Mike Heffernan’s new book, a collection of interviews with anonymous St. John’s taxi drivers is a fascinating glimpse at an under-regulated industry and a side of the city most never get to see. By Sarah Smellie.
“One of the things I try to stress in the book,” says Mike Heffernan, “is that these cab drivers see a side of life that the majority of people don’t know exists, let alone see.”
Heffernan’s newest book, The Other Side Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories, is a collection of interviews from over 40 taxi drivers about their lives and their experiences behind the wheel.
Focusing on older drivers—career taxi men, or people who have been in and out of the industry throughout their working lives—Heffernan got a lot of the stories you might expect: a few fights, some bootleg liquor, encounters with drunks and some shuttling of prostitutes.
But he also got a picture of an industry that’s changed with the city, and workers that are trying to make a buck in an under-regulated industry.
“Back in the day, no one owned a car,” he says. “If Nan wanted to go for a run, you called up a cab company. After the Second World War, there were 40-odd cab stands in town. The largest cab companies had maybe 10 cars, whereas Gulliver’s today—now City Wide Taxi—has 90 or so.”
The cab stands were often just a guy operating out of his shed, with a telephone, says Heffernan.
“They also used to have what they called a ‘taxi man shelter,’” he says, “which was not much more than a telephone booth.”
Back then, he says, you had a good chance of knowing your driver and knowing the family behind the company.
But as gas and insurance prices crept up, the companies got bigger.
“Brokers started to emerge in Newfoundland in the late seventies as expenses were going up,” he says. “A broker owns anywhere from two cars to God knows how many, and they’ll rent these cars out to drivers. So, if Gulliver’s has 90 cars, they might own 50 of them, and the rest of them are independently owned by brokers.”
As the industry grew, he says, it also became less regulated: where drivers were once required to have a special licence and a criminal record check, they now just need a Class Four driver’s licence.
“Taxis are governed by the St. John’s city council bylaws,” he says. “And the city has continually deregulated the industry. There is no full-time inspector any more, there are two bylaw inspectors. And they do a whole bunch of things: they enforce the bylaws for the hotdog carts, for example.”
The result is an every-man-(and-sometimes-woman)-for-himself industry that runs on cash and is supplemented by hustling.
If you get in a cab and the driver settles on a price with you—maybe a five-dollar run up Prescott at 3 a.m.— and never flicks on the meter, he or she is “cribbing.” If you have a cab company deliver a bottle of rum to your party, that driver is bootlegging alcohol and making more money for less time and effort than it takes to crib successfully.
“One guy said to me, ‘You get some honest men out there, and they’re probably retirees looking to get out of the house,’” says Heffernan. “‘But honesty is the road to poverty.’”
Some drivers, after picking them up a few times, become chauffeurs for prostitutes. Others have more elaborate set-ups.
“Things you don’t see, but that I saw, are the young couple hanging out in front of a taxi stand looking to sell their slip to get their methadone,” he says. “They’ll have a slip for 80 bucks to go to Paradise and back, to pick up their methadone, and they’ll sell it to a cab driver—who knows their name and has clearly done this before—for forty bucks and buy some Oxycontin. The driver gets to pocket forty bucks for doing nothing.”
Heffernan stresses that all of this has been a part of the city for years; the taxi drivers he spoke to have been a part of the hustle since motels started going up in the 1970s.
“We’re such an insular society here,” he says. “We think that there isn’t any prostitution, that drugs are new, that violence is new. But it’s not. These guys have seen it all, and it’s always been around. The way it’s portrayed by the media, you know, ‘Violence is on the rise, lock your doors!’ But that’s not the way it is. I tried to hammer that home with this book too.”
He also emphasizes that he’s not looking to get cab companies into any hot water.
“The purpose of the book is not a witch hunt,” he says. “I’m trying to describe the working conditions of an underrepresented portion of the working class. Not every guy is out there running liquor. The average taxi driver is just another working class guy, and if he has a chance to make a dollar off the meter, he’ll probably do it. Taxi drivers will take those extra risks because they’re not making enough to feed their families.”
“Ultimately,” Heffernan adds, “that’s what I’m interested in—people and their work environments. Everyone has a job, whether you’re cleaning up garbage or you’re a doctor, everyone has something to tell about their lives through their jobs. And their jobs say just as much about who we are as they do about who they are.”
Mike Heffernan will be reading from The Other Side of Midnight at its launch on Thursday, October 18 at
7pm 6pm at Bianca’s on Water Street.