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....