I’m sitting in my recliner late on a Sunday night, surrounded by a week’s worth of newspapers, when the phone rings. “I’ve been meaning to call you,” my ex-wife says. “There was something funny in a Bob Greene column.”
“I saw it,” I say. “I was going to call you.” But then I realize why I hadn’t made the call.
“You don’t know it’s the same one,” she says, and I hear an unmistakable edge creep into her voice.
“No. I’m positive,” I say, though I know this is practically guaranteed not to take the edge away. But as positive as I am that we’re talking about the same column, I can’t remember what it was about. I start searching through the newspapers scattered on the floor. All I can remember is that you had to read all the way to the end to get to the good part. That’s why I’d thought better about calling. I didn’t want to admit I’d read an entire Bob Greene column, especially one as lame as–and suddenly I remember. “It was the one on Bob Evans.” In the column Greene’s ecstatic when he finds a Bob Evans restaurant across the street from his hotel.
“But what part?” she asks. It’s hard to believe but it’s obviously true: after all these years the only woman I ever married is still not sure that we share the same sense of humor.
“Come on,” I say. “The part at the end where the only way he can get cereal is to order Cap’n Crunch off the children’s menu.”
“And then he says…” I hear a newspaper being folded and joy rising in her voice. She’s reading straight from the column. “‘Cap’n Crunch. At Bob Evans. My pathetic life has come to this.’ You know what that means?”
“He’s doing his own BobWatch.”
She’s right, I realize, and suddenly we’re both laughing. My laughter is tinged with sadness as I wonder how I could ever have let this woman get away.
BobWatch, as most of you know, was a regular feature in this paper that recapped Bob Greene’s Tribune columns. The subhead said it all: “We read him so you don’t have to.”
BobWatch was written by Ed Gold, a pseudonym for Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg, but it stopped running once Steinberg became a columnist himself.
Ed Gold understood the power that Bob Greene has over us. We can’t stop reading him any more than we can avoid looking at the mangled body parts scattered around a seven-car wreck.
“You know why I didn’t call you?” I say to my ex. “I didn’t want to admit that I’d read all the way to the end of the column.”
“Oh, it wasn’t one of his real bad ones.” She actually excuses him. “At least there wasn’t a kid in it.”
This from the woman who, during the endless saga of Baby Richard, decided to track down and kill Bob Greene. The only thing that stopped her was the realization that she’d never get away with it. “How could you keep from bragging?”
“He’s doing another kid, you know,” I say, referring to Greene’s recent string of columns about a boy named Joe.
“I just can’t stand it,” she says.
“He must have taste buds from Hiroshima,” I say. “Remember when he used to go on and on about how great Denny’s was and how wonderful it was that you could get breakfast anytime?”
“You know what’s pathetic is that he doesn’t really think he’s pathetic. He thinks he’s being cute.”
We’ve just about exhausted Bob Greene. I can feel her interest waning. “Did you happen to see that thing in the Sun-Times about the cabdriver who wouldn’t pick up the guy at O’Hare?”
She yawns. “What about it?”
So I recap the Mary Mitchell column as quickly as I can. “Some foreign guy supposedly refused to take some black guy to the south side. So they fined him $375.”
Another yawn, this one definitely deliberate.
“Well, then it turns out that the black guy has friends in high places,” I hurry on. “His wife’s a judge, blah, blah, blah. So the fine isn’t enough. Now they’re going to revoke the guy’s chauffeur’s license.”
“Why don’t they just execute him?” my ex says. “That’ll solve the problem.” You see why I married this woman?
“See, that’s the thing,” I start. I’ve been silently fuming about the column since I read it an hour ago, and now that I’ve got an audience I’m ready to go. But before I get too far, she cuts me off.
“I’m tired and I have to go to sleep,” she says, just like that. So there I am in the middle of the night, with a week’s worth of newspapers strewn around my recliner and my audience gone.
But, hey, you’re still here, aren’t you?
So listen to this. This is Mary Mitchell’s first paragraph: “Suppose your boss told you to perform a task that you were hired to do and you flat-out refused. You would probably get fired.”
I guess now is the time to admit that I actually drive a cab for a living. This writing thing is just something I do because I don’t have enough pull to get a steady cab. But even a lowly part-time cabdriver like me knows that the idea that the person in the backseat is your boss is utterly ridiculous.
To paraphrase my mother: If your passenger told you to drive off the end of Navy Pier, would you do it? Of course not. Now according to Mitchell’s column the passenger in this case, Wheeler Coleman, didn’t want the driver to drive into the lake or to down some dead-end alley, or to wait while he scored drugs or got head from a prostitute in the backseat. He just wanted what most passengers at O’Hare want. He wanted to go home.
Now Coleman’s home happens to be on the south side, Mitchell tells us, “in a very affluent African-American neighborhood.” According to Coleman, the driver, Nooruddin Atashi, refused to take him there and told him, “I am not going to your neighborhood tonight.” Well, I look at the description of Coleman’s neighborhood and my guess is he’s going at least as far as 47th Street, probably farther, and what I see is a $40 to $50 cab fare and I wonder why any cabdriver would turn down such a good load.
Mitchell’s theory seems to be that Atashi just doesn’t like black people. “There was no way the cabdriver could convince anyone that Coleman was threatening or that the neighborhood was dangerous.”
I don’t know. I keep putting myself behind the wheel of Atashi’s cab, and I can’t see him turning down that nice fat load just because Coleman is black and maybe Atashi thinks black people smell bad. Fifty bucks, someone smells–I’ll crack the window.
