News & Politics » Feature

Here Comes Trouble

Think you know how the business works? Listen up while a driver sets the record straight.



By Jack Clark

Earlier this month the Tribune took a hard line against taxi drivers. "Stand at the corner of Belmont and Southport in yuppie Lake View for more than two minutes and there are so many empty cabs around that some drivers will hail you," an editorial complained.

Try the same experiment at the corner of California and North, by Humboldt Park, and you'll soon be praying for a CTA bus, because there are no taxis to be found. If your trip is an emergency, you're out of luck.

"There is no justification for the refusal by many drivers to serve certain neighborhoods or customers, often for racial reasons. The city is right to demand some service in all areas."

Turnabout is fair play: if they can count taxis, I can count Tribune boxes. The corners they mentioned both have one. But if you go half a mile from Belmont and Southport or North and California, here are the totals for those four streets: Yuppies, 20. Humboldt Park, 3. In this same unscientific survey, Humboldt Park also loses with restaurants (32-9), florists (3-0), theaters (3-0), dry cleaners (9-0), banks (3-0), bowling alleys (1-0), hair salons (9-3), dog-grooming parlors (2-0), animal hospitals (1-0), tanning salons (1-0), bike stores (2-0), and funeral homes (3-0).

So why are cabdrivers singled out?

If cabdrivers are racists for not hanging around Humboldt Park, doesn't that make the Tribune racist too? Why should someone in Humboldt Park have to walk blocks to find a Tribune while the yuppie is tripping over Tribune boxes on the way to his favorite florist, theater, dry cleaner, hair salon, bank, or dog-grooming parlor? And shouldn't we regard the owners of these businesses as racists? Why didn't they set up shop in Humboldt Park or Lawndale?

In the taxi business, of course, you don't set up shop. That's the very nature of the job: you go where the customers are. This is why empty cabs tend to head for residential neighborhoods in the morning, when people are going to work, and to the Loop in the early evening, when people are going home. This is why you'll sometimes see hundreds of cabs speeding along the Kennedy in the middle of the night after a storm has passed--they're on their way to O'Hare to pick up passengers delayed by the weather. It's why you'll see cabs sitting in front of the Opera House on weeknights waiting for the show to break, but you won't necessarily see them on Fridays and Saturdays, when there's business just about everywhere and drivers don't have to wait for the fat lady to sing.

The majority of business--day or night, winter or summer, spring or fall--comes from the Loop, the north-side lakefront, and the airports. And the majority of passengers from the airports are going to the Loop or the north-side lakefront. That's why all those cabs are circling the same streets like vultures. As much as the Tribune wants to paint cabdrivers as racists, they really are good old-fashioned capitalists, true Americans no matter what their citizenship. And like all true Americans, they're trying to make as much money as possible in their limited time on earth. Isn't that what being an American is all about?

If I drop a passenger at North and Pulaski, odds are I'll head due east on North Avenue, toward the business in Wicker Park and beyond. Then the Tribune can pat me on the back for cruising past North and California, where, chances are, nobody will wave.

But if someone does and I drop him off in Wicker Park, I'm unlikely to head back west because I would then be going away from the business, away from my best chance to make money. So now, according to the Tribune, I'm a racist for doing the same thing that made me a good guy just a few minutes ago.

For the sake of this argument, let's say I do head west. I might find a fare, but if I don't, I'll end up at North and Harlem, where Oak Park, River Forest, and Elmwood Park all meet and the city ends. What would the Tribune suggest I do?

Seems to me I actually got flagged on that corner once, by a couple coming from the old Mercury Theater. That was about 15 years ago. I've cruised by hundreds of times since then--the Mercury's long gone--and nobody's ever waved.

But let's say I do get flagged, or maybe I get lucky and pick up a radio call somewhere in the neighborhood. Odds are the trip will take me back east--if not to the Loop or the lakefront, somewhere close. And if the first passenger doesn't get me to there, the next one probably will. You can drive for years and never get to Mount Greenwood, Wildwood, or Pullman. But it's impossible to stay off the lakefront for long. And once you get there it's hard to get out.

Most trips never leave that small section of the city. That's why all those cabs are cruising around Belmont and Southport like rats trapped in a moderately profitable maze. It's not just a neighborhood--it's a self-contained world compressed into a tiny area, much like the island of Manhattan, which is also brimming with taxis. It's almost impossible to get out, and if you do you'll be quickly caught and thrown back in.

