My sometimes exciting career as an Austin cab driver began in 1977 when, looking for something better from a base of zero, I walked to 90 East Avenue, home of Roy’s Taxi, for the shortest job interview I’ve ever had. East Avenue serves today as an access road to IH-35, as it did then, but it was originally a dividing line between downtown Austin and east Austin — a perfect location for any cab company, but especially Roy’s Taxi.
From the highway, the property’s most distinguishing characteristic was a huge billboard in front of a white two-story wooden house and a fleet of taxis scattered about the yard. The cabs were painted an odd shade of green and topped with a red roof. The taxi office was on the south side of the house with steps leading to the dispatch office, located to the left as you entered. Outside was a lingering whiff of gas, oil and sweat. Inside, I caught the aroma of egg and chorizo tacos and coffee from AC Foods on East First.
Richard Velasquez was sitting at a desk in front of a microphone
when I walked into the dispatch office. He was one of five Velasquez brothers who ran the day-to-day operations of Roy’s Taxi, which was still owned by their father, Roy Velasquez, Sr., or Big Roy as everyone called him. Richard made a point of ignoring me as drivers called in numbers and street names and some admitted to being “loaded” in one direction or another. Telephones jingled. Richard wrote down calls and got back on the radio and mumbled numbers and street names. In the middle of the chaos he cocked an eye in my direction but didn’t say anything. I told him I wanted to drive a cab.
(Photo: Big Roy Velasquez)
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Are you an alcoholic?”
“Ever killed anybody?”
He paused a couple of beats, then served up the punchline: “Then why the hell you want to be a cab driver?” Then he told me to go to the Cab Inspector’s office on Toomey Road, where I would have to pay five dollars for a chauffeur’s license. I also had to wear a gray shirt (later changed to green) because it was a rule. That was it. I was hired.
As I was leaving through the room outside the dispatch office, an elderly, balding and skinny but by no means frail Hispanic man in a white Guayabera shirt, tan slacks and house shoes was jabbing the stubs of two fingers into a bewildered hippie’s chest. There was fire and thunder in the old man’s voice as he hollered, “You drivers are just like cockroaches — I get rid of you but you always come back!”
As I later learned, that was Big Roy’s way of hiring back a former driver.
Big Roy built Roy’s Taxi from scratch and out of necessity back in the bad old days, post-1928, after the city of Austin saw fit to move the “Negro” population west of East Avenue and keep them there. Though Hispanics were not specifically targeted by the city’s infamous 1928 City Plan, they knew better than to assume they weren’t part of the great Austin whiteout.
By the time Roy started his cab company in 1931 most of the Hispanic population was living in the barrio east of
downtown, an area extending south from Eleventh Street to the Colorado River. This would become Roy’s Taxi’s primary turf, and it was still that way four decades later when I drove for Roy’s. South Austin ran a close second.
Big Roy was born in 1910 but it was hard not to think of him as a product of the 19th century. As a boy, he rode a horse five miles from McNeil to the school in Merrilltown but had to drop out when his horse died. The horse had a direct tie to Henry Brock, the last man hanged in Austin. “Back then, they didn’t mess around with you,” Big Roy said. “You do something bad, vamanos!”
Roy went to work with his father at Austin White Lime in McNeil and worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for four dollars a day. A mishap with some dynamite left him with two stubs on one hand, the stubs he used to poke people in the chest to drive home a point. He poked rich and poor, black and white, family and friends, cab drivers, and politicians. He was an equal opportunity badass.
After the Velasquez family moved to Austin in 1927, Roy worked construction until fallout from the stock market crash made its way to Austin about the same time the city was trying to segregate itself once and for all. Roy went to the biggest cab company in town, Ten Cents Taxi, and asked for a job. The owner told him he would scare off all of the company’s customers. Translation: No Mexicans.
Not only did the cab companies of the day not hire minority drivers, the drivers didn’t go east of East Avenue. Most of the companies had a sign in the window: "White Riders Only". So Roy started his own cab company with a 1928 Model A Ford and five dollars that he borrowed from his friend Braulio Reyes. The money paid for a three-dollar cab permit and a tank of seven-cents-a gallon gas. He put his station at the end of the trolley tracks at Sixth and Chicon and offered the people of east Austin — black, white or Hispanic — a deal and a slogan: Anywhere on the East Side For a Dime.
During the worst years of the Depression, Roy’s Taxi had thirty-five cars on the street and a rotating cast of drivers, the pioneers of a proud profession. The first Roy’s Taxi driver, aside from Big Roy, was Placido Beltran, who drove for Roy on commission. Placido’s nickname was Clark Gable. He worked at Roy’s for about the same amount of time as I did and was no doubt the first of hundreds of cab drivers to hear Big Roy bellow, “Where my money!”
George Christian, who was LBJ’s press secretary and also worked for John Connally and Price Daniel, got in my cab one day and asked how Big Roy was doing. Christian was born in Austin and knew Big Roy from some of his early political campaigns. I said Big Roy was as ornery as ever but diabetes was whittling him down one limb at a time.