I see two holes in Mitchell’s theory:
(1) Most people who rob and kill cabdrivers try to appear nonthreatening because otherwise astute drivers will not pick them up. Ask the drivers who were recently robbed after picking up a guy near Union Station who dressed like a messenger, right down to the important package he had to deliver out on the west side. Though smart cab robbers, if there are such people, do not generally stand on street corners dressed up to look like cab robbers, dumb or desperate ones often do. I sometimes almost feel sorry for them as I pass by. But the sad truth is, as bad as they might look, if they have the patience some cabdriver will eventually stop.
(2) Maybe Atashi was not familiar with Coleman’s neighborhood. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Atashi knows some other city in the world much better than he knows Chicago.
But Mitchell wants to have it both ways. On the one hand she says there’s no way Atashi could convince anyone that he thought Coleman’s neighborhood was dangerous. Yet three paragraphs later she seems to think it’s a good idea when told by some Vehicle Commission flunky that “bus tours of the South and West Sides will soon be part of a cabdriver’s training because cabdrivers don’t know the area.” She goes on to quote the flunky: “It is wrong to think all of the [neighborhoods] are dangerous.”
I’ve got nothing against the bus tour as long as I’m not one of the drivers forced to take it. The better the quality of Chicago cabdrivers, the more likely people will be willing to get into that backseat, and that’ll mean more money for all of us. And the cab business, like any other, is all about money.
That’s why I keep coming back to that $50 and why, in my book, the only reasons Atashi would refuse to take Coleman south are that he was afraid either of Coleman or of the neighborhood Coleman was heading to, or that he didn’t think he’d ever see his money.
But, as it turns out, Atashi has an entirely different story to tell. He never refused to take Coleman south. “Atashi had testified,” according to Mitchell’s column, “that Coleman got out of the cab after getting angry because he would not open the shield. The hearing officer found that tale unbelievable and ruled in Coleman’s favor.”
I don’t know exactly what the hearing officer heard, but I do know that after reading the information presented in Mitchell’s column I find Atashi’s story much more believable than Coleman’s.
Here you are, a big-time executive and you get off a plane late at night, probably after a long, hard day making those tough decisions that busy executives have to make. You drag your bags through the terminal and outside to the cab line. Maybe the driver opens the trunk for you, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he just sits in the cab and watches as you lift your luggage into the backseat and crawl in after it. But you don’t care. All you want is to get home to your wife, a circuit court judge, and to your affluent neighborhood, where “County Board President John Stroger is a neighbor, as are six judges, and several attorneys, doctors and other executive-level professionals.”
The cab smells. It’s dirty and it’s got one of those bulletproof shields that the city is forcing cab companies to put in, even though the majority of drivers and passengers say they don’t want them. Shields leave very little room in the backseat, so if you’re a big guy you’re gonna end up sitting sideways and feeling like you’re in some kind of funky spaceship. If you’re a small guy, well, hell, you’re gonna suddenly feel pretty big.
You stick your head through the open window in the shield and give the driver your address. He probably gets that confused look on his face, and you know that he doesn’t have the slightest clue where you live. But you’ve been there before. No big deal. You’ll show him the way.
The cab starts out of the airport. You lean back in the seat and start to unwind from your long, hard day, and then the driver reaches back and slides the bulletproof window shut. It locks with a clap that sounds as sharp as sudden thunder. You’re no longer in some spaceship. You’re in a tomb.
Like Mary Mitchell, I have no idea what actually happened in Nooruddin Atashi’s Yellow Cab that night in May. But I do know that if one of those pricks ever slid that bulletproof window closed in my face, he wouldn’t have a passenger for long. I would be out the door quicker than you could say “camel jockey.”
And I’m no business executive, and my wife isn’t a judge. Hell, I don’t even have a wife. My ex-wife, who you met earlier, is a former substitute schoolteacher turned sales clerk who has detailed fantasies about murdering newspaper columnists she’s never even met. And my neighbors aren’t doctors and judges and county board presidents. At least I don’t think those guys sleeping in the alley are judges. But I would still be seriously pissed to have that window slammed in my face.
It’s one thing to get in a cab and find the window already closed. That’s a safety measure. It’s an entirely different thing to get in a cab and have the driver close it in your face. That’s a direct insult.
Of course, nowhere in Mitchell’s story does it actually say that Atashi closed the shield after Coleman got in his cab. That’s just conjecture on my part. But I know that cabdrivers waiting in line at O’Hare generally have their shields open. So my guess is, if there’s any truth to Atashi’s story at all, he closed the shield either as Coleman approached his cab or after he got in.
If, after reading this far, you think I’m on Atashi’s side, you’re jumping to the wrong conclusion. No matter whose story you believe, Atashi obviously misread his passenger and mishandled the situation. But really, what do we expect?
Now it’s possible that I’m jumping to wrong conclusions myself. Maybe Atashi was born at Illinois Masonic, grew up at Six Corners, and graduated from Saint Ignatius. But I look at his name and profession and I tend to doubt it. I think that, like most cabdrivers in town, Atashi came from some land far, far away. Try to put yourself in his shoes.
Could you imagine yourself going to a foreign country and getting behind the wheel of a taxicab and not misreading and mishandling one situation after another? Put yourself in Calcutta or London or any large city. Let’s make it even harder: pick one where the natives don’t speak any English.
