“When you haveit flat tire, you throwit over there and you takeit spare tire from that pile. Every three days you takeit air filter out of car and you putit on dirty air filter pile and then you grabit filter from clean filter pile and putit in car. It’s your job to wash cab, you can take it to carwash and pay for it, or you can take it to the lake and wash it there, I no give a s@#t.””
That was my first day on the job in Nick’s taxi shop in old town in Hay River, Northwest Territories. This was the spiel every new taxi driver received on the first day of work. Nick was a Yugoslav who came up through the school of hard knocks. He had managed to get control of both taxi companies, Yellow and United. Somehow, he got the Town of Hay River to agree not to issue any more taxi licenses. Nick had a monopoly and he made sure he had control over every detail. He was more of a control freak than a Soviet gulag commander. His little fiefdom was run out of a small mobile home, where the dispatch office was his living room. The business ran efficiently for 20 hours a day. Dispatching was herded mostly by Nick’s wife, Tammy, along with an afternoon dispatcher.
If Nick was the gulag commander, then Tammy was the gulag guard. She ran the day-to-day operations with an iron fist. When it came to English, Nick was an English major compared to Tammy. My shift ran from whenever I got up in the morning, which was usually around 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. Being only 20, I worked seven days a week for months on end before taking a day or two off. When it was quitting time, Nick would call on the radio. “Shuter down,” he’d say. We would come to the yard to gas up, and record how much gas we took. I asked Nick how the pay worked.
“You makeit one half what the cab makeit, minus one half the price of gas, at the gas station,” he said. Half of the cost for a gallon of gas from the gas station cost $0.25, which sounded fair, until you realized Nick was buying the gas bulk at $0.29 per gallon. Once the cab was parked, we went into the office to square up for the day.
This routine never changed a bit for the whole year I was there.
“How much you makeit?”
“I made $84.”
“I got $80, you pay me one half of $84.”
The next night would be the same.
“How much you makeit?”
“I made $82.”
“I got $86, you pay me one half of $86.”
My description of the work environment sounds like it was similar to a sweatshop, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Right from day one, we knew we were doing a good job, because if they had a problem with any little detail, they never hesitated to tell us.
There was no screaming or hollering, it was a smooth operation. Anytime we were waiting for fares, drivers would be visiting in each other’s cabs. Two or three times a month, Nick would park in front of the old town hotel and just sit there for an hour or so. We would all pile into his car while we were waiting for a fare and have a ball talking about an assortment of crazy stuff. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, Joseph Stalin was nice once in a while also. But it took an immigrant with terrible English to teach me about Canadian democracy.
“You’re going to vote today,” Nick said once.
“I don’t vote.”
“You’re going to vote for mayor John Lawson right away today. Without him it’s goodbye Charlie Brown for my business. As long as John is in office, no other son of b@#$h will be allowed to apply for a cab company license. You no haf to vote for any Councilors, just mayor.”
“Anybody that wants to vote for John today, gets a free cab ride okay.”
“Tonight anybody that wants to go to party at John’s house, gets free ride too.”
Accidents also brought in some extra side cash for Nick. He was lucky to have a good crew of drivers. We had around a half dozen minor fender-benders in the year I was there and, if my memory is correct, none of the taxis were at fault. The body shop would high ball the damage estimate on the cab and Nick would nail the insurance companies. With the damaged cab in his shop, he would hammer, chisel and bash the dented piece half straight, then finish the job with a ton of Bondo. A couple coats of paint would be splashed on and it was good to go. I have some negative thoughts about every job I’ve had over the past 50 years, except the job with Nick. Maybe, I’ve got a bad case of Stockholm syndrome, but as soon as a time machine is invented, I’m gonna climb in that sucker and crank it back to 1971. When I get into my Bondo-laden cab, I can’t wait to hear a new driver call in with car trouble.
“Car 12 —-Tammy.”
“I think there’s something wrong with this car.”
(Waiting for Nick to come to the radio.)
“This car doesn’t feel right, it seems to be pulling to the right.”
(A small delay)
“Are you sure the road’s not doing it?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
(Another short delay—wait for it—wait for it)
“Has it got four wheels?”
“Yeahhh, I got four wheels.”
“Drive the son of a b@#$h.”