"Are You Yellow?"

"No, But My Cab Is"

Zonyx Report Pic:  Taxi Driver Expose from Jan. 1977 Bugle-American
Bugle-American    Jan. 21, 1977

of a closet

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{By Mike Zetteler*}
(Note: The writer, a past contributor to the Bugle, has driven a cab off and on since he was a UWM student 12 or so years ago. He remains anonymous* [until now] in apprehension that he may yet again be forced to get behind the wheel and give a 10-4 from the KB or a 10-6 from Oak and Loc.  He touches here on matters the company -- and possibly some drivers -- do not want exposed.)
Zonyx Report GifAnim:  Yellow Cab from Jan. 1977 Bugle-American Taxi Driver Expose
     Cab driving is a strange amalgam, at once financial peonage and a stronghold of independence.  Like the ad says: "Drive today, cash today."  And, "Make your own hours."
     True enough, but how much cash today is a factor not so well publicized.  With good reason:  Subject to wide fluctuation, the rewards are often meager indeed.  And the alleged choice of hours is always dictated by considerations of money, in effect limiting driving to the times that one would vastly prefer other activities, such as weekends, holidays and heavy traffic hou
     On and on they go, those scenes of lovers groping in the back seat and squalid blocks of houses with unlit hallways and canted mailboxes with scrawled names, the punks and the wealthy, matrons at exclusive shops and sailors going drunkenly and wearily to back to Great Lakes Naval Base [in Illinois].  The stranded tourists from the fogged-in flight at Mitchell Field who return to Niles, Ill., on the excruciatingly fog-layered highway, low beams and blindly following a truck at a crawl all the way to make $70 clear for a six-hour shift, with tip.
     Or the 14-hour stint with a three-hour wait working through the line at Mitchell Field and a dozen Hogans ("Nobody here called a cab.  Sorry.") to end up with $6.89 take-home.  Taxes to be paid by yours truly, with no Social Security credit, insurance, pension, vacation, holiday or sick pay.  You are, you see, self-employed.  So keep track of those tips for tax time; as with waitresses, the IRS assumes optimum tips for tax purposes unless you can document the contrary with daily records. . . .
     All this started for me, as a penniless college student, through a friend, who told me about the conversation he'd had with Barry Goldwater's campaign manager driving to the Knickerbocker Hotel, or KB in two-way radio parlance.  A chance to make money and meet celebrities -- why not?  Well, I can report the Golden State Warriors (not all, of course), [WTMJ sports announcer] Jim Irwin and [public TV's] Otto Schlaak as fares.  Narrowly missed was Dwayne Hickman at the old Pabst Theatre; and I saw Phyllis Newman walking and Eugene McCarthy in a hotel doorway.  So much for the stars.
     But, at an idealistic young age I was exposed to corruption which continues to this day, though I am no longer outraged by it.  The drama goes like this:
     Experienced drivers tell me to leave a quarter or two extra when I pay the cab dispatcher at the end of my shift, if I want a good cab in the future.  I recoil from this, and after a week of mediocre vehicles, they get steadily worse.  Old Studebaker Larks with feeble heaters in the middle of winter, mufflers that fall off, necessitating money-losing trips back to the garage for another cab to be washed and vacuumed. Expiring batteries and missing lights and stuck speedometers.
     After months of this I am unusually outraged one freezing night and demand a decent cab or I will go to the boss with my grievance.  The dispatcher raises an eyebrow -- he is reputed to own acres of apartment buildings but has worked like a pale, scabrous fiend since prehistoric times -- and enigmatically hands over a key to a decent number.  I know he must take in $50 in quarters for his 12-hour shift, and I am smug with satisfaction.  But on my return I leave the tribute, the 50, and did so ever since.
     For all in all, it is not a bad system. Tipping, of course, is a recognized part of cabbing, and if cabs were given out by seniority, I'd be damn far down on the list. Those who are too cheap to tip can can work their way into favor in other ways or take their chances.  Buckets, the very worst cabs, are reserved for punishment for drivers who have been in accidents or otherwise transgressed.  That this also punishes the public seems to escape management's notice.
