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I Finally Figure It Out

1972 on Saunders Avenue Photo: Vintage Toronto

Taxi News is very grateful to Dundurn Press (Toronto) and the estate of Peter McSherry for giving us permission to re-publish excerpts of Peter’s book “Mean Streets.” We look forward to sharing the chapters “Me and the Owners” and “Me and the Dispatchers” with our readers, every Saturday.

Click here to read Section #1 “My Beginning as a Taxi Driver”

Click here to read Section #2 “I Become a Journeyman Taxi Driver”

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The effect of the big fight on the east-end taxi property was to send me back to the Foobler Company’s main taxi lot to work for “Lazlo,” yet another small fleet operator in the Foobler Company. Lazlo was a Hungarian with a let’s-not-have-any-problems attitude, which suited me fine. Generally, he was up front, business-like, and organized — to the extent that, excepting the 478 Garage, where I had worked only three months, I estimated he was running the most systemized taxi business I had worked for up to that time. But I was only with him about eighteen months.

It happened that I was rear-ended by a drunk driver who was travelling at high speed, and, as a consequence, I was off work for about two weeks. Lazlo resisted my claiming one hundred dollars a week from his insurance company — money to which I was legally entitled and for which provision ought to have been made from the shift monies I was paying. The consequent bad feelings poisoned our relationship and made me susceptible to blandishments of the Mastermind to return to his east-end garage. The Mastermind was offering me a new car to drive as an inducement, which, without the insurance wrangle, might not have been enough. Anyway, I went.

Back in the east end, things went along as before for a while, then, after a time, the Mastermind’s taxi fleet was transferred to the Heir Apparent, who became the new proprietor of the business enterprise. From my point of view, this was not a good change. The Heir Apparent, whom I liked very much, was then inexperienced and not as good at managing people as his father, and, at times, didn’t quite grasp that while drivers had reasonable obligations to him, he also had reasonable obligations to them.

These were the first days of taxis using propane as fuel and it was difficult to find a mechanic who was competent to deal with propane systems. The Heir Apparent tried several mechanics, all of them disasters, and because of this I was losing money on a daily basis. So was he, but I think he liked to imagine that I should pay for what I wasn’t getting.

Because of loyalty to his father, I stuck it out longer than I otherwise would have. Eventually there was a blowup that ended our business relationship.

I don’t know how long it took the Heir Apparent to replace me, but, being a good-quality journeyman taxi driver, I replaced him in ten minutes. I was taken on at Big Larry’s Taxi Garage. This was a watershed change in two ways. Now, for the first time in about twelve years, I was not driving in the Foobler Taxi Company; instead, I was driving cars that were in what I’ll call the Omaha Company, another large citywide brokerage. At the same time, Larry was the first fleet operator I’d “worked for” in many years who employed a full-time mechanic.

Very soon, I came to regard Big Larry with a jaundiced eye. The first week I worked for Larry, I informed him that I estimated the front end of the car I was driving to be dangerous. Larry “fixed” that by having me switch cars with another driver who wasn’t quite so particular. That should have told me all I needed to know, but I’m ashamed now  to admit that it didn’t.

Whoops Photo: Vintage Toronto

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that the taxi business, like a lot of the rest of life, is not a one-way street. Crap goes up the highway and it goes down, too — perhaps in another form. Big Larry  was nobody I’d want to hold a tag day for, but picture this:

While I knew him, Larry hired a new seven-days-a-week driver and agreed to supply this fellow with a brand-new car. On his first night, the new guy smashed Larry’s new vehicle into a cement flower pot on Eglinton Avenue East, causing four thousand dollars’ damage.

How could  anybody with any sense do that? The guy had the car towed back to Larry’s Garage and left a note in the night drop box: “I’m not leaving you the money for the shift until I find out whether you are going to fire me or not.” If Larry was a bit of a pain –  and I came to regard him as such –  there may have been quite a few real provocations. I guess that might have been true of the other fleet operators I have been writing about, too, even including Mr. Good Guy, world-class weasel that he was.

