Richard Bostwick Reminiscences
Cab Driving Stories
The Way It Was
Broadway, Fargo, N.D., ca. 1930 (2006.7.19)
Even at these seemingly low prices, very few had the money to take advantage of them. Bones for your dog were given free at most all butcher shops. Many were the families who converted them into delicious kettles of soup. All during this time, I, like most everyone else, had been dependent on federal assistance programs for the support of my family. So perhaps you can understand how grateful I was when a friend of mine informed me that the cab company he was driving for was planning on hiring another driver. You can be sure it didn't take me long to rush over and apply for the job. Although I had never driven cab before, I had no difficulty in qualifying for the job, for I knew the city like no one else and I could drive any make of car or truck there was. I was lucky enough to be hired and so began a whole new experience for me.
Now, driving cab was not considered to be the most prestigious line of work there was, but it seemed good to once again be engaged in any kind of private employment. But as I was to learn later on, knowing the city and being a good driver maybe was enough to get me the job, but those attributes were not enough to earn me sufficient money for living.
In order to earn a decent wage, you had to know and be known as well as be trusted by the various bootleggers, gamblers, bookmakers and others of the city's nightlife. These types comprised the majority of the clientele of the company I was driving for. Curly the gambler and Johnny O were proprietors of an upstairs hotel where no questions were ever asked of any of its guests. Then there was Miss Lee, Madam of the most popular whorehouse in town. I remember Patsy Gusso, con man and sometime promoter. There was Big Mike the whiskey runner, along with any number of small fry such as pimps, whores, and other unsavory characters.
I make reference to some of these people as being “unsavory characters.” Well, in the eyes of most unrighteous citizens, maybe they were. But the extreme hard times of the depression caused many a person to resort to illegal or immoral ways in order to survive. While most of them used such means as a livelihood, the majority of them, deep down in their hearts, were good people. And at times bellied the label “unsavory character.”
I have seen Curly the gambler stuff several bills in the Salvation Army kettle and I wonder who Miss Lee was buying the dolls and toys for at the local emporium. Big Mike the whiskey runner was always good for a “touch” for any down and outer who happened to be broke. Anyway, who was to judge them? I had not always worn a “white hat” myself.
Getting back to my new job of driving cab, the pay wasn't too great and the hours were long but any kind of a job in those days was something to be appreciated. The pay was 30% of the ‘take,' meaning 30% of the fares you collected. The hours consisted of two 12 hour shifts, 7:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.-7:00 a.m., 7 days a week. The drivers with the most seniority had their choice of either shift, but not all of the older drivers preferred the night shift, even though it was the busiest and therefore most lucrative. I did not mind the night shift and so that was the one I usually drove. There were 4 or 5 different cab lines operating in town. During the summer months they each operated 4 or 5 cabs, but during the winter months this number would practically double due to the severe winters in our part of the country.
This city in which I was driving cab in had a population of some 40,000 and was located in the heart of the wheat belt of our nation. Each year during the late summer and early fall, there would always be a great influx of migrant harvest hands. This was prior to the extensive mechanization of our farmlands, for as yet there had not come into use the huge combines that you see in the fields today. All of the crops in those days were harvested by horse power and manual labor. The time it took to harvest most of the wheat ranches was from 30 to 60 days, some larger ranches even longer. When the last bundle of grain had been tossed into the separator and the farmer had paid off his crew, a majority of the hands would flock into town to celebrate the end of their grueling sun-up-to-sun-down labor. It was quite similar to the drovers of a trail herd upon reaching the railhead in the days of the old west. With quite a few of them it would be the same old story, “Thirty days or more to earn a stake and thirty hours or less to lose it.” You see, with the influx of the migrant harvest hands there would also the influx of a goodly number of gamblers, whores, and strong-armed men whose main objectives were to ‘harvest the harvest hands'.
You quite often picked up one of these celebrating harvest hands early in the evening and he would have you drive him to one of the local houses of prostitution. Then, the following morning it was not unusual to receive a call to the same house where your former passenger would come stumbling out still showing the effects of his all night revelry. He would have you drive him to his hotel and 9 times out of 10 he would be broke, not even having the price of his cab fare, having been picked clean by his all night ‘playmates'. In such a case you never argued with him over the fare. You would just return to the house where you had picked him up at, rap on the door, and tell the madam of the house that the passenger you just drove from there had been unable to pay his cab fare due to being broke. She would not doubt you but would readily pay you what you had coming and most likely include a tip.
