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Cab Driver, Once More ‘round the Block

Struggling Weekly, March 26, 1981


            It’ll be time for another drive down Memory Lane next weekend for yours truly.

            A postcard of the Old Yellow Cab and Transfer Co. building in Madison arrived recently and announced the sixth-annual Yellow Cab Strike Reunion, an event that is beginning to assume the status of the high-school anniversary get-togethers, right down to the drunken good fellowship and endless reminiscing.

            These events are significant to me because I spent a good chunk of my life as a cab driver in our state capital, approximately five very impressionable years of my early adulthood. Going to these reunions is like hopping on a time machine, back to those days which seemed neither good nor old at the time, but are starting to take on a certain bittersweet glow now.

            The reunions are held in early April, to commemorate that day in 1975 when our bargaining unit walked out on strike, never to return to work. It was a momentous day, even for the part-timers like myself who had less at stake in the economic issues involved. For the cab company, and driving cab, were more than a workplace and a job — they were a way of life that slowly changed all of us who, for whatever reasons, were thrust, lured or tripped by fate into living it.

            The job didn’t require all that much in terms of experience or knowledge; you only had to look at some of our rookies to realize that. A half-dozen hours of training, a street directory and a map, a coin changer and a City of Madison permit, were enough to get you started.

            But once you took your first cab out, the life began imposing its demands on you. For instance, navigating the Mad City Maze, where a half-dozen arterials funnel through a mile-wide isthmus of land crisscrossed with one-way streets, diagonal and dead-end streets, all spreading out to suburbs of systemless roadways, and confusing methods of numbering them.

            Then there were the problems of dealing with passengers, both regular and irregular, in a public relations job complicated by operating out of a moving office; trying to co-exist with fellow workers for whom the norm was hardly normal, in a situation where the pie (the total ridership, and hence the money to be made) was split up according to a dog-eat-dog, take-what-you-can-get contest staged on a three-dimensional game board miles across.

            On top of that, you were working under a management that viewed its workers as barely above contempt, and certainly below decent treatment. And did I mention hauling drunks, getting ripped off (by fares and fellow drivers), sitting for hours without a call and working all-night shifts in blizzards?

            Those conditions forged a group of workers who had to delicately balance competition and coexistence, shared suffering and self-protection. The “hacks” and dispatchers were a group that could party together amiably one night — and fight over a $1.25 fare the next morning. They could chat with civility in the drivers’ room only hours after having called each other “rubberhoods” and “rip-offs” over the radio.

            Our union was ill-fated from the start. Bringing together that bunch of individuals was a major project, and the organizing campaign was one crisis after another, it seemed.

            On the day of our representation election, the Teamsters office in Milwaukee (under the control of the notorious Fitzsimmons faction) decided to put our local (695, which had been taken over by a renegade group called Teamsters for Democracy) into receivership. As a result, our first bargaining effort (and the one-day strike that concluded it) ended with a contract agreement that made the term “sweetheart” an understatement.

            The second strike, the one which we commemorate with our annual reunions, was a three-month-long affair that degenerated into a funeral watch over an empty building, marathon Dirty Clubs games, all-night beer-drinking sessions and frisbee tossing in the parking lot. It culminated with the cab company not applying for new permits (effectively going out of business), the Teamsters throwing in the towel — and a beery, teary party on the day it all ended. For many of us (myself included) it was the beginning of a new life, a semi-traumatic tumble into The Real World.

            Now we gather yearly, some or most of us — like the Class of Whenever, only more often — to catch up on where we’ve gotten to and reminisce about where we were. It’s fun, and harmless (except for the morning-after effects), but it sure does put you through some changes.

            I said before that these reunions were a little like a time machine, and they are — but one that takes you back to the same era, but a different place. As a group, we used to talk about someone who had finally moved on (or back) into their chosen profession, as having taken “a real job."

            Most of us now have real jobs — and real children, wives, husbands, divorces (or some combination thereof), houses and careers. Pounds have been shed or added, ditto for beards, long hair and crazy notions.

            Freed from our old selves, our competitiveness and petty grievances, we can glad-hand, back-slap, drink to each other’s health and not worry about what the meter will read the next day, or who was to blame. Through the magic of nostalgia, we can go back to a time when cab driving was fun and profitable, the passengers friendly and no impish future waited to trip us up and spill us into our present selves.

            So, driver, take me back — but leave the meter off this time. There’s a big tip in it for you.


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