I arrive at the garage and the owner is outside. It's odd, because the owner is almost never outside, prefering to lord over his domain from behind his desk in the back of the office like the pope or Jabba the Hut from "Star Wars." Seeing him outside is like seeing Count Dracula in daylight.
Something is up.
One of the mechanics is laying flat his back underneath the dashboard, his legs splayed out the driver's side door. The owner is yelling something incomprehensible, waving his arms and gesticulating wildly. He sees me and glowers, giving me a look that says, "You. You did this." I shrug, not having the faintest clue what's going on.
One of the other drivers standing around waiting to begin his shift tells me another driver tried to disable the odometer by pulling a fuse, hoping to hide from the boss excess mileage from running unbooked flat rates, fares not run off the meter (there are some legitimate flat rates, such as from some hotels to the airport). To guard against a driver running private flat rates, drivers have to turn in our mileage along with our meter tally at the end of each shift. The miles driven, in general, should be about half the meter's total for the shift. If not, we better have a good explanation why not or the boss will penalize us $2 per mile. But in pulling the fuse, this knucklehead also broke the speedometer and air conditioner, leading to the boss's current overheated condition. So now the mechanic has been ordered to seal every fuse box against tampering. Some guys have tried to disable the odometer by fishing a paper clip or wire through the dashboard to jam the odometer's wheels.
Such a ruse, however, would only work with drivers who, like me, work "on the waybill" (See "Lucky Numbers" post, Mar. 23, 2009), splitting the fares with company. Most cabbies lease their cars (at a rate of about $700 per week or $85 per shift). The company earns its money up front, and could care less about your mileage because you're paying for the gas.
But there are other ways to scam the system. The most obvious, of course, is to cheat customers, taking some unsuspecting tourist a roundabout route instead of a more direct route. Cynical fares probably assume we do this anyway, which is why a lot of people get in my cab and start barking directions at me. Others might consult online sites such as http://www.taxifarefinder.com/ to get a ballpark estimate of what a fare should be. In our defense, the best route in Boston can be a very subjective matter. By "best" do you mean shortest, or fastest? This can also vary greatly depending on the time of day and the traffic. A lot of drivers end up taking roundabout routes in order to avoid Boston's notorious traffic jams. Myself? My objective is to take as many fares as I can during a particular shift. The $1 or $2 gained in cheating a fare is time and money lost carrying another fare. Besides, why risk getting fired or, worse, having your hack license suspended?
Another way to skieve the system is to pick up fares outside of your area. Say you catch a fare from Boston to Cambridge. On the way back, you see a couple of kids with their arms outreached hailing you. Its dark, cold, raining and there's not a soul in sight. So you decide to give the kids a break and pull over. That's when the flashing blue lights of a city cop fill your rear windshield. Cities and towns in the state are very territorial when it comes to protecting their taxi business. In Boston, the city for years has been trying to crack down on "gypsy cabs", unlicensed taxis or out-of-town cabs picking up fares. Those caught face a ticket and a $500 fine (about 2 nights work). Granted, it doesn't make much sense in an era of declining oil and soaring gasoline prices to have bunches of cabs driving empty past customers, but that's the way it is.
Cheating seems to be a compulsion for some drivers. Some guys will call in on a stand, putting them on a queue for any call-in jobs in the area, then drive around looking for street hails, essentially two-timing the guys patiently waiting their turn on the stand. These guys will drive to the airport, collect the $5.25 tunnel toll from the customer for the return trip, then sneak around the back way home over the Tobin Bridge to pocket the $1.25 difference in tolls (the state recently caught on to this one, fining drivers $50 if they're caught avoiding the Sumner Tunnel). Or at the end of a shift they'll short-fill the tank for the next driver, leaving it a quarter of half-gallon shy of full. I can only hope that bad karma and/or bad luck will follow these guys to the end of their days--at least, their days as a cab driver.
But let's face it. Some people deserve to be hosed. A fellow driver at the company hit a pothole one day and blew a tire. The car jerked to the side and ran into a guardrail or barrier, causing perhaps $2500 damage. The boss is insured, the loss is covered. But he tells the driver he has to cover the deductible--something like $1500. This driver's got four kids and an ailing wife and is so poor he can't even afford a car and has to ride a bike to work. But he says nothing, and over the next couple months has the $1500 taken out in increments from his pay. I'm outraged for the guy. It wasn't his fault. Things like this happen. I ask him why he didn't protest more or try to challenge it. He says not to worry. The 2-to-1 ratio of fares-to-mileage is skewed a bit to the driver's advantage, he explained. Each shift, he'd pocket one or maybe two flat rates for himself. By the end of four months, the boss paid for the deductible three times over.