There is only one Easy Street in San Diego and Pierre Taheri, ace cab driver, doesn't know where it is. He knows the tourist bars and the Navy gates and the Travolator Hotel where the flight crews for National Airlines stay. Taheri knows what it's like to be thrown into his windshield at two in the morning, and once he had foreknowledge of when he was going to be robbed. But Taheri, 31, is too good a cabbie to know of a tidy residential byway in East San Diego where no tourists, no servicemen ever go.
Simply: There is little money in serving the hometown people who live on Easy Street. The city requires its 71 cab companies to provide fair and speedy service, but the cabbies in this divided industry do not — or cannot — make a living by following the city's rules.
The best cabbies earn $15,000 a year in tips and wages, working six days a week and ignoring, as often as not, the sort of call that comes now on Taheri's shortwave radio:
“Got a bell at Palm and Kettner. Anybody for Palm and Kettner?”
The call means someone at that corner has telephoned for a cab. But Taheri, cruising nearby, considers the location of the call and the time of day. Then he translates the message to mean (roughly):
“Who wants to stop at a stucco apartment and take an old woman for a $1.80 ride to the market or the doctor’s office?”
Not Pierre Taheri, who worked for seven years at the Yellow Cab Company and now employs himself as an independent driver. He started late today (after driving his Capri from Las Vegas and entertaining his girlfriend until five a.m.), and therefore he is hurried to earn the $22.50 that pays the daily lease on his Volvo cab.
Fetching up his microphone, he asks for the number of cabs waiting at Lindbergh Field. Forty-one, the dispatcher says. Taheri adjust his ski sunglasses and approaches the first decision of the day: Should he join the airport's gleaming swarm of taxis and wait for 40 minutes in hopes his passenger is a $10.60 ride to La Jolla and not a $3.10 fare to Hillcrest ... ("Still need someboday at Palm and Kettner," the dispatcher calls.") ... or should he follow his instinct?
Hesitating no longer, handsome, crafty Pierre Taheri climbs onto the freeway and heads at 65 miles an hour for the hotels of West Mission Bay Drive. It is a gamble and he knows it — likes it, too. Taheri is one of those cabbies who develop an extra sense that guides them to the best fares. Some excellent drivers quit the business before they develop this sense, but for those who remain, there are quiet rewards. he afternoon is bright, and the view of the river channel, with its tea-colored water, draws Taheri's eyes from the freeway. Having rolled the window down, he smiles; he is certain.
Bingo. The radio calls for a cab at the Dana Inn on West Mission Bay Drive. Taheri is there to collect a businessman and his two pieces of luggage — a $4.60 fare to the Town & Country. Chatting on the way, Taheri learns the man is from Chicago. He gives him excellent service, carrying the luggage and directing the man to his ultimate destination, a clothing convention. Taheri collects a tip of $1.40. "Businesses tip all right," he tells the reporter who rides with him, "unless they're from the South. This guy wasn't."
Persons sending a taxi in San Diego will be well or poorly served, depending on when they live. if the customer at Palm and Kettner had long to wait for a cab, some drivers say the fault is with the City of San Diego, which has more power over the cab business than cab companies do. The city sets the standard for fares, equipment, and for driver qualifications (which are slight). More important, the city alone determines the industry's maximum number of cabs, presently 411.
Yellow Cab held 80 percent of the city's cab permits two years ago, when it went out of business for a month, unable to pay its insurance. By the time it resumed, the city had issued 62 more permits to individual drivers who established, in effect, 62 new companies, each with one cab, competing head-on with Yellow Cab and other long-established firms.
Now some drivers want more of the so-called independent companies. They say the one-cab firms would increase competition, perhaps by trying to lower fares.
Independent divers Jerry Newport says the question really is whether a driver should be allowed to work for himself, or only for a large company. "Government has no right to shove the corporate approach down my throat," he says.
At the city, transportation analyst Jon Dunchack prepares for a general meeting on the cab issue July 12. "The industry is divided," he says. "On one hand you have the people who say deregulation, as it is called, would be an economic disaster. They predict it would ruin the industry (by sending more cars after the same amount of business). And then the other side is divided into two subcamps; one wants free entry but wants the city to retain control is setting a fixed rate of fare, while the other subcamp wants free entry and no regulation of rates, save for a ceiling on what you could charge for a ride." (The last suggestion would let taxis charge less that the going rate.)
