Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Application Hearing Process - A New Set of Rules?

The July 24, 2009 hearings for medallion applicants turned out to be a radical event.

In the old days (before the MTA took over), a medallion applicant merely had to stand up before the Taxi Commission and tell them that the city needed to give him or her the medallion for some reason or other. I think I told them that they needed to give one to me because, in all humility, I was the best taxi driver there was.

The new Director of Taxis and Accessible Services, Christiane Hayashi, looked at this process and decided that it was laughably "ridiculous." She thus instituted a new procedure where a hearing officer and one of her investigators would actually look at the applicant's waybills.

The unfortunate object of this new vigor was medallion applicant Leonid Slootsky who has owned a ramp medallion for the last four years. Four years ago Slootsky worked 165 shifts and three years ago he totaled over 1200 hours but, for the last few years, he apparently decided to coast and put in only a little over 800 hours per. In the old days, that might have been okay but this is now.

Slootsky's waybills were closely examined by MTA Hearing Officer Harry Epstein and Taxis and Available Services investigator Scott Leon. On Slootsky's behalf, it should be said that neither Epstein nor Leon appeared to have the foggiest notion of what it was like to actually drive a taxi. As dilligent as they were clueless, the two of them took Slootsky's waybill apart line by line.

Epstein wanted to know why Slootsky only worked two days a week and why he started every shift with a ride at Geary and Taylor. "Is there a hotel there or something?" he asked.

Both Leon and Epstein want to know why Slootsky spend an hour or two every day waiting at the airport. Noting that he stopped taking rides an hour or two before he turned in the cab, both Epstein and Leon pared down Slootsky's time to a little over 700 hours.

The befuddled Slootsky, talking through a Russian interpreter, could only say that his wife and family worked; and promise to put in more days in the future.

I had to leave to start my shift so I didn't hear the end but I think a final determination was put off until August 14th.

As I walked out, a driver who had also watched the ceremony told me,
  • "I used to tell everybody cab driving was a great job. I'm telling 'em that any more."
He had a point. According to Epstein and Leon, working is no longer enough - one has to work successfully. It isn't enough to desperately look for rides during those desperately slow recession days and nights. You have to find them.

On the other hand, both Epstein and Leon appeared to be dedicated men with inquiring, open minds. If they asked stupid questions, it was because they wanted to know how things worked. I'm sure they'll soon get up to speed and have a better sense of what it's like to drive a cab.

But the rules have changed. While it's clear that Slootsky often got his waybills stamped long after he actually quit working, such behavior would have been acceptable last year. From now on drivers will have to completely work their shifts to get their time. I don't see where that's a bad thing.

The moral of this tale is that it's a good idea to be safe. I don't have a problem because I put in at least 1,200 hours a year. I don't know if you need that many but every driver should now put in a 1,000 hours per - just to be sure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Independent Contract - In Sum

Over the last 30 years, the law has pretty much caught up with the Independent Contract. A series of court cases have given drivers Workers Compensation and, maybe, Unemployment. It's no longer legal for companies to demand insurance deposits from their drivers.

It's also true that I have probably romanced the virtues of being an employee. It's doubtful that, under the political climate of the last three decades, we would have been able to form a union even if we been given employee rights. Unions have hardly proven themselves to be bastions of morality either. A friend of mine, in a Longshoreman's Local, had to tip union agents to get shifts. And, the foundations of building have been poured on many an ex-Teamster.

The level of corruption seems to be about the same. On the other hand, union workers are usually much better paid.

But there are advantages to driving a cab as an Independent Contractor. It's a cash business and nobody tells you what to do. You can take radio calls or not, work the airport or not, use any system you can think of to make money and take breaks (or not) any time or any place you like. Furthermore, an economic recession is unlikely to cost you your job. All that happens is that you make less money. In fact, people laid off from other industries invariably swarm taxi companies looking for work during recessions. Most of them make less money driving cab than they had been making before but at least they make something.

Comparing lease drivers to workers in 19th Century sweat shops is also way off the mark. You can do what you want when you drive a cab and, benefits aside, taxi driving pays better than most clerical or retail jobs. The combination of the freedom and cash is what got me into the business - and what keeps me there.

However, the biggest advantage of the Independent Contract clearly goes to the companies. The ability to fire people (excuse me "cancel their leases") without cause has given cab companies way too much power and led to abuses that I've written about earlier (see Alleged Tipping and the series on the Independent Contract). Beyond that it has saved the companies huge amounts of money that they have not had to pay in the way of taxes and benefits.

The gates and gas system has also made the taxi industry recession proof. Although the taxi business is currently down (by most accounts) 30% to 50%, the companies are flourishing. Former stock brokers, computer geeks, money managers and (god knows) maybe lawyers are lining up to drive cabs. But they can't even get an application. The companies are backlogged with drivers. They aren't hiring.

I guess the question is whether or not this is a good thing. As a medallion holder, I appear to be benefitting from this system. But I wonder? Is is right for companies to be flourishing when the amount of actual business they do is in decline? Is it right for them to be protected from the laws of the marketplace?

Most the plans for "reforming" Proposition K, for instance, call for putting more taxis on the street. The people who drew up these plans act as if the current recession didn't exist. As such, these plans as disconnected from the economic realities of our time. Would this be happening if the companies were actually in the cab business instead of the leasing business?

Is the public truly being served by this system? The major complaint about the taxi service in San Francisco is that it's hard to get a taxi in the outlying neighborhoods. But a company cannot tell an Independent Contractor what to do. That would make the driver an employee. Therefore, the companies cannot assign a driver to a call or tell him or her to work a specific area or neighborhood. Because the drivers themselves are on a gate system, they cannot afford to stay in neighborhoods with little business and naturally head back toward the busy areas as fast as they can.

Because the City has not allowed companies to raise gates thus shrinking their income and to avoid legal problems arising from the current system, taxi companies are more and more going to long term leases. They give up their day to day control but they don't have to sweat the details either.

This is a big problem for dispatchers by the way. The days of FIVE in and FIVE out are becoming a thing of the past. They're lucky if the long term lease drivers toss 'em TWO a couple of times a month ... and that's how it should be.

However, it's difficult to see how the long term leases serve the public. Most of the drivers appear to work the airport and the companies have no control over them whatsoever. It's hard to envision these guys spending a lot of time in the Sunset taking radio calls.

