Notes From A Retired Cab Driver

I quit driving a cab in Chicago a couple months ago after nine years on the job. Do something 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week for that length of time and there’s no way it won’t shape your relationship with the world. I’ve spent these recent weeks recalibrating because I no longer wanted my life to be led from behind the wheel. Closing that driver’s-side door has been eye opening.

A cab driver’s life is unlike most others’. He spends hours and hours randomly looping around the city, punctuated by the lucky short spurts when he’s got a fare. Then the meter goes on and he’s operating at the passenger’s pace. Of course there are drivers who subject people to their own itinerary and rhythm, but those guys rarely last, burning out from running too hot or being asked by the city to seek alternate employment for any number of possible transgressions – from crashes to badly-thought-out scams. The alternating aimlessness and concentrated activity over the daily 12 hours or more makes for an often-chaotic personal life. You end up fitting all other chores and pleasures around time in the taxi. You pay to rent these vehicles so when they sit idle it weighs on the conscience. In a certain way it never feels like you’re truly off-duty because at any hour of day or night you can walk out to the cab and be back on the clock.

During most of my nine years, I worked from the afternoon until late into the night. The only time I saw the sunrise was at the end of my shift, just before my head hit the pillow. Now I wake a little after my girlfriend has gone out to give the dog his morning walk, typically between 7 and 8 a.m. For all those years, I was on a diametrically opposite schedule from much of the world; now I’m trying to run along with the rest of the pack. It’s novel to wake in the morning and go to sleep at night the way most other people do.In the cab I dealt with the public all the time. Dozens of small social interactions every day would pass without a second thought. Now I rarely see anyone I don’t know. Most of my hours are spent in the house and when I leave it’s usually with my girlfriend or to visit friends. A cabdriver’s city is necessarily vast and unpredictable whereas most others’ is confined to their daily routine –the commute to and from work, their neighborhood and the occasional foray to a restaurant, bar, theater or ballgame. Given the opportunity to go where and when I want for the first time in years, I’ve chosen not to go out much. What might strike most as a mundane existence is a welcome change of pace after all that time flitting about at others’ biddings.

I haven’t quit driving completely. My girlfriend has a car and enjoys having me chauffeur her around, but driving a car is nothing like driving a cab. The ecosystem of the road is made up of a variety of species: large and small, predator and prey, strong and weak. In the cab, that blacktop was my territory to fight over, whereas now it’s merely a way to get from one place to the other. I notice the attitude of others toward me is different as well. There’s a well-earned weariness to drivers who spot cabbies in their path. They almost expect to be cut off or otherwise impinged upon or inconvenienced.

Knowing that others perceive him antagonistically weighs on the cabdriver and alters his driving style. Some become over-aggressive while others lapse into stupor-like slowness. It’s all a reaction to the constant stress of the occupation. A cabdriver has to be aware and respond to everything else that happens on the roads he travels. Not taking this care may result in accidents and a loss of income.

Now when I get behind the wheel the stakes are much lower. I’m not compelled to go fast or hold grudges against other motorists as I used to as a cabbie. I laugh as cabs zip in and out of lanes, tailgate and blare their horns, passing drivers like me as if we were standing still. I’ve gone from being on the track to practically sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines, watching the racers roar by.

Better still are the times I take the Rock Island Line train downtown and look out the window at the standstill on the Dan Ryan. I used to have to sit in that gridlock daily, but now it’s someone else’s headache. It’s such a luxury to have someone else get me where I want to go for a change. Even more than whether I’m driving or being driven, it’s a pleasure to be going where I choose rather than getting others where they want to go. When you’re the traveler rather than just a transporter of others you can look forward to getting to this destination or that. A cabdriver can’t do that other than waiting for his shift to be over.

When I quit many people asked me what I’d do, what would I paint and write about? Driving was always a way to pay the bills but someplace a few thousand miles in, it began to inform my art and my thinking as well. It became a way to see the world. Despite the weight gained and the nerves frayed, I’ll always remember being a hack with a measure of gratitude. I won’t miss it though. Closing that driver’s-side door has given me my own place to go.

Woman sues taxi company for hell ride: the same thing happened to me

I checked my email last night and I found a short and simple email from my former roommate, a guy I lived with for a couple of years in Astoria, New York (Queens). He had included a link and a “Does This Sound familiar?” subject line. When I followed the link, my heart sank as I read the story: Woman sues cab company after cabbie’s hell ride.

