By Ben Joravsky
The late breakfast crowd is thinning out when the life of the party bursts through the door.
It’s cabdriver Steve Wiedersberg, and he’s feeling strong. He shakes hands with the man behind the cash register of Mike’s Rainbow, a restaurant near Clark and Superior favored by cabbies. He bellows a greeting to a waitress at the counter, and pounds the back of a fellow cabbie, a rotund Nigerian fellow wearing a Cubs T-shirt and a White Sox cap.
“My man,” says Wiedersberg.
“It’s the superstar,” says the cabbie. “I’m seeing you on TV all the time.”
Wiedersberg beams. If there’s one thing he enjoys, it’s being in the spotlight, and he’s been basking in its glow for months. It all started, ironically enough, after his cab was snatched from him at gunpoint, a crime that prompted him to file a federal suit to overturn one of the city’s more controversial cab-industry regulations. This suit ignited a debate so vexing it could, as Wiedersberg puts it, “tax the mind of King Solomon.”
Should cabdrivers be required to pick up any and all hailing passengers, as the ordinance mandates? Or should they be allowed to deny service to those they fear may harm them, even if it means that perfectly law-abiding people–most likely young black men–are left standing on the curb?
Wiedersberg emphatically says no to the ordinance while the city emphatically says yes. The resulting furor’s given reporters a field day, if only because in these times of political subservience it’s refreshing to see someone (particularly someone who gives great quotes) with enough guts to take on the Daley administration.
“I hear the city’s going after you, man,” the Nigerian cabbie says.
“The hell with the city,” Wiedersberg replies. “They ain’t nothing.”
The cabbie laughs. “I’m the knight on the horse, gonna slay the dragon,” Wiedersberg continues, obviously glad to have an appreciative audience.
The cabbie laughs again. “He’s like Moses, man.”
The reference inspires Wiedersberg. “That’s right, I’m the modern-day Moses. Gonna part Lake Michigan with my staff and tell old Pharaoh Daley, ‘Let my cabbies go.'”
The man who dares to challenge the mayor’s ordinance was born on the south side in 1949. His father was a preacher, his mother a housewife. In his own way, he says, he had it more difficult than most because he was so different. Then, as now, he lived in a black neighborhood, attended black schools, and hung with black kids. But he’s white, at least his skin’s white. “On first impression, if you see his face and hear his name you assume he’s white,” says Pat Hill, a Chicago police officer and south-side activist. “I did, anyway.”
But Wiedersberg considers himself black. “My father was white and my mother black. I’m black,” he says. “If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”
He may look like Jesse Ventura but he sounds like Don King. “I think I would have been a great fight promoter,” he says. “I like to string together the catchy phrases. I admire the great rhetoricians–Harold Washington, Muhammad Ali, Don King, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson. I’m not in their league but I’m pretty good. I’m the wizard of words, the prince of prolifics, the past grandmaster of talking trash. I can sell snow to the Eskimos and make them like it.”
That contrast between how he looks and how he talks can be confusing at first. “The first time I saw him I was thinking, ‘What’s going on?'” says Hill, whom Wiedersberg assisted last year in her unsuccessful campaign against Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman. “I said, ‘Where you from?’ And he said south side. I said, ‘Where do you live?’ And he said Roseland. I said, ‘So you live in the hood?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you classify yourself as a brother?’ ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, that’s all right with me.'”
In 1967 Wiedersberg graduated from Phillips High School. He enlisted in the marines, served in Vietnam, came home to the south side, married, had two sons (“Steven and James. I call them Thriller and Killer, the dynamic duo. They can talk some serious trash, just like the old man”), worked as a baggage handler at O’Hare, earned a BA at Roosevelt University (“I’m very proud of that degree–had to attend night school while working days to get it”), and entered politics. Third Ward politics in particular.
“You think I’m a character, you should have seen some of those cats in the Third Ward–man, there were some real crazy characters down there,” he says. “The Third Ward was the birthplace of modern black politics. Harold Washington, John Stroger, Ralph Metcalfe–they all came out of the Third Ward.”
