The next thrilling installment of a simple city boy searching for the meaning of life and finding odd bits of silliness, horrific inconveniences, while being called upon to commit grand acts of bravado and daring instead….
One thing that most people never think about when they look down their noses at cab drivers is the actual good that gets done because cabs and their drivers are around. I know that for most the wild and sometimes out of control actions and attitudes of drivers constantly paints them as crazy bordering on criminal. While others may poke fun that the heavy accents and odd mannerisms of some drivers. All of which feeds the somewhat tarnished view of the industry, or might it be the Mystique.
I was working my average overnight shift scuttling around town with various folks taking them to their over-night jobs and others to their homes after a late night on the town. When I got a call to a town-home on the northwest side of Oak Park, the order said no noise customer will be waiting. So I chuckled thinking it was someone sneaking out on a sleeping partner and heading for home… I was wrong, what transpired ended being one of my more exciting adventures (there actually were a few). A woman dressed in scrubs carrying a backpack dashed out and got into the back of the cab and said “Northwestern University Hospital a fast as you can get there…” she didn’t say safely, I glanced back and said “You might want to put your seatbelt on… ” with that I turned out to the street and the race was on… “Do you have a preferred route?” I asked as I maneuvered the car through the streets of Oak Park towards the expressway. “Whatever you think will get us there fast.” she said.” I’m on a team for transplant surgery and we just got the call that a match has been located and is en route to the hospital, we have to be ready to go when its gets there…” “If your going to take the expressway why aren’t you getting on at Harlem?” She asked. “By getting on at Austin we’ll avoid any traffic snarls cause the cars getting on and off on the left hand side of the road and Austin also becomes the fourth lane of the Ike into downtown.”
For anyone not from Chicago, there are only two entrances and exits on the Eisenhower expressway that are on the left-side of the road, for some reason this causes drivers to get very wary and slow down when they approach that section of the Ike (both allow access to and from Oak Park). The end result is a lot of delays getting through that area. Even though there many other expressways around Chicago with similar set-ups.
She said nothing more as we turned on to Austin and maneuvered into the turn lane for the Ike. It was at that time in the morning after the bars had closed and day businesses where still hours from opening, so the expressway was relatively empty. As we drove down the ramp I opened her up, my cab #407 had just recently been turned into a cab and I was the first driver assigned to it. It had been told to me that it had previously been the River Forest Fire Chief’s car, everything on the car worked and had been well maintained. It also sported the “police package” giving tons of power and good acceleration. It was time to find out just how good it was. I hit the Ike at about seventy and kept accelerating for a bit. The car with its heavy-duty suspension and big engine handled the high rate of speed with ease. I felt confident in 407’s ability as we hurled ourselves towards the loop. Minutes later we were on the ramp leading under the post office and straight into the loop. My passenger finally spoke; “Aren’t we going to be caught by a lot of lights going this way?” “Not I if time it right, there’s a trick for getting through the gauntlet of lights on Congress Parkway to Lake Shore Drive which is the quickest route to Northwestern.” I replied. There used to be a trick with the traffic lights in Chicago, that if you hold the right speed you could make several lights in a row before they’d catch you with a red. Most of the time you had to hold at thirty-two miles per hour and that did the trick. The loop was no exception. I let the cab keep slowing down as we approached the first set of what appears to be a sea of traffic lights. They were red as we approached. then changed to green I punched it back up thirty-two and we rolled through lights past the new Harold Washington Library (still getting its finishing touches) and continue towards Michigan Avenue (which wasn’t in-sync with the rest) I sped up after we pasted under the “el” tracks and made it into the intersection just as it turned red. I continued through, We where just breaking the lines of the cross-walks as the light turned red and everyone realizing it was a cab held back knowing I’d be going through (they’d been well-trained by city cabs that red means go really fast…) we finally had brief stop at Columbus Drive but only momentarily as after a couple of quick turns and we were on Lake Shore Drive.
