In the first two installments of our new anonymous interview feature The Real Deal, we spoke with a Philadelphia police officer and a SEPTA driver. In this latest edition, a 43-year-old cab driver with Quaker City Cab tells us what it’s like being behind the wheel in Philadelphia seven days a week.
Are you driving your cab right now as I am speaking to you on your cell phone?
I’m not. I just got home, but I would have pulled over. Nothing pisses me off more than these freaking guys talking like 14-year-old girls. Who the fuck are you talking to? It’s fucking ridiculous.
I just took a cab from the airport on Saturday, and my driver was talking the whole time on his earpiece. I don’t know if he’s talking to me or the phone. Seriously? It’s just ignorant. That’s why Uber is so popular. These people have no respect for their work or customers. I wish the PPA would crack down a little more on that nonsense.
Why are you driving a cab for a living?
I’m a recovering addict, and I got in trouble. I got clean in 2006, but I have a felony for a gun and selling drugs.
Doesn’t the PPA have background checks?
Yes, they are very stringent with the background checks. You’ll never get a job driving a cab in Philly if you are a sex offender. But they’ll still consider you depending on the crime and after a certain amount of time has passed. I wasn’t a thug out there robbing people.
How did you become a cab driver?
There is a weeklong class to get licensed. Out of the 60 people in my class, probably 30 passed the test. I was not only the only guy from Philly in the class, I was also the only guy from America. Most couldn’t speak a bit of English.
They try to help them out as much as they can. These people are trying to make a better life. But if you can’t speak English, it’s not going to happen.
What’s the best part of the job?
I truly love my job. I really love what I do. And I love the city. My favorite part is working the airport and bringing tourists in. They’ll tell me what hotel they’re staying in, and I give them some tips. They want to know is it safe to walk around. Sure, I tell them. Even if you’re a single woman. I wouldn’t walk around at 3 a.m. by yourself, but overall, it’s a very safe city.
Let’s talk about the economics of it.
You have to work seven days a week. You have to work twelve hours a day. Just to crack the nut, you’re working six hours. After about six hours, you get to keep the rest.
In August, when it’s slow, I can work a 12-hour shift and come home with $20, which is brutal. But ballpark, I make about nine to 11 dollars an hour when it’s pretty busy. Of course, I have to pay taxes on that.
I do pretty good, because people call me. He speaks English and knows where he’s going. So they call me. They’d rather go to the airport with me, or if they’re going out of town or something.
I clean my cab every day. I take a shower every day, which most guys don’t do. I’m an exception to the rule. But is it legal to tell a man to take a shower? I don’t even know.
What are you paying the cab company for the use of the vehicle?
It’s usually $70. Me, I pay $100, but I get to take the car home with me. I have it 24/7. And then you probably pay $50 in gas.
So most guys have to make $120 before you make anything for yourself. On a Tuesday afternoon, that’s hard to do. We make up for it on the weekends when it’s really busy.
It’s a hard life. You either have to enjoy it or have no other options. A lot of these guys come over here and are starting out new lives. If you don’t have a family that owns a 7-Eleven, you are going to drive a taxi.
And hope that you one day make enough money to own your own.
Yeah. But it’s $500,000 for a medallion in Philadelphia. In the mid-’90s, they were like $50,000. I don’t know how they went up so much.
When the cabs started, they were privately owned by the drivers. And now those medallions are still owned by drivers who retired long ago. The guy who owns the medallion on my cab retired in the ’70s.
He gets a cut of the money, and then the shop is taking the rest, because they own the actual vehicle. And they cover maintenance, so if I blow the motor, they fix it.
They do keep up with the vehicles. With Quaker City, if you don’t bring your cab in every two weeks, they’ll shut your meter off. They can do that remotely.
OK, so if the dome light is on, that means you’re available, right?
Well, usually. The problem is, we also do radio work. If someone calls and orders a cab, I am rushing to the job but my dome light is still on. People are yelling at me when I am at a light, “You’re not picking me up because I’m black?” And I’m like, “No, it’s because I’m on my way to a fare.”
But wait. Why don’t you just shut it off?
There is literally no way to turn it off from inside the vehicle until I get a fare and press the fare button.
You mentioned the idea of racially profiling potential fares. Do you ever do that?
