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A cabbie's conundrum: Friday night, drug night, on the far south side



It's a Friday night and cool outside. Harold Fox picks up his cab at Sauk Trail Taxi in South Chicago Heights and, still learning his trade, does a little mental preparation to be robbed. It's first-come, first-served here, and Fox is early enough to select the best of the six cars on the lot.

With an extensive territory that runs from the far south side to the south suburbs of Blue Island, Chicago Heights, Dolton, Frankfort, Hazel Crest, Matteson, Olympia Fields, Park Forest, and Richton Park, Fox has a good chance of making big money tonight. And of losing it.

Friday is drug night, and Fox knows he'll be asked to either pick up some dope, drop off a dope package, or drive some customer on a long and costly ride into one of Chicago's neighborhoods to buy cocaine or marijuana. "They're pretty open about it," he says of his customers. "They tell you just what they're looking for, where they're going to get it, where they want you to take them. I'm always amazed."

Fox is an independent contractor: he rents the cab and whatever he takes is his. On most nights, he will make $40 to $60; on Friday it can go as high as $150, depending on how late he stays out. Fox stays out late enough to earn a tidy sum.

The most popular spots for drugs are centered mostly around the east end of Chicago Heights, Fox says, on Wentworth between East 16th and Lincoln Highway. "It's your typical ghetto area," he notes. "It looks like someone dropped a bomb on it."

"It's an interesting mix here," he adds. "The whole town has only 36,000 people. You can drive a few blocks one way and find homes worth $250,000. There's even a country club. The places we usually get dispatched to have a lot of grafitti, it's dirty, there's lots of funeral homes, churches, liquor stores, and barbecue places. The white drivers don't want to go into the dangerous sections of Chicago Heights. I don't blame them. Who would?

"In Chicago," he says, "taxi drivers make their big fares during the day [from businesspeople]. Out here, it's all in the night. You take your chances. You never know if some dope fiend is going to blow you away because he didn't like the way you looked, or you didn't want to make all the stops he wants to make, or you just don't want to get involved in it.

"All your calls are radio dispatched and the dispatcher is supposed to divvy up the rides equally between the drivers, but you don't see much equality. I think they tend to keep the black drivers in the ghetto areas of town. They must not realize how much money you can make if you're willing to take the chance."

As the night slows down and the calls get thin, Fox joins his fellow drivers for a break in the parking lot of the Plaza, a Park Forest landmark. Built in the late 1940s as the first outdoor shopping center in the United States, the Plaza saw years of disrepair before investors pumped millions into its renovation. Now the place has a new name--the Centre--but to folks around town, and to a lot of these drivers, it's still the Plaza. Fox pulls the cab into the parking lot after stopping at a nearby Dominick's for a six-pack of Coke. Here he can relax a while, until the next dispatcher call comes in, and swap a few stories with the other drivers.

Fox says that with me around he'll have to do most of the talking. "They probably won't talk to you," he says. "For me, this is a summer job. To them, it's a living. They don't want anything to happen. They don't want to lose this money."

Born in Sacramento, Fox has spent most of his working life as an educator, including a stint as a high school counselor in Anchorage, Alaska, where he met his wife, Sandra. A few years ago, they moved to West Germany and settled in the Stuttgart area, where Fox taught world history to the children of American military personnel. In his spare time, he developed the Brown Bag Blues Band, a group that's been performing in southern West Germany and Switzerland for the past five years.

When his wife decided last year it was time for their two children to learn something about their American grandparents, the family moved for an extended visit back to the Frankfort area (Sandra was raised in Frankfort). One of the few jobs he could get as an educated, literate black teacher, he says, was as a cabdriver.

Fox has been driving since early March. "I was shocked initially by the way a driver gets hired, and I imagine it's the same no matter where you are. You don't have to have any experience, you don't have to know the streets, there's no test given, no requirements. You have a body and you get into the car, and other than going over to the police station in Park Forest and paying $5 for a chauffeur's license, that's about it."

Of the handful of drivers here in the parking lot, all are black. During this downtime, which lasts about 20 minutes, they vent a little frustration. Mostly they complain about the racism they feel when the white drivers get the best dispatches; about how hard it is to make a buck these days; how you always have to be careful on the road, you never know when someone's going to pull a knife or stick a gun to your back.

One guy says he feels like "cannon fodder" when a fare wants to go to the seedier parts of Chicago Heights. "You always wonder if you're being set up for a robbery when some guy says he wants to go to Wentworth."

