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Taxi Driver: Tales of a Nocturnal Veteran

By Jay Woodruff

A lone figure, hands buried in his pockets, fumbles around the bend in Mass. Ave. near Dudley House. Hunched and weaving, he eyes the line of about a half dozen cabs that doze up ahead. Arthur watches the man as he nears the first cab, hesitates for a moment, then staggers on.

"You got to be careful who you pick up," Arthur says as he surveys the man's retreating reflection in the rear-view mirror. Arthur takes another drag of his cigarette. "If that first cab hadn't offered the guy a fare, then I wouldn't either. Something would've been wrong. You got to protect yourself."

Just the day before, Arthur says, "a girl cab driver was robbed by a sawed-off shot gun. Right in Boston in the middle of the afternoon. Can you believe that?" So Arthur's wary of who he accepts into his cab--a blue '78 Fury. Arthur, who has been leasing the street-beat Fury from his uncle for about eight months, has been held up once in his three years of full-time night driving. Last spring, he stopped at Fresh Pond to make a phone call. He was standing beside his cab when three men pulled knives on him and took all his cash.

Now Arthur carries a club below the seat, and, if his uncle doesn't install a shield between the front and back seats soon, Arthur plans to get the license he needs to carry a gun. Until recently, Arthur let his doberman ride with him, lying in the shadows on the floor of the front seat, concealed from the passenger's view. If Arthur sensed that the passenger was interested in something besides a lift, he'd tap the front seat and the dog would immediately jump up. "Or if the passenger was an animal lover, I'd let him pet the dog. He's a great animal. He was good company in the cab."

Five days a week, Arthur leaves his home in Boston at about 4 p.m. He heads his Z28 down Storrow Drive into Cambridge and heads for the Ramada Inn on Soldiers Field Road where the day-man leaves the cab Arthur will drive all night. Changing cars, Arthur reports into the Ambassador cab dispatcher and starts to cruise. He'll check out the Square first and, if there isn't a long line of cabs idling there already, he'll wait for his first fare. But like a nocturnal scavenger, Arthur doesn't like to wait, and when he finds about a dozen lethargic cabbies along the curb of Mass Ave, he speeds across the Commons to the cabbie stand at the Sheraton Commander. But Arthur's strategy, he knows, is a game of chance. "Sometimes you can just kind of die at a stand. I could pull in there and have to wait and by then I might have had a fare at the Square. It's a gamble."

But tonight, the gamble, and Arthur's radio, pay off. Checking with the dispatcher, Arthur finds that the Commander stand is open, and pulling in, is flagged down by two, well dressed couples. "See, I've already got a fare. I lucked out. This is where I work 90 per cent of the time."

Two of the women and one of the men, drinks still in hand, eye Arthur's dented generic cab suspiciously, then climb in the back seat. "Good night, Charles," one of the women says to the fourth member of the party, who waves from the curb. "We had a marvelous time." Then, turning to Arthur, "Ritz Carlton."

Twenty minutes and eight dollars (including about a dollar tip) later, Arthur is on his way back to Cambridge. By 11:30 p.m. he has already grossed more than $90. With about four hours of working time left, he hopes to clear $120, about twice what he makes on an average night. "This is like the best night I've had in three months. Jesus Christ--and I'm only out about nine bucks on gas. That's cause I got the radio."

But the radio--like gas and the weekly payment on the cab's Cambridge medallion--costs. That's why Arthur doesn't own, but leases one of his uncle's two cabs. Arthur pays his uncle $140 a week, as opposed to the $200 a week it would cost him to finance his own cab. All cabs operating out of the city must have a Cambridge medallion, which works something like a liquor license and costs $20,000. Arthur's uncle uses the Ambassador Company because it offers independent drivers an eight-year, high-interest loan and provides radio service which costs about $55 a week. Add to that about $40 in insurance and maintenance. "Why do you think I haven't bought a cab? It's just not worth it," Arthur says. Only 21 years old, he isn't sure how much longer he wants to drive for a living. "I don't want to do it much more than another year. Now that there are more independent cabs out here, it's more cut-throat. Before you had a lot of guys working for companies on weigh-bill (wage). It's going to get to the point where they're gonna start losing cabs."

Working nights adds to the pressure, "If I have to do something during the day, I just have to stay up. Like tomorrow, I'll be up all day because I got some shit to do. You just don't get tired any more after a point."

But if Arthur isn't tired yet, his girlfriend is. "All she thinks about is me running off on all these 'erotic' adventures at 3 a.m. But I guess I'd worry too. About the craziest fare I ever got was last weekend. I picked this woman up in Central Square--I never work out of Central Square. She was stoned out of her mind, about 35 years old. She told me to take her to North Andover. She kept passing out and I ended up about 20 miles past Andover because she kept telling me to 'go straight, go straight.' To make a long story short, I ended up taking her back to the Homesteader. She said she was too drunk to go home. I finally got a room for her and she gave me about $100 because I'd been with her for about five hours and probably put 100 miles on the cab. So I got a lot out of that ride."

