the fray were drawn up along class lines with six of the seven members of the Owner's and Manager's Block (as I shall call it until proved otherwise) lining up for a single Chair and most of the non-medallion holders backing the idea of a rotating Chair. Laurie Graham, I think it was, suggested compromising by having four rotating Chairs to cover the two year period of the TAC. Jane Bolig of Desoto Cab Co-op agreed to the compromise as did Barry Korengold, drivers John Han and Bill Mounsey and most other non-medallion holders while most of the Owners and Managers Block initially held out for a single Chair.

Dan Hines of National/Veterns Cab said the he "didn't like the direction" that the conversation was going and that the important thing was for everyone to come together to save the cab industry.

If this was intended to be a unifying speech, it appeared to backfire because Hinds was clearly unwilling to accept the other side's point of view.

The members went around and around before finally arriving at a compromise. There will be three Chairs for periods of six months each, meaning that there will be a single Chair from next meeting until the council makes its report to the MTA on the Pilot Plan.  However, the power of the Chair will be greatly limited.
  • The Chair must give every member who wants to comment a chance to speak.
  • Every member of the public who wants to speak during the public comment periods must be given a chance to do so.
  • The Agenda for the next meeting will be set by the council at the end of every meeting instead of letting the Chair do it.
Call it a draw. 

The next meeting will be held on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1 pm in the 2nd fl Atrium at the MTA building #1 South Van Ness and every second Monday after that.

Given the make-up of the council, it would behoove drivers on the Waiting List and ordinary drivers to attend. It's a good idea anyway.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    When Will Francoise get her medallion?

    Francoise Spiegleman has been driving cab in San Francisco for 19 years and has been on the Medallion Waiting List for 15 of those years. She has raised three children during this time and works six days a week to pay her bills, leaving her little time to spend with her grandchildren.

    Francoise had been near the top of The List for a long time but the changeover from the Taxi Commission to the SFMTA forced her to wait for an extra year to become eligible for a medallion. The grace and good humor that she showed under the uncertainty and stress of the situation impressed everyone who met her. Director Christiane Hayashi even made Francoise something of a poster child to represent people who have a legitimate expectation of getting a medallion from the waiting list

    Finally Francoise's number came up and she handed in her paperwork which included waybills proving that she had worked from between 1,497 to 2,370 during every one of the last five years. She'd also already put in 1,127 hours by June of this year. Of course this is far more than the required 800 hours. So Taxi Services inspectors then certified her qualifications.

    On August 13th, Francoise showed up at the medallion hearing with her daughter and some friends, ready to celebrate. Instead she was humiliated by hearing officer Eugene Chin who asked several personal questions that were unrelated to taxi driving and then continued the hearing for up to three weeks so that he could verify the authenticity of her unsigned waybills.

    People attending the hearing were shocked and amazed by the outcome. Barry Korengold described himself as  "agasp." (See his letter.) 

    Francoise herself described the attitude of Mr. Chin as assuming that she was "guilty until proved innocent. She also told me yesterday that she was experiencing a great deal of emotional strain and distress.

    Driver Eric Hatten, who attended the hearing, wrote me saying,

    "This obsession with hand written waybills must stop. They are an imperfect document never meant to decide the fate of drivers. They were created to be a record the police department could access in case there was a crime committed involving a driver or passenger. If you nit pick every waybill, mistakes are always going to be found.  These are documents recorded by hand, often while a driver is under the stress of picking up a passenger in the middle of a busy intersection or other less than ideal situations."

    I'd like to add that the requirements for filling out a waybill have changed over the years. Every new taxi administration seems to have its own rules and drivers have rarely been properly informed as how the waybills should be filled out.

    I discussed the subject of how to improve the hearing process so that an injustice like this doesn't happen again with  Chris  Hayashi.

    She said that, while she wasn't free to comment on any individual case, she is talking to the hearing officers about procedures such as:
    • Under what circumstances they should ask for additional information.
    • When a hearing should or should not be continued.
    • About conditional acceptance of waybills that aren't filled out perfectly.
    Hayashi also thinks that the hearing officers "would be assisted by being provided with questions that would be probative of the driving experience" of the medallion applicants. She wants to put together a series of around 200 questions that hearing officers could ask "such as the addresses or intersections of common destinations or well-known routes etc. that would be indicative of a person's experience of picking up passengers on the streets of San Francisco."

    She would like me to ask you all to send her a few questions along with the answers. She also would like to ask the drivers to distinguish if these are things that day drivers or night drivers are more likely to know. For instance, day drivers are more likely to know hospitals and night drivers are more likely to know bars.