When the talk gets around to Friday night, drug night, some shrug. Sure there's drug dealing, they say. You just do your work, take your money, keep your mouth shut. One driver says he doesn't want the work, though. When someone gets in his cab and wants to buy drugs, he handles it this way: "I tell them I'm required by law to report them. That shuts 'em up. They get right out of the cab."

Later, Fox reflects that all of them, all the night drivers, do what they have to in order to survive. "These guys are going to be out there driving for a long time. They're all survivors."

It's a lesson in survival Fox had to learn for himself.

"I was dispatched to make three pickups," he says. "We have a shared-ride situation out here, so you usually pick up more than just one person. First, there was a black couple (a blind man and his wife), and then I had to go to Martell's restaurant at the Lincoln Mall to get this guy--I think he was a security guard--who turned out to be drunk, then to Denny's to get about a 16-year-old kid.

"The security guard wanted me to forget about the other passengers and take him where he wanted to go. He was smoking, yelling at these other passengers, yelling at me. I thought this guy was nuts, and I wanted to get rid of him as fast as I could, but I also wanted to get these other people home safely. I finally got the other passengers where they wanted to go, and I asked this guy where I could take him.

"I kept thinking, you'd better handle this as cautiously as possible. The guy is drunk, probably prone to violence. A couple of times he would reach up front and grab me, pull at me while he was talking. I had to tell him to take his hands off of me.

"He wanted to make three stops and was open about what he wanted. He was getting cocaine at the first, marijuana at the second, and some other drugs at the third. You know, when you're in a situation like that you keep wondering if the bullet in the head is coming.

"We get to a vacant building around 16th and Wentworth. It's next to a vacant lot, really creepy area. Enough to make your skin crawl. The first thing he says is, 'Turn off your lights.' This big black guy, really mean looking, runs across the street, runs up to the cab. The guy in the backseat growls at me, 'Don't look if you know what's good for you.' Then the guy outside the cab tells me I'd better not look.

"They reminded me of a couple of rats, the one guy hopping outside the cab, the other one jerking around inside.

"I'm thinking, what have I gotten into! I thought, does he have a gun? Then I thought he was going to rob me, and I had about $150 on me."

"Well," he continues, "the drunken guy in the backseat has his window rolled down, he's mumbling something about cocaine, I hear him asking for the price. It's all muffled. I'm looking around, wondering if the police are coming, wondering if this is a setup and the guy [outside] is really a cop. Here I am, black, a taxi driver. If this guy's a cop, I'm gonna get busted, too.

"My lights are off, they're negotiating some price. If you stop, you're supposed to call in to the dispatcher regarding your waiting time. If you're not moving and you're waiting for someone, you're supposed to charge 25 cents a minute. I figure, hell, I'm not calling in, I'm not making a move. I'm just gonna sit here and see whether I make it out alive.

"As soon as he's done, he rolls the window up and tells me to go to another place. I took him to an alley just up the street on Wentworth, and an other guy comes up to the cab.

"I figured, this is crazy. I'm gonna get myself killed. Once they're done, he wants me to go someplace else. I told him I had to get home, and I dropped him right there."

For his trouble, Fox collected his fare--$12--but no tip. "Tip! These guys don't think about tips. All they want is their dope. You're lucky to get your fare."

It's a job with high turnover, and not just because of the danger. Many drivers want to work only a few hours a day, a few nights a week.

The license of Sauk Trail Taxi allows Fox to take a customer anywhere, but he's not allowed to pick up fares on the way back if it's outside his territory. Rules can be bent, however. "Sure, people come up to you when you're driving alone and say they'll give you, like, $20 to call the dispatcher and say you're taking a break," Fox explains. "They say, 'You want to make some money?' They want you to drive them around to make some pickups. I guess they figure a cab is safe. Who's going to suspect some cabbie with a fare of going after some dope?"

It's a scam that apparently has gone unnoticed by the police. Says Chicago Heights deputy chief Charles Nardoni: "I wouldn't doubt if it happens. Anything is possible. We just haven't heard about it. And it's funny 'cause we have talked with the cab companies about calling us with any information regarding any crime."

If the cabbies or the companies aren't reporting it to the Chicago Heights police, Nardoni says, the police aren't going to be able to pass the word on to the departments in neighboring cities.