     So what is the financial bottom line of all this?  I hoped for $30 for 11 hours, $12 for six hours (to simplify, part-timers work 5- or 11-hour shifts shifts for a total of 22 hours a week minimum, as much as you want maximum, with a free half hour to get back to the garage.)  I had $50 days and $5 days -- it is easily possible to lose money -- averaging better in harsh weather and painfully little in summer.  I suffered financially by not working the hill, or Inner City, leaving that to the black drivers and more intrepid whites, who were regularly held up with guns and knives and locked in trunks.  I am speaking of friends, and am not exaggerating.
     As for working conditions, you can be fired at the whim of Francis X. Beck, personnel manager and white-shirted, choke-tied martinet.  I was fired for reasons that no longer apply under the new contract -- the Independent Taxicab Employees Union has made inroads for humaneness -- and taken back.
     Cab washing and cleaning is done at the expense of your drive time, as well as minor repairs.  Dispatcher Fred Menke will treat you like shit if he feels like it, as will Democratic party biggie John Cupertino [brother of a county supervisor;  both were former wrestlers].
     Suffer in silence, because for many -- blacks and students and dropouts and the generally near-criminal -- this is the employer of last resort.  But no wonder turnover of drivers approaches one hundred per month.
     Because the reality of it is, Yellow Cab has long ago abandoned serving the public with taxis.  They are in the business of renting cabs to men (and now a handful of women) who have few other hopes of making a living.  So what if 150 cabs are scrabbling for business at 5 p.m. when the stampede to get home from the office or plant is on?  Keep advertising that "drive today, cash today" stuff.  For that brief crack at the rush those drivers will pay 'til midnight, and Yellow Cab will prosper, and the otherwise unemployable will make some few dollars to be sucked up before starting over.
     And still, a Milwaukee Journal reporter will come along to complain in Insight that we need more cabs, that he can't hail a cab by walking down Wisconsin Ave.  Instead, he has to dial Yellow Cab and wait the time it takes to drink a beer in a cozy pub.
     Well, the government made them stop discriminating against beards and long hair and women (World War II saw the last previous influx of of women drivers), and lack of formal education is no hindrance -- though, as everywhere these days, the higher degrees abound.
     So welcome aboard as the affluent Boynton family, owners of Yellow Cab, work towards their ultimate goal: owning nothing but the telephone and garage services, selling franchises to drivers desperate and accumulative enough to buy and insure their own cabs.  The marginally self-sufficient workers are kept in their places while fares go up -- though not enough to cover gasoline prices or the cost of living -- while the public, rightfully, cavils at the cost of taxi transportation.
     Does anyone think this is an elitist form of people-moving -- gallons of gas squandered at Lexington and North in the small hours of the frigid morning to keep a stranded driver warm -- except in well-defined, high-density population zones at predictable times?
     Does this point toward the need for cheap, efficient mass transit systems and to hell with the Boyntons, except for those patrons who can afford limousine prices and drivers, with more of our taxes going for some realistic job training or merely humanitarian support of the now-expendable and their families?
     It's a question to ponder the next time you see yet another newly yellow-painted cab slide past the East Side high rise apartment buildings, with an undeniably independent freak at the wheel.  S/he has chosen that life, after all, and may even be getting off on its sociological complexities and lack of time-clocks.
     Maybe it's not worth thinking about. What does TV's Baretta say? "I'll take a cab." or something similar, to indicate, "I'll pass," or "Leave me alone."  In other words, taxis are symbolic -- not to be too arcane about it -- of aloof passage through the muck of existence.
     Unfortunately, real life cabbies are inherently mired in the gritty muck of existence and romanticized at your own peril.  Ask my friend Carl who took a psychopath who had just murdered a car salesman to some vacant country acreage and then talked his way out of jeopardy.  Or Jimmy, who had his throat slashed -- not fatally -- or Pooch who was faked out by youngsters and held up at gunpoint -- or Sam, now a bartender at Century Hall, who went through the same thing before giving it all up.  All this excitement for maybe $2.50 an hour.  If this appeals to you, just look in the daily want ads for details.  For some reason, it's an ad that's always there.
