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Taxi Dispatchers: A checkered crowd

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”

Click here to read Section #3 “I Finally Figure it Out”

I’ve been a taxi driver for twenty-six years, the first sixteen years using a radio, the last ten or so on the computer. Although it has its problems, on balance, I prefer the computer. It’s quiet. The customers like not having to listen to the dispatcher’s voice, and so do I. I can turn on an Irish folk music tape or listen to classical music on the FM radio. If I’ve got the right kind of music and a car with a good suspension, taxi driving is almost enjoyable. It’s just me floating around at a leisurely pace picking up money.

Another thing I like about the computer is that it leaves me bliss- fully unaware of whether or not the dispatch is stealing from me. The computer doesn’t give the driver a lot of extraneous information. That’s fine with me. If somebody is cheating me, I’d rather not know; then I don’t have to do anything about it and I don’t have to worry about what to do and what not to do. If I find there aren’t enough good fares on my company’s computer, I’ll just make the decision to make a change.

At the front end of my taxi driving career, I worked for twelve years at what I’ll call the Foobler Taxi Company, which then used radio and was hopelessly corrupt. I   mean all but two of a large staff of night dispatchers were stealing to one degree or another, and this group was making so much money bilking the honest and stupid drivers that there was little turnover in the dispatch over a period of years. I’m ashamed to remember the extent to which I put up with this and I can only say that in those better economic days there were far more orders on the radio and just as many fares on the street so that, even with the best business going to the favoured drivers, I could still make a reasonable living.

Toronto skyline 1983 Photo: Victor Kraczkowski

For this dozen years I put up with “Willie” and “Victor,” two dispatchers who were nothing but cheap whores blatantly stealing from myself and other drivers on a nightly basis. They were the worst of the Foobler dispatch crowd.

Willie was incredible. A small man with a smart mouth, he thought he was a lot more clever than he actually was — and he was pretty hard to take from this point of view alone. But the guy had so many “friends” it was beyond belief.

While he tried to be discreet, if he absolutely had to get an order out to one of his buddies, he’d toss it over your head in the most brazenly obvious fashion imaginable, and, if somebody didn’t like it, he’d become insulting and/or kick that person off the air. What were you going to do about it if the Foobler Company management was prepared, not only to look the other way, but to actually back this guy to the hilt? It was understood that the way to get to Willie was to “smoke him up,” or else become one of his racetrack buddies.

But Willie wasn’t a patch on Victor. A guy who affected a very pleasant and gentlemanly air while dispatching, Victor was taking money in a very organized way, though his methods were usually much more discreet than Willie’s.

While he was pretty smart about what he did, I knew Victor was a thief for several reasons. First, there were never any good calls on the radio when Victor was dispatching — nothing at all over a period of years.

Second, some drivers would outright tell you that Victor was for sale.

Third, I eventually had a late-night conversation with Victor over dinner at Fran’s Restaurant when Victor and I happened to run into a mutual friend at the same time. A real smoothie, Victor was all smiles and pleasant conversation for about forty-five minutes. Then he cracked to me, “You know, Pete, you really don’t know how to book!” I knew what he was getting at — he wanted to add me to his stable of payees — and I answered, “Victor, I’ve just worked a shift with you where I’ve serviced twenty or twenty-five radio orders. How can you tell me I don’t know how to book?”

He didn’t like this answer and, in his smooth and clever way, tried to steer the conversation in another direction. But I wasn’t going to let it go.

“Victor,” I asked. “How do you suppose it’s possible that I serviced twenty or twenty-five radio orders and not one of them went anywhere?” He didn’t want to discuss that question and just pleasantly ignored it.

I didn’t do it then, but what I’d do now if I had a Willie or a Victor   to contend with is this: I’d take a notepad to work and create a record of every call I was dispatched by the crooked dispatcher in question. This record would include the date and exact time of every order, the addresses I was dispatched to, the destinations of the calls, and the exact amount each call was worth on the meter.

I’d keep this record over a period of time, perhaps a month, until the pattern I was looking for was demonstrable. At the same time, for comparison purposes, I’d also keep a record of calls dispatched to me by another dispatcher who I knew was honest. When I was ready, I’d go to the crooked dispatcher and, in a calm, business-like fashion, I’d tell him, “Here it is, pal, the complete record of all the calls you’ve dispatched me in the past month. There are lots of short calls, some medium calls, but no long calls. I figure this means you are stealing from me and I’d like it to stop.”

I’d definitely make the guy understand that, if he didn’t comply, my next stop would be the office of the company general manager. If I had to do it, that’s where I’d go. Again, I’d be calm and business-like and take the attitude, “A shocking situation has arisen in your company that I know you’re going to want to do something about. I have what I consider to be proof that your dispatcher is stealing from the honest drivers and you can verify my evidence with your own dispatch slips. I want his head and I know you’re going to see the rightness of this given the fact that I — indirectly through my fleet operator — pay you a healthy monthly dues fee.”