For nearly fifteen years I had been making fleet operators money  on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights (good nights for them), and I was partial to these shifts as this setup left me Friday and Saturday nights to pursue my hobby: alcoholism.

Around December 10 that year — it was perhaps 1984 or 1985 — Larry and I had the conversation that augured his end in my working life. I came to work on a Monday night only to be told, “I don’t have a car for you on your regular days this week because the guys want to work seven days a week.” My eyes had already grasped the picture. Larry had peopled his garage with four or five new drivers from his country or region of origin who were there to drive for the Christmas season.

On the spot I told Larry what he needed to know: “Larry, these friends of yours — the guys, as you call them — are going to be gone on December 26 because, as you surely know, they are only here for the good money in December. I work year-round and I am fully aware of my value to you. I suggest you get busy and tell one of the guys some bad news right now or you’re going to have to watch a lot more cars sit in January than would otherwise be the case.” Larry saw the light and gave me what I wanted — what I was entitled to — but he had already made his last mistake; I would be gone at the first opportunity.

For some time, I had been friendly with Larry’s tenant — “Old Peter” — a fleet operator with a few more cars than Larry, whose equipment was obviously much better, and whose attitude I liked better than Larry’s. Months before, I would have switched from Larry to Peter in a flash except that it was not possible because of the arrangement that existed between them. When Peter moved to another garage on Wade Avenue in the west end, I saw this as an opportunity to dump Larry — even though it meant that, instead of walking to work, I had to cross the city on the Bloor Street night bus.

The first day I went to work at Old Peter’s, he had just finished “disciplining” a driver who, in the course of a bogus business dispute, had felt entitled to call him, if I recall correctly, “a dirty Jew pig.”

Peter was past sixty years old and would retire in another two or three months, but he was the sort of straightforward fellow who can get a person’s attention when it’s necessary. What I’m certain had happened was that this driver had driven Peter’s car all weekend, then claimed that he hadn’t worked due to sickness and wasn’t paying for several shifts.

Suspicious of the truth, Peter called the dispatch office and learned that the computer printout showed that the car had been working steadily over the weekend. Confronted with this, this shifty driver had resorted to vile abuse, which Old Peter had punished with an impromptu beating — even pulling the shoes off the guy and throwing them out the garage door after the fellow as he ran. This scene was just ending as I began my first shift on Peter’s lot.

I was only with Peter for a short time before he retired, but, after nearly fifteen years, he helped fill in the picture that I ought to have grasped years before. The guy was organized and his business was well- operated in a way that only the 478 Garage (with apologies to Lazlo) had been in my previous experience. Except, apparently, in extreme cases, he treated his drivers with respect; he employed a competent mechanic and another handy fellow who knew enough to fix minor problems; and he was smart enough to see trouble coming and to provide for it before it happened. There were few crises at Old Peter’s Garage. My time with him — only a couple of months — was easy.

But, too, something else had happened: For a number of years, I had been researching and trying to write a book about Norman “Red” Ryan, “Canada’s most notorious criminal” — a bank robber acquain tance of my father’s boyhood.

I was doing this the hard way — without a grant of any kind. I worked for several years driving twelve-hour taxi shifts, finishing at five o’clock in the morning, then, after a couple hours of sleep, arriving at the Metro Reference Library for six hours of frying my eyes on microfilm. This virtual obsession went on and on. I travelled to Ottawa, Kingston, Hamilton, Sarnia, Markham, and several other cities, working in libraries and archives and other venues, and interviewing about a hundred people. I had deprived myself incredibly to do this.

“If a Taxi driver is what I am going to be, then, for absolute certain, I am going to be a good one.”

Under the threat of an established writer getting interested in the story, I had borrowed ten thousand dollars from personal friends and had used this to supplement my effort in the form of reducing my time in the taxi.

