Mike Heffernan's latest book tells tales of the St. John's taxi industry
© Photo courtesy of the City of St. John's Archives
In 1946, Frank O'Keefe opened O.K. Taxi on George Street in St. John's. Many of the men who had experience taxiing prior to the war returned to the job where they knew they could make a living: taxiing.
Outside a St. John's taxi stand, a couple waits with a slip of paper. The paper is a taxi voucher, given to them by a social worker, for the $80 return ride to Paradise, where they're scheduled to go pick up their methadone.
Instead of getting their drug treatment, the couple is trying to find a taxi driver who will buy the slip for $35 or $40, so they can use that money to buy Oxycontin.
Writer Mike Heffernan watched the couple from the inside of the taxi stand, where he was conducting an interview for his latest book, "The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories."
"That was something that was shocking to me. It might be limited to that one particular stand, I really can't say, but it's an example of how some drivers make money off the meter. That's an extreme case," Heffernan said.
"I'm trying to impart that the experiences that cab drivers have and the things that they see, the vast majority of people either haven't been exposed to that side of life or they simply don't know it exists."
Heffernan, whose last book was the national bestseller, "Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster," is an historian with an interest in writing about the lives of working-class people.
His book is the result of a series of interviews with more than 40 taxi drivers in St. John's, as well as research conducted in the city archive and a few books that had been published on the subject.
Taxi drivers are a ubiquitous bunch in popular culture, Heffernan explained, but there have been very few serious studies done on the career.
After the Second World War, there were about 40 taxi stands in St. John's, often nothing bigger than a phone booth, Heffernan explains in the book. In the 1970s, brokers started to emerge.
Just because a car has a particular taxi company's name and logo doesn't mean that company owns the car - it might own 50 cars out of 90 carrying its logo, the rest belonging to brokers.
The industry has also become less regulated than it once was, Heffernan said, with no full-time inspector in the city anymore, and drivers no longer needing to have a criminal record check. The taxi industry in the city depends on the George Street strip, which wasn't the nightclub hotspot it now is prior to 1980.
As the city has urbanized, the industry has as well, and taxicabs have evolved with the underground economy, as well.
Surprisingly, Heffernan found local drivers relatively unwilling to speak to him once his tape recorder was switched on.
"My initial impression was that they were going to be beating down my door to air their grievances and tell me their stories, but it was the complete opposite," he said.
"It's such a competitive industry that they felt that this could impact their relationship if they drove for a broker, for instance. In my book, a lot of the time they're talking about the stand owners or the guy that they drive for."
Heffernan stressed he's not out to make his book a witch hunt; he wants to present the conditions of a job he said he's come to realize isn't easy.
"When you do a book like this, you really sympathize," he said. "A lot of the guys I interviewed had come from another career. Their company had downsized.
"You really realize the reality of the occupation, particularly with the drivers. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, it's what's called dead time. They're sitting around in their cab for what could be hours, waiting for a run. They're doing crossword puzzles, reading a book, listening to VOCM and waiting for a run, which could be $10 up over the hill or whatever. I really felt sympathy for them. Most of these guys are professionals, and their employer doesn't even provide a portapotty for them.
Female taxi drivers are a significant minority in St. John's, Heffernan said, and only two of them spoke to him for the book. He said he felt uncomfortable asking women personal questions, and so a friend helped him with the interviews. One of the women said she drives a cab because she needed a job, while the other said she chose the career in her early 50s, after her children had grown up. Both told stories of sexual harassment.
"Women have a much different experience because they're subject to working late at night, shuttling around men who are intoxicated," Heffernan said.
"They're behind the wheel and they're fodder for men and it's not just drunken teenagers. Women articulated to me that they could have a group of engineers or busnessmen from wherever, and they're giving them the same kind of 'dirty talk,' as one of them called it. She took it in stride but I'm sure some other women wouldn't."
"The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories," published by Creative Book Publishing, will be launched with a public event at Bianca's on Water Street at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The book will be available for purchase at the launch, and in most bookstores across the province afterwards.
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Text in this story has been edited since it was initially posted.