Hacking Houston–The Job

"Budgets were tight for many of my passengers, with no room to spare; I’d see them in the rearview mirror, clutching their coin purse or their wallet, eyes alternating anxiously between the meter and the road."

Yellow cab image

From January to December of 1973, I drove for Yellow Cab Company of Houston, mostly on day shift but the last two months on nights. Usually I worked nine to ten hours a day, five days a week, bringing home maybe $15 a week in tips and $45 from the company—roughly minimum wage. The company and I split the amount taken in on fares, with me paying for the gas I used. Fares started at 65¢; then the meter jumped 10¢ every 2/9 of a mile, and another 10¢ for every minute of waiting time. Waiting time meant any time the cab wasn’t moving—not just stops the passenger wanted to make, but also stoplights or heavy traffic. Sometimes I’d be on the freeway at rush hour, going nowhere, and my passenger would express disbelief when the loud click of the meter signaled another 10¢ increase in the fare, so I’d turn the timer off. That meant immobility wouldn’t cost him money—only me. Usually I’d get about ten rides per shift, averaging maybe two or three dollars each. Trips from a hotel to the airport were great, usually running ten or twelve bucks, and once I had a fare top $20—two Greek sailors, docked at the Houston ship channel, unable to speak English, wandered with me to the far ends of the Houston metropolitan area in search of the stereo of their dreams. They never found it.

About a third of the passengers didn’t tip at all. The rest might leave a quarter or so, and occasionally someone would give me a dollar or two. The largest tip I ever got came on a Saturday morning, from a middle-aged guy who had gotten drunk the night before and misplaced his car; we scoured the East End looking for it, with no success, but still he left me $8.05. Budgets were tight for many passengers, with no room to spare; I’d see them in the rearview mirror, clutching their coin purse or their wallet, eyes alternating anxiously between the meter and the road. If the tips sound low, it’s partly because I had relatively few business travelers but a lot of passengers who were struggling to get by: people who never learned to drive, or couldn’t afford a car; older folks unable to walk to a bus stop, or frightened by the complexities of the bus system; moms with young kids living in the housing projects; people who were lost; old ladies needing help with their groceries; people with no friends or relatives to give them a ride. Older passengers not only made up a large portion of my fares, but also had a distinctive way of getting into the cab: often they announced their destination even before they had the door fully open, and then, while they were laboriously climbing in, started talking about how slowly they moved or what ailments they suffered from.

One way to get a fare was to wait in line, either at Hobby Airport in southeast Houston or at the much larger Intercontinental Airport in the far north, or at one of the major hotels—located either downtown or on S. Main or in the affluent southwest part of town. The stands at the hotels were often hard to get on because they had room for only a few cabs, whereas you could always get in the line at the airport, but might have to wait three hours for a ride. One time I dropped a passenger off at the airport and was planning to head back to town, rather than sit idle for hours, when I saw that there were no cabs in line, none at all, and the attendant was waving me over to the pickup area, passengers and luggage all ready to go. What a godsend.

The other way to get passengers was by working the radio. Yellow Cab divided the city into about eighty zones, each with a stand located in a parking lot or on a street. When someone called for a ride, the company would determine the zone of the pickup point; the dispatcher then announced it on the radio, assigning the ride to the cab at that stand. If no one was at the stand, the dispatcher would open the call to any cab in the area, giving the ride to the driver who responded first on the radio. Usually you could get more rides through the radio than at the hotels or airports, but the trips would be shorter and the tips smaller.

Color map of Houston showing cab zones
One of the maps I used as a cab driver, with cab zones and cab stands highlighted.

The headaches of hacking were many: constantly fretting over money and never making much; getting hammered by the traffic, barely moving, getting no rides and making no money; creeping along on flooded streets triggered by heavy rains and overflowing bayous, sometimes so bad after a downpour that a low-lying road could look like an archipelago of stalled, abandoned vehicles; suffocating in the south Texas heat and humidity, made worse by the heavy, acrid odors of the ship channel, and getting no relief at all from the cab’s broken-down air conditioner; driving on unfamiliar streets or through unfamiliar interchanges, not knowing where you’re going or how to get there, trying not to slam into the vehicle in front of you while reading a street map propped up on the steering wheel; waiting an hour and a half at a cab stand, finally getting a radio call, and driving to the address, only to learn that the person changed his mind and doesn’t want a cab after all; weaving through clogged streets to get your passenger where he wants to go, then finding out he doesn’t have any money; circling the same downtown blocks over and over, the streets thick with traffic, trying to find an open hotel space and a few minutes’ respite; fighting all day to get an open radio call and missing every time; floundering for two hours, unable to land a ride, finally getting one over the radio, then using the map to guide you down some back streets, picking up your fare, taking her three blocks for an 85¢ ride, and getting no tip.

