Confessions of a lady cab driver
E. Katie Holm. Special thanks to Doug Luchsinger of A Taxi for loaning the 1978 Checker Marathon.
A woman slipped into the backseat of my cab, sobbing. Since I am, as a general rule, uncomfortable around tears, I wanted her to stop.
"The rule in my taxi is that if you're going to cry, you must share the story behind the tears," I told her, expecting the typical "my boyfriend/girlfriend dumped me" or "I lost my job."
Instead: "My daughter drowned a few days ago. And tonight I came home to find my husband on top of our neighbor."
The cab fell silent, as if all the air had been sucked out. As she spoke, the tears stopped and her speech became flat and void of emotion.
The pressure pushed me to say something, anything, to break the silence. But what do you say to something like that? Tears began to creep into the corners of my eyes.
As I dropped her off at a motel, I thought about the story she shared: a woman baring her soul about (I hope) the worst thing that will happen to her. What would compel someone to share something so raw and intimate with a complete stranger?
But I already knew. Cab drivers are the nomadic priests of the streets, hauling people from every walk of life, listening to their confessions. We offer no absolution, no penance, only a listening ear.
We see the best and worst of humanity.
Lady cab drivers not particularly wanted
My adventures as a cabbie began when I was laid off from my nine-to-five at a tech firm in the North Loop. Shortly thereafter, I lost my night gig serving at Chino Latino, an Uptown restaurant.
Though I had lost my jobs, I hadn't been able to lose my bills. Ask anyone who has experienced a job loss how quickly the bank account drains when the faucet turns off.
So I sat down and began listing temporary money-making options while I interviewed with other tech companies. As a joke, I put cabbie on the list.
I'd once set up a girlfriend with a guy I met at Chino Latino in an effort to distract her from a creep she was seeing. He'd been secretly driving cab after a job loss, and offered to show me the ropes, including ways I could scam customers for a few extra dollars. Whenever people recognized him, he would claim they were wrong. He was embarrassed by his new vocation.
I told myself that if I was going to drive a cab, I'd do it honestly, in the open. After all, when most people think of a cabbie, they don't consider a sassy, mostly white woman elbowing her way into the forefront of this image. I would stick out like an albino buck in the forest — with no commercial driving experience.
I eventually found an owner-operator willing to rent to me after fighting to get my calls returned. They were desperate for drivers, but didn't want to rent to a woman, though I never fully understood why. Drivers tend to wash out quickly, and some of his drivers had been the victims of serious violence. He was being protective in his own fatherly, Egyptian way.
He rented me the worst cab in the history of cabs: a retrofitted police cruiser, filthy and barely mobile. I couldn't afford to be choosy.
The rise & fall of Neck Tattoo
It was a slow Sunday night when I grabbed a call at a cluster of apartments in Inver Grove Heights that's known for trouble among cabbies and cops. Ideal? Nope. But getting evicted from my apartment wouldn't be optimal either.
He was young and scrawny, with a charming neck tattoo. He slithered into the backseat with a case of Coors Light (very suburban 651 area code) and told me he was going to a seedy bar in an equally seedy neighborhood on St. Paul's East Side.
(What kind of customer brings a case of beer to a bar, you might ask? Someone who's not really going to a bar.)
I have come to realize that shady knows no social, economic, or ethnic commonality. Shadiness is like pornography: You know it when you see it. And I saw it.
When we reached our destination, Neck Tattoo jumped out and started to run, carrying his case of Coors Light. I was livid. I spun around in the middle of the street, jumped the curb, and drove across a vacant lot between two houses.
Cabbie warning: Do not mess with our income during the slow months of summer.
I envisioned flinging open my door, knocking him to the ground with a satisfying thud. But I thought better of it. (Body work is expensive, and I wasn't sure if running down a customer is exactly legal.)
