Captured by Gypsies
"You're not going to drive us into the desert and kill us, are you?" the man asks, sliding open the door of the brown minivan piloted by the Jester. This is a fairly common concern -- not always expressed with the exact wording, but with the same sentiment behind it, the doubt and the fear. Most people are suspicious when they first encounter a gypsy cab.
The Jester usually drives a classic lowrider once featured in the pages of Lowrider Magazine, a ghetto-fabulous vehicle that he operates like a taxi on the weekends with his mother, Queenie. That ride is enough to make a lot of first-time passengers forget their fears and climb aboard, he says. But the lowrider's in hock, and tonight's a-serial-killer-would-drive-a-vehicle-exactly-like-this minivan inspires particular skepticism. The owner of the Caravan is a certified bra-fitter for a major retailer, which means she measures women's breasts to make sure they're wearing the correct bra size; she once saw a fifteen-year-old with 34 DDDs. She occasionally accompanies the Jester as he makes his rounds, divvying up the take at the end of the night. Tonight she is riding shotgun. She is known as BoobyTrap. (The Jester doesn't want real names used in this story, since exposing his identity could hurt his business -- which is illegal. The Jester came up with these nicknames.)
The far back seat of the minivan is missing, and in its stead is a plush, whitish section of a sofa. This is where I sit. The Reporter. The man who'd asked the Jester if he was a killer helps his wife into a seat belt by his side in the middle seat, and turns to look at me curiously.
"I'm the Reporter," I say.
The man stares at me for a second, with drunk, unfocused eyes, then turns back around and faces forward. I'm but another feature in his increasingly bizarre evening. The van pulls away from the Fillmore and as we head downtown, toward the couple's hotel, the woman begins chatting excitedly about the concert they just saw.
"George Thorogood was good, but Dickie Betts opened and he absolutely stole the show," she says. "He was incredible." The Jester and BoobyTrap make pleasant conversation with the woman, and we learn that the couple are in for the night from Sterling, the kids safely at home with the grandparents.
"They say grandparents are like the assistant coaches," the Jester says eagerly, studying his passengers in the rearview mirror.
We're listening to a live Doors album, and as the song "LA Woman" begins to crescendo, the man, who's been listening to the music attentively, silently nodding his head, speaks up.
"You know, Jim Morrison is alive, man," he suddenly informs us. "Elvis is definitely dead, but Morrison? He's alive."
The van fills with silence. After a moment, the Jester speaks up.
"They say Tupac is like the black Elvis."
We pull up to the couple's hotel. After plugging the Jester's cell-phone number into her phone -- "put it in under G-Ride," he tells her -- the wife climbs out of the van and hustles into the lobby. The hulking husband from Sterling hands the Jester a twenty-dollar bill for what would no doubt be a sub-$10 fare with a normal taxi service.
"You've got a brilliant plan going here," he says.
"People like us because we're not corporate or sponsored," the Jester tells me as we retrace our route so we can pick up more concertgoers. "We're the real deal. It's like that Bill Hicks bit: Would you rather go to some corporate asshole rock show or check out the maniac punks snorting rat poison and screaming their hearts out?"
Back at the Fillmore, the Jester parks his van in the middle of a line of taxis and exits into the rain, walking along the street and sniffing out pockets of people waiting impatiently for cabs. BoobyTrap remains in shotgun position and calls after passersby, "Can I interest you in ride? We're gypsy cab." Most people pass by without even acknowledging her, like she's a homeless person begging for change. Under the marquee, a fight threatens to come to a boil, but as quickly as tempers flare, they cool, and the two parties head off in separate directions, teams of friends soothing ruffled feathers. Walking down Colfax, twirling his blue umbrella like a busker, the Jester pays them no mind.
Queenie and her son, the Jester, were driving their vintage car home from a downtown sports bar one evening after watching Queenie's beloved University of Oklahoma Sooners play football. On the side of the car, hanging proudly, was a red OU banner. Four sports fans noticed the flag, as well as the sweet ride to which it was attached, and started up a conversation while the car was stopped at a red light. As the light changed, Queenie offered them a lift. For driving the group a mere three blocks to the Holiday Inn, Queenie and the Jester soon found themselves $25 to the good, though they were down one Sooners banner.