Cabs charge by distance, but along the north-side lakefront no one really goes anywhere, so it's a fairly inexpensive form of transportation. Many trips are under a mile, few exceed five. Many of the residents moved here from out of town. They don't have friends or relatives out in Albany Park or down in Beverly. They don't know restaurants on South Oakley or bars in Forest Park. They know the lakefront and the Loop, and how to get to the highway to O'Hare.

Once you get away from the lake, the city expands. Instead of high-rises and blocks crammed with huge apartment buildings, there are two-flats and single-family homes. Friends live farther apart. Shopping is scattered. Restaurants are few and far between. And taxi trips tend to be longer and more expensive. The south side has not quite the same population as the north side, and it's spread over twice as much land. When people talk about the lake on the south side, you have to ask which one--they've got a couple of extras. If you want to go to a nightclub or theater, you'll probably have to head all the way downtown or to the north-side lakefront. If you're in Pullman or Mount Greenwood, you're looking at a $30 to $40 cab ride. Chances are you'll drive your own car, if you have one, or take public transportation. And the majority of people in the outlying neighborhoods do have automobiles. Unlike the congested lakefront, parking is plentiful.

Humboldt Park is nowhere near as far as Pullman, of course, and if parking isn't exactly plentiful at least it's not impossible. But Humboldt Park is not a wealthy neighborhood.

There isn't a single bank on the Humboldt Park streets I'd surveyed, but they've got four currency exchanges and two temporary labor agencies. They also beat the yuppie blocks with churches (3-2), gas stations (5-2), auto repair shops (4-2), and food and liquor stores (7-4).

You'll notice that Humboldt Park doesn't have much in the way of luxuries. They come out ahead with clothing stores (6-2), but lose badly with the nonessentials (e.g., restaurants, hair and tanning salons, florists, dog-grooming parlors). And as much as the city and the Tribune might want to deny it, taxis are a luxury. You can always get where you're going cheaper.

Speaking of the Tribune: a copy costs only half a buck, but nobody would call it a necessity, not with Royko gone.

Its parent company would probably have several excuses for the scarcity of boxes in Humboldt Park, and I believe all of them:

(1) Many people in the neighborhood don't read English.

(2) Everybody knows poor people like tabloids better, though I didn't see many Sun-Times boxes either (there's not a single Reader box).

(3) The boxes lose money. People take two or three papers after paying for only one (they sometimes steal the boxes too).

So unless the Tribune's got a clever excuse up its sleeve, the scarcity of boxes is a simple business decision: it boils down to a lack of demand in a high-crime neighborhood. Sound familiar?

The race angle in the city's long-running feud with the taxi industry is just a smoke screen. The mayor can pretend to be on the side of the poor and look like he's fighting discrimination, but behind the scenes the skids are greased for developers and real estate speculators, who've been getting rich pushing the poor and lower middle class from one neighborhood to another for decades. The real tragedy of Humboldt Park is not its current lack of taxis. It's the glut of cabs that will soon arrive as the trendy lakefront expands farther west, pushing the poor and the lower middle class out of yet another neighborhood. Then Tribune boxes will sprout and hordes of taxis will appear, whether or not the city floods the market with taxi medallions, which is the Tribune's answer to a phony crisis.

The poor Puerto Ricans. They've been pushed out of Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and Wicker Park, and in the not too distant future they'll be pushed out of Humboldt Park as well. I'm sure most of them, if given the chance, would forgo easy access to taxicabs if they could stay in the neighborhood.

Maybe the city doesn't understand the taxi business, which wouldn't surprise me, as few of my friends understand it either (and some of them are cabdrivers). I want to clear up some common misconceptions.

(1) Rain is good for the cab business. Everybody seems to fall for this one. I used to believe it myself. I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting rich when it rained. But I'm a night driver, and although bad weather is generally good for day business, it tends to hurt night business. You can't stay home from work because it's raining, but that same night you might decide to stay in, order a pizza, and watch TV rather than go out for dinner and a show. And if you do go out in the rain, you certainly don't barhop.

(2) You can never find a cab in the rain. Time slows when you're looking for a taxi. The colder or wetter it is, the longer it seems to take to find one. I'm constantly picking up people who complain they've been waiting 10 or 15 minutes or even half an hour. Funny thing, many times I've been by the same corner just a few minutes before and no one was there. If nobody can find a taxi in the rain, how come they're all full?

