I was recently in downtown Berkeley near Berkeley City College and I saw a line of cabs with their drivers standing around talking in four different languages waiting for fares (passengers). It did not resemble the cast of the TV show “Taxi” at all! People who are looking for work and have little experience often seek my advice on getting a job. Many of them say they want to work with people and make a difference. I ask them if they have a clean driving record. If they do I tell them – drive a cab!
I first started driving a Taxicab in January 1968, right after my 19th birthday. I was going to City College in Philadelphia and unemployed. I saw a notice in the want ads that said Yellow Cab had just lowered the age for drivers from 21 to 18. I jumped at the chance! My black Volkswagen Beetle (named Bernadette) had just blown its engine because I had never checked the oil. I saw this as an opportunity not only to make money, and have a car to drive, but also to see the world. The world being all the parts of Philadelphia and the surrounding area I had never been to.
I showed up that first day at 9:00 am. They asked for my driver’s license and said the only other requirement was to pass the driving test. Back then drivers license didn’t haven’t any pictures on them and I could have been anyone. There was no interview, no application, no questions asked. That was it! The driving test consisted of five of us in a Plymouth, three speed manual transmission, and shift on the column. The veteran cab driver, who tested us, said before we took off, “You all passed already so don’t be nervous.” I thought he was kidding! It turned out two people had never driven a stick shift before and one of them had only gotten their drivers license a week earlier. We took turns driving. I was the first one to drive. The instructor commented on how smooth I was. The next driver, who had never touched a clutch in his life, stalled the car three times before he could get it moving. The first time he came to a stop light the car stalled again. There was a smell of burning clutch. The next driver almost got hit by a bus. I wanted to jump out of the cab. We were on Wissahickon Drive – the same road on which the singer Teddy Pendergras got into his infamous accident, and became paralyzed. After an hour of taking turns we somehow made it back to the garage. The instructor was true to his word. He told the dispatcher in charge, “They did great, they all passed.” I was shocked! What was being unleashed on the public? We were instructed to return at 3:00 pm, later that day, wearing a white shirt and black slacks, to start an eight hour shift. Only four of the five people I took the test with showed up at 3:00 pm. They told us we had to join the union, and gave us a black plastic brimmed cap to wear. We were Philadelphia cab drivers.
After my first eight hour shift I returned around midnight to the garage prepared to hear horror stories about my fellow rookie drivers. Five minutes after I pulled in the clutch burner, and the one week driver both drove in as smooth as silk. They were smiling from ear to ear. I think they were surprised as much as I was that they had survived the first night. I never talked to them again. Unlike Taxi on TV, we rarely had friendly banter or socialized after a shift, mostly because we spent most of the night trying to steal each other’s cab fares.
I occasionally drove during the day, and hated it. Between rush hour traffic and people calling you to the supermarket for a two block fare, daytime was a bummer. One good thing about being a cab driver is that unlike a bus driver I could decide who to pick up. That’s why I also didn’t like house calls. You never knew who you were picking up or what was happening on the other side of the door before you rang the bell. Domestic violence, family feuds, people needing to go to the hospital. Some people would call a cab, when they should have called for the police or an ambulance. I’ve seen it all
I eventually went to the late night 12 hour shift – 6:00pm to 6:00am. I met some fun folks and usually had a ball. People were mostly loaded and in a good mood. They were going and coming from parties, shows, bars and they tipped well. The occasional temperamental passenger and confrontational drunk gave me a lot of opportunities to practice some of the same skills I use today in diffusing negative situations. Every night I would also ask who got in my cab the same one or two questions. It was a great random sample of the mood of the City. If you think about it people that rode in cabs were the rich who could afford it; the poor who couldn’t afford a car; and the folks in the middle. I learned a lot.
The cab became my personal ride. I rarely made any money. I went on dates, concerts, drove friends around and occasionally paid the meter myself in order to show some income. I considered it paying a car rental fee. Whatever I made on the meter I split at the end of the night with the cab company. If the dome light on top of the cab was on that meant the meter was off (flag-high) and the cab company wasn’t making any money. They had supervisors who rode around all day looking for drivers that were flag high. I got written up constantly for being flag high – riding with passengers, the meter off and the dome light on. Eventually I was given a termination notice and sent to the shop steward.
I went to the union office in South Philly. There were five or six burly Italian guys sitting around smoking cigars, playing cards, wearing white tank tops (commonly referred to as wife beaters today), suspenders, and some even had on spats over their shoes. This was before the movie Goodfellas, but believe, me I knew who they were, and a smiled spread across my face as I realized that I wasn’t about to lose my job. Someone scribbled something on the termination notice I handed them and said, “Take this back to the dispatcher and tell him to fuhged aboudit!” I was a Teamster, Jimmy Hoffa, Local 107, and I had job security.
