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Hail to the cabbie

Swapping stories with cabbies reveals a difficult, dangerous profession


Glen Martinez, veteran cabbie, has plenty of stories. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Glen Martinez, veteran cabbie, has plenty of stories.

Glen Martinez props an elbow on the roof of Octarvia Roberts' taxi. The two cabbies chat near the end of a long, yellow line at Colorado Springs Airport, waiting for riders to emerge from the terminal.

Martinez, wearing a Denver Broncos cap, plaid shirt and salty grin, calls Roberts the "best-looking cab driver in the fleet."

She waves her hand, dismissing him, and cozies into her black hoodie on this gray morning. Roberts, a mother and wife, is bracing herself for what she calls "the fish story."

"Oh Lord," she says, laughing at Martinez.

This one's about his "strangest fare ever," a raven-haired woman in her mid-40s who lives at an undisclosed location on North Weber Street. She's an inexorable drunk, he explains, and all the bleary-eyed nights have taken an obvious toll. She looks more like she's 55.

"But she's not that bad-looking of a lady," he says defensively.

"You take her to get booze, take her to get some more booze, and then she wants you," Martinez says, adding that the story can be verified through other cabbies the woman also has tried to charm.

Not long after Martinez adds a few details and flourishes to the story, two cabs at the front of the line whiz away with passengers. The five-year veteran stops chatting, but strangely, he doesn't start his engine. Instead, he pushes his cab forward.

Times are tight, Martinez explains, and doing this saves wear on the starter. He frets over $8,000 in repairs and tires in recent months.

Besides, it's exercise.

When asked about the innocent driver killed in the crossfire of a downtown gunfight about a month ago, Martinez has a few thoughts, but sighs.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says.

He quickly changes the topic to record gas prices, now hovering around $3.29 a gallon.

The prices threaten cabbies' livelihood. These local drivers earn less than $10 an hour before tips, according to Bill Thoennes, a spokesman for the state's labor department. And sterile statistics hardly do justice to the unpredictable rollercoaster economy that cabbies describe.

Fortunately, the queue at the airport is moving quickly today. Other times, drivers may wait hours before passengers lugging suitcases scramble toward their cabs here, or at downtown spots like the Antlers Hilton and the bus depot.

Though on some days cabbies barely break even, the local drivers a workforce measured in dozens together handle some 1,350 calls a day. That's 500,000 each year.

Risks go beyond unpredictable pay and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They face fears of being robbed or assaulted. They also contend with fare-skippers and the dreaded, late-night Tejon Street projectile-vomiters.

Still, the cabbies come back every day.

There's the promise of that big fare and tip to balance out a string of bad days. There are those busy times, like New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween and the monthly paydays for Army soldiers at Fort Carson.

And there are the people, the customers. Cabbies meet them all: the privileged, the high rollers, the welfare recipients, the young, the old, the average, the bland, the strange, the serious even bank robbers fleeing police.

It's certainly not a job for the faint of heart, says Yellow Cab general manager Fred Hair.

"Shy people don't make very good drivers, to tell the truth," he says.

The taxi business is a weird one, he adds. Some cabbies drive just enough to earn "what they need a motel room and a six-pack," Hair says.

Others are workhorses, driving to support a family. And, unlike those in Denver and other major cities, the drivers in Colorado Springs are mostly "middle-aged white guys," says Hair, who doesn't know exactly why that is.

"Colorado Springs is very different in that respect," he says.

Behold the Crown Vic

Of the 2.4 million workers in Colorado, just 1,750 are cabbies, and most of them work through one of three taxi companies in the Denver area. In Colorado Springs, there are just 110 or 150 cabbies, depending whether you look at state data or ask Hair at Yellow Cab.

Each may drive 60,000 miles a year.

Locally, some lease or buy their cars from Yellow Cab, the city's sole cab company, while others use their own. Hence the Hummer H3 that makes Hair cringe when asked about its gas efficiency.