     The exploitation of humans a step up from welfare by the subterfuge of calling them self-employed (thus evading minimum wage laws and other protections), a ploy that seems to be the subject of recent legal decisions by the state of Wisconsin, is but one of the Boynton Yellow Cab Co.-- to use its correct firm name -- abuses of responsibility.  (The precedent to correct this situation has been set by the Unemployment Compensation Division's ruling that drivers are entitled to UC benefits when they become unemployed, a finding that seems not very well known.)
     Similarly callous is its abuse of the environment.  About 10 years ago, the company converted from using tanks of propane in the trunk, known to be less poisonous in combustion than gasoline just as the ecological awareness movement and gasoline shortages made this precisely the wrong thing to do.  And though drivers can buy their gas where they wish, the procedure is more complicated than simply paying jacked-up prices at the company pumps.  Then, too, the advertising signs sported atop each cab are a distinct handicap to fuel economy with their high wind resistance.  Perhaps most invidious is the self-serving legislation supported by the taxi firms that made sharing of cabs, by persons not already acting as one group, illegal.  How much gas is wasted by cabs streaming from Mitchell Field to the heart of the city, each with one or a few passengers in roomy splendor?
     Finally, Yellow has a firm policy of anti-civic mindedness unless drivers themselves are directly threatened or injured.  In other words, a driver won't bother to report crimes or dangerous situations for relay to the police or other authorities because he knows it's futile.
     For just one example, this writer was parked in front of the Ambassador Hotel on Wisconsin Ave. in the early morning when an obviously deranged woman in ragbag clothes and carrying a shopping bag began climbing around on parked cars and darting in and out of the street, trying to stop traffic and causing cars to swerve dangerously, at an obvious risk to herself and others.
     The dispatcher -- and it was a slow morning -- was informed, and a squad was requested.  As usual, the dispatcher asked the stock question: "Are you involved?" When I said no, he said, "We have nothing to do with that, then."  I replied to the effect that "I'm just trying to be a good citizen," but it was ignored.
     Of course, a driver can look for a pay phone at the risk of losing his rightful order, which he may have been waiting an hour for, but the point is that in some cities cabs are seen as a useful adjunct in the mounting tide of street crime against the defenseless elderly and such.  They have, naturally, instant communication with their radios, and are likely to be in the most unusual spots when almost nothing else is moving, silently waiting and observing the scene out of sheer boredom. Why not tap this resource?
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Aftermath:  Following a standoff with the Taxicab Union, Boynton Cab Co. shut down & the employees formed a cooperative operating out of a storefront on Farwell Ave., later moving to N. King Drive, today with about 50 full-time owner-operators & their own driver/partners.  By that time I was covering the North Shore -- a heavy user of cabs -- for the Post Publications & was there at midnight the night Boynton shut the doors, to get the story.  Oddly enough, my father's second wife, Dorothy Zetteler, who become a driver in World War II, was a radio dispatcher there, & I had grown used to hearing her voice nights when I worked, though I never knew if she knew who I was when I posted.  Her daughter, my half-sister Christine, found this anonymous cab memoir in her effects, though we can't know whether it was because I wrote it or because it involved her career as one of the first women drivers, or both. 

  There are the congenial evening drinking hours, with the conflict of either catching a few drinks yourself after a 12-hour shift, or waiting for the spurt of trade after the bars close that might yield an eight dollar ride from the Crown Room to Fox Point, or whatever.  Especially in heavy rain and snow and the cold that knocks out car batteries all over the area.
    That's what fills up the trip sheet.
Pleasant afternoons find you hauling a fat lady and her snot-nosed kid and nine bursting sacks of groceries 11 blocks from Kohl's to a basement apartment for a quarter tip. You're lucky to get it.  Or, substitute a Laundromat on National Ave. and a cab load of almost exclusively Spanish-speaking people directing you with the laundry on their laps.