"Turns out they were Nebraska fans," Queenie says with a grin.
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?"
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.
Once a driver completes all of the necessary training and passes all of the required tests, he can operate as an independent contractor for Yellow Cab, essentially leasing the services provided by Yellow -- the satellite dispatch, the insurance, the brand name -- for a flat rate, and keeping every fare and tip in return. According to Alexander, some drivers pay as little as $40 a day to drive for Yellow, and some pay as much as $580 a week -- generally when they don't have their own cars. Drivers pay for their own gas and, if driving their own vehicle, their own maintenance.
"I'll level with you," Alexander says. "I'm a hippie from the Œ60s, I'm pretty much a Democrat, I'm sitting to the left. If you had told me in 1980 that I would be sitting here singing the praises of a regulated transportation industry, I would have told you were crazy. Free enterprise, go out there and make your living, absolutely. But the thing is, it doesn't work. Let's say everyone's unregulated. What happens is the little old lady who needs to go to Safeway can't get a ride because no one is going to take that small a fare. Everyone would gravitate to downtown or the airport, where they can get a walk-up customer, and next thing you know you've got lines around the block with everyone trying to get the same customer. You think that will bring the cost of the ride down? No way. The guy's going to charge you $100 instead of $30 to make up for the seven hours he sat there waiting for a fare.
"The other thing is, there is no recourse," Alexander continues. "I've got all my guys on GPS, I know where they're going right now, how fast they're going and whether or not they have a customer. Say you leave your cell phone or sweater in a cab -- you can call us and we can get it back to you. It sounds like a small thing, but it happens all the time. And what about insurance? You get into an accident in one of our cars and you're going to be taken care of. You get into a crash in an unlicensed cab, who knows what's going to happen?"
Or, as one Yellow Cab driver says of a gypsy driver: "You get in a car crash with that guy, you're fucked, he's fucked, the whole situation's fucked."
The Jester is fully aware of this dilemma. Thankfully, he's never had to deal with it.
"Our insurance is just like any normal driver's insurance," he says. "We're covered, our friends that we're driving are covered. If we ever got into an accident, hopefully we could handle things like that: That these were just some friends we were driving home. We know we operate on the fringes of legitimacy."
Ross Alexander would never let his fifteen-year-old daughter into the Jester's ride.
Two drunk, white, thirtysomething men, one with black hair, one blond, flop into the van talking loudly about Dickie Betts. They point in the direction of downtown, but as the Jester starts to pull into traffic, they suddenly motion him to stop. The black-haired man sitting by the door slides it open and calls after three girls walking the other way.
"There you are," he says. "Come over here."
The girls step over to the van and cautiously peer inside. The blond guy leans over his friend and begins speaking softly with one; it becomes clear that they were flirting earlier at the show. He tries to convince the girl to join us in the van -- him, his buddy, the Jester, BoobyTrap, the Reporter -- but for some strange reason she seems uncomfortable with the idea. Asking quickly turns to begging, but the girl is indecisive. Her two friends seize upon her vacillation and pull her away from the car. The door slides shut and we merge into traffic.
"Fucking cock-blockers!" the black-haired man screams. "That was the worst fucking cock-block job I've ever seen."
"No shit," the other concurs. "I was freaking with that girl the whole show!"
"They were like left guard, right guard with that bitch! Unbelievable!"
"I served our country. This is bullshit!"
"Hey, did you guys hear they're going to nominate Manu Ginobili for an Oscar?" the Jester asks, trying to lighten the situation. The two men stare back at him, unblinking.
"I don't care about those bitches," the black-haired one says. "I will get laid tonight."
We squire the gentlemen to the Celtic Tavern, where they hand BoobyTrap ten bucks and head inside.
"He's not getting laid tonight," BoobyTrap predicts. "Not a chance."