I'm tempted to say that I think the system is broken and needs a drastic reform. In fact, in an earlier version, I did. But that's a drastic exaggeration. I got carried away by my own rhetoric.

On the other hand, the public isn't being served as well as it should be, the drivers are treated unfairly and the companies themselves might do better under a different set up.

The gate and gas system may be outdated. As it is the only way the drivers can make more money is by raising the fares and the only way the companies can make more money is by raising the gates. The fares are already among the highest in the country and it's hard to see how raising them now would do anything other than lose business. The gates are already too high for the amount of business we have.

There has to be a better way. All we need is a Solomon to figure it out.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Independent Contract - 5

I think of "tremendous minds" as belonging to people like Verdi or Goethe or Einstein who create beauty or expand our knowledge of life, not to some geek who figured out a new way to shaft people. But there is no denying that Robert Bork's interpretation of the Independent Contract was brilliant. His decision made it possible to wipe out 150 years of labor history merely by calling a thing by a different name.

Desoto Cab still had a few union people driving for them when I worked there so I became very aware of the difference between their status and mine. The union drivers were guaranteed a minimum wage, had paid vacations and sick leave, couldn't be fired without cause and didn't tip. I, on the other hand, could lose money (although I never did.), could be charged for unfilled shifts if I took a vacation or missed a day because of illness (which I also never did. Rather than pay Desoto for nothing, I passed my diseases on to my customers.), and could have "my lease cancelled" for no reason at all.

Little by little, the charming, silver-tongued Marvin had talked most of the union drivers into signing lease agreements. My favorite story was that he told one union man that he could keep his paid vacations and the rest of it even if he became a lease driver. "Why pay money to those damn unions?" Marvin asked him. The driver couldn't think of a reason so he signed the Independent Contract. Shortly after that, he took his yearly vacation. When he returned, the sucker discovered that Marvin had cancelled his lease.

Two of the teamsters still working at Desoto were Bob Franklin and Tom, whose last name I'm ashamed to say that I've forgotten. He suffered from a degenerative disease similar to MS and was a tireless worker despite his affliction. Bob introduced me to some of the top people from both the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO but they were unable or unwilling to help us because they were fighting just keep what they had during the Reagan era and they'd already lost in court over the Independent Contract.

We decided that the only way to attack the contract was to gain "workers rights." In order to do this we drew up a petition to that effect and brought it over to Rua Graffis of a group called the Alliance to polish the final wording. The idea was that the Alliance would help us get signatures. Once we had signed up more than half the drivers, we intended to bring the petition to the Board of Supervisors and, hopefully, get them to put a measure on the ballot stating that cab companies had to give drivers "workers rights." If our plan worked, it would have been possible to organize a union.

I thought that it would be very difficult to get the petition signed. There have always been a lot of drivers, like my good friend Murai, who liked the supposed freedom of the lease and didn't want to become employees. I also thought that many drivers would be afraid to sign and that it would difficult to explain our idea to foreign drivers who didn't understand our laws.

For the safety of the drivers, we decided to try and get the signatures at the airport. The first night we showed up, most of the drivers were Indians, Pakistanis and Sikhs. I didn't know how many of them spoke English or if they'd even talk to us. I would have been happy to get 10 drivers signed up.

I nervously walked up to a Sikh and handed him the petition. He silently looked at me and then slowly read the petition. He asked me for a pen and signed it. He gave it to another Sikh driver, who read it and signed it. The two of them then explained the petition to a couple of other drivers in their own language. Both the other drivers signed it. When we left the airport a couple of hours later, we had signed up most of the people in the lot. Three weeks later, with Bob and Tom doing most of the heavy lifting, we had signed up more than half the working drivers in San Francisco.

I thought that when we added the signatures that the Alliance had no doubt gotten we would have at least 75% of the drivers on the petition. But I couldn't get ahold of Rua. For some reason she wasn't returning my calls.

However, the magic number was 50% so I got together with Cliff O'Neil, who was the first president of the UTW and knew Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg. The year was 1990. We'd hoped that she would sponsor the legislation. In fact, she was very gracious to us and enthusiastic about our idea. "Let's get the ball rolling," she told us when we left. Cliff also lined up Supervisor and future District Attorney Terence Hallinan to write the bill.

In short, it looked a like a done thing. But I was new to insider politics at the time. Weeks went by without any action. I kept calling Cliff who didn't know what was going on either. After a couple of months, I stopped by to visit him and he told me that the legislation was dead. Achtenberg was still interested but no one else was. Terence Hallinan suddenly found the idea, "too complicated." The supervisors had been told that the cab drivers of San Francisco did not want employee rights. They wanted to be independent contractors. The supes did not want to meet with us. They refused to look at our petition.

I had a thought. I called up Rua Graffis and asked her what had happened to her signatures. "We will decide what the cab drivers of San Francisco want," she declared royally and slammed the phone down on me.

I later found out that Rua had helped sabotage "employee rights" on one other occasion. When the Democrats held their convention in San Francisco in 1984, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein had offered to give the cab drivers "employee rights" if the Alliance did not protest at the Moscone Convention Center. However, Feinstein made the mistake of letting an assistant make the call. The Alliance turned Dianne down because she didn't talk to them in person. Instead Rua marched around the convention hall protesting Feinstein with about 10 other people - thus giving a sound bite to the greatest union buster in American history, Ronald Reagan.

Since I didn't want to waste my time on a politics of absurdity and impotence, I decided to follow the old tried and true adage, "if you can't lick 'em join 'em." I went down and put my name on the list to become a medallion holder.

The last few years, I've been thinking of Rua with fondness. If it hadn't been for her, I might still be a lease driver bashing my head against walls.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Independent Contract - 4

I should emphasize again that, tipping etc aside, drivers were treated better at most other companies than at Yellow. Despite being much smaller, both Desoto and Luxor gave (and continue to give) superior radio service - largely because they kept their experienced drivers instead of firing them.

At Desoto, Marvin would even give his drivers a chance to face their accusers over complaints. If the matter was serious enough, Marvin would invite the customer to come in to discuss the complaint with the driver. Very civilized. As Marvin once pointed out in an oblique response to my labor agitating, his cab drivers were treated much better than workers toiling in sweatshops in the 1890s.

