Before the meter clicks even more time on my taxi memoirs, let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation to certain members of the Austin Police Department, circa 1977-84. Without them I would probably have written these mostly true stories much sooner, but possibly from prison and without anything resembling a happy ending.
Even otherwise good friends cast a skeptical eye when I tell them, in all honesty, that I was never arrested and don’t have a police record. My usual excuse for waiting so long to write about driving a cab – that I had to wait for the statute of limitations to run out – has no doubt bolstered the notion that I carry heavy legal baggage from those days.
My police record is as clean as a policeman’s whistle unless you count my driving record or want to get technical and claim that a warrant’s a warrant and, sure, I had the occasional warrant for my arrest, but I never heard the jail cell doors clang shut with me on the wrong side. But there were plenty of times when it could have gone either way.
Less benevolent and level-headed Austin police officers could have charged me, on different occasions, with possession of various horticultural and inorganic substances, firearms and other weapons noted for their potential deadliness. An officer who rolled up on me while I was taking an emergency piss in what I thought was a private and secluded sliver of west Austin could have charged me with indecent exposure.
Unwittingly and otherwise, I was an accessory to some odd misdemeanors and an occasional felony. A police dispatcher many years later “looked me up” on the APD computer and all that came back were a few measly incident reports.
Yes, there were incidents.
One such incident occurred in front of Club Foot when I double-parked my cab in front of the club because one of my favorite bands, the Ventures, was live and on stage.
I was there dropping off a couple of aging hipsters and caught the familiar strains of “Walk, Don’t Run” when they opened the door to get out. I decided to duck in for just a few minutes and maybe listen to a couple of anthems from my adolescence before continuing my appointed rounds, already in progress.
Downtown parking was a problem in Austin even then, so I utilized the cabdriver’s preferred method of parking. It’s a two-step process. (1) Shift into park. (2) Get out of the car.
The guy working the door knew me as the full-time cab driver and part-time music journalist that I was and waved me inside to search for a fare, a fictional quest that ended up taking the better part of twenty minutes.
Outside again, the sight of cops swarming my cab made me want to run away and hide. There were only two cops but that’s a swarm when it’s your vehicle they’re checking out. I gathered enough courage to saunter up to one of the officers as casually as any potential felon could and introduce myself as the driver of the cab of interest.
By that time I actually believed my own story about going inside to look for a fare because I wanted the cops to believe it, but I couldn’t make them believe it if I didn’t believe it myself.
“You have abandoned your cab on a public street. We have to search it.”
I wasn’t sure of my rights in this instance, but the other cop seemed to be doing a pretty good job of searching the cab already so I just smiled and nodded like I was cool with everything and was more than glad to let them rummage through my personal and possibly illegal belongings.
The first cop turned toward Roy’s Taxi number 197 and put his hands on his hips.
“Plymouth Valiant,” he observed with some obvious admiration. “The old Slant-Six engine. Love it. They quit making ‘em last year, I think. I bet this one had the old police package on it too, huh?”
Since I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about I continued smiling and nodding. I coached my body language to say: It’s all good.
The other cop, the one too busy crawling around inside my cab to join the conversation, did so by asking me to open the trunk.
“Sure. Let me get the screwdriver from under the front seat.”
The cop looked at me funny.
One of the faults of the Dodge and Plymouth cars of the day was the tendency for their trunk locks to quit working. Use them enough and one day the whole lock would fall out. When that happened, you substituted a screwdriver for the trunk key. You inserted the screwdriver into the hole where the lock used to be and gave a quick turn to the right. Worked every time.
“Pretty fancy piece of equipment you got there,” the second cop said, all of a sudden chatty.
The Valliant’s trunk consisted of a lot of lost and found items – coloring books, a couple of books without pictures and a pair of shoes that I took from a drunk after he convinced me he had no money and no prospects of securing any in the next five minutes.
Some of my stuff was back there, too: a fly rod and a box of flies and poppers; three Eaton softball bats; a wooden Louisville slugger; a fielder’s glove and a catcher’s mitt; four brand new regulation softballs and a 9-iron and putter for the Pitch and Putt course.
There was a map of Texas and a bunch of old magazines, a balanced throwing knife, some baseball cards that I thought might be valuable someday, a whisk broom and a bundle of oil rags.
The good stuff was up front where the other cop found a weighted billy club under the front seat.
“This is a violation.”
He checked out the sun visor with its pens and pencils, matches, city map and a can of mace. Nothing there made him blink.
Now the other cop was into the glove compartment where the first thing he found was a pair of gloves.
“Hey, look at this. Gloves! When was the last time you saw gloves in a glove box?”
Then he picked up a five-shot Smith and Wesson and held it up for inspection.
“Looky here,” he said, sounding way happier than I would have preferred. “We got what you call ‘additional charges!’”
But finding the gun seemed to have created a bit of a dilemma for the officers. They gave each other a look that seemed to say, “Hmm, what to do about this?” They stepped away from the cab and had a private conversation, one that I suspected would have a direct bearing on my immediate future. After a few leaden moments, the annoyed cop got in his cruiser and drove off. He didn’t wave. The other officer came back to me and shook his head.
