In August of 1973 I began attending Prince George’s Community College, while living in Imperial Gardens Apartments in Suitland, MD. After being discharged from the Air Force in February, I had been through an attempt to sell pots and pans and one season of driving a Good Humor truck. Now it was time to start working on an education. After several months of growing my hair and beard, my Hippie Wannabe look was beginning to take form. You may recall in my Good Humor post I mentioned how several of the Ice Cream Men drove a taxi in the off season. I was glad they directed me to this particular occupation. Since I was also attending summer classes, there would be no further Ice Cream Man duties. Hacking was my immediate future until graduation.
Cab driving proved to be rather lucrative. The Government paid me $388 a month on the G. I. Bill to be a full-time student, and I rented a cab on the weekends from the Bluebird/Yellow/Suburban Cab Company in Marlow Heights, netting between $150 – $200. Working on New Year’s Eve was usually worth an additional $100 – $150 for the night. I was averaging over $1,000 a month, tax free (please don’t tell Uncle Sam), which was a tidy sum back then. It was enough to support my wife and two tots (aged 1 and almost 3), and allowed for the occasional bottle of Boone’s Farm, Bali Hai, Ripple, or a six pack of Black Label. Whenever school was closed for a holiday or snow emergency, I rented a hack and spent the day driving, and studying on the cab stand during slow periods. It was the ultimate temporary profession.
Most of you probably have in your mind the stereotype of the taxi drivers in most cities, who can’t speak English, or feign misunderstanding to drive you out of the way and run up the meter. In 1973, the drivers were primarily American who spoke and understood English. But, in defense of today’s cabbies, we weren’t getting constantly mugged and ripped off by passengers, as seems to be so prevalent now. Sure, there was the occasional robbery and the passenger who jumped out without paying, but not to the extent it is today. Those most desperate for work tend to gravitate toward the danger and hassle, because no one else will do it. Cut the drivers a break when criticizing their lack of language skills, if you don’t mind. You’re lucky they are there when you need the ride.
“Who’s on the Marlow, the Marlow?” That’s the call from the dispatcher over the two-way radio putting out a job in the Marlow Heights section. How it worked was the first cab in line sitting on the Marlow Heights stand, located in front of the Giant Food/Steak in a Sack in the Marlow Heights Shopping Center, was given the job. Why the phrase was uttered twice, I’ll never know. Maybe it was to be sure we heard him. If there was no cab on the stand, the dispatcher called “Marlow 1st,” and any driver who was empty in section could bid on the job. The one closest to the fare would get it. “Marlow 2nd” was the next call if no one was empty in section. In this case, the taxi had to be in Marlow, dropping someone off or out of section empty. The closest to the location of the passenger won. Then if it went to “Marlow, Marlow,” which was the final call, and the first driver to bid got the fare.
Recently I met with some folks who grew up in Marlow Heights. The website in the highlighted link is run by Chuck Fraley. He organizes get-togethers of people who were youngsters in the area during the 60s and 70s. I discovered Chuck’s site while doing research for my Blog, and I’m glad I did. The group met at the Steak in a Sack for a terrific meal that brought back memories of the many sandwiches (basically a steak and cheese in a pita) I ate during my tenure as a cabbie from 1973 – 1976. Chuck was all “retroed-out” in his Ban-Lon shirt, Macs and Chucks with the colored shoelaces. He really works to “Keep the Memories Alive!”
We had several taxi stands in the area. There was the one at the Prince George’s Motel, called “The PG,” which was across the street from Iverson Mall, where I sold shoes at Baker’s in 1967. We had a stand in Suitland at the Scot’s gas station (I forget what it was called). In Temple Hills we were on a dirt lot at the corner of Brinkley and Temple Hills Road, called (now stick with me on this), “The Dirt.” Those clever guys. Then there was the stand outside Andrews Air Force Base at the Ramada Inn called (sing in unison), “The Ramada.” By far the busiest stand was The Marlow. After moving to Greenbelt in 1975, I worked out of the Hyattsville office, and my favorite stand was at the Little Tavern on Route 1, right outside the University of Maryland campus (I was a Maryland student at this point). The reason I liked that location so much was not just because of the great little burgers, but its name. It was called “The Ritz.” Someone had a sense of humor in naming that one.
Most people these days are moaning and groaning about the price of gasoline; how it’s cutting into their budgets and causing them to forego the extra Starbucks coffee or chocolate bar, just to keep their heads above water. Try having no gas when you are driving for a living. On October 17, 1973, just a couple of months after I started hacking, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to get even with the Western world for their support of Israel. Their plan to use oil as a weapon, by making it difficult to obtain, was secretly negotiated in August, in preparation of Egypt and Syria’s united assault of Israel. Both countries launched their attack on October 6th (Yom Kippur), and it was the beginning of the fourth Arab Israeli war.