The 24-year cab company vet speaks from his Yellow Cab office, inside a small building on a curvy backstreet near East Platte Avenue and North Murray Boulevard. Hair's office is decorated with Yellow Cab models, including one of the big, boxy Checker cabs from a bygone era.

The back lot here is filled with cabs-to-be and cabs-that-once-were, and there's an on-site garage. Mechanics toil under a cab inside.

Hair responds matter-of-factly when describing the Dodge Caravans and Chevy Impalas that many cabbies drive. But his eyes fill with excitement as he turns the conversation to the trusty "Crown Vic," cabbie slang for Ford's Crown Victoria. This used cop car is plain "tough," he says. He speaks at length, like a used-car salesman, about how durable the car is and how easy it is to repair. He briefly sours when he mentions that Ford recently downsized the powerful engine.

Octarvia  Roberts relies on a Dodge van. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Octarvia Roberts relies on a Dodge van.

This morning, back at the airport, Roberts gives a tour of her vehicle, a new-ish Dodge Caravan.

Gone are the days of depending on the radio. There's still one in each cab, but it's mainly reserved for times when a driver gets lost, needs a gate code or has an emergency.

A computer on Roberts' dash shows her all the zones in the city. She'll simply let Yellow Cab know she's in a particular zone by logging on. A beep will alert her to potential riders. With the press of a button, Roberts will let the company know whether she can pick up the rider or not.

One soon comes. Roberts rejects it. If the line at the airport wasn't moving so fast today, she might have taken it.

There's a credit-card machine that she, like many cabbies, complains about. Every time a passenger slaps down plastic, 6 percent of the take goes to pay credit-card company fees. This, on top of the regular fees drivers pay Yellow Cab.

There's a small camera in the cab for security. When riders get in, 10 pictures are snapped in quick succession. Another 10 are snapped as riders get out.

There's also a panic button and global-positioning technology. In 2002, a GPS was useful in helping police track down a man who stole an unoccupied, running cab from the front of a 7-Eleven on West Colorado Avenue. With the help of a Yellow Cab dispatcher, police found the car, gave chase and caught the driver.

But no technology could have prevented Terry Lee Wilson, a 53-year-old cabbie, from being shot and killed April 18 as his cab approached the scene of a late-night gun battle between two factions at Pikes Peak Avenue near Wahsatch Avenue.

"Obviously, everybody is sad and feels the loss," says Hair.

Police continue to investigate that night. They have few solid leads, in large part because of the randomness of the shooting.

In the scheme of the city's overall crime picture, crimes against cabbies are rare. But they can be targeted, as they were in a string of robberies last year. Sgt. Jeff Jensen, a robbery unit supervisor for Colorado Springs police, recalls the recent arrest of thieves who confronted a cabbie at the Diamond Shamrock gas station at Fountain Boulevard and Jet Wing Drive.

"They had produced a knife and demanded money," Jensen says.

Cabbie Art Chick adds that passengers occasionally spoil for a fight. Generally, he says, drivers may refuse passengers for one of three reasons: intoxication, refusal to provide an address, or their making threats.

"I've turned down a lot of people with those three rules, and I've had one person meet all three of them quite a few times," he says.

Roberts recalls an out-of-town truck driver demanding drugs.

"He got in the car and he wanted to go to the strip club and he wanted crack," she says.

When the truck driver also asked Roberts to help him find a prostitute, she "finally put him out." Cabbies in larger cities are known for hooking up people with those kinds of connections, she says. But not here. And in that tense exchange, she called other cabbies for help and help came.

"We're family," she says. "We look out for each other."

Driving blind

Sometimes, cabbies don't even know they're in a dangerous situation.

While Jensen won't name the driver, he says one cabbie picked up Sonny Smith on May 18 after Smith allegedly robbed Cañon National Bank at 3204 W. Colorado Ave. Police narrowed in on Smith, holed up at the Travelodge on 1703 S. Nevada Ave., after he took a cab.

"He fled the bank in a vehicle, and we found the vehicle abandoned," Jensen says. "It was after the vehicle was abandoned that he had hopped a cab. I don't think that was his plan."