For most of the 70s and 80s the Third Ward ran from roughly 35th to Hyde Park, beginning at the lakefront and reaching west to the Robert Taylor Homes. “The Third Ward was my university and I was its student,” says Wiedersberg. “That’s where I learned how the game is played. I was a precinct captain for the regular organization–I was a very good precinct captain. I had a feel for politics and I wasn’t lazy. There really ain’t no secret to this sort of thing. It’s like having a garden–if you don’t nurture it, it goes bad. So I always nurtured it. I’d visit my people. I’d sit and talk with the old ladies. If there was something they needed I’d try to get it done. I did it all–knocked on doors, put up our guy’s signs, ripped their guy’s signs down. Oh yes, it was rough in the Third Ward. But that’s politics, man. If you don’t like it, don’t get involved.”
His old friends say he was passionate and hardworking. “Loyalty and tenacity–those are the words that best describe Steve,” says Tyrone Kenner, a former Third Ward alderman. “He’s all about peseverence and persistence. He’d keep fighting my battles long after I gave up.”
Like most machine politicians, Kenner’s a little coy and circumspect when he talks about the old days. Regulars don’t usually open up to reporters. Not so with Wiedersberg. He can spend hours spinning yarns. And he’s an entertaining orator with a distinctive sound. He had an operation on his larynx many years ago and now his voice is permanently raspy. He sounds a little like some old jazzman who’s spent too much time in smoky clubs–he wheezes as he talks and he’s forever rushing to finish his sentences before he runs out of breath.
“Greatest Third Ward character I ever met was Jelly Holt. He died a few years ago. God, I loved that man. He was a sheriff or something–he had a gold star. The creme de la creme had the gold stars. All the rest of us had the regular stars. I was a part-timer. Back then everyone was working for the sheriff’s office. [Richard] Elrod was the sheriff and took care of us all. Now everyone’s working for the county. [County Board president] John Stroger says, ‘Come one, come all, bring me your poor, your tired, your slaves, whatever. Come work for the county.’
“But back to Jelly. Jelly was my man. I remember Jelly getting into it with some state’s attorney at a polling place. Jelly walked into that polling place with a gun strapped to his hip, he had it right out there in his holster. The dude was talking about, ‘You can’t wear no gun in here.’ Jelly said, ‘I don’t give a damn–I’m a gold-star sheriff.’ That assistant state’s attorney just left the polling place shaking his head and Jelly stayed with his gun. I like guys like that. They tell it like it is. They’re straight. No messing around. You know where you stand with them. They ain’t gonna stab you in the back. They’ll fight you straight up if they have to. I have no problem with that. That’s how I do things too.”
He recalls when Harold Washington, who ran for mayor on an antimachine, antipatronage platform, was a stalwart member of the regular organization. “Harold was always a consummate politician. Politics was on his mind 24 hours a day. The man could eat, drink, and sleep politics. And he could talk politics. Man, could he talk. He had a huge influence on me when it comes to talking. Even today when I get going–talking about being gregarious, loquacious, articulate, above reproach–I can hear Harold. No one could talk like Harold. We used to eat in a restaurant over on 47th and Wabash. That was back in the day. Me and Harold and the Shaw brothers and Stroger and Jelly and Kenner and all the other regulars. Man, those were some good times. Just sit back listening to Harold and laughing your ass off.”
In 1984 the Third Ward regulars split with Washington, who by then was mayor. “I shouldn’t even be talking about this–it’s blasphemy to talk about Harold in my community. You can’t say nothing bad about Harold–people treat him like he’s a god. I remember one lady called WVON and said something about ‘Harold and his infinite intelligence.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God! This ain’t the man I knew. The man I knew loved to read The Prince. That was his favorite book. He loved old Machiavelli.
“But we had our split ’cause we didn’t get our piece of the rock. See, [Congressman] Danny Davis says politics is like ice cream–the more you lick it, the more you want. I like Danny, but that’s not completely true. Most people get into politics ’cause they want a little something. From the precinct captain all the way to the mayor, they want something for themselves, and if they say otherwise they’re lying. Now the thing about Harold, we knew him from way back when. We supported him over Daley and Byrne and Epton. Then we didn’t get nothing. Not a damn thing. None of us regulars did. Matter of fact, it was after Harold got elected that I got fired from the county. I don’t know if the two things was connected, but that’s the way it happened. I saw Harold one day in City Hall and I said, ‘Your honor, I’m starving now. I need a job.’ And Harold looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry. I would like to help you.’ But I didn’t get nothing. So God bless Harold. He was great for people who didn’t want nothing, but if you wanted something he said, ‘I got nothing for you.'”
