'YOU WANNA go Em-pie Stay Building, lady? Hop in.' You must be kidding] A New York City cabbie may not be able to get you to the Empire State, Grand Central Station, or Times Square in Oxford English. But the odds are he can do it in Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian or Creole; also Pashto, Ibibio, Estonian, Romanian, Khmer and Twi. And about 43 other tongues. Who says Americans aren't good at languages?

New York is the world's immigrant city; its taxi drivers are a kind of barometer of who's just off the boat. This is where people look for an entry-level job, for a leg-up on to the ladder - Pakistanis, Egyptians, Romanians, Russians, Haitians, you can watch whole colonies absorb themselves into the city. Probably the first locals whom these visitors meet are taxi drivers. They are the philosopher kings of the city roads and set the style for this talkative, opinionated, querulous, thrillingly multi-cultural mess that is New York.

Taxi driving is, more than ever, an immigrant trade in New York; it always has been. It has always been multinational, too, unlike some businesses which are dominated for years by a single group; in the old days, all shoemakers were Italian, all deli-owners were Jewish, all cops were Irish; these days, Indian Sikhs run petrol stations, Koreans run the greengrocers, Guyanese run the chemists and machine repair shops.

In fact, for about 30 years, beginning in the Thirties, most Italians, Irish and Jews - those not employed resoling shoes, policing the streets or slicing pastrami - were driving taxis. Normally, they were second generation; in those days the first-generation immigrant could rarely drive. Those guys drove night and day and they drove, for the most part, for life; their kids became accountants, lawyers and doctors.

The cabbie of city legend was a Jewish know-it-all, a Damon Runyon figure who could tell you how to run your life and the President how to run the country. Either that or he would tell you how he had just dropped Frank Sinatra off for a nightcap at 3am.

For the most part, immigrant drivers in New York have come looking for a better life, better jobs, more money. In other parts of the country, you can often tell where the wars are according to who is behind the wheel. Friends report Yugoslavs in Washington DC, and I once had an Ethiopian driver in Denver.

The formal statistics reflect changing times: of older drivers, 35 per cent classify themselves as white, 27 per cent as black, 15 per cent as Indian, 12 per cent Asian and 11 per cent Hispanic. For new drivers, it is 48 per cent Indian, 24 per cent white, 18 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic and 3 per cent Asian. However you assess the statistics, the irrefutable on-the-ground evidence is that the origins of New York's cabbies reflect the changes in the city itself.

Less than 11 per cent of new applicants for jobs as New York City taxi drivers are born in the US. This is how the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) computes the statistics on the national origins of the 40,000 licensed drivers: at the last count there were cabbie wannabes from 84 countries including, at the top of the list, the Indian subcontinent, the former Soviet republics, Egypt and Haiti; at the bottom: Senegal, Afghanistan, Mali, Israel, China and Ireland. From the United Kingdom this year: none.

You want to talk politics, religion, the finer points of Indian cuisine? Wanna discuss with a mild-mannered Cairene whether Bill Clinton should diet before the inauguration, or hear the newest Dan Quayle joke (Quayle jokes will go on long after the death of Dan), or discuss whether or not that 'Queen over there' should pay taxes? Wanna rap on rugby, soccer or cricket (baseball often takes a back seat except with the 11 per cent US-born drivers or a rare Cuban)? Hop in, pal. You want New York City geography? Get a map, Jack.

Pakistan, Bangladesh and India provide 4 per cent of new applicants for jobs as New York taxi drivers, the city's most worldly asset (about 80 per cent get their licences). This, along with the Caribbean drivers (applicants have dropped from 27 per cent in 1984 to 8 per cent, but there are plenty of old-timers in evidence), has made it worthwhile my boning up on cricket, a sport not naturally accessible to Americans.

This I discovered when I boarded a taxi on Broadway one Sunday with a friend from Yorkshire. The cabbie, speaking with a faint West Indian lilt, realised one of his passengers was a Brit. Immediately there followed what I have come to think of as 'the New York cabbie's cricket rap'. He was from Barbados, as it turned out; his father had been a famous Twenties wicket-keeper. Our driver, who was also a jazz pianist, batted facts and myths about cricket back and forth with my Yorkshire friend who was, by now, in a state of ecstasy (without artificial assistance); he subsequently invited our cabbie to lunch.

I can also do Sir Learie Constantine with Trinidadians and, more useful still in the subcontinental Nineties, Imran Khan and Waqar Younis with Pakistanis.

