George Thrasher has learned not to ask too many questions. Like when a man slides into the back of his taxicab and rattles off a list of addresses. The instructions are usually the same: Drive to the first location, turn off the cab’s lights and slip into a dark alleyway.
Thrasher doesn’t really want to know the man’s business, but after 10 years behind the wheel, he knows he’s helping a drug dealer make house calls.
“I’ve witnessed things that would blow ordinary people away,” says Thrasher, leaning in as though sharing a secret. “Prostitution, drunks, drug dealers, weird people, all elements of life.”
By day, local cabbies may take sweet old ladies to the grocery store, but at night, they often end up traveling the seediest corners of Spokane. They’re relied upon to make illicit deliveries, connect johns with prostitutes or — on the more mundane side of things — simply ferry drunk, drugged-out or sexually uninhibited passengers to their next location.
More often than not, the work is boring, driving from point A to point B, but it can also be exciting and profitable. And sometimes, a little unnerving.
Just ask Spokane Cab driver Brian Butler. “I picked up a couple from the casino and they were just going at it in the back seat all the way out to the Valley,” he recalls. “There’s not much you can say because you still want to make the money and they’re not really hurting anything. I just pulled out the plastic gloves and disinfected the seat when they left.”
Taxi drivers acknowledge they often benefit from sleazy characters — but it’s a way to pay the bills.
Indeed, all of the drivers I spoke with enjoy their job. In fact, many love it. The money can be good — sometimes $1,000 on holidays like St. Paddy’s and New Year’s — and the freak show only happens occasionally.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” says another driver, Mike Phillips. “I’d rather do this for 60 hours than bust my ass for 40.”
The sweet, Southern drawl in the old man’s voice almost makes me forget we’re parked outside the Rainbow Room, a rundown strip club on East Sprague in Spokane. I’m sitting in the front seat of Phillips’ cab, along for the ride, and we’re dropping off the old man, who says he needs another drink to calm his nerves. His wife, he says, is recuperating in a nearby motel after being hospitalized with lupus.
The old man is fishing out his wallet to pay Phillips as I gaze at a woman walking toward us. Three, maybe four teeth zigzag inside her wet mouth and I can’t help staring.
So, this is what meth looks like.
Phillips, who wears khakis and a polo shirt (and reminds me of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons), rolls down his window and, to my surprise, lets the woman get in. After a block, Phillips gets a better look at her and asks if she has any money. She says yes, mumbles something about beer and pokes her callused fist out from the backseat and into Phillips’ view.
She has no cash. Moments later, Phillips pulls the cab over, gets out, opens the door and orders her out. At first he’s polite, but that quickly ends.
“Jesus Christ, you are a disgusting human being!” he shouts, trying to usher the woman out. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me, you meth-head!” The woman unrolls her fist to reveal a few coins, but it’s not enough for the cab ride (nor the beer she keeps talking about).
Eventually, the woman gives up and crawls out.
“It’s just enough to make you vomit,” Phillips says as he jumps back in the cab. “During the day, I don’t know where they hide. Inside the cracks and crevasses, I guess.”
And we’re off again. Later, I hop cabs and catch a ride with another driver. He, too, is familiar with our city’s meth addicts, and recalls giving one cracked-out couple a ride.
“You can tell by the smell, it’s kinda like cat piss as the chemicals start coming out their pores,” the driver, William McCreight, says. “The woman grabbed me from behind and put her hands around my throat. I said, ‘Get your hands off of me,’ three times. ‘I’m not going to warn you.’ And then zzzzz like this, I Tased her. Her big, tough boyfriend stared out the window. He wouldn’t even look at me. I dropped them off right in the middle of Felony Flats.”
Back in the Day
Spokane’s taxi industry has struck a peaceful relationship with the city, but it wasn’t always so. Chris Anstine, president of the Spokane Owner Drivers Association, recalls the 1980s, when his father owned the majority of the city’s taxis.
“This used to be a totally unregulated business,” Anstine tells me as
he maneuvers through town. “People like my dad ran it into the ground.
They let it become the Wild West until the City Council put their foot
Chris Anstine, president of the Spokane Owner Drivers Association: “These days, most drivers are just normal, average people trying to make a living and support their families.” [Photo: Young Kwak]
Spokane’s taxis made national headlines in 2003. The Associated Press reported that Spokane City Council wanted to stop the “high-speed terror rides from the airport from cabdrivers with serious hygiene issues, who curse and smoke like fiends.”
“I remember seeing a cab driver with passengers, an oxygen mask and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth,” recalls Larry Boyd, a Spokane Cab driver and unofficial liaison between the cab industry and the city.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to see duct tape or chicken wire holding a taxi door shut, according to drivers and the AP article. In response to complaints, the council revised the Spokane Municipal Code’s taxi regulations.