It got so bad that Wiedersberg did the unthinkable: he crossed the line to work for the opposition. “Here’s how that happened. I had been sitting outside Harold’s office for hours waiting to see the mayor–I mean I had an appointment and everything. And [Uptown activist] Slim Coleman just walked in, no appointment or nothing. Jelly happened to come by and see that and–you have to excuse the profanity, but this is how Jelly was–he said, ‘Well, fuck that motherfucker.’ ‘Cause we were with Harold when Slim Coleman wasn’t even around. So Jelly said, ‘Let me take you across the street and see the real mayor.’ Jelly took me over to [City Council opposition leader] Eddie Vrdolyak’s office and we walked right in. And Vrdolyak waved his magic wand. He made a phone call and I got a part-time job over in the sheriff’s office. Of course it didn’t last too long. I got fired in about two years when Elrod was voted out of office. But I got to say that Vrdolyak helped me when Harold didn’t. Jelly was
really funny about this. Jelly and Harold go back 100 years. Jelly used to say, ‘Instead of throwing us a life preserver, Harold threw us a rock.’ One day Jelly sees Harold at City Hall and he yelled out, ‘Harold, you motherfucker.’ I said, ‘Jelly, what the hell you saying? You may go back, but he’s still the mayor.’ But you know, Harold just shook his head and laughed. Then they rode up the elevator together–Jelly and Harold. I had to stay back. I wasn’t allowed to go the promised land with the superstars.”
The politician who really exercises Wiedersberg is Dorothy Tillman (who did not return calls for comment). Back in 1983, Tillman ran for alderman against Kenner and lost. One month later Kenner was convicted on a variety of federal corruption charges and had to step down. In 1984 Washington appointed Tillman to fill the vacancy. Sixteen years may have passed, but Wiedersberg still hasn’t gotten over it. “I believe in paying your dues. What dues did Dorothy pay? There’s a dozen people who could have been named alderman over her. Skip Burrell paid more dues than Dorothy. You remember Skip. He was the city sewer worker who taped Harold. After Kenner went to jail, Skip went to Harold to get his blessing to run for alderman. They met at Harold’s house and Skip taped the meeting. The transcript wound up in the Tribune. The part I liked the best is where Harold’s talking ’bout Dorothy. He said she’s a crude and abrasive and braggadocio and nonlikable person. You can look it up. That’s my favorite part, all right. In the black community Harold’s word was like Jesus–‘Thus sayeth the Lord.’ So it must be true. Every time I see Dorothy I think about what Harold said. Matter of fact, I just saw Dorothy the other day. I said, ‘Hi, alderman.’ She said, ‘Is you wearing your Pat Hill shirt?’ I said, ‘Sure am. Don’t you like it?’ She said, ‘We kicked your butt then, we’ll kick your butt again.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, then. We’re waiting for 2003.’ I said, ‘Vote for Pat and get rid of the Hat.’ She didn’t like that too much. I said, ‘Dorothy, you know I can always get up for a fight against you.’
“It drives her crazy. She can’t stand me. [Former alderman] Bob Shaw once told me, ‘In politics there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends.’ I said, ‘Bob, that may be true for most politicians but it ain’t true for me and Dorothy.’ We’ve been fighting for longer than the Hatfields and the McCoys. Man, I love fighting Dorothy Tillman. Fighting Dorothy’s always a labor of love. Some of my best memories are those campaigns against Dorothy. I remember we had this forum in the Robert Taylor Homes. There was a preacher then named Joe Bell. His nickname was ‘Joe Bell, the man from hell.’ This was at 51st and Federal in the field house down there. Dorothy came late, as always. People got on her case about a rat problem. She said, ‘I’m the alderman, not an exterminator.’ Joe started yelling at her–it just cracked me up. He yelled so much the police came and took him away. Wonder what happened to him. Haven’t heard no more from Joe Bell. Great character, though. You lose touch of a lot over the years. I wish I had a copy of that Burrell tape, now that I think about it. I had one but I lost it. I used to put it on to cheer myself up when I was down. I’d put that tape on and die laughing when Harold started talking about Dorothy like she had three tails. Yeah, I knew Skip. I knew Skip for years. We used to battle for being the top precinct captain in the organization. He died, you know. Died of cancer. I went to his funeral. Everyone was there. Jelly was there. But not Dorothy. She didn’t come to the funeral but she probably stopped by to look in the coffin and make sure he was dead. Reminds me of a story about old Jim Taylor, former committeeman in the 16th Ward. One of his political enemies died and I said, ‘Hey Jim, you going to the funeral?’ He said, ‘You goddamn right, and I’m taking my baseball bat with me. If that motherfucker raises from the coffin, I’ll beat him back down.'”