Lake Shore Drive as it’s now known was built-in 1937 and called Lief Erickson drive, the name changed to Lake Shore Drive in 1946. One feature of the modern drive is an “S” curve that’s gently glides the driver up the bridge that crossed the Chicago River. But before they remodeled it the late 80’s, early 90’s that part of the drive just north of Jackson had the S-Curve, two 90 degree turns that many Chicagoans cut their driving teeth on. During the day it was a constant traffic snarl but at night cars driven by Chicagoans looking for a little excitement and unsuspecting tourist most of whom knew nothing about the night-time ritual they in which were about to unwittingly partake as cars flew into the two 20mph turns at highway speeds or better to test driver and machine as the wheel had to be thrown full right with tires squealing, noses diving, then as roar of engines replaced the momentary break in the sound of squealing tires as the race to the second 90 degree turn of the curve commenced in a sometimes deadly race set against back-drop of the heart of downtown Chicago at night. Detroit’s finest competed against German and Japanese offerings.
Sadly though, those days were gone as I accelerated 407 though the now kinder gentler redesigned curves, however, like many of those bygone days I was stomping on the gas, my ’69 Chevy Nova Fastback replaced by a newer Chevy Caprice Classic with a heavy-duty suspension and powerful engine as the cab maneuvered effortlessly through the new curve as a more important race was being run. we were making excellent time and my hunch that going through the loop and on to the drive was paying off big in time saved. However, in front of us was one more trouble spot I knew of and we were approaching it quickly. The nurse sat quietly in the backseat. During the trip we were the fastest car on the road. Not a good place to be if you’re an experienced driver on a road where you know the cops like to hide waiting for speeders. I was speeding, just a wee bit…
As we approached a hill on LSD (Lake Shore Drive) near Ontario was one of those places. When the cab hit the bottom of the hill I backed off the gas, when I realized we’d still be over acceptable limits on the other side I stepped on the brake and two cars that had been following us quickly passed over the top and sure enough on came the blue lights. sadly for one of them Kmart wasn’t offering a special, however, the brave lads of the CPD were. I held the cab to the posted speed while they choose which of my shadows they were going to chase. “You knew he was there?” the nurse breaking her silence asked, “I suspected, I grew up driving this road.” I said. After the officers made their choice and the lucky winner was on the side of the road, we resumed our mission “It should be clear to Chicago, now” I added as we quickly gained on and re-gained one of my shadows, who surprisingly followed my lead closely until we reached the end of out trip on LSD.
Getting off the drive we were back on city streets but real close to our final destination. As I pulled up into the drive stopping at the main entrance the nurse leaned forward handed my thirty dollars for an eighteen dollar trip said thanks jumped out of the cab and ran into the Hospital. I was stunned by her generosity for second as I tucked the bills in my vest and cleared the computer booking into the loop, hoping to get a trip back to the Burbs. I didn’t so I dead-headed back to town. Getting back to Oak Park I swung by the cab company. I figured I’d check in with Kirk about the morning airports and take care of some other business. As I pulled into the garage I could see Kirk get up and head for the door, He met me in the garage. “I’m glad it was you that got that order, I figured there’d be little chance of the car breaking down and she really needed to get there.” he said with a big grin. I laughed; “Yeah it was a fun ride, she gave me thirty for the trip.” I replied. “Not surprising since your meter was on for only eleven minutes…” He started laughing; “You know it’s about a fifteen mile trip…” I shrugged and replied; “She said she needed to get there fast as possible. I’d have had her there faster but we got stopped by a couple of lights.” “I didn’t even realize how cute she was until she was running into the hospital..” with that we both laughed for a few and stepped into the dispatch-room.