 I absolutely wouldn’t take an outraged attitude or say something like, “You’ve known this has been going on for years and you’ve done nothing about it,” even though such a tack would have been entirely the truth in the case of the management of the Foobler Company. If I were a fleet driver, I’d take my fleet operator to the brokerage office with me and I’d get him there by telling him, “If you want me to continue making money for you, you are going to help me put this situation right.”

If he wouldn’t help me, I’d stop paying him the full amount of the shift and he could do what he liked about it. There is no reason why a responsible, reasonable professional taxi driver should make money for a taxi operator who doesn’t measure up to his reasonable obligations to his drivers. These guys can be replaced. In my taxi career I’ve had to pink slip about eight of them, though I’ve now been with the same fleet operator for about fifteen years.

Only once in my taxi career have I felt I had to do this sort of eye- ball-to-eyeball thing, not with the Foobler Company, but rather with what I’ll call the “Omaha Company,” which was then already using the computer, not the radio. I caught a taxi driver, who, incredibly, was also a corporate director of the Omaha Company, stealing an order that had been dispatched to me.

What had happened was that this guy had booked the order on his computer, he had seen the address, but had then lost the order because he didn’t properly accept it. Being a greedy director, he merely notified the supervisor that he was taking the order anyway — the type of over-your-head behaviour I understand he was well known and resented for.

When I got to the location, this guy was   loading my fare into his car and he in effect told me, “I’m taking the fare and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I had the guy blocked in with my car and he couldn’t have gone anywhere if I didn’t let him, but it was two o’clock in the morning, the lady customer was a charge fare (whom I didn’t want to lose for the Omaha Company), and I figured she had a right to decent service, not to be frightened by two great hairy taxi drivers acting like belligerent seagulls arguing over a worm. I apologized to the lady and told the director, “You haven’t heard the end of this.”

Right away I got my ducks in a row. I talked to the computer supervisor and got it established that he would verify the facts. Then I wrote a letter to the Omaha Company’s general manager asking that the greedy director be advised that the company computer rules applied to him too, and that I be awarded the amount of the fare.

Three weeks later, I still hadn’t received the courtesy of a reply — a fact that bothered me especially because I had previously taken the trouble to produce a forty-page report on the practical workings of the Omaha Company’s new computer from the driver’s point of view, which I’d done entirely   unpaid and only to benefit the Omaha Company and its drivers.3

I had to call the Omaha Company’s general manager on the tele phone, who basically said, “We’ve spoken to the driver [he didn’t say “the director”], but the computer wasn’t then working well and, because of this, we don’t think he did anything wrong and we’re not censuring him and you aren’t getting paid.” I knew that computer malfunction had no bearing at all (there wasn’t anything wrong with my computer and there hadn’t been for days), and I asked the general man- ager, a real piece of work, “Does this mean that if the computer isn’t working well, I can go and take the greedy director’s fare?” which caused this guy to more or less accuse me of being a troublemaker.

Basically it was a case of the goodwill of the director being of real use to the Omaha Company’s management, and the legitimate interests of a mere flunky cab driver being not quite as important. As far as the general manager was concerned, the matter was closed.

I had one more card to play. I went to my fleet operator, who then  had thirty cars in the Omaha Company, and I told him, “I’m not taking this crap. You’re going to help me or you’re going to lose a good driver.” I knew that the computer tape would prove that the director’s story — that the computer had given him the order and then, because it was malfunctioning, had taken it away from him after a few minutes — was a gross lie. I got my fleet operator to lobby the Omaha Company’s general manager with the demand that we be allowed to see the computer tape that would have proved my case.

You’ll never guess what happened next! It seems there was this big mishap in the Omaha Company’s computer room and the computer tape was accidentally destroyed. It was the Omaha Company’s own little Watergate.

From what I’ve written, the reader might suspect that I have a pretty dim view of taxi dispatchers and taxi companies in general. This is not quite so. I know that there are taxi company executives in Toronto who do their best to run a clean, efficient, and honest ship, and I’ve worked with a number of dispatchers whom I had a real professional regard for.

It is not an easy thing to be a taxi dispatcher. Not all drivers are honest, experienced, or competent. Not all drivers speak reasonable English. Some drivers bring ways of doing things from other countries that won’t work here but that they won’t easily let go of. A  dispatcher, who has many drivers and situations to deal with while he gets out orders, has only a little time to devote to an individual problem. He has to do the best he can on the moment. He often has to put up with idiots clicking mikes in his ear. He has to deal with guys who want to come down to the dispatch office and kick his brains in over some slight, real or imagined. He has to put up with Neanderthals who disguise their voices and tell him things like, “I’m going to go over to your house and kill your wife and kids.”

I think my all-time favourite dispatcher was a guy I worked with at the Omaha Company a few years before they put in their computer. His name was Wilf. I wouldn’t know this guy’s face if I passed him on the street and it’s true that he didn’t have a particularly pleasant radio manner. But, so far as I could tell, the guy was straight, and a competent, efficient driver always made money with him. When he was on the radio there were long fares and there were short fares, but it all added up in the end.

What else can a taxi driver reasonably expect?

— Taxi News, September 1997

Next week’s chapter: “My Worst-Ever Incident with a Dispatcher”

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