Absolutely not. I’ll take anyone wherever. I’m not a racist. I mean, look, I work in Philly. I’ve never been robbed. I’ve had people jump out and run, and they were white.
A lot of the foreign guys are scared of North and West Philly. I’ll pick everybody up anywhere, but maybe that’s because I haven’t had a gun stuck in my face.
Well, one time a female got in my cab with an infant in her arms, and she said, “If that meter goes over $10, I’m going to cut you with a razor.” I pulled over and told her to get the fuck out.
You may not racially profile, but you certainly have some idea of whether a person looks threatening or not to you.
If someone is wearing a hood, I’m not pulling over. And I can get in trouble for that. If someone is waving me down and I don’t pick him up and a PPA inspector sees it, I get a fine. But if I can’t see your face, you’re not getting in.
A lot of these foreign guys won’t pick up people flagging in bad neighborhoods. I don’t think they have the language skills to talk themselves out of dangerous situations.
If I have a funny feeling, I can talk myself out of it. I had one guy jump in and look at me and say, “Hey, you scared?” And I fucking floored it. Floored it. I tore around the corner and then looked at him and said, “No, are you?”
But other than the crazy woman with the baby and the razor, you’ve never had a real problem?
Well, actually, I did get beat up once. By a woman. I was picking up a radio call to a hospital. I picked up this woman, and she starts wailing on me with her shoe from the back seat and punching me.
After the cops dragged her out of the car, I find out that she’s coming from the crisis unit and that she was trying to commit herself and they refused her. I should have sued those pricks. The hospital didn’t bother to tell anyone.
You have a panic button?
Yes, right next to the turn signal. They come right to the car with GPS. The dispatcher calls my number and as soon as I didn’t respond, the cops were right there. But this was in Delco. Philly might have taken a little longer.
Are you mostly working during the day or night?
Mostly overnights. The bar shift — 2 a.m. is kind of fun. You’re begging, praying that no one throws up in your car, because you have to clean that shit up. It’s only happened twice. It’s pretty nasty. It’s also fun when they pass out and you can’t wake them up.
I’m guessing more than a few people have had sex back there, too.
Stuff like that happens a lot. It’s a lot more fun when it’s two girls. The best thing I’ve ever heard from the back seat is, “Would you get your finger out of my twat? The driver is right there.” They were college chicks, and they said they were on ecstasy.
Did you get a good tip?
The job really isn’t about tipping. Tips don’t matter that much to me. If the meter says $8 or $9, if they tip you or not, the $8 or $9 is still going in my pocket.
What’s the average tip?
I would say 20 percent. Depends on the neighborhood. In West Philly, you don’t get tipped at all. But these are poor people, women afraid to walk at night. I really don’t expect a tip. It’s fine.
Anyone particularly generous?
I had a guy give me $100 just for speaking English. Dude gets in, he’s an Italian guy. He asks me to take him to an airport hotel. He was going to meet hookers, I think. He had all kinds of money. Maybe he was a pimp.
Anyway, he paid me $25 on the meter and gave me an extra $100 for speaking English, he said. I said, “You want my number?” And he said, “No, I’m good.” And then he was gone.
There are always people leaving drugs in the car. Three weeks ago, somebody left $100 worth of cocaine in the back seat. People leave money, needles. People act like it’s a frigging toilet sometimes. I throw the drugs down the sewer.
I have been offered drugs and sex for a fare. Blow jobs. Especially in West Philly. But cab drivers have been busted in prostitution stings. Drivers often aren’t the most beautiful people in the world, so they have to pay for it or exchange for a ride. Me, I haven’t had any offers hotter than my girlfriend.
Years after the credit card machines debuted in Philly cabs, drivers are still giving me crap about it. Routinely. What gives?
You have to wait up to two weeks to get the money, and 10 percent comes out. But listen, I’m not living day-to-day. I have a bank account. I can wait two weeks.
I have people getting into my cab asking if it’s OK if they use a card or apologizing for having to use one. But I don’t mind, I tell them.
Of course, other drivers are tired, irritated, aggravated, and underpaid. I’m not burned out to that point, I guess.
What’s your furthest trip been?
Guy got in the car all drunk and said he wanted to go see his girlfriend in Bloomsburg. I had never heard of it. I put it in my GPS and thought holy fuck that’s a long ride, and I was at the end of my shift. I almost fell asleep on the way home. $300 for six hours of driving. I can’t complain about $50 an hour.