Fine and dandy for them, but my family had to eat and the Oil Embargo was not a welcome addition to my lifestyle. Sitting in line waiting for gas, and running out of gas while waiting, was not a particular thrill. It was irritating. In one instance, I was lucky enough to get a big fare going to Glen Burnie. The good news was I got a lot of cash for the trip. The bad news was I ended up hitchhiking, holding an empty Clorox container (it was in the trunk in case of an emergency), to get to a station and wait in line, so I could fill up the jug and get back to my taxi, with just enough gas to find another line that I could join and eventually fill up the car. Hitching a ride with long hair and a beard (two more months of growth), wearing jeans, Chucks, and my old Air Force fatigue jacket, isn’t a particularly appealing look to passersby. The addition of the Clorox bottle to my ensemble gave some people the impression I was a bum. My Hippie Wannabe look was transformed into Hobo Chique. It was a killer look, and I don’t mean in the sense of hot and sexy, I mean killer in the sense of homicidal. Fortunately, a real Hippie stopped in his VW bus and drove me around to get the bottle filled and back to my cab. Kindred Spirits. “Peace, Brother. Groovy.”
One result of the Oil Embargo was the proliferation of self-service islands at gas stations. Although the first self-service station was opened in 1947 by George Urich, they didn’t really catch on. In fact, many states banned them due to concerns about the elimination of jobs, and distrust of the inexperienced motorist spraying the ground (and possibly other customers) with petrol or driving away and ripping a hose off the pump. After the crisis that occurred in ’73, and the subsequent spike in gas prices that resulted, stations began offering the choice of full-service at one price and self-service at a lower cost. Still, many states didn’t allow self-service stations, but as we all know, today they are prevalent everywhere except New Jersey and Oregon. Additionally, the many incarnations of forced increased mileage legislation grew out of the Embargo.
Aside from the gas crisis, I enjoyed driving a cab, usually working the night shift because there were fewer drivers to compete with, and fewer old ladies with eight bags of groceries to be lugged to their sixth-floor apartment, who only took the cab a few blocks, which meant a low fare, small tip, a lot of time spent, and losing my place in line at the stand. If I did work during the day, I avoided The Marlow, opting to drive around on the edge of several sections at once so I could “stretch my hood” when a job came out. If there was no cab on the stand of a particular section and it went to 1st call, I would make up a location in that section, hoping no other cab could see me. Any time a driver got caught fibbing he was cut off the air for an hour. If I was lucky enough there was no other cab closer to the job, I would get it, which meant I had to hurry, so as not to be discovered. A long delay in picking up a passenger, when I was supposedly nearby, was a dead giveaway. But we could always use the excuse we had a bathroom emergency on the way.
Marlow Heights is fairly close to Andrews Air Force Base. Andrews is where Air Force One, the plane used by the President, is housed. There was always a “Press” plane as part of the entourage whenever the President went on trips. Although there were several reporters privileged enough to accompany the President on Air Force One, most of them flew on the Press plane. And, many of them ordered taxi service to get them into Washington and Northern Virginia once their plane landed. Our dispatcher would give us notification that several cabs would be needed in the Andrews section, so those who wanted the fares would go and sit on The Ramada at the appropriate time in anticipation of a pretty decent trip. The passengers were usually interesting, talkative (after drinking on the plane) and tipped well. I had the pleasure of carrying Connie Chung, Pierre Salinger and Garry Trudeau on separate occasions.
But the best part of driving a hack was practicing my “Chicken Call.” There was a driver whose last name was Abel. I forget his first name because they always just called him Abel. He was a full-time cabbie who worked during the morning hours to make enough money to go to the racetrack in the afternoon and bet on the horses. There were several guys who drove to bet. Then after the races were over, if they lost, they’d come back out on the street and work several hours, or if they won, they would take the rest of the day off. Abel was kind of a cut-up and the dispatchers liked him. My task was to cackle like a chicken over the radio, and I am very good. What was so much fun about the “Chicken Call” was the dispatcher always blamed Abel. My original intention was just to cluck for fun, but when they started yelling at Abel, it became a pretty good game. Sometimes I would continue on until the dispatcher was irritated to the point of threatening to cut Abel off the air. And Abel wasn’t even working. We had different dispatchers at different times, and they always blamed Abel. I got a real chuckle out of it, and it beat studying while sitting on a stand.
I often think about what it would be like to drive a cab today, but I’m sure it would not be as entertaining as then. Uber has put an end to most taxis. I’m not even sure Abel is still alive, but if I were ever to cross his path again, I’d confess to the “Chicken Call,” just to see his expression.
“Who’s on the Coop, the Coop?”
Bake My Fish