So there you are: you don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know how the streets work, and you can’t decipher a map or a street guide. You have a hard time making change. You’re not much of a driver. Maybe you just learned. You’re smart enough to know that you’re incompetent, but there isn’t much you can do about it. You can’t find another job, at least not one where you can work every single waking hour and support not only yourself but your family across the sea.
People are rude. They make fun of your name. They make fun of your clothes. They complain about the way you smell even though you smell just like you’ve always smelled and nobody ever complained back home. They’re always yelling directions. They’re making jokes among themselves, and you know you’re the butt. Many of them get angry. They accuse you of being a thief. Sometimes they throw their money at you and slam the door.
It sounds like a nightmare to me, and I honestly don’t think I’d have the balls to do it. I think very few of us would have the balls to do it. But it’s reality for a large number of cabdrivers. Yes, many of them are incompetent, but that doesn’t make them less than human. And remember, they did not put themselves behind the wheel of that cab. The city issued them a license. A cab company leased them a cab. And they didn’t take the job away from an American. Instead, they got the job because Americans don’t want it. If you want to wait around for an American cabdriver to show up, chances are you’ll be frozen to that light pole come January 17.
In many ways, the foreign drivers are heroes. They believe in the American dream, and they work hard to attain it: 12-, 14-, and 16-hour shifts are common, as is the seven-day work week. No wonder some of these guys act so crazy. Who knows how long Atashi might have worked the night he had his encounter with Wheeler Coleman. But I’m not going to cry any tears for my fellow cabdriver. He fucked up, no matter whose story you believe, and now he’s going to pay the price. Not only did he not get that big fat fare to the south side but he had to take time to go downtown for a hearing where he was called a liar and fined $375.
And if the story ended right there, well, you wouldn’t be reading this because I’d have no complaints. Oh, the fine’s a little high. But that’ll teach Atashi to be more sensitive. Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there.
The headline on Mary Mitchell’s column reads: “Cabbie’s slap on wrist shows law’s weakness.”
“Of course, this is a typical Chicago cab story,” Mitchell writes. “Black men routinely complain about cabs passing them by. That is partly why the City Council passed a tougher ordinance–over the raucous objections of cabdrivers and owners.
“But how tough is it when cabdrivers can plop down cash for discriminating? Wouldn’t a cabdriver who adamantly opposes the new ordinance figure in fines as the cost of doing business?”
Mary, Mary, Mary, do you have any idea how much $375 is to the average cabdriver? Do you have any idea how long a cabdriver has to work, how many miles he has to drive, how many times he has to weave in and out of traffic for no apparent reason, how many cars full of innocent civilians he has to cut off, how many red lights he has to run, and how many fools he has to suffer to take in that kind of money? Do you know how much that money might buy if he sent it back home?
In fact, what we really have here is a typical Chicago clout story. According to Mitchell, “the city’s lawyer asked for a fine so minimal that the hearing officer felt compelled to nudge it up. The lawyer, Yolanda Thomas, is now on the hot seat herself.
“Coleman is married to Circuit Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, who also attended the hearing….That Atashi walked away with a slap on the wrist means this case was fumbled or the city needs to get serious about prosecuting discrimination complaints.”
I’d like to think that the reason the city’s lawyer asked for a minimal fine was that she used her common sense and believed Atashi’s story. Isn’t that a possibility, that Yolanda Thomas listened to the witnesses and using her judgment and experience decided that the cabdriver was probably telling the truth? And then she asked for the minimal fine because, though she believed Atashi, she knew that if he’d been a little more diplomatic and hadn’t mishandled the situation there wouldn’t have been a complaint to begin with.
Maybe the hearing officer nudged up the fine because she read all that clout in her hearing room as exactly what it was: a threat to her job.
Yolanda Thomas quickly learned the lesson. When all those interested parties suddenly show up, what they’re interested in is not the truth or any Solomonic compromises. They are there to encourage you to come down on the correct side. Their side.
“Thomas, an unfortunate scapegoat in this matter, has been reassigned and an experienced civil rights attorney has taken over her duties,” Mitchell writes in the same pages where Mike Royko once defended working stiffs from the sledgehammer of clout. “After reading a transcript of the hearing, the Consumer Services Department will now file a revocation petition with the mayor’s license commission.”
In other words: we tried the guy once but we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, so we’re gonna keep trying him until we do. Welcome to America, Nooruddin. Welcome to Chicago.
The day after Mitchell’s column, another Sun-Times headline caught my eye. “Cops, guards, cabdrivers face most job violence, study says.” Well, the headline is pretty much self-explanatory. Every couple of months there’s a similar story about the most dangerous jobs in America. Cabdrivers are always at the top or near the top of the list. In Chicago, most of them die in poor black neighborhoods on the south and west sides. This is a fact that Mitchell fails to mention: a cabdriver who never goes into a black neighborhood has a much longer life expectancy than one who does.
Does this mean I’m advocating passing by black passengers? Absolutely not. But a cabdriver who picks up every person who flags him is asking for trouble, and eventually it will find him. The trick is to separate the true assholes of the world from the decent folks, white or black.
The funny thing is, most assholes aren’t that hard to spot. And if you don’t clock them on the street and you actually let them into your cab, most of them immediately give themselves away. They can’t stop themselves.
But the skill for spotting these people takes time to develop, years and years. It’s not something that’s handed to you with your chauffeur’s license the day after the boat docks. It helps if you know the language and the customs of the place where you’re working. It helps if you know the difference between Printers Row and the Robert Taylor Homes.
Passengers are always telling you their experiences with other cabdrivers, usually bad ones. Several times I’ve heard from people who lived on Federal Street down around Printers Row. Their stories were all basically the same: they got in a cab and told the driver their address, and the driver refused to take them there.