Coincident with my work at Old Peter’s Garage, I had to face the fact that I had incurred this large debt without coming near to finishing the book and, while none of my friends were asking for their money back, I felt the honourable thing to do was to go to work in a taxi in a serious way and pay everyone off with interest. In short, it looked to me like the book was some awful folly or pipe dream; I might never finish it and taxi driving might be my career forever.

Slowly before this, but at this juncture for certain, I made a conscious decision: If a taxi driver is what I am going to be in life, then, for absolute certain, I’m going to be a good one.

I didn’t see a real prospect of owning a taxi- cab plate — I didn’t think I wanted one anyway — but I did decide that, henceforth, I would work at providing good-quality taxi service to the paying public, albeit as a fleet taxi driver.

In writing this, I am not holding that I provided especially bad service before that — far from it — just that I made an absolutely firm decision in my mind to do the best I could in the future. This I decided after fifteen years in the taxi business!

Part of the “new me” was finding the best equipment to drive that I could — both for myself and for the passengers — and, because I had respect for the way Old Peter did things, I asked his advice on the last day that I worked out of his garage.

“I’m sick of the Mr. Good Guys and the Big Larrys. Tell me where to go to find the most reasonable operator and the best fleet equipment I can get,” I asked. Peter directed me to the taxi enterprise with which I have done business for most of the past twelve or fourteen years. It’s not perfect but it far eclipses most of what I have been describing thus far. I would certainly challenge some of our political luminaries to go to Zak’s Taxi Garage on Portland Street in Etobicoke and find a fleet taxi wreck such as they are wont to describe when it suits their political purposes.

They couldn’t, for none exist there, and, in truth, except at the 442 Garage, an outright horror story I described earlier, little of the sort of thing they picture has existed in my experience. It’s fair to say that, after the 442 Garage, I was always smart enough to avoid the very worst situations.

I’ll just take a paragraph to mention the late John Zahakos, from whom I leased a taxi on a daily basis for most of the past twelve or fourteen years.

I have to say that John was one of the finest men I’ve met in my thirty-year taxi career. He knew how to run a business and, in my experience, he was unerringly fair, not only with me, but with everyone who worked at Zak’s Taxi.

The late Rudy Volmer, who was one of John’s partners, was undoubtedly one of the two best mechanics who worked on the cars I have driven during these years (the other being Ron Shambrook), and the mechanics who followed Rudy after he retired were always extremely competent — or they were soon gone.

Others who worked at Zak’s, especially in the days when the fleet was thirty or thirty-five cars, were good workers, helpful to the drivers and well suited to the positions they held. There were no bums or passengers. In comparative terms, these people were well paid, and at Christmas time they received sizeable bonuses — at least this was so in the years when the taxi business was still reasonably lucrative. Where else in the Toronto taxi industry at the fleet garage level does such an appreciatory working situation exist? I know of nowhere else, though, indeed, that doesn’t mean that such situations don’t exist.

The fellow who now operates Zak’s Taxi is not such a bad guy. In my mind, he’s clearly superior to Mr. Dilby, Mr. Good Guy, Big Larry, and most of the others. It’s just that “the Admiral” has such big shoes to fill. Notwithstanding this, I have to write that he is sort of okay too.

Postscript: In the early nineties, circumstances that don’t matter here forced me to put my taxi driving career on hold and to leave the city for nearly three years. In November 1995, I returned to Toronto and I again took up taxi driving. A year or so later I recommenced working on my Red Ryan book, which had lain fallow for more than a decade. I wrote five or six good chapters in pen and ink in a donut store on my nights off, then reluctantly purchased a used computer (If Shakespeare could write all those plays with a quill, why can’t I?) and finished the remainder of the work in three months.