On the other hand, that's a pretty low baseline.

The arrogance with which lease drivers were (and still are) treated bordered on the surreal.

I actually interview at Luxor twice. The first time, some cowboy named Davis took my information by shouting personal and rude questions at me from across a room filled with people. He actually looked surprised when I walked out on him.

Every morning before going to work at Desoto, I'd get coffee at a place across Geary Street. Every morning when I arrived, Marvin would be sitting pontificating to several medallion holders. Since I had to pass directly by them to get to the counter, I said "hello" to them every morning. Every morning they snubbed me.

In fact, few medallion holders would deign to talk with a lease driver. I discussed the subject with another driver shortly after I started at Desoto.
  • "But we're all doing the same job," I said.
  • "Maybe cab drivers are just as stupid as everybody says they are," he replied.
I think I need one more macho confrontation tale to more fully illuminate the true status of the lease driver in the taxi industry. I promise that it'll be the last.

My brakes went out (as usual) at Desoto and I drove the car into the small garage to be fixed. I walked over and started to tell a mechanic what was wrong with the car. He interrupted me and screamed that I should move the effing cab out of his garage. When I hesitated, he commanded me to "do it now!"

I don't think I'd ever seen this guy before and I'd signed a contract saying that I was under nobody's control. I actually had a copy of the damn thing by then. He had no right to boss me around. I was the one losing money not him. If he'd been polite or even civil, I would've moved the the car but I wasn't about to take orders from every random smuc that came along.

I went down to talk with the dispatchers about getting another cab. A few minutes later, the mechanic showed up carrying a tire iron in his right hand. He started screaming obscenities at me and threatened to attack me if I didn't move the car.

I've never liked to fight and I grew up Irish. Through trial and error, I've developed a technique of standing motionless and staring silently at my would-be assailants, straitening up to highlight my size and forcing them to initiate the action. My father was a trained boxer so I have a good idea of what to do if I am assaulted. I use my stance to translate this.

The mechanic, hunched over and yelling threats, slowly moved in but, the closer he got to me, the more fully he understood that I was 6" taller and 4o pounds heavier than he. Eventually, as almost everyone in my adult life has, he chose another method of conflict resolution.

Now ... let's give the mechanic the benefit of the doubt. He was obviously having a bad day and lost his temper. If he'd thought about it, if he'd not been carried away by his emotions, he would have at least left the tire iron behind. Not a good move. It could've earned him hard time. Furthermore, no company - not even Yellow - would knowingly allow such behavior.

Nonetheless, this mechanic clearly thought that a lease driver's status was so much lower than his own that the driver should be under the mechanics thumb. While his actions might have extreme, his attitude is not. All the salaried workers at cab companies from the dispatchers to the bookkeepers to the secretaries to the people answering the phones have been taught to think they are superior to the lease drivers who bring in most of the money. And, they have a point. The law protects employees. Independent contractors are powerless.

The Independent Contract - 3

While conditions at Yellow cab were the worst, there was no taxi company you could work for without receiving some form of abuse. After a classic "you-can't fire-me-I-quit" squabble with one of Steele's lackeys, I went to work for Desoto.

At the time, the company was managed by Marvin Gralnick who liked to be called just plain "Marvin." However, this didn't mean that he thought of himself as one of the guys. Like many in the business, he looked straight through lease drivers as if they didn't exist - unless they were good looking women. Actually, they didn't have to be that good looking. Watching him chase woman around in his office, I often wondered why he didn't get hit with a sexual harassment suit.

But I'm digressing again.

Marvin didn't give me a copy of the lease I'd signed either. And, unlike Nate, he didn't even give me time to read it. He stared at me as I started to page through it and looked at his watch. I got the point and asked him for my copy. He said that they didn't have any at the moment but the printer would send some over the next week. I needed the job so I said, "fine."

But I thought that this had to be illegal so I decided to keep asking for my copy with the vague idea that I might be able to get an attorney interested in a class action suit. Every Monday after that, I'd go to Marvin's office before I took my cab out and brightly ask him if the he'd received the contracts from the printer yet. Every Monday, he'd give me a long, intimidating look and tell me that they still hadn't come. "It's hard to find good help these days," he told me once. This went on for five or six weeks.

Finally, when I showed up one Monday, Marvin graciously invited me into his office. He waved his hand to show me the room. It was filled with lease contracts piled desk high along the walls. "They've come," he told me. I guess he'd talked to his attorney. In all my years of agitation this was my one concrete victory - and I didn't want it. I wanted my class action suit

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Independent Contract - 2

The drivers at Yellow expressed their fear and their angst with a series of saying:
  • "You've got a job at Yellow Cab as long Steele doesn't know you name."
  • "The longer you work here, the less they like you."
  • "The letter (that your lease has been cancelled without warning) comes on Thursday."
It was Kakaesque world of total uncertainty - apparently designed by Steele to insure that people would be so paranoid that they wouldn't even dare think of forming a union.

I once asked Steele's assistant, Richie Weiner, how many points you could get on your driver's license before Yellow would cancel your lease. We'd been having a friendly talk and it seemed like a reasonable question but, the moment I asked it, Richie gave me a bizarre look and terminated the conversation, saying "take care of it." You never really knew what the rules were or where you stood.

And Yellow could change the rules any time they liked. I remembered that it had said in my contract that you could sublease if you informed them in advance. I wanted to take some time off so I went to the office to "inform" them. The moment Jim Steele overheard me use the word "sublease," he came storming out of his office screaming,
  • "There's no subleasing!"
  • "But," I stammered, " it says in the contract ...'
  • "There's no subleasing!" he screamed and then, waving his hands over his head as was his custom, yelled at me to "get the hell out of here!"
I walked down the long stairway that lead from his office to the street. I stepped outside and then thought, "do I really need this job?" Then, I went back to his office.

Most people say that Steele had a terrible temper. But I don't think so. I think he was just an abusive bastard. I have a bad temper. It's not something you can turn on and off like a faucet. When Steele saw me come back up the stairs, he was no longer screaming. I could see his mind working like a calculator. Of course "pacifist" is not the first word that springs to most people's minds when they see me angry. And, I later learned that both Steele and Richie had been punched out or otherwise assaulted by drivers who didn't like Yellow's managerial style. But Steele actually gave me the sublease and didn't yell at me again until I was back at the bottom of the stairs. "If they don't show up," he screamed half-heartedly, "you're paying for it!"