    Director Hayashi also pointed out that once we get electronic waybills most of the problems with the hearings will disappear.

    In the meantime, Francoise waits and agonizes.

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    What Should Be Done About the Pilot Program?

    As the Taxi Advisory Council begins to study the Pilot Program, I feel the urge to consider the above question myself: What should be done?

    My immediate instinct is to say, "not very much."

    First, let me recap what the plan basically does.
    • It allows drivers over 70 to sell their medallion for a fixed priced of $250,00 in order to help them retire.
    • It continues to give medallions to drivers who've put in their time on The Waiting List.
    • It also allows drivers on the list to buy medallions at the fixed price if they so choose.
    • It sets up a driver's fund for non-medallion holding drivers.
    The plan, as you may recall, was a compromise between numerous people with a variety of ideas that was gradually worked out over a period of almost a year. There were reasons why the specific ideas in this plan where chosen over others.

    The Fixed Price of of $250,000 accomplished four things:
    1. It gave older drivers a fairly large sum of money to help them retire
    2. It kept the price low enough so that a driver would be able to pay for a loan with the money he or she would get for leasing out the medallion to a company.
    3. It was a figure that credit unions were willing to risk loaning money on. 
    4. It limited the number of medallions that would be sold at one time so that system would not be overwhelmed.
    The Fixed Price also was thought to be a way to keep skilled drivers in the taxi business.

    The Waiting List was maintained because it was agreed that drivers who had already spent years waiting for a medallion had earned the right to get one without having to pay for it.

    The Driver's Fund set up a fund to help non-medallion holding drivers for the first time in over 30 years.

    For me, these were the three most important things and I don't think that they should be radically changed after less than six months of trial. It will probably take at least three years to go through the Waiting List and I don't think the program should be drastically changed until this is done.

    However, there a few modifications that should be considered.
    • The age of he sellers can probably be lowered to 65 as more and more older drivers sell off their medallions.
    • A retirement option like the one put forth by Barry Korengold should be reconsidered.
    • Barry also had an idea for a "Driver's Investment Fund" that bears looking into.
    • The SFMTA is getting too high a percentage from the sales. The charge in most cities is around 5%
    Of course there will be complications that will arise from the sale of the medallions that I haven't thought of yet and there are 15 people on the TAC that will be studying what happens. As the sales proceed and the list is cleaned up, what needs to be done in the future should become clearer.

    There is one aspect of the plan, however, that I think should be changed now - the wording that establishes the Drivers Fund. The way it currently reads is:

    "The SFMTA shall establish a Driver Fund. The SFMTA shall deposit all Driver Fund Transfer Fees into the Driver Fund and may, in its sole and absolute discretion, elect to deposit other monies into the Fund. Monies in the Driver Fund may be expended by the SFMTA."

    There was no consensus reached during the  Town Hall Meetings as to how the money in the Driver's Fund should be used but there was no doubt as to who it should be used for. It was agreed that the fund should be used solely for the benefit of non-medallion holding drivers.

    Director Hayashi has often joked about cab drivers not reading the text of the regulations she writes and I confess that I didn't read Pilot Program carefully until the other day. The specific wording of the last sentence is clearly an oversight on the part of the Director. I mean, I'm sure she wouldn't want the money in Driver Fund used for SFMTA junkets.

    I think that the last sentence should read something like, "Monies in the Driver Fund should be expended solely for the benefit of non-medallion holding drivers." And it should be changed ASAP - before people forget why the fund was set up in the first place.

          Wednesday, August 4, 2010

          First San Francisco Medallion Sale in 33 Years

          Flanked by Director Christiane Hayashi of Taxi Services and Executive Director Nat Ford of the SFMTA Board, Ahmad Sidaoui holds the medallion that he has just bought from Mildred Megarity.

          Mrs. Megarity purchased the medallion in 1968 for $20,000 and she still has the original sales slip.

          Mr. Sidaoui, who has driven cab in San Francisco since 1984, has been on The List for 14 years and was number 168 yesterday.

          "I didn't know how long I'd have to wait to get a free medallion," Mr. Sidaoui told me. "It might be one year, might be five years, might be ten years ... so I jumped at the chance to get one now."

          He said that he only put down five percent as down payment and described himself as "very, very happy."

          Director Ford spoke about the sale as being an important step in integrating the taxi industry into the MTA. When asked about potential law suits he said, "We'll deal with that if it comes up."

          Director Hayashi said that she had about 18 medallions that are basically processed and ready for sale. Overall she estimates that a total of 150 to 200 medallions will be sold during the Pilot Program including the 60 that she will sell outright for the MTA. On top of this, 60 medallions will also go to drivers who have earned them by staying on the Waiting List for a long, long time.