Some of the statistics kept by the TLC, a powerful and political city commission, are a little ambiguous: this year, there were more Pakistanis applying to drive cabs (1,605) than there were claiming New York as their home (862). That is because the first set of statistics is measured according to applications by new cabbies and the second set refers to those immigrants who have established permanent residency in the Big Apple, which can take years. Of the five countries that dominate immigration - the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana, China and Haiti (more than 5,000 immigrants a year), only Haiti currently provides a number of new taxi drivers.

In recent weeks I have listened to Romanians complaining, Moscow entrepreneurs conniving and Indians philosophising. I have exchanged reflections on the sorrows of Haiti and the horrors of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the fiercely right-wing French politician, with unfailingly sweet Haitian cabbies, who all seem to have names like Pierre ReveDouce or Roland Pomme d'Amour.

Many New Yorkers whine about the 'no-speakees'; in fact, it is the foreigners who do not know where they are going anyway who complain about the drivers who don't know where they're going either. (A person has to make a living, lady])

A lot of New Yorkers like to play 'guess the nationality' by looking at the cabbie's name on his licence. This provides high- level gossip during gridlock. One woman, it was reported recently in the New York Times, guessing her driver was Peruvian, tried to start up a conversation about the Shining Path. Discovering he was Colombian, they got into the Medellin cartel instead.

As a symbol of the city, the New York taxi is mythic. It figures in every rendering of Gotham: in Batman, in Breakfast at Tiffany's, in the 1932 Taxi] with James Cagney. Think of Taxi, the television sitcom that made Danny de Vito famous; or the mystical taxi in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. In On the Town, the trio of sailors - Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin - take their girls on the town in big yellow taxis which become part of the music of the city. In Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays a crackpot in flares whose cab is a kind of nightmare mount, a psycho-cowboy who rides the range in a surreal night-time city.

My favourite rendering of the quintessential meaning of the taxi, though, was a cartoon in New Yorker magazine. In it, the process of human evolution is shown as progression from slime creature to ape to man. At the pinnacle of evolution, illustrating survival of the fittest, is New York Man, waving his hand frantically and screaming, 'Taxi]'

The evolution of the New York cab was a little quicker. The first known taxi was an Egyptian water cab, about 4000BC. Moving rapidly forward into the 17th century, first in Paris, then in London, there were horse-drawn hackneys. As early as 1623, London's wherry (boat) operators were already complaining - protesting that the hackneys 'rob us of our living and carry 500 fares from us'.

Taxis soon came under government regulation. In 1800, in Paris, the cabriolet, a speedy two- wheeled chaise drawn by a single horse, was dubbed the 'cab'. In 1834, Joseph Hansom patented the Hansom Patent Safety Cab. It had plenty of imitators whom Hansom's employees, most of them Jewish, called 'shofuls', a Yiddish word for 'rubbish'. In English, this slang originally meant counterfeit, but inside a few decades it became absolutely and synonymous with cabs: all hansoms were called 'showfulls' or 'sofuls'.

In America, at the beginning of the 20th century, with feverish urbanisation and immigration, the taxi industry emerged. By 1890, four out of five people living in greater New York were foreign- born or had foreign parents; in the first decade of the 20th century, American cities added 11.8m residents, of whom 41 per cent were immigrants.

Before the automobile became the taxi of choice there were a few crackpot efforts to improve on the hansom cab: Pedro Slalom's Electrobat was not a success. It was a hansom cab with a battery that weighed 900lb and took eight hours to recharge.

Semantically, however, Harry N Allen was the father of the taxi cab. For his New York vehicles he imported the French taxi-metre which could measure taxes, or fares, and the 'taxi cab' was born.

In the way the men who made Hollywood were immigrant dreamers - and entrepreneurs - so were the men who made the taxis run. Among them was John Hertz.

Mr Hertz arrived in Chicago from the 'Mittel' European village of Ruttka. He lived in a home for waifs and worked at dozens of jobs, eventually getting into the taxi business in 1907.

After reading a University of Chicago study that said yellow was the colour most easily spotted, Mr Hertz developed the Yellow Cab. He was responsible for the purpose-built taxi; he made it affordable - cabs had always been for rich folk. Mr Hertz organised Yellow Cab companies in other towns, including New York City, where it became part of the local iconography. Later, dreaming of an America restlessly in motion, Mr Hertz set up the first car rental service.

Morris Markin was born in 1893 in Smolensk, and arrived at Ellis Island unable to speak English and without any cash; an Ellis Island janitor lent him the requisite cash needed to enter the country. Eventually, Mr Markin got into taxis. He turned Checker, with its headquarters in Kalamazoo, Michigan, into the third largest fleet in the country and Checker cabs into one of the lost icons of New York City.

