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Taxi driving in Thunder Bay circa 1985: Don Taylor’s driving career gets started

Photo: thunderbay.ca

by Don Taylor, excerpted from “Stories from the Road” used with permission

My professional driving career officially began when I was twenty-two years old. On March 15, 1985 I went to work for Roach’s Taxi in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The previous November, I along with many others, was laid off from my position as a general labourer with Saskatchewan Wheat Pool as they anticipated the winter grain shipment slowdown. They were also starting to computerize the elevators, and the writing was on the wall, that most of those being laid off would not be called back in the spring.

I had always loved driving, and mom once told me the only car seat she could put me in where I wouldn’t cry was one with a steering wheel. I, of course, have no memory of this. I started driving taxi not thinking of it as a start to a trucking career. Instead, I just figured it would do until “something better comes along.”  It would be nine years of “making do” before I made the jump to being a full-time truck driver.

Before he was a writer, and before he was a Truck driver, Don Taylor earned his living as a Taxi driver at Roach’s Taxi in Thunder Bay.

My test drive with Roach’s was with one of their big commercial customers, mainly to see how I’d treat the vehicle on rough roads. The owner’s brother was the road tester, meaning, of course, that I was gentle with the car.

Taxi drivers in Thunder Bay at the time were paid on commission: Forty percent of the metered rate, plus tips. If my memory is right, in 1985 the meter started at $1.30 and went up ninety cents for each kilometer. Waiting time was a dime a minute. Cracking $100 ($40 for the driver) a day was a challenge. Ontario minimum wage in 1985 was $4.35 (equal to just over $8 in today’s money) at the time, and a full day’s work for those earning that was around $35 (in that day’s financial system).

The day after I started driving taxi, the local transit union went on strike. Talk about being thrown to the wolves! With no buses running, taxis were extremely busy. During the transit strike a busy cab driver could easily earn $200 a day. While the income was great, my stress level was off the charts. “Busy” was a massive under-statement. Traffic was chaos. For the first few days I vividly remember getting home, shaking and almost crying from the stress of a ten or twelve-hour shift.

After the strike was over, things started slowing down. Every cabbie’s income dropped. I was still living at home, however, paying minimal room and board. I helped out taking care of the lawn and snow removal, along with some handyman jobs around the house.

My most important function was, as always, being available to pop home to let Mom into the house. She had a real habit of locking herself out. Once she even managed to lock herself out of the house and out of the car while it was running. I can’t count the times I’d get a message over the taxi radio asking me to go let mom in the house. It got to the point the dispatcher would say: “Number #46, you know the drill,” or “#46, your mom called.”

This was in the days before cell phones. My mother would then go to the neighbour’s house, calling Roach’s herself, or having the neighbour call. I asked her more than once why she did not just give the neighbours a house key. Mom replied that it wasn’t THAT often she’d locked herself out. Not really. Only once a week or so.

One day, after about a year of driving taxi for Roach’s, I walked into the dispatch office, heading to the washroom. This took me past the owner’s office. As I passed his open door, he called out to me, asking me when I was going to stop wearing “that God-awful jacket.” Said jacket was my much-loved, very well worn, heavy leather biker-style jacket, with a chain going over the right shoulder under the arm. I’d say it weighed about five pounds. Those days I wore it everywhere.

On a spur of the moment, I replied, “When you put me in a new car, not just new to me but a brand-new car, I’ll give you the jacket to do with as you please.” Two weeks later, I had the keys to a brand new 1986 Ford LTD taxi cab. I surrendered the jacket. No idea what ever became of it.

On another occasion, I was sent to a local bar for a fare. The gentleman got in the car, seeming to be fairly sober, and off we went. I came to a stop sign with a huge snowbank blocking my view. I inched ahead to see around it. Nothing was coming, allowing me to make my turn.

Almost immediately, I saw the flashing lights of an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) car in my mirrors. I pulled over, and the officer said I had failed to stop at the stop sign. I explained that I had stopped. I couldn’t see around the snowbank. Then I inched ahead to see if the road was clear. He wasn’t impressed. I got a ticket. Well, there goes THAT day’s pay to cover a bogus ticket.

Thunder Bay, Ontario Map: Ontario

All the time my passenger was silent, looking straight ahead. After the police car left, my passenger asked if I was considering fighting the ticket. I said I wasn’t planning to, as it would come down to his (police officer’s) word against mine. There was a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d win.