Theresa DeFiore, who runs Sauk Trail Taxi, says she doesn't get involved in what happens to her drivers when they're on the job. "They're all individually employed," she says. "They don't really work for us, so we don't tell them what to do. I doubt if any of the cabdrivers would want to get involved in anything that deals with drugs." But what if she were asked? What advice would she give them? "If they asked me, I'd tell them to use their discretion, to handle it the best they can."

Now, if someone asks to go anywhere around Wentworth, Fox tells them to find another cab. "I refuse to make those runs. I'm married, I have two kids. I don't need that anxiety. I want to make it home at night. If someone tells me to go to Wentworth, I tell them, straight up, I can't do this, you'll have to find another cab, I know what you're doing. If you want to file a complaint, go ahead--basically, we're not supposed to deny anyone a ride, that's the cab company's policy."

If they really push him to take them to Wentworth, Fox tells them, "Sure, I'll take you there--for $100, up front." So far, no one has taken him up on the offer. "They usually get out of the cab and tell me I'm crazy. But I figure, I'm risking my life so they'd better be willing to make it worth my while."

If he's that afraid, why hasn't he reported it to the police? Fox reacts with a look that suggests, c'mon, get real. "The Chicago Heights police are only a block away. They must know this stuff is going on. I don't think they give a damn. They're probably saying, 'It's just some niggers down there doing dope.' As long as it's niggers on niggers, they don't give a damn. At least that's the impression I get."

Fox starts to reflect on what would happen if he did call the police. "You're already in a compromising situation. What if something goes wrong, the police fuck up, you're shot? What if they don't believe you when they're making the arrest? There's no clear evidence that I wasn't involved with this myself.

"OK, say some people have asked you to take a package to some address. You're driving around with some package of dope next to you, and you report it to the police. The police come and you try to convince them that some guy handed you this package and said, 'Here.' You know how these police are. I don't trust them any more than I trust these other guys."

The first time he was approached to make a drug run in the cab, he says, he did report the incident to a dispatcher at the cab company. "He told me, 'You have to go with the flow. You're going to be with the very best to the scum of the earth.' They didn't say that to alarm me, but this is the reality of driving taxicabs."

In the end, he says, you do whatever you can to get out of a bad situation. "You try to keep calm, you get the person wherever he wants to go, you get him out, and get your next fare. That's how you make your money. You don't want to get emotionally involved with your fares."

The only time he'd even consider calling the police is if one passenger were physically threatening another.

Fox says that, after only a few weeks on the job, he knew why cabbies seemed so quiet and almost angry about their lives. "This business makes me realize that there are jobs lower than what a schoolteacher does." And a lot of people have strange ideas about drivers. "A lot of middle-class whites get into the cab and ask me immediately, 'Do you have any cocaine for sale?' They automatically think because I'm black, I have dope for sale. They look at me with great shock, that there's a black man who doesn't deal with drugs.

"It bothers me because evidently there must be some taxi drivers out there who are dealing, otherwise these people wouldn't be coming on like every taxi driver does it.

"I'm not a pusher and I know I don't look like one, but it's amazing that people think that's what I'm doing, supplementing my income by selling drugs. Or they get in and expect that I know every prostitute in Chicago Heights. They get into the cab and say, 'Where can I get laid?' How the hell do I know? I can tell you where to get something to eat, but that's about it.

"I took this job because I wanted to make some money," he adds, "and I had never driven a taxi before. But, you know, for all the complaining I seem to be doing, it's a lot of fun. Sometimes you get good fares. I enjoy the Jewish old ladies going from their senior citizen homes to the hospital or the supermarket. They tell wonderful stories about their lives. And they're lively, they're fun to be around.

"I also pick up a lot of prostitutes. They give the best tips, and they're always nice. Depending on what their day has been like, you can get them to talk about their lives, and you can get insights about their business. From a sociological standpoint, it's interesting talking to them. You don't usually have firsthand information about their life-style. It makes you aware of what people have to do in order to get money.

"I'll tell you this," Fox says, "I've never had a prostitute ask me to get drugs for her. It's strictly business for them. They go from one apartment complex to another. I call them their milk runs.

"I'm lucky if I make $150 in one night and someone doesn't try to take it away from me. These women can average $5,000 a week. It's funny what we do for money."

Fox hopes to be back in Germany by the end of the summer, back with the band, maybe back at his old teaching job if they have a new opening. "I'll have lots of stories to tell," he says, and he laughs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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