Asked if any city allows free entry into the cab business, Dusachek named Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and London, England.
"But it's not a fair comparison," he said. "In the case of D.C., you have a population and business climate totally unlike the one we have here.... Each city is unique; no comparison really fits."
Certainly, few cities can compare with Hotel Circle, where the pedestrian is made to feel like an ant on a bowling lane. At the Town & Country, as at Lindbergh Field, too many taxis wait in lines for walk-up customers. Taheri seldom waits. He cruises with one ear tuned to the radio, and today he answers questions about his auto accidents. Both were at Yellow Cab. In 1970 he was hit one morning by a drunk and thrown into his windshield, suffering a bruised face and a blackout. The second was a six-car accordion wreck on Interstate 5. His car was hit on either end, he says — yawnng. Not much damage was done; his nose was broken and....
"Got a bell for Richmond and U," the radio interrupts.
Taheri plucks the microphone. "Six-five," he murmurs, calling his cab number. (All factors being equal, the first cab to answer the radio receives the business.)
"Okay, six-five," the dispatcher says."Richmond and University. Call me when you get there."
Taheri replaces the mic. "This is going to be a bar called The Alibi," he says, forgetting his car-wreck story. "Probably not a good fare, but it fills the time."
Indeed, the work is neighborhood bars seems suited for waiting time, and for this reason some cabbies hate it. They hate the time it takes to park and leave their cab and draw the attention of the bartender. Who points out the customer. Who pays his last drink. Then says goodbyes. And sometimes, sadly, needs help to the cab.
The key to making money, says Taheri, is to save time, all the time. But the secret of making money is also knowing how to babysit — a way to compensate for spending much time in a bar.
Blinking, walking from The Alibi with her arms stretched out, followed by Taheri, a woman in her forties finds Taheri's cab and climbs in. She and Taheri appear to know each other.
"How you been?" says he, settling into the cab.
"Better than nothing," she replies, loud enough to drown a jukebox. "They finally got me on schedule. Going to put in a plastic kneecap Monday over at Mercy."
Then she laughs, too.
They chat pleasantly as he drives her to another bar on University Avenue. The fare — $1.40 — seems little for the time.Taheri has spent, but a fare to any bar would be more welcome than the next place of business that comes from the radio — a dreaded "Mayfair." Someone has called from the
The Mayfair Market, and Taheri, only yards away, is too close to refuse. "Now that's work," he says. "Picking up groceries."
The customer, however, turns out to be a man who hefts his own brown sack. Taheri need not even turn his head to serve him; so he doesn't. And no sooner has the customer left, than Taheri snatches the microphone with greedy speed, accepting a call that takes him far from Hillcrest, and makes $5.20 in a matter of minutes.
Two hours after starting work at noon, Taheri has 17 dollars, a third of that in tips, stuffed inside the pocket of his blue checkered shirt. He folds no bills into the locked cashbox because it is daytime, and he knows by experience that robberies occur at night. The first time he was robbed, he says he felt it coming. He had picked up two women, who began to use odd words, as in some code, to converse in the back seat. A pistol was produced, and Taheri gae up 22 dollars, temporarily. For one of the robbers passed around the car, giving Taheri the chance to ram her, knock her down, and ultimately see her and her partner arrested.
At knifepoint next time, two robbers took 15 dollars from Taheri and tried to beat him unconscious behind the Safeway in North Park. Yet Taheri again insisted on having his money back. The police found both robbers a short time later, hiding in the bathroom of a house near the supermarket, chased there by a five-foot-seven-inch cabbie.
"That's an aggressive driver," says Yellow Cab vice-president Bill Hilton of his former employee. Hilton, 53, is a large, neat man who has never driven a cab and yet can appreciate the value of aggressiveness; his company takes 60 percent of the fares collected by the drivers. Of his 545 drivers, however, not many seem aggressive. Only four earn $10,000 a year, not including tips. For the other drivers, the average gross income is $5800 yearly — hardly enough, says Hilton, to attract drivers to Yellow Cab. So the company has 545 openings a year for cabbies; anyone with a driver's license, a clean police record, and $15 for a county identification card is welcome to apply, and likely to be hired.
Obviously, the company's management is bad, say critics, many of whom are independent drivers. Hilton makes no apology. He blames the high turnover on a poor marketplace, impoverished by the city's decision to allow 62 more cabs on the highway. The independent companies did not create more demand for taxis, as they were supposed to do, says Hilton; on the contrary, they chased after Yellow Cab's business to the point where everyone makes less money.