The careers of many black politicos have been derailed because they sided with Vrdolyak over Washington. But Wiedersberg offers no apologies and apparently none are needed; some of his closest political friends–Danny Davis, Bobby Rush, Pat Hill, Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Paul Jakes, to name a few–were staunch Washington supporters. They say they overlook his old Council Wars heresies because he’s with them on current issues (like police brutality and, ironically, racial profiling) and because they like him. “I first met Steve way back when at Operation PUSH–he was part of Reverend Jackson’s security,” says E. Duke McNeil, a prominent south-side attorney. “You have to like Steve. He’s a special kind of man–pleasant but persistent. And he’s loyal–very loyal.”
Adds Jakes: “Sometimes we have to agree to disagree. Sometimes there are issues in the city of Chicago that cause us to be on different wavelengths. But that does not diminish the respect we have for Steve or his convictions. We all love Steve. He’s a person who has fought for many good people. He’s quite tenacious and he’s very loyal. He’s a man of blue-chip stock.”
Most of the lines drawn by Council Wars were erased after Washington died and his organization fell apart. Tillman, one of Washington’s closest aldermanic allies, regularly votes with Mayor Daley, who has twice helped reelect her by contributing workers and funds to her campaign. Hardly any alderman, black or white, offers more than a peep of protest to Daley’s policies. At least Wiedersberg’s unafraid to oppose the mayor. In some ways his own worst enemy, he’s voiced his independence at precisely that moment in city history when it’s most advantageous to be a subservient soldier.
The issue that drove him from the fold was cab driving.
In 1983 Wiedersberg started driving a cab. He had no choice. He had lost his baggage-handling position and been fired by the county and he needed a job. “I knew nothing about driving a cab. But I had a friend–Tucker was his name–who drove a cab. He always had a big wad of money in his hand. He said ‘Need a job, get a cab.’ So I got my license. It wasn’t hard. And I started driving. I remember it was on a Saturday. I went home with 30, 35 dollars. I figured, this ain’t bad. As I progressed I started to like it even more. I liked the freedom of the hours. No supervisors hanging around. Basically you’re your own boss. Most cabdrivers are free-spirited people who don’t like to be dictated to. And I liked being paid every day. Who wants to wait two or three weeks for your money?”
From the start, he drove nights on the south side. “I’m just a nocturnal being–Count Dracula, I only come out at night. At first I wasn’t familiar with the north-side scene, so I started off with the south side. I like doing the Midway run, basically driving people to the airport. I know the whole south side like the back of my hand. Every street, every church, school, and park. You can make a good living working the south side.”
About being a cabbie, he has only two major complaints: rude or unruly passengers and Caroline Shoenberger, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Services, which regulates the taxi industry. Wiedersberg is an incorrigible needler who loves to tweak and tease, and Shoenberger’s one of his favorite targets, his “Caroline the Witch” and “Caroline the Wicked.” It’s all good fun to Wiedersberg, no different from Jelly Holt cussing out the mayor and then laughing it off in the elevator. “Caroline shouldn’t take it personally,” he says. “She’s the one with the power. She’s the one who can fire or fine me. What else do I have to fight her with but words? I’m David and she’s Goliath. My tongue is my slingshot.”
Shoenberger did not respond for comment on Wiedersberg. But her chief spokeswoman, Connie Buscemi, says that the commissioner feels no animosity for Wiedersberg. “This is not about personalities,” says Buscemi. “I’m sure he feels he’s standing up for cabdrivers.”
But Wiedersberg says plenty about Shoenberger. “Her favorite word is ‘promulgate.’ She’s always talking about rules and regulations. I believe she’s thinking of new rules and regulations while she’s on the toilet. In 1991 I did a demonstration for a fare hike. We had 700 cabs around City Hall blowing their horns. We got great press. And we got our raise. Of course, that’s when Daley came up with the idea–which must have been Shoenberger’s idea because, let’s face it, the mayor’s not a brain surgeon–that if the drivers get a meter increase the city should be able to fine cabdrivers for violations.”
