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My Beginning as a Taxi Driver

Peter McSherry’s Metro Toronto Taxi drivers’ license circa 1976. McSherry quit his job as a teacher to drive Taxi and write.

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 in the days ahead.

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It must have been in July 1971 that I made the fateful mistake of  answering a Help Wanted advertisement that read: “Taxi drivers wanted. No experience necessary. Apply at …” At the top of a dead end street in Toronto’s west end, I found what I’ll call the “442 Taxi Garage,” from which some seventy taxicabs operated, which was the largest fleet garage that I would work out of in my entire thirty-year career as a taxicab driver.

“Big Alfie,” the garage manager, a fiftyish hard-boiled former professional wrestler, asked me three tough questions, the correct answers to which qualified me as a prospect for employment at the 442 Garage: “What is your name?”; “Do you have a chauffeur’s license?”; and “How long have you driven in Toronto?” Satisfied with my answers, Alf awarded me the vital paper that informed the licensing authority that I would be hired at the 442 Garage after I was duly licensed. At the time, there was no training course for drivers. It took perhaps a month for the Toronto Police Department to issue a letter that assured the Metro Licensing Commission that I had no police record of a sort that would disqualify me, and for me to sit an examination that required a knowledge of the taxicab bylaw and a rudimentary grasp of Metropolitan Toronto, including especially the locations of the major hotels, the hospitals, and a few tourist attractions. Upon passing this laughable test, I paid a $5 licensing fee (in 1998 it was, I believe, $420!), after which I was entitled to go to work at the 442 Garage.

The first night I went out was a Friday, a premium night. Big Alfie, who had told me, “You look pretty good to me,” didn’t promise me a car, but he said he would do the best he could for me. When I saw the motley crew that worked at the 442 Garage I understood why I looked “pretty good” to him. With seventy cars to get out, day and night, at a time when jobs of any kind were plentiful in Toronto, the 442 Garage hired almost anybody who walked on the lot claiming to want to be a taxicab driver- er. There was a core of “real taxi drivers,” most of them Jews of Russian or East European extraction, some Greeks, Italians, and Anglos, all of whom made up perhaps 30 percent of the total. The bulk of the drivers — maybe 60 percent — were long-haired “hippies,” many of them American draft dodgers avoiding the Vietnam War, most of whom wore fairly preposterous outfits to work. The rest of the drivers, as I appraised them then and now, were outright chronic unemployables: obvious layabouts, alcoholics, drivers with emotional or mental problems, and sundry other people who couldn’t cope in life.

At the four-thirty afternoon shift change there were dozens of driver-coming, going, and waiting around in the hopes of getting a Friday night car. When he got a chance, Big Alfie sidled up to me and explained that there were more drivers than cars but said, “When the overflow leaves, you wait. I’ve got a car for you out back.” He said this like he was doing me a very big favour.

Even as I waited — as dumb and inexperienced as I was — I couldn’t help but notice that some of the cabs that were going out for the night shift were in appalling condition. There were lopsided taxis with defective shocks and springs, cars spewing noxious fumes, cars with auguring engine knocks and rattles, filthy taxis that needed a wash — all heading for the streets. I would soon come to understand that the 442 Garage practical policy was that if a car can drive off the lot, it goes out with anybody who is willing to drive it. Fleet maintenance was not a huge priority in this operation, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, the licensing commission was then not at all vigilant in making such entrepreneurs conform to reasonable standards.

Then out from behind the 442 Garage came Alfie in the taxi I was to drive. It was nothing less than a derelict car. It was listing at about a ten-degree angle and the engine sounded like an underpowered sewing machine. It was so filthy inside that a garden could have been grown in it, but Alfie, who awarded me this disaster-on-wheels as if it were gold dust, “fixed” that by wiping the interior seats with a dirty blanket. “There you go, buddy,” he said. “Have a good night.”

I was foolish enough to drive away in this incredible wreck.

Alfie, who awarded me this disaster-on-wheels as if it were gold dust, “fixed” that by wiping the interior seats with a dirty blanket. “There you go, buddy,” he said. “Have a good night.”

