“Would you look in your back seat for a big black dog, four feet high and 150 pounds?” Photo: David Tsubouchi
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.
His name was Jesse and he was a taxi dispatcher at the Foobler Company in the seventies. I worked with him intermittently over six or eight years. He was the man with whom I had my worst-ever dispute over a taxi order and the man whose story is the most interesting I can tell after twenty-six years in the taxi business.
He couldn’t properly pronounce the “th” sound, so his voice was very distinctive on the radio. He wasn’t entirely straight (he had lots of “friends” and I wasn’t one of them), but he was likeable, even kind of charismatic, which is a strange thing to say about a taxi dispatcher.
Often, he was amusing and he had an understated comical way of expressing himself. And he’d play pranks on the radio. A French Canadian from Montreal, Jesse would say that he came to Toronto “by skating up the St. Lawrence in the wintertime.” Or, gratuitously, he’d say something like, “Nineteen-nineteen, we’ve just had a lady phone Foobler Taxi who says she lost her dog in your car. It’s a big black dog, four feet high and 150 pounds. Would you look in your back seat and see if it’s there?” It doesn’t seem that funny when it’s written, but Jesse deadpanned it in a way that made it hilarious.
As I remember it, Jesse’s greatest prank was played on a new driver who had just come on the job. This guy’s big sin was that he was obsequious and a bootlicker. On about his second day at Foobler Taxi, this driver said to Jesse over an open frequency radio, “Please, sir, you are a very fine man and it would be my very great honour to take you to dinner at a very fine restaurant. Thank you very much.”
I don’t think Jesse was above taking this kind of freebie, but this was way too obvious and way too public. The guy’s method made him Jesse’s target and it didn’t take long for Jesse to get him. At the time, the CN Tower was newly built and it stood out in the middle of a field with no buildings around it. Jesse waited for his chance, then, just like any other run, he dispatched this pigeon an order for “Mr. Baker” at the CN Tower on the observation deck.
“This is a very important order and I want you to be sure and get it,” Jesse told his mark. “If you have to use the stairs, I want you to use them. It’s up to you.”
What followed was twenty minutes of hilarity with three hundred drivers cracking up at the extent to which Jesse was able to manipulate this very naive and inexperienced driver. A half-dozen times this poor fellow came back on the radio with excuses and stories about why he had failed to get the mythical Mr. Baker, and each time Jesse set him on again telling him, “Foobler Taxi expects you to get this order.”
It all ended when a CN Tower security guard came on the radio and told Jesse, “We don’t let anybody up the tower. There’s no Mr. Baker here. Stop playing tricks on this driver.” Then there was silence from Jesse’s end.
But Jesse wasn’t just an amusing guy, he was also a rough guy — or at least he carried himself that way. The least of this was that he talked on the radio about his taking karate lessons and now and again he’d challenge a driver to come down to the Foobler dispatch office to set tle a dispute. “I’ll meet you downstairs in the parking lot,” he challenged more than once.
But there was more to Jesse’s toughness than this. He gave off this aura that said, “I’m a rounder and a guy who can function in the company of criminals. I’m a right guy who will back his friends to the limit.” And there was something to this. Jesse was very friendly with a man named Ian Rosenberg, who was sometimes an ominous presence in the restaurant across the street from the Foobler Garage.
Rosenberg was involved in the moneylending business — loansharking — and occasionally had to collect debts the hard way. What I then knew about him was what I was told: “He’s big trouble and a good guy to stay away from.” Later I read in a newspaper that Rosenberg had been “a wheel” in the 1971 Kingston Penitentiary riot and that he was a for midable street fighter who had never lost a fight. In a book called Mob Rule, by James Dubro, I’ve read that Rosenberg was a mob enforcer and a known associate of Paul Volpe, Toronto’s Mafia kingpin, whose bullet-riddled body would turn up a few years later in the trunk of his BMW at Pearson International Airport.
My dispute with Jesse happened on a Sunday night. In those days (this was perhaps 1975 or 1976) there were many more orders on the radio, and when it was really busy, it was Jesse’s style to dispatch orders in a machine-gun fashion, without worrying greatly about whether the right car got the right order.