Amy Ewertz was trying to pay for her New York cab ride home with a credit card–something common in the city, but still frowned upon by many cabbies. The cabbie, according to the New York Post’s story, was angry she was using a card and sped off with Ewertz, terrified, in the back seat of the car. Understandably frightened, Ewertz hurled herself out of the taxi and was injured in the process. She has now filed a lawsuit against the cab company.

In July 2008, the same thing happened to me. Except I didn’t have the option of hurling myself out of the taxi… the cabbie had child locked me in.I was coming home late one night from working and I tried to pay my fare with a credit card when the cabbie arrived to my home in Astoria. The cabbie was blatantly irritated that I wanted to pay with a card and he claimed that the card wasn’t reading and he needed cash. Well, I didn’t have cash. And in New York City, you’re not supposed to need cash to ride in a taxi since you can verify whether or not a taxi has a credit card machine before agreeing to ride–something I had done in this case. (Read more about using credit cards in NYC taxis here).

The cabbie insisted that my card wasn’t reading. He claimed that sometimes it just ‘doesn’t read’, although I’d been paying cab fares with card at least a couple of times a week in that very same spot for years. I requested he try the card at the end of the block, if reception due to location was, in fact, the issue.

The cabbie grew increasingly hostile with me. I could hear him cursing at me under his breath while I tried the card again at the end of the block. I was frustrated. It was his responsibility to have his machine working and I told him as much. But in an effort to eliminate the rising tension, I told him I would get cash from my bank, 5 blocks away, if he’d drive me there.

Upon requesting that he drive me to my bank, he became furious. He child locked the door and sped off down the street. He said he was taking me to the nearest police station and this made no sense to me. Why was I being punished when all I was trying to do was pay my fare? Why was I being locked in a taxi against my will? I became genuinely afraid when I noticed he wasn’t driving me toward the nearest Astoria police station at all.

The grave mistake I made that night was not charging my cell phone before heading out for the evening. I panicked. I started screaming, kicking at the windows, and I even tried to reach my hand through the hole in the glass divider to get his attention. He swatted my hands away violently and I didn’t know what to do.

I got through to 911 on my phone, with my battery light blinking red, ready to die at any moment. I noticed a police car ahead of us on the street, and a combination of 911′s ability to radio the officers and the cabbie’s fear that he’d be making a bad situation worse by continuing to keep me trapped in the car resulted in us pulled over on the side of the street. I frantically tried to explain to police officers what had happened and he angrily explained to them his side of the story: that I was ‘refusing’ to pay and that he was driving me to the nearest police station.

What happened next I had a hard time believing: the police officers told me it would be best if I would just pay my fare and file an official complaint with the taxi company. Completely shaken up and desperate to distance myself from the cabbie and get home to my bed, I paid the fare–which included the distance we’d gone as part of my own taxi hell ride.

A few months later, I was summoned to the NYC Taxi & Limousine Court. I sat in a small room alongside the cabbie before a judge. I told my story. The judge, for what it’s worth, seemed to empathize with me. He scolded the driver on how irresponsible it is to lock a young woman at 3am in his car. He seemed to understand how terrified I must have felt. But here’s the kicker: in NYC, it is legal for a taxi cab driver to child lock a passenger in his or her car and drive the passenger to the nearest police station if the driver believes the passenger will not pay their fare.

I was speechless. This is legal? How is this legal? Why is it ok for a person, in my case, a young woman, to essentially be kidnapped by a complete stranger and he’s allowed to get away with it as long as he claims he was taking me to the nearest police station if he gets caught?

In the end, the cabbie had to pay a small fine and lost some points on his license and that’s it.

When I saw Amy’s story, I felt for her. I understand that cabbies need protection, but this law is unlawful. Any driver who wants to take advantage of a passenger by taking advantage of this law can get away it, and I believe that’s what happened in my case. Furthermore, if this kind of behavior is going to be legal, shouldn’t passengers be made aware of it? Why isn’t there a sign in taxis saying something to the extent of: If you don’t pay your fare, or if the driver thinks you aren’t going to pay your fare, or if the driver is irritated you’re trying to pay with credit card, you will be held against your will in this car and driven, supposedly, to the nearest police station.