In December 1998, after twenty-one years and three months of never living a day without thinking about this unfinished project, I was finally rid of the writing of what would be The Big Red Fox: The Incredible Story of Norman “Red” Ryan, Canada’s Most Notorious Criminal. The following month, I took the manuscript to a publisher. It was accepted on the first shot in a field of endeavour where, across North America, only one manuscript out of a hundred ever finds a home. The book was short-listed for the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Non-Fiction — a national book award — for the year 2000. More recently, my publisher and I have sold an option to do a full-length Canadian movie or a TV Movie of the Week on the story, not the book.

In the interim, despite all of the hardships and all of the danger, I had   driven taxi so long that it’s “what I do.” Over the years, I have come to love it.

The key, I’m sure, was the fact that, after quite a long time in the business I finally found what it takes to take real pride in being a taxi driver. It’s important to like what you’re doing in life, it’s important to do it well, and it’s important to like yourself, too. If other people don’t think you’re anybody special, that’s their problem, not yours.

***

Next Saturday’s chapter: “Taxi Dispatchers: A Checkered Crowd”

This excerpt is from Mean Streets by Peter McSherry and appears here by permission of Dundurn Press Limited and the estate of the Peter McSherry.

You can purchase copies of “Mean Streets” and Peter McSherry’s other books by visiting Dundurn Press or amazon.ca

Fun additional notes

  1. These terms are taxi industry in-talk.

“High flagging” was agreeing on a price for a trip with the customer so as not to turn on the meter — which would record the income. The effect was that the fleet owner would not know about the trip, so the driver could keep all of that fare. High flagging is no longer done because the split sheet arrangement is no longer in practice. There are many different arrangements, but none that I know of where the owner and the driver split the sheet.

“Booking off” means to give the dispatcher a false location — one that’s invariably closer to a call that’s being bid for than where the driver really is. It’s an attempt to cheat the other bidders. Booking off is quite common.

“Scooping” is stealing a call that’s been dispatched to another driver. Often the scooper’s reason for taking the call is that the    other driver booked off to win it.

  • Let’s be straight about it. My “career” in high school teaching was a   bad joke. I was a twenty-six-year-old mess, trying to do a job I couldn’t handle. I wasn’t motivated, I lacked confidence, I didn’t know who I was and I found the job and the people to be boring.
  •  I actually preferred the street to the classroom — the money difference, no matter. I wasn’t happy, so I got out of it. In effect, I ran away from the responsibility and the respectability of the job. Taxi drivers don’t really “work for” fleet taxi operators, and they’re not really “hired.” Most fleet taxi operators — if you let     them — will use these verbs and, to varying extents, they will try to treat their drivers as employees. But drivers are not employees, and they will find this out quickly enough if they try to claim any of the usual rights of an employee. In practice, the fleet driver, which I have always been, is the renter of the fleet operator’s taxi in effect, a customer of the fleet operator. When I figured that out — and it took me a few years to even start thinking about it – I learned to claim all of the reasonable rights of a customer. I don’t “work for” anybody. I’m good at what I do and I expect a fleet operator to give me good value for the shift rental money I pay him. Otherwise, I’ll take my business elsewhere — and, believe me, he won’t want that.

Years ago, when I first entered the business, most taxis in Toronto were fleet taxis. Now perhaps only 20 or 25 percent are fleet cars. There are several other types of arrangements, none of which I’ve ever gotten myself into, none of which I’ll bother the reader with here.

  • In other ways, the Mastermind did more for me than any other person I met in the taxi business, but he wasn’t the best guy to rent a taxi from. His interest was making money any way he could, not necessarily in the taxi business. I never got the impression that he particularly liked the business. For him, it was just a means to his end. My interests were varied, but they never had much to do with money. My big interest was The Big Red Fox, my first book, which I imagined was going to turn me into a “famous author.” It didn’t.
  • Zak’s Taxi Garage no longer exists. A year or so ago the proprietor moved to a downtown lot, then closed up entirely. He is now the general manager of a major taxi brokerage. The first change meant that I went to the Yahoo Company and to a new fleet   operator. One of the great things about the fleet taxi situation is that it’s hard to be out of work for very long — if you’re halfway   good at what you do.