(3) Michael Jordan and the Bulls were good for taxi business. With the exception of Department of Consumer Services commissioner Caroline Shoenberger, Michael Jordan might be the single worst thing that ever happened to the taxi business in Chicago. You can't make money if everybody's watching TV or rioting. And the Bulls brought in few out-of-towners. The Cubs bring in more people for a series with Saint Louis, Cincinnati, or Milwaukee than the Jordan Bulls brought in over an entire season (hell, more people come in for the biennial USC-Notre Dame football game, and that's played in South Bend). And baseball fans usually stay for the weekend. They shop, eat, drink, and take plenty of taxis.

(4) The most underserved areas in town are black neighborhoods. I always see other cabs when I'm on Stony Island, King Drive, or Jeffery Boulevard, but I rarely see cabs at Touhy and Harlem, 111th and Kedzie, or Archer and Narragansett.

(5) It's to a driver's advantage to sit in traffic while the meter runs up. Here's how a Chicago taximeter works. If a taxi is sitting still, the meter turns at $20 an hour. If the cab is going 15 mph, the meter turns at $24 an hour. At 30 mph it's $48 an hour, and at 60 mph the meter's reeling at a staggering $96 per hour. The last place you want to be is sitting in traffic. Some drivers can't quite grasp the logic here.

(6) All drivers always want to go to O'Hare. If the Kennedy's moving, you can make $30 in a half hour or so. But if it's rush hour, and it's raining or snowing, you can spend two hours. Yes, you might double your money, but you quadrupled your time. Once again, some drivers can't do the math. That's OK--while they're stuck in traffic on the highway, I'm sailing along one of the many alternate routes. Who do you think gets the better tip?

(7) Taxi companies are in the transportation business. No. Most cab companies are actually in the leasing business. Cabdrivers are the ones in the transportation business. The harder a cabdriver works, the less profitable he is to the company, because the more they have to repair and maintain the car. A driver who spends most of his shift at the racetrack, the casino, or the off-track-betting parlor is much sought after.

(8) Cabdrivers are employed by the cab companies. No. Cabdrivers are the cab companies' customers, just like you're a customer of Hertz when you rent a car. Oddly enough, in 1915, years before he started his rent-a-car company, John D. Hertz founded Yellow Cab in Chicago. He's the guy who came up with the idea of painting taxis yellow. He's also the guy who installed the first traffic signals in town (at Randolph and Michigan). I read all about him in the Tribune years ago. In the editorial I quoted at the top of this story, the Trib called cabdrivers "indentured workers rather than the independent operators they pretend to be." Some cabdrivers are completely independent--they own their medallions and cabs and operate under their names. Others lease medallions but own their cars. The majority are lease drivers.

Here's how I do it. When I feel like driving I call my favorite company and ask if they have a taxi available. If they do, I go in, pay for a 12-hour lease, then drive around picking up people who wave. (It's a friendly town.) When the lease runs out, I gas up and go home. The cab company doesn't pay me a dime. My profit is any money I take in over the lease and the gas. A classic test of self-employment is whether you can lose money. If you can't, you're probably not really self-employed.

Cabdrivers can and do lose money. If it's slow, you may fail to make back your costs. If you get in an accident, or if someone throws a rock and breaks a window, you'll end up paying for the damage to the cab, usually up to the amount of your bond. In my case that's $250. If you're lucky, you'll get this back if the other driver's insurance company decides to pay up. That's assuming the fool who hit you has insurance, and that your cab company plays it straight. If you get robbed, nobody gives you the money back. The police come out and say, "What are you stupid or something? Why'd you pick him up? Why'd you bring him out here?"

(9) Cabdrivers are bad drivers. The last figures I saw had the typical Chicago taxi involved in a bit more than one accident per year. That's pretty good considering that some of these vehicles are on the move for more than 5,000 hours annually with various drivers behind the wheel. Granted, a lot of cabdrivers drive like madmen. But the majority of them have the skill to get away with it. The worst cabdrivers are usually rookies who watch veterans at work and think, hey, I can do that too. Equally bad but not as dangerous are those who fail to understand the function of an automobile. We'll get back to them later.