Every morning when I brought the cab in at 6:00 am there were notices on the bulletin board. Sometimes they said Winston Burton report to the office at 8:00 am (that’s another reason I worked from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am), but too often they were about a cab driver getting robbed, look out for this type of car, beware of a certain address and other bad news. Usually when drivers were robbed they were forced in the trunk and their cab key taken. They would wait awhile and climb from the trunk into the back seat. Some drivers got robbed so often that they carried an extra cab key, and would keep on driving.
One day there was a look-out notice for a suspect who had tied a cab driver to a tree and killed him with a hatchet.
It was July 1968, another failing semester of college was done and my thoughts were all over the place. I handed in my cab keys and turned west to California where my brother was living. I realize now that I had only driven a cab for six months, but oh what a life changing experience.
In 1980 I was unemployed and living in Oakland. I had gotten a job offer to work at a local employment program, but I wouldn’t get my first paycheck for at least two weeks. I had a choice to eat that night or wait two weeks, and I was hungry. Once again I returned to the late night world of the three c’s – cops, crooks and cabs. After my first cab fare I took the eight dollars I had made and went to the Hof Brau on Broadway in downtown Oakland an had a huge roast beef sandwich. On the way out I was approached by a guy in a wheelchair who had asked if I was back on duty and if he could get a ride. Some cab drivers did not like to pick-up people in wheelchairs, not necessarily because they were callous, but mostly because they wanted to do as little as possible, (the same reason I didn’t like supermarket fares). Another reason was because many people with disabilities paid with script or vouchers instead of cash, and cabbies (lazy or not) would do anything for a good cash tip. But not me! I put his wheelchair in the trunk and helped him into the backseat of the cab. He slumped down having difficulty sitting upright on his own, so while I was driving I heard his voice, but never could see his face. We took off on a clear summer’s night and he gave me an address on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley. I thought what a good fare this is, the start of a good night. It was about 7:30 pm.
Not being able to see him in my rear view mirror somehow added to our conversation which was non-stop and we had many things in common. We were about the same age, he had once lived in Philadelphia, and we both liked Miles, Jimi and Coltrane – my favorite music makers. Like me he had a live-in girlfriend and we swapped tales about people, places and things in our past as well as plans for our future.
When we got close to his house he stopped talking. There was about a two minute pause and he said, “I used to drive a cab.” “Where and when”, I asked. “In Oakland! I used to drive about five years ago before I got hurt”, he said. “How did you get hurt, and why did you stop driving,” I inquired. What he told me next changed my life, my career and how I viewed people and the world forever. “What I remember was that I was driving a cab in downtown Oakland late at night, and I picked up a man near the Hof Brau where you met me. The next thing I remember was being in a hospital bed hooked up to various machines. I found out later that I had been in the hospital for about a month, in and out of consciousness. I had several operations during that time to repair as much damage as possible from a bullet wound to the back of my skull. To this day there’s still a piece in my head they didn’t remove. The police never caught the person who shot me. They said they found me slumped in the front seat, cab still running, and they surmised that the assailant shot me with no warning at a red light, grabbed my cash and took off.
“I never talk about this, but for some reason I felt compelled to tell you my story, as if I’ve known you for along time”, he said. I was blown away! “I’m glad you told me. Sometimes talking about things helps with the healing”, I said half heartedly. I realized that we had been sitting in front of the address he had given me for almost an hour (meter turned off) just yakking away. I opened the door and retrieved his wheelchair from the trunk. He seemed a lot heavier putting him back in the chair than he did taking him out. (Maybe because my legs felt wobbly.) I offered to push him up the driveway, which was slightly inclined, to his doorway. He declined my help, but I insisted. As we got close to the house an attractive woman opened the door and said, “Are you alright? I noticed the cab in front of the house over a half an hour ago.” “Just guy talk,” my fare said. He paid the cab bill, in cash, but I declined the tip. As I walked down the hill to my cab I saw her standing behind the wheel chair, the two of them silhouetted in the doorway waving goodbye. I thought that could be me. It was 9:30 pm. I had seven hours left on a ten hour shift. I drove back to the garage and turned in my cab and keys and I haven’t driven a cab since.
I still think that a lot of what I know of human nature and dealing with the public I learned driving a cab. It could be a required college course or community service like military mandatory inscription in some countries. For many it’s a noble profession – learn American culture, human nature, your community and English at the same time you’re getting paid. People who are looking for work and have little experience often seek my advice on getting a job. Many of them say they want to work with people and make a difference. I ask them if they have a clean driving record. If they do I still tell them – drive a cab. Driving a cab was one of my favorite jobs, even though I fell off the horse and never got back on.