But winning an argument of any kind with Yellow's management was said to be almost unique. According to what Nate Dwiri would call rumor, what follows are some of the things that were normal at Yellow:
  • They always hired new drivers and Yellow's statistics showed that the drivers would get cocky and begin having accidents at about eight months after they started, so management would cancel many leases before they drivers had a chance to have an accident. The fact that a steady stream of new drivers started every week, tended to back this up.
  • Drivers were required to pay a $500 insurance deposit and, if they had an accident, Yellow would take the deposit until it was determined whether the driver in question was at fault or not. If the driver complained, they would cancel his or her lease.
  • Yellow would sometimes keep the deposit even if the driver was not at fault. If he or she complained, Yellow would cancel the lease.
  • If the driver failed to tip, the lease would be cancelled.
  • If the driver was late a few times, "THEY wouldn't like you." If THEY didn't like you, your lease would eventually be cancelled.
  • If the driver got into an argument with a gasman or a dispatcher, the lease would be cancelled.
  • A driver could have a lease cancelled for one complaint; as in, "he was rude."
  • Some drivers had theirs leases cancelled and never knew why.
Of course most this is "rumor" - but the rumors come from dozens of different people all telling the same stories over and over again. Instead of rumor, let's call it folk wisdom.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In the Trenches with the Independent Contract - 1

I was just showing up for my first day of cab driving in 1983. A middle-aged Eskimo woman stood outside the Yellow Cab lot at 8th and Townsend hitting up the drivers that were just finishing their shifts for a dollar. She was an ex-driver herself so many of them gave her money.

Suddenly Yellow Cab manager Jim Steele came running onto the street waving his hands over his head and screaming at the woman to "get the hell out of here." "I used to work for you," the woman told him calmly, "you're supposed to take care of me."

I remember wondering what business it was of his anyway, since the woman wasn't technically standing on his property. But, then, Jim Steele made a career out controlling things that, technically, were not supposed to be any of his business.

I also remember being struck by the incongruity between his appearance his accomplishments. Here was a little man in his '60s, standing 5'6" and weighing 120 pounds soaking wet, who had the twin legacies of resurrecting Yellow Cab from bankruptcy and destroying the driver's union. The tool he had used to eradicate the worker's rights was the Independent Contract.

The Independent Contract, in turn, was the stepchild of Federal Justice and Supreme Court reject Robert Bork who was recently called a "tremendous mind" by Pat Buchanan during his July 16th debate with Rachel Maddow over Judge Sonia Sotomayor and affirmative action. In the 1970s, Bork had used his "legislative brilliance" to declare that lease workers could not legally form unions. Before his decision, they could. Why couldn't they form unions? Because they weren't employees. Why was this important? We don't know. I haven't been able to track down the case yet. I doubt that Jim Steele cared why Bork made the decision anyway, only that it gave Steele almost absolute control over his drivers.

I was given a graphic demonstration of this power by current president Nathen Dwiri during my initiation at Yellow. He handed out the Yellow's leasing contract to a group of new drivers including myself and explained the meanings of some of the provisions. Then, he told us to read the contract carefully before signing it. Then, he left the room. He returned an hour or so later, collected the signed contacts and left. He did not give us a copy of what we had signed. I can't remember if Nate told us whether he would give us one later or not but, as long as I worked there, I was never given one.

I think it was Nate's way of telling us exactly where we stood in relation to the company.

Just in case we didn't get the point, we were reminded every day when we ended our shifts. We turned in our waybills and paid our gates in a dispatching shed that was wallpapered with writing in huge bold type that listed innumerable acts (like turning the cab in late) that would result in the automatic cancellation of our leases. This in itself was a violation of a lease that purported to be an agreement between equals. What the letters really spelled out was our powerlessness. What the "Independent Contract" had made us independent of was the protection of labor laws.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Customer Satisfaction

I know this will shock you but I used to get into a lot of arguments with customers. No - it's true. One reason I liked working for City was that Jim Miller used to throw complaints into the wastebasket - unless they were about something really important like a driver punching someone or refusing to convey a blind person. And, Miller was right. Most complaints aren't worth bothering about. I'm mean, 75% of them are about the driver going too fast or playing the music too loud.

"Did you ask the driver to slow down?" I'll ask my customers when they tell me stories like this. "Oh no," they'll say. "We were afraid. He was insane."

What can I tell you. These people should get out more. If they think San Francisco taxi drivers are crazy, they should travel to New York, Latin America or Asia. My favorite cab drivers are Mongolians. Rather then stop at a red light, they'll drive up on the sidewalk. And, they have the right of way. People scatter like pigeons.

But I digress. Early on in my career, I couldn't figure out why I should be polite to people who'd been rude to me. For that matter, I still can't but, back then, I didn't handle it well.

One day when I came in to pick up my cab, Jim gave me a significant look and said laconically, "It's Bastille day."

I instantly understood. "I'll try not to storm anybody," I said.

"That would be a really nice thing for a change," he replied.

As I walked to my cab, I thought to myself, 'My God! If I'm getting too rude for Miller, I'd definitley better change my act."

And I did. Here are some suggestions for dealing with problem customers.
  1. Never use obscenities. If, say, you have a drunk who's upset because you wouldn't let him step out into traffic and keeps screaming, "don't you think I'm smart enough to open a door by myself?" don't tell him to shut his effing mouth. Tell him something like, "if you were smart enough to open a door by yourself, we wouldn't be having this conversation." More often then not the situation will be resolved by his throwing himself out of the taxi, saving you the trouble of doing so.
  2. Never pick on person's personal flaws. If, for instance, you have an obnoxious obese person giving you a hard time, be indirect. You might say something like, "a good walk could work wonders for your waistline" or "whatever happened to fat and jolly?"
  3. Be nice to tourists and conventioneers. If you have Tom, Dick and Harry in the back of your taxi drunkenly trashing everybody they see, when the moment comes for them to talk to the "cabbie" and they ask you, "tell me cabbie - what brings all these weird people to San Francisco?" Don't insult them. Simply say, "hotels, Harry, hotels and conventions."
Just kidding. Those are from my pre-Miller-epiphany days. Such quips can be fun but, as Mahatma Ghandi might have put it, they don't do anything to promote world peace.

