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Memories of a terrific writer and Taxi driver: celebrating Peter McSherry’s life

The Toronto taxi driving community lost a staunch supporter with the July 27th passing of author, Taxi News correspondent, and long-time cabbie Peter McSherry.

Author and Taxi driver Peter McSherry   Photo: Dundurn Press website

He died suddenly at the age of 76, at home.

Former Taxi News editor Bill McQuat notes that throughout his 30-year-plus career McSherry was, “always on the side of the drivers.” And this support continued after he retired from driving, in the form of deputations at city hall and contributions to industry causes.

“Peter was very active and outspoken, and though not the easiest to get along with all the time, his heart was always in the right place,” he says. “He was trying to fight the good fight. And he was noble in (that regard).”

“He was also a very funny guy.”

McSherry’s youthful interests included basketball, boxing, and chess. He also held a lifelong fascination with the life of crime, which would manifest itself in his first book, “The Big Red Fox: The Incredible Story of Norman “Red” Ryan, Canada’s Most Notorious Criminal” (1999. The Dundurn Group), which was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award For Best Non-Fiction.

Culled from 32 years of experience driving nights in Canada’s largest city, his follow-up, Mean Streets: Confessions Of A Night-Time Taxi Driver” (2002, the Dundurn Group), was short-listed for the Edna Staebler Award For Creative Non-Fiction. He said the book, “reflects the changes in the taxi business, and the city of Toronto over 30 years.”

He also published 2013’s “What Happened To Mickey?: The Life And Death Of Mickey McDonald, Public Enemy No. 1,” on the Dundurn imprint.

With considerable detail, insight, opinion and humour, “Mean Streets” documents McSherry’s encounters with drunks, punks, pimps, junkies, celebrities, etc, and explains how the night-time driver learns to read his customers, and when to diplomatically refuse a fare that “looks like trouble” — by-law be damned. In the book’s introduction, he explained, “There are people and situations out there on the streets of Toronto that the average intelligent, well-educated person cannot imagine.”

But despite the obvious hazards, McSherry wrote, “I have always loved being a night shift driver and am not sorry for it. The job has given me freedom in my working life, along with some adventure, and cash at the end of the day.”

Being the “quintessentially free” taxi driver — the fleet driver – also granted him the freedom to become an author and writer.

Taxi industry insiders could find plenty to relate to in his recollections of unscrupulous garage owners, and dispatchers (along with some good ones), and in touching chapters like, “Old Cabbies I Have Known.”

McSherry and McQuat first met when both were driving nights at Zak’s Taxi in the late Seventies. McQuat recalls many evenings when they would finish their shift at 4 a.m. go to Fran’s Restaurant (Yonge and St. Clair) for dinner, and kibbitz.

“(Peter) loved boxing,” he recalls. “He had great stories.”

And as for his abilities behind the wheel, he adds, “(Peter) was a great cab driver. He would work really hard at it for 12 hours. And he knew how to use the radio. I admired the way he worked at taxi driving.”

Peter McSherry credited former Taxi News publisher John Duffy for supporting his writing career.

In the forward to Mean Streets, McSherry credited former Taxi News publisher John Duffy with giving him the forum to develop his writing, over the course of many years. One of his most popular contributions to Taxi News was his frank and entertaining “Dining Alone” column.

A lifelong bachelor, McSherry enjoyed long walks through the city. At the time of his death, he was close to finishing a fourth book featuring trivia questions about Canadian history.

“I related to Peter first, as a fellow writer,” says Andy Reti. Reti published The Son of an Extraordinary Woman in 2001 and has written columns for various publications for decades. ”Peter was at my book launch. I very much respected him, and I am very sorry for OUR loss.

“He was quite a good writer, a good chess player, and a boxer and a brawler,” recalls Reti. “He was what we call in Yiddish ‘a mensch.’

“We talked a lot and had lots in common, how we felt about the licensing commission and the existing taxi establishment. My memory of him was always of a fair man, a man who understood the issues, and more importantly, was willing to do something about it. I had a lot of respect for him.”

Reti and others recall that Peter’s passion for the Taxi industry was sometimes more than Toronto politicians could bear: “He was passionate, and could get extremely emotional,” Reti recalls.”He was kicked out of City Hall a few times during the debates, first around Ambassador plates, and later around Uber.”

Former Taxi driver Asafo Addai’s memories of McSherry could be a book on their own.

“I spoke to him in July, and the last thing he said to me was, ‘I’m leaving now, I’m going for a walk,’” Addai says. “At age 76, he surprised me, sounding so healthy and full of energy.”

“There are people and situations out there on the streets of Toronto that the average intelligent, well-educated person cannot imagine.”

Peter McSherry, “Mean Streets”

Together, the two of them worked to expose a pair of Toronto police officers that were unfairly targeting Taxi drivers.

“I was standing at the counter at 14 Division, filing a complaint on these two officers, when the person at the counter told me, ‘Oh, there is already a man here, filing a complaint about the same thing,’” Addai recalls. “It was Peter McSherry. That’s how I met Peter.”

Addai and McSherry worked together to expose the scheme, in which the officers would pull over a Taxi driver and write multiple tickets, often amounting to hundreds of dollars. This would guarantee the driver would be motivated go to court to fight the charges. For their days in court, the officers were paid so much overtime that they wound up on the Sunshine List of public servants earning over $100,000 per year.

“One year, Officer Pignatelli made more money than his Supervisor. It was incredible. But somehow, they made the mistake of pulling Peter McSherry over, and he freaked out on them,” Addai laughs.

Addai notes that while the 14 Division scandal seemed out of character for McSherry as a police supporter, it was consistent with his commitment to justice and fairness: “Although Peter was very conservative, and he liked the police, that whole situation in 14 Division just disgusted him. From that point on, while we didn’t agree on everything Taxi, we stepped in each other’s tracks, if you know what I’m saying.

“Peter LOVED taxi driving; he loved the trade. He had a university degree and was a teacher, but he quit that job to drive taxi. He didn’t make a lot of money, but he loved driving Taxi.”

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