A raised hand generates an irresistible magnetic pull on a taxi driver. After some years my mind is trained to seek it out, to the point of imagining it in light poles, reflections in parked cars, waving tree branches, and, on a slow night, just about any likely shape that mimics that desired sign—the symbol of time not spent in vain. Depending on the time of day or night, what follows that hopeful hand will vary from absolute silence to aggressive and often unwanted camaraderie, but in most every case it begins with a greeting.
On afternoons in the Loop, terse one- or two-phrase directives abound: words like Ogilvie, O’Hare, Wrigley, Lakeview, Bucktown, Midway, Michigan and Randolph, Ontario and Chicago, and on and on. Like pushing the elevator button, they name their wish with no need for further communication. Beyond an occasional thank you and the addition of a pre-calculated tip worked out from countless identical trips, expecting much more than the fare displayed on the meter would be wishful thinking during afternoons in the Loop. There is a nonverbal contract made between passenger and driver that these transactions are basic and unremarkable, unworthy of excess comment or thought.
With the approach of twilight, there are signals that work mode is being shed, and the first thirst for social contact can be detected. Between calls and texts, they might ask about how my day is going, usually without expectation or need of much response; like exercise done at the gyms so many of them go to, this verbal calisthenics is meaningless aside from keeping limber in preparation for the heavier lifting that lies ahead.
In early evening, couples wait at the curb, peering furtively at every passing taxi, sometimes raising their hands after they’ve passed, prompting slammed brakes from more aggressive or desperate drivers.
He wears his button-down untucked over nice jeans, his getup completed more often than not with flip-flops; she’s dressed to the nines from the ‘do to the makeup to the little black dress to the heels that make her teeter long before her first drink. They’ll exchange pleasantries with me. He’ll talk to a driver to show her he’s got that common touch; she’ll talk if she’s bored with him or out of nervousness. Once in a great while there will be a conversation that reflects their good spirits, one that will serve to start off their date with goodwill toward all.
Packs of men pile in through the night. They’ll start with: Boss, Chief, Buddy, Dude, Man, Bro, Hey, and when they think they’re being funny, Sir. They’ve had a few or more, so they break the ice instinctively and without prompting. They’ll ask how things have been, as if with a long-lost friend, and will even feign interest at the answer. They’ll ask where the ladies are, then go back to recapping the “talent” encountered up to then. I could be included in their club should I want in. A story or two about those crazy bitches would qualify me for lifetime membership.
As taverns empty, their first words to me can run the gamut from drunken mirth to stone silence. Tipsy chicks continue flirting in the cab as if still sipping appletinis. They laugh too loud, say too much, and create more intimacy than there should be with a complete stranger. They tell me about their evening if there’s no one to call at this late hour, needing a confidant to vent to. They’ll ask for advice or empathy with no qualms about their listener’s qualifications or character. The need to ease burdens trumps the caution they might’ve shown before the sun set.
Last are the ones who were over-served and know it; with luck their address can be extracted without too much hassle, and they can be left to drift off into that end-of-the-night fugue state. Upon arrival, I have to blaze the lights and I must address the drowsing reveler in a raised voice, “HEY, BUDDY/PAL/CHIEF, TIME TO WAKE UP, YOU’RE HOME. TIME TO SAY GOOD NIGHT!”
The first time I heard the word jitney was in Boston in 1993. I was twenty-three years old at the time and had just become a licensed Boston cabdriver. A hack.
A jitney was an unlicensed cab you could call in Dorchester or Roxbury or Mattapan. For a flat fee, they’d take you where you needed to go. Jitneys existed in cities like Boston because they were segregated and regular cabs wouldn’t pick up in Black neighborhoods. They were an underground economy the city knew about but did nothing to stop. Because stopping it might mean having to address the underlying problem.
The word jitney in its original sense meant a five-cent US coin or nickel. What a bus or taxi used to cost. It might come from the Louisiana Créole word jetnée. Which definitely comes from the French word jeton.
Which means token.
In Chicago, cab drivers are given a map of the city broken down by numbered service areas. Large swaths of the South and West Sides—traditionally Black neighborhoods—are marked underserved. Meaning the city knows people have a hard time getting a ride in these places and, at least on paper, encourage us drivers to do something about it.
Jitneys picked up the slack. I’d see cars idling around the 95th Street Red Line station, for instance. They knew that few cabs would take people the rest of the way from where the train stopped. The city knew, too, and looked the other way.
The year I quit driving a cab—2012—was the year Uber came to town. They recruited me because I’d written a book and I used their app to pick up some fares. There wasn’t much work yet, but that iPhone was like a crystal ball which revealed a dark future for the taxi industry.
The other day an Uber driver picked me up in Bridgeport. We drove south, through where the stockyards used to be, then east down Garfield and around Kenwood and Bronzeville. He admitted to being nervous and unfamiliar with these places.
He wanted to know what being a cab driver had been like. How did I navigate the city with no GPS? Did I make more than the sub-minimum wage that is standard in the rideshare racket?
In 2018 the cab industry is all but dead. Maybe fares will go back down to a nickel. Then all we’ll have are jitneys.
I had another cab dream last night. I have them a lot. Twelve years behind the wheel will do that. In this one, I had taken or stolen some guy’s cab and was driving around. It was a Blue Ribbon, one of the smaller cab companies in town. I pulled into a hotel driveway and a drunk staggered my way, waving a fistful of bills. He wanted a ride but refused to say where he was going, so I maneuvered around him and started driving away. He screamed after me that he had my cab number and that he was going to report me.
I remember feeling so happy that it didn’t matter what he did because it wasn’t my cab and no one would ever know.
Excerpted from All Hack by Dmitry Samarov. Copyright © 2020 by Dmitry Samarov. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Dmitry Samarov.