“You had to have your jockstrap on when you dealt with Big Roy,” Christian said. “If he said he would deliver the east side vote, you could count on it. But I sure felt sorry for the poor son of bitch who didn’t deliver on his end of the deal.”
Though Roy’s Taxi thrived during the Depression, the company struggled during World War II when most of Austin’s able-bodied would-be drivers were overseas. The trolley was gone, replaced by buses, and Roy was down to five cabs. After the war, he commenced buying more cabs and hiring more drivers and in 1957 moved to 90 East Avenue, which is where I met him and his sons twenty years later.
As a driver for Roy’s, you inherited the history and a certain amount of urban mythology but you had to be there for a while and work the east side to realize it. Otherwise, it was easy to get the impression that Roy’s, far from being a progressive company on the right side of history, was the most racist business in the city.
Roy’s boys and even — especially — Big Roy thought nothing of insulting an entire race of people, live and on the radio, for God and the FCC to hear. Black drivers were “coons.” Hispanics were “Meskins.” We Anglos were lumped together as “bolillos,” which I later found out is a certain type of white flour.
White folks weren’t offended by the “bolillo” term because most of them didn’t know what it meant. Neither did I for a long time. I used to think there was a driver named Bolillo or maybe several: the Bolillo Brothers.
To get some perspective about all this, we need to remember that Big Roy helped found the Austin chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1934 and he suffered fools, deadbeats and racists not at all.
Several generations of city council members, mayors, and state politicians learned this early in their careers. And he walked the walk. Roy’s was the first company to serve African-American riders and the first to hire a female driver and the first to hire a hippie.
(photo: Richard Velasquez)
Big Roy maintained control of the company as his five sons, one by one, entered the business. I never drove for
anybody but Richard, Big Roy’s next-to-youngest son. Richard, a Vietnam veteran and college graduate, kept his cabs in good working order and rewarded you with good cabs and certain privileges if you simply showed up every day and worked the radio. Once he commented on a story I’d written for the Austin Sun and said, “You know, somebody as smart as you, with your education, shouldn’t be driving a cab for a living,” he said. When I agreed, he added, “You should be driving a fucking school bus!” There always had to be a punchline with those guys.
In the late seventies Big Roy’s sons bought him a 1928 Model A, a replica of his first Roy'sTaxi. They painted it that weird
shade of green with a red roof and rigged the horn to play the Godfather theme, though it sounded more “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” to me. But the Godfather’s health wasn’t good; the end was in sight.
The Velasquez family rented the Frank Erwin Special Events Center in April of 1981 and held a tribute for Big Roy in recognition of his fifty years of service as owner of Roy’s Taxi. At the time, Roy’s Taxi was the oldest Mexican-American-owned business in the city and the oldest family-owned cab company in the country still owned by the family that started it.
Braulio Reyes, who had loaned Roy the $5 that got him rolling anywhere on the east side for a dime, was there to accept a symbolic repayment of that loan.
The whole family came out in its formal finest along with a “Who’s Who” of Austinites past and present. Big Roy took it in stride. He died in November of that year. Three years after that I left the cab business for good when I took a job as a sportswriter in Georgetown. My fellow ink-stained wretches loved hearing my cab stories. “Tell him about the bank robber,” someone in the newsroom or the bar would say, and I’d tell it again. “Tell ‘em about the two stoners with the counterfeit gold coins.”
In the years after I left the business, Roy’s Taxi sometimes appeared in the news. The news was usually not good, but that’s often the nature of news. A story headlined “Local Cab Driver Clears $100 in Seven Hours” doesn’t thrill editors or draw readers. But bad news does.
Item: In 1990, a week before Christmas, a Roy’s driver is shot and killed in Southeast Austin.
Item: A Yellow-Checker driver is killed two weeks later.
Item: A Roy’s driver is charged with killing two customers early one Saturday morning in 2000 following a “disagreement.”
Item: In 2006, the Velasquez family sells its one hundred and fifteen cab permits to Yellow Cab for millions of dollars. “Austin’s not the same, like it used to be,” Bobby Velasquez, the youngest brother, told the Austin Chronicle. “The industry has gotten too big. Twenty years ago, you could buy a car for $1,500, $2,000. Now you can’t buy a car for less than $15,000.”
The brothers were getting old, he said. Roy, Jr. had been in the cab business for fifty years, he and Richard for thirty. He said Roy’s might have spoiled its drivers for life at another cab company.
“Some of the problem we’ve had is that we’ve been too lenient,” he said. “But we’re from the old school.”
And it didn’t get any more old school than Big Roy and the company he created.
Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi that after his life as a steamboat captain, he never met anybody he hadn’t already met on the river. The cab was my steamboat, the streets of Austin my Mississippi River. I didn’t meet anyone as a reporter that I hadn’t already charged a dollar a drop, a dollar a mile in a Roy’s Taxi.
For several years after I moved one county north of Travis, I’d drive by 90 East Avenue, right there on the west side of the IH-35 frontage road, one block east of Rainey Street. Then one day I drove by and the house was gone, finally swallowed up by the metropolis that Austin became.
The only