          Rebecca Lytle, Vice President of Lending at the San Francisco Federal Credit Union, estimates that ten medallions will be sold within the next ten days and says, "Now that the program is official," sales will be processed more quickly.

          Although the emphasis was supposed to be on the medallion sale, Carl Mcmurdo of the MHA upstaged the event with this suit.

          Supposedly he bought it after seeing it in a performance of "No Exit" by Jean Paul Sartre six years ago and vowed never to wear it until a medallion was sold. An easy feat in my opinion.

          A few more photos.

          The man and woman on the ends are Steven Stapp President & CEO of the San Francisco Federal Credit Union and Rebecca Lytle.

          And, finally, my shot of the people who are always forgotten at such ceremonies - the guys who did the work that brought the Pilot Program to fruition. 

          Tuesday, August 3, 2010

          Medallions for Sale! MTA Board Votes to Begin the Pilot Program

          This afternoon the SFMTA Board finally gave the go-a-head to Taxi Services to begin selling Taxi Medallions. The action followed a hand-full of speeches where nobody said anything original. And, how could they? The subject has already been talked to death.

          Mark Gruberg and Tariq Mehmood spoke against the measure and then got the "politics make strange bedfellows" award by sitting poignantly next to each other after they lost.

          Dan Hinds, Hansu Kim, Jane Bolig, Jim Gillespie, Carl Mcmurdo, myself and others spoke in favor.

          Barry Korengold probably made the best point of the day when he reminded everyone that, in their enthusiasm to sell the medallions, not to forget the drivers on the waiting list.

          Director Malcom Heinicke delayed the vote for several minutes with a series of questions to Director Hayashi revealing that Heincke probably hasn't read text of the Pilot Program for some time.

          Director Hayashi said that she had 18 medallions ready for sale and Rebecca Lytle of the San Francisco Federal Credit Union said that she would be able to sell the first two tomorrow morning.

          Thus will history, in a small way, be made.

          Sunday, August 1, 2010

          Goodbye Chengdu, Goodbye China - Revised

          Chengdu, China

          It's a rare, beautiful sunny day with blue sky here so I'll make this as short as I can.

          The Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yi Mou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "To Live," "The Hero") said, "Once you get to Chengdu, you just don't want to leave."

          I share the feeling. At first glance, the city doesn't look like anything special but it grows on you. It has beautiful parks and lakes, an ancient history, some classic architecture, wonderful nearby mountains and towns, and that fabulous, fantastic cuisine.

          I had dinner with a Chinese friend of mine that I knew from editing classes at San Francisco City College. He's now a documentary filmmaker who lived in Paris and is moving here from Beijing. The weather is ideal for film making; there is a strong artistic community and, of course, Li Bai and Du Fu, two of China's greatest classic poets once lived here. I say "of course" because the Chinese have a relationship to their history and culture that is almost incomprehensible to us. They have a sense of time that makes the 1,200 years separating us from Du Fu seem like nothing at all. Almost everyone knows his poetry or at least has heard of it.

          China has been seduced by the west and Chengdu is no exception. There is a huge shopping area larger than downtown San Francisco that has every European or American store that you've ever heard of. You can spend 4 times as much money for a Starbuck's latte as you would for a traditional Chinese breakfast if you like - which is the optimal phrase - "If you like." The traditional China surrounds the new China. You can pick and choose. My favorite bit of Americana is the Dairy Queen. For a dollar US, I can get a double-scoop of vanilla that tastes just like the ice cream cone that I used to eat 50 years ago in Star Prarie, Wisconsin.

          It's amazing how quickly I've adapted to the local traffic. What I thought crazy a month ago seems normal to me now. However, I'm no longer such a staunch fan of the local cab drivers. Their knowledge of the city still impresses me, but there are far too many drivers who drive me up the wall with their tailgating and stupidly dangerous maneuvers. The latest has been a couple of drivers who incorrectly claimed that their seat belts didn't work. One of them had a newspaper covering his left window to protect his face from the sun so that he had no peripheral vision on a side of the street where he repeatedly made lane changes. Naturally, he was constantly talking on his cell, meaning that his hands were rarely on the steering wheel of his standard transmission car. I guess our profession simply attracts many people with no concept of reality.

          But this may just be bitching. On the whole, the drivers are very good. I've even learned a few tricks from them. For instance, taxi drivers in China often cut in front of slower drivers by making left turns on the wrong side of the street so they are facing the oncoming traffic. Then, they work there way over to the proper lane. Everyone knows what they are doing so the other drivers let them in.

