The Voice of Yellow Cab

Between the Buttons, Aug. 30, Sept 6 and 13

Part I

            (A recent postcard from ex-roommate Craig “The Coach” Enge set me to thinking about our cab driving days together in Madison — and reminded me that I hadn’t written any more chapters for my taxi exposé, “The April Fools,” lately. That omission is hereafter rectified.)

            While New York City and other major metropolises may be famous for their cruising cabs (most people associate cab driving with wildly-gesturing men flagging down a passing taxi), we Madison hacks got only occasional fares off the curb. Most of the business came in over the phones — and to get the message to the driver, you had to have dispatchers and radios.

            The dispatcher’s job fascinated me from my first day at the cab company. A radio announcer at heart, I craved the chance to talk to people over the airwaves — but didn’t think I had the voice to make it in real radio.

            Added to that was the challenge of keeping track of all those streets, addresses, cabs and calls. I have to admit that getting an hourly wage, instead of hustling for a commission, had it’s positive points, too.

            Since the day and evening shifts were pretty hectic, new dispatchers got their start on the weekend night or graveyard shifts — usually the latter, since nobody else would take them. Instead of testing your wits, these tested your tolerance for boredom.

            With most of the calls after bar time being regular ones called in in advance, all three or four drivers on the road knew them. “Deadheading” to the vicinity of a call was officially frowned upon, so the drivers would jockey for position nearest to them — with often humorous (if you weren’t dispatching) results. Just as often, the drivers would just give up and come sit in the office — when all I wanted to do was lean back in my chair and nod off.

            Boredom can push a human to do strange things. In the wee small hours, I was known to get kind of crazy — play strange music over the air, make the drivers figure out the calls from clues and generally do the things that you couldn’t get away with during normal hours. The passengers weren’t exempt from the fun, either — especially the regulars, who I got very used to.

            One, who fit the stereotype of the absent-minded professor pretty well, would call about 6 a.m., rousing me out of a terminal drowse with a “Higgins here — 227 Princeton,” then would pause and always throw in a “Ready to go!” I took it for just so long, then started asking “Are you ready to go, professor?” just before he was ready to ask.

Part II

            After working the graveyard shifts for several months, I anxiously awaited an opportunity to move into a full-time position. My chance came when the night dispatcher quit; that, in fact, was the shift I had long coveted. I edged out a couple of other drivers on seniority and dispatching experience, and got the job.

            One of the reasons I preferred the night shift was that, coming in at 4 p.m., one had an hour and a half, maybe two, of rush business, then coasted until bar time. (The day dispatcher, on the other hand, could be busy from the moment he sat down at 7:00 a.m. till he was replaced in the afternoon; he also had to deal with the personalities of more than 30 day drivers, while the night dispatcher had to cope with a dozen regulars and various part-timers.)

            That hour and a half, though, could be pretty intense. Here’s how the normal week night shift would run: I would stroll in minutes before or after 4:00, and trade a few jibes with Peter Loy, the day dispatcher, who would turn over “The Chair of Control” to me.

            I would sit down to find anywhere from 15 to 35 or more slips of paper in front of me, each somebody (or something) trying to get from point A to point B. Circulating on the streets of Madison were as many as 43 cab drivers, most of them eager — often all too eager — to do the moving.

            Regardless of how busy it was, I always tried to begin my shift with a pleasant, “Good afternoon, Yellows!” This always set the radio buzzing — Tony Spataro growling “Shut up and dispatch the calls” or something equally endearing, Hi’s, hellos, whistles and wolf calls from the friendlier drivers.

            Then I would go into the spiel. “I need empty yellows or destinations, on or near the Square, on the Campus, south on the Hill, south the Park Post, west near Westgate, west near West Towne, south on the four lane, south near Nob Hill, east in the Village, Truax, Union Corners, north Northgate or Sherman Plaza, side of the Bus” and so on.

            The radio system we used, however, would allow only one cab to respond at a time; where they overlapped, an interference was set up rendering voices practically unintelligible. I very quickly learned that trying to get entire transmissions from each driver was out of the question — but my ear for voices allowed me to identify drivers quickly, and my powers of recall helped me figure out where they were from the garbled reports.

            What followed was an intuitive computation of which cab was: closest to the call (time and/or distance), proceeding near there with a fare (and which would empty soonest), in the best position to get the call, and a variety of other factors, including whether a particular driver had gone out of his/her way to “help the board,” whether they were a day driver who was staying out too late, or whose night driver was waiting for their cab.

            The decision had to be made quickly and stuck to — one of our sayings was that “a dispatcher is never wrong.” Drivers, particularly the veteran day drivers, loved to test a new dispatcher’s resolve.

            Of course, all the time you were talking, listening, computing and dispensing, more calls were coming in. Like with any demanding job, it was rewarding to succeed, methodically clearing the board of calls.

            Conversely, it was frustrating at times, too, There were times when the calls wouldn’t work together, the drivers balked at going out of their way, or ripped each other off, passengers no-loaded you and on and on.

Part III

            Other than rush hours, dispatching could be pretty boring. When things slowed down in the evening, the only entertainment would be parceling out a couple calls per hour to a dozen or more drivers. It was at times like this that my friend Sal, also known as Mr. D, would pipe up out of the silence with a “More and Better!”

            During the summer, even the rush hour got pretty dead  — except for the time that lightning struck a tree across the street not once, but twice, in a 10-minute period. (So much for one old theory.) This fried the power lines into the building, knocking out lights, radio — and the bells and lights on the phones.

            We carried on by picking up the phones at random until we found a call, then dispatching them over the “hotlines” (direct phone lines to hotels, motels, bus terminals, hospitals, etc.) where the drivers were waiting. The system worked, but it was slow and clumsy — and only more so when it got dark and we had to work by candlelight.

            Usually, though, we had to provide our own entertainment. The cab company frowned on anything other than business going out over the air; the Federal Communications Commission, they claimed, monitored the airwaves regularly, and fined licensees who didn’t play it straight.

            I simply refused to believe that they heard every sparrow fall, and freewheeled it quite a bit — without any federal hassles. Jokes and games were common, along with puns on street names and landmarks. Songs coming over the ever-present FM radio in the office were known to go out over the air — if I felt that the management was not tuned in.

            One of the company and FCC requirements I did enjoy was the station identification. We were supposed to give our call letters every 15 minutes, and I would usually put on my best radio voice and do it up right. “This is KSA-769, the Voice of Yellow Cab in Madison,” I would modulate, giving a weather report, or perhaps a public service announcement such as “Do you drivers no where your cabs are?”

            Other dispatchers, however, didn’t enjoy the IDs as much as I did, and got lax. After a couple FCC warnings, the management installed an automatic device — a tape loop not unlike an eight-track cartridge — that ground out the call letters in a terrible monotone.

            The drivers hated it, and there was more than a little joy in their voices when the unreliable contraption expired, slurring the message unrecognizably in the process. “The little man in the box just died,” was the way one put it.

            It was all good fun during the evenings, but rush hours wore me down in six short months, reducing me to a near-nervous wreck. (It didn’t help that we were organizing a union at the time, and I, as a full-time dispatcher, was a handy target for company harassment.)

            I bowed out of the evening show, hitting the streets again. I did return after awhile to emcee the ever popular Saturday night show on KSA — and in fact had the dubious honor of being the last Saturday night dispatcher when the company shut down for good (after a three-month strike) in 1975.

            My dreams of having a board full of calls and not being able to get rid of one stopped a couple years ago, but I occasionally daydream about sitting down in the “Chair of Control” again. Thank goodness, it’s impossible to do.