There were a lot people who worked the over-night Dispatch in those days but I always got the most interesting trips working with Kirk. One night while Kirk was at the desk, I got a charge trip for Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter for women. It was the middle of winter and it had been snowing most of the night. Good for business, bad for roads. Typical Chicago snow storm, road crews unable to keep up with onslaught as a mess of new snow fell on the streets already clogged from the last storm only a few days earlier. The call was on Chicago’s west-side a rough section of the city adjacent to Oak Park. This call was in a tricky part of the area near the old Motorola plant just off Austin and just south the rail-bridge that spans it. A tangle of very narrow one-way streets were made even narrower by all the snow. I maneuvered 407 through the snowy ruts as made my way through maze leading to the pick up destination on Mason. The order on the computer was clear, No luggage, just the woman and her kids. No call out, NO HORN, She’ll be ready and waiting. As I pulled up to the pick up point the street was snowy wonderland of yellow street lamps illuminating cars some completely buried by the snow it was cool looking, except for the reason I was there preventing me, I might have paused a minute to take it all in. There was no place to park when I pulled up so I hit the hazards with the cab running completely blocking the street. I thought “Great some idiot is going to pull up behind me and start honking…” as I glanced over at the door of the two flat that held my passenger it opened and three kids came out, two carrying bags of belongings and the third had a baby. Oh shit I thought as I grabbed my mag-lite and mace and jumped out the door of the cab and went around to the other side of the cab. “Momma needs help with rest of the bags…” the oldest child said as I opened the passenger door and they began climbing in. I turned around and headed towards the open door of the flat. Momma was there, struggling with five or six additional bags, I grabbed a few from her and said; “C’mon ma’am, we need to get you and the kids out of here…” I led her back to the cab, luckily still no-one behind us I thought as we loaded the last of the trash-bags full personal items into the trunk, I followed her to the passenger door and closed it. I moved quickly around to the other side of the cab and was just getting myself situated as the front door of the flat opened again. I slammed the cab in gear and began the process of crawling away from house the wheels slipping and car jostled and we bounced through the snowy street towards North Avenue and hopefully escape from what was on its way to becoming a very uncomfortable situation. “That looks like daddy!” one of the kids said. “Sit down baby, the cars moving.” was all momma said. While watching the street in front of me, I glanced occasionally into the rear-view mirror. “Ma’am does he have an older sedan?” I asked watching an older big sedan bouncing its way out of a parking space into the ruts heading our way. “Yes” was all she said. “Understood” was all I replied as I coaxed a bit more speed out of 407 as we moved though the snow choked street approaching North Ave.
Getting back out on to main street eased some of my apprehension about getting away without Hubby creating one last unpleasant scene in front of his kids. The four lane street though unplowed still offered more room to maneuver as I hit the gas harder causing snow to start flying over the front fenders as 407’s front wheel drive struggled to maintain a grip on the road and we began a slow but steadily faster pace towards North and Austin. As I turned southbound on to Austin I hoped we’d spot an Oak Park or Chicago cop I could flag down to intervene with hubby whose car just entered North Ave. from Mason two blocks away. I saw Hubby’s sedan bounce up onto the center parkway just as we pulled out-of-sight of him heading down Austin. Sadly though, no cop in sight. Never is one when you need them. Tonight though I couldn’t blame them, nights like tonight are busy for them between accidents and all kinds of other incidents that the storm was creating. I continued on Austin down to Division and turned into Oak Park if something was going to happen I wanted home field advantage working in my favor as we headed west. I couldn’t see any cars behind us as we approached Ridgeland Ave. So I turned north and backtracked to North Ave. From North and Ridgeland I could see down empty street to Austin but couldn’t see hubby’s car. Figuring he probably thought we were headed for the Ike if he wasn’t there he was probably southbound on Austin. I knew that the other “Bubble Car” cab wouldn’t be on the street for a few more hours so if he came across another cab from my company he wouldn’t confuse it for mine and do something stupid so I made a left on North and continued west. The highways were as bad as the main streets so I didn’t bother trying to get to one, I figured we jump on in Northlake and go from there. After traveling a bit the customer asked; “How much is this going to cost me?” “Nothing” I replied; “Sarah’s Inn is paying for the ride. ” apart from the heavy snow and mostly empty roads we made good time to the 290 extension and onwards to our final destination which will remain nameless in the event it’s still being used as a shelter. As we progressed through the snow-covered highway things were going OK, that is until it was time to get off and back on county and town roads.