Some figures are available on the city's taxi business, but like a crazy street sign, they point no clear direction. Paid miles were down last year by nine percent, yet Yellow Cab made a profit. That profit probably came from the 21 percent fare increase in March, which, of course, is being offset by rises in the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance — all items of overhead.
"You can go round and round on figures," says Jerry Newport, 29, who holds a B.A. in statistics from the University of Michigan and drives a leased cab for a living. Disbelieving any figures, he says Yellow Cab could solve its problems if it trained the beginners to make more money. "They put people out on the street with no idea of where to go for fares," says the independent, who was trained himself at Yellow Cab.
This reporter was trained there, too; hired one day, licensed the next, then ushered into a map-lined room where the class of new drivers was introduced to the workings of a cab meter and a peanut light (the tiny bulb atop the cab's roof which lights when the fare meter is engaged). The class also learned the confidential words that cabbies can use on the radio to tell the dispatcher, "I'm being robbed."
But the emphasis in training was service; in particular, how to use the radio in serving neighborhoods where Yellow Cab, with its fleet of 300 cars, is well-equipped to cover. Over and over the class was told to keep out of the airport when the line is too long, to listen to the shortwave radio, and drift to the part of town where most calls originate. Never ignore a radio call, the class was told, even when you know it's a Mayfair.
That training occurred two years ago, however, and much has happened since then. There was a strike. Yellow Cab drivers walked out in August, 1976, and by October they were crossing their own picket line. The strikers burned some Yellow Cabs, assaulted some drivers. Meanwhile, they organized their own taxi service and petitioned the city council to end Yellow Cab's monopoly of the business. The council then created the one-cab companies, each of which, in turn, created two jobs for drivers. The owners promised changes, come of which came true. They promised good equipment, and Pierre Taheri drives a safe, solid Volvo. They promised good service, and this reporter, who drove an independent cab, heard customers rave about the fast, attentive service they'd received from independent drivers.
On the other hand, the companies have continued the strike against Yellow Cab. The talk of creating more companies is, in part, a wish to run Yellow Cab out of business, to judge by independent drivers, whose remarks sometimes are viscous.
Newport, the independent cabbie, said "a lot of plain hatred" is in the air. More to the point, his name is on a list of 136 persons who want city licenses to operate their own company, in competition with Yellow Cab. The independents and Yellow Cab are facing off in an attitude of Little Guy versus Big Business — a comparison that does not always hold. The Little Guy, in this case, is in a better position to exploit his drivers than Yellow Cab is, because he does not have to pay them for vacations or contribute to their health insurance, life insurance, or workman's compensation. Pierre Taheri receives no benefits at all, leasing from the Monogram Cab Company, whose owner, Richard Thompson, worked for Yellow Cab.
Out of this confrontation, though, ideas begin to emerge. Says Newport: "Some people look at me and they know I was involved in the strike, and they think I want Yellow Cab knocked out. But I don't. I think Yellow Cab serves a useful purpose. Yellow Cab is the only company that can cover the whole city. I think that the Co-Op (an association of 37 independent companies) should concentrate on the Hillcrest-East San Diego area. The key is organization. If your business is good, you can pick up a lot of fast rides and make good money. We can do that if Yellow Cab takes the rest of the city. Yellow Cab is a kind of umbrella under which everyone else can work."
If the independents develop business in certain neighborhoods — as La Jolla Cab and Radio Cab have successfully done — and give the rest of the city's business to Yellow Cab, some balance might be reached. Cabs that work the three top areas — the airport, Mission Valley, and the Navy gates — might pay a special fee (the airport charges one already), and teh revenue might even subsidize the neighborhood business.
Taheri's best fare of the afternoon — $6.70 from Horton Plaza to Mission Beach — came from an elderly woman who marveled at his taxi and asked question after question about the Co-Op cabs.
This reporter's best fare began in a bar near Easy Street, in East San Diego. Two women, who appeared to be in their fifties, took place in the back seat. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.
"Do you know," one said to the driver, "that we have cars, each one of us, back there, parked?"
"Then why aren't you driving?" the cabbie said.
"Because we've been drinking!" they said together.
"It's safe that way," the cabbie replied, feeling more sober than ever.