Instead, I chose the slightly less awesome but surprisingly satisfying Jump Out of My Cab and Shove Him into a Retaining Wall option. His shoulder crushed into the wall and he tumbled to the ground. I like to think that he peed himself a little, but he was off and running again before I had the chance to confirm. I had a decision to make: continue my pursuit and leave my cab unattended, or accept the $25 loss. Giving up wasn't easy, but I didn't want to see "Vigilante Cabbie Goes Too Far" in the next morning's paper.
I would eventually have my revenge.
A few years later, a dope-dealing employee of a St. Paul gas station called me to come pick up a fare. I drove through a blizzard of white gold (cabbie fact: snow storms are very profitable) and watched as a young male poured himself into the backseat, reeking of booze. He looked like every other young, scrawny, Midwestern guy I'd had in my taxi a thousand times before.
As we headed south on Highway 52 he started to vomit. Imagine the rage you'd feel if one of your clients arrived piss drunk at your office, only to barf all over everything. I turned to freak out at him. We both realized it at the same time: Neck Tattoo had slithered back into my life.
He pleaded with me not to kick his ass or to kick him out, pulling out $100 and begging me to take him to Inver Grove. I did some quick mental math: He'd shorted me $25 a few years back; the ride today was another $25. Add in $50 for interest and the pain and suffering of cleaning up his sick.
It took a few years, but I had won.
Every cabbie has a robbery story
This is a job that requires guts and quick thinking.
Example: Gangbanger jumps into my cab and wants a ride from from St. Paul's East Side to north Minneapolis, one questionable neighborhood to another. This equals high risk, which requires a high guard and money up front.
He hints that he has a gun. Because of that, I'm "gonna" take him wherever he wants to go.
Sorry, dude, wrong cabbie. I pull into a 24-hour gas station that doubles as a cop hangout. A group of officers are gathered inside drinking coffee. I ask Mr. Badass what he thinks the boys in blue would say about his plan.
Suddenly he ain't so badass. He jumps out and penguin shuffles with a sagging-pants run into the night, muttering "this is bullshit" under his breath.
Yeah, that's what I thought.
Every line of work has its ups and downs, and almost every cabbie has a robbery story. On a slow summer night around 3 a.m., I got a call for four young hoodlums in south Maplewood. I'd dropped off a couple of my regulars, Maggie and Lucy, bartenders from Jerseys Bar. This call would hopefully take me in the direction of my bed.
But something wasn't right. The callout from the cab computer had failed, often a sign that the phone number was bogus or a long distance number. I could see four shady dudes outside of a long line of dark garages in a low-to-no-income cluster of town homes. It wasn't the address I was given, but instinct told me they were my pickup.
Critical thinking exercise: Why would four young males give a fake address and phone number to order a cab in the middle of the night? Because they were up to no good.
I locked the doors and shoved my money and cell phone in my bra. If they tried to rob me, they'd have to go to a forbidden place to get my goods.
I have a layered approach to my valuables. A purse in plain sight with no true valuables, then two cash stashes and my ID and credit cards in separate locations. If I get robbed they will go after the purse first (low-hanging fruit). If they demand cash, I can give them the small change stash. I approached with caution.
One of the sketchy dudes noticed my doors were locked. "What, you racist?" he demanded.
Every cab driver learns quickly that if someone is up to no good, he or she will call you a racist. He's playing on the hope that you will be uncomfortable (most white people are) and question your instincts.
Mr. Racist made me uncomfortable. Normally this would be the point where I drive off and live another day, but his friend, Mr. Good Guy Gangbanger, talked me into letting them in the cab.
Three climbed in and cuddled together in the back, including Mr. Racist. Mr. Good Guy sat in the front. My cabbie-sense was tingling. Something was off about these fools. Mr. Racist was the kind of guy I would read about doing something bad to a cab driver someday. I could it feel with absolute certainty.
They wouldn't give me money up front, wouldn't let me speak to the chick on the other end who was "supposed" to pay, and wouldn't give me collateral. I knew I was either going to get robbed, run on, or both, but it was too late.
I thought about pulling into a gas station and making them get out (it's illegal for me to dump them on a freeway), but there were no open gas stations en route.