Three people outside the Celtic are waiting for a cab, and we offer them a ride. One woman is game, the other two in her party refuse. We wish them a good evening and return to the Fillmore.
Although it's almost midnight now and the concert crowd has grown thin, we pick up two Hispanic guys with thick plugs in their ears and a Mack truck of a female companion. The girl climbs in back, into the area we're now referring to as the "Honeymoon Suite," firmly pinning me against the wall.
Dickie Betts should try to remember exactly what he ate that day, because by all accounts he was channeling Hendrix up there.
"Old dude or no," one guy says to the other. "If you can't sit there and be blown away by someone wailing on the guitar like that, then you're a faggot."
The Jester settles on a $30 fare to take the trio home to Thornton. We're heading for the highway when suddenly, slow rumblings from Mack truck.
"I'm gonna puke," she says to no one in particular.
Panic fills the vehicle, spearheaded by the Reporter, who knows that if this girl lets loose, odds are an entire buffalo is coming up.
"Do we need to pull over?" the Jester asks.
"I think I'm okay," the girl responds, before turning to me and adding, "Don't worry; I do this all the time. I will let you know if I'm going to puke."
The ride becomes a mad dash, with the two Hispanic guys barking complicated, circuitous instructions to the Jester while the rain pours down and Jim Morrison screams hysterically on the CD. Mack truck leans her head against the thin strip of air afforded by the back van window and chants, "Oh my god, oh my god," over and over again. Each bump on the highway becomes a rollercoaster, every turn a momentous occasion met with trepidation and fear.
Finally we pull into the trio's trailer park. Mack truck lunges out of the van and hurls multi-colored bile all over the grass. A true pro.
We retire to a nearby Waffle House parking lot, where the Jester and I discuss our near-miss over sodas while BoobyTrap relieves herself inside.
Tight regulation in New York City has kept the number of official taxi cabs to 11,787 -- a number that hasn't changed in half a century. It's estimated that nearly 15,000 gypsy cabs are operating in the Big Apple, mostly in poorer, minority communities. Since 1934, Boston has kept the number of regulated taxi cabs on its streets to 1,525; that city also has a lively gypsy-cab industry, with such variations as "black car" livery companies who remove the livery license plates from their cars and operate as taxis.
In the seven counties that encompass metro Denver, there are currently 942 authorized cabs. Metro Taxi has operating authority for 492 cars, Yellow Cab for 300, and Freedom for 150. In 2002, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the taxi business, granted operating authority to Freedom for 100 more cabs. Before that, the last time the number was raised was back in 1995, from 742 to 842.
From 1995 to 2005, the metro area has increased by a total of 23.5 percent, up to 2,612,109 people, according to the Colorado Demography Office. Over the same period, the area has gained just 200 more cabs. Today, there's one cab for every 2,773 people living in the metro area.
But Terry Bote, spokesman for the PUC, doesn't think the demand for cabs is higher than the supply. In fact, evidence points the other way. "Not one of the companies are putting the maximum number of vehicles on the street right now," he says. "The reports from the drivers are that there are too many cars on the street, and if you go out and look at DIA, there's a holding area out there where cabs just sit all day long."
In this city, he adds, the two most common complaints about the cab business are that drivers are either late or don't show up at all.
Which is why the Jester believes his business is successful.
"The cab companies could do so much with what they have," he says. "But they're resting on their laurels. They put you on hold forever; they take as long as they want to come pick you up. They treat people like shit just because they can. With us, we're nice to you, we're reliable, we want to talk to you, to know how you're doing. With the big companies, you have to fight for a cab. With us, we have to fight for the customer."
The Doors CD has spun through several times at this point, so BoobyTrap throws in the Temptations.
"We always listen to this or KOOL 105," the Jester says. "People like that doo-wop, bibbity-bop stuff. Never fails."
