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Driven to Tears

City cabbies fume as unscrupulous suburban taxis muscle in on their turf.



Adeniyi Isiaka staggered out of O'Hare airport into a chilly, rainy afternoon. He had just landed at O'Hare after a 25-hour series of flights that originated in Nigeria, where he'd been visiting his family. He was exhausted, and he just wanted a cab to take him to his home in Chicago Heights. Idling by the curb was a car marked Midwest Taxi.

"Where are you going?" the driver called through the window.

"Chicago Heights."

"I can take you there, but it's going to be over $200," said the driver.

"I only have $100," Isiaka replied. "Just drop me at the Blue Line." It was only Isiaka's second trip out of O'Hare, and he didn't know there was a Blue Line stop right inside the airport.

The cab took off down the Tri-State Tollway. It picked up the Stevenson at Indian Head Park, then left the highway at Summit and headed south on Archer Avenue. Isiaka anxiously watched the meter as the fare compounded at $3 a mile--nearly double the standard rate. When it reached $56, he told the driver, "You have not gone one-third of the way to Chicago Heights. The best thing to do is drop me at the Blue Line."

"You don't have enough money to go to the train," the driver said. "I'll take you to the bus."

The driver left Isiaka at a Pace bus stop at the corner of 79th Street and 87th Court, which was no use to him because the Pace route didn't go anywhere near his home, still a dozen miles away.

Isiaka had fallen victim to what cabdrivers call a hustler--one of the cabs that illegally troll for fares at O'Hare.

Chicago cabs are closely regulated by the city's Department of Consumer Services, which issues the numbered medallions taxis are required to display on their hoods. (The department auctions off a limited number of medallions every year, but once they're issued, drivers and cab companies are free to sell them on the open market, where they can fetch around $50,000.) A taxi operator who violates the service standards set by the department--by charging more than the legal rate, for example--risks losing his medallion.

The suburban taxi trade is much less closely regulated than that of the city. "The state licenses taxis, but it doesn't regulate them," says David Druker, spokesman for the Secretary of State. "To qualify for a taxi license plate, you have to prove that you're carrying $250,000 per car of insurance for bodily injury, plus another $50,000 of insurance against property damage, and you have to pay the $78 fee. Beyond that, the state leaves the regulation of taxis to the municipalities."

City cabs servicing O'Hare are closely regimented. Upon arriving at the airport, they have to report to the staging area, a parking lot that holds 500 cabs, and wait--for about two hours, typically--to be called down to the terminal for a fare. When they leave the staging area, the cabbies pass a machine called the spitter, which dispenses a ticket that specifies what terminal they can go to. The driver puts a $2 stamp on the ticket (to pay for mandatory airport departure tax) and proceeds to the queue outside the terminal. When he reaches the front of the line, the driver proves that he's waited his turn by handing the stamped ticket to the "starter," who matches passengers with cabs.

Suburban cabs can only pick up fares at O'Hare if the ride was prearranged by the customer and the destination is outside the city limits, but these rides are subject to a different and looser set of controls. Before approaching the terminals, suburban drivers must stop at a booth staffed by O'Hare's Ground Transportation authority and produce a copy of the order form for the ride, along with the $2 stamp. But according to veteran Chicago cabbie Arnie Kast, some hustlers beat the system by filling out prearranged ride tickets with bogus information. Once past the booth, they cruise the terminals in the lanes reserved for suburban cabs. Others, Kast adds, just bypass the booth entirely and mingle with ordinary cars in the passenger pickup lane.

The interlopers infuriate rule-abiding Chicago drivers. "The hustlers are going down to the terminals unchallenged," says Kast, who's secretary of the Taxi Brotherhood, an advocacy group for cabbies. "Nobody is stopping them. We have to wait an hour or two to go down there. They can go down there anytime they want. We have confronted the hustlers. They laugh at us. I told a guy, 'What you're doing is illegal.' They say 'Fuck you' or flip us off."

According to Jay Kleeman, service quality director for American Taxi, a Mount Prospect taxi dispatch service, most suburban taxis abide by the rules. "The ones most inclined to cheat are individual operators who are not associated with a dispatch service, because they have nothing to lose," he says. "I want to choose my words carefully here, because there are a lot of great one- and two-car operations that hold very high standards. But anyone can buy a car, get it painted and lettered like a cab, and then install a meter and fix the software to charge whatever they feel like charging. And maybe the municipality of origin has laws governing the allowable rate, but once the taxi leaves that area it's very difficult for the police to respond knowledgeably to a customer complaint.