Everyone loved Checker cabs. They were commodious vehicles - as someone wrote, 'the Faberge eggs, the Shakespeare folios of New York City taxidom'. But Checkers were not mean machines. Driving the city was not easy in these glorious fat cabs.

In 1962, 8,072 Checkers were produced in 95 shades of yellow, including Cleveland yellow and New York yellow. Now they are only a cult - vintage transport for movie-makers or run as private cars called Checker 'Marathons' (Nelson Rockefeller owned one). In October, I saw a New York Checker parked outside the Aerostar Hotel in Moscow. But in 1991 there were only 15 on the New York streets and people run after them in the way a sentimental Russian might hail an old troika on a snowy day.

Other countries have taxis, of course; in Ireland, taxis have religion and politics; in France, taxi drivers have attitude, especially the older type: the one with the beret and bad breath who keeps a bottle of Evian water in the front seat beside a hideous dog and snapshots of nymphets, probably his daughters. In Israel, people take taxis between cities - Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, for instance.

In Moscow, you can judge the prevailing common currency according to what a driver demands. Once, Moscow cabs had meters and you paid in roubles. By the late Eighties it was Marlboros. In 1992, we are talking greenbacks. Five bucks will get you almost anywhere in Moscow; it will also get you a stream of invective about bureaucrats and cops.

Then there is the ne plus ultra of taxidom, the British black cab, the country's last great institution, the Anglophile's most enduring pleasure. Chunky, plump, comfy, the black cabs have drivers who know how and where they are going and who actually speak English. What is more, although I am an obsessive taxi-taker, I have only ever had two or three surly drivers. Complainers maybe (You want Euston station? At this hour?); politicians, inevitably; characters, yes, but hardly ever a creep.

Compared to British drivers who have done the Knowledge, the New York cabbie is a know- nothing neophyte. At least 80 per cent of drivers are foreign-born men. (Only a tiny proportion is female, because women are afraid of the crime that kills a few drivers every week in New York.)

The TLC requires new drivers to take a minimum 20-hour taxi- training course in city geography, passenger relations, safe driving skills and TLC rules in order to get a licence to drive one of the city's 11,787 yellow medallioned cabs. To buy a medallion these days costs about dollars 130,000 ( pounds 86,000); newcomers often work for fleet owners.

Riding a New York taxi is a little like white-water rafting. You never know what lies ahead: impassable streets as pocked and potholed as a Third World town, sudden bursts of lights on Park Avenue at Christmas, or a sunset over the East River.

In a single day, to the accompaniment of salsa, reggae or the latest radio 'shock-jock', you may get an exquisitely eclectic menu of conversation consisting of where to eat Russian in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; a Dominican's views on American education; an oration on the corruption in the TLC complete with expletives in Arabic, plus a little light racism in almost every accent.

Older New York cabbies were generally comics manques; the new breed writes poems. Here are some lines from Thomas Ostrowski, 'cab-driver poet' as he calls himself. The poem, entitled JFK (as in the airport, presumably), is an immigrant cabbie's lament: 'Welcome to New York / And for you I will not lag / I take care of your luggage for just five dollars a bag . . . / I started driving just today / I am an honest man / You must no longer yell at me / I do the best I can.'

Then there is the taxi driver know only as the 'Cabbie Prince'. 'I'm prince of the cabbies and a prince of a fellow / I'm red in the face, but my blood runs yellow.'

The Cabbie Prince has already planned his epitaph: 'Potters' Field, Randalls Island, / Not known for its beauty; / On my stone let it say: / Prince of Cabbies - OFF-DUTY]'

BArometers of international migration

The American television sitcom Taxi provided a start for actors such as Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch (above), and turned the multi-cultural New York cabbie into a national icon. Today, the formal statistics reflect changing patterns of international migration. Of older drivers in New York, 35 per cent classify themselves as white, 27 per cent as black, 15 per cent as Indian, 12 per cent Asian and 11 per cent Hispanic. For new drivers, it is 48 per cent Indian, 24 per cent white, 18 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic and 3 per cent Asian.

At the last count applications for a licence for one of the city's 11,787 yellow medallioned cabs came from 84 nationalities, headed by the Indian subcontinent, the former Soviet republics, Egypt and Haiti. At the bottom were Senegal, Afghanistan, Mali, Israel, China and Ireland. Applications from the United Kingdom this year: none

(Photograph omitted)