Often, Arthur gets a lot less out of his rides. "A while back, these two kids ran off without paying. I ran them down. One of the kids fell, so I ended up taking him to the hospital. But they paid the whole fare."

Even the most discriminating of drivers can't always spot a potential jumper, as Arthur knows. "The worst fare I ever got burned on was about $60. This old guy had hit every bar on Mass Ave., up and down. He'd go into the bar for about an hour. He'd ask me if I wanted a beer. I'd say I just wanted my money; he'd tell me to keep the meter running. He started out with about $80, but by the time he was done he was crocked and broke. I took a check from him--he was about 50 years old and pretty distinguished looking. He wrote me a check for about $60. But it bounced like a rubber ball. So I kept the check in my visor, had about four up there. Then, about six months later, I was waiting outside the Kennedy School and who should jump in my cab but this guy. So I took the check and turned around and said, 'Hello Joseph, how you doing?' He looked at me, and I said, 'What's wrong, don't you remember me? Don't you remember this check?' He put on his glasses and looked at the check and told me that account had been dead for about five years. I told him he'd passed me that check. So he takes out his wallet and hands me a hundred bucks and says. 'Give me $30 back.' I couldn't believe it. That was pure luck--my money back and a $10 tip."

Such luck is rare, however, and to minimize his chances of getting swindled Arthur makes a point to avoid driving Saturday nights. "I haven't worked a Saturday night in three years. It's too much of a party night. You get too many drunks, too many kids. Plus, it's depressing to work on Saturday night when everyone else is partying." There are also certain parts of Cambridge that Arthur tries to eschew, usually choosing to play from Harvard up to North Cambridge, steering clear of the east part of the city. "One time I picked up these four kids in East Cambridge, which was a mistake. They wanted to go down to Boston near the Ritz, where a lot of gays hang, out. All of a sudden, they yell, 'Pull over, pull over.' I wasn't going to argue with four of them. So three of them get out and absolutely beat the hell out of these three gays--for no reason at all. And I was like an accomplice. I would have taken off, but one of them stayed in the cab."

Having just finished another run into Boston, this one to the Sheraton, Arthur, once again, heads back towards Harvard. Pausing at a stop-light, he takes the wad of bills from his tee-shirt pocket and begins to count. "That brings me up to almost $120. Jesus, some guys'll sit around at Harvard all night. They'll go up to North Cambridge, and they'll only pull in about $50. Like, I wouldn't go up to anyone tonight and tell him how much I've made, 'cause it would cause a stink. He'd ask me, 'Hey, who the hell's feeding you?'"

"Feeding," Arthur explains, is when a dispatcher relays the best calls to his friends. "There are asshole dispatchers, who have a lot of buddies. Like this guy that works Sunday nights will send a friend to the Homesteader, even though the guy might not be anywhere around."

Crossing the Charles at Anderson Bridge, Arthur reaches across and taps the top of his fare meter. The display light is burned out. "That's an old meter--they call them one armed bandits. I've seen them jump two bucks at a time. I think there's a loose wire in there somewheres." But it's his cab, not his meter, that's been jumping tonight. As he pulls into Harvard Square, Arthur is flagged down again, this time by a large, distracted man, who looks extremely angry. "How much to Lake Street? How soon can you get me back here?" Arthur takes the fare and soon learns that the passenger, a correctional officer at Walpole, has to retrieve his car keys. "Go ahead and run these lights," the man orders. Arthur hesitates, then rolls through. Once across the intersection, he notices a police car not far behind. He reports this to his passenger, who says he doesn't care and tells Arthur, "You won't be bothered for speeding here." But Arthur lets the speedometer rest at 35. He's seen radar guns out in Arlington at 3 a.m., he tells the man in back. "Radar's a joke," the man replies, "You can catch a tree doing 40." Or a cab at 60. Arthur's had so many speeding tickets that he can't afford to insure his own car in Massachusetts. "They want $1100 on top of a $600 premium," he says. Another reason why Arthur doesn't own his own cab.

Arthur finally drops off the man and counts the $10 he is handed, putting him well over his goal for the night. Stuffing the new bills into his shirt picket, Arthur smiles. "I haven't had luck like this since I picked up some banker from Maine at the Commander. He was this well-dressed, old guy who told me he just wanted me to drive him around the Commons. Pretty soon, I was thinking he was crazy, so I asked him if there wasn't someplace else he'd rather go. My girlfriend was riding with me that night, and the guy seemed kind of embarrassed, so I said, 'Hey, you want to go find some ladies? Don't be embarrassed. She's cool.' I took him downtown, and he told me to run into a packy to get three sixes--all the time he made me keep the meter going. He picked up a hooker, and we ended up back at the Commander. We all just sat around his room and watched t.v. while he, like, psychoanalyzed this hooker. Didn't touch her all night. Then he bought us all continental breakfasts and gave me $70. He was a nice guy. I was already way late getting the cab back, and this hooker tries to get me to take her home. Finally I did. But it cost her 20 bucks."

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