The cabbie "had no idea whatsoever" that the guy police tracked down less than five hours later had allegedly nabbed an unknown amount of cash from the bank, Jensen says.

He also recalls David Glenn Cox, dubbed the "Day Planner Bandit" because he allegedly removed pre-written notes from his planner demanding cash from tellers.

"His MO was to commit a robbery and already have arrangements to be picked up by a cab or private limo company," Jensen says.

Cox, accused of four bank robberies in the city and one in Denver, was arrested in September in Utah.

Despite such incidents, Frank Charest, a bearded cabbie in wraparound black sunglasses, says Colorado Springs is peaceful compared to other places he's worked.

"This is the prettiest place to drive, but it's pretty much the most boring place to drive," he says.

"All told" with a marriage, divorce and studies for a degree in technical illustrating tucked somewhere in between Charest has driven cabs for 28 years, the past five in the Springs.

When asked about his worst experience, his mind takes him not to Colorado Springs, but to Austin, Texas, and a road-rage incident he sarcastically dubs the "highlight of my career."

"I got shot at with a shotgun," Charest says. "The driver got out, pulled a shotgun out of the case, strolled over and "Blaaammmmm!' The guy shot the cab; shot through the engine; shot the tire out. I was driving too slow for 'em."

Charest wasn't hurt.

The Springs seems to have its share of fare-jumpers, however.

  • Sean Cayton

Martinez remembers early morning hours during a Christmas Eve, when he drove a stranded group to Denver from the Colorado Springs Airport.

"Their story is that they got robbed in the Virgin Islands so they didn't have a credit card to rent a car," Martinez says. "So they ended up taking a cab.

"Well, they wrote me a check. I dropped them off at a million-dollar house, thinking the check is good. The address, everything, is the same. The ID was OK."

When he tried to cash the $250 check, it wouldn't go through.

"So I'm in a court case against them," Martinez says. "They were nice people. I was doing them a favor, a lot of luggage, everything. I actually took $8 off the fare."

'Lousy Mobile Home'

Chick, who wears a black polo shirt, khakis, clip-on sunglasses and a green baseball hat that says, "Here fishy, fishy," notes that some cabbies work 12-hour days and still struggle to make a decent living.

He points to the letters on his cab's license plate.

"LMH. Know what it stands for? Lousy Mobile Home."

He laughs for a second at his joke with everyone else.

"There's a lot of guys on a bad day that will be making less gross than $10 an hour," he adds soberly.

That comes to $120 a day, before taxes.

"Some of them are paying a lease of $102 a day," Chick adds. "And you're paying $20 in gas. That's zero money."

Martinez adds that the wages seem paltry since cab service is so critical to so many people. He tells riders he wants to marry his girlfriend, whose photo is on his dash, and hopes decent tips will fill his financial void. His personal story doesn't always help.

"Yesterday, I made about $150," he says. "That's about my payout for the day because of the overhead. I worked 10-plus hours for nothing. I had $13 to start today. I've got no gas."

Hair is so concerned about gas prices that in coming weeks, he plans to ask the state's Public Utilities Commission for a per-trip gas surcharge essentially an increase to the $2.20 starting fare.

Denver's Metro Taxi Inc. in late May successfully petitioned the commission, which regulates the cab industry, for a 75-cent-per-trip gas surcharge for 60 days. Starting fare for a Metro cab is now $3.35.

Terry Bote, a spokesman for the PUC, expects other cab companies to follow suit.

Hair says an additional 75 cents per trip is in the range of what he'd ask for, but he doesn't know if local gas prices differ from those in the Denver area. The PUC requires documentation of local gas prices before it awards an increase.

Good times

As Martinez places a traveler's luggage into his cab's trunk and zips off, Roberts says the good days come, too.

"I get a lot of millionaires, believe it or not," she says. "They let me know in an instant that they could buy this cab."

She doesn't know what it is in human nature that makes some well-to-do so eager to tell her something like that.

