There's a drunk man in the back of CJ's cab. He looks to be in his mid-40s and is wearing a blue T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers. His cheeks are flushed bright pink and he reeks of liquor, but he appears to be in a good mood.
“Looks like you got to tie one on today,” CJ says cheerily as he settles into the back seat. “You carrying over from last night?”
He shakes his head no.
“So, where ya headed?” CJ asks, changing the subject.
“Let's go to Morton's,” he slurs, after some deliberation.
She keeps trying to chat with him, apparently not put off by his obvious intoxication. As she heads toward the nearby steakhouse, she jovially inquires about where he lives, what he does for a living and-unapologetically-how he came to be so very drunk this early on a Saturday evening.
He tells her he's been drinking since 8:30 that morning, but she has a little difficulty deciphering the rest of his slurred response. First she thinks he's said that he drives a taxi in Mexico, and the conversation veers towards the farcical until she realizes he said he owns a factory in Mexico. His factory supplies goods to K-Mart and Wal-Mart, he says. He also speaks Spanish and Chinese, he adds, although at this moment it's sort of hard to believe.
“Wow,” says CJ, “versatile kind of guy, huh?”
When they arrive at the curb outside Morton's, he suddenly decides he wants to have dinner at Fleming's instead. Fleming's is only around the corner and a block or so away, and CJ complies good-naturedly. He gets out of the cab at Fleming's, leaving a hefty tip that more than makes up for his inebriated indecisiveness. But before she even leaves the curb, he's back knocking on the window, saying he's changed his mind again and would like to go back to Morton's. She takes him there, not bothering to turn on the meter.
“So much for my tip,” she says with a shrug, as he stumbles back onto the street.
There's no need to pity CJ. She's been driving a cab in San Diego for 25 of her 51 years, and, believe it or not, she thrives on this kind of stuff.
“I found something that I enjoy,” she says with a grin. “I'm out meeting the people. I'm not sitting in an office-it is my office! Come on in, tell me a little bit about you and I'll share a little bit about our city.”
For some reason, it's easy to stereotype female cabbies as surly and butch, so a first encounter with CJ is somewhat surprising. Beautiful and endlessly cheerful, she has a wide grin and big, soft brown eyes that twinkle when she's smiling-which is most of the time. Her laughter is loud and effusive, her words are nearly always positive and her body language exudes self-confidence. Tonight she's wearing crisp black cargo pants, a gauzy black blouse, silver jewelry and sassy red-framed glasses. Her short blond hair is stylishly arranged, her acrylic nails polished, her makeup carefully applied.
“I try to have a neat appearance, because it's about me,” says CJ. “If I'm not out there smelling good, looking good, that's saying to me that I don't respect myself....... Every driver out there, male or female, is a representation of the city.”
But when it comes to cab drivers, there are a lot more men than women representing on the streets of San Diego. According to the Sheriff's Office's licensing division, women make up a paltry 3 percent of the 4,000 licensed taxi drivers in San Diego. (That's a whole 2 percent more than in New York City, where women make up only 1 percent of its 40,500 licensed drivers.)
There doesn't seem to be any specific reason for the disparity, although the relatively high number of cab drivers that become victims of occupational homicide does make it seem like a pretty dangerous job. Though it's been almost four years since a cab driver was murdered on the job in San Diego, as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health points out, anyone working alone at night making cash transactions with random members of the public is sipping a pretty strong cocktail o' risks. Presumably, being a woman adds yet another shot of vulnerability to the mix, but CJ's day-to-day work doesn't seem to involve much dodging of bullets and homicidal maniacs. Instead, most of her energy seems devoted to staying busy and keeping herself-and her customers-entertained.
“I've been very fortunate,” she says. “I'm very blessed knowing how to read people. It's a tough business....... You really always have to watch your back.”
In her 25 years of experience, she's had only one safety “incident” that she prefers not to discuss on the record, explaining that she doesn't want to dwell in negative energy. She'd much rather talk about all the exciting things that have happened on the job, like how she's driven George Clooney, Al Pacino, Ozzie Osbourne, Mrs. Fields “the cookie lady” and a slew of famous athletes. (She also saw Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart walking around Seaport Village but says they declined her offer of a free ride.) She also found a cat in her back seat that she kept and named Broadway, has transported live kidneys and livers to area hospitals, once drove a monkey from the airport to a lab at UCSD and had a cruise-ship employee lose the tip of her thumb in the door. CJ saved it and was given a free tour of the ship.
“The reason I'm doing what I do is because I love what I do,” CJ says simply. “And I think, in life, you have to find something that you love to do.”
CJ started driving in her late 20s. It was 1983, and she'd already worked as a grocery store clerk, gone through a divorce and sold pest control. She was scraping by stuffing envelopes for a temp agency, trying to save money to buy a car, when a former roommate pulled up in a cab outside her office. He offered to take her home if she'd ride along with him while he gave some tourists a tour of the city.
“I'm thinking, This guy's got wheels. This guy can come and go as he pleases, work where he wants, work in nice places, and he meets nice people,” CJ says.
