Tuesday, November 01, 2005


The Chi is a cab city. In fact, maybe the oldest cab company in America is from the Chi. You can easily get cabs throughout the loop, as well as many neighborhoods on the North Side. There are some variables for getting cabs that people in other cab cities will understand. Being in a minority neighborhood will cut your chances of getting a cab. Being in a residential area will cut your chances of getting a cab. Being a minority will cut your chances of getting a cab. All of that being said, all of my adult life in the Chi I have counted on cabs as a means of transportation.

One reality of the taxi cab industry is that it is an entry-level of job for many new immigrants. Signs are close to international, the city is a grid, so pretty easy top get around, and driving is driving. This means that many cab drivers do not speak English. Instead, many of them listen to National Public Radio, or talk on mobile phones in languages other than English. This can be a very big downside for cabbie interaction. Therefore, you are generally not likely to have a good speaking interaction with a cabbie. The three below are culled from over a decade of adult cab rides. We are the poorer for it. On to the tales.

Fourth of July

The Chi has a very large fireworks display every 4th of July. It coincides with the end of the Taste of Chicago, which means that an estimate 1.5 million people will be along the lakefront the night of fireworks. Philadelphia has about 1.5 million people. Detroit and Boston combined are about 1.5 million people. It’s a lot of people. Generally, these people get to the lakefront at different points during the day. Some go to Taste. Some take a base to North Avenue and walk south along the lake. They dribble in.

Then the fireworks end. Everyone along the lakefront decides to go home as soon as the fireworks end. Thus, while the city’s infrastructure is able to handle a city moving in to the loop during the course of the day, it is not equipped to move them all out simultaneously. The Metra trains are packed and run more frequently than normal. The el and subways are packed, with lines out the turnstiles, up (or down) the stairs, with dangerously packed platforms. The roads are chaos and nobody moves quickly up or down Lake Shore Drive or on the expressways. There is no good way to leave the loop for at least two hours after fireworks end.

It is in this context that me, DB, and DX were trying to leave the loop after the fireworks in about 1993 or so. We were trying to get from the loop to Roscoe Village, where DB and DX lived. We were going to get on the el, but the line was literally down the stairs and half a block along Lake Street on either side of State. We could see that the same was true at Randolph/Wabash. We decided to walk to the west end of the loop and get on the empty trains entering the loop rather than the full trains leaving it. Good idea, but useless by the time we got to Randolph/Wells. The line there was even longer than on the north end of the loop.

We thought we might consider finding a way to get a drink, although the loop is not the best place to do that. We walked to Franklin, where we saw complete gridlock, and . . . an empty cab.

We decided that an empty cab was a better place to be than wandering around Sears Tower looking for a drink. DB and DX jumped in the back, and I jumped in the front. The cabbie was wearing a suit that people describe as “sharp.” It was sort of a Burberry plaid check with a vest, bell bottoms, and a snappy hat pulled down over one eye. The driver had reggae music bumping just past the abilities of the speakers to handle, and was slumped over to the left in a modified pimp lean.

We hopped in and told the guy where we were going. We told him that we were not in a big rush (since the traffic was still gridlocked). He kind of looked at us, and nodded. He then floored it directly at the cab in front of us, swerving at the last second through a gap between the cab in front of us and parked cars on the right about 1/3 of an inch wider than the cab we were in. This got him to the curb, where he alternated four wheels on the road and two on the curb. All at about 30 miles an hour in very heavy traffic. He took the el supports along Franklin as a slalom course until he turned on to the Kennedy. We thought he would relax on the Kennedy, but it is fair to say that the reggae and his success on Franklin inspired him. He approached the Kennedy like a football player approaching the line of scrimmage. He weaved through traffic, using the shoulders as needed, and exited at Armitage/Ashland, passing cars headed east on Armitage in the left lane (meant to turn west on Armitage), and cutting them off at the last possible second to make the right on to Armitage.

