Thursday, February 3, 2011

My 15 Minutes of Fame

A reporter from a local radio station called. His name was Adam. He was doing an expose on the Boston cab industry and wanted some background information. Would I care to help?

"How come I can never find a cab when I get out of a club at 2:30 in the morning?"

I don't know. Probably because the buses and subways are closed and everybody is looking for a cab at that time.

"Uh huh. Do you ever refuse to take credit cards? Or do you lie and tell someone the machine is broken?"

No. I don't lie. The machines are finicky. Some drivers complain about the six percent fee taken out for use of the machines, but one reason the city hiked the fares three years ago was to offset the income loss to drivers by use of the machines.

"I see... Do you ever refuse to pick up people or go to certain neighborhoods?"

No. Obnoxious people are part of the job, but I've never felt in personal danger. I just try to be cautious and aware.

"Mmmm... Well, how would you like to be on the radio?" Adam then asked. The telephone interview was apparently just a test to make sure I was radioworthy. Adam asked to ride with me to get a sense of what the job is like.

Sure. Why not? This could be my proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

The following week I picked Adam up at his office in the cab. He was a young, earnest-looking guy. He cradled a tape recorder and two bulky foam microphones as he fumbled into the passenger seat. After saying hello he stuck one of the things in my face just as I was to pulling into traffic.

"I just need to get a sound check."

He asked me how much money I made that night. It was a question I trained myself to never answer truthfully, either not to entice a potential robber or just because it's really no one else's business. But I told him, honestly, that I only had a couple of small fares. Because it takes me $100 just to to pay off the night's lease on the cab. Technically, I started in the hole. I had earned nothing.

"Maybe I'll change your luck."

Probably not. The weather forecast was calling for another blizzard to sweep through the area. Airlines cancelled flights into Logan. The city declared a snow emergency. Events were being cancelled or postponed. Most people simply hunkered down for the night. But I had been wrong before, and in fact I had given up trying to predict how any particular night would go. Other than big events like New Year's Eve, Halloween and college graduation weekends, it always a crapshoot at guessing when you're going to have a big night.

Adam then asked if I have a regular route I follow, or an area I play.

No, not really. My basic philosophy has been to keep moving. I turned down Boyston Street near Copley, a good area to catch street hails around rush hour. I picked up a couple of more short fares, one going to the South End, the other downtown.

The rides were quiet. Both the passengers were content to read their emails or text on their smartphones. But Adam looked a off, as if he was expecting me to fill the silence with some crazy cabbie rant. Later, he asked, "Don't you like to talk to people?"

Sure I do. But I'm not one of those cabbies who goes on and on just to hear the sound of their own voice. That's not me. If passengers want to talk, I'll talk. If not, I shut up. I'm just trying to earn a decent tip.

Adam then asked about tipping.

Most passengers tip, but the amount often has little relation to their ability to pay. Some of the most generous tips are from people who seem to have little. By the same token, there are a lot of very wealthy skinflints in Boston. Another factor is that Boston is an international city. There are a lot of visitors from cultures where there is no tradition on tipping. In these cases, It's not my job to educate or argue with them.

All this chatting distracted me. I found myself driving aimlessly. Other cabs had cut in front of me to pick up fares I should have stopped for. I was getting frustrated.

"What about the airport?" Adam asked. "You must get a lot of good fares from there."

Actually, I hardly ever go to the airport, other than to drop off fares from the city. The taxi pool at Logan is a black hole, a place where hundreds of cabs cram themselves into a parking lot and become trapped for hours on end. By the time you get out of there you're likely only to get some passenger going to a downtown hotels. It's not worth it.


To prove it, I dialed up the Massport taxi pool line on my cellphone (617-561-1690). The line is a recorded message that gives the number of cabs and approximate wait time in the pool. Typically, there are around 250 cabs in the pool and wait times are anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours. This time, for the first time ever, the recording said, "There are currently zero cabs in the pool... Come on down!"

I guess we're going to the airport.

"Great! We're going to the airport," Adam said, genuinely excited.

The reason there might be zero cabs in the pool is that, with the approaching snow, there are zero airplanes coming or going from Logan.

"You're a glass half-empty kind of guy, aren't you?" Adam said.

Guess so.

By the time we got to the taxi pool lot located on the airport perimeter, there were more than a hundred cabs filling the lanes in the lot. But things were moving, so maybe it would work out.

"Wow," Adam said, looking over the sea of taxis. "What if you have to go to the bathroom?"

I pointed to a trailer in the corner of the lot, where's there's a restroom, payphone, and a couple of vending machines.

He turned off the tape recorder to save on battery life. We sat in the dark. "Boy this is really dull," he said. "I can see why you avoid it." We chat a bit. He asked about my background. I told him I worked for years as a newspaper reporter and editor, but quit when I saw there was no future in it.

"Yeah," Adam said. "My parents are proud of me because they think I have this big-time job. But honestly, I'm barely making ends meet."

That's journalism.

After about 20 minutes--a short time for the airport pool--we were freed, sent to Terminal B. A young woman got in. She started immediately.

"I was sooo lucky," she said. "My original flight from Chicago was cancelled, but they got me a seat on this flight..."

Where you going?

"Oh, to Malden Center, please. You know, the weather doesn't seem so bad here. Hey, who's this guy in the front seat?"

I introduced her to Adam, who explained what he was doing. He then interviewed her to see what she thought taxis in Boston. How do they compare to other cities? Are they too expensive? Has she had any bad experiences in Boston? Been ripped off?

Adam then went into his whole theory of how to improve the taxi industry. He'd do away with the patchwork of municipally organized taxi authorities and form a regional authority that would allow companies to pick up in towns all around Boston. This would cut down on the number of empty return rides and free up cabs for high-demand times like rush hour, big conventions or New Year's Eve. Made sense to me, although I'm sure someone would object to it.

I dropped off the Malden fare, and we headed back to Boston (empty, of course). The snow had started to fall. The streets were largely empty. We cruised the North End, which at 7 pm was nearly deserted. You could have a table at any restaurant you wanted. We drove past Quincy Market--dead--then over to Park Street Station--also dead. By then, the snow was really coming down. Adam decided he had had enough. The battery on his recorder was gone. He was hungry.

"You can drop me off right here."

No problem.

He got out. He leaned through the open door and thanked me, apologizing if he interferred in any way.

"Will you be able to make it up?"

Sure, I say. Someone always needs a cab.