(10) When people call for a cab, the cab company dispatches a driver to their address. Well, yes, but only if the driver wants to go. Here's how it works at my company and many others. The dispatcher calls out whatever orders he has. If you're interested in one, you let him know. But if you never call for an order--or make yourself available on the computer system used by some companies--the dispatcher will never call your number. He won't even know you're on the street. That's why callers are sometimes told there are no cabs in their area but when they walk to the corner they see three empty cabs from that same company.

Many drivers love working the radio, others turn their radio off when it's busy. I'm in this second group. It's the old bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush reasoning. Last week I took a radio call around Western and Fullerton. The dispatcher asked for my estimated time of arrival and I told him seven minutes. He called the customer back and confirmed the order for that time. A few blocks later I spotted someone looking for a cab. Oh, well. I'd already turned my top light off and put my "Not for Hire" sign down. I drove right by.

I got to the address and tooted my horn and someone inside waved. About a minute later, a young woman came out. She gave me a big smile and said, "I'm sorry. We decided we don't need the cab."

I wanted to kill her, but I just drove away without a word. She'd had seven minutes to call and cancel, and if she'd called early enough I might have got that other load. At least she came out. Sometimes they just wait for you to go away. Many times they're long gone by the time you arrive because they called two or three cab companies. Things like this happen all the time on radio calls. And the busier the night, the more likely they are to happen. Some nights you can waste an hour driving around like an idiot from one no-load to the next.

Back in the days when the meter started at 50 cents, if someone came out to tell you they'd changed their mind, they almost always gave you a buck or two. That hasn't happened to me in years now.

(11) Rich people take cabs all the time. That wasn't a cabdriver who killed Princess Di. Rich people have cars, limousines, and chauffeurs. If you were rich, would you want to be crammed into some filthy garlic-or-God-knows-what-smelling rattletrap with the driver weaving in and out of traffic, driving with one hand while shouting unintelligibly into a cell phone as the rear speakers broadcast loud music six inches from your ears? If you don't believe me, go over to East Lake Shore Drive, the richest street in town, and see how many buildings have their cab lights flashing.

(12) Rich people, when they do take cabs, are good tippers. Wise up. On a four-dollar ride, a typical rider will give you five and say "Keep it." A rich guy will spend a minute or two trying to figure 12 percent of four dollars. Usually, while he's calculating, someone's up the block looking for a cab. Odds are the empty cab waiting at the red light behind you will get there long before your passenger arrives at the tip.

(13) Poor people don't take cabs. Sure they do. They just don't do it every day. But they'll take a cab in a pinch, or on payday or for special occasions, or if their car breaks down, or if they miss the last bus.

On New Year's Eve everybody in the city wants a cab. You could probably cruise past the Humboldt Park lagoon and find someone looking for one. Same for those Friday and Saturday nights when everybody in the city decides to go out and paint the town. But should cabdrivers really be expected to pass up steady riders for someone who only rides a couple of times a year?

My typical passenger is white, middle-class, and under 40. I used to take a fair number of cabs myself when I was young and lived in Lincoln Park and believed I'd end up rich someday. Nowadays I wait for the bus.

(14) Cabdrivers choose where to work. A cabdriver may choose which direction to head when he leaves the barn, but after that it's the passengers who lead the way. If nine out of ten passengers went to Humboldt Park, there would be no shortage of cabs at North and California. There would also be no shortage if there were plenty of Puerto Rican cabdrivers. (You can always find a cab on Devon.) We'll get back to this later too.

(15) Cabdrivers are misfits. This is what Alderman Beavers said recently. And although I hate to agree with someone whose profession has the highest felony conviction rate of any in Chicago, I think he's on to something here, especially if you define a misfit as a poor immigrant.

"Wow! You're an American," people sometimes say when they get in my cab. Others say what they really mean: "Wow, a white guy." I know plenty of white American drivers (and for some reason many of them are named Nick), but the total is dwindling every day. And it's going to keep right on dwindling because when it comes to taxis the city discriminates against the American born, especially native Chicagoans, blacks and whites, and especially the poor--in fact against anyone who is not desperate. That's probably what Beavers really meant to call us: desperadoes. Doesn't that sound better?

When I decided to try my hand at cab driving back in the mid-70s, I went straight to the company where I still drive today. They required applicants to be over 25, to have a good driving record, and to have six months' local commercial driving experience, which I'd picked up driving trucks. They gave me an oral exam testing my knowledge of the city. It started with questions asking for routes from here to there, but we soon got to the heart of the test. If you can pass it, you're probably not going to have problems getting around town. Let's start with an easy one: Where does Lincoln meet Fullerton? Your job is to supply the third street.