Spokane Police Officer Max Hewitt spearheaded the regulation efforts and eventually became the man responsible for enforcing the code. “Spokane used to have one of the worst taxi industries in the country,” he says. “We’ve been revising it ever since.”
Across the country, cities have adopted a similar set of regulations that include drug tests, background checks, city licensing permits and vehicle safety standards. On the whole, Spokane’s taxi drivers say they’re happy with the reforms.
“I think the public would rather have what we have now,” Anstine says. “These days, most drivers are just normal, average people trying to make a living and support their families.”
The Naked Truth
While Spokane taxis may have cleaned up their act, riders themselves are far from innocent. All of the half-dozen drivers I interviewed say they’ve encountered public nudity, prostitution and backseat sex.
In fact, one driver refers to Friday and Saturday nights as “amateur night” — a time when normal, respectable people become road warrior porn stars with a little help from alcohol.
Phillips — the Ned Flanders of cabbies — recalls picking up two women.
Code of Ethics
The Spokane Municipal Code dictates the rules and regulations applied to taxis and other for-hire vehicles including limousines, shuttles and hearses. Under the code, vehicles must comply with safety and cleanliness standards and are subject to yearly inspections.
Among the reasons drivers might have their licenses suspended or revoked:
• Committing a felony.
• Consuming alcohol within six hours prior to operating a vehicle or be under the influence of any medication, alcohol or illegal substances while driving.
• Allowing a passenger to consume intoxicating liquor or drugs in the vehicle.
• Violating the dress code: No open-toed shoes, cutoff pants or tank tops; socks must be worn with shoes; all clothing must be clean; drivers must maintain good grooming and hygiene standards.
One was wearing a red sweater and the other had a white dress. “They’re sitting on opposite sides of the seat, but after a while they look like a barber pole all intertwined, just kissing passionately,” he says. “I thought, ‘My god, I gotta look at the road and not the rearview mirror.’” Sometimes drunk girls flash their naughty bits. Boys do it, too. And for the most part, taxi drivers don’t intervene.
It’s the professionals and their johns who drivers worry about. The drivers I interviewed all say they’ve been asked to find prostitutes for passengers, or drive prostitutes to a hook-up.
“There is nothing that I haven’t heard when people want something,” says Thrasher, a stout bulldog of a man with a goatee. “Businessmen ... get in these cabs looking for prostitutes. I’m talking about men in three-piece, $1,000 suits. I’ll ask them, ‘Do you want a cheap girl or an expensive girl?’ If they say cheap, we’ll head down Sprague. If they say expensive, I’ll take them to a massage parlor.”
Some drivers are willing to cruise down Sprague, but promise that dealings take place outside their cabs.
It’s because drivers can lose their permit to operate within the city if they’re caught aiding in illegal activity.
The Spokane Police Department stopped regulating the city’s taxi industry about a year and a half ago when taxi regulation duties were transferred to the City of Spokane Taxes and Licenses Division. The office processes the administrative side of things — licensing and renewals — and a contractor performs safety inspections on the vehicles.
When asked whether taxis were on the police radar, Hewitt shook his head no. He says it’s a low priority compared to the theft and domestic violence calls patrol officers receive.
“Officers are out there 24 hours a day,” he says.
“They are so busy that they don’t really have time to go out stopping taxis to check them.”
Spokane Cab is a trademark name that belongs to Spokane Dispatch Inc. The company doesn’t own any cabs, but instead operates the dispatch system. To access it, drivers pay $325 per taxi per week. [Photo: Young Kwak]
Clearly. One driver recalls a time when his female passenger was straddling him in the front seat while he drove. At a red light, the driver says a cop pulled up, looked over, shook his head and kept going.
“Regardless of who the people are out there, prostitutes, drug dealers or anything, the driver might not necessarily know that,” Hewitt says.
“They are still people and you still give them rides.”
There is nothing illegal about that.
“But if you become their agent, then we’ve got an issue,” Hewitt adds. “If you say, ‘I’ll get you customers or refer customers,’ then you become an agent of that activity.”
A History of Violence
Driving a taxi is one of the more dangerous jobs in America, but as we cruise back downtown, Anstine says Spokane seems safe.
“But if you’re not careful, you can get yourself in trouble,” he says. “I did get the hell kicked out of me once by a couple of drunk guys.”
Anstine recalls an incident from about seven years ago, when a driver was shot in the head but survived. Another tells me his drivers have been robbed at gunpoint twice in the past two and a half years.
Nighttime, of course, is when things are unpredictable, but it’s also when a driver can make the most money. At least horror stories break up an otherwise boring shift.
“You can’t compare cab driving to any other profession,” Thrasher says. “It’s all by itself.”