The first time I heard the story I was as puzzled as my passenger, but I shrugged it off as just another screwball cabdriver. The second time I heard it I knew something was going on, and by the third time I’d figured it out. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was a spate of cabdriver robberies and murders on the small drivewaylike street that runs behind the Robert Taylor Homes. The name of the street, of course, is Federal, and word quickly spread among cabdrivers to be wary of anyone who asked to be taken there. My guess is that the Federal warning is still being issued to rookie drivers by well-meaning veterans who forget to explain the difference between Printers Row and the Robert Taylor Homes.
Usually when people want to tell their stories about bad cabdrivers, I try to cut them off. “If you don’t tell me about bad cabdrivers I won’t tell you about bad passengers,” I say, but this seldom works. Some get excited and want to know about these passengers. They think I’m going to tell them stories of wild sex in the backseat. “Well, a little while ago I had a guy throw up back there,” I like to say. “I think I got most of it.”
The majority of bad-cabdriver stories are really the same old story. The cabdriver did not know how to get to some well-known street or landmark–I’ve heard from Sears Tower to O’Hare to Michigan Avenue. “I had to show him how to get there,” my passengers say. One reason I hate hearing these stories is my suspicion that passengers actually love telling them (and therefore love incompetent cabdrivers). The stories make them feel so smart. If I question these clowns I usually find they’re from some suburb of Detroit and have no idea at all where Kedzie Avenue is. If they really are showing their cabdrivers the way, what we have here is a case of the blind leading the blind.
Another reason I find these stories so boring is that none comes close to a story I heard about 25 years ago. Late one night my brother-in-law was dozing on a radio post at Devon and Broadway, hoping someone in the neighborhood would call a cab. Another cab pulled up behind his and the driver got out. He asked how to get to an address on Harrison Street, about nine miles south of Devon. The driver didn’t have a passenger, so my brother-in-law assumed he’d been dispatched on a radio call to the near west side and tried to tell him that it was a waste of time to chase a call that far. “No, no, no,” the driver said and explained why he needed to get to Harrison. “I live there.”
I have yet to hear a driver-didn’t-know-how-to-get-there story that tops that. This poor sap didn’t know how to get home.
A few of the stories I hear are actually about bad cabdrivers rather than just incompetent ones. I’ve heard stories about cheats, thieves, dangerous drivers, perverts, stalkers, and other assorted psychopaths. I always ask the person telling me the story the same questions.
“Did you turn him in?”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer is no. Sometimes the passenger tries to cop a plea by claiming he couldn’t get the cab’s number. This despite the fact that the number is prominently displayed just about anywhere you look on a taxi. I usually tell these people where to find the number, and I try to explain that most cab disputes end up being the passenger’s word against the driver’s, so the more passengers complain about a bad driver, the more likely the city will eventually get him off the street.
My next question is “Did you tip him?”
“Yes,” the passengers invariably admit, a bit sheepishly. They usually try to justify this inexcusable behavior by adding, “But not as much as I normally would have.”
Sometimes I can’t stop myself. “You’re a fucking idiot!” I shout. You’d be surprised how often a simple little pep talk like that can toughen people right up. Most of them manage to avoid tipping me.
Reading Mary Mitchell’s column you might come away with the impression that the most frequent complaint against Chicago cabdrivers is that they refuse to pick up black passengers and refuse to go into black neighborhoods. I pick up my share of black passengers and I don’t hear a lot of complaints. I don’t know, maybe they’re just being polite. I know that most of them seem to be much more aware of the dangers of driving a cab in this city than the hacks at the Vehicle Commission are. “Whatever you do, don’t pick anybody up out here,” they’ll say as they get out of the cab in front of their south- or west-side homes. “Lock your doors. Go straight back to the highway.”
And I follow that advice. I lock the doors, flip my Not for Hire sign down, leave my top light off, and head for the nearest expressway ramp. I generally ignore anyone who waves.
I sometimes feel guilty about this because I know that almost all the people waving are decent folks. But I’m convinced if I spent my nights on the south side picking up whoever happened to flag me down I would be dead before a week was out. And I would make very little money before my untimely demise.
That’s the other reason cabdrivers don’t like to work the south side. There’s very little money to be made. Cabs are an expensive form of transportation. And they are especially expensive on the south side. I know you’re looking at that last sentence thinking, what’s he talking about? Cabs are supposed to cost the same no matter which part of the city you’re in.
Yes. But the south side is huge. It’s more spread out. Cabs charge by distance. The farther you go, the more you pay. I’m willing to bet that, with the exception of Midway Airport, there are even fewer cabs working the predominantly white southwest side than the predominantly black south side. The demand just isn’t there. The average south-side trip is just too long and costs too much.
The reason there’s so much cab business along the north-side lakefront is that nobody’s actually going anywhere. The people who live there are like rats in a very small maze, rats who have little interest in finding their way out because they’re afraid they might run into creatures who don’t look and think exactly like them–in other words, real Chicagoans. That’s one of the identifying characteristics of a mazer. Most are from out of town, and that’s one of the reasons they love riding in cabs. It’s just like being in a movie. There sure weren’t any taxis cruising the mean streets of Bloomfield Hills.
If they have a car, it’s saved for special occasions, like trips back home to see the folks and have mom do the laundry. They don’t dare actually use it for trips within the maze. They’ll never find a parking space when they return. Because of this parking shortage many mazers don’t even own cars. They use taxis as their standard form of transportation. It’s very dense in the maze. But everything you need is right there. Why would you ever want to leave?
