Thursday, January 3, 2008

Into the Night

The lonely life of a tax cab driver

By Johann Diedrick

On a dreary December night in West Philadelphia, Ronald Blount is driving up and down the city looking to break even. It’s another uneventful weekday for the native Philadelphian, but he is not concerned about the slow activity.
“It’s usually like this on Wednesday,” he remarks. “On the weekends it can be more active.”
He begins his night already $14 in the hole.
“I’ll probably put in another $20 before the night is over.”
His nightly activities require a sizable buy-in before he starts seeing any money he can call profit. But as a cab driver in Philadelphia, you have to invest more than just time to make a night successful.
Before beginning the night, a taxi driver must rent his car from one of a number of cab fleet companies, provide the gas for the night, and pay for whatever other expenses that may arise.
“You have the gas to fill the cab for the night, renting the cab, and the paper and ink for receipts,” he explains.
“And every parking ticket,” he adds.

Most taxi drivers don’t own their own cars, and even less own the medallions­­­­—the certificate that signifies a vehicle is allowed to be used for commercial purposes—that allow them to go out in the first place.
Blount knows first hand that being a taxi driver can be risky business. He points to the left corner of his dashboard.
Explaining the situation, “This car I got now has a ‘check engine’ light on, so I’m not even sure if I’ll make it through the night.”
When asked if his car has broken down before, Blount is quick to respond.
“Many a cold nights,” Blount says. “The dispatchers usually say wait for the tow truck to come, but that’s a lot of lost time. What most cab drivers do is call in for a tow truck and try to find a way home. The next day there’s a usually a big argument with your renters if you owe them for the whole shift.”
By around 8:30 p.m. he has earned $60 from five different passengers. Most cab drivers try to average around $100 a night. This will hopefully cover all the previous expenditures and leave Blount with a decent amount of income after a long night.
“I started driving tonight at around 5:30 and I’ll probably be out for 12 hours.”
Taxi drivers know the odds are against them. There are more drivers than available jobs on the streets, and without proper planning a ride can turn into a worthless endeavor.
“Most shifts have their rush hour, at six in the morning and six in the evening,” he says. “So what most drivers try to do is come straight out and make their money during rush hour for their lease, gas, and expenses. And when it slows down, that’s when they try to make money for themselves.”
Ronald goes on.
“If you miss the rush hour, there’s really no reason to come out. So you hope you can make the $60 for your rent, $35 for your gas, and spend the rest of your night making your own cash.”
A light snow begins to fall, which for Blount is a sign of good things to come.
“From June until November the weather is nice,” he explains while peering out the window. White spots start collecting on his windshield.
“Around November is when the weather starts breaking. When it’s colder people rather get home as fast as possible.”

25 Years Behind the Wheel
For 25 years of his life, Blount, 42, has been involved in the taxi industry exclusively in Philadelphia.
“Since 1998, the last 10 years I’ve been driving part time,” he explains. Blount rides about eight times a month, or twice a week, to make extra cash and keep his hand on the pulse of the industry. With more taxi drivers out in the evening than during the day, he drives mostly at night and spends much of his time talking with drivers to hear about their current problems.
For the past three years, he has been spending most of his time as the founder and leader of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a loosely knit labor organization hoping to mediate peaceful relations between the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the regulatory body that oversees all of the 1,600 licensed taxi cabs in the city, and the drivers that make up one of Philadelphia’s biggest transportation bodies. He tries to reconcile their sometimes-opposing views as democratically as possible.
“We go out and survey, I don’t just go [to the PPA] and make up some stuff. I talk to the drivers and see how they feel about [the current situation].”

For the drivers in Philadelphia, their top concerns at the moment are a looming meter increase and ways to rectify faulty Global Positoning Systems and pay-by-credit card systems that drivers feel are hurting, not helping, their jobs.
Now, another meter increase demands more action from Blount, as the drivers themselves are concerned how the change will affect the money they make.
“Right now drivers are just getting used to the recent increase that happened about a year ago and we just feel like it’s too soon,” Blount explains. “Drivers are only going to be making about 40% of that increase. The other 60% is going to go to the medallion owner. Other times when the PPA raises the meter, they raise the fines and fees and drivers are really concerned about that.”
Back on the road, Blount is trying to find work. Blount drives into Center City around 2:00 a.m., but things are not looking good.
A dispatcher’s static voice comes over the radio. Every so often a job will be broadcasted over the radio.
“He said there are four jobs. 200 cabs and four jobs,” he jokes. “What they are supposed to do is put the jobs in the GPS system, but they don’t even use it. The PPA charges $18 a month to the medallion owner, but they know the systems don’t work.”
Riding down Broad Street, Blount points out a Dunkin’ Donuts near the intersection of Pine and Broad Street, with three taxis in the parking lot.
“That’s a usual hang out spot for cab drivers. Usually after 9:00 p.m. it’s full of drivers waiting around.”
Blount hopes the recent addition of a GPS system in his car will assist him in his mission. He turns around and enters Walnut Street.
“Look at the [GPS] screen,” he says “Half the time a red light is on, which means you’re not on the radar. When you’re around the city’s tall buildings, that’s when it mostly happens.”
Blount picks up his handheld radio and calls the dispatcher and says his cab number.
The dispatcher responds to confirm.
“Roger,” Blount replies. “I’m just curious if you can see this cab on the GPS right now.”
After close to a minute, there is still no response.
“Not able to find you,” the dispatcher reports.
“When someone calls for a cab,” Blount confesses, “the GPS systems are not picking up the closet cabs because the system isn’t working.”