From Ashland/Armitage to Roscoe Village was nothing. Sure, the driver went 70 up Ashland and flew through the residential neighborhoods as if he were on a closed circuit. Still, in the context of the ride up to that point, we hardly noticed. We had sort of decided that we would likely live through the ride.

The driver screeched (literally) up to the front of DB and DX’s building less than 20 minutes after we got into the cab in the loop. The music was still pumping. The guy had not really moved at all. We were all scared as hell. However, we were happy to be back so quickly, so we gave him a tip equal to the meter and hopped out. He then screeched off in search of his next fare/victims.

Backwards on Wacker

The summer between my first and second years of law school, I worked as a temporary law clerk in the loop. It was a pretty crappy job, but it paid and it was related to the law, so it was not all bad. In any case, the out-of-town lawyers I was working for were not very familiar with the loop. One day at the end of the day they asked me to take some documents from 100 South Wacker (more or less) to 300 South Wacker (more or less). I told them I would walk the documents over. They said I should take a cab. I told them it would take longer than walking. They were adamant that I take a cab. Must have had budget to burn through.

I walked out of the building on the east side of Wacker. That is northbound. I needed to go two blocks southbound. I could have crossed the street to get a southbound cab, but frankly I was sort of pissed at my stooped instructions. And so I jumped in a northbound cab and told the driver the address to which I needed to go.

Now everything starts to go in slow motion. The driver asks me if I know that is two blocks behind us. I say I do, but I am working for some asshole Washington lawyers and need to take a cab. He turns, looks at me, and slams the cab into reverse. Wacker is three lanes in each direction at that point. It is very, very busy. We start to shoot backward. The driver is looking right at me and tells me to stay away from banks because they plan to put chips in our rear ends to control us. We are flying backwards. I have my head against the headrest so that I may, may survive when we slam into something. The driver hands me a pamphlet on the danger of ATM chips in our asses. We continue to fly backwards.

The driver slams on the brakes and slides us against the curb. I pay the meter, which is about $3, and get out, pamphlet in hand. The driver roars away.

Hop Leaf

Last week L and I were meeting friends for dinner at a very, very cool place in Andersonville called Hop Leaf. I walked out of my building and tried to get a cab. There were NO cabs. None. Anywhere. The hotels were going crazy, the cab stands were empty, people were wandering around with their hands in the air trying to hale cabs that were not present. It was bad. Then a woman I work with came out and needed a cab too.

I finally flagged a cab. She had to go to Armitage and Halsted, I had to go to Clark and Foster. More or less on the way. I invited the woman to share a cab to her destination. The driver was very normal for this leg of the trip, only explaining to us that there were no cabs because it was a holiday for Muslims and so there were no Muslim drivers out. Good enough.

My co-worker got out of the cab, and the driver immediately went nuts. First he was telling me about all of the connections he has at all of the cab companies who send him private information about events in the city that give him a leg up on the competition. He then told me about growing up in Albany Park, which was a Jewish neighborhood at the time, but how he was Italian, and how that meant that he knew things. He then told me about a lunch he had at the Tre Kroner, after which he met some Assyrians, who, by the way, are Christian, who bought his parents’ house. This segued without any apparent connection in to the fact that he has clout in the cancer research “racket.” He also has clout with Doctor Woo (or “Wu”), who is a “big wheel” in Chinese medicine and can guarantee cancer treatments. He knew people who died of cancer who decided not to use Doctor Woo, but they’re all dead now. When we got to Hop Leaf he told me that he knew “Bruno” and that he told “Bruno” to start the place.

The funny thing about all of this is that there was absolutely no connection between one sentence and the next. I had absolutely no idea where he was going next. It was entertaining, but maybe not the best thing for a professional driver.

Upon further reflection, I should probably point out that Pat Stack's blog from last week about great public trans incidents he had witnessed caused me to think about some of these things. An inspiration to us all, and now hanging with Rob from Clublife!


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