So they’ll throw a cabdriver a few bucks to get from one side of the maze to the other. There’s a constant stream of these short trips, and a few thousand cabdrivers can make a decent living handling them. But many of the drivers I know actively despise these people. They work the maze because it’s generally safe and because that’s where the money is.
Mary Mitchell and her friends at the Vehicle Commission like to think that the reason there are so many cabs along the north-side lakefront is that cabdrivers just don’t like black people. How do they explain the black drivers that work the same lakefront streets as everyone else? The ones I know don’t appear to be full of self-hatred. They’re just guys trying to make a decent living without getting killed. There are many drivers, black and white, who would much rather be ferrying working stiffs around the south side if they didn’t have to put their lives on the line to do it.
No one’s ever tried to rob me north of 35th Street.
As far back as I can remember, the law has said that a driver can’t refuse to take passengers into certain neighborhoods. If someone flags you in the Loop and wants to go to 43rd and State, you’re supposed to take him. If you refuse and the passenger turns you in, you’ll probably get fined. Most of the drivers I know don’t have that big a beef with this policy, and most of them will take a passenger anywhere if he doesn’t appear dangerous.
But lately the city has been making noises about forcing drivers to treat all neighborhoods equally. If you take the above passenger down South State, the city thinks you should stay and work the area. Of course drivers are fighting back, just like Rich Melman would if the city tried to force him to put his next restaurant in Robert Taylor. A few months back they had armed guards down there walking children to school in broad daylight, yet the city wants taxis to cruise those same streets in the middle of the night and pick up anyone who happens to wave. And the city plans to drug test the drivers?
When they take that bus tour of all the good neighborhoods on the south side, I suggest they also point out the sites where cabdrivers have been slain through the years.
The bulletproof shields are supposed to keep drivers safe while they cruise these battle zones. But what good does a bulletproof shield do when the side windows and the windshield are not bulletproof? The last Chicago cabdriver to be murdered had a bulletproof shield in his cab, but it didn’t keep him alive. The shield was open when he was shot to death by a teenage girl he’d picked up at Navy Pier and taken south.
And that’s how the game is usually played.
The drivers who regularly work the south side are generally too astute to pick up the true assholes, so the assholes are forced to come north to find gullible drivers willing to take them south.
And as far as I’m concerned, the city’s decision to force all cab owners to install bulletproof shields will put even more gullible drivers on the street. This will happen because many experienced drivers will probably quit, especially the tall ones.
I’m a shade under six feet, which is not very tall, but the few times I’ve driven cabs with shields I’ve gotten out at the end of the shift feeling like I’d spent a week locked in Houdini’s trunk. The driver’s seat just won’t go back far enough. What about a driver who’s really tall? And what if he works long shifts every day? He probably has to crawl home.
It’s also hard to hear what the passengers are saying, even if the shield’s open. Most passengers then immediately assume that you don’t speak English. So the city’s taking away one of the few pleasures of the job, the opportunity to talk to people, and most drivers will still avoid the south side.
The one thing bulletproof shields will bring is a lot of trips to the emergency room by passengers who hit their heads when cabs stop suddenly. Expect plenty of broken noses. My advice to passengers: buckle up.
I’m sure the city is well-intentioned, but once again they’re misguided. Several years ago they decided that the way to get better drivers on the street was to make the new ones go to school. So that’s how it works now. Potential drivers are made to pay $80 and go to school for four days full-time before they are allowed to take the test for a city chauffeur’s license.
Sounds like a good idea, right?
I have a friend, Charles. He’s a clerk at a White Hen Pantry on Lincoln where numerous cabdrivers hang out. Years ago he drove a cab full-time, and now he’d like to go back part-time, just on Mondays. He’s lived in Chicago his entire life. He knows the city. He knows the language. He’s a nice guy.
Like most people looking for a second job, Charles needs the money now. That’s the whole point. He can’t afford to pay the city 80 bucks and take four days off work. And there are a lot of people like Charles out there who could pass the test without school. But the city doesn’t want them. They don’t care how many good cabdrivers they pass up, because they have plenty of desperate foreign guys who do need the schooling. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably found out if you take many cabs, most of them need more than four days.
I can’t speak for other drivers, but I know I pass up many more whites than blacks. Part of this is because there are so many more whites to choose from. If you’re cruising through the maze on a Friday or Saturday night there are drunk and obnoxious white people waving on just about every corner. When you decide that you’re not in the mood to deal with them and drive by, you don’t have to worry about them calling the Vehicle Commission. They might get excited and jump up and down a bit, but that’s about it. They know you didn’t pass them by because they’re white. But if you pass a black guy by, you can bet your chauffeur’s license he thinks you’re passing him because of his skin color.
Actually, there’s a whole new breed of white people who barely wave at all. They just lift a little finger or something equally subtle and try to make themselves look like Paul Newman on the poster for Hud. I usually drive right by thinking, boy, that guy sure looks cool. Wonder if he wants a cab?
Some white people are even subtler than that. They just stand out in the street and turn their bodies a certain way and get this expectant look on their faces. I tend to drive by these people too.
“Whoa!” they sometimes yell, and, if I’m in the mood or it’s really slow, I sometimes stop.
“Why didn’t you stop?”
“You didn’t wave.”
“No. You just stood there.”
“Well, I thought you’d know.”
“Do you think I’d be driving a fucking cab if I could read minds?”