The result is a process that sends cabbies who get complaints downtown to appear before a hearing officer, who’s actually a lawyer retained by the city. “It’s the biggest joke in the world, that hearing procedure,” says Wiedersberg. “You could have the greatest legal minds in history–Daniel Webster, Clarence Darrow, even the great Johnnie Cochran–but the outcome’s still the same. In this hearing you’re guilty until proven innocent, and then you’re still guilty even after you’re proven innocent. I call it the hang-’em-high kangaroo court. The only sounds you hear down there are the sounds of the hearing officer going, ‘guilty, guilty, guilty,’ followed by the cha-ching of the cash register ringing as they take our money. Caroline don’t like it when I talk like that. She once told me she’s so sick and tired of people calling it the kangaroo court. I said, ‘Well?’ That pissed her off even more. She said, ‘Those hearings are more than fair.’ I said, ‘Fair to who–the Daley administration?’
“Caroline reminds me of Judge Roy Bean, the judge in the old west who was so tough and hard-hearted he once hung a dead man. Well, there was once a cabbie here who drove a Checker cab. And they called him down for a hearing ’cause they said his cab had missed an inspection. The family came down for the hearing and the wife said to the hearing officer, ‘Your honor, my husband missed that inspection for just cause. He had died.’ And you know something? That hearing officer fined the family $500. It’s a true story. The man’s dead and the family’s got the fine. If you don’t believe me call Checker Cab and ask for John Moberg–he’s the president.”
(“That’s a substantially true story,” says Moberg. “The one thing he left out is that the family appealed. That was three or four years ago.”)
Wiedersberg made his own appearance before a hearing officer three years ago. A passenger accused Wiedersberg of being rude and Wiedersberg accused the passenger of trying to stiff him for a $6.40 fare. There were no witnesses and it was one man’s word against another’s over pocket change. But the hearing officer fined Wiedersberg $200. He appealed.
“I appealed to the circuit court, but that cost me $225 in filing fees, plus I have to have a lawyer,” he says. “Caroline always says, ‘If you don’t like the ruling you can appeal.’ Well, that costs me the filing fee, which is even more than the fine. Most drivers say, ‘The hell with that. I’ll just pay the fine.’ That’s why I call it a kangaroo court. The assumption is that we’re guilty just for being there so just shut up and pay the fine. It’s just a hidden tax, is all. Just another way for Daley to raise money on the backs of drivers.”
What upsets him most is rule number 17 in the city’s code of “rules and regulations for public chauffeurs.” That’s the one stating that “no taxicab chauffeur shall refuse any person transportation to any destination in any taxicab which is unoccupied by a passenger for hire unless the chauffeur is on his way to pick up a passenger in answer to a call for service.”
Without rule 17, Daley and Shoenberger argue, some cabbies might never pick up black riders. But it’s not just difficult to determine how effective the rule has actually been; it’s even unclear which city department monitors enforcement. According to Buscemi, 577 complaints of service refused were made last year, but she doesn’t know how many complaints led to convictions or how much was collected in fines. “For that information you should call the Department of Administrative Hearings,” she says. But the woman who answers the phone at that department directs me back to Consumer Services. “We don’t keep that information–call Caroline Shoenberger for that,” she says.
Wiedersberg tends to equate complaints with convictions, but Buscemi says that’s inaccurate. “Not every complaint results in a conviction and not every conviction results in the maximum $750 fine,” she says.
Last October Shoenberger held a press conference to announce that 120 cabbies had been convicted so far that year of refusing service. But that was a one-shot tabulation, says Buscemi. “Basically, Lincoln Park, the near north side, and the Loop get great service–so does the airport,” Shoenberger told reporters then. “We’re still working on the rest. If the recalcitrant cabbies continue to refuse a passenger, they could face increased competition from trolleys and livery services.”
In addition to punishing drivers, Buscemi says, the department’s educating them. “There’s extensive training courses where we take drivers on bus tours of the city,” she says. “I’ve been on these tours. We take them to the south side and the west side and the northwest side. We show them Pill Hill and Beverly and Humboldt Park. You should hear them–‘Wow, look at those houses!’ It’s important not only for them to see the breadth of the city, but to realize they shouldn’t have preconceived notions about neighborhoods.”