The condition of the cabs was another aggravation. Usually I was assigned cab number 622, which according to the odometer had only four thousand miles on it when I first took the wheel, but it was a beaten old wreck from the beginning. The first day I had it, the clerk gave me only an ignition key, so I asked where the trunk key was, but he said I didn’t need one, just push the button in the glove compartment and the trunk will open; which I did but it didn’t; so then he said turn on the electrical system and it’ll work; which I did but it didn’t; so then he said start the car and maybe it’ll open, which it did. For a week anyway, after which it wouldn’t open at all, but he said, don’t worry, you probably won’t need the trunk anyway. Which I didn’t, at least not for a few weeks, when I had my first flat, coincidentally on the day of Houston’s first snowfall in thirteen years. It wasn’t too bad, though, since I was in a parking lot when it happened, unlike a couple of months later when I was cruising down the South Loop Freeway and one of the tires exploded like a shotgun. If I couldn’t get into the trunk I couldn’t get the spare, but often the spare was flat anyway so it was kind of academic. Besides, most of the cabs were missing either the lug wrench or the jack, so who cared about the spare? The company was big on retreads, so you had to be ready for blowouts, although they weren’t nearly as common as dead batteries or broken alternator belts or busted fuel gauges. Often one of the turn signals on 622 was out of order, although giving hand signals in the rain wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I hadn’t had to simultaneously crane my neck and peek about to find a spot on the windshield that the worn-out wiper blades hadn’t smeared. Stopping 622 in wet weather was hard, but stopping its engine in any weather was harder. It would sputter for minutes, even after I had turned off the ignition, removed the key, and eaten half my Big Mac. Sometimes, walking into a 7-11, I’d stop and watch while the vehicle, turned off and locked, continued to shake spasmodically as though in the throes of death, finally expiring with an exhausted sigh.

Still, it could have been worse. I could have been stuck with 623, which dragged through the summer without air conditioning, or 82, which robbed me of a pair of pants the one time I drove it. It had a broken seat spring, one sharp end of which had burrowed through the upholstery on the driver’s side. For a while I had 379. Sometimes while waiting at a stoplight, its parking brake would automatically engage; then for several blocks the engine would be on the verge of stalling, until the brake, again automatically and just as mysteriously, disengaged.

I had never driven a single block in Houston before my first day with Yellow Cab. At that point I had lived in the city about four months. My girlfriend (later my wife) and I had come to Houston on bicycles, spending a blistering summer pedaling across New Mexico and Texas after graduating from college in Santa Fe. We didn’t end up in Houston by design; it’s just that we were worn out and so were our bikes and we had 11¢ in our pockets, so that’s where we stopped. We didn’t have a car, so we got around town by bus and on foot. If I could drive a cab, I thought, if they’d let me—man, would I learn this city. I wanted to drink it all in, the whole metropolis, I wanted the city hardwired in my brain, pulsing through my nervous system—not just the cultural and historical sites, but also every belching factory, every dilapidated housing project, every ramshackle street that was tucked away in obscurity, known by almost no one, but still a strand in this vast metropolitan fabric. Before applying for a cab driver’s license, I spent days poring over city maps, color-coding the major thoroughfares, quizzing myself on street names and addresses and buildings—where’s One Shell Plaza, Sam Houston Coliseum, Telephone Road? How about the Houston Oaks Hotel, Settegast Railroad Yards, and Hempstead Highway? When I thought I was ready, I took a bus to City Hall. I didn’t ace the geography test but they decided I knew enough. A week later I was hacking.

My 1973 cab driver's license

Every day I would take two mostly empty buses through dark, chilly streets to get to the cab lot, and two hot, crowded buses to get home. I’d leave my apartment at five in the morning and get home at five or six in the evening. Cab driving was a tough way to make a living, with long hours, no guaranteed income, difficult passengers, endless battles with traffic, and the constant fight for business; and although the job was draining, it was not physical work, so there was no way to burn off the tensions that accumulated. As a result, long-term cab drivers usually looked worn-out and overweight. Three distinct breeds of drivers served the city: the chauffeurs (black, middle-aged, professional, polite, wore chauffeurs’ caps), the cabbies (white, middle-aged, paunchy, and vocal), and the hustlers (young, cool, black and white, the adventurers of the streets). For cab drivers, New York was The City and Los Angeles the idolator of the automobile, but Houston was proud to be a city, proud of its unregulated expansion, its boom-town feel, and so was a good place for a cab driver, who is by nature fascinated by cities, and makes a living by keeping them moving.

Cab image: Nerthuz/Shutterstock.com

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