          I think the technique might be even more effective in San Francisco where no one would have any idea of what I was doing. The shock value alone should allow me to pass three or four cars. I just have to remember to try the stunt in my cab, not in my own car.
          A political note.

          Recently the U.S. has done two things that the Chinese have found insulting or threatening. First,  Hilary Clinton gave (I think) $10 million to a group called the Falon Gong in order to "help promote freedom in China." Second, the U.S. held war games in the China Sea in order to encourage China to keep North Korea in line.

          The ignorance required to have made these moves is hard to comprehend.

          The Falon Gong is an organization that believes that the world should be a theocracy ruled by a prince. Freedom is of no interest whatsoever to the followers of the cult. In any case, the Chinese intellectuals I talked to thought the group a ridiculous joke. Certainly not people worth insulting China over. It would have taken a Hilary assistant about an hour to find this out. He or she could pick up most of it simply by reading the Falon Gong web page.

          North Korea is not a province of China and is run by a lunatic. What is China supposed to do? Invade North Korea for the USA?

          I'll pass over the historical insult (the China Sea is where the European and American ships came to invade and colonize China for 200 years) but it's fresh in the minds of the Chinese. I'll just mention a military exercise I witnessed a few years ago in nowhere China.

          I was having tea at an outside cafe when a platoon of soldiers came out into a nearby field for their evening exercises. At first, I couldn't believe what I saw. It was a whole platoon of gong fu experts, of Bruce Lees, going through their daily work-out. I'd never see anything to equal it - not even in movies - although I've since seen enough similar workouts in other parts of China to believe that this might be a normal part of being a soldier in China.

          In short, the Chinese are not a people you want to fuck with and it's disconcerting to see that our "China experts" seem to be so ignorant of this extraordinary country. It's time to stop this absurd saber-rattling.

          Finally, I couldn't help but notice that my travelling companion soon started controlling (or trying to) every aspect of my life. I drink too much beer, I drink too much coffee, I drink too much tea, I'm too fat, I should eat more vegetables etc etc etc in an endless litany.

          Furthermore, I don't want to overgeneralize, but I looked around and it seemed like a lot of Chinese women were ordering Chinese men around. So I said to my friend,

          "I thought Chinese women were supposed to be meek, humble and worship men."

          When she stopped choking on her laughter, she finally said,

          "Maybe back in the old days but ever since Mao liberated us, women are absolutely the boss."

          "I thought liberation was supposed to result in equality."

          "How can we be equal when man ruled woman for 5,000 years?

          "You mean - you want your turn."

          "Correct," she said and then told me what she claimed was a famous Chinese joke.

          A bunch of men were sitting around a village square talking about how their wives were hen-pecking them.

          "My wife won't let me drink," one of them said.

          "My wife never stops complaining," said another.

          "My wife beats me," said a third.

          They sat and talked about what to do about this situation. Finally, they decided to find out how many men were NOT abused by their wives so they could learn from them.

          "Everybody who is hen-pecked by his wife," one of them announced, "move to the left side of the square!"

          Every man in the village walked over to the left side - except for Lao Wang. He just sat there calmly smoking a cigarette.

          "What a man!" They exclaimed. "Surely, we can learn from him."

          So they went over to hear his secret.

          "My wife," Lao Wang told them, "tells me to never follow the crowd."

          My friend just kept giggling and giggling while I walked alongside, licking my Dairy Queen.

          Addendum: The Correct Version of the Story

          My Traveling Companion read my story in my blog. She didn't like my version and told me to correct it. 

          "The opening and the punch line  are weak," she told me."I don't know where you got the village? This isn't a countryside story."

          Here, then, is the corrected story in her words.

          Nowadays in Chinese society man has become weaker at home and women have become very powerful. Because of this phenomenon the men formed a group called the Henpecked Association. Everybody who belonged was afraid of his wife. The leader of the association said,

          "This is not right. We've all become so weak. Let's find a way to correct this problem. Let's have a detailed discussion. Let's do this ... whoever is henpecked, whoever is afraid of his wife - go to the left side of the room ... and whoever is not afraid of his wife - go to the right side."

          Everyone immediately moved to the left side of the room, including the leader, except for one man who walked to the right side.

          The other men looked at him in awe as if he was a saint, as if he was a god. How could this man not be afraid of his wife?

          "You brave man," the leader asked, "can you tell us your experience, can you tell us your trick for not being afraid of your wife?

          Everybody was so interested that they leaned forward with admiration to hear his words. 

          However, the man only uttered one sentence.

          "My wife tells me, 'never even go near the crowd.'"

          "I still think," I said, "'don't follow the crowd' is better."

          "Don't argue with me,"