Just after midnight on a Saturday John Rees pulled his Ford Crown Victoria with the rocking horse on top over to a curb on Armitage Avenue near Clark Street. "Need a cab?" he called to a couple standing across the street.
"Yeah!" the woman replied. "Can I ride on the animal?" the man asked.
"No," Rees told him good-naturedly. "You may not ride on the horse. You'll break it."
The couple climbed into the back and plopped down on the zebra-print seat cover. There were lights with colored paper lanterns at the front of the cab, little white ones at the rear, and stuffed toys everywhere: a leopard, a dragon, a shark, Spider-Man.
"Oh my god," the woman said. "This place is crazy. Is your cab always like this?"
"Well, I decorate it differently," Rees said as he pulled away, "but it's always decorated. Would you guys like a card?"
He handed the woman a fluorescent orange business card.
"The party cabbie," she read aloud.
"You guys want some mints or Dubble Bubble or Tootsie Rolls?" Rees asked, passing back a plastic SpongeBob SquarePants bucket.
"I do," the woman said, reaching for the candy.
"Would you like to play with my pig?"
"Um . . . hmm . . ."
Rees reached into a cardboard box beside him and pulled out a stuffed pig; he handed it back, gently squeezing its belly. "My Girl" started to play.
The woman laughed and sang along. "I guess you'd say . . . what can make me feel this way? My pig!"
"How about a little Sonny and Cher for ya?" Rees asked, holding out a pair of dogs that sing "I Got You Babe" in tinny voices.
"Are you kidding?" the man said, laughing. "Did we just seriously get into this cab?"
"Is there a green frog in the backseat?" Rees asked the couple.
"There's a red one," the woman said.
"No, I'm looking for a green one." With one eye on the road he fished through the cardboard box again until he finally found it. With a squeeze the frog started to play "What a Wonderful World."
"Louis Armstrong!" Rees said.
As the cab neared the couple's town house in Logan Square, the woman told Rees they were going to move to the south side and asked if he'd come pick them up if they gave him a call. "Sure," he said. "I'd probably come get you."
The woman thanked Rees as the man handed him $12 for an $8.65 fare.
There are other local cabbies who distinguish themselves with gimmicks. Sidney Bennett adorns his taxi year-round with seasonal decorations and American flags. Ken Cooper has an iPod loaded with 5,000 songs and chooses music for his customers based on everything from where they live to how their workday was. Ray St. Ray, the "singing cabdriver," makes up a cappella tunes for his passengers right on the spot.
Then there's John Rees: the party cabbie.
Rees, a 42-year-old native of Lombard, started driving cabs five years ago, after a guy he delivered pizzas with said he could make good money. He'd worked a series of odd jobs up to that point--salesman, waiter, bartender, carpet cleaner. At first he drove during the day but he eventually switched to nights, which were less hectic and more lucrative.
Six months into the job Rees started coming up with ways to stand out from other cabbies. In the beginning he handed out candy. Two years ago he began telling jokes. Last October he put up Halloween decorations; everyone seemed to like them, so at Thanksgiving he rode around with 20 or so gourds arranged on his dash. Then for Christmas he went all out: bows, garland, colored lights, cinnamon sticks. Now, he says, "I've just gone nuts with it, finding an excuse to decorate year-round." The rocking horse has been a permanent fixture since July.
Just about every Friday at 6 PM Rees picks up a taxi from a small storage lot at Damen and Churchill and spends an hour or so outfitting it. He drives for the next three nights and returns to the lot Monday morning around 5 or 6 to take everything down and pick up his own car.
Most of the stuff Rees uses to adorn his cabs comes from chain discount stores, thrift shops, and mail-order catalogs. "I put a lot of effort into picking out things that are somewhat unique," he says. He keeps it all at his home in Oak Park, in a basement he describes as "Seussonian"--the walls are aqua and the pipes are wrapped like candy canes with green duct tape. There are shelves and boxes filled with candy buckets, trinkets, and holiday decorations. There are Beanie Babies, a Homer Simpson pillow, and even more singing toys: he's got a dog that plays "New York, New York," and though he wants one that does "My Kind of Town" he hasn't found it yet. "I would kill to get that," he says. "It's gotta be out there somewhere, and I know I'll find it sooner or later." He also has a large collection of T-shirts--around 60, by his count--with messages like SUFFER FOOLS QUIETLY, PITHY SAYINGS PITH ME OFF, and !STUN OG ("go nuts!").
Rees's outlandishness hasn't gotten him into hot water with the association he leases his cabs from so far, and the city's Department of Consumer Services, which regulates the taxi industry, doesn't have any complaints on file.
"Part of what I do is talk to people. I make eye contact. I humanize myself to everyone, and this is intentional." For Rees, who did some acting while studying literature at Wilbur Wright College, one of the most important things is making his passengers laugh. "When I'm driving the cab," he explains, "I look at it as though I'm onstage. I don't know where I'm going with all of this. I would like to do comedy."
Shortly after dropping off the couple at their home, Rees swung onto Western from North Avenue where three young guys flagged him down. "Dude, what the fuck is going on here, man?" one asked as they climbed in.
"Hey, who do you guys like to make fun of more, Bush or Bill Clinton?" Rees asked as the vehicle picked up speed, heading for downtown.
"Clinton," one said.
"There's Clinton for ya," Rees said, offering a talking doll.
"The last time I checked," the doll started, "the Constitution said, 'Of the people, by the people, and for the people.'" The guys laughed as the doll continued. "No one wants to get this matter behind us more than I do. Except maybe all the rest of the American people."
When Clinton started to repeat himself, Rees handed the guys a Bush doll. "Will the highways of the Internet become more few?" it said. "Low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls." That one got a chuckle.
"Hey," one of the guys said to a passing taxi, "your cab sucks. Our cab's fucking awesome."
"Why don't you use the megaphone?" Rees said, taking one out of his cardboard box and passing it back.
The guy pointed the megaphone out a window. "Excuse me," he said to the driver of a stretch Hummer. "Could you roll down your window, please?" The driver ignored him.
"You should've said, 'Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?'" Rees suggested.
The passenger tried again with a black SUV. "You're killing the earth. You're killing the earth right now. I hope you're comfortable with that."
"Tell 'em, 'Al Gore wants you,'" Rees said.
The taxi passed a yellow Ferrari. "Hey, nice Ferrari," the passenger called out. "Is that a rental?"
As the guys got out on Rush Street, a woman standing outside of Carmine's took a picture of the cab. Rees set off again in search of a fare, finding a woman looking for a taxi not too far away.
"No," the woman said. "No, no, next. Dude, you freak me out. Move. Next."
A couple hours later, the night stretching into morning, Rees picked up a lone man in Lakeview, one of the more reserved passengers of the night. "You want mints or Dubble Bubble or a Tootsie Roll?" Rees offered, as usual.
"Thank you so much," said the guy, his reserve crumbling. "There should be more of these cabs."
"One of a kind, buddy," Rees said, sounding pleased. "One of a kind."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.