Another night, another fare
“How you doin’ angel?”
A mid-20s Asian woman has just entered Blount’s taxi on 26th street near Ben Franklin Parkway. On this night, work is coming in slow but steady. She sits down in the back seat of the cab, and returns Blount’s welcome with a polite smile.
“Where you going?” Blount asks, almost forgetting to start his meter.
“6th and Race” she responds.
Blount nods and begins to drive, taking a shortcut that cuts through Chinatown. The drive is quiet and uneventful.
“That’s my favorite restaurant in this area,” he says to break the silence.
He points to a green awning outside on the left that reads Shaio Can Kung.
“They got the best food in Chinatown”
The cab arrives in Olde City. The cobblestone streets are home to colonial residences built with red brick. Winter is here and the trees are bare.
“Drop me off across the light please,” the passenger directs.
Blount slows the car past a stop sign in front of her home. The woman exits the cab, but not before completing the transaction.
“Okay angel,” he replies. “That’s six dollars.”
The fare is actually $6.30 but Blount usually rounds down for his passengers. She hands Blount $9 and exits the cab as quickly as she entered.
Blount heads to 30th Street Station, the heart of mass transportation in Philadelphia. The tracks leading out of the building are steel arteries pumping the lifeblood that sustains the city. Each train that arrives delivers fresh patrons into the city, while each train departing transports the daily commuters back to the outside.
“Out by the train station you can always guarantee work,” Blount says. “Sometimes [the wait] is long, sometimes it's short. You might have to wait awhile but you can always get a guaranteed fare.”
Of all the spots in the city cab drives go to get work, 30th Street station is the most profitable. Trains come frequently and disembark enough passengers to keep a steady flow of people for the drivers to keep busy.
“We’ll sit here and wait about 15 to 20 minutes,” Blount said with much certainty. “The train is just moving in so it’s going to move pretty fast.”
On a slow night, taxi drivers pull around to the back of 30th Street Station. Waiting on the northern side of the building, they know that an assured fare will come with minimal effort. The sheer amount of cars packed into this locking dock looks chaotic unless you know a few of the unwritten rules.
“See the trick is to remember the cab number in front of you,” Blount explains. He pointed to the top right corner on the back of the car in front, right above the trunk.
“The number for the car ahead is P-1529. That way I know to follow him as the line moves up.”
This is one of a few conventions that governs how the drivers interact with each other. It’s good practice not to tail other drivers or speed up to steal a fare. Also, loads of cabs can flood a street, leaving many drivers out to dry with no passengers to pick up.
Drivers like to spread out as much as possible over the city to maximize the amount of fares they can get in one session. But tonight, even these tricks cannot help some of the problems facing these drivers. Most cab drivers are dealing with far bigger problems than finding work.
Blount parks his car on the left side of the lot, but makes sure to keep his the engine running.
“When I come here I usually try to talk to all the drivers I can,” Blount explained. “Different drivers will tell me different problems about what’s going on what happened to them, how the PPA treated them, how a customer treated them. This is where I get most of my information.”
Blount leaves his car and proceeds to walk down the line of cabs. He walks with a slow, casual gait, seemingly at ease within his surroundings. He knocks on each driver’s window when he passes by.
“Hey man how are you doing?” he asks.
In a thick African accident, the driver bursts into a tirade about what he feels are the wrongdoings the Philadelphia Parking Authority. He’s complaining about undeserved fines they’re receiving from the PPA for violating rules against dropping off passengers in front of hotels.
Blount tried to calm the driver down. He offers a few long-term plans the Taxi Workers Alliance are working on to enact change.
“We’ve been talking to these lawyers and we have a lot of positions we can raise in the courts. We’re thinking about having another major action in January. There’s a big convention coming to town and we might strike on that.”
Blount gives the driver a smile and extended his hand into window for a handshake.
“All right, but hang in there okay?” Blount says.
The driver smiles back and returns the gesture.
“All right, we will man. Thanks a lot.”
Blount runs back to his car in order to move it forward. The line must keep moving, and the drivers are getting anxious to get back out on the road. Quickly, Blount found one more acquaintance to chat with before hitting the road.
“Hey, how’s it going? You making money out here?”
The driver, dressed in a black jacket and matching snowcap laughs with a hint of despondency and shakes his head accordingly.
“Making money?” he repeats, as if the question was absurd.
The driver looks out of his window, then back at Blount, with eyes no longer to the road ahead.
“There is no money.”

1 comment:

Maurice Stewart said...

You go Johann,

I enjoyed reading this "mini novel".
For the first time I got an insight into the reality of the taxi business, and I think the author could get me to purchase this story; but he needs to finish it.
Brilliant work.