Rule 17 seems very popular with black Chicagoans. To judge from the exchanges on talk radio, it’s as though every black resident (man or woman) has a horror story to tell. “Sometimes it’s obvious. You’ll be standing on the street and the cabs will rush by,” says Johnny Wilson, a computer operator. “Or they’ll pull over like they’re going to pick you up, look you over, and drive on. Sometimes it’s strange stuff. Once my wife and I got in a cab with all of our luggage. We told the cabbie we wanted to go to [our house on] the west side and he started off. Then he just freaked out and dropped us off on the sidewalk. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. And it’s a pain in the neck.”
It’s also an issue that threatens to isolate Wiedersberg from his black friends and allies. He’s debated the matter on various call-in shows and the calls run against him. “As appealing as Steve can be–and I do like him–this is a tough, tough issue,” says Perri Small, a talk show host for WVON. “It does raise a discrimination issue. To some cabbies every black person is a threat. To tell you the truth, I still sit on the fence on exactly how to deal with this one. I understand cabbies like Steve feel the need for protection–there are a lot of nuts. But you don’t have to indict a whole race of people because you have some idiots out there.”
City officials say they cannot bend on the matter without setting a precedent. If cabbies are allowed to discriminate, who’s next? Bus drivers? Realtors? “We believe in the safety of drivers and the right of drivers to drive under safe conditions,” says Buscemi. “We are fair about this. We give the cabdrivers a chance to tell their story. If they have a reason to believe their life is threatened–if the passenger, for instance, is wearing a full-length coat on a 90-degree day–we understand. Or if the passenger says he’s not going to pay, we understand. Surely no one should have to give a free ride. But we won’t tolerate violations of civil rights. This is a fundamental constitutional right that goes back 30 years. It goes back to Abraham Lincoln, to the founding fathers, to ‘All men are endowed with certain inalienable rights.’ We will not allow these rights to be sacrificed!”
To Wiedersberg this is not about civil rights. “I live in the black community. I serve the black community. And I’m black. I’d say that 70 percent of the people I drive are black. I’ll take anyone anywhere so long as they pay their fare. But I ain’t taking no punks–black, white, green, red, or purple. It’s too dangerous.”
To illustrate his point, he recalls the March 25 carjacking. “I was at 60th and Cottage Grove when this dude flagged me down. He looked like a straight-up thug. You can spot a thug. Why did I stop for him? Well, the city ordinance prohibits passing him up–that’s why. I let him in and he said he was going to 54th and King Drive. I said, ‘All right.’ When we get to 54th he said, ‘Make a left here and go down to Calumet.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Just go down to Calumet.’ That’s when I tried to shut the bulletproof window. He pushed back so I couldn’t shut it. Now, I know I’m supposed to keep that window shut. But I don’t, or I didn’t that night, because it makes it very hot, like driving in a tank or an oven. And sometimes you forget to shut it and besides, it ain’t really bulletproof, it’s bullet resistant. Which is a big difference you might not appreciate unless some thug’s got a gun on your head.
“So anyway, he put the gun to my head and said, ‘All right, buddy, you know what time it is. Give it up.’ I snatched the key out of the ignition and said, ‘Fuck your ass.’ I’ve been stuck up three times in 17 years and I just thought, ‘Fuck it! I’m taking a stand here.’ I said, ‘It’s a good day for a killing.’ He looked at me like I was crazy. He’s got the gun and I don’t have one and I’m talking about killing him. What can I say? I just didn’t want to give up no money.
“Anyway, I jumped out of the cab and he jumped out after me and he chased me around and around the cab. We were yelling at each other–‘Motherfucker, I’ll kill you’ and ‘Fuck you, I’ll kill you.’ That sort of thing. I played like I had a gun, even though I didn’t have one. I don’t know why the bastard didn’t shoot me. Now you have to understand, this is at 54th and Calumet at 3:45 in the morning. One lady who was looking out the window from her apartment told me, ‘If I could find my pistol I’d have shot that motherfucker.’
“Well, I jumped into the car from the driver’s side and he jumped in from the passenger side. And we were struggling for control of the wheel. I hit him so hard with my fist I almost knocked him out. But he managed to hold on. He grabbed the key, jumped out of the cab, and ran off. I was gonna take off after him but the lady calling from upstairs said, ‘Driver, get away from the cab.’ And she was right. By the time I got upstairs [to her apartment to call the police] the guy was like a roach. He came back and took off with my cab. When I look back I was pretty damn stupid to wrestle with that guy, especially since he had the gun. I could have been shot, but I wasn’t. Praise the Lord, he must have been watching over me.”