Try the following advice instead.
  1. Never use obscenities. If you find yourself in an argument, calmly defend yourself by saying exactly what you think is wrong with their behavior. If they start using obscenities on you, you've won the argument.
  2. A lot of arguments result from cab driver paranoia. People will often think that you're cheating them because they'd been taught that that's what "cabbies" do. If you have a fare dispute, simply tell them to pay what they usually pay for the ride; or, if they're not local, tell them to pay whatever they think is right. The most you'll lose is a couple of dollars. I've also had people give me large tips in those situations because they liked my attitude.
  3. When dealing with the public, attitude is really everything. If you've had several jerks in row, take a break and mellow out. Don't let their negative energy get to you.
  4. If you've had a bad ride, don't let it carry over to the next customer. Always start you're next ride like it's the first ride of the day: A nice smile and a warm hello.
  5. If you do get somebody who is a major asshole or snob, interact with them as little as possible. No reason to let their attitude dictate yours.
But so much for the negative. Dealing with the public is all about creating a positive atmosphere. When they're having fun, even assholes will show you a good side.

For the last couple of years, I've been bringing CD's along with me when I drive cab. I like a wide variety of music: classical, jazz, blues, country, 40s and 50s ballads, 50s through 70s R&R, salsa, folk, international and opera. When I'm really working it, I try to guess what kind of music my customers will like before they get into the cab. I'm right about 80% of the time.

Even when I'm wrong, it sometimes works out right. Like I was listening to a Vaughan Williams tone poem when some punk rockers jumped in my taxi. I started to change the music but they wouldn't let me. They thought that the Tallis Fantasia was the greatest thing they'd ever heard in their lives.

Since I've been doing this, my tips have gone up about 50%. It's not uncommon for people to give me a $20 bill for a $7 or $8 ride because they loved the music I'd played for them. But more important then the money is the fact that I've made people feel good. And, that makes the job much more entertaining for me than it used to be.

Now when I go to work, I take the attitude that I'm going to a party. I try to make at least one friend every shift. I usually succeed.

Monday, July 13, 2009

City Cab

City Cab is usually thought of as the last bastion of the hippie but I think calling it the last stand of the Hole in the Wall Gang might be more appropriate. In fact, one rumor has it that the company started as a drug pushing front and only gradually switched over to customers. I don't know if it ever quite lost the connection.

One night, for instance, I went to the dispatching shed to talk to Manager Jim Miller about something or other. When I arrived, two guys who looked like they'd stepped right out of The Wild Bunch were stretched out on their stomachs sucking a white powder off the filthy floor up their noses through straws. A third cowboy sat on a nearby couch saying, over and over again, in a stoned, zonked voice, "This is madness. This is madness."

Miller was standing on the other side of the bullet-proof glass partition overlooking the scene but paying no attention to it as he ran figures on an adding machine. I went over and we had a brief conversation. As soon as we finished, he went back to his numbers. The third cowboy apparently decided that, madness or not, he was going to get his share because he was splayed out on the floor sucking powder with the others as I stepped over him to get out the door.

Most cab companies have signs threatening to fire any driver who so much as opens a beer on the premises. At City, they had two picnic tables that were usually filled with guys drinking beer, doing shots or smoking joints as they relaxed after their shifts. The gasmen supplemented their incomes by selling alcohol, marijuana and, maybe, that white powder. Heavy drinkers in the know would take cabs out to the City yard at 3:00 am or 4:00 am because it was the only after hours bar then functioning in San Francisco.

There was a small community of the homeless who lived in deserted cars at the back of the lot, including a few drivers. If you were too stoned to drive yourself and couldn't afford a cab you could always crash in one of the cars - at least until the driver showed up to start his or her shift.

I confess that, of all the companies I've worked for, this was my favorite. I don't use drugs and try to get up in the mornings to enjoy the days so I rarely stayed around after work but I liked the idea that City was there. I liked the wildness, the non-conformity, even the harmless criminality. It was nice to have one place left where people could do just about anything they wanted.

Naturally, a lot of characters hung out there. One of them was a small police dog that never barked. He liked everybody and loved leaping to grab tennis balls out of the air. One day I came in to see him frantically trying to pull out a tennis ball that had been wedged in a wire fence while two middle-aged junkies laughed sadistically. The dog didn't even bark then. I walked over, pulled the ball out and gave it to the dog. Then, I asked the creeps how well they thought they'd do at pulling a ball out of a fence with their teeth. That was the last time they tormented the bark-less dog.

One night I decided to stay after work and celebrate paying off a bill. I'd stopped to buy an $8 French bordeaux at Trader Joe's and was just about to open it when the gasman, Larry, came over and asked me,
  • "Does that bottle have a cork in it?"
  • "Yeah," I answered as I opened it with my corkscrew.
  • "Boy," Larry said, "you don't see too many guys around here drinkin' wine out of a bottle with a cork."
  • "This is the good stuff," I told him. "I'd offer you a glass but I wouldn't want to waste it on your barbaric pallet - no offense meant."
  • "None taken," he replied as he sat down across from me at the table, opening a beer as he did so. "Wine isn't my thing."
He set a pint of Jack Daniels on the table and we shared a joint while he regaled me with tall tales about his wild youth. He claimed he'd been a bouncer at a whore house in Acapulco ("Don't Know why I ever left?") and had worked as a rodie for Willie Nelson. He said he'd once fallen over on motorcycle at a 100 miles an hour and had played a game of Russian Roulette with a driver using live ammunition.
  • "After the third round it started feeling sort of weird," he said, "so we quit."
Do I need to add that gasmen are often ex-cab drivers who've become too eccentric for the job?

My favorite person at City was a guy named Star. I don't think I ever heard his real name. He was small, upbeat and sweat. I mean, he was just a warm bubbling person. He came from, I think, Liverpool, had a cockney accent and got his name because he loved Rock & Roll and knew everything about it. He was so enthusiastic and clearly enjoyed life so much that you couldn't help but smile every time you saw him.

He always started his shift at midnight with change for a $20 in his pocket. One night at about 1:30 am, he was found shot and murdered in his cab in Richmond. It didn't make any sense. There's no way that he would have confronted a person who pulled a gun on him. I think he was probably killed because he only had $20 on him. His killers probably thought that he was lying to them about how much money he had at that hour of the night.