Where does Lincoln meet Lawrence?

Where does Milwaukee meet Irving Park?

Where does Milwaukee meet Foster?

Where does Elston meet Western?

Where does Ogden meet Western?

Where does Blue Island meet Ashland?

Where does Archer meet Pulaski?

Where does South Chicago Avenue meet 87th Street?

"I'm not sure I even know where South Chicago Avenue is," I had to admit.

"Take a guess," the examiner said.

"Somewhere under the Skyway?"

"Close enough," he decided. He sent me downtown to the Public Vehicle License Division of the Department of Consumer Services, more commonly known as the vehicle commission, where I took a much easier test. I paid $7, I was fingerprinted, photographed, and issued a temporary license. I went back to the cab company with my license, put up $100 bond, and the next day I was behind the wheel.

Here's the process today. First you have to take an English proficiency test. It doesn't make any difference where you were born. The test takes about a half hour. If you don't pass it, you have to take a remedial English course.

Next you pay $200 and take a two-week course at Harold Washington College. And you can't take it a day here and a day there to fit around a current job. You have to take it for two weeks straight. Your only day off is Sunday.

Damien Reynolds, 49, drove a Yellow cab for four years back in the 70s. Lately he's been working as a freelance illustrator. Like many freelancers, his business fell off after the recent dot-com bust. He decided to go back to cab driving, part-time, to pick up the slack.

His four years of experience didn't make any difference to the vehicle commission, nor did his obvious knack for his native tongue. He still had to take the proficiency test, pay the $200, and take the two-week course at Harold Washington.

He says the course covered "geography, routing, rules and regulations, sensitivity and diversity training, how to deal with handicapped passengers, and then they make you go on these two bus tours of the city, which are absolutely worthless." The bus tours are on Saturdays, bringing the course up to 12 days.

What did he learn?

"Absolutely nothing," Reynolds says. "How do you get from Grant Park to O'Hare? over and over and over again. Now, granted, you've got to read the rules and regulations if you want to pass the test, but you can read those in an hour."

There were 26 students in his class, 23 of them immigrants. Reynolds wasn't the only former driver. The only African-American in the class had driven for 15 years, but that didn't make any difference to the city. He'd let his license lapse and so he had to sit there and go over what he already knew.

Reynolds describes the bus tour: "They just drive along and rattle off, on your left this, on your right that. And the guys on the bus don't even know where to look. They don't know what they're looking at. It's like a bad tourist bus. Just stupid. And it's long, five or six hours, and you stop at a Burger King or McDonald's for lunch.

"The second day of the tour we were in Beverly and they turned down Longwood Drive, which is where I grew up. And the lady's saying, 'If you look on your left you'll see some wonderful old houses, big mansions.' And I said, 'Yeah, there's my old house.' She goes, 'Mr. Reynolds, please.' And I said, 'No. That's my old house right there.' And she says, 'Well, maybe you'd like to give the tour.' Everybody on the bus is looking at me and I could see them thinking, What the hell is this guy doing here? And that's exactly what I was thinking too."

After the two-week course, students take an exam. If they pass they get a certificate in the mail. They take the certificate to the city and only then are they allowed to take the taxi license exam.

Three weeks went by and Reynolds still didn't have his certificate. "I finally called but they wouldn't send a replacement. They said, 'You'll have to wait another week, because it's 30 days before it's considered lost in the mail.' So a month went by before I got the certificate."

He then paid $15 to take the city test, which he passed two weeks ago. "There's 80 questions and you can only get 12 wrong," he says. He took the test with ten other prospective cabdrivers but only four passed. "For some of the guys it was the second or third try," Reynolds says.

After failing three times, you either give up or you go back to Harold Washington, pay another $200, and take the course all over again. Think about that the next time you get in a cab and the driver's a total joke.

But Reynolds wasn't finished yet. He still had to be fingerprinted, and pass a drug test and a physical. Cost: $50. He also has to get a copy of his driving record from the Secretary of State. Cost: $10. Applicants also must pay any outstanding parking tickets.

