CALL ME A CAB

Is this a great country, or what?
Although it is not the land of his birth, my companion is defending the United States and all those truths that are supposed to be self-evident with the sort of ferocity usually displayed by taxi drivers fighting over a nice, juicy fare. Which is appropriate, since Jeff, a Metro cabbie, is in the driver's seat, ferrying me from Denver International Airport to downtown and offering his view of what transpired last Wednesday after news reports revealed the city's plans to spy on cabbies leaving DIA.

Fasten your seat belt: It's going to be a bumpy ride.
"The city was trying to be rude," he says. "Isn't there such a thing as free speech?"

Up until last week, you might have thought so. But that was before certain city bureaucrats--clowns who make Ronald McDonald look smooth--told West Washington Park residents that their lawn signs protesting a proposed fast-food outlet in the neighborhood would have to go. The placards violated Denver zoning codes, they said--even if their interpretation of those codes violated the U.S. Constitution, recent Supreme Court rulings and simple common sense.

And it was certainly before a DIA official told the City Council Airport Committee last Tuesday that the city was thinking about sending employees out in cabs, the better to learn what mean, awful things cabbies were saying about Denver's beautiful, misunderstood new airport. Maybe things like: The baggage system still doesn't work right (after considerable prodding earlier this month, United Airlines finally admitted that it had shut down the inbound automated system over the Christmas holidays because bags were being misdirected). Or: The trains sometimes get stuck in the tunnels (as they did only a few days into the recent baggage brouhaha, resulting in the city's sad admission that the cars have no public-address system--and inspiring Rush Limbaugh to send a half-dozen megaphones to DIA). Or: The parking garages have a few snafus (towing Representative Pat Schroeder's legally parked car, for example).

Or maybe even this: The plaza building, just to the north of the Pena Boulevard toll booths and near that under-construction Conoco station, may need costly repairs. (This bit of bad news has yet to be made public--Mayor Wellington Webb got word of the problem only a few weeks ago, at a briefing where even he reportedly said a few unkind things about the airport. Simply finding out what's causing the floor at the plaza building to crack will run tens of thousands of dollars--and fixing what's wrong could run hundreds of thousands more.)

But whatever the cabbies were saying, it couldn't have been worse than what people said after the cabbie-spy story hit the streets. That was a shot heard round the world: Within 24 hours, everyone from the BBC to Paul Harvey was having another good yuk at Denver's expense.

Webb got the news in Washington, D.C., where he was touting the very facility that was about to become an international laughingstock (again), boasting of DIA's first-year, $8.5 million profit to Congress. Not surprisingly, though, the airport spy scandal was the runaway hit with the media; a delicious blunder is always more interesting than a balance sheet. The phone at the airport's public-affairs office started ringing off the hook before dawn; employees there say the cabbie controversy generated more complaints, more quickly, than any previous DIA debacle.

Faster than you can hail a cab in downtown Denver--in fact, breaking the speed record set just days before, when the city attorney's office wisely reversed Denver's position on the McDonald's protest signs--Webb ardently disavowed the spy scheme and arranged the conciliatory Monday confab with the cabbies. Apparently, Webb has made more effective damage control a New Year's resolution.

But there is damage that can be fixed relatively easily--such as cracking floors--and damage that cannot. The city has worked hard to gain its reputation for killing the messenger (it wasn't long ago that Webb's manager of Public Works was subpoenaing Paula Woodward's film from Channel 9, going after the reporter who'd exposed loafing public employees rather than going after the workers themselves). Now it's going to have to work even harder to shed that image.

Maybe the cabbies can help. After all, these aren't the clowns who built the airport--but they, like the rest of us, are the people who now must gather under Denver's big top. And some of them actually like it.

Jeff, now tooling along I-70, goes even further. "I love the airport," he says. Without prodding, without surveillance, he actually took a tour of the place when it opened. "The city did a good job there," he continues. "It was the citizens who made the airport move, anyway, complaining about all that noise. Now they are complaining again. Where do they want it to be--Kansas?"

He loves the airport, but he does not like the competition for cabs. But then, that's not the city's fault, either: The Public Utilities Commission, a state agency, is responsible for setting rates and the number of cabs on the streets.

Jeff would just as soon not be one of them. But after he got a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Metro State College, he couldn't find a job. So he kept going, earning his master's in political science from the University of Colorado at Denver. Now he still can't find a job in his field--although DIA could probably put him to good use in its public-affairs department--so he drives a cab and occasionally shares his poli-sci knowledge with passengers.

When he's certain they're not spies, that is.
"Is this a communist state, or what?" he asks. "I thought this was a free country.

 
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