When she saw that he made more money for that single ride than she'd made all day, her plans for getting her own set of wheels suddenly shifted.
“I thought about it, and I thought about it,” she says, “and I just got kind of tired of taking the bus, you know?”
In the beginning, she says, she had to work to earn respect from many of the other (male) drivers.
“A lot of the worry was that I was going to get most of the business, because at the time, I was, you know, a pretty cute-looking chick,” she says with a giggle. “I kind of had to prove myself that.... just because I was a female I wasn't trying to intrude on their work space. I was just trying to make a living, like they were.”
Nevertheless, she says she quickly realized she was on to something wonderful.
“I liked it!” CJ gushes, eyes shining. “I had a car! I had wheels! I liked the people.”
“It doesn't feel like work,” she continues. “It's enjoyable. I get to learn a little bit about everybody, and that's why I do talk to people, because I want to learn a little bit about [them]. You never know when... somebody's going to offer a little piece of wisdom to you, or you do the same for them, and I like that.”
While she doesn't necessarily find a personal connection with every passenger, her perspective seems to keep her feeling good about her work even when customers inevitably take her service for granted.
“I am a part of the community,” she says matter-of-factly. “I'm doing a huge service for the tourism, for the residents, for the people who like to drink... I've dedicated my weekends to the public, just so people can get out there and have a good time.”
Though she was a leased driver for 21 years, CJ now owns her cab, a green and white 1998 Crown Victoria. (Most people don't know that the color of a cab only signifies its radio dispatching company-American Cab, in CJ's case-and has nothing to do with ownership. For example, even though Yellow Cab is a company, not all yellow-painted cabs are actually owned by Yellow Cab.)
Most drivers actually don't own their cabs. They lease them, either from companies or independent owners. Metropolitan Transit System taxi administration manager John Scott estimates that in San Diego there are currently about 450 owners leasing about 970 cabs to more than 3,000 active drivers. Scott says that while each driver must be licensed to drive a cab, the vehicles themselves have separate permits (often referred to as medallions), which is what makes it possible for a city to have so many more drivers than cabs.
To keep the streets from becoming saturated with taxis, the city keeps caps on how many permits can be on the road. But the city doesn't regulate the cost of the permits themselves, which means independent owners get to set pretty high prices for existing permits. While Scott estimates that most owners currently collect around $300 to $400 per week per lease, CJ says that buying a permit from an independent owner would probably cost anywhere from $65,000 to $80,000-not including the cost of buying a car and getting it taxi-equipped.
CJ leased cabs from different independent owners until 2004, when the city released another 135 permits into the system. One third of those permits went into a lottery, which CJ was eligible to enter because of her seniority and clean driving record, among other criteria. She won the lottery and was awarded a free permit, which she says is the only way she could ever have afforded to become an owner.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2004, the median earnings of cab drivers was about $10.50 per hour. Multiplied by 40 hours a week, that amounts to about $1,680 a month and a little more than $20,000 a year, before taxes. CJ is reluctant to divulge her exact income, but says those estimates are “pretty fair.” She also points out that the money flow is usually erratic, given that there are always dry spells between busy periods.
As an owner, she keeps all the money she makes behind the wheel but has to pay the city an annual permit fee of around $400 plus a $50 fine if the cab doesn't pass annual inspection. She also has to pay for gas, every aspect of vehicle maintenance and is required to keep liability insurance. Personal health insurance, she says, is pretty much out of the question.
CJ enjoys driving at night more than during the day, explaining that she finds the energy “more exciting.” She does her homework every day before she starts her shift at 6 p.m., scanning local print and online media for different concerts, conferences and community events that draw large numbers of people. "I love that I get to be creative," she says. "I get to figure out how to make it work."
She seems to have figured it out pretty well by now. There doesn't seem to be a street, hotel, restaurant, bar, happy hour or Taco Tuesday special in this town that CJ doesn't know about, and she takes obvious pleasure in connecting newcomers with different destinations.
There's a game at the ballpark tonight, and downtown is humming with activity. With the exception of the Morton's guy, for the first few hours her passengers are all sober, pleasant groups of yuppies heading to and from hotels and dinner destinations. Everyone on the streets within the cocoon of the Gaslamp is freshly groomed, heading out into the golden summer night anticipating an evening of wining, dining and dancing.
But driving to a hotel just a few blocks out from the heart of the grid, vacant lots are filled with far less fortunate people. Some are taking inventory of overstuffed shopping carts, some are squabbling and others are passed out on the ground.
Insulated in the bubble of the Crown Victoria, watching all the action without playing an active role in any of it creates the feeling of being an invisible extra on a movie set.
Something CJ had said earlier reverberates at this moment. "I don't think [cab driving] is for everyone," she had said, "because you can be very alone in a big city at any given time."
But driving up and down the streets unnoticed by everyone who doesn't immediately require her services doesn't make CJ lonely. "[I think] loneliness comes from not having a spiritual program," she says, "and I grew up in a large family, so having my own space is kind of a blessing."
