Taxi Driver

To make ends meet, I got behind the wheel of a Houston cab. What was it like? That’s a fare question.

April 1998By Comments

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, and most administrative personnel at Yellow, treat drivers with the level of respect they might show a mongrel dog appraising their trash. (Though I would have liked to believe that working two jobs so that I could support my family while striking out on my own was worthy of respect and admiration, I often felt the stigma. If I needed to visit one of my ad agency’s clients while I had the cab, I made sure to park several blocks away and walked to the client’s office.) 6:30 p.m. I am called to the airport terminal, hoping my first fare of the day will be a long trip—like Dallas, maybe. Instead, the first person to emerge from the terminal launches into a heated debate with the man who runs the taxi stand, trying to negotiate the fare. I watch guardedly. I do not want this customer: undoubtedly a short trip, no tip, and she’ll think I’ve padded the fare even if I haven’t. I will have to take her, though, as passing on a customer means I go to the end of the line. While she argues with the starter, another woman comes out of the terminal and is directed to my cab. Relieved, I take her to the Renaissance Hotel at Greenway Plaza, a $27 trip with a $5 tip. Four hours into my shift, I’ve made $32, $8 short of my goal.

The cab stand at the Renaissance is full, so I head to the Astrodome area and take a spot behind the one other cab at the Holiday Inn. Forty-five minutes later I am dispatched on Yellow’s computer system to the Fiesta supermarket just across Kirby Drive. Thanks to two red lights, it takes me nearly four minutes to pull up in front of the store. I do so just in time to see the back door of another Yellow cab close and the car pull away with my fare. I have been scooped.

Scooping is frowned upon but accepted as part of the job. Most taxis are dispatched by two-way radio, so all the company’s drivers are privy to the pickup address, and some will literally race to the scene to swipe a fare. The customer, knowing only which cab company he called, will take the first taxi that shows up, unaware that the driver rightfully entitled to the fare is still two blocks away. 8:30 p.m. Another hour passes before my turn comes again, and I’m sent to Pappadeaux’s restaurant, where I pick up three businessmen from Boston who bashfully ask for my recommendation of gentlemen’s clubs. I immediately suggest Rick’s Cabaret. It’s a few blocks farther away than some of the others, and better still, the management at Rick’s offers cabbies a reward of $6 per customer delivered to the door. The fare is $15, to which my customers add a $5 tip. After they’ve entered, I collect my slip from the valet and redeem it with the cashier for an extra $18, making it a $38 fare.

By nine, I’m up to $70, just ahead of my pace. I drive a few blocks down Richmond to City Streets, one of the most active nightclubs on the strip. There won’t be a lot of business this early, but the club offers a cart with free coffee for cabdrivers while we wait, which makes it one of the more pleasant places to hang out.

10:00 p.m. I get a trip dispatched by the computer system. The location is dark, isolated. I drive by trying to spot the fare, locating him standing near a pay phone in front of a closed minimarket bordered by vacant lots on both sides. He’s big. He’s wearing a black leather jacket even though it’s 80 degrees outside. I’m torn. I need the fare, but the warnings flash through my head: If you don’t like the way he looks, don’t pick him up.

The Greater Houston Transportation Company, which operates Yellow, Taxis Fiesta, and Towne Car taxis in Houston, requires all would-be drivers to attend a four-day training class before leasing a cab. One segment of that class is conducted by a Houston Police Department detective who gives students a reality check on the dangers of driving a cab. We are taught that when—not if—we are robbed, we should give up the money without an argument. Conversely, if the perpetrator is armed and directs us to drive him somewhere, he probably intends to kill us, so we’re taught to run for it—some chance being better than none.

The HPD does not keep track of violent crime involving cabdrivers, but according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, taxicab driving is the most dangerous occupation in the country: A hack is nearly four times as likely to get murdered as a police officer. Yellow Cab’s computer system offers some hope of rescue. If a driver is in trouble, he can push an unmarked panic button. His computer is shut down and a message to watch for his cab is broadcast to the rest of the fleet. As other drivers spot the cab, they are instructed to surround it and stay with it until the police arrive (large numbers are painted on the cab’s roof so they can be seen by a police helicopter). An emergency broadcast appears on my computer screen two or three times per shift.

The smart thing to do, we’ve been told, is to turn down fares that meet a certain profile: inappropriate clothing; nervous appearance; dark, isolated locations. Some cities have ordinances requiring drivers to pick up all fares, an anti-discriminatory measure that vastly increases risk to the driver. Fortunately for me, Houston has no such law, and I am free to refuse this fare, although it means going back to the end of the dispatch line.

2:00 a.m. I have just made two short trips: I’ve taken an inebriated pair of newly-mets from a microbrewery to a motel room, stopping first at an all-night pharmacy, and I’ve delivered a middle-aged man in a dirty, old windbreaker to an extremely active motel, where he wanted to visit his “girlfriend.” I’m supposed to pick him up in twenty minutes, but when the approved time arrives, he does not show. While I’m mulling my options, a young woman offers to trade her services for a $7 ride. I agree to take her to her destination, but I decline payment.

2:30 a.m. I am dispatched to a wrecker yard where three teenagers have failed to retrieve their towed car and need a ride home. They live near my house, so I agree to take them for a flat $40. After enduring a lecture from one of the recent high school graduates about how I should go to college so I could get a better job, I drop them off and stop by my house for a quick shower, shave, and change of clothes. By four, I’m in the first row in the staging area at Hobby, behind a dozen drivers sleeping in their cabs.

6:00 a.m. My second wind comes with the sunrise. The first commuters arrive on Southwest at seven, and I am lucky. My passenger is an attorney from Dallas who carries on a pleasant conversation without being patronizing or condescending. It’s only a $20 trip downtown, but she asks me to pick her up near the Galleria at four for a return trip worth $40. The balance of my shift is spent on short trips and a two-hour wait at the cab stand at the Westin Oaks, where the management forbids drivers to get out of their cabs, regardless of temperature, thirst, or other needs.

3:00 p.m. I am back at Yellow Cab’s headquarters. A weathered man with unkempt hair, missing teeth, and a fourth-grade vocabulary vociferously and unrepeatably shares with me his opinion of my IQ. His tirade, brought on because he is assigned to check my oil level and I could not locate the hood-release lever quickly enough, bruises my typically healthy ego. Two weeks earlier I was dressed in a business suit, a cotton shirt, and a silk tie, sharing my views with successful executives as we sat around a conference table. Today a man we would have had security escort from the premises is calling me an idiot. I contemplate whether, in time, a man becomes what society perceives him to be. If I were to drive a cab long enough, would I become the person most passengers already assume I am? I would like to think not, but I look around the yard at my peers and think it is possible I would.

After paying my $92 lease and gas expenses, I have netted $78 for my time on the street. A local ordinance prohibits drivers from spending more than twelve consecutive hours on the road, but only meter time—actual minutes with a fare in the back seat—counts. In the past 24 hours, that adds up to maybe six hours.

“Taking it back out?” the cashier asks.

I have not slept in 28 hours. Solid yellow lines look like double yellow lines, and even a simple task like turning on my blinkers is a challenge. But I have a guaranteed $40 fare at four, which is almost half my next lease payment. And I can always catch a little sleep at the airport.

“Yeah,” I tell her. “I’m going back out.”

Ted Streuli is the founder of Tinker, Evers, and Chance, a Houston advertising agency.

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