407 became a snowplow during the last parts of the trip with snow bouncing up on the hood from the front of cab and once I lost control for a few seconds as we made an unplanned lane change. Fortunately, I quickly regained control, to the sound of quiet uneasy chuckling in the backseat. It had been so quiet I thought they had all fallen asleep but momma was still awake. “It’s a bit slippery out there, we should be there real soon though.” I said quietly so as to not wake the sleeping kids. “I can tell” momma said as she went back to looking out the window. The remainder of the trip was uneventful as we pulled up to the final destination. I was surprised, I would have never thought of it as a shelter except someone greeted me at the door as I went up while momma woke her kids getting them ready for the next step in for what would hopefully turn into better lives for all of them. I deposited the last of her bags in the hallway as the staffer confirmed the meter and signed the voucher. My job done, time to get back to work, I’d have some good stories for Kirk once I got back there…
Beyond the occasional exciting and adventurous cabs are called to more mundane but still important tasks. Things like making sure people get to the airports and businessmen to their meetings on-time, to seniors making their doctor appointments, getting kids to school, helping folks get their groceries home and delivering packages. One night while sitting at the Wendy’s on Madison and Harlem in Oak Park I was chatting with Whitey when a message came across the computer screen “Help needed in zone 230.” This is what they call a bid order, there isn’t a cab close so they put out the request and drivers who want to risk the trip can enter the zone number, first guy to hit enter gets the trip. Sometimes they’re good runs sometimes not, I got the bid and it was good. The trip started near Midway Airport going to Champaign-Urbana two towns connected by a State University. I had to deliver a package to an asphalt company located in Urbana for $236.00 a nice run. I had just started a couple of hours earlier so I was nice and fresh for the run. I got the package from a gasket and bearing company near the airport. It was light only fifteen pounds, the guy at the shipping desk told me; “This needs to get down there as soon as possible, the company needs the part for a machine that’s critical to what they do and it’s costing them $1500.00 hour without it.” I told the guy I was heading there now, as I picked up the box and the ticket and headed for the door.
Packages were a regular occurrence at the cab company who also owns a package delivery service but only occasionally did they filter through to the cabs. Most of the time they were small short runs that paid OK, but this time I had hit one of the legendary good ones. Besides being small and light, packages don’t complain about how long it took you to get them, or that you’re smoking. They don’t feel the need to tell you their life story or pry into yours. They’re not drunk or trying to have sex with the other packages, nor are they rude, vulgar, or insulting. As far as I was concerned, they’re a welcome money-making break from the daily grind and this one was going to pay two and a half days of leases so life was good. I stayed outside the bearing company only long enough to read the map to get my trip started, that done I was off. The night was warm, the skies and streets clear, a perfect night for a long profitable drive with a customer of impeccable taste and manners.
As I pulled onto the highway I rolled up the windows turned on the air and set the cruise control. I took a minute to thank God and the company for the nice car, package, and sky filled with stars to steer her by. I had Art Bell on the radio; He was going to be as he frequently was my co-pilot on this taxi-odyssey heading down state into unknown territory. I lit-up a smoke, of course I took a second to check with my customer to make sure it would be OK, its silence spoke clearly its approval. The coming of comet Hale-Bopp was Art’s chosen topic as it was frequently in those days. Many of the UFO theorists were making all kinds of claims about it, while unbeknownst to all of us a small but determined group of off-brand religious zealots were methodically and quietly planning their own ascension by mass suicide to spend eternity with comet Hale-Bopp and the Aliens in a starship following it. It didn’t take too long before I was out of radio range with company and on my own. The trip down there was smooth sailing my arrival though was a bit shocking at first. The exit I needed to get off at quickly led me into a pretty rough part of town, though that in itself wasn’t too disconcerting since I traveled through and made pickups in the roughest sections of Chicago, it just took a few seconds for my brain to wrap around the idea that a college town would have slums. It did however effect where and how long I stopped to read the map and locate my somewhat puzzling destination. As I drew near it I could tell by the smell it was close I was still blocks away from the plant and the air with thick with the smell of asphalt. The instructions called for me to locate a phone box, yes one of those gray metal boxes you occasionally see by the side of the road with the address for the company on it. I was supposed to drop the package there. The employees were supposed to be checking periodically to see if the delivery had been made. So I started my search methodically stopping at each one I found, jumping out of the cab each time with my trusty mag-lite in hand checking each box for the number that matched the one on the order. The company had been encircled by a very tall privacy/security fence, probably in response to the large numbers of abandoned and deteriorating homes and businesses surrounding it, and the generally unsavory types they attract. I finally located the correct one just outside one of the many gates I passed in my search. I left the package bidding it a fond farewell and thanking it for its patronage, with the radio blasting away Art and I started our trip home…
These types of trips and many others similar to them, though not by any means a day-to-day occurrences happened with a fair degree of regularity during my time driving a cab, they kept the job interesting providing new challenges unlike any other job I’ve worked before or after. Actually the constant exposure to people from every different ethnicity and social position that driving a cab turned everyday in to a learning experience giving me insights on life and people who have been invaluable as the years go by…