Everybody’s happy to get an American driver until you actually say something.
So the next time you’re waiting to cross a street and a cabdriver pulls up and expects you to get in, have a little sympathy. And the next time you hand the driver a ten on a $4.20 ride, and he gives you a five back but holds on to your 80 cents, don’t blame it all on him. Here’s what I hear time and again when I try to give people their small change. “Why are you giving me that?”
“I’m giving you this because it’s your money, sir.” When I say “sir” to a passenger it’s almost always intended as an insult.
But they can fling insults too. “I don’t want that,” they say, as if I’m some kind of nut for thinking they’d actually want all of their change back.
“Hey, if I get to choose how much change I give you, why don’t I just keep the five.”
Nobody’s agreed yet, but I’m still hoping.
It seems a little tacky to make fun of the people I make my living from, so I should probably say that the majority of passengers are great. The majority of the people on the south side are great too, and I wish I could feel comfortable working in their neighborhoods. Maybe someday. That would really be a great day for all of Chicago. I hope I live to see it.
I wish the city luck in coming up with a solution for underserved neighborhoods. Restoring CTA service cuts is one obvious answer. Encouraging the expansion of the livery services that already ply those neighborhoods is another. The liveries have several clear advantages over taxicabs. By law they can only handle radio calls, so they aren’t expected to stop for people on the street. They arrive in unmarked cars, so every crook in the neighborhood doesn’t see them coming blocks away. They generally work out of one small section of the city, so they’re familiar with the bad guys and the trouble spots. But it’s obviously going to take someone much smarter than me to come up with a solution.
It’s days like this when I miss Mike Royko. He had a way of cutting through the bullshit, and he usually came down on the working man’s side. I think if he were alive and writing he’d be defending the cabdrivers.
I miss Harold Washington too, the best friend Chicago cabdrivers ever had. He knew who the true villain of the taxi industry was, and if he were alive today Yellow Cab would probably be long out of business and the entire city would be better off.
I remember Dan Rather’s most memorable visit to Chicago. It was November of 1980, and Rather had come to interview Studs Terkel. At O’Hare, he got in a Checker Cab driven by Eugene Phillips and asked the driver if he knew where Castlewood Terrace was. Phillips said he’d never heard of the one-block street, but this didn’t appear to be a problem–Rather had specific directions supplied by Studs.
But the directions were no help. They drove around Uptown looking for the street but couldn’t find it. Finally, Phillips stopped a police car and asked for directions. According to Phillips, he then drove Rather to the address on Castlewood, and Rather refused to pay.
Rather’s story, displayed on the front page of the Sun-Times, was that he refused to pay because the driver had been unable to find Terkel’s house.
Both sides agreed that when Rather tried to exit the cab without paying the $12.50 fare, the driver took off with him in the backseat. Soon he was heading south on Lake Shore Drive. Phillips says he was looking for the police to force Rather to pay. But according to Rather he was being kidnapped. And he didn’t keep this opinion to himself. He stuck his head out the window and started shouting to passing cars. Eventually the taxi was pulled over at Ohio Street by an off-duty corrections officer.
When police arrived on the scene, Phillips was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Now usually it works the other way. It’s the passenger who either pays the fare or ends up in jail. But it wasn’t just the police who were on Rather’s side–it seemed to be the entire city, including the newspapers.
It was left to Mike Royko to look Phillips up, after he got out of jail, and get his side of the story. His side was simple. When they pulled up on Castlewood, Rather, who thought he’d been taken for a ride, refused to pay unless Phillips produced his driver’s license. Phillips showed him the ticket he was driving on, but that wasn’t good enough for Rather. He said he’d pay the cab company but not Phillips and tried to get out of the cab. Then Phillips headed for Lake Shore Drive.
Phillips told Royko, “The only question the police asked me was: ‘Are you the cabdriver?’ I said: ‘Yes,’ and that was the one word I spoke. The next thing, I was frisked, put in the police car and wasn’t told what I was charged with or nothing. Every time I opened my mouth, I was told to shut up. They didn’t tell me a doggoned thing except ‘Hey, that’s Dan Rather. You’re in big trouble.’ So they printed me, mugged me and put me in a cell.”
Phillips asked Royko what he thought would happen next. “I had to tell him the truth,” Royko wrote. “The famous Dan Rather says–through a network spokesman–that Phillips flipped out without provocation, and he doesn’t ever want Phillips to drive a cab again. So the case has been rushed to Mayor Byrne’s office, and she can instantly strip Phillips of his livelihood.
“Thus Rather, who earns as much in three days as Phillips does in a good year pushing a hack, will probably have his way.”
A day or two after the incident, there was a group of conventioneers waiting in the cab line at O’Hare wearing buttons that said “I Am Not Dan Rather.”
Not that many years ago, Studs and his wife flagged my cab on Marine Drive. They were heading downtown. I got on Lake Shore Drive and settled into a lane. Then I asked, “So what really happened with Dan Rather?”
“Yeah,” Studs replied, “beautiful night.”
“He wants to know about Dan Rather!” his wife shouted into his ear.
“Oh,” Studs said, and then he told me the story. He was pretty sure he’d given Rather the wrong directions.
We all had a good laugh at Rather’s expense, and when I got them to where they were going Studs paid the fare. “Thanks for the memories, pal,” he said and handed me a $5 tip. Studs, you can ride in my cab anytime.