When we arrived on the 200 block of East Cook, the street was so dark I could hardly see the house numbers. As I slowed, Mr. Good Guy Gangbanger grabbed my purse. His buddies ran.
If you're going to mess with me, expect some resistance. I clung to my purse.
Mr. Good Guy dragged me out the passenger side door, my grip loosening as I hit the pavement. He fled into the night with my brand new purse from Primp.
First reaction: Fuck! He nearly tore one of my nails off!
Second reaction: You'd be surprised how quickly the costs of the contents of a woman's purse add up. I had to replace my $75 moisturizer, $28 mascara, $30 hand cream, $25 lip gloss, $30 Apple earbuds, etc. In the slow months of summer, I wasn't too happy about having to replace my daily essentials.
I'd seen this moment coming, so I'd turned on the interior lights twice en route to memorize details. Blue shirt, brown shirt, and white shirt. Who was wearing caps. Which one had a backpack. In the heat of the moment, and with people sitting behind you, it's easy to be unable to ID a suspect. I calmed myself and called 911, providing detailed descriptions of each.
St. Paul police quickly sent four officers (community cheers!). A female cabdriver had been robbed (and broke a fucking nail); the boys were on it.
They set up a perimeter. I had overheard one of the thugs say something about a duplex, a first floor, and a chick. We narrowed down the house.
A police search yielded a girl on the first floor who dudes like this go to see in the middle of the night. The kind of girl who hides dudes like this was living on the second floor, according to the cops. But no dudes.
The cops cleared out and I thought they'd given up. But they returned to the duplex an hour later (this time with eight officers) and found my four dudes still wearing the same clothes. (Robbery 101: Always select a new wardrobe after the crime.)
Turns out, Mr. Racist had a long and alarming record; the guy in front was the only one with a clean record. Sadly, Mr. Good Guy Gangbanger was the only one charged. He'll now have a record of the company he kept that night.
Three dudes & a drug deal gone bad
In an effort to grow my business and to shield myself from danger, I began seeking new ways to find clients. I leveraged Siri, Apple's voice-automated assistant, to drive business to Chey Cab.
Long before people were hailing cabs on apps, I would pop up if they asked Siri to find them a taxi. My new online clientele helped insulate me from random street thugs that come through dispatch computers.
My most memorable Siri hail was the young Target employees. It was a busy winter night in St. Paul when a call came from three guys on a West Side corner near some sketchy neighborhoods. Cabbie fact: When someone calls you to a street corner in the 'hood, it's basically the same thing as someone taking a case of beer to a bar. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to not be at an address, but not usually in a bad area after dark. And certainly not in the dead of winter.
They seemed desperate, and I never got shady Siri calls back in the day when gangbangers didn't have iPhones. Their story wasn't adding up about where they were and why. And they wouldn't give me an address.
I told them to call someone else; I had other customers waiting. Forty minutes later they called back. They hadn't gotten a cab and they were turning into icicles. The desperate voice inspired me to help.
A fellow cabbie we call Sasquatch — he jokes that National Geographic follows him around — was in the area and I asked him to follow me. As a bodyguard, he was perfect. A stranger would never guess that he melts for kitties.
As I approached the neighborhood, squad cars were coming from all directions. I pulled up to the designated corner, where a man was surrounded by cops. There were supposed to be three people, and I was pretty sure the cops weren't included in that total.
A very attractive officer from West St. Paul told me they had responded to a call of suspicious activity. But my customer had a story that passed the sniff test, so they released him into my custody. When I asked the passenger about his friends, he told me they had run off. It didn't take long to find them.
One was badly beaten. The other just looked tired. They got in the cab and started yelling at customer number 1, saying that the only reason he didn't get his ass beat is because he could run faster. I interrupted the reunion and asked where we were going (Edina-Minneapolis border) and for my money up front.
It turned out that they thought it would be funny to short a drug dealer at the Plato Boulevard Holiday. They got jumped and robbed for their douchebaggery, but they learned a valuable life lesson: Hollywood does not lie about everything. Stealing from drug dealers is best left to professional actors.