This particular time a raft of about twenty orders came in, Jesse called the orders, and he took maybe fifteen locations from cars. He took my location first and I booked the corner on a fresh order, so, in accordance with the company’s dispatch rules, I expected to get the call. But I didn’t get it. It wasn’t my habit to object to what Foobler dispatchers did (there was just too much to object to), but this time I reacted and Jesse kicked me off the air.
Then a lady taxi driver, who was a friendly acquaintance of mine, came to my defense and Jesse kicked her off the air too. That got me quite angry and I had real words with Jesse over the radio. The upshot was that he challenged me to come down to the Foobler dispatch office and settle the matter. I’m not vicious and I’m not fearless, but some stuff I just don’t take — especially when it’s handed to me over an open-frequency radio with all of the men I work with listening.
I drove to the Foobler dispatch office with the idea that I would try to reason my way through this situation, but, given Jesse’s style, I was definitely expecting to have to fight. If it came to that, I didn’t think I’d lose. Jesse might be a half-assed karate guy and a bit of a rounder, but I had my own advantages. I outweighed the guy maybe 215 pounds to 175 pounds and I was then very physically fit; I was running five miles a day, I was playing basketball four days a week at the YMCA, and I’d spend hours punching the heavy bag — practicing boxing combinations until they became automatic, like bullets coming out of a machine pistol.
As I entered the dispatch office door, Jesse wheeled out of his seat and came quickly toward me. I thought, “This is it. He wants to go right here in the dispatch office with all of these frightened-looking lady order takers for spectators.” But he pulled up short and settled for yelling in my face. It wasn’t abuse; he was making some sort of argument in a volume that wasn’t civil.
I told Jesse as calmly and matter-of-factly as I could that I had come there to settle the matter in a reasonable way but that if he wanted to yell, I’d yell too.
He yelled in my face again and I yelled in his face louder than he yelled in mine.
He yelled again and I yelled again. Then Jesse stopped yelling.
He tried a couple of ploys on me — nonsense arguments — but the answers he got back told him I wasn’t stupid and I wasn’t backing down. He showed me the dispatch slip from the disputed order — it had gone from Church and Richmond to Jarvis and Gerrard — and he seemed to calm down quite a bit when I told him I wasn’t accusing him of purposely tossing the order over my head but rather of dispatching orders without caring that the right cars got the right orders. After that we both got more reasonable and the argument just kind of fizzled out. I left the office saying, “This is trouble I don’t need. Just give me what’s mine and you won’t hear me objecting on the radio to anything you do.”
And that was the end of it.
After that, Jesse, to his credit, didn’t hold the dispute against me and in fact probably used me better than he had before. He still had his “friends,” but now and again it seemed to me he’d toss me a decent run. I remember him giving me an airport run on Belmont Street, rather reluc tantly I thought, when the other driver booking was one of his buddies.
Some time after that something happened that told me Jesse’s criminal associations weren’t doing him any good. Jesse and a Foobler Company taxi driver were caught hijacking a tractor trailer. According to the story, it was a mob job. Jesse and his partner had “inside information” that this truck was loaded with drugs, but something went wrong and they took a truck full of dildos or something equally useless. And then they got caught. I remember overhearing Jesse in the restaurant across the street from the main Foobler Garage and he was kind of whining, “I’ve got to go to jail for a year. How would you like to be facing that?”
This went to bolster my burgeoning impression that Jesse was more of a bad actor than a hard-core criminal. My friend Bert, a bank robber–turned–taxi driver, had been educating me. “The real guys never cry,” said Bert. “If you play the game and you lose, you don’t whine about it.” I think I knew this anyway.
I didn’t see Jesse for maybe two years after that, during which time he went to the provincial reformatory, served his time, and was released. My friend Nick and I met him at the George Chuvalo–Bobby Felstein fight, which was well attended by people from Foobler Taxi because Felstein sometimes drove a Foobler cab. Jesse was no longer dispatching taxis, and Nick, who was on good terms with Jesse, asked him what he was doing. Jesse answered, “I’m working for Adam.” I knew what this meant. Adam was a street moneylender — most commonly called a “six for five guy” — and Jesse was working collecting his debts.
— Taxi News, October 1997
Next week’s chapter: “Incident from the Mean Streets”
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.
The construction and completion of the CN Tower was a defining moment for all of Canada, but especially for Toronto. Peter McSherry was driving the streets during all of the excitement.