The Universal Notebook: Taxi!

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Whenever I drop someone off at the ambitiously named Portland International Jetport and see all the taxis idling in the back lot, I think of my own brief career as a cabbie in Portland.

These days, as in most cities, the majority of cab drivers are immigrants willing to work long hours to get ahead. Between 1969 and 1971, however, the majority of the cab drivers in Portland were college students willing to sit around in cars all day not making any money.

Town Taxi owner Barney Zade had to get special permission from the city to hire me because I was not yet 21. I was the first of what Barney called his Kiddie Crew, a bunch of University of Southern Maine (or was it University of Maine Portland-Gorham at the time?) students, all friends and several of us philosophy majors. It tells you something about how idealistic and impractical we were back then, majoring in philosophy at a commuter campus of a state university without a thought about how we might eventually make a living.

Town Taxi had a fleet of yellow and green beaters with sticky leather seats and brakes that needed to be pumped frequently if you wanted them when you needed them. The garage was down on Cumberland Avenue between Mellen and State streets, where PROP is today. The dispatch office was in the lobby of the old Congress Square Hotel.

Ghosts of Portland places past haunted Town Taxi as the ancient, affable dispatcher insisted on hailing drivers who might be in the area of Union Station, the Falmouth Hotel or Columbia Hotel, all gone but not forgotten by an old man who remembered them in their heydays.

“Calling Bramhall, West End, Union Station.”

There were at least six of us on the Kiddie Crew. We were all issued gray chauffeur’s caps with metal badges and picture IDs in plastic sleeves. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, but it was a motley crew.

Ron Welch, a former seminarian, was also working at Pineland Hospital & Training Center out in New Gloucester and went on to a long career in mental health services; Rick Charette, another former seminarian, became a famous children’s singer/songwriter; Joe McGonigle, also a folksinger, became a journalist at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, and even held the editorial reins at Maine Times for a time before heading down the coast and, last I heard, becoming involved in aquaculture.

Peter Ashley, a veteran, was a few years older than the rest of us and an appealing eccentric. I also worked with Peter in the shipping room of J. Weston Walsh publishing company, so I may be mistaken about his driving for Town Taxi. In any event, Peter was an early techie who became a computer guru at Westbrook College and Southern Maine Community College. I also seem to recall that Steve Bradford, then a DJ and now an assemblage artist in Maine and California, was one of the USM/UMPG drivers.

Barney Zade’s son-in-law Eric Hartglass, who was only a couple of years older than we were, took over Town Taxi while I was there, so the youth movement was complete. In 1977, Eric founded Mr. Bagel.

The grizzled veterans pulled the lucrative night shifts. The Kiddie Crew was mostly assigned the slower, afternoon and Sunday shifts. There were taxi stands along High Street in front of the Eastland Hotel and along Bramhall Street in front of the old Maine Eye and Ear Infirmary, just down the hill from Maine Med. On Sunday mornings, we’d buy a New York Times, park three or four cabs in row, pile into the last one, and when the dispatcher interrupted our deep philosophical conversations or shared readings, the driver of the first car would reluctantly leave to answer the call. If you weren’t rolling, you weren’t making money, but we didn’t care.

The fares were mostly older folks going to the grocery store or medical appointments, but there were a few favored regulars like the Catholic priest who took the taxi to Westbrook and back every Sunday, and the pianist who always took a taxi because he didn’t want to risk injuring his hands.

My best fare was a guy who had me drive him from the airport all the way to Bethel because he was late for a conference. My most memorable customer was an elderly lady who had a seizure in the backseat of my cab. I pulled over in front of Cheverus High School and radioed dispatch to send an ambulance. I ended up paying her fare myself.

There was no money is cab driving, but it was a great way to look like you were working when you were really just cruising around in the past.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.