And then a lot of drunk people want to go to A.C. $150 plus tolls. Newark airport: $275.
What’s worse: Cars, buses, pedestrians, bikes or other cab drivers?
Bikes. They’re going fast, they don’t stop for red lights, and a lot of times at night they’re drunk and just come flying. If I hit another car, I am likely not to kill somebody. If I hit a dude on a bike, I have to live with his death the rest of my life.
I also really worry about kids running from in between cars in urban neighborhoods. That scares the hell out of me. But bikes are the biggest menace by far. Cab drivers drive like jerk-offs, but we have good skills. We don’t crash too often.
Who is the worst passenger?
One that smells. In the summertime, you get a big woman wearing a skirt, and it burns the frigging hairs in your nose, it smells so bad. I’m not kidding, man. It’s absolutely freaking awful.
Everybody hates the PPA. Why do you?
Because they send you a freaking ticket in the mail, and you can’t prove you weren’t parked there. But you can’t beat them. Who is going to take off from work to beat a $30 or $40 ticket?
Oh, so you hate the PPA for the same reasons as everyone else.
Oh, you mean like as a cab. That’s a whole different division of the PPA that deals with cabs. I don’t like them either.
If I am by myself in the middle of nowhere smoking a cigarette in my cab and they see me, that’s a ticket. Tail light out? Ticket. Cigarette ashes. These are all punishable by fines of $100 or more. If you’re wearing a hoodie, shorts. You’re not allowed to wear flip-flops or sandals. They get a lot of guys from India on that one. Those guys live in their sandals.
A lot of times, they check every single cab at 30th Street standing in line. Before the Phillies game lets out, they sometimes check every single car. Oh, you have cigarette ashes on the floor. You are wearing the wrong kind of shirt. They can pull you over for a cab that’s dirty on the outside.
What’s the etiquette with the cab lines? Like the one outside my office, should I just let those guys get the big airport jobs they are hoping for and just flag a cab down instead?
If you get in that cab, they have to take you even if it’s a $5 trip, although many don’t. I’ll be six cabs deep at Sugarhouse and I’ll get the guy walking out because the other drivers won’t take him to Port Richmond or they won’t take his credit card. A lot of drivers there will pretend to be sleeping if you’re black. Cab drivers profile just as much as cops, if not more.
Which do you hate more: PPA or Uber?
Uber. There are 1,600 cabs on the street and at $500,000 in value per medallion, that’s $800 million in mostly private money invested in these cabs.
With Uber, all they have to do is have a car. No medallion. I don’t think it’s fair. And with the regular Uber, we charge less than them. These guys can charge you $50 to the airport without a medallion.
And now this UberX. So any schmo can get in a Honda Civic and take my jobs? In order for UberX to work, they’re going to have to overhaul the entire taxi system. That $800,000,000 in investment, where’s that going to go? A lot of these older guys, that’s their retirement.
But at least with standard Uber, you’re getting a limo driver.
It’s not a limo. A limo is a thing with a lot of frigging doors. A Chrysler 300 is a cab without a medallion — not a limo.
But with Uber, you have to buy your own car. Of course, you can buy that car from Uber, which is why they’re an $18 billion company. But these guys can’t just keep buying new cars, and they take a serious beating.
And now they pull this shit with UberX. I hate them. Just flouting the law. I really don’t like the standard Uber, but as much as we don’t like it, we accept it. But this guy in the Honda Civic picking up a fare is out of the question. That will change the whole game.
Do you want to do this for the rest of your life?
Yeah, I kind of do. I love to drive, and I love the city that much. Whether it’s an Uber or a medallion taxi that I’ll be driving has yet to be seen. The goal, of course, is to own your own medallion and sit at home and have people pay you to use it. That’s been the system for 40 years. But I bet if UberX comes in, those medallions might go back down to $50,000 if not less. They might get rid of them altogether.
OK, last one. Best movie or TV show about a cab driver.
C’mon, it’s gotta be Taxi Driver. I am a couple of years away from a mohawk and a .45 Magnum … I’m kidding.
I frigging love that movie, and the job really hasn’t changed. You haven’t heard stories and laughed your balls off unless you’ve sat at a cab company’s Christmas party. We have better stories than the cops, because we’re not allowed to shoot the bastards. We’ve got to suck it up.
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