These were the days of the split sheet — a fifty-fifty share of fares between the driver and the fleet operator, with the driver to pay the gas from his end. This arrangement greatly favoured the fleet operator and was predicated on the unspoken understanding that the driver would “steal” what he could — but never, at the 442 Garage, so much that the operator didn’t get half of a twenty-eight-dollar sheet. Within days, I learned how to “steal” parcels and food orders by not turning on my meter and thus not recording trips and units. I learned how to “high flag” fares — agreeing on a price with the fare so that income would not be recorded on the meter. Soon I understood that many drivers knew how to wiggle the plastic “Chinese meters” to turn back recorded trips and units and how to chop into the cables on metal meters for the same purpose — devious arts that I never bothered to master. Every 442 driver doctored his nightly trip sheet to make it conform to the unreality recorded on his meter. It was just the way business was done at this preposterous taxi company.

That first night — after doing about three fares — I was towed in  by the 442 Garage’s own oft-used tow truck. This would happen perhaps six more times in the month I worked there. The tow truck driver wanted a little payoff in the form of a round of coffees for himself, his helper, and the garage guy. The gas guy expected a nightly tip; so did the guy who did the cash-in. The dispatchers got lots of tips, too — but not from me. I doubt I was dispatched a fare worth as much as five dollars in all the time I drove at the 442 Garage — and those were the days when a competent driver could get twenty or twenty-five orders a night from the dispatch.

From a service point of view, the garage was a nightmare. Drivers would give each other advice on how to steal, not only from the garage, but from the customers. Virtually everybody was high flagging, booking off, and/or scooping.1 Many of the drivers were working stoned on grass. There were two guys — known as the Rat and the Pig — whose specialty was to take travellers to the airport, then, after being paid, charge them an additional fee to release their luggage from their trunks. Dispatched to the Women’s College Hospital, I got there in time to see a driver named Tex, who always wore a leather cowboy hat, do a complete revolution of the circular driveway, then pitch an elderly lady fare out of his cab and announce to me, “This lady’s your fare,” after which he quickly made off with the much more lucrative fare that really was mine.

There was a perhaps apocryphal garage story about a scooper and a driver who had booked off — both rushing to the same fare — smashing their cabs into each other on a blind bend. One night that month, a speeding 442 Garage driver — likely in a mad dash to get rich behind the wheel of a cab — ran over two people at Winona and St. Clair. I drove past the scene and saw the bodies lying on the road.

Big Alf manipulated this circus with an odd mixture of kindness, bluster, and toughness. He was a strange man — at once warm-hearted and threatening. I remember the extraordinary patience he showed with a hopeless fellow who was trying to learn the business but just didn’t have it. Alfie was genuinely trying to help this pathetic guy develop a way to earn a living. I remember, too, how he humiliated an old rummy who came in from a day shift — reeking of booze — with a sheet that had only three or four trips on it. He shouted the guy off the lot forever in front of two dozen drivers — a cruelty that he no doubt intended as an object lesson for all. It was the short sheet, not the alcohol, that Alfie seemed most upset about.

On the last night I worked there, I was again towed in, and something I saw gave me an understanding of how and why things could be quite as awful as they seemed to be at the 442 Garage. It was about eight o’clock on a Friday night, the mechanic was still at work on a blue private car, which was up on a hoist, and two fellows I had never seen before were hanging around drinking from an open bottle of whiskey. In a few minutes the mechanic finished and the two guys drove away in the private car. Before leaving, the driver of the car said to the mechanic, “Thanks a lot. I guess that will hold me till I get back from Ottawa. I’ve got to be back at work Monday morning.” The mechanic made some jocular reply about “damned Commission inspectors who expected people to stay and work late on a Friday night.”

Anyway, on the following Monday I went in early for the purpose of giving Big Alf and the 442 Garage the golden handshake. By accident, I had stumbled on a driver from the 478 Garage — another west end taxi concern but a business that was properly run by people who  gave a damn beyond the mere fact that they were making money. The best features of the 478 Garage from a driver’s point of view were that the cars were all well-maintained (the fleet manager once got quite upset with me when I failed to mention that a taxi’s interior light was burned out), and, instead of a split sheet, the garage rented out cars on “deals” — charging a flat fee for the nightly use of a car. I greatly preferred this to the fifty-fifty setup — and, in fact, greatly resented the 442 Garage for putting me in the position of “stealing” money that I felt I was actually earning.

The two businesses were like the difference between night and day. I worked at the 478 Garage for about three months before landing work as a high school teacher — the career for which I’d trained. My “career” lasted only eighteen months before I realized it was not for me and I returned to taxi driving and the 478 Garage. I was to be disappointed; the 478 Garage had just been bought by the 442 Garage and I had no doubt at all that it would soon be operated in accordance with the 442 Garage’s business principles. I worked there one shift, then went looking for another situation.

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