I say "they" but nobody really knows. Like most taxi murders, Star's was never solved.

City was not the same after his death. It seemed somehow right when the company went bankrupt not long afterwards.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More Alleged Tipping

After being canned by Desoto, I was hired by City Cab. The manager, Jim Miller, told me right off that it was FIVE in and FIVE out with TWO for the gas man. Needless to say I didn't like this. That made my real gate 15% to 20% higher that the official one but what could I do about it? On the other hand, I appreciated Miller's directness. At least I knew exactly where I stood.

Extortion aside, I liked Miller's style. I could tell without ever discussing it that he'd been an anti-war college drop-out, hippie-traveling, marijuana-smoking, anti-corporate freak like myself. He was also a driver's manager, by which I mean that for him the drivers came first. This made him unique in a business where half the mangers won't even say "hello" to their lease drivers.

Miller set a reduced flat rate for any driver who took a cab to or from work; and made sure that a driver, late on his shift, paid the late fee to the driver who had been kept waiting instead of the company. He was also the only manager I ever met who actually cared (or even knew) how how competent his drivers were.

Most managers judge a driver solely by negation. For them, a good driver is one that doesn't: have accidents, get tickets, have customer complaints, get robbed or make waves. When I worked for Yellow Cab, they used to say that you had a job there as long as Steele (the manager) didn't know your name.

Miller is only person in this business ever to recognize how very, very good I am at this job and to promote me because of it. For that I'll be eternally grateful. After only a couple of weeks, he gave me a Wednesday through Saturday night shift - marking the only time that I would ever be scheduled on a Friday night until I became an owner.

Unfortunately, Miller himself didn't dispatch the cabs on Friday nights. He left that to Vinnie who didn't believe in FIVE in. He thought TEN in was better - or you could wait until 8 pm to get your cab on a shift that started at 5 pm. It must be said that this ideology worked for him. He bought a two-story house in the Excelsior with his ill-gotten gains and send his kid to private schools.

After what I'd been though at Desoto cab, I wasn't about to buckle under - not when I was making more money from my Thursday and Saturday shifts alone than I'd made in a week at Desoto. I thus joined a group of fellow malcontents who sat around for three or four hours every Friday night trashing Vinnie and complaining about life in general. Then, after a month or so, I had an epiphany. I'd been sitting, waiting for my cab and listening to my pals bitch when I suddenly realized that I no longer wanted to be morally correct. The next Friday I slipped Vinnie his TEN and got my taxi right on time. As I was driving out of the yard, I looked back to see the ethically superior losers glaring after me. I felt guilty but I learned to live with it - especially since my "alleged tip" was making me at least a $100 a week.

After a couple of months, Vinnie let me know that TEN really wasn't enough. TWELVE would be much better. A couple of months after that, he became fond of the number FOURTEEN.

The following Wednesday became totally dead after 10 pm - nothing but empty cabs racing each other down deserted streets. Suddenly Miller started to call an order then interrupted himself and told me to pick up a load at a downtown office building. I was at least a mile away and when I showed up, another City Cab was waiting in front of the address.

In fact, the driver had been playing the building and had already been waiting for a long time. He got out and tried to talk to me but he was Russian with very little English so I couldn't understand what he was saying - only that he looked confused and pitiful. I told him to call Miller. As he stepped back into his taxi, a business woman came out of the building, climbed into my cab and asked me if I minded driving her to Santa Rosa. I didn't mind at all.

Nice woman with a great personality. We traded life stories en route and she gave me a voucher for $160 when we arrived. The moon was full and Napa looked like a lunar landscape as I drove back, reflecting upon how I finally had it made. I was finally in. From then on, I'd be getting a couple airports off the radio every week and an occasional ride like the one I'd just finished. All I had to do was give Miller TWENY. Yes, it was a beautiful night - except that I couldn't stop thinking about that pathetic fucking Russian.

When I got back, I tipped Miller FIVE. Thus ended my short, happy carer as a high roller. I can't remember if I ever actually tipped Vinnie FOURTEEN or not because City Cab went belly up at about that time.

Dan Heines was then the manager of Desoto and didn't know or care about my so-called complaint. He hired me back, giving me a Sunday through Wednesday night shift - good by Desoto standards because so many of their drivers are medallion holders.

When I showed up, I was surprised to see Vinnie stepping out of a Desoto cab after just finishing a Sunday day shift. He greated me like a long lost friend. This struck me as rather odd since he'd been treating me with arrogant distain only a few weeks earlier. He was baffled by the fact that nobody would hire him as dispatcher with all his experience. The truth of course was that he'd screwed so many drivers that even people who'd never met him hated his guts. When he came to Desoto they told him that he would never be a dispatcher and would never get a decent shift. He was so desperate that he took the job anyway.

Afterwards, he'd stop me from time to time to complain bitterly about his fate; about how he'd been mistreated, misunderstood and abused. Then he'd become nostalgic and talk about how great life used to be back at City; about what a wonderful guy he'd been when he was a dispatcher. He mistook my silence for empathy.

On that first Sunday of my return, as I approached the teller's window, the dispatcher glanced up and saw me coming toward him. I could read his mind. It said, "Oh shit! Not him again." He looked at me tensely and nervously as he handed me my waybill. I gave him THREE. He sighed with relief and said, "It's good to have you back."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Alleged Tipping

"Alleged tipping" was the phrase used by Desoto Cab President Jane Bolig to put down an accusation by Mark Gruberg of the UTW that cab drivers were forced to tip company dispatchers ten dollars day.

I thought I might be able to shine light on this debate by relating my own experiences at Desoto before Jane became president.

One day I started doing the math and realized that tipping FIVE in and FIVE out ($5 to both start and end a shift) was costing me about $2,500 a year - way too much. I thought TWO each way was fair enough but, out of the generosity of my soul, I'd make it THREE.

At the time, Desoto had a dispatcher named Big Bob who was arithmetically challenged. Corruption doesn't always breed quality. They'd taken Bob off the night shift because he had trouble focusing on numbers larger than 50 and would sometimes spend as many as 15 minutes counting the gates for each driver. The FIVE in was just about all he could handle.

The first time I gave him THREE, Bob looked down at the bills that I'd slide through the opening under the bullet-proof glass then looked back up at me with confusion. The second time, he looked hurt. The third time, he angrily tossed the money back under the window and snarled:

"That's not a tip!"

