[By Mike Foley, originally published May 10, 2009]
My wife, Sally, and I wanted to go to a certain restaurant yesterday, and because it was the closest one to where we were in Honolulu, we ended up on Kuhio Avenue (a block mauka of the beach) in Waikiki and right across the street from one of my old cab stands. That’s right, I was a cabby briefly in the late 1960s while I was a student at CCH — the Church College of Hawaii [renamed BYU–Hawaii in 1974].
In fact, a number of my classmates were also cabbies …largely because it was a cash-and-carry business: At the end of a self-imposed shift we walked away with the money in our pockets. In addition, we could make quite a bit more than the $1.50 an hour minimum wage that prevailed in those days (or the $5 a night most of the Polynesian Cultural Center dancers got for performing in the night show), and we had some interesting experiences. Here are a few of mine:
- I have no idea what requirements modern taxi drivers must meet, but back in the day… First off, we had to have a “clean” traffic abstract — that is, no traffic tickets. We got them in those days from what is now called the Walter Murray Gibson [there’s a significant name in the early history of the Latter-day Saints history in Hawaii] Building on Bethel Street in downtown Honolulu.
- Next, we had to pass a rather rigorous “chauffer’s license” exam at the old Honolulu Police Department station on Beretania Street, near the Mormon Tabernacle (that’s right, mainlanders, there’s a Mormon Tabernacle in Honolulu at the top of Kalakaua Avenue). Besides knowing all the regular driving laws in Honolulu, we had to know those that applied to cabs; and then there was the oral test. The toughest part of that was when the examiner would tell us we had just picked up a sick passenger at such-and-such a location: Where was the closest hospital, and what was the most direct route to drive there? And the location could be anywhere on the island of Oahu. Fortunately, there weren’t that many hospitals on the island…but we had to know our way around, especially Honolulu.
- Once we had a chauffer’s license, then it was just a matter of finding a cab company that would let us drive for them. This was actually not hard, because our classmates would help us. No cab? No problem. Some of the companies and even the “wealthier” CCH guys had their own cars which they would rent: The going rate was about $15 for a 24-hour period.
- Consequently, some of us worked 12 hours straight or longer to maximize the rental time. During at least part of this time I was working as the stage manager for the Polynesian Cultural Center, so I would actually go into Waikiki on Friday nights right after the evening show let out, about 9 p.m. There was actually quite a bit of business at that time for the next four or five hours. Then there would be a lull until about 6 a.m., and then people would start heading for the airport — every cabby’s favorite run, because it was usually the biggest fare and the potential for the best tips as we helped customers with baggage. I would usually head back to Laie about 2 p.m. on Saturday, in time to work again at PCC and get ready for Sunday, after putting in a 17-hour day. But the good news was I’d usually make between $50-150 (and some drivers reportedly made a lot more).
- I ended up driving for two companies: Hat Cab, and Black and White Cab. These were actually second-string companies. Let me explain: Cabs were technically supposed to work from stands, not “cruise” for pick-ups — but, of course, all of us did. The best company in those days, Charley’s Taxi, had negotiated cab stands at the airport — which generally meant the longest hauls and, therefore, highest fares — and most of the key Waikiki hotels. That meant only Charleys’ drivers could park and pick-up there.
- Hat Cab, the first company I worked for, only had one stand — the one on Kuhio Avenue. It was essentially a shack with a direct phone line to our dispatcher, that definitely wouldn’t fit into today’s scene; but it was actually a pretty good set-up because there weren’t many Hat drivers, there wasn’t much competition there, and we had quite a few regular customers.
- Black and White Cab’s best stand was at the Ilikai Hotel, plus they had some smaller ones which I’ve forgotten. I think I actually probably did more driving for Hat Cab, but I made more money with Black and White because of their location and potential for airport runs.
- Some Waikiki hotels didn’t have cab stands, which gave the doormen considerable power…because most of them expected a kick-back — as much as $2-$3 for an airport fare, that was worth maybe $6 in those days. It was a racket, and if you didn’t play ball, you wouldn’t get any of their business.
- Let me explain how most cab stands worked then, and I believe to this day: Cabbies line up, sometimes at the actual pick-up point (for example, Black and White had about six stalls in front of the Ilikai and two more around the side), and then take turns in order…so that number-one always gets the next fare. That also meant that driver number-nine and above had to wait in an ordered line at an off-site location until the dispatchers called to say move up to the hotel. In the case of Black and White there were dozens of cabs, and during slow times we could end up waiting in the line-up for long, boring, non-productive hours. This, plus the cruising without results, was the down-side of cabbing. Most drivers in line would usually sleep (although we had to be alert to move up), and I would usually read.
- A side-note on cab lines: During a 2006 trip to Beijing, China, our tour bus to the Great Wall at Simatai got lost, and we ended up driving past the cab line-up for Beijing International Airport. It was incredible: It seemed like the line-up of two cabs parked side-by-side was at least two miles long, maybe more. There were hundreds of them waiting to move up for a fare.
- Naturally, everyone wanted the long haul because it meant a bigger fare. I remember one morning I was next in line to Penilosa Taosoga, who drove his own white Cadillac cab. We had been waiting for several hours in the Ilikai line-up for the first haul of the morning. Finally first up, Peni was hoping for an airport run, but when the doorman blew his whistle, the passengers only wanted to go to Fort DeRussey, which is about a block away from the Ilikai’s front door, and worth about $1.50, the minimum fare. He was so “futless” that he just shot down the ramp while the rest of us cracked up.
- One of my best runs from the Ilikai was the morning I picked up part of the Fifth Dimension singing group, who had come to Honolulu to do a concert. I took some of them and part of their luggage to the airport, and they were generous tippers.
- Several times while driving for Hat Cab I got one of the regular customers — a big Hawaiian guy (I mean about 400 pounds) who would call in about 3 a.m., just after getting off work as an entertainer in Waikiki. He would send me to one of the 24-hour restaurants where I would pay for his phoned-in order, and then take it to his house in Kaimuki. In other words, the “passenger” was a box of food; but the guy was always appreciative…and a good tipper.
- Another passenger I still remember was a soldier who just got to Honolulu on R&R [rest and recreation] from Viet Nam, and wanted me to take him and his wife (or girlfriend) to the “best hotel in Honolulu.” I ended up driving them to what was then called the Kahala Hilton.
- I never really had any problems with passengers, but I had drunks who fell asleep in the back, and in at least one case had a hard time waking him up. In another case the drunk was in the Air Force, and the MPs (or APs) at Hickam had to take him out of the car. I also had passengers who wanted me to carry their bags or purchases into their homes, which I would do if there was a place to park; and one passenger at the Ilikai had me take her to the UH Bookstore, wait while she bought books, and then take her back.
All in all, it was good. I wouldn’t consider driving a taxi again, but in those days I was in my early 20s, and it was a quick way to make a buck, and to have some interesting but brief experiences with a wide range of people.