"To the uneducated eye, the bad cabs are hard to spot," Kleeman continues. "But there are usually telltale signs. Sometimes there'll be a telephone number that's missing a digit, though more often it's just a phone number that gets you a not-in-service-at-this-time message. If there's no town named on the car, that's a red flag. A corporate or association name is a positive, and so is an ID number."

I wanted to see how common the hustlers were, so I asked Chicago cab driver Rich Massenburg what time of day was best for spotting illegal cabs. "What do you mean, what time?" he said. "Anytime. Go now. You'll see them."

Arriving at O'Hare, I spotted a hustler right away. It was marked Midwest, but it was a different color than the car that failed to get Adeniyi Isiaka home. I followed it from the airport to the Chicago Hilton and Towers, on South Michigan Avenue. The driver took pains to drop off his fare at a side entrance, out of the doorman's sight. As she was getting out, I asked her, "Did you know this driver is not supposed to pick you up?"

"No, I didn't," she said.

"How much did he charge you?"

"Forty-nine bucks. How much is it supposed to be?"

"About thirty," I said.

The driver offered her a partial refund of $10. She took it and went into the hotel.

I asked the driver's name. "Arthur Black," he said with an Eastern European accent.

"You know you're not allowed to pick up at O'Hare," I said.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied.

"You know you're not supposed to go down there without a prearranged ride. You know it's illegal for you to hustle fares."

"Oh, solicitation, you mean," he said, showing familiarity with the legal term. "I just pay the $2 stamp and drive into the terminal."

I asked him where Midwest Taxi's offices were located. He pointed to the number on the side of his cab and told me the firm was based in Gurnee.

I replied that I'd already called that number and that it connected me to a fax machine. He gave me a second number, then got back into his car and drove off. The woman who answered when I called the second number said she'd never heard of Midwest Taxi. A call to directory assistance found no such listing in Gurnee.

An O'Hare Ground Transportation supervisor who asked to remain anonymous says he sees hustler cabs "all day, every day." "We run them off and they circle around," he added. "It's been like that for the 12 years I've been here. All we can try to do is chase them away."

Ground Transportation personnel can chase away hustlers by ticketing them for obstructing traffic and parking at the curbside. But when approached, they usually speed away to another terminal. Occasionally Ground Transportation makes a sweep of the suburban taxi lanes in marked SUVs to prod lingering cabs, but according to the supervisor the division is short staffed and can't keep the lane moving all the time. If the airport police catch a hustler in the act, they can impound his car and fine him up to $500, but legitimate cabbies say that's a small price for being able to roam O'Hare freely.

Complaints about hustlers have increased in the wake of September 11, according to Kleeman, who sits on O'Hare's Ground Transportation Task Force, an advisory body that mediates between the airport, the police, and the cab and limousine companies. "Fewer people are flying, so the unfair competition from the hustlers hurts the regular drivers that much more," he says.

But Kleeman also feels that the situation has improved in the last two months. "We made the hustlers a top priority at the task force meeting in August, and the level of cooperation between the drivers, the police, and the Department of Aviation has been greatly enhanced by a new game plan. Ground Transportation has stepped up its roving inspections, and if it looks like a cab is fishing or idling by the curb, that will draw attention--their status will be interrogated. The legitimate drivers have agreed to stick around and wait for the police after reporting a hustler. Anyone caught with a prearranged ride voucher that's wrong or timed out will get immediately banned from the airport for 24 hours. And the police at O'Hare have been borrowing officers from outside to do undercover sting operations, including female officers, and that's been enhancing their effectiveness as well. The problem may never be licked, but we've gotten serious about it, and it's making a difference."

Commander Steve Peterson, who's in charge of the police at the airport, wouldn't discuss new antihustler tactics in detail. "We've recently developed a more proactive approach," he says. "We're working in closer coordination with Ground Transportation, enlisting them as our eyes and ears. There's a list of known hustlers, and instead of just shooing them away, our policy is to issue an administrative notice of ordinance violation, which obliges the driver to show up in court. As a whole, what's happening is that there's been a reduction of hustler-related calls, so we feel that the new system is working."

Despite the crackdown, the hustlers persist. On a recent Monday night, I cruised the arrivals level at O'Hare looking for them. It took only a few minutes to spot a cab bearing a nonworking phone number and a name unknown to directory assistance idling outside a terminal.

"The passenger doesn't know, man," says Ali Klite, a driver for Checker Cab. "The passenger just wants a cab. Everybody wants to get home quickly."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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