Experience D’Orth




                After writing frequently about the several track driving school experiences I’ve enjoyed recently, and my high school Drivers Ed class some months ago, I realized that I have had another equally focused learning experience behind the wheel. While finishing up college at the University of South Florida in Tampa, I needed a job that allowed me to work whenever I had the time, and at odd hours if necessary.  A new cab company had just opened up and was looking for drivers, so I reasoned that riding around in an air conditioned car all day was a better way to earn during a Florida summer than, perish the thought, any sort of manual labor.  This all came back to me when I was in New York City recently and had occasion to ride in a couple of taxis. The inbound ride from LaGuardia airport was filled with an interesting conversation with the driver about the cab business in NYC—why all the cars are Fords, how long they last (300,000 miles!) and so forth.  There was a severe language barrier on the return ride the next day, so I had the time to ruminate on my own brief exposure to the trade.     

After demonstrating that I had a license and could fog a mirror, I was issued car  #3, a brand-new 1967 Ford Custom 300 sedan, black with white doors and top and a United Cab logo on the side.  This sweetheart had an in-line 6-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission with positions ‘1’ and ‘2’ locked out along with the ability to make it downshift with the accelerator.  ‘Drive’ was all we were allowed, in the interest of fuel mileage and to prevent cowboying the cars.   Or so they thought.

                The car had the standard taxi meter fastened to the dash with a mail box-like flag attached.  “Off’ was straight up;  ninety degrees to the right charged by time only; straight down charged by mileage only and the 9:00 o’clock position got the passenger for both.  Which position you chose depended on company policy/advertising, the destination or the apparent gullibility of the passenger.  Generally, longer trips would result in a single charge factor, but a short hop was inefficient and required a stiffer rate.  We had flat rates established for real long rides, such as across the Bay to St. Petersburg or Clearwater.  Clients liked to know up front what the charge for such a trip was going to be, so they could relax and enjoy the ride instead of watching the meter. We liked the flat rate since it was considerably greater than the meter fare would have been (to offset the probable empty drive back).

                Unlike New York, where most fares are picked up one after the other along the busy streets, Tampa required focused stalking of commercial areas and frequent sitting at taxi stands outside department stores and theaters.  This made us very aggressive about finding fares, since we were paid on commission—40% of everything you collected and the company bought the gas. We also had a radio so the central dispatcher could keep up with where we were and so she could send us to locations where a request had been phoned in.  Our sole competition was the ubiquitous Yellow Cab.  They used Chevrolets and Plymouths, similarly performance crippled, and a radio frequency that we could often intercept by fiddling with our radio adjustments.  If you were anywhere near a Yellow Cab assignment call, you could sprint over and hopefully nab the passenger before they showed up.  This was easy if it was just someone standing on the curb, but more than once I found someone with a pile of luggage to load or who straggled out of the house when I honked.  Getting caught poaching taught you to never pull into the driveway—the angry cabbie would block you in—stopping out in the street left a getaway route forward or back!

                 Recalling the earlier reference to driving schools, what you learned in order to cope with these sluggish taxis was simple physics—momentum!  Since you couldn’t accelerate quickly, the solution to getting somewhere fast was to not slow down!  Not so much when you already had a fare in the car, but when you were trying to beat out someone, you just kept the accelerator on the floor and used some left-foot braking before squealing around suburban corners.  Railroad tracks, rough street crossings or rubbish-strewn alleys were uniformly attacked All Ahead Full.  Did I mention the company bought the gas?  A clue management used to tell how roughly a car was being driven was missing hubcaps.  Hard landings and big-G cornering often jettisoned the little dog-dish covers.  Fortunately, I knew of a used car lot that routinely took the little cheap ones off and put big wheel covers on their inventory, so their dumpster always had a few spares available.

                Since Tampa is a port city, a cab driver there learns a lot about the men of the international Merchant Marine.  A call in the evening to a ship dock usually meant a few lusty seamen wanted to find a bar where there was 'action.'  Female action.  A crafty driver would ride them around to a couple of tamer nightspots that seemed to offer little promise from the outside, first.  When they would express their impatience and emphasize in more graphic detail what they were really after,  a suggestion that there was a really red hot joint ‘way across town would encourage a much bigger fare (time and mileage) plus a more generous tip.  I once had four big Swedes in the car, who explained—in pantomime—the conjugal nature of their quest.  When I finally pulled up in front of exactly the sort of establishment they had in mind,  they expressed great satisfaction, but acted dumb when I told them the fare.  Shrugging, the biggest one extended a hand the size of a toilet seat in which were crumpled bills of all denominations and some change. I carefully picked out the exact fare as shown on the meter. They all laughed loudly and said—in excellent English—“OK! You’re an honest guy!  We always beat up any driver who tries to cheat us;  but instead, here’s a $10.00 tip!”

                The opposite of these tomcats would be daytime shipyard calls, where usually the client would be a single middle-aged man with a couple of big paper bags with him.  He would want to go to a used-book store and swap his batch for another load.  An hour later, you’d pick him up again and on the way back to the ship he would want to stop at a grocery store where he’d buy sacks of fresh fruit, candy bars and other treats.  The oddest group was a whole carload of fellows from somewhere in Southeast Asia.  They had come off a coal ship delivering to Tampa’s big generating plant. Not a one spoke any English, but they all kept chattering the same garbled word “Goo-weeel.”   I radioed in and asked what to do.  With no further explanation, the veteran dispatcher said “Take ‘em to the big Goodwill store downtown.”  As soon as they saw the familiar sign, they happily piled out.  Two hours later I was called to a pick up at the same store and there were all my pals, each with a couple of huge bags of…women’s clothes—mostly lingerie.  They had so much, the trunk wouldn’t shut. I drove back to the coal dock wondering just what sort of fun these guys had on board--and how the dispatcher knew about it.  I learned later that this was pretty commonplace; the stuff would be traded for professional services to hookers all over the Pacific Rim!

                Another rule cab drivers learn is that when a bartender calls you to take someone home, its not because they’re too loaded to drive—they’re out of money.  The bouncer will pour the drunk into the car, give you his driver’s license for the address and send you on your way.  A good meter-charge later, you have a soundly sleeping drunk in the car, who may have done something repulsive to himself and your upholstery along the way, and who has an empty wallet.  Saturday mornings are not very lucrative, either.  That’s when all the sweet old widows call to be taken six blocks to the Safeway.  An hour later they call back and you get to put the two grocery bags in the trunk, take the lady home and carry the bags up to the porch.

                In case you’re wondering, there is a token reference to an Italian exotic car in this story.  That summer, there was a brand-new silver Maserati Quattroporte that I occasionally spotted around Tampa’s Bay Shore neighborhood. It was one of the first-generation Frua-bodied examples, and was usually being driven by a distinguished-looking man who was always dressed in a dark suit.  One afternoon, I was shooting down a major artery, trying to get the jump on a Yellow call. The street was a four-lane, but narrow, undivided and always congested.  I was braking hard behind a big truck that was slowing, wishing I could jump into the inside lane and get around him, but another car was beside me on the left. Suddenly, I realized that car was stopping so he could make a left turn, opening a hole for me, so I hammered the gas back to the floor, released the brake and swerved around the truck into the inside lane….and saw the brake lights on that Maserati, stopped in the lane, also trying to turn left!  Both feet hard on the brake pedal put the Ford on its nose, squealing all four tires and I stopped just millimeters from the Q-porte’s bumper.  The Suit wasn’t pleased, judging by his expression in the mirror, but I ignored his glare and sped off to the nearby address where I snagged a great fare going to the airport, just as the Yellow Cab came around the corner!


-- Bill Orth --