As luck would have it, between the three of them they still had one wallet and one cellphone — enough for Siri and Chey Cab to save them from that cold corner.
The stripper & a murder
I once had a $20-a-day customer who earned her living by strutting in six-inch heels into the spank banks of frat boys, bachelor parties, lonely men, and sometimes women. I would pick her up at home and drop her off at work, with a designated pickup time.
One warm September day I received a call on what was supposed to be her day off. I retrieved her from a new address and took her to work. She was much quieter than normal. I would soon learn why.
Over the next few days, this $20-a-day customer blossomed into a $150-a-day customer. I kept getting calls to shuttle her from one motel to the next. Her gangbanger boyfriend told me that they were thinking of moving to Florida or Chicago, and wondered if I would take them there. Had I hit the cabbie jackpot!?
My wheels started spinning, trying to do the mental math of this payday. But they were obviously running from something — either the cops or worse.
The thought of becoming Defendant Chey, getaway driver, was less than appealing. I soon realized he was likely on the run from a murder that occurred that late September day on the East Side of St. Paul. But there was nothing in the news about him being wanted. No cops had reached out to me. So I kept driving.
Three months later, police caught up with the couple at a Bloomington hotel. The stripper had gone silent, and on a hunch I called local jails until I found them.
He'd been booked on murder, she for aiding and abetting.
The fisherwoman's primitive approach to romance
You have probably gleaned that cab drivers deal with a lot of shit and a lot of shitty people. Most of my customers are truly awesome human beings who spoil me rotten, but there are some who have no sense of boundaries, respect, or basic human decency.
One Friday night, as I pulled up to Kellogg Square to drop off one of my regulars, I noticed some riff-raff hanging out at the bus stop. They saw me arrive and jumped into the cab before my customer had a chance to pay. I knew it would be more work to remove them than to take their funky five-dollar fare.
My heart sank when one climbed into the front seat. Fuck. She gave me that look that said she wanted to mess with me, how I wasn't sure. One block into the ride, her intentions became clear.
The bitch shoved her hand up my skirt, making it past my panty line, her fingers fishing. I froze, then reacted in my best scary cabbie voice: "Get your effing hands off me!"
"You keep yo' eyes on da road," she responded. "I do what I want."
Um, no? I wanted to choke this bitch, backhand her, and dump her in the river. But it's not in my nature to react physically. The more pissed I got, the more aroused she became. She leaned back in the seat and began assaulting her own vagina, saying, "Look at you and your bad self driving this taxi."
I considered calling 911, but imagined being the fodder of morning radio shows. They say you should pick your battles, and this woman wasn't worth one.
We arrived at the destination before she had a chance to finish herself off. I barked for the $7.50 fare. After pooling their resources, they came up with a grand total of six bucks. I snatched their $6 and moved on with my life.
A few blocks later, I heard a phone ringing and a short burst of rap music. I looked to the floor, realizing I was staring karma in the face in the form of a Walmart flip phone. The fisherwoman had forgotten it.
I drove around all night with that phone ringing. Had it been any other passenger, I would have promptly returned it. But this wasn't any passenger.
I thought back to the woman who had lost her daughter and been betrayed by her husband. I thought about why people would share such powerful and personal stories with me, while others wouldn't hesitate to rob me, assault me, or even use my cab to run from a murder.
This is why, as the economy rebounded, I focused on growing a customer pipeline that would distance me from all that makes a driving cab hard work. I'd rather drive someone from Rochester to the airport than drive around murderers. These days I mostly drive good people and their cleaner money.
Around 3 a.m., I made a decision. If I couldn't have the satisfaction of knowing that the woman who had assaulted me would wash up on the banks of the Mississippi next spring, I would do the next best thing.
I pulled over on the Wakota Bridge, got out of my cab, and walked to the railing. The phone was still ringing as I looked out over the Mississippi. I threw it over the edge, watching it sail through the night, plummeting into the water below.
The satisfying splash told me that, in some small way, I had won.
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