It’s 6:15pm on a Wednesday and Taxi Town is a ghost town. I look through the windows and see a blond woman working away on a laptop in an otherwise empty room filled with desks and work stations. She’s towards the back, by some couches and a coffee table, some sort of waiting area. This former auto dealership is now the headquarters for a new taxi affiliation. The lot is filled with dayglo green cabs. I’m here because I’ve been invited to read from my cab books.
I haven’t read from them in at least two years. I beat my head in trying to promote my second book in 2014 to very little avail. By mid-2015 it was clear even to me that it was time to move on. When this invitation came I wasn’t sure what to make of it. A poet named Kevin Coval had put out a book called The People’s History of Chicago and was trying to read in all seventy-seven neighborhoods of the city. Tammy, the woman who wrote to me, had been referred by Amy, who works at Northwestern University. We know each other from book events. Tammy had never heard of me or my books but seemed excited and enthusiastic. The idea of a reading in a cab barn was too weird to turn down.
The door to the lit showroom indicated it was locked after 6pm so I walked north along Western to the next entrance of the building and saw a familiar sight. A lobby with newspapers and crumpled wrappers scattered among some tables and a bank of glassed-in teller windows. This is where cabbies pay for their leases. I’d spent innumerable hours in rooms like this one over my twelve years driving. I entered through the glass doors and went to the men’s room, which was located just to the left of the pay windows. There was no one inside, but seeing the cheap plastic pitcher and bowl Muslims use to wash their feet as part of their daily prayers was like another time machine trigger for me. The peoplessness made it feel like a dream flashback. I went out to the lobby, then to the street. A few minutes later Amy pulled up.
She had party trays of samosas and a couple bottles of wine. I helped bring them inside. We walked down a dimly lit hall illuminated only by the ghastly glow of a flatscreen TV hung toward the ceiling. The blond woman I’d seen through the window turned out to be Tammy. She had Kevin’s books spread out on one of the tables so I added the books I’d brought to the display. We stood around a few minutes drinking wine from plastic cups. Then a guy from the cab company came over and said he was leaving and told Tammy what to put away and where when we were done. A driver or two passed by on his way to or from his taxi, looked at us a second, then continued walking.
All anyone needs to know about the taxi industry in 2017 can be summed up by a glance at the lot full of idle cabs here at Taxi Town. In a few years Uber, Lyft, and the rest of them will likely be the only game in town. And the cab companies have no one but themselves to blame. By not keeping up with technology they’ve put themselves out of business. I have no nostalgia for any of this, least of all for the people who ran places like this one. I stuffed another samosa in my mouth and waited to see if anyone would show up.
Kevin came a few minutes later. He told me his father is a top ten Uber driver in Chicago, so he knew a little about this business as well. A couple of Amy’s coworkers showed up, as well as her husband, who brought along a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. We all arranged chairs around the coffee table. Since there were only about eight of us, Kevin asked everyone to introduce themselves. Then I read a couple pieces from each of my books. Kevin followed with some poems. Halfway through his reading an older white guy carrying a taxi meter and some bags came over and asked what was going on.
He said he’d been driving since the 90s but had quit until getting laid off from a job a couple years ago. The government told him he had to work longer to get his full pension so he went back to hacking. During the discussion after the reading was over we got into whether the industry had any hope of surviving. The man insisted traditional taxis would prevail, though he had nothing to back up that hope, and the look in his eye indicated he knew otherwise. Nevertheless he bought a copy of each of my books. In fact all six copies I’d brought were claimed.
We all said our goodbyes, then Amy offered to drive me all the way back to Bridgeport. It was kind of her to chauffeur an old cabbie home. The whole evening felt like a memorial ceremony. Speeches and drinks and snacks in an empty edifice. If Taxi Town isn’t bankrupt in a couple years, I’ll be shocked. I just hope cabs survive a little longer because I don’t have a smartphone and thus can’t use rideshare myself. I call for a cab every now and then after a shift at the bar. I never tell them I drove for twelve years. In fact I rarely tell the driver anything but my home address. It’s been five and a half years since I was a cabdriver but it feels like it’s been decades.