In order to attract customers, all cab companies carried their name and phone # emblazoned on both sides of the cabs as well as a light on the roof. All of the cabs belonging to the company I drove for were 4-door black sedans, the same as all of the private cars on the streets at that time. There was no lettering on either side of our cabs, nor were there any lights on our roofs. As I previously stated, my company catered to the sporting element of our community, the gamblers, hustlers and bootleggers. Outside of the bankers in town these were the people with the most money and were also the most generous. The majority of our customers shunned publicity-roof lights and lettering would be sure to attract attention.
Driving cab was very interesting work. It reminded me somewhat of sitting in a poker game-you never knew what cards were dealt you until you picked them up. In driving cab you were dispatched on a run never knowing where it might take you or who might be your passenger. Your next passenger might be a bootlegger with two heavily laden suitcases full of illegal whiskey. Whatever may have been in those suitcases was no concern of yours. Your only concern was to drive your passenger to the address he gave you, careful not to speed or take any chances on being stopped, collect your fare, call in for another run and forget the last one.
Your next fare, after delivering some call girl to a party, may be to drive some elderly lady to her home with all of her parcels and then help her carry them up to her second floor apartment. You soon became acquainted with the steady customers of your company and as you were driving on commission, it was good business on your part to ask them to call for you personally when ordering a cab. Whenever the dispatcher received a call for you personally, you were entitled to pull out of the line-up, regardless of how far back you might be. Otherwise you took your turn-first in first out. This often resulted in your being busy while other drivers might be idle. In order to bolster their income a little, some drivers would sell a bottle or two of alcohol whenever the opportunity presented itself, providing they knew the customer. Most of the drivers who did indulge in a little bootlegging never kept a supply on hand, but instead they would buy a bottle from some wholesaler and make a profit on the resale. Contrary to most drivers there were a few who would buy their alcohol by the gallon, bottle it up and thereby always have a supply on hand. They would stash these bottles in some easily accessible secret place. The procedure would be as follows: They would buy a tin (one gallon) of 190 proof alcohol and one pint of distilled water and thoroughly mix them. This would result in 144 oz. Of diluted liquor. The next step would be to patronize a certain drug store that specialized in selling 7 oz. flasks. These flasks came 24 to a case. The whole operations totaled out as follows:
$7.00 for 1 tin of alcohol
.15 for 1 pint of distilled water
$2.00 for 1 case of bottles
Total = $9.15
The going price for the end result was all the way from $2.00 to $3.50, whatever the trade would bear. These 7 oz. flasks were asked for and sold as being half-pints. Now I know 7 oz. does not constitute a half-pint, but all the dealers used the seven oz. bottles and no one ever complained about the short measure.
It was not against the law to buy alcohol, but it was considered wrong and illegal to sell it. But, when you have a wife and a bunch of growing kids to support, it all didn't seem so wrong. What did seem wrong was to see some local politician or prominent citizen waiting for your cab at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning at the rear door of some madam's ‘house' wanting for a ride home to his family. But as I said, that is where the money was as well as generous tips.
During a 12-hour shift, you often saw or heard things that seemed odd or illegal. But you soon learned to look the other way and not get involved. That is, unless someone's safety was at stake. Once in a while, you would pick up what we drivers called a ‘live guy'. Live guy meaning a fellow whom would hire your cab by the hour, and have you drive him from one nightspot to another. Those were the kind of trips we drivers liked the most, for sometimes they would last well into the morning @ $3.00 an hour.
Another fare that most drivers appreciated was the one who would get into your cab, know where they were going, give you the address, then sit back and be quiet until you arrived at their destination. Not that you preferred being unfriendly, but that way you would not be distracted from driving safely. And of course there was always the drunk. Although they never caused you much trouble, once in awhile one would become belligerent or sick. But that didn't happen too often.