     The tribulations of the cab driver -- as for most service occupations -- are endless, and these confessions, to be somewhat useful, should follow a more rigid progression.  I'll begin with Helpful Hints for the riding public, to ease the lot of both cabbie and customer.
     For one, it is always disconcerting to hear someone say s/he has waited an hour or two for a cab, perhaps calling back after an hour has passed.  On the East Side or Downtown, you should never -- even at four in the morning -- have to wait more than 20 minutes for a cab.  More than that (except in extreme weather conditions that have every pedestrian, bus rider and auto owner suddenly demanding service) generally means the order has somehow gone astray in the boardroom, or a driver has violated the rules by accepting an order while en route to another.
     On the South Side, or any outlying area (or the Inner City), it's another matter.  In those areas, the older an order gets, after 15 or so minutes, the less likely it is to be filled.  What most people don't realize is that, unless a driver volunteers, a cab will not be sent more than a short distance from where it is posted with the dispatcher.
     So except for busy times -- the rush hours -- there are vast areas where no cab is nearby and none is likely to be for some time, until a load from the area that generates the bulk of the business -- Downtown and the East Side -- takes a driver into that region.  And, since he is there to make money, he is logically not going to hang around on the off chance a call will eventually come in.  Instead, he'll grab the first thing over the radio that's reasonably close and work his way down to the prime area again, or even deadhead back.  He knows that a cab is called to some neighborhoods on the South Side maybe once in each householder's frugal lifetime.
     So the Yellow Cab system of renting to drivers, instead of paying them a commission, which ensures that the company gets its money even if the driver makes nothing, is a system that provides efficient coverage of the city only when things are reasonably busy.
     As a result, in either case -- the prime area (which is well supplied with cabs because it is near the garage), or the boondocks -- the moral is:  Don't wait more than 15 or 20 minutes.  Then call again. And again.  Because, although the company doesn't like it known, when an order becomes an hour old it is thrown away.
     The cabbies instinctively avoid the older, distant orders anyway, on the valid grounds that the party has probably left by some other means.  But a callback is announced as such by the dispatcher ("A three-time callback, the party has been waiting four hours, can I please have a volunteer. . . .") and is taken as a sign of sincerity.  After all, the driver pays 10 cents a mile, rental and gas costs whether he makes a dime or not, and time wasted is a lost opportunity to make money on a surer thing elsewhere.  A good driver soon learns to recognize sure things, the regular riders and business-based orders, for example, like telephone company operators and Blood Bank calls, and grabs them.
     Because the fares do leave by other means.  Maybe the fare called Veteran's and Yellow at the same time and hopped in the first to arrive.  Or took a ride from someone else leaving a bar without canceling the order.  Or much worse, a prankster has called a cab to a neighbor's home miles from any reasonable hope of another order just to imagine somebody's annoyance when the cab arrives and wakes up everybody in the darkened house.  This, of course, costs the company not a whit -- it even makes money for it -- but bleeds money from the driver's pocket.
     It is also no benefit to the driver (except possibly for the handful of commission drivers left from another era) to suggest that the meter be turned off, with a certain flat amount to be paid for the trip.  Besides being illegal -- the meter must be running to prevent overcharging, though undercharging is not a violation -- the cost to the driver is exactly the same, and therefore his profit.  I have, though, made deals -- for less than the metered fare -- for the use of the cab for an extended period.
     This has happened in the case of drunks or more unusual sorts who want to drive around and look at things and talk, often with a bottle to accompany them in back-seat comfort.  Some lonely people consider hackies rent-a-friends, with dinners, afternoons of pool and refreshments provided in exchange for companionship, all while the meter is running.  Oddly enough, for the same price as a cab (assuming the driver charges the full meter rate), Cadillac limousine service with a uniformed chauffeur is available.  As of last spring this was six dollars an hour or 50 a mile, whichever is greater.
     Another kind of instant friendship sought after is the sexual kind, 99% of which consists of offers by men (at least in my case), very likely as a last resort as they make their way home from a gay bar.  A few women have made vague references to being lonely and not knowing where to meet people, but nothing that I've found tempting. The occasional attractive women who flash thigh under the dome light and encourage friendly banter are nevertheless in and out in a cloud of perfume all too soon, leaving only fantasies behind.
