ON MOST DAYS I WAS YELLOW 698. When I opened the door for you to climb into the back seat of my cab, that’s all you knew about me. Okay, you knew my name—assuming that you glanced at my license—but you didn’t know if I was driving Houston’s streets on two hours’ sleep, if I had a handgun tucked under my seat, if I was a paroled felon, or if I planned to cheat you.
If you happened to get into Yellow 698, you were relatively lucky. I wouldn’t cheat you, I didn’t own a gun, and I’d never been arrested. But usually I had had very little sleep. To keep the cash flowing at home while I got my fledgling advertising agency off the ground, I drove a cab. The job was dangerous, the hours long, the wages low, and the social status somewhere just below shoeshine boy. But I was my own boss of my own business.
Indeed, every cabdriver is his own boss, his competition every other cab in town. As with any other business, the better he plays the game, the greater his rewards. He who plays poorly is driven from the ranks by economics, as in any enterprise. Yet therein lies the appeal: no schedule, no time clock, no one to answer to. Cab driving is perhaps the only business a person can operate with little initial capital, and though the potential profit may be modest, it offers anyone who has the gumption a chance to prosper or fail by virtue of his own talent and guile—an opportunity that in this century has become the privilege of a relative few. Cabdrivers may be viewed as the lowest of the working class, but they are working for themselves, a point of pride few of their passengers can claim.
In theory, anyone can drive a cab. To get a license in Houston, you must have a valid Texas driver’s license, pass a written test to show you know twenty popular addresses, take a simple physical exam, and be free of warrants within the city. But practically speaking, you also need a medallion, the permit that allows the operation of one vehicle, and that is harder to come by. The city charges a $400 nonrefundable fee when you apply for one or more medallions. Applications are accepted only in even-numbered years, and not every application is approved, because the streets can handle only so much taxi traffic. Medallions can be resold or leased after a short waiting period, and they bring as much as $10,000 apiece on the gray market from independent drivers who have given up hope of obtaining one from the city.
So what was it like to drive a cab? Here was a typical day. 4:00 p.m. It’s an unbearably hot summer afternoon, and I’m looking at empty skies above Hobby Airport—a great place to begin, since it’s close to my house and I can usually get a decent fare there. I picked up my cab an hour ago from Yellow, which leased me both the medallion and the cab for $92 a day; my goal for my 24-hour shift is $10 per hour, or a profit of about $120 after I pay for gas. Only 130 cabs are ahead of me in the staging area, which is encouraging; usually there are more like 300. The wait for my first fare will be only a couple of hours—not the three and a half hours typically encountered here, and far better than the average waiting time of five hours at Intercontinental. Drivers pass the time by playing chess, cards, and dominoes in the two-room portable building that occupies one corner of the cyclone-fenced asphalt lot. They are self-segregated: African Americans in the large room, Hispanics in the small one, Nigerian immigrants at the picnic tables outside, Caucasians wandering about.
We all know one another by face and cab, but rarely by name. Cabbies share the camaraderie of community—one will leap to help another start his car or come to his aid in an emergency, and experienced drivers will generously share tricks of the trade with rookies like me. I question a group of drivers about the most direct route to the Galleria from Hobby. “Forty-five to Fifty-nine?” I ask. “No, no, you take the loop, man,” replies a cabbie who emigrated from the Virgin Islands a year ago. He looks like a thug, yet he is one of the nicest people I’ve met. “It’s a big loop, man,” he says with a big, white, slightly mischievous smile. “You take the loop, they think it’s the straight way there, but it’s four, maybe five more dollars on the meter.”
Cabdrivers know the shortest route to almost any point in the city and are required by city ordinance to take it, but they rarely do. The city imposes, through a system of fare zones, flat-rate maximums from the airports to various areas of the city, and no driver wants the meter to show an amount lower than the flat rate. Stories of how to milk an extra few bucks from a customer are rampant, some qualifying as hack folklore. The most outrageous involves a driver who took an out-of-towner to his destination via the entire 610 Loop, circling the city. As the story goes, the customer eventually became suspicious but was assured by the straight-faced cabbie that there were two Astrodomes in Houston.
Cab rates in Houston, by the way, are not the lowest in the country, but they’re far from the highest. Hacks here charge $1.50 when you get in and then either $1.50 per mile or per five minutes. Meters only charge time and mileage simultaneously when the cab is traveling below five miles per hour. Remember that the next time you accuse a cabbie of driving leisurely to pad the fare.
“Never tell anyone you once drove a cab,” advises another driver at the airport. “You’ll never get another job.” I believe him. Most customers,