Back in college, my first student job was driving the Jitney, which was like a free taxi for undergrads. It was a Chevy Astro van. My first night on the job, I got pulled over for speeding. I couldn’t find my wallet because I put it on the floor and it slid to the back of the van (on account of all the speeding). Later on, I used the Jitney to take friends to buy beer using their fake IDs. This was particularly nerve-wracking when I pulled up to the dorm to find it surrounded by cops, a situation precipitated by a fellow student’s decision to steal the pizza guy’s car and abandon it right outside the front door. I drove the beer-filled van around back to the service entrance. Somehow I never got fired from that job, but neither did I get rehired the next semester. Thus ended my short, colorful career as a cab driver.
I’ve since done a one-night stint as an Uber driver, and that experience exposed me to a lot of anti-taxi sentiment from the Uber crowd. Everyone has taxi horror stories, but guess what, people? The taxi drivers have their stories, too. Passengers are not always models of decorum, either. And I know this from talking to my father, who drives a cab on the North Shore.
He drives the night shift, 6 pm to 6 am, and the wee hours tend to generate a lot of action. If you need to go to Lynn at 3 am, generally it’s not to return library books or volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. No, at 3 am you’re up to something. “I had one guy come running out of the house with this huge guy chasing him,” my father told me. “He jumped in and said, ‘Lock the doors! Go, go go!’ Later on he tried to sell me a watch, so maybe he stole it from the guy who was chasing him. I didn’t ask.” Not asking: good cabbie policy.
In the middle of the night, passengers tend to be not so sober. Hey, I’ve been there. But I’ve never wet myself in a cab, and dealing with that scenario is apparently a common occupational hazard for cabbies—you know, if a cab kind of smells like urine, there’s probably a reason. “One girl passed out and pissed herself,” he says. “I got to her house and I had to call the cops, because I needed to get her out of the car but we’re not allowed to touch anyone.” Adding insult to asparagus pee, unconscious people aren’t great tippers.
Ah, the fare-stiffers. Driving a cab requires having some faith in humanity, faith that isn’t always rewarded. Sometimes, though, even the lowlifes redeem themselves. “I had one guy who stiffed me on a fare, and then the next week I picked him up again. The second time, he went to Rhode Island and tipped me $100. He honestly didn’t realize he didn’t have the money the first time.” For my part, I think I’d lock the doors and lay rubber the moment I saw a known fare-stiffer approaching the car, but I have a low opinion of mankind. And what do I know? I was an Uber driver, where the money is all in the cloud. I think I got paid in Dogecoins.
Of course, driving a cab also introduces you to some interesting, friendly weirdos, like the kid who’d just skateboarded to Danvers from Wells, Maine. But learning people’s stories requires interaction, and conversation is not always forthcoming. Nathan for You did a segment where taxi passengers could push a button to either opt in or out on conversation with the driver. My dad thought that was pretty funny, if largely unnecessary. “You can tell right off the bat if people want to talk or not,” he says. “If they’re talkers, I’ll talk. If they’re not, I shut up.” Because it’s better to ride in silence than to force awkward banter, especially when it comes to the dumbest recurring question that passengers dredge up for drivers. If this were BuzzFeed, this story would be titled “The ONE question NEVER to ask a CAB DRIVER!!!”
And that question is: “So, have you always been a cab driver?” That shows some failure of imagination, doesn’t it? As if the Crown Vic is a cocoon and the driver hatched fully formed behind the steering wheel.
He has some other advice for passenger etiquette, too. Don’t call two companies and take whichever cab gets there first. Don’t be a line-jumper—that is, getting out just short of the city limits and then walking the rest of the way so you don’t have to pay full fare. Don’t take forever to come out. Don’t puke. But there is a macro rule that supersedes all others, whether you barf or take 15 minutes to drag yourself out of Tipsy McStagger’s at last call. “All annoyances are forgiven,” he says, “with a decent tip.”