Las Vegas, the early days....
It was fall 1968 and I had just moved to Las Vegas with my wife and month-old adopted son. My apartment complex backed up against Industrial Road on which many businesses stood, including Whittlesea Taxi. Since I taught school all week and clerked in the 7-11 after school My bank account still came up short so I decided that I might drive taxi on the weekends and the days I was not working in the 7-11. One Saturday I walked across the street and asked to speak to the Manager. Jim Bell was a couple of years older than me, tall and slender with an easy smile. I explained that I lived in the apartments across the street, was a schoolteacher, and was interested in driving taxi part time. He said, “We don’t hire part time drivers, but if you want to drive, we can put you on the extra board as a full time driver. The most difficult shifts to fill go out between 4 and 6 p.m.”
I told him that was fine although I had no clue what an extra board was. I soon learned. Whittlesea Taxi was a union shop and thereby followed union rules, including how drivers were selected for shifts. The extra board was the equivalent of substitute teaching. Drivers were ranked by seniority. Those with the highest seniority selected the most desirable shifts to drive. There were 64 cabs, each one running two shifts, so theoretically the first 128 shifts were bid by the highest 128 seniority drivers. An additional 42 or so drivers bid shifts that were created by regular drivers scheduled days off. That took up about the top 170 drivers in seniority. My seniority initial number was 204.
There was a “show up time” each day at 2:30 p.m. By then shifts of drivers who had called off work for the day were offered to those extra board drivers who showed up. Shifts began as early as 4:30 and as late as 10 p.m. I would take any shift that began between 4:30 and 6:00, the earlier the better, as they were nine hour shifts and any shift after 6 would end after 3 a.m. – too late for me to rest and teach the following day.
Driving from the extra board provided several benefits for me. First, my school was close enough to the taxi garage that I could race over during recess for the 2:30 show up and get back to school before recess was over. Second, as an extra board driver I could show up or not, and therefore work “part time” if I chose while technically being a full time driver. Of course, I was compelled to join the union.
Taxis were maintained by the company. Drivers were not required to “rent” their cabs as in other cities. Instead, a driver simply was assigned a shift with a designated cab. For the next nine hours he was on his own. Each time a fare got into the taxi a flag on the meter was dropped and the meter clicked off so much per mile and so much per minute. At the end of the shift, all the money, or “book,” excluding tips, was tallied and turned in to the office. Drivers were paid 50% of the book less taxes and required deductions, and paychecks were generated weekly. Some drivers wasted time, others spent their shifts trying to hustle for hookers, and others approached the job with a laid back attitude. Not me. I was there to work and I soon figured out which hotel taxi lines moved the fastest, what times to “play” which hotels (show breaks were always good times as folks would exit shows and then often taxi elsewhere to gamble and party). I soon learned other tricks of the trade such as cruising into a sone to take radio calls during slow periods on the Strip. As the result I was consistently one of the highest bookers and quickly got the notice of Jim Bell and his assistant, Charlie ford, another transplanted Pittsburgher.
There were other ways to earn money as a taxi driver. Of course, one could hustle for hookers, but the chances of being arrested and ruining my career as an educator dissuaded me from considering that option, though there still was plenty of opportunity for “side money.” This included taking a fare to a particular restaurant, night club, or even hotel that paid a “spiff” to the driver for the business. I would escort the fare into the establishment and hand the maitre ‘d my card with my taxi number and company phone number, and say, “Please take care of my friends, and call me if they need a ride back to the Strip.” My taxi number would be noted and afterward I’d stop by to pick up my “spiff.” At the time it was $2 per person for most places. The Gold Key Motel was one of my favorites, as they paid $4 for the guest’s first night’s visit and $3 for each additional night. By working the side money, one could substantially increase his nightky earnings.
So how much could a taxi driver make in an average night? My “book” usually averaged between $50 and $70 so my daily pay was about half of that. I’d average another $20 - $30 per night in tips, and $10- $15 in spiffs. So my average earnings would be about $60 per night or $300 per week, nearly double what I earned teaching school. During holidays and big conventions we were permitted to drive 12 hour shifts to accommodate the influx of tourists and those shifts yielded considerably more money. Also, the union or the company always had a deal with a grocery store and gave free Christmas and Thanksgiving turkeys to all drivers.
Driving taxi was not without its dangers. There was the ever-present possibility of being robbed at gunpoint. As a hedge against being robbed, I always kept a blank trip sheet (in which each trip had to be logged along with the amount of cash collected for that trip) on a clipboard. My plan was that if I was ever held up I would show the trip sheet and say I had just come to work. But I was never robbed, although there was a time when a person got into my cab and I was certain he meant to rob me. I just picked up bad vibes from his furtive movements. So I engaged him in conversation, letting him know that I was a schoolteacher and had a family and this was my first trip of the evening. When I stopped at a traffic light he jumped out of the cab and disappeared. I was certain that I had just talked my way out of being robbed or worse.
The scariest moment for me was when I was given a radio call to pick up a passenger several miles out of town on the way to Lake Mead. She lived in a trailer park and was to go for some sort of treatment. It was a “welfare call” meaning I did not get paid by the passenger, but received scrip that I turned in with my book in leiu of money. I was given her first name, Sarah.
When I pulled up in front of the trailer a man was on the porch. He had apparently had throat surgery and had some sort of screen where his larynx should have been. I said, “I’m looking for Sarah.” And he motioned me into the trailer. We walked to the back and she was in bed. He grabbed her by the ankle and flipped her onto the floor, then pointed at her and myself, suggesting, I guess, that we were somehow involved. She started to scream and I tried to get past him to leave but as we got to the kitchen he picked up a knife from the sink. I punched him in the throat and ran out the door and into the cab. He ran out onto the porch and simulated a rifle shooting at me. His throat was bleeding but he did not seem to notice. I pulled out of the lot and drove to the edge of the park where I had to stop as I was trembling so badly. That was my scariest moment as a taxi driver.
As an atypical taxi driver I noticed many things in Las Vegas that might have escaped the eyes of others. First was the totally different life that existed once the sun went down and the neon lights came up. The city came alive. Joe and Jane normal became Pete and Patty Party. The energy and excitement of Las Vegas at night was a hundred times that of the same village during the day. I loved the sights and sounds and smells of the night. I loved watching movies being filmed in the downtown area and on the Strip. I loved the gamblers – the few winners and the many losers, and I loved the hookers, the dealers, the boxmen, and the entertainers who would ride in my cab. Vegas nights were enchanting and I would become enchanted every night.
I also noticed several things about the business end of Vegas. One was that there existed only one Limousine company and it only had four cars. This seemed odd to me in a land of high rollers. Occasionally during peak times a few limos would drive in from Los Angeles or Phoenix, and a few hotels had their own, but for the most part, the community depended on one limo Company and its four limos. I was curious to see how limos were licensed in Clark County and discovered that taxis were limited; Each taxi company had a designated number of medallions, one of which must be affixed to each cab, thereby regulating the number of taxis permitted to operate in the county at a given time. Regulations for limousines were much more lax. Each company was required to have a certificate which did not restrict the number of limos in service at any given time. There was only one such certificate in Clark County. Hotels were exempt but could only service their own properties. This led me to ask why there was such a dearth of limos.