After he jumps through all these hoops, Reynolds's license is supposed to arrive within ten days. Then he'll have to find a cab company to lease him a cab. He'll have to put up a cash bond, generally $200 to $250. Then he'll have to pay his first lease, probably somewhere between $50 and $90.

So if you want to be a cabdriver and everything goes right and you pass all the tests and nothing gets lost in the mail, you'll spend about a month and close to $600 before you pick up a single passenger.

Who would bother? What if you go through all that and you don't like the job? At least Damien Reynolds and other former drivers know what it's about. Your typical student, a recent immigrant in desperate need of money, doesn't have a clue. And if he finds he hates the job--even if he's a terrible cabdriver and he knows it--will he quit after all he had to go through to get there?

If the Tribune really wants to editorialize about the taxi industry, the licensing process is the place to start. Why would any rational person go through this to get what's considered by most--come on, let's be honest--a low-level job? Why would any American do it? Why would any native Chicagoan do it? And why should experienced cabdrivers who know their way around town and speak English fluently be forced to go through it? They should be able to take a test to prove their knowledge of the city and the language.

If the late Richard J. Daley was miraculously resurrected and returned to City Hall, would his kid tell him that he had to take a two-week refresher course? I think I know what the old man would do. He'd bend the punk over his knees and give him the spanking he so richly deserves.

If the city wants to increase service in Humboldt Park and other minority neighborhoods, it should get people who live in those neighborhoods to drive cabs. But Americans aren't going to do it. You have to be awful desperate to jump through the hoops the city holds out. And the poor can't afford to become cabdrivers--they can't afford to shell out $600 before they get their first passenger. I don't think drivers need to be drug tested. I suggest we start with Daley and Shoenberger, who both claim to be on the side of minorities and the poor but are stabbing them in the back instead. What are these people smoking?

If they want cabdrivers who have a good working knowledge of Chicago, they should make it easier for native Chicagoans to get licensed. If they want people who are proficient in English, they should make it easier for natives.

I wouldn't have driven a single day if I had to go to school for two weeks and spend $600 first. And that would have been my loss, because the job has worked out nicely for me. But it would have been the city's loss too, because I'm a hell of a cabdriver. That's not just boasting. I have the facts to back it up. Besides having an excellent driving record over nearly a quarter century, not a single passenger has ever filed a complaint against me. Not one.

Which goes to show you, cabdrivers aren't the only ones without a clue.

(16) Cab companies installed bulletproof shields because cabdrivers demanded them. No. The city forced their installation because they believed the added safety would encourage drivers to work high-crime neighborhoods. This, of course, hasn't happened. The shields aren't bulletproof anyway. They're "bullet resistant." Some drivers did want shields, but most of the ones I know didn't. The cab companies didn't want them either. Most passengers hate them. But fewer drivers have been killed since the shields came along (that may have been the booming economy--we'll see). There are certainly more tall drivers with leg cramps. And it's now much harder to talk to passengers, which is one of the pleasures of the job, and this can have a noticeable effect on your income (in either direction).

A couple of unintended consequences came along with the shields. It's much harder now for a driver to spot items left in the passenger compartment. You might recall the driver who gave the sleeping baby a gentle ride all the way back to O'Hare after his parents walked off without him. The city's initial reaction was to ticket the driver for failing to check the back of the cab after the trip, which is one of the rules you learn in that two-week course at Harold Washington. Drivers don't have to go on strike to turn the Loop into a parking lot. All they really have to do is follow the rules: refuse to turn with pedestrians in the crosswalk and get out and check the backseat at the end of every trip.

With the shields (and the Loop construction and traffic congestion), many day drivers have switched to nights. It was sure easier for me to get a cab when drivers were dropping like flies.

(17) Cabdrivers hate minorities and the disabled. Cabdrivers hate the people they deal with day in and day out, namely those yuppies from Belmont and Southport, especially the ones who make fun of their names, throw money at them, and call them thieves, dotheads, and camel jockeys.

Sure, there are racists driving cabs, but the majority are just guys trying to make a living in a difficult profession. Some of them do pass up black passengers, but it's usually out of fear rather than hatred. This is especially true for recent immigrants, who have a hard time differentiating between gangbangers and stockbrokers. Would you do any better in Calcutta?

Years ago my friend Steve was working as a waiter on Halsted. One night he watched as the busboy tried to flag a cab. Passing drivers slowed or stopped, then pulled away without the busboy. Steve went outside, incensed by this racist behavior, only to discover that the busboy was waving away the taxis--he was waiting for a white driver.