Speaking of Royko, here’s a story my ex just reminded me about. In 1978, when the Daily News folded, Royko and some other staffers went to work for the Sun-Times, where Royko was given a spot on page two. There was some resentment among Sun-Times staffers, many of whom were let go to make room for the newcomers. Bob Greene wasn’t let go, but his column, which he’d been writing for a while, stayed in its inside spot, several pages behind Royko. He jumped to the Tribune.
Greene’s first Tribune column, on Larry Flynt, appeared on April 10. Two days later he wrote a column titled “A streetwalker at 13: Fear was her escort.”
In the column Bob describes how he got a phone call, while still at the Sun-Times, from a girl who identified herself as Lindy. She tells him she is 13 and a member of a ring of young prostitutes, but that she and her friend Barbara now want to get out.
“How old is your friend Barbara?” Bob asks.
“‘She’s 13, too,’ she said. ‘She mostly does the customers who want straight sex. I do everything.’
“‘What do you mean everything?’ I said.
“‘You know, everything,’ she said. ‘Sodomy, tieup games. Look, we’re really scared. We need help.’
“‘I want you to come down here,’ I said.
“‘I can’t now,’ she said. ‘He’s watching us all the time. He’ll follow us. I’ll have to call you later.’
“‘I think it’s important that I see you,’ I said. ‘Tell me anyplace to meet you. I’ll be there.’
“I heard a door opening, and a man’s voice.
“‘I’ve got to get off,’ she said.
“‘Call me,’ I said. ‘Any time, day or night. Leave your name and number, and I’ll find you.’
“‘He’s coming. I have to get off,’ she said.
“‘Just call,’ I said. ‘I’ll do what….’
“The phone went dead.”
Boy, I don’t know about you, but I get chills when that phone goes dead. You can just see Bob in his Sun-Times office holding the silent phone in his hand and wondering what comes after sodomy and tie-up games. Everything?
But the column doesn’t end there. The next call comes to Bob’s new Tribune Tower digs. It’s from a woman who says she’s Lindy’s mother.
“We buried her Sunday,” she tells Greene.
“‘She was killed in California,’ the woman said. ‘They found her in the back seat of a car with a bullet through her head. Her friend Barbara was in the front seat, stabbed to death. They had run to California to try to get away from what they were doing in Chicago.'”
A letter from the girl arrived just after the burial, the mother tells Bob. Then she reads it to him “through her tears.”
“Dear Mom and Dad–
“I’m really sorry for what I’ve done to you. I’m not the kind of daughter anyone would ever like to have or own up to. Mom, we’re trying to get away.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry and I’m afraid and I don’t know what to do. I’ve learned what it’s like out in the world, and Mom, I learned what kind of people there are. They’re all animals. I learned that fast. I want to come home. I’ll be home when I can, Mom, if you’ll take me back.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever accept me again as being yours. I’m so afraid. I keep telling myself that I am invincible. Mom, I went through a lot of things and I’m not 13 any more. I’ve met a lot of men and I’ve done a lot of things.
“I contacted a man, Mom, a man that tried to help me, but I’m afraid that I couldn’t get back to him. When you get this letter, please call him and tell him I’m all right. The man’s name is Bob Greene. Please tell him that I’m sorry that I never called back, but tell him not to worry. I’m all right and I’m coming home.”
Well, the letter goes on for three more paragraphs, but we’ve already reached the point of the column, which is the point of many Bob Greene columns: Bob himself. It’s an ugly world but, thank God, there’s this great, caring man named Bob Greene in it.
It doesn’t seem fair not to let you enjoy Bob’s final paragraph: “Lindy’s body now lies beneath a gravestone bearing a false name. She was 13 years old and she wanted to come home. She got her wish.”
Across the street at Bob’s old workplace, Mike Royko read the column. “Mike smelled a rat,” recalls a veteran reporter who’s worked at both papers. “It was one of those stories that was just too good to be true. Mike thought if these two girls had been murdered he would have heard about it. It would have been on the wires.”
Both the Sun-Times and the Associated Press tried to verify Greene’s story, but nobody could come up with the bodies.
“The Sun-Times contacted the 58 county sheriffs’ departments across California, the California Highway Patrol, the FBI, the AP, United Press International and the California Department of Justice,” an April 14 Sun-Times story reported. “Each was asked if there had been any report of such a double murder. All of those organizations said there had not.”
The Sun-Times talked to Greene too, but he refused to give details. “The brothers and sisters of this girl do not know she was a prostitute,” he is quoted as saying. “They just know she was brought home dead and buried.”
“But later in the day after The Sun-Times contacted top Tribune executives, Greene released a statement saying that ‘I was victimized by an emotionally disturbed girl’ and that ‘it was a carefully constructed hoax by a mentally disturbed girl.'”
Greene was forced to apologize.
“On Thursday I learned that I was the victim of a hoax, apparently perpetrated by an emotionally disturbed teen-aged girl. The two phone calls to me apparently were placed by this girl. I have spoken with her parents, who feel that their daughter was responsible for the false story.
“I apologize to readers of the column. I wrote it thinking that I was protecting the identity of a family in personal torment. Instead, I quoted someone as saying two murders had taken place, when it now turns out there is no evidence of such murders.”
According to his apology, the girl who conned him was 14. He said his editors had also met with the girl’s parents, who described her as “brilliant” but suffering from “severe emotional problems, including a personality that apparently takes on different forms.”
The apology ran two days after the original column–only four days after Greene’s Tribune debut.
The pile of papers around my recliner grows, and I can’t stop myself from reading Greene as he goes on and on about some poor kid he calls Joe. Once again, Bob is the only one who really cares.