I decided to show Bob what a tip really wasn't. After less spectacular but similar incidents with the other dispatchers, I pretty much stopped tipping altogether. The only exception was a night dispatcher named Tessie who looked like a battle-ax but had a bit of a crush on me. She'd hold up my three dollars splayed out in her hand and give me an ironic smile but she'd accept the money without complaint.

My schedule was supposed go from 7 am to 5 pm but the dispatchers began shorting my cab (giving it to another driver for a few hours) so that I didn't start working until around 9:30. This cost me $40 or $50 a day. Common sense should have inspired me to give in and pay the clowns the extra TWO but, if I had common sense, I would never have driven cab in the first place. Besides, I was single and had a $450 a month studio. Thanks to Tessie, I was also able to keep the cab out late in the afternoons so that I could recoup some of the money that I lost in the mornings.

When cheating me out of my time didn't work, the dispatchers took away my regular cab and started giving me the worst spares they could find. The brakes would be shot or the tires would go flat. I would often get cars that would start to vibrate at 40 miles per hour. Once a long pipe with a flange on the end (I'm not a mechanic. I can't name the part.) fell from the bottom of the taxi onto Union Street, stopping the car dead in its tracks.

Of course my cabs would break down with great regularity and I often had to wait up to three or four hours for a tow. After five or six times, it dawned on me - duh - that the dispatchers had been waiting a couple of hours before calling the tow company.

On one especially busy Friday afternoon, the brakes on my cab went completely out. I mean there was nothing. When I dropped at the airport, I needed to gear down and use the hand brake to stop the cab. I decided that I wasn't going to lose four hours on that day, so I drove the car back without any brakes.

I thought I'd be okay as long as I was on the freeway. The problem would come when I got off. I planned to use the 7th Street exit off 101 because Desoto was on Geary Street at that time and, once I left the freeway, I would be able to drive uphill all the way. But I had to get lucky. If the light on 7th and Harrison was red, I could have been in big trouble. It turned green just as I rounded the corner off the freeway ramp and I flowed all the way back to the garage without having to stop.

The mechanic who looked at the brakes told me that he belonged to a union so he made good money but that I should start tipping the dispatchers because they were only paid minimum wage and, if guys like me didn't tip, they wouldn't be able to pay their rent. This from a union guy. My lenghty and detailed reply is not printable in a family blog.

I have to confess that I'm a perverse character with a strange sense of humor. Seeing the dispatchers glowering at me, their faces twisted with impotent hatred, when I came to work every morning made it all worth while. Think about it - these people in effect were willing to kill me over a $5 bill ... that most of them would put up their noses anyway. When I saw those expressions, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. The human comedy in all its glory.

I was eventually fired - although I'm not certain that it had anything to do with my refusal to tip.

I picked up an aging couple at a hospital and took them home. On the way, they had a spat. When we arrived, I walked around the car and opened the door to help the man out. He said that he didn't want any help. His wife insisted that I help. He insisted that he could do it himself. He wife demanded that I help him. It looked to me as if she wanted to use me to humiliate him. He insisted once again that he could get out by himself. His wife screamed at me. I ignored her and stood by ready to help him if he needed any. He managed to get out fine all by himself.

The wife called Desoto and complained that I had refused to help her sick husband out of a taxicab. I told my side of the story to the manager, Eric Shaffer. He told me that I should have helped the man out of the taxi. I told him the story again. He said that I should not only have helped the man out but I should apologize to the woman. I refused and he fired me, saying that all my shifts were cancelled.

I told him that I'd signed a contract where it said that he had to give two weeks notice before canceling my lease.

"What contract?" he asked. But, that's another story.

Anyway I'm glad to hear from Jane that the barbaric practice of tipping has become an alleged thing of the past.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New York, New York: the Truth About Gypsy Cabs

Michael Spain, a board member of the MHA, recently claimed that there were no illegal taxis (or gypsy cabs) in New York City. According to him, what they have are "black cars" that are licensed only to take radio calls. Spain claims that New York's auction system has made cab medallions so valuable that the police immediately crack down on any cars, black or otherwise, that try to pick up flags without a proper license.

Since I haven't been in New York in over 25 years, I'll let others do the talking for me. defines a gypsy cab as "a taxicab that cruises for customers although it is licensed only to respond to calls." But maybe they haven't been to New York lately either.

A better source might be CitiDex New York City which has a section devoted to gypsy cabs on its main page. In an entry updated on July 3, 2009, the CitiDex has this to say about gypsy cabs:

"They are private cars that roam the city looking for fares. Gypsy cabs are run by individuals who use their own cars. In recent years, gypsy cab companies with radio dispatched drivers have begun operating. These services are illegal and you should avoid using them. The level of service is generally poor and getting into a gypsy cab can be dangerous."

And there also is this entry from a post titled "Perfectly Legal" in the blog NEW YORK HACK.

"As I waited outside the Delta terminal, there were about five or six car service drivers parked there, standing in front of the doors and soliciting people for rides to Manhattan. This, you should know, is totally illegal ... Car service drivers are, by law, allowed to respond only to radio calls ... And every time a car service driver breaks these rules, he not only breaks into our business (and therefore our incomes), he also depreciates the value of each and every medallion, making it a waste of money to buy or lease one."

The narrator then describes an argument she has with a gypsy driver where she threatens him by telling him that she belongs to the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC).

"He smirked and said, 'Why? You TLC?'"

"I said, 'Yes, I am. And you're lucky I'm not working right now.'"

"Of course," she says, "he didn't take me seriously at all. And why would he? The TLC certainly doesn't do much except ticket cabbies and cash in on corporate contracts ... . They don't give two shits if we lose money to these guys."

In sum, the illegal cab situation sounds like it's pretty much the same in New York as it is here - except that they don't have a Chris Hayashi who wants to "swoop down" on the bandit taxis, "pick 'em off one by one" and fine 'em.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Players & Plans: Carl Macmurdo & the Matt Gonzales Committee

When I saw MHA President Carl Macmurdo at the Board of Supervisor's meeting last week he said that he and his group hadn't come up with a plan yet. For a moment I thought that he might want to pick the brains of the members but it turned out that he won't meet with the general membership until October.

