Barry Saunders

Saunders: Driving an NC cab isn’t for the faint of heart

Do you have any idea how vulnerable you are when you’re driving around at night with a stranger sitting in your backseat and that stranger suspects you have cash in your pockets?

I do.

For two years some years ago, I moonlighted as a nighttime taxicab driver for the Dewey “Boss Hogg” Edens Cab Co. in Rockingham. During the day, I was the poor but honest publisher of the fledgling Richmond County North Star newspaper, but at night I transformed into “Hey, you #@$%&* dime-snatcher. Slow down!”

Reading about the homicide of Raleigh taxicab driver Jose Nicolas Dominguez this month, I was instantly reminded of the dangers hacks face. Police have not confirmed it, but Dominguez’s fellow drivers think robbery was the motive for the fatal shooting. My heart aches for Dominguez and his family, because driving a cab is the first career choice for few, if any.

Think about it: Who, with other options, would choose a job that one of its practitioners compared to picking up hitchhikers for a living?

The U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have for years ranked driving a cab as one of the most dangerous jobs, at or near the top for homicide rates. Some states, including New York, Pennsylvania, California and Illinois, have enhanced penalties for anyone who assaults a cab driver. North Carolina, as far as I can tell, is not one of those states.

Cab drivers I approached on the street were reluctant to talk about their slain compatriot or their safety measures. Maybe they were suspicious. Who could blame them?

Unlike Dominguez and the scores of his Amigo Taxi-driving friends who paid tribute to him by driving downtown in a taxicab caravan for the first court appearance of a suspect in his death, I seldom had any money in my pockets. After every two or three fares, Boss Hogg would call me in to headquarters to turn over the trips’ receipts before sending me back out with just enough dough to make change: I never figured out if he was doing that for my safety or the safety of his money.

Also unlike Triangle taxi drivers, I had the advantage – by virtue of working in my hometown, often in my home neighborhood – of knowing personally 90 percent of the people I picked up from the grocery store, the laundromat, the bars or from their homes. Sometimes even that provided only a negligible sense of security, though, and leeriness was a constant state of mind.

Imagine trying to drive with one eye on the road and the other on the stranger in the backseat.

It took only a day or two into my career to dispel any romanticized notions of being a cabbie and to learn that being a taxicab driver was not like a Harry Chapin song, where you pick up an old flame and fondly reminisce as you drive “past the gates and the fine-trimmed lawn” and she hands you “$20 for a $2.50 fare and said ‘Harry, keep the change.’”

That may have happened to Harry, but it never happened to Barry. Tips I received were usually along the lines of “Say, pal. You might want to clean that up,” as they hurriedly exited the car.

Whenever the fare was someone I didn’t know and who wanted me to take him to a part of town with which I was unfamiliar, I would call into HQ on the CB radio – this was pre-cellular phones – and loudly broadcast my whereabouts.

“Say, Boss. I’m taking this fella – say, fella, what’s your name? – this fella John in a grey tweed coat I just picked up at the Trailways bus station over to East Rockingham.”

I was never robbed or threatened in my 24 months as a taxi driver, and any tension was probably due to my own paranoia.

Of course, when you make your living driving around with strangers in your backseat, as Triangle cabbies do, you have a right to be paranoid.