At one the next morning the police found the cab at 49th and Indiana. “There were three people in the cab–one juvenile and two adults,” says Wiedersberg, whose story is confirmed by the police report. “One had a history of carjacking. And this is the type of shit Caroline Shoenberger says you have to pick up? Let her pick them up.”
Since that night, Wiedersberg has attended a half dozen or so hearings in two different courts. “I have to go to juvenile court for the kid and regular old criminal court for the others,” he says. “Seems like every time I go there’s a continuance or something. We had a continuance in juvenile court ’cause the punk’s mother didn’t show up. That little bastard probably don’t even have a mother–probably was hatched.”
The defendants have pleaded not guilty. “They told the police that it was their uncle’s cab,” says Wiedersberg. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How the hell can that be their uncle’s cab when it’s got my number all over it? When you think about it, anyone who steals a cab’s pretty fucking dumb because the next day every cabbie in the city’s gonna be looking for that cab. I told Reverend Jakes, ‘You know, brother Jakes, I marched with you against police brutality. I know we’re very strongly opposed to this sort of thing. But can we make one exception to the rule?'”
The story of the carjacking ran in the Defender, and friends called to console and tease. “In Steve’s case, when he got robbed, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do–he didn’t have the window closed,” says Pat Hill. “And he ain’t gonna close it either, ’cause you can’t hear him talk. My friends will tell me, ‘Oh, I rode with your friend the cabdriver. Man, can he talk! He sure loves you and hates Dorothy.’ But listen, it’s serious. We know what he’s facing. We’re glad he’s alive.”
Wiedersberg decided he’d had enough. On April 26 he filed his lawsuit. The complaint, a three-page document, reads a little differently from most complaints in federal court. It misspells Shoenberger’s name throughout and occasionally comes across as a rant. “I wrote it myself,” says Wiedersberg. “I don’t have no lawyer because I can’t afford one, though I did have a few lawyer friends read it over.”
He contends in his suit that “the ’97 ordinance mandating service put his [the plaintiff’s] life in danger because of the choice of not obeying the mandate and the face [sic] of a sizeable fine.” Citing case law from New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Illinois, he charges that the ordinance, among other things, violates his constitutional right “to earn a living and engage in one’s chosen profession.”
He writes: “A taxicab driver has to spend close to $100.00 for a daily lease, not including the expense of gasoline. A driver has to work an average of six hours in order to break even, then work an average of eight more or longer for a profit…. A fine of $750.00 dollars wipes out two weeks of profit-income earned over a seven day period.”
In conclusion, Wiedersberg “requests this Honorable Court to enter an Order Granting him Five Hundred Thousand Dollars in Real, and Five Hundred Thousand Dollars in punitive damages for implementing an ordinance that almost cost him his life. The plaintiff also prays and requests this Honorable Court to enter an Order striking the ordinance at issue in this case as being in violation of the equal protection provisions of the United States Constitution.”
Since he filed, some of his advisers (a coterie of friends, politicians, and publicists) have recommended that he stay quiet or at least be more guarded in his comments. “I tell Steve all the time you have to watch what you say,” says Jerald Wilson, a publicist advising Wiedersberg. “He doesn’t want to say anything that might upset the judge. And since you don’t know what might upset the judge, maybe he shouldn’t say a thing.”
His friends are cautious because Wiedersberg’s very vulnerable. This is a case where he has many friends but few outspoken and influential allies. Few politicians have endorsed his cause. The white ones don’t want to look like bigots and the black ones don’t want to look like they’re endorsing discrimination. As for the cabdrivers, their support’s passionate but not deep. Walking down the street or entering a cabbie hangout with Wiedersberg is like being with a star. The cabbies honk their horns or call his name or shake his hand or wish him luck. This is, they say, a very serious issue. According to a recent article in USA Today, cab driving is one of the country’s more dangerous professions. Many drivers say they feel exposed and vulnerable. In the last five years, according to a Sun-Times column by Mary Mitchell, 19 cabdrivers have been killed while on duty. “We want [Steve] to win,” says Tony, a driver interviewed outside of Mike’s Rainbow. “It’s a matter of our lives.”