If this bogus law is going to be held up in court, as it was in my case, shouldn’t it be common knowledge to New Yorkers and those visiting the city that this could happen? I think so. And that’s why I decided to tell my story in response to Amy Ewertz’s lawsuit.

Quick internet research has shown me that there’s either been a recent spate in taxi kidnappings since my incident or that it has always been a problem. Regardless, these open-ended laws protecting cabbies are harming passengers. Something needs to change. I wish her well with her suit and more importantly, I hope our incidents, and similar incidents experienced by others, help change this terrifying law.

Ten wild cab rides that you’ll never forget

Everyone has their own way of immersing in a culture. Some jump in knees-deep into the food scene, massacring the local food blogs and munching their ways through every gastic adventure that they can find. Others enjoy the philosophical and soft-edged days of lounging in street side cafes, watching passers-by and drinking coffee in the early afternoon sun. Here at Gadling though, we prefer the good old cab ride.

It’s pretty surprising what you can pick up about a culture from the cabs, each driver with his own background, each car holding thousands of untold stories. Inspired by the works at the outstanding blog known as HACK, we’ve thus put together 10 of our favorite rides from around the planet below.

1. Cairo
One of the most fun and arguably scariest things about Cairo city life is the traffic. Here, traffic signals are rare and crosswalks are non-existant, meaning cars, taxis, trucks, people and donkeys are all jumbled into a free-for-all on the dusty Egyptian roads. It takes nerves of steel to brave these roads, which is why it’s so fun sitting shotgun in an experienced cabbie’s car. An average ride will involve darting through city traffic honking up a storm while barreling past 1960′s-era Fiats, diladapidated buildings and remnants of Cairo history, all for the grand sum of no more than 4USD.

2. Moscow/St Petersburg
The funny thing about cabs in Russia is that there really aren’t any. Instead, the majority of car service is provided by everyday residents looking for an extra few dollars of income. All you have to do to flag a car is hold your arm out low and wait for a passing vehicle to pull over — it could be the remnant of a cold-war era beater or a shiny new Volkswagon — then mutter your destination and you’re off to the races.

This could be a little unnerving for the first time hithchiker, which is why we recommend a few Stoli and tonics before trying your first time. Another handy tip: if you don’t speak Russian, take a photo of your destination and show the driver.

2b. Moscow at 5AM
Traffic is so thick in Moscow that it’s hard to ever really appreciate the passing city while gurgling through the congested streets. For a real taste of Russian ridesharing, try taking a cab to Domodedovo at 5AM when the streets are clear and when your car’s throttle can really open up. Roll down the windows and watch the amazing city of Moscow fly by as you get an uninterrupted view of the beautiful capital city.3. Tokyo
The most mindblowing thing about Tokyo cab rides is the cordiality. Approaching your target cab, the first thing that you’ll notice is that the door automatically opens and shuts for you — all controlled by the white-gloved driver. The rest of your ride is strangely reminiscent of a ride in a London taxi, with black, fancy leather and all the pomp and circumstance of a ride through Oxford Circus. Set that against the high-neon and non-stop glam of Tokyo and you’ve got yourself a formula for travel contrast bliss.

4. Bangkok via motorcycle taxi
Tuk-Tuks and taxi cabs are the mainstays of Bangkok public transportation, but if you really want to make progress then take a motorcycle taxi. You can pick them up at stations around the city and they’ll provide a helmet and the ride of your life — all you have to do is lean and and hold on tight.

5. Delhi via Tuk Tuk as told by Mike Barish

Plenty of places have pedicabs and rickshaws that cater mostly to tourists. They’re alternatives to cabs, but exist only to be kitchy. In India, however, the small cabs know as tuk tuks are commonly used by locals and tourists alike to navigate the incredible congested cities in the nation’s capital.

The tiny three-wheeled vehicles are as ubiquitous in Delhi as cows in the streets and the smells of spices in the air. They’re loud, mostly uncomfortable and expose you to the exhaust fumes from the trucks that suffocate the city’s highways.

All that said, tuk tuks are convenient and get you to where you’re going much quicker than walking. They cost a pittance (think $5 or less), can be found everywhere and usually idle on the side of the street, making it easy to approach and speak with the driver about the price. Once you get going, though, don’t expect to converse much. You’ll be lucky if you can still hear your own thoughts.