Darkness eventually falls around 8 p.m. and her smaller loops around the Gaslamp get broken up by more long-distance forays to other parts of San Diego, allowing her more time to get to know her customers. She chatters animatedly with two 20-something blondes all the way from Ocean Beach to La Jolla-a big fare for CJ-and they discuss careers and politics and opine about the Mt. Soledad cross.
Later, another passenger confides that her boyfriend is in jail because of a DUI, and CJ makes soothing, understanding noises. When the same girl complains of having worn her painful "Jessica Simpson shoes," CJ takes her home so she can change into flip-flops, offering hiccup remedies to the girl's drunken companion along the way. She has to go pick up someone else in Mission Bay, she explains, or else she'd be glad to drive them back to On Broadway. So instead she sticks her head out the window, calls out to another cabbie and lets him know that the girls will need another ride back to the club.
As the girls stumble out of the cab, she calls out to them breezily, "OK, girls, go play!"
"I have to treat the people with respect," she says, "because that's what I'm hoping for in return."
Still, while she's consistently energetic and fun-loving, she always projects a degree of responsibility, so that the relationship she establishes with most of her passengers is akin to the favorite babysitter or camp counselor-no matter how much fun they might be having together, she's still ultimately the one in control.
"You have to know how to take control of yourself," she says of her work ethic. "If you can take control of yourself, you probably are able and capable of taking control of people around you."
Even though she's always connected to the American Cab dispatcher, CJ doesn't use her radio once on this night. She does, however, pass out her business card to passengers she wouldn't mind having again and responds to many personal calls on her cell phone.
Gino is a regular customer. He calls around 11 p.m. He manages a restaurant in Mission Bay and suffers from night blindness, a degenerative disease of the retina. CJ has been driving him home from work on the weekends for the past 11 years, and though they never spend time together outside of the cab, their relationship is clearly a close one. They banter back and forth like old friends as he tells one joke after another and she laughs in all the right places.
Unfortunately, tonight he's not joking when he tells CJ that there's a possibility he could have breast cancer. (Yes, breast cancer). His doctor found a lump in one of his breasts, and though he's had a mammogram, he says he won't know more until he has a biopsy. CJ's happy-go-lucky demeanor fades with the news, even as Gino stays lighthearted and makes jokes about it.
"Gino, if you need my help," CJ says earnestly, "working or not, you know I'd be there."
"The hardest part is when you get attached to people," she continues solemnly after she drops him off at home. "I've had several clients I've had to let go through the years.... I think that's the saddest part of my business."
After six straight hours in the cab, CJ decides it's time for a pit stop. She knows which hotels have the nicest lobby bathrooms and the easiest parking, and she decides this time she'll stop at the Bristol, where the hand towels are the plushest. The desk clerks know her by name and greet her kindly.
After her break, she spends the last few hours of her shift taking people home from bars.
"Wait a sec," one guy says to his buddy as they're getting in the cab, "do we want to make love to anything that's moving?"
"You're hot," the other one says to CJ. "She's the hottest cab driver I've ever seen."
By 2:20 a.m. there are just a few stragglers hanging out in front of late-night pizza shops and taco joints. A leggy blonde girl in booty shorts propels a pedicab down an empty street while chatting on her cell phone; the only cars left on the road are scattered cabs trolling for their final fares of the night.
CJ considers going home but decides to make one more loop around Fifth Avenue. Her uncanny sixth sense for sniffing out passengers leads her to a 21-year-old sailor standing on the corner of Fifth and Market. He calls her "ma'am" and they chitchat as she heads east under the Coronado Bridge toward the Navy base in National City. The city is barren at this point, and the industrial landscape sliding past the window looks strangely placid in the glow of the streetlights.
She drops him off at 2:50 a.m. He doesn't tip, but CJ grins anyway as the end of another night on the job is finally at hand. In nine hours, she's driven 164 miles-roughly the distance from here to Hollywood, perhaps a little more. Her final stop is the same one she makes every night, the gas station, so she'll be ready to go as far as possible at the beginning of her shift the next day.
Though CJ is approaching an age where most people start to think seriously about retirement, she says she has absolutely no plans to stop driving.
"I love my job," she says for what seems like the thousandth time. "I've found something I truly enjoy, and I'm really happy with my life."
That's not to say she doesn't have hopes for the future. Eventually, she says, she would like to own another cab that she could lease out to another driver. But it seems the only way that dream could become a reality would be if the city put more permits into another lottery.
"I'd have to get in on the ground floor," she says, "but it still could happen."
As for the prospect of more women getting behind the wheel, she says she doesn't believe the job is really much different for women than it is for men and that there's a basic set of criteria that applies to any person considering driving a taxi.
"If you have personality and you like people, then the job could be for you," says CJ. "Yes, do know how to take care of yourself. Be prepared for any situation; know that they can happen. Don't take anything for granted. Really rely on your instincts, because they're always right. Always rely on your gut, because it will never fail you."