Carl appears to be a true believer in experts and their expertise (forgetting that it was just such people that sank the economy) so he and few board members intend to work up a plan with Matt Gonzales and Hansu Kim. I can't see how this could be too much different than the plan Macmurdo worked out with the same Gonzales Committee four years ago. Therefore I'm going to morph Carl's March 2008 proposal with that of the Gonzales Committe and take peek at some highlights. What the MHA would like to see would be:
  • An end to Proposition K
  • Transferability of medallions though a sealed bit auction system.
  • A "grandfathering" of medallions to the top 150 to 300 people on the list.
  • The auctions would only be open to working drivers but there would be no preference given to years of service and the list would be abolished. There would be only one owner per medallion.
  • A driving requirement would be kept in force for the new owners subject to allowances for short term disability and other emergency needs
  • A fee of around 20% would be changed to transfer the Proposition K medallions. A fee of 5% to 10% would be changed to re-sell them.
  • Convenience and necessity hearing would be required before the City could issue new medallions but, if the need arose for new permits, the City would keep 100% of the money.
  • 50% of the money earned by the City from auctions would toward promoting the health and welfare of all drivers
Since I belong to the MHA, I would like to like this plan but there are several things that I disagree with:
  • Solving the problem of fairness to List drivers by "grandfathering" medallions. Taxis should not be put on the street unless they are needed.
  • Convenience and necessity hearing aside, the plan seems to encourage the City to sell medallions as a source of revenue. Such hearing would have to have much stricter standards than they do now.
  • I don't see why a driving requirement should continue once the medallions are sold. The cost of such mickey-mouse record keeping is considerable not to mention annoying and pointless.
  • Any auction system will necessarily favor drivers able to raise money over drivers with skill and will easily open itself up to corruption - as it does in other cities like New York.
  • "Grandfathered" or not, many drivers who had committed themselves to driving because of Proposition K would be screwed.
On the other hand, transferability fees may be only realistic way to raise enough money to pay for driver's medical and retirement benefits.

I think what I dislike the most is the logic behind this plan as well as the behavior that has resulted from this logic: like the MHA's protesting of neither the $15 million MTA fee nor the plan for the City to arbitrarily put 100 cabs on the street.

Actually I don't like the logic and reasoning behind most of the plans submitted to Ms Hayashi. Many of the justifications are exaggerated, distorted or false. I'll be dealing with them in a future post.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Never Forget: It's Dangerous Out There

I'm passing this along from the Mercury news.

If nothing happens for a long time you tend relax and forget that you work in one of the most dangerous jobs there is. Any time you drive a cab you are a target. Always stay alert no matter what you are doing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My Anti-Charter Amendment Speech

Since I stayed up half the night writing a speech that I never got the chance to deliver I think I'll publish the damn thing here. Although Daly's proposition did not say where the money for the benefits would come from, I assumed in my talk that they would be paid for by medallion holder fees. The City Controller's analysis tends to back up this idea.

"Hello - I'm Ed Healy and I'm the holder of medallion 572.

I believe that this amendment is based on a series of false assumption about owner/drivers like myself.

The idea that my medallion was free is false ... unless you find no value in labor ... In fact, it took me 15 years of hard work to get it. Therefore the income derived from my medallion is earned.

The idea that medallion holders don't work is false ... unfortunately for the country, we're far more closely regulated and monitored than the banking industry. We don't work. We don't keep the medallion.

The idea that we make "a lot of money" is false. Working medallion holders make $20,000 - $30,000 a year less than Muni or BART drivers with similar experience - and they make benefits on top of that.

The idea that taxing medallion holders so that they make $10,000 a year a less than they make now will improve cab service is not only false but ridiculous. In what kind of business do you get better quality people by paying them less money?

For the last several years before I got my medallion I worked three days a week as a cab driver and 3 days a week teaching driving. As my name rose on the list I had to choose between opening my own driving business and getting the medallion. I chose the later because I thought that the City owed me for all the service I had provided.

I certainly would not have made that choice for $10,000 or $5,000 or $4,000 a year less. In fact, if I'd know that I would have get up before a board like this one and plead just to keep the money I worked so hard to get, I would have been out of the cab business five years ago.

The idea that this charter amendment contains an exit strategy that will help the list move more quickly is also false. If medallion holders can't afford to retire now, cutting their income by 50% isn't going to help them do it sooner - retirement program or not.

What puzzles me most is the timing of this proposition.

For the first time in my 25 years of taxi driving the city is setting up a serious of meetings that includes everybody in the cab business under the direction of the brilliant, inquisitive and capable Chris Hayashi. The intent of these Town Hall meetings is to look at all aspects of business - including ways to provide benefits and improve service - with the idea of drafting legislation that everybody in the industry can support.

Why are you so eager to sidestep this process?"

(significant, lingering looks at each supervisor - especially Daly)

"Thank you."

Well ... it appears that they haven't sidestepped the process after all. Or, have they? Why haven't the Town Hall meeting started yet?

Has the next battle already begun?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chris Daly Withdraws His Charter Amendment

Supervisor Chris Daly shocked a room full of cab drivers this morning when he passed around a note saying that he had withdrawn his charter amendment regarding taxicabs. There was no explanation given so the matter is open to speculation.

One possibility is that he realized that the Two-thirds Rule predicted by a certainly blogger was indeed working against him. In fact, my sources tell me that the UTW was outnumbered eight to four at the general Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday June 30.

This may have opened Daly's eyes to the reality behind the UTW's claim to represent most of the cab drivers in San Francisco. In fact, the UTW was itself divided over Mark Gruberg's insistence on putting medical benefits in the proposal because this kept the SFCDA from backing it. Instead the SFCDA lined up alongside the MHA against Gruberg.

At least one medallion holder who had attended the meeting thought that the rest of the Board had turned against Daly on the issue.

Daly may also have been influenced by City Controller Ben Rosenfield's financial analysis of the amendment which stated that "the estimated costs of the proposed benefits represent 30% to 100% of the (taxi) industry's gross revenue. If the taxi industry absorbed some of these costs, it would need to increase revenue ... possibly by increasing fares, or by some other means."

Another way to put it might be to say that the amendment wasn't financially feasible.

In any case, Supervisor Daly appears to have seen the writing on the wall and it spelled out defeat.

For the rest of us, count it as one victory in a long war.