He said that he would be happy to appear in court with me as a witness. I thanked him, saying “with all due respect, I doubt that will help me much.” He then identified himself as the Chief of Police for the City of Thunder Bay. My mood improved considerably. I advised the court that I would be contesting the ticket, arriving at the appointed hour.

The OPP officer was there. It was clear he had no clue what was about to happen. My case was called, and the officer presented his case. I was then called to present my defense. When the judge asked if I had anything else, I said yes, I have a witness. When the chief of police walked forward, in full uniform, the look on the OPP officers face was worth a million dollars! He knew then and there that the case was lost.

The judge heard the Chief’s story confirming what I had said. He tossed the charges out of court. The judge then suggested that the OPP officer show a little common sense when presented with a believable excuse.

Then there was the summer day when I was sent to a local golf course for a fare. The gentleman literally threw his bag of clubs into the trunk. When he got in, it was obvious he had had a very bad round of golf. When we arrived at his destination, the fare was about $8.50. He turned to me and said: “How about you keep the damn clubs, and we call it even?” I had never golfed in my life to that point, but a few of my co-workers golfed. I thought: “Why not?” After all, it’s not every day you get a set of clubs with a bag for under $10.00.

One less enjoyable “ride barter” I was offered (and didn’t accept) occurred during a night shift. It was about two a.m., towards the tail-end of the nightly bar rush. I picked up what I assume was a husband and wife from a bar in the area we called “The Bronx”. To say it was a rough and tumble part of Thunder Bay would be an understatement. The area they were going to wasn’t much better, but I didn’t expect much trouble.

Both were extremely intoxicated, whereas I was sober as a judge. I also outweighed him by a good 50 lbs. When we got to the destination, the meter was under $10, and he said: “We don’t have any money, but you can have a round with my wife to cover the meter.”

YUCK! She was fine with the idea, complete with a smile, less 7 or 8 teeth, and an invitation to “do with me as you please”! Double YUCK! I ordered them out, and he left, but she stayed, trying to convince me to change my mind. Not happening. I told her, in no uncertain or polite, language to get out of the cab.

Nope, she wasn’t getting out until the fare was “paid.” I ended up having to physically remove her from the car. Unfortunately, when I hauled her out, my thumb hooked on one of her belt loops, breaking a bone in my wrist, which then required a cast. That sucked for a couple of reasons. First, I was off work until the cast came off. Second, I was in a wedding party in four weeks. Tuxedos and plaster-of-Paris casts don’t mix very well. Fortunately, the cast came off a week before the wedding, but I had to practice writing again to sign the marriage certificate. That marriage is still together to this day.

The Roach’s Taxi owner and I weren’t what you’d call friends, but we did share a mutual respect. When we were short staffed, he knew he could count on me to put in extra hours. I certainly did put them in.

There were times I’d work a twenty-one-hour day, go home, sleep for six or seven hours, then get back in the car again. My boss learned to see the signs I was burning out long before I did. More than once, after two or three weeks of burning the candle from both ends (as well as in the middle), some stupid little thing would set me off.

I’d storm into his office, tear a strip off him, telling him, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his company, his cars, along with which ever dispatcher had just pushed me over the edge. My tirade would last ten or fifteen minutes, during which time he would just turn in his chair to face me, intertwine his fingers, and rock gently. I’d storm out of the office trailing smoke from my ears, muttering a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush, and go golfing for a week to clear my head.

About a week later, he’d call asking if I was ready to return to work. I’d humbly reply “Yes” along with an apology. He’d laugh it off, telling me it wasn’t a big deal. He knew the blow-up was coming. He’d just sit through it (I don’t even know if he was listening or not). He knew that if I had a week to play golf and decompress, I’d be ready to go again.

We eventually normalized my schedule to a seventy-four-and-a-half-hour work week. Instead of the seven in the morning until eight in the evening I was currently working, my new schedule was from seven a.m. to six p.m., Monday to Thursday. On Friday I was in the car by eight in the morning, driving until half-past-two Saturday morning. After a few hours’ sleep, I was on duty for another twelve-hour shift. This time I started at two-thirty in the afternoon, ending at half-past-two Sunday morning. I was then off the clock until Monday morning, when the routine started all over again. This schedule lasted until I found an opportunity to pursue another passion of mine, music.

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“Stories from the Road” by Don Taylor is available in hard copy, paperback and downloadable electronic file at Friesen Press.

This story was originally printed in Taxi News on April 24th, 2022