By Ben Joravsky
After a lifetime in Chicago, William Rollins says he should have known it would not be easy for a 23-year-old black man to catch a cab to the west side.
One day last month he learned his lesson.
"You wouldn't believe what happened on that ride," says Rollins. "What that cabbie did was like a dream or a movie. I kept thinking this can't be for real. But it was."
His saga began at about ten in the morning. He and a coworker--a black woman named Michelle Webb--headed to the corner of Michigan and Harrison to catch a cab.
Webb had no intention of riding in the cab; she figured her help might be needed because, well, everyone knows it's hard for a black man to catch a cab in the Loop.
"You'd like to say, 'No, that's just a stereotype--that kind of thing has passed,'" says Rollins. "But the fact is I was out on that corner for five minutes or so. And I'm waving my hand and whatever, trying to hail them, and they just drove right by. I thought, 'Here we go again.' And Michelle comes out and waves her hand, and just like that this cab from the City Service taxi company stops."
It was supposed to be a fast back-and-forth jaunt. Rollins and Webb work for Columbia College's Office of Community Arts Partnerships, a not-for-profit program that helps teach arts to high school students. "I was supposed to drop off some flyers at a school on the west side and then come right back," he says.
From the start there was something ominous about the situation. "First of all, the dude locks all the doors and closes that little security window when I get in," says Rollins. "I figure, OK, no big deal. I'll be cool. We'll chill. This guy, he's looks Arabic--a young cat, I'd say mid-20s or low 30s. He wasn't 100 percent fluent in English, but he spoke it good enough so there wasn't a language barrier to the point of confusion.
"I'm thinking I need a ride back so I better check this out, and I don't want any hassles. I explained to the driver, 'Look, man, I'm gonna need a ride back.' I asked him, 'Would that be a problem?' He didn't respond. I'm thinking maybe he didn't hear me. Or maybe the radio's too loud. I figure I'll throw that back to him once we get there."
They wound through the Loop to the Eisenhower and then west to Independence Boulevard. Rollins was looking for the Academy of Commun-ications and Technology Charter School, on Washington near Kostner.
"He was OK until we got off on the west side," says Rollins. "Then he got spooked. It's hard to explain, but it was 'ooh, you can feel the vibes.'
"You have to realize, I'd never been to the school before. I wasn't sure where it was. So as we were going down Washington I say, 'Slow down so I can find the address.' He started getting scared. He kept saying, 'Is this it? Is this it?' I said, 'No, man. I'll tell you.' Then I saw the school. I said, 'Stop, this is the building--right here.' I said, 'Now look, man, are you going to wait for me or do you want me to pay right here and you can be on your way?' And that's when real problems started."
At that point, the driver "freaked out--just lost his mind," Rollins says. "As soon as I finished asking that question, he put the car in drive and hit the gas and the next thing you know he's flying around the corner and we're going the wrong way down Kostner, or whatever street it was. I swear to God, the man was going about 50 to 60 miles an hour. We were flying--stop lights, stop signs, whoosh, he's going through. Everybody on the block is staring at us amazed and yelling, 'Hey, you're going the wrong way.' And I'm like, 'Man, what the hell are you doing? I just wanted to know if you want to take me back or head out'--it's not a difficult question. It's not even a new question 'cause I tried to ascertain the same thing way back when I got in the cab.
"But no, the dude wouldn't listen, the dude wouldn't stop. He must have been so scared about having a black guy in his cab on the west side that it was like this explosion went off inside his head and he just lost his mind. I'm sitting there in the back praying for my life, 'cause I could tell there was no stopping him and I didn't know if he was going to kill us or kill someone else. I just knew he was wilding out 'cause he was so scared."
After driving south for about five blocks, the driver saw a parked squad car and screeched to a halt, says Rollins. "He jumps out of the cab and gets off on the police about how I was in the backseat and I was asking him for money and I wasn't going to pay him and this and that and the other thing.
"And these two cops--two black cops--are sitting there smack-dab in the middle of the west side watching this dude. I get out of the cab and I walked over and I explained the situation as coolly as I could. I showed them all my paperwork. I explained who I was and who I worked for and where I was going and why. I showed them the flyers. At that point the cops proceeded to laugh, 'cause, you know, I guess they thought it was funny. They told me, 'Pay the man and go on your way.' I said, 'But the man took me all the way out of my way.' I said, 'I'm not gonna pay this extra money that he built up doing this crazy driving. I mean, he got at least another $1.25 on the meter with his craziness.' They said, 'Look, man, you're probably right, but you can't prove that. So just go pay the man and end it peacefully so he can go his way and you can go yours.'"
Rollins paid the full $16 fare, and the cops took off, and the cabbie took off, leaving him alone on the west side some five blocks from the school.
"There I was without a cab in sight. The cops didn't offer me a ride. I had no choice but to walk, which, when you think about it, is the ultimate insult. I mean, I not only had to walk the five or six blocks back to the school, but I had to pay the extra $1.25 or whatever for taking me out of the way. It was a double slap in the face.
"In some ways it was good I had to walk because I was so hot I needed the time to calm down. As I'm walking back I'm thinking, 'Man, this is bullshit.' It's just a reinforcement and continuation of all the same old stereotypes and generalizations. It's like, 'Oh, you're black, you've got to be a killer or a thug.' You're never gonna escape that if you're a black man. It hurts and it's humiliating and it's embarrassing and it pisses me off! I wasn't gonna let it die. I got the guy's name off his license. I could report him."
By the time he reached the school some of his anger had faded. "In some ways it must have been a funny thing to see, you know, this crazy dude zipping the wrong way down a one-way street. But in other ways it wasn't funny. It was dangerous--the dude could have killed someone. And it's sad. Because I'm used to it. You know what I mean? I'm not surprised that it happened. And I didn't report him. I figure, 'Aw, he's probably got a family.'"
When he told the stories to coworkers and friends at Columbia College, they were outraged. "I thought, 'How can anyone treat William this way?'" says Julie Simpson, director of Community Arts Partnerships. "I was going to call the cab company and rant and rave and demand that they give the driver some sort of sensitivity training. Then I thought, that won't get me anywhere. It's not just the cabbie. Everyone's afraid of young black men. I realized this whole incident is a statement about what we have come to."
As for City Service cab company, they have no comment. Manager Mohammed Karman said a driver with the name provided by Rollins does indeed work there. "But I didn't hear any story like that," said Karman. "You need to hear the driver's side of the story. I'll call him and get back."
Two days later I called Karman again. "To be honest with you I could not get hold of the driver yet," Karman said. "I left a message. If he gets back to me I'll call you."
Rollins and Simpson say they're putting the matter behind them, though dwelling on its various ironies. "The chief irony is that Will comes from a community very similar to the west side," says Simpson. "He's a young man who decided he would not be another statistic--he would straighten himself out and go to school and use his love for music to educate other kids. He's the most dedicated employee. His life quest is to help other kids. That this happened to him struck me very hard."
There's one final irony, says Rollins. "My father used to be a cabdriver in Chicago. Sometimes I went out with him. I know some of the things he went through with people trying to rob him and pulling out pistols. I understand the fear these cabbies are dealing with. But hell, my father still did his job. I mean, if you don't want to do the job then don't drive the cab."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.