Speaking of drunks, I remember a steady customer of mine who would always call for me personally every time he got loaded, which occurred about once a month. He was a middle-aged fellow who lived alone and who worked for the city fire department. He would always wind up his once-a-month-binges by having me take him for a ride. He would have no place in particular to go, he just liked to ride. So I would spend several hours just driving him around. I usually drove him around the outlying areas, because after a few blocks he would start singing “Home, Home on the Range” over and over again. These trips would last just as long as I was willing to join in singing with him. When I was unable to take it any longer, even at $3.00 an hour, he would have me take him home. The next day I would drop around to the fire hall and he would ask me how many hours he had ridden and how much he owed me. He never doubted the accuracy of my bill and always paid promptly.
The trips us drivers liked the least were the ones where a passenger on being asked, “Where to?” would answer by saying, “Just drive straight ahead, I'll tell you where to turn.” Usually you would be right in the middle of an intersection when he or she would holler, “Turn here! Turn here!” You didn't know where you were headed for and neither did your passenger.
All of the cab driving was not done during the warm summer nights. Almost half of your driving time was spent during the cold and sub-zero months of the winter. During those winter months, most, if not all, of the citizens in town would put their cars in storage. The automobile in those days was not the luxury vehicle it is today. Automobile heaters had not as yet come on the market, and manufacturers had not as yet incorporated windshield defrosters in the design of their dashboards. We would keep our windshields and windows clear of frosting over with the use of frost shields. These were thin sheets of glass-about the same dimensions of the windows and windshields themselves. They had narrow thin strips of rubber all around the edge which when glued to the inside of your window would create a vacuum or dead space between the window and the frost shield. This would keep the glass free of frost.
There was no such thing as Prestone or any other anti-freeze for your cooling system. Most of the very few who did try to operate their vehicle during the cold winter months did so by the use of denatured alcohol as an additive to their cooling system. This was somewhat satisfactory, but most denatured alcohol had such a low boiling point it was very easy to overheat your motor and thereby boil out your solution and ruin your motor.
Rather than use denatured alcohol and take chances on it boiling out, all of the taxicabs used just plain water. They never froze up because they never shut off their motors while not in the garage. We had a retractable curtain in front of our radiator core that could be raised or lowered by a dash control. You would keep an eye on the temperature of your motor by way of the dash indicator and raise or lower the curtain as needed. It was cheaper to leave our motors running all of the time than to buy denatured alcohol. You see, gasoline cost only @ .18 to .20 cents a gallon in those days. The fact that most if not all private cars were put in storage during the winter months created a tremendous increase in the demand for cab service.
You often pulled out of the garage @ 7:00 p.m. at the start of an all night shift and drove as fast as you could delivering people, up until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. It would not be until then that you would get a chance to eat. I've seen the time where on some of those bitter cold nights, around 30 degrees below zero, where the only vehicles on the street would be the cabs. We would have the streets all to ourselves. The fact that we all worked on commission encouraged fast driving in order to handle as many calls as possible. On those nights we really made time. The favorite eating place of all cab drivers was the coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and 3rd avenue north. This place was centrally located downtown and was known for it's good coffee.
As I have stated before, it was usually 2 or 3 in the morning before business would slow down enough for you to take time out for you to eat your mid-night meal. I will always remember pulling up to the coffee shop with the snow piled high all around and all of the different taxicabs parked nearby. There would be several Yellow Cabs, Checkers, Royals, Red Tops, Daybes, Red and Whites, as well as several of Nick's Cabs. All with their motors slowly idling while their drivers were inside filling up on hot coffee and good food.
Us drivers all knew each other-being in the same line of work and frequenting the same depot cab stands at train time as well as such places as the coffee shop. Cab drivers moved around quite a bit in those days-a season or two for one outfit and then you would move over and go to work for another. The one that had the most business or the best equipment was the company every driver wanted to work for, and I usually drove for the best. These lunch breaks or jam sessions were always looked forward to as welcome respites from the cold busy nights of driving. As you entered the café, you would hear drivers swapping yarns about some oddball fare they had driven during the previous hours. Others would be bragging about the generous tips they had received. After an hour or so of good fellowship and having had your fill of good coffee as well as a couple of hamburgers, you would head for the cab office. On the way there it would be so cold, so dark, and so very quiet out with not a soul in sight. The only sound would be …
(last page of story)