I found myself in the back seat of a cab downtown the other night and it got me to thinking of this old post from before…
Hi-10 was the number of my Yellow cab. Typing the call sign these years later brings memories of hearing it crackle over the radio dispatch, snapping me out of my morning routine and back onto the downtown Seattle streets at around last call. People who have lived and worked in a city for a stretch of time come to know that much of the urban landscape’s true character is hidden to the visitor or casual observer. Things that the chamber of commerce or the tourist t-shirt manufacturers would rather remain obscure come into focus after twilight. In the six odd months that I drove a hack in the urban core I found that the true character of a city, or of an individual, can best be observed from a bench seat behind a windshield during the dark hours between ten and four.
I don’t know what driving today entails, what with computerized dispatch and brand new Prius’ dominating the cab fleets, but twenty five years ago driving a beat up ex police cruiser with a down and dirty yellow paint job courtesy of Earl Sheib was one of the few remaining bastions of pure capitalism left in our ever more regulated nanny state. Many of the cab owners and drivers were immigrants with good educations and professions who were forced to flee their war torn or starving countries and start over with nothing. The competition for fares was pretty fierce but the chance to make nightly cash with your wits and guts being the only limiting factor was thrilling to a young man whose previous work experiences had been mostly in the world of union factory work.
Driving a taxi may seem to the uninitiated a relatively simple exercise in picking people up and dropping them somewhere else and that is true as far as it goes. To the driver who subscribed to this job description, a sixty or seventy five dollar night was to be routinely expected after gas and fifty bucks to the cab owner. To the driver however who could hustle and think, bend the rules a little in his favor, a couple hundred for a six or eight hour shift was fairly common. Nothing to get rich on but not bad for a kid looking for some adventure and a few extra bucks to spend.
The iron rule and secret to success or failure as a cabbie was that the dispatcher was God, and that the radio was His voice on earth. He controled and doled out the fares, or bells as they were called, and staying on his good side was paramount. The city was divided into ten or twelve zones and as you drove through them with a bell or without, you were required to radio dispatch as to which zone you were entering and request your position in the new zone. Say you were leaving zone three with a bell traveling to zone nine with the option of going through zones six or seven to get there. A call to dispatch would go “Hi-10 occupied in three, what’s my drop (rank) in six, seven and nine”. He might say “four in six, two in seven, one in nine”. In this case I would say “drop me in nine” and I would be first in line for the next bell to call from zone nine. If while waiting however I saw someone hailing and picked him up thinking that I could take him to where he wanted to go and get back to nine before dispatch called my number, sometimes I would. Depending on how far he was going. If I succeeded, all was well. If I was caught being out of position however I was screwed. If I was out of position and missed the bell to another driver, dispatch had a habit of losing your cab number for a couple of hours. The not so secret secret to making good money was to try and fool the dispatcher into thinking you were in one place while you were in three others. The dispatchers job, and they were pretty savy having all been veteran drivers, was to catch you lying to them. As you can see, for a reasonably intelligent guy willing to gamble a little, the possibilities for working the system to your advantage were endless. Throw into this mix of low brow creative capitalist entrepreneurship a combination of freaks, thieves, weirdos, pimps, hookers, strippers, trannies, drunk frat boys and sorority sisters, parking meter robbers, and the other flotsam and jetsam of a typical downtown Saturday night and I’ve never had as much fun before or since at a job.
As for the character angle of this story, you’ll have to take my word that I had more than one opportunity to display a clear lack of Judeo-Christian principals and that for the most part I came through this six months with my self respect intact. Mostly. On one fine summer evening an unusually beautiful working girl finding herself short of cash offered to barter her expertise in a certain area for cab fare. My initial reaction was one of employing Groucho’s old axiom of not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member in not wishing to be serviced by someone who would do the likes of a cab driver. Being of good cheer this particular night and feeling compassion for the poor girl’s situation, I dropped my guard and figured what the hell. Upon arriving at our destination and warmly anticipating recieving my “fare” however, I learned a lesson in the relativity of charcater and in the importance of being paid in advance for certain services as she bolted from the back seat of the cab and disappeared into the night.
Character? As a hustler she was true to her nature. As for mine? I’m still working on it.