6. Enroute to Pudong Airport, Shanghai
The only thing slowing your cab driver down between downtown Shanghai and the international airport at city’s edge is the glaringly obvious radar banks over top of the highway. Imagine yourself comfortably crusing at 95 miles/hour on the People’s highway at 6AM when WHAM, the cabbie slams on the brakes and you slow to 45 for 2000 feet. Get a safe distance away and VRRroooooom, you’re pressed against the back of your seat on your way to the International Space Station once more.

7. Zambia as told by Willy Volk
After our bus from Livingston, Zambia, to Sesheke (a border crossing in the southwest of the country) choked and died, my friend and I sat in the scalding sun waiting for repairs. After about 90 minutes, an approaching pickup stopped when it saw potential passengers sprawled in the dust. Able to outbid the others for seats in the uncovered rear of his truck — we paid the equivalent of $2 each — we high-fived each other, jumped in the back, and sat down … on fifty-kilo bags of uncooked sweet potatoes.

For the next four hours — during which we covered maybe 100 kilometers — we rumbled, bumped, and jounced along southwestern Zambia’s dusty, desolate M10 “highway.” Cinnamon-colored dirt coated my skin and, together with the smoke from roadside fires, filled my nostrils. Bouncing over potholes as large as truck engines, we repeatedly flew in the air and landed hard on the solid, gnarled edges of the sweet potatoes. Bang, bang, bang: our asses smacked those unforgiving, rock-hard bags every 10 seconds for hours. Bang! When we were finally able to crawl out of our tortuous ride, we hobbled to the boat launch — Namibia’s immigration office lay on the other side of the Zambezi River — only to discover we’d missed the day’s final boat and had to be ferried across in a dugout canoe.

8. Technology touts in Taipei as told by Darren Murph
One of the unfortunate results of the broad information infrastructure in Taiwan is that streaming video is everywhere on the island, which means that more than a few cabbies are all-too-distracted by what’s going inside of the cab instead of outside. Darren recounts the full experience with photos over at Engadget.

9. Mexico City
They say tha cabs in Mexico City aren’t the safest in the world, but it’s just so hard to resist the cute little green Volkswagon Beetles that chortle through the street. Provided you have a good command over the Spanish language or at least a good idea of where you’re going, make sure to jump in the back seat of one of these vochos — there’s as much history in these taxis as there is in the city at large.

10. London
Sure, it’s cliche to tout the cultural value of the London taxicab, but there’s no question about it: it’s a rite of passage. From the iconic, black taxi styling to flip-down seats to the near-perfection of every London cabbie the experience is sure to please — just make sure you’ve got enough Sterling to make the trip, UK cabs are among the most expensive on the planet.

[Flickr image via Bruno. C.]

Look where cab drivers eat – Dining out tip

Look where cab drivers eat.

There are times in a foreign country when you want to test the culinary prowess of a culture that has a thousand years of history behind it. And there are times when you just want to “tie on the feed bag.”

If you want authentic, down-home grub and you don’t want to be over-charged, follow the cab drivers. If you you see five or so cabs parked in front of a restaurant, you’ve found a cheap, filling, honest meal, sans garnish, with refills on the crank du-jour and plenty of local color.

[Photo: Flickr | Bryson Gilbert]

Top five cities for taxi drivers (and the bottom end, too)

When you step into a cab, you never know what you’re going to find. The driver could be knowledgeable, helpful, pleasant and safe. Or, he could lead you into a fender-bender in minutes. It’s a real roll of the dice, of course, though some cities’ cabbies are certainly better than others – at least that’s what hotels.com found.

In a study of world’s taxi drivers, hotels.com found that London’s are tops. But, you get what you pay for: London‘s taxis were also the most expensive. New York came in second, with 27 percent of the vote (compared to London’s overwhelming 59 percent). New York’s drivers ticked up 10 percentage points, but this still wasn’t enough to break the tie it scored with Paris for having the rudest cabbies. Rome picked up the dubious distinction of having the worst drivers.

Tokyo (26 percent), Berlin (17 percent) and Bangkok (14 percent) round out the world’s top five.

Madrid took sixth, followed by Copenhagen, Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris. So, Denmark may be happier, but Spain has better cab drivers.

Of course, there’s always one you should look out for …


[photo by Ben Fredericson via Flickr]