Reminiscences of the cab business

When I saw the headline, I had to read the story. Not because I read lots of stories anyway, but because I had a hunch.

It’s a funny thing in the cab business. It’s such a scummy business that to learn someone is corrupt isn’t even a surprise. People don’t generally become cab drivers because they have a choice. They do it because they can’t find other work—for whatever reason. That means they’re desperate. That means they’re vulnerable.

I took classes from both the defendants named in that story in the late 1990s on my way to becoming a San Francisco cab driver. And I passed the test(s)—I don’t remember if there was more than one—without paying a bribe. Both seemed like straightforward people. The cop, Paul Makaveckas, explaining that the statute of limitations had expired, regaled us with stories. One was about how he’d hung people out second floor windows by their ankles to get information. “You can go to my boss,” he said. “He’ll just laugh.”

That’s just the story I remember. He told us these stories the way I can imagine a great uncle telling war stories to his nephews (but of course not nieces). It was a way of being friendly, of seeming to take us into his confidence.

It was also a way of letting us know he had power. That he was in control. That what he did was unquestioned.

And so it seems he’s been charged with bribery. Apparently some of my colleagues—perhaps with inadequate English skills or poor map reading skills—had to pay bribes to pass. And apparently, Bill Hancock, who made enough money that he could afford to live in Marin County, funneled the money to him.

It was Hancock who referred me to Luxor where I drove cab until I got sucked into the dot-com boom. When that went bust, I bounced around a couple companies before returning to Luxor as a call taker, answering the phones. Driving cab is hard enough without doing it in a down economy and at that point, it was George W. Bush who was the “job loss president” and, I figured, distinctly not a good time to drive cab. I later got fired from Luxor after protesting an arrangement where a manager took his pay out of our tips.

Other companies were worse. I had eventually bought my own cab from the first company I worked for, Radio Cab in Greenbrae, Marin County. That meant I was responsible for my own insurance, but I had to get it through the company because there are very few brokers who carry the right kind of insurance and I couldn’t find one. I was supposed to carry $1 million in liability insurance to use the stand—a place where cab drivers can wait for fares—at the San Rafael Transit Center. But the money I paid for insurance didn’t go to insurance; I found I had driven for months without coverage.

The reason I’d bought my own cab was that the maintenance on the cars was so poor, and that’s something that really bothers me. One of the few good lessons I learned from my childhood is that if you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you, and as a cab driver, you rely on your cab to not break down and to be comfortable for your passengers. At the second company I worked for, Sausalito Taxi, I drove one that blew oil in my face through the ventilation.

The cab business is itself a kind of a scam. Drivers are technically on the edge between independent contractor and employee status; the companies insist they are contractors and charge them a set fee for each shift. The drivers owe them $80, $100, or more for ten hours regardless of how much money they make in fares. Plus drivers have to buy gas. The economics are lousy—and they’ve gotten worse since—which is why the companies shift most of the business risk to the drivers. My entire cab driving career was spent in sheer financial terror because if I didn’t make my gates and gas, I might not be allowed to drive my next shift.

But drivers will uniformly tell you they’re doing well. I dispatched some at Radio Cab, in a situation where because the vast majority of the business was phoned in, and because drivers were supposed to call in the rest, we could pretty well tell how much money they were making. But I remember one coming in and telling me he’d made three times what I figured he could have made. The difference was in tips, he said.

It also might have been in fares he’d stolen from other drivers. If you ever see someone doing well in the cab business, it’s not because they’re on the up and up. And that’s true at all levels.