"They're just talking," she supposes. "You know how people are. I'm like, "You can buy it. Just give it to me.'"

Then she laughs. ""Thank you.' You know?"

Her best fare so far in her eight short months of driving her cab was $575, plus a $60 tip. A man Roberts can't remember his name had been bumped off an overbooked flight, but his family wasn't.

They needed to reunite in Florida to connect with a sea cruise. The airline provided a voucher to Roberts to rush the man to the airport in Montrose, 230 miles from Colorado Springs.

But snow and wind stopped the trip about 100 miles in, on U.S. Highway 50, around Salida.

"When I started out, it was raining here," Roberts said. "By the time I got to Salida, it was a blizzard. We couldn't make it through the pass. So they diverted me to Denver."

She exited the mountains at 19 mph.

"Why they just didn't send me to Denver is beyond me," she adds.

In the end, the drive was nonstop from 9:40 a.m. to 4:50 p.m.

The Nonprofit Cab Co.

Art Chick turns down some riders. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Art Chick turns down some riders.

Cabbies don't want people to know this, but many have on occasion helped someone out of a bind with a free ride.

Chick jokes that drivers are probably the city's least-recognized nonprofit organization.

He remembers a woman who asked him to pull over mid-trip when the fare hit what she had on hand.

"You could tell she was having a hard time and she had a little kid, so I didn't charge her at all," Chick says.

He spends a lot of time reading as he waits. A Bible is commingled with a Michael Crichton paperback in the front seat. Asked if he's developed any kind of philosophy from the books, he barely pauses.

"The greatest man on the Earth is the greatest servant," he says. "That's the bottom line. If you live your life to serve others, you end up with happiness. If you live it to serve yourself, you can never make the fire big enough."

He's got a wife, four kids and two grandkids, and starts to speak about his sideline gold-mining business just as Roger Label sticks his head in Chick's window.

Label says of Chick in a deep voice, "Don't believe this guy."

To which Chick oddly replies, "I tell him everything he doesn't know."

That earns an equally mysterious retort from Label: "That's right, and then some."

Label, whose black hat and weathered face instantly give away his profession, says one of the worst parts of the job is cleaning up after the queasy drunks.

"If you get somebody who throws up in your cab, you're down for two days," Label says. "You're down. You've got to get the smell out. You take it down to the car wash. You've got to air it out. You've got to put the windows down, and it takes two days. We charge $200 for that."

He says one time, somebody left pot in his cab.

"A bag of weed," he says. "I didn't find it for days. I threw it out. We can't keep that shit. You get caught doing that, it is the end of our career."

Label also recalls giving a guy reporting to prison in Cañon City a ride from the airport in April.

"It was a drug thing," Label says. "He flew in from California. He was a really nice guy. He said he owned his own business had his own gas distribution business in California. He was well-off. He wasn't hurting for money."

More 'fish story'

Now, rewind a few minutes to when Martinez was near the end of the line, before he whisked his passenger away. Somewhere between his brief reflection on Wilson, his rant about gas prices and his car-push, he'd found time to craft an elaborate fish story about that raven-haired woman.

Again, he insists every word is true.

As Martinez arrived at the woman's house on one occasion, she asked him to come inside for a minute, he says.

"I'm thinking, "Well, she's not ready. I got here too early.' So I go in, you know, and I'm looking around, sitting on the couch, and she's like, "Do you want a beer?'

"I'm like, "Well, I don't drink.'

"She says, "How 'bout an orange juice?'

"I says, "I'll take an orange juice.'

"So I'm sitting there and I'm thinking, "The time,' you know.

"And she's sitting down. She's talking to me.

"I'm like, "Well, you're not getting ready?'

I'm like, "So, did you need a ride somewhere?'

"And she goes, "No.'

"I go, "Well, what do you want?'

She goes, "Well, I want what you want.'"

Roberts, sitting in her cab, giggles a little and shakes her head as if to say, "No way," as Martinez brings the tale to an almost-obvious conclusion.

"I was peeling her off of my neck ..."

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