The Jester knows late-night LoDo so well that he actually has preferred lanes on his cruising route. Blake to 14th, then up Market the other way until around Park Avenue West, then back down Blake, over and over again, circling the dense collection of bars and clubs in the area. When Queenie and the Jester first started in the gypsy business, they used to go uptown, searching out people waiting for taxicabs. But the real numbers are in LoDo, so they stick to this route to keep down the gas mileage.
After our trek to Thornton, we pick up our next customers outside of the Soiled Dove; the marginally drunk young couple seem sober as priests against the swirling backdrop of Saturday night insanity. At first the two balk at our offer, turning their heads to scan the sea of cars for a licensed cab. Then an epiphany dawns.
"Hold on," he says. "I've ridden with this guy before. These guys are great. Hop in!"
"I rode with this guy and his mom," he tells his girlfriend as they climb into the middle seat. "What happened to that sweet car you had?"
"It's in the shop," the Jester says.
I strike up a conversation with the young woman. She tells me that she's ridden in a gypsy cab before, when she and her friends were picked up outside the Diamond Cabaret by two identical, black Denalis. "My friends called them," she says. "It was one of those you-have-to-be-in-the-know type of things. They were total jerks, though. These guys are much better."
We drive the couple to their nearby apartment. BoobyTrap collects $15 and we dip back into the fray.
Throughout the evening, every passenger we've picked up has shown some initial trepidation. At 1:38 a.m., we pick up our only customer with absolutely no misgivings.
The white, twentysomething man bounds into the van as though it were piloted by his best friend, high-fives the Reporter and demands that the Jester turn up the music. His enthusiasm is deceptive. In a matter of seconds, alcohol washes over him like a tidal wave, leaving him haggard and confused, marooned in the shipwreck that has become his evening. This is the Drunk.
"Where to, man?" the Jester asks.
The Drunk just stares at him.
"Where to?" the Jester repeats.
"Take a right," the Drunk admits reluctantly, as if undergoing interrogation.
We take a right and go to the end of the block, where the Jester is once again forced to negotiate with his client. Mack truck was inebriated, but she was composed compared to this kid. This kid is shattered.
"Tenth and Josuhish . . ." the Drunk slurs.
"Tenth and Josephine!" he yells with a childish, temper-tantrum-like cadence.
As we drive east on 17th, the Drunk struggles to stay awake, his head bobbing until his chin hits his chest, then snapping back to attention. With every snap back, the Drunk turns to look at the Reporter, and though my presence is indeed out of the ordinary, this is far too difficult a connection for him to make. The Drunk just stares. We get to 10th and Josephine, where we are clumsily coached through a Botanic Gardens parking lot to the front door of the gentleman's apartment.
"What'd did owe yous?" he asks, fumbling for his wallet.
"Whatever price you feel is fair," the Jester says in a calm, rehearsed fashion.
Disbelief conquers the face of the Drunk. His jaw drops open slightly.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You can just pay us whatever you think is correct."
"That's why I'm asking you!" the Drunk whines, sounding remarkably like an exasperated Napoleon Dynamite.
"Well, ten bucks would be great," the Jester says.
"Seven," the Drunk responds.
The Jester makes no comment, and the Drunk hands him a five-dollar bill and two ones. He struggles to remove himself from the van but suffers a bout of remorse and collapses heavily back into his seat with a sigh. The Drunk scours his pockets for more bills and hands the Jester another dollar. He starts to climb out but again realizes the error of his frugal ways. Finding one more bill in his pocket, he flings it at the Jester.
"That's it," he says. "That's all you're getting from me."
The Drunk hurls himself out of the cab, trips on the curb and collapses to the concrete. He's quickly upright, though, and disappears behind a bush into his place. The Jester picks up the Drunk's most recent donation, and we're shocked to see that it's a twenty-dollar bill. Tomorrow morning, the Drunk will be even more surprised.
It's a few minutes past two in the morning, and BoobyTrap and the Reporter are exhausted. Both point out that the Jester is relatively close to each of their homes, and that now would be an opportune time to drop them off. But the Jester isn't hearing any of it.
"There should be people downtown for a little while yet," he says. "There's still people out there who need rides."
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