Oakland in the 1980’s was a bad place for a good cab. Taxi Unlimited was a front for marijuana growers. Transportation was a side business for the collective. Providing a beard to growers so they could launder money was its primary function. Even with that it failed. Dianne Wallace’s Taxi Taxi was a good faith effort at running an ethical and well managed cab fleet. She failed because the margins on the cab business are in the single digits. She was a single Mom trying to raise four kids by running a cab company. The family got through but not without damage. Bay Area Cab was shut down by the cops because it was deeply in bed with cocaine dealers. Friendly Cab replaced it and replaced Black organized crime with the Patels. Same corruption, different kings.
This is the milieu I brought with me to Richmond’s Napoleon Taxi. I came from a corrupt cab business that only cared about getting paid. The drivers I worked with in Oakland made sport of cheating, stealing and lying. The cocaine dealers paid rewards to young gang-bangers for robbing and killing us. I had to make a living with murderous customers and enemy coworkers. Punch line? I got very good at my job. I was a top earner in a market that fought me. Napoleon Taxi, in their training, felt like a breath of fresh air.
Like a good newbie I did the pre-shift checkout of the cab, got indignant when the night driver didn’t bring me a clean cab, complained about maintenance issues, and dutifully filled out all assigned paperwork. I did ok, with one week bringing in over $800.00. Then the old habits from Oakland crept in. I stopped doing pre-shift. I discovered that if I kept a handwritten waybill I didn’t need the separate lists of account work. After sending an e-mail notifying them of a problem with a cab and seeing that the e-mail was met with crickets my old cynicism about cab maintenance came back. It began to feel like Oakland and the ruthless indifference I remember.
Back Street Story
That’s the back story. Add to it my melancholy/choleric nature and it is surprising I wasn’t worse. This brings us to the triggering event. I did ok. I got myself ready, got to the garage on time, got a cab, got in, did a cursory check of the inside of the cab–meter works, tablet works, credit card machine works and has receipt paper, cab appears to be clean, good to go. Signed on, got my first fare, start driving to it and . . . discover a cell phone laying on the passenger seat.
Now, if you leave something in my cab you will probably get it back. But . . . you will get it back when I turn in the cab at shift-change. The twelve hours I have are worth $25.00/hr. to me. Returning your lost crap costs me money. No, I don’t want you to pay me to drive to your location and return your shit. You can wait. Unless . . . how much are you offering?
More things you need to know that help you understand why it ends up that this person could not wait. I was driving her cab. She owned it. She had done a night shift and had gone home–without her cell phone. The girl is one for whom her phone is a body part. Any time without her phone is like an arterial bleed. She *has* to have it. Addiction? Maybe. Only she knows that.
What this meant for me is that her phone starts ringing incessantly. Then it starts making noises different from a ringtone. She’s sending texts to it. Then my dispatcher calls me. I am to bring the phone back to the garage right ricky tick. No offer to find another cab for my fare. Nope. No consideration for the money I have to hustle that much harder for if I cancel this fare. This feels like Oakland again. So, I pick up the phone, reply to a text saying her phone is safe and to stop calling/texting it. Crime #1.
At the start of my shift I noticed that the brake pads on the left front wheel had worn down to metal-on-metal. This is something that can ruin suspension parts if it isn’t fixed. Folks, when your mechanic says you need brake pads, let him change the pads. It’s a lot cheaper than paying to have your suspension and drive train parts replaced. The cab company had put off replacing the pads so that now the pads and rotors needed replacing. I also noticed that the power steering was noisy. This could be as simple as being low on fluid and as expensive as a new steering rack and pump. But, it worked well enough that I could drive the car. Last, a third of the way in to my shift the transmission started slipping in first gear.
I reported the brake problem. I did not report the power steering problem or the transmission problem. In my Oakland days we would drive the wheels off of a cab. There is a reason sane people never by a car that used to be a cab. Us, the drivers, have wrung every inch of life out of that car. It is a new thing to me to have my cab company yell at me because I ran a cab for a shift when I knew it had serious mechanical problems.
First, there are no fucks I’ll give to anyone I encounter in the cab business. Highest on my list of people for whom I have no empathy are fellow cab drivers. I learned my business from drivers who made sport of lying and stealing from each other. I am a mean cab driver. Next highest is my passengers. The quickest way to end my interest in your money is to cross the line between me and my customers. Somewhere equal to drivers is my opinion of cab company management. I’ve had to learn that Richmond is different from Oakland and I don’t have to be so mean.
Am I interested in the content of another driver’s phone? No. I gain nothing by knowing who her Facebook friends are or what her recent call history is. What I wanted is to get this annoying woman and her damned phone out of my cab so I can make money. But, according to her, I am some pervy voyeur who gets off on going through the phones of female cab drivers. Yuck.
I don’t have a defense for why I kept my cab on the road for 12 hours when I knew it was busted. The last thing I want is to come off the street and give up my time to getting the cab fixed or getting another cab to finish my shift. I’d rather drive it until it catches fire or needs a tow. Is this bad? Yes. I still do it.
The thing that is so odd to me and so good is that Jonathon of Napoleon Taxicab gives a shit. He cares. I got yelled at because I’d not followed policy. In Oakland, nobody cared as long as you paid for your shift. Richmond is different. Napoleon Taxicab is different. Napoleon still believes in bringing a better experience to their customers. I am happy I got chewed out and had to apologize.
Someone asked how a cab company can compete against Uber. It’s pretty simple. Uber is not a transportation company. It is a technology company that invented a way to order a ride through a phone. Their app is awesome. One problem–the quality of the car ordered and the driver working is a bit random. Uber assumes that they can overcome the skills gap of untrained drivers with their app. They assume wrong. Cab driving is a skilled trade that takes years to master.
We make it look easy. You get in a cab, mumble something about Social 52, and in a few minutes arrive outside the restaurant door. In the ten minute ride you might have confessed things that would make a priest blanch. We never skip a beat.
It is Not Easy
It’s not easy, though. The shifts are long, the pace is fast, and we can’t eat well or use the bathroom without consuming valuable time and money. We are expected to memorize thousands of addresses. We know that the Jefferson Hotel is in downtown Richmond and not in Jefferson City.
The job is dangerous. We drive around with our earnings for the shift. Cash accumulates on our person. Some see us as a mobile ATM. You threaten/hurt us and we give you money. This year a Napoleon Taxicab driver was murdered. We drive a lot of miles. The odds are in favor of us wrecking and hurting our passengers. We are expected to beat the odds and never wreck. We do beat the odds, mostly.
You would think that driving people from origin to destination would be an easy job. You would be wrong. Plenty try and fail. Napoleon Taxicab is one of the rare few who do it right.