Captured by Gypsies

Queenie and the Jester take a ride.

At the time, Queenie and her son were at the tail end of a dire financial situation. Queenie's ex-husband -- the Jester's father -- had abandoned them several years before in favor of drugs and alcohol, leaving mountains of debt behind. As the co-signer on the vast majority of his purchases -- the house, the cars -- the long-since retired Queenie found herself responsible for all of it. She lost everything, and she and the Jester were forced to move into the modest, one-bedroom apartment they share to this day.

"When we realized the demand for a service like ours, we figured we had to give it a shot," Queenie says. She's in the living room of their apartment, seated on the unmade bed where the Jester sleeps.

Before they gave a lift to the Nebraska fans, the Jester had operated as a sort-of-designated driver for his father and his friends several times before, collecting tips when he could get them, but he'd never given a ride to anyone outside that inner circle. Now, scouting downtown over the next few weekends, the duo quickly figured out the tricks of their newly public trade. It works best, for example, when Queenie sits shotgun and offers potential passengers rides -- because, as the Jester puts it, "Would you just hop into the car of some sketchy dude by himself on a Saturday night?"

Ethan Wenberg

After trying several methods, they figured out that the best way to determine fares is to simply ask customers to pay whatever they think is fair. The majority of the people that G-Ride picks up are either so grateful after endless waits on hold with licensed taxi services, so enamored with the concept of being in a gypsy cab, or so charmed by the antics of Queenie and the Jester that they tend to overpay. The mother-son team has been stiffed a few times, even had a passenger sprint from the car after a long ride to Boulder, but generally the system works. So well, in fact, that over the past year the Jester and Queenie have managed to settle most of their debts as well as cover their current costs just from the money they've earned gypsy cabbing.

"We're starting to pull away," Queenie says.

It helps that they so thoroughly enjoy the work. Sitting in their apartment, interrupting and correcting each other to share their many stories -- the J. Lo look-alike who flashed her pierced boobs, the vato gangster who paid with a Shrek 2 DVD, picking up Mike Shanahan's kid, the dude in Iverson's posse during the All Stars Game, the puking, the strippers, the sex -- their faces light up like pinball machines.

"I love it," Queenie says, half her head a jumble of curlers. "You meet all kinds of people. It's more fun than it is scary."

"I've always felt like I've been a chauffeur," says the Jester, who's done everything from working airport security at Stapleton to serving ice cream at Liks to playing guitar on the street for cash. "I was always the guy with the car. Everyone wanted to ride with me, so I got the free beer, the free pot, got to go to the good parties. Now it's the same, just on a different scale. I make friends with the customers. I've been invited to hot-tub with people. I love this job."

An International Baccalaureate graduate from George Washington High School, the Jester's battled severe bipolar disorder most of his adult life. "My mom's been through hell these past few years, I've been through hell," he continues. "And we fight a lot because there's a lot of stress on us both. It's not easy living in a one-bedroom with your mom. But gypsy cabbing has brought us closer together, it's gotten her out of the house. We're happiest when we're working together."

To become a gypsy cab driver, all you need is a vehicle, a lot of time and a healthy disrespect for the law.

To become a licensed cab driver, the Denver Department of Excise and License requires that you fill out an application, pass a written test and prove proficiency in English as well as knowledge of city streets. Applicants must also take a physical, submit their Department of Motor Vehicles records, have their fingerprints run and turn in two letters of reference as well as a letter of hire from a cab company. Beyond that, drivers work out their arrangements with the companies themselves.

"My general rule of thumb is, if I don't want my fifteen-year-old daughter getting into your cab, then you're not working for Yellow," says Ross Alexander, president of Boulder and Denver Yellow Cab. Accordingly, anyone who wants to drive for the company undergoes a thorough training and review session. Background checks are conducted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (as well as the FBI if the cabby wants to service the airport), and the DMV records are carefully combed over once again. Potential cabbies are given driving tests by Yellow supervisors, along with courses on everything from how to work the dispatch computer to sensitivity training for dealing with the ambulatory disabled. There are defensive-driving classes, eyesight tests and more physicals -- currently no drug tests are necessary, but they're on their way.

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