But no drivers have joined his suit. As a rule, drivers are an independent bunch. They have no union, and every attempt to form one has failed. Wiedersberg started his own group, the Chicago Professional Taxi Cab Drivers Association, that has its own letterhead and motto–“Fighters for Justice”–and he was able to rally several hundred drivers for a protest when he led the charge for a fare hike in 1991. But he doesn’t have a state charter, he doesn’t collect dues, and he doesn’t know how many members he has. There’s no way he can make them do anything they don’t want to. “On this one it seems like I’m going it alone,” he says.
He doesn’t seem to care. It’s like everything else in his life–he seems perfectly happy to go against the grain. “A lot of us get older and say, ‘Ah, forget the fight,'” says Hill. “But Steve says, ‘Forget that. I’m fighting.”’
Wiedersberg adds, “I know I like to make jokes, but on this one I’m very serious. I tell everyone you can’t go into federal court and be stupid. It’s not like going to traffic court. I want a chance to make a serious plea to that judge. I want to tell him, ‘Your honor, you have a chance to change a law that’s threatening cabdrivers’ lives.”’
On May 31 Judge Charles Kocoras heard Wiedersberg’s request for a temporary restraining order. If he won, the judge would forbid the city to collect penalties from Wiedersberg and might even rule the antidiscrimination ordinance unconstitutional. If he lost? Well, so long as he represented himself, it was very hard to imagine him winning.
For over an hour he sat on a bench waiting his turn, while lawyers litigating other matters came before the judge with their requests for continuances and settlement hearings.
Finally it was Wiedersberg’s turn. “Steve Wiedersberg v. City of Chicago,” announced the clerk. He approached the bench and stood alongside two lawyers representing the city.
“You’re the plaintiff pro se?” asked Kocoras.
“Yes sir, your honor,” said Wiedersberg.
“What are you seeking this morning–a TRO for all drivers or just yourself?”
Kocoras shook his head. Since Wiedersberg himself had not been fined and was representing no drivers who had, there was nothing to restrain. “There is no occasion for me to restrict any fines that not have been served,” said the judge. He turned to the city lawyers. “You want to say something more or have I made your case for you?”
‘You did a good job, your honor,” said one lawyer.
“Thank you very much,” said Kocoras. “My hourly rate is $500.”
The lawyers laughed and Kocoras announced that there’d be a status hearing in several weeks. Then almost as an afterthought he said, “I take his matter very seriously.”
Two reporters were waiting in the hallway. They followed Wiedersberg into the elevator, pestering him with questions, scribbling his answers into their pads. “It’s a victory, even though I lost the TRO,” he told them. “The judge says he takes my case seriously.”
On the ground floor three waiting camera crews surrounded him. A photographer snapped pictures. Camera lights clicked on and he repeated his lines. The lights clicked off and the crews departed.
He looked at his watch and cursed under his breath. He was supposed to meet a friend at the county courthouse just down the street. He dashed up Dearborn to the Daley Center and into its great lobby.
Standing there alone, he suddenly looked exhausted. He’d been up all night, on his usual south-side Midway run. Plus, the fight had drained him. The city’s forces were so many and he was only one man. Pharaoh Daley was grinding him down.
A voice came from behind him. “Hey, Steve, remember me?”
It was a young sheriff’s deputy who was manning a metal detector.
“I’m Arthur’s friend,” the deputy said. “Arthur Simmonds.”
Wiedersberg brightened. “My man, Mr. Simmonds. Out of the Third Ward. I’ve been knowing Mr. Simmonds for 30 years.”
“You missed him, man,” said the deputy. “He just went to lunch.”
“You mean Mr. Simmonds is still working for the county?” Wiedersberg started to laugh. “God bless Mr. Simmonds. The man must be 83 years old. And he’s still working for the county. That makes my day. You tell him Steve came by.”
“I hear you suing the city,” said the deputy.
“Damn straight,” said Wiedersberg, and he brightened. “You bet I am. I ain’t gonna take none of their crap.”
The deputy laughed. And now Wieders-
berg was going strong about being the modern-day Moses and the knight on the horse and the man with the plan going to slay the dragon and “whup King Richard and his Merry Men.”
“You tell Mr. Simmonds–he’ll know. I’m a Third Ward guy. Those bastards picked the wrong cabbie to mess with.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Jon Randolph. Steve Widersberg cover photo, three misc. inside photos.