I've seen several drivers pass up people in wheelchairs, but here again, it's not out of hatred. They're just lazy, which is probably why they ended up in a job where they sit on their asses all day. Do you have any idea how much effort it takes to get out of the cab and fold up a wheelchair and lift it into the trunk? These are the same drivers who pop the trunk latch and expect you to stow your own suitcase. My advice: flag the next cab. That'll get the clown out the door in a hurry. And if you're getting out of a cab and the driver pops the trunk latch but doesn't get out, don't close the trunk for him. You'll be doing him a favor, believe me, if you just walk away with your bag and leave the trunk open. I have known far too many cabdrivers who died long before their time. Maybe if they'd gotten a little exercise...

Just because I don't pass up disabled passengers doesn't mean I want to spend my day ferrying them around. Anyone who does is going to notice a serious drop in income. It takes a while for the typical handicapped passenger to get out to your cab and then to get in and out of it. Waiting five or ten minutes before you start the meter is not unusual. Short trips aren't either, and then you might have another five minutes with the meter off as you help the passenger out of the cab and up to the door.

The handicapped issue is another smoke screen--playing off the one minority group that everybody professes to love against the one minority group it's OK to hate. Admit it, you've said some nasty things about foreign cabdrivers.

(18) Cabdrivers have to take in $100 before they make a dime for themselves. If they lease from Yellow Cab this is probably true. For years Yellow Cab didn't even offer 12-hour leases for the day shift or for Friday night. If you wanted to work those shifts you had to agree to a 24-hour lease, which, of course, costs more. The last price I heard was $88. With current gas prices, you'd have to do well over a $100 to make any real profit. But nobody's forcing anyone to lease from Yellow or for 24 hours. You can find 12-hour leases for as low as $50. Many drivers pay the higher price because they want the full-time use of a car. Since most Americans seem to work just so they can afford the payment on the car they need to get there, this arrangement doesn't seem quite so odd. And at Yellow, they'll even lease you a brand new minivan if you slip them a few extra bucks.

(19) Caroline Shoenberger is really trying to do a good job and has a good grasp of the cab industry. Sometimes I second-guess myself and think maybe she really does want to help minorities, the poor, and the handicapped, and it's only because I'm a cabdriver that I fail to see her true intentions.

But if she really wants to help the poor, where's she going with this plan to turn taxis into "cashless cabs"? How can this do anything but hurt the poor? Are they really going to walk around with $20 on a stored-value taxi card? And won't this just give cabdrivers another excuse to refuse service? "Sorry, buddy, I'd love to take you to Robert Taylor, but if you ain't got a card I can't do it."

The plan shows a total lack of understanding of how the cab business works. A large percentage of taxi trips are not planned in advance. People are tired or they're running late, or they just missed the bus or train, or their car breaks down, or their plane came in late, or they lost their friends at Taste of Chicago. None of them planned to take a taxi when they left the house in the morning, so most of them probably aren't walking around with a stored-value taxi card in their pocket. And does anyone think a cabdriver will actually turn down a trip he wants to take because the person only has cash? "Sorry, buddy, I can't take you to Milwaukee for $200. You gotta have a card."

(19) Cabdrivers pass up blacks and other minorities more often than whites. I don't know about other drivers, but I've passed up hundreds of whites in my career yet very few minorities. Most of these whites were young and drunk, and more often than not they're part of a large group. Some nights I'm just not up to the challenge. But they don't complain to the vehicle commission. Even in their drunken state, they know you haven't passed them up because they're white.

One night I passed up two black kids around Division and Wells, not far from Cabrini-Green. They looked so wrong that I didn't even slow down. Later that same night a driver was killed on the west side by two kids from Cabrini. The newspapers said he'd picked them up at North and Halsted. They didn't even have the decency to pull a straight stickup. They shot him in the back of the head without warning, then went through his pockets to get the cash, leaving behind bloody fingerprints that the police used to track them down. Smart people don't rob cabs. That's why the people who do can be so dangerous.

(20) Steve Wiedersberg--the cabdriver who's led two marches on City Hall and is leading a taxi strike and yet another march on July 3--represents most of the cabdrivers in Chicago. Come on. He was born here. He doesn't even speak Urdu. Who does he think he's fooling?

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

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