Boy, do I miss Royko. I mean, if we have to suffer Bob, don’t we deserve one really great columnist?
I miss BobWatch too. I can still read Ed Gold in the Sun-Times, under his real name, of course. And much of his Neil Steinberg stuff is pretty funny. But I still hold a bit of a grudge against Steinberg for his role as a local expert in a mediocre book about jukeboxes. He showed the author around town but managed to miss all the great juke joints. Boy, I remember thinking as I skimmed through the book, this Steinberg guy’s about as local as a palm tree.
Of course, now that I’ve become a fan I make all sorts of excuses for him. Maybe Steinberg realized that the author didn’t have the first clue about jukeboxes. Not once does he write about taking control of a box when someone else has already jammed it with plays. Anybody can go into an empty bar and hear whatever song he wants, but, hell, you might as well stay at home and listen to your stereo and drink much cheaper beer. The true art comes in taking over a jukebox when the joint’s packed and everybody’s playing it.
Yeah, he must have clocked the guy as a mope. I decide to give Neil a pass. I mean, he’s Ed Gold.
Well, let’s be honest, we seem to be spinning our wheels here. So I run my story through the spell checker, past the comma and period placer, and into the grammar garage for a quick checkup. Next, I call the ex.
“Remember when we were talking about that cabdriver?”
“No,” she says, and I have the feeling I might be interrupting one of her favorite TV shows.
“Sure you do. Remember, you called me up about that Bob Greene column?”
“Look, I made you a character in one of my stories and I want to say that you said…”
“Forget it. Absolutely not.”
“Remember what happened to your friend Patricia Smith?”
“This is different. She made up entire people. You actually exist. I just put a couple of words in your mouth. Most of it you really said.”
“I don’t want to be in any of your stories.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Absolutely not. Change the name.”
“I didn’t use your name. I just call you my ex-wife.”
“No. Call me an old girlfriend or something.”
“Come on. It won’t work as well,” I say. “You’ll like it. Some of it is really funny.”
“What you think is funny is not necessarily the same as what I think’s funny.”
“See! That’s already in there.”
“I mean that thing with you and your mother and that electric can opener. That’s just not funny, Jack.”
“Would you forget about that!” I shout. How many times do I have to hear this? “Here, let me read you this part about BobWatch.”
“What’s the story about?” I hear just a bit of interest in her voice.
“Well, it starts out about Bob Greene and then it…”
“Do you get all my good lines?”
“You get them. That’s why I made you a character.” She’s complained before when I’ve stolen her funny lines and put them in stories without crediting her. I’ve tried to explain that this is what writers do. You don’t think we come up with all this stuff ourselves, do you?
“Do you mention my wanting to kill Bob Greene?”
“Yeah,” I admit a little hesitantly. “I mean, I could probably…”
“Really?” she asks. “It’s in there?”
“Yeah. Look, why don’t I come over and…”
“Not tonight,” she says. “Hey, if this story’s about Bob Greene…”
“It’s not exactly about Bob Greene.”
“Did you put in where he got suckered by that teenage girl? Remember, she calls him up and pretends to be a prostitute.”
“Oh, that’s right.” It starts coming back to me. “It was right when he jumped to the Trib.”
“And the main point was that Bob was the only one she’d talk to.”
“Yeah,” I say, “and Royko had every reporter at the Sun-Times on the phone trying to track down the story.”
“I remember Greene had to apologize. Oh, that was great. You know people forget that. I mean, a lot of people don’t even know it happened.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“You should put it in your story so they remember,” she says very seriously.
“I don’t really see where it’d fit,” I say, but then suddenly I figure it out. “You know what? That means Royko was the original BobWatch.”
See how important it is to go back over your story before you turn it in? Here I’d left out an entire section.
“You know, Ed Gold is starting to do Bob Greene himself,” I say. “Listen to this.” I reach into the pile on the floor and pick up a Neil Steinberg column that keeps floating to the top. “Here’s the headline: ‘Hometown is just a distant memory.’ I mean, is that Bob Greene or what? And the story’s about how he goes back to his hometown and it’s actually changed since he was a kid. Sound familiar? Oh, and he describes it as a little town west of Cleveland. Remember how Bob likes to pretend he came from some quaint Ohio farm town when in reality he came from a ritzy suburb of Columbus. Steinberg’s doing the same thing. He’s from the suburbs too.”
“Jack, when you live someplace, that’s where you live. When I lived in Oak Park I didn’t think of myself as living in the suburbs of Chicago. I thought of myself as living in this little town.”
“Yeah, maybe. But he’s a writer. He knows what he’s doing. It’s all so calculated, just like Greene.”
“I don’t know why you want to attack him,” she says. “He has my undying admiration.”
I’ve known this woman nearly 20 years and I’ve never heard her say this about anyone. I can’t speak.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“I’m taking notes.” I tell her the truth. “You talk so damn fast.”
“You really are pathetic,” she groans, my very own JackWatch, and hangs up without another word.
I know she’ll call back, so I sit there with the phone at my side waiting for it to ring. I mean, she’s not going to let this Neil Steinberg guy come between us, is she?
I fall asleep in the chair, and I’m awakened by a soft thump. Is that her on the porch? Has she stopped by to apologize? I get up, but nobody’s there.
I’m not really disappointed. The morning paper is lying on the porch. As I open the door, it jumps quickly into my arms, gently nuzzling my cheek.
“Hey, babes, what’s new?” I ask. I close the door and carry it lovingly back to my recliner and turn to the front page.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Paul Moch.