     But a type of intimacy does take place in a cab, uninvited though it may be, with the fares feeling free to ask anything personal. One learns to deal with people and develop a repertoire of replies for common situations, as in the title of this piece. [
Pause now & look.] After responding with everything from macho bluntness to evasiveness on such queries as "Do you eat pussy?" I learned that "I take it any way I can get it" usually sufficed.
     Dealings with people, all varieties of people, form the memories that are at the core of cab driving: bloodied people walking away from wrecks or fights or muggings, dripping on the dollars they give you at the Emergency Hospital.  Kids ditching a wrecked car, finding you -- the sympathetic driver after others at the cab stand have turned them down -- and going back to the scene for the case of beer in the car.  The drunk waitress from Frenchy's, picked up at Pizza Man on Oakland, going home to the Fashionable Suburb in the early morning and leaving a pool of vomit in the back to be dealt with.  (Sand from the city's box will have to do).
     More vignettes: The (again) drunk Native American woman on 27th and Wells streets who refuses to pay and refuses to get out.  (A squad is called, wasting everybody's time, and she pays but is taken away.)  The burglar who calls from a pay phone on Wisconsin Ave. to make his getaway.  Being pulled over by the trailing squad on Capitol Drive; they make him pay, and he tips, too.  Fortunately, he didn't pull a gun when the red light started flashing.
     And the holdup man who uses cabs to go from bar to bar. The cops traced his movements with the aid of the trip sheet -- points of pickup, destinations and times -- that every driver keeps.  The hulking tower of potential hillbilly violence who decides I'm all right, anyway, after baiting me for my long hair and beard.  The slicker who runs up the meter and tries to beat me out of it at the fifth stop (sure I'll wait for you while you go in that apartment building, as long as you pay me what's on the meter now.)
     And the flashy nervous young black woman who wants to disappear into the night shadows near a house vaguely indicated with the wave of a hand, to bring back the money.  (Sure, but better yet I'll walk you to the door so you won't have to walk back to the cab.)  And the poorly dressed skinny old white woman at the tavern on Burnham St.  ("Watch out, she's not wearing any pants," a guy tells me inside) who tries the same trick, jumps out on the opposite side of the street, and is flattened by a truck.  The 10-10 for an emergency is called and the ambulance comes.  No fare this time.
     As I'm parked by the Greyhound Bus Station [the 'Hound], a youngish fellow with a trim moustache who smells like a Vice Squad decoy saunters to the driver's window and asks if I want a blowjob.  In front of the Pfister Hotel a flush businessman arriving with baggage assumes I can send some women up to his room.  Try the Downtown lounges, pal.
     And the old ladies on Prospect Ave. who never walk more than 10 feet and tip miserably; the office cleaning-women woman Downtown who tips generously; the fumbling blind, the halting disabled; the pets being taken by their owners to be groomed; the school kids in braces; the sullen white man emerging from the police station on Lincoln Ave.; and the dazed black kid at the cop shop in Fox Point.
     And the shaking elderly woman on her liquor run, and the diabetic ducking out of the house for a trip to Axel's [bar] and a couple quick vodkas and back to Lake Drive.  The mod young man and wrinkled woman who who leave The Factory and scream about money (hers) and his other girlfriend all the way to his house.  He rushes the cab to re-enter and strangle her, perhaps, seconds after I lock the door, and spits as the cab pulls away.  It runs thick and whitish down my window. . . .
     But closest to the bone is the stab of fear when a potential holdup is sensed.  A tall, young clean-shaven black male, as in all the latest police reports, gets in my cab Downtown and gives a destination in the Core, changing addresses several times on the ride.  Nothing to do but let him know he's being scrutinized:  Turn on the interior light, write down each address after looking at him, invent a reason to talk to the dispatcher.  Tell myself that in this, the worst waves of holdups in some time, the police are shadowing suspicious orders like phantoms.  This time it's suddenly over when he has me let him out a busy corner, on an impulse, it seems.    

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      Mike Zetteler