“My buddy there took your gun. He took your billy club, too.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue a couple of times. “Sorry.”
He motioned me to his car and popped the trunk the old fashioned way, with a key. He reached inside a simple cardboard box and came out with a .25-caliber pistol. My first thought was that he was going to shoot me and then drop the gun next to my lifeless body to prove it was self-defense. I calculated angles and potential bullet trajectories and wished I’d paid more attention in geometry class.
But no, he was offering me the gun as sort of a parting gift.
“I know it’s dangerous out there for you guys. You have to have something. I’ll give you this one if you promise me one thing.”
“Sure,” I agreed, still nodding, still smiling. “Whatever you want.”
“Don’t keep a gun in your goddamn glove box! How the hell you going to get to it when you need it if it’s stuck inside the damn glove box? ‘Oh, excuse me! Let me open my glove box and arm myself?’ By that time, you’re a dead cab driver!”
So many mixed signals. First, he was giving me a gun. Now he was yelling at me.
“I never looked at it like that, officer.”
I had never looked at it any particular way because I never counted on using it. The gun was more of a “show and tell” piece for me, a well-intentioned gift from a concerned friend. The officer had a deeper respect for the concept of gun ownership than I did. He handed me my new pistol, butt first.
“Just keep it where you can get to it. Okay?”
And he let me go.
Another time, one of Austin’s finest pulled me over for what I’m sure was some harmless indiscretion and spied two joints in the ash tray. He took them with him to his patrol car where he “radioed in” on me to discover that I had some “outstanding” tickets. I thought they were only run-of-the mill tickets requiring no special attention. But no, the officer assured me that these were relevant tickets, worthy of deep respect.
“We’re going downtown. What we do when we get there is up to you. You can settle the tickets or I can book you into jail. Your choice.”
The officer turned out to be a nice guy and didn’t seem to hold my multiple offenses against me. We chatted it up about UT and Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers football all the way downtown where he led me to the municipal clerk. He directed me to sit on a bench outside the courtroom and wait for him when I was finished.
Half an hour later, with me $100 poorer and trying to remember the name of a personable lawyer I’d had in my cab the week previous, the officer returned and took me off to a corner.
“I hope you’ve learned a couple of things here today,” the officer said like he really meant it. “First, pay your damn traffic tickets. It’s easier on everybody that way. The other thing…”
He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled my reefers out just enough for me to identify them.
“Smoke this shit at home.” He put the joints back in his pocket and buttoned it. “Like I’m going to do.”
And he let me go.
Not only did I pass seven years on the streets without an arrest but no one ever robbed me, either. This was long before the age of debit cards and electronic transactions. Cab customers had two ways to pay – cash or check, and we didn’t take checks, except in the rare instances when we did. Taxis were essentially rolling cash dispensaries and drivers were quite vulnerable, especially if we kept our guns in the glove compartment.
On at least a few occasions I avoided victimhood by simply driving away. I’m thinking of a call one evening, just before dark, at a Montopolis housing project. The caller hadn’t left an apartment number; he told the dispatcher he would be “waiting under the trees.”
And he was, along with three other hoodlums. One of them held a sign that read “Armed Robbers for Hire.” That’s how I remember it. He and his buddies threw rocks at my cab as I drove away.
That’s not to say nobody robbed cab drivers in Austin, a town that Doug Sahm aptly named Groover’s Paradise. A serial cab robber hit the business not long after I started, which inspired me to buy a can of mace for protection. A well-meaning buddy gave me the five-shot Smith and Wesson that the cops took, and a South Austin badass tipped me with a weighted billy club, the kind with lead packed into the business end, the better to beat somebody’s brains out with.
All these years later I don’t remember the description of the cab robber other than to say that the picture on the poster looked like a bad mutha, the kind of citizen who would stick a gun in your face, take your money and your cab and leave you forlorn and naked on the outskirts of town, unable to find a cop when you really needed one.
We cabbies liked to talk about what we would do if this lunatic was ever unlucky enough to get in our cab.
“Tell you what, if that sumbitch gets in my cab, I’ll give him a quick warning shot to the forehead, that’s what I’ll do.”
That kind of thing.
Maybe I added my own prophecies of instant and fatal karma but I knew very well that, if confronted, I would fork over the money and hope to live and load another day. Besides, I was convinced it would never happen to me. My karma was too good. I’d spot the guy right away, I’d radio in his location and – bingo – another one bites the dust.
If memory serves me, as it sometimes does, a Yellow Cab driver put an end to the robberies. Our hero recognized the robber as soon as he got in the cab and gave an address on the outskirts of town. The driver played it cool, cruising along on IH-35 at the speed limit, heading south, saying nothing.
When he came to the Seventh Street exit he took it at the last possible moment and at a high rate of speed, lights flashing and horn at full blast as he screeched to an abrupt halt directly in front of the Austin police station.
Cops converged from every which way and apprehended the driver and his fare who, sure enough, turned out to be a dead ringer for the guy on the wanted poster.
The robber they kept.
The driver they let go.
Clay Coppage © 2018
Clay Coppedge is a freelance writer, former contributor to the Austin Sun and a former cab driver. He lives on the outskirts of Walburg, Texas and is a proud supporter of the statute of limitations.
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