This was one of the men’s room toilets at Luxor Cab Company in San Francisco about the time I got fired early in 2005. And this was on a nice day. Typically, the restroom was in desperate need of cleaning, with toilet paper strewn all over the place, not just draped over the seat as in this picture. The toilets were often plugged up. (For a full size version of the photograph, click on it, then click on the image in the gallery.)
There were two toilets in the men’s room to serve hundreds of drivers and all the male employees at Luxor Cab. A few of us took to using the women’s toilet (a single occupancy room) instead, we were so desperate. To get to it, you had to be let in to the office, and to walk by the president’s office.
The company president, John Lazar, was an obnoxious asshole. He would occasionally call someone in to share some really raunchy pornography. He thought he was being friendly when he pronounced at loud volume that abusing a driver gave him a “hard on.” He tried to fix his son up with one of the few female employees. That’s the kind of place Luxor Cab was: obnoxious, abusive, and exploitive. Company management reveled in the antagonistic relationship it had with everyone else.
That was an issue for me. As a student in the social sciences, I was not only becoming more sensitive to issues of harassment, bias, and discrimination, but facing a cognitive dissonance between the basic level of respect I sensed when I was at school and the fundamental disrespect I faced at work.
But of course, that’s not why I got fired. I had been hired at Luxor as a call taker, someone who answers the phones and enters orders for cab service. With San Francisco’s parking and traffic problems, demand for cabs can be high, and I was the fastest call taker Luxor had.
But there were also slack periods, as any cab driver can tell you. I remember those as well, from when I’d driven cab for Luxor before getting sucked into the dot-com boom. There are two ways to approach this. You can sit in a hotel line, but the bellhops are corrupt and often steer airport trips to town car services. Or you can cruise for flags. I’ll never forget the sight of other cabs ahead of me, doing the same thing, and other cabs in my rear view mirror, doing the same thing.
Cab dispatch operations are in a paradoxical situation. Obviously, they need orders for the cabs. But the orders also need to be “good” orders. That means that when the cab driver gets to the address–all too often in distant neighborhoods with a low volume of orders–the customer needs to be there and ready to go, preferably on a long trip. Any time an order is not “good,” dispatch credibility suffers. That makes it harder to get drivers to go on orders–they’ll just cruise for flags or stay downtown. But if they don’t take any risk, people can’t get cabs, the San Francisco Taxi Commission gets complaints, company management gets complaints, and people call other companies. The fact is that drivers need orders to make the most money. So this is a system that needs to work, with a balance between caring about drivers and caring about customers.
Luxor fired the best dispatcher I knew at managing this balance. He had severe hip problems and there was some suspicion that the company’s health insurance premiums were rising accordingly. Call takers were all part time workers, precisely to avoid being covered by health insurance.
Being a call taker meant I had a reasonably steady income. The pay was minimum wage, but there were also tips, which the cashiers took in and shared with the rest of us. Cab drivers usually aren’t employees; they lease a cab, which comes with insurance and dispatch service, for ten hour shifts. Everybody wants a cut of their earnings. At Luxor, they had to buy gas at the end of their shifts and were expected to tip the attendants, who were also mechanics. There are the aforementioned bellhops and they’re also expected to tip dispatch, which they do through the cashiers, both when they check out a cab and when they pay for their lease at the end of every shift. The cashiers take the biggest cut of the tips, the dispatchers take the second largest cut, and the call takers get what’s left. I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree in–it would turn out to be–mass communication and so in slack times, I would study, with my laptop open on my workspace.
At some point, the head dispatcher’s manager became an independent contractor and started being paid entirely out of the tips. He took a lion’s share, and of course, this cost the rest of us money. I eventually got annoyed enough that in 2004, I went down to the State’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to file a complaint.
I was in for a shock. Instead of having people who would investigate the situation, order corrective measures, and levy appropriate fines, I was thrust into a hearing. I tried to collect statements from my fellow employees, but they were all too intimidated to cooperate. So it was just me against Luxor with its lawyers.
I remember being called into Lazar’s office after I filed the paperwork. Lazar offered me inducements to get me to drop the case. I refused them.
And of course, my case was thrown out in short order. Lazar, now victorious, came through the dispatch area afterwards while I was working and declared that he didn’t like my laptop. Other call takers had books, radios, even portable TVs, but I was not to be allowed the use of my laptop.
As a student, I couldn’t comply. I needed every available minute to study. Lazar understood that.
About six months after the hearing, all of a sudden my call taking speed became an issue. Fast was good, Mark Powell, the head dispatcher, informed me, but I was too brusque. So I was cut from three days to two. Then someone finked on me about my laptop and I was fired.
So yes, I do demand a basic level of respect. And stunts like what the Census Bureau pulled on me yesterday just don’t cut it anymore.