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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Got Robbed While a Camden Cabbie 

With yesterday's attempted cabbie strike, this is as good time a time as any to share my cab-driving stories.

Summer of '69 and '70, I drove Yellow Cab in Camden. (I think those were the years.) I'll never forget Charlie, an old gap-toothed inebriate who once had me slowly drive around, yelling to stop whenever he saw a woman in a front yard. Then he'd yell at her, "Hey, get in the cab! Hey, lady, get in the cab!" If she even looked up, he'd say, "I'm Jersey Joe Walcott! Get in the cab!" but no woman was buying this skinny old dude was the famous heavyweight later turned sheriff. Some of them said, "Go away, Charlie," which is how I knew his name. Between attempted (and always rejected) pickups -- honestly, I swear this is true -- he'd occasionally bounce off the seat, the only person I ever met who could burp and fart simultaneously.

Then there was the woman who got in the cab crying. Until she recognized a man in a car driving past. "Follow that car!" she hollered. Ah, impetuous youth. I followed. When the car stopped, a well-dressed couple got out and went into a restaurant on Broadway. My passenger crept to the door, and, hunkering down, peered inside. She returned, asked clueless me for a description of the other woman, then begged me to go into the restaurant and get a good look at her. Ah, impetuous youth. I strolled through to the men's room, used it, and got a good look on my way back. My female fare was upset at what I said, and had me drive her home. Must have been around the Fourth of July, because I remember the sound of amatuer fireworks going off.

It could have been the next night that I got robbed, because again I remember hearing fireworks. I dropped off a fare in a part of Camden normally I avoided at such early-morning hours. But as the couple got out one side, two young men, late teens say, got in the other. "Take us to North Camden," said one, sounding shaky. "No, your mom don't live in North Camden," said the other. "She live in Parkside." Guy doesn't remember where his mom lives? Yeah, right. I'm getting robbed, I figured. On the way to Parkside, I'm thinking of ditching the cab in the middle of an intersection and running into West Jersey Hospital. But I didn't, figuring at worst I'd be out some money. Had to be more nervous than I thought, however, because as I tried to back the cab into a spot under a streetlamp, and got the angle all wrong, I nearly hit a sycamore. Before I could straighten the vehicle, an arm comes around my neck, something is poked into my neck (a gun? a finger?), and I'm being asked how much money I have. They get my $21, and tell me to lie down on the front seat until they tell me to get up. I did, hearing the fireworks and thinking I'd just seen that trick on TV for giving a thief time to get away unseen. And, this is when something happened that shows life is the greatest writer. Suddenly, the front passenger opens, and there, staggering in the street, is a wino, holding a paper bag, I think. He takes one look, lying on the seat, parked at a bad angle, and drawls, "I don't want this cab!" and slams the door! I went to the nearest cab stand, just a spot on Haddon Avenue, and radioed the dispatchers, some of the gruffest women I'd ever met. But tonight, oh, were they attentive. Not that I sensed they cared. I was excitement! I told them where I was, and before I know it, another cabbie skids to a halt in the street, jumps out, waves a gun in the air, and says, "Where'd they go? Which way they'd go?" I lied with a pointing finger and said something like, "That way." Later, I got called to the police station to go through mugshots. No luck. Weeks later, I read in the Courier-Post that undercover officers had busted a cab-robbing ring. I got called in again. Another cabbie was looking at mugshots, puzzling over a few he picked out. An officer suggested, "How about this?" while tapping or swapping two photos. "Could that be the woman, and that be the man?" Clever cross-dressing bandits? The cabbie sat back and shrugged, rolling his eyes and saying he couldn't make that ID. I did make one. Face in one photo could have been one of my robbers. Soon, they brought that guy in wearing handcuffs. "Is this the guy?" I was asked. I said no, this guy was too tall, too light-skinned, too old. Was I sure? I wasn't afraid, was I? No, it wasn't him. When I took the job, Yellow Cab promised reimbursement if we ever got robbed. When I got robbed, Yellow Cab promised reimbursement if someone got convicted. Never saw that $21 again.

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