Hacking for the Jackpot

Between the Buttons, Feb. 2, 16 and 23, 1978

Part I

            During my cab driving days in Mad City, there were several “jackpots” that every driver hoped for; they were the sort of thing that could turn a loser of a night into a winner, on one or two runs.

            The “split-load” was the best deal in terms of time, money and effort, since most of the money you made was “on the side,” going into your pocket rather than the company’s. At the bus depots and the airport, the number of fares often exceeded the cabs available, especially when students were returning to the UW. At those times, an ambitious driver would try to get as many different fares in his cab as was possible.

            The idea behind split-loading was to charge each passenger all or part of the fare, with discounts (based on some very rapid and not always accurate mental calculations) applied for time delays and going out of the way. The meter could run 30 to 50 per cent over a single-fare run, but the total from four or five passengers should far exceed that. The difference, of course, went in the driver’s pocket. The amount was known only by God and the cabbie; the IRS and the company were not in on the secret.

            How much you made on a split-load depended on a number of factors: how many people you could stuff into the taxi, how generous you were with your discounts (I was always a soft touch myself) and how well you lined up your splits (if you went to five widely separated destinations, you could conceivably lose on the deal).

            The first factor would seem to have some obvious physical limitations; you can, after all, get only just so many people into a cab. Nevertheless, stories circulated about some incredible exploits. For instance, a seasoned Checker hack, with not much smarts and even fewer scruples, reportedly crammed over a dozen students into his Checker Marathon, making good use of the front, rear and jump seats, as well as (according to reliable accounts) the trunk.

            The second factor was dependent on the cabbie’s rapacity, and his/her ability to jive the passenger. If you could lead the last fare in the cab to believe that they should pay full fare for the 45-minute, four-mile scenic tour you had just given them, you were a good salesman; if you could get the full meter and a tip, you could probably make a living selling freezers in Nome.

            The third factor required that the driver have a sketchy idea of Madison, to avoid stringing the split all over the city. It also produced some hard bargaining at the depot between drivers, and more than a few irate passengers. Those hacks that “played the buses” would sooner sit at the depot and wait for the next bus than take a single fare going north or east. They would pass up a ride halfway to Sun Prairie, rather than lose the place in line.

Part II

            Two weeks ago, I wrote about split-loading, one of the more profitable sidelines to cab driving in Madison. This column is about another route to easy (relatively speaking) money.

            Occasionally, various lobbyists, rich drunks and other losers would hire a cab for the evening, and keep it waiting outside the establishment they were eating, drinking and/or partying in. Some of these high-rollers wanted instant service, some wanted to impress the peons; most either had more money than they knew what to do with, or were spending someone else’s.

            All too often, these individuals were drunk, patronizing, obnoxious or some combination of all three. Like so many things in life, these extended fares were compromises, trade-offs; in this case, between how much nonsense the driver could tolerate, and the attraction of sitting there, with the meter clicking away at a dime a minute, not fighting traffic, not having to listen to your radio and, of course, contemplating the possibility of the Big Tip.

            Our cab company had several “regular” customers of this sort — not that they spent every evening in a cab, but they hired taxis regularly enough to be well known to the drivers. Three of them come to mind immediately: one was a lobbyist at the state capitol, another the spendthrift son of a wealthy family; the third was, of all things, an aluminum-siding salesman.

            Of the three, the lobbyist was occasionally a fare of mine, but never for an all-nighter. An intelligent man, his profession of gently strong-arming our elected representatives, and his carelessness with money and peoples’ feelings, made him vaguely repulsive. I preferred to avoid him, but I was never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, even if I didn’t like the looks of its dental work.

            The second threw a lot of money at other drivers, as he cut a very wide swath through the Madison night scene. He’s dead now; the rumor was that he blew himself away with a shotgun. So much for money being able to buy happiness, or even the lack of its opposite.

            The third never rode with me either, but his exploits were legendary; an evening with Charlie was known to put $40-50 on the meter, with an equal amount “on the side.” A rather pathetic character, Charlie would continually ask the driver if he had paid him enough.

            If the cabbie hesitated even a moment, Charlie would get out his roll and hand over more money, until conscience overcame the driver. On one occasion, his tip was known to include a box of groceries.

            My major experience of this sort involved the owner of a variety store in Madison, who apparently felt the need one night to impress some people. He made a nuisance of himself for several hours, including dragging me into a black nightclub, where his patronizing obnoxiousness quickly made us very unpopular.

            Despite the fact that I was enjoying the jazz being played there, I was only too glad to leave; I had a feeling of impending disaster. I was also glad to rid of my fare later; I don’t know what was greater, my pleasure in separating him from a pile of cash, or the unpleasant memories of his attitudes and actions. Trade-off time again, I guess.

            In next week’s column, I’ll describe the third of hackdom’s jackpots, the out-of-town trip, and how I scored two such fares one lucky night (and morning).

Part III

            While split-loading and hours-long fares required less behind-the-wheel effort, the out-of-town fare was a driver’s dream.

            After hours of crawling through traffic during the rush hour, elbowing your way through chaos on the Capitol Square, or sitting for hours in a post, awaiting a call, the prospect of wheeling along the open road, making $.30 for every mile you traveled, was very appealing.

            On top of that, you got a change of scenery, and a chance to hear an interesting tale. People seldom casually hire a cab to take them from town to town; there is usually an interesting reason behind it.

            Out of town runs had their drawbacks, too; getting burned on a $2.50 fare was one thing, while getting ripped-off for $35 was something else entirely. We were supposed to take steps against that possibility; a deposit equal to the estimated cost of the trip was, in theory, supposed to be in the driver’s possession before the trip began.

            I never asked for the deposit, being a trusting soul in this and all dealings with customers. (I found that if you trust people, they usually don’t let you down; I can’t ever recall being ripped-off by a fare.)

            Old-timers at the cab company related stories of marathon trips, such as Madison to Superior, with a night’s stay in a motel as part of the fare. These were rare, however; in my four years in the business, nothing of that sort happened. Runs to Chicago or Milwaukee were not so rare; bad weather would often ground the planes and slow the buses, and some folks just can’t wait.

            The vast majority of out-of-town runs went to the small towns that ringed Madison — Oregon, Cross Plains, Verona, Waunakee, Sun Prairie. These were pleasant, low-risk jaunts; a fast trip and few “dead” miles.

            We even had one regular rider from Oregon, a fellow who had decided that cars just weren’t worth the trouble of owning. He was also fortunate enough to be able to spend the week at his place of work, a state fish hatchery on the outskirts of Madison.

            I hauled many of these short trips, a fair number of medium-length ones, but no real “long shots.” My longest runs were: to Arena (about 45 miles), to Dodgeville (about the same), from Portage (37 miles) and to Cambridge (about 28 miles).

            The passengers on those rides made an interesting cross-section: a young sailor home on leave; an independent contractor whose truck had broken down in Illinois and who had thumbed it as far as Madison when it began to rain; a nurse from Alaska, visiting her brother in Portage (and unable to stand her sister-in-law any longer), who called in the middle of the night; and a young lady, just off the bus and seeking the quickest way to get to her fiancé’s house.

            I forgot to mention one other drawback to the out-of-town fare — the near certainty that you would drive as many miles empty as you would with a passenger. Around town, or even on a run to the city limits, there was always the chance that you could pick up something to bring you back in; on out-of-town fares, the odds were against that bonus.

            It was not always so, however; in a future column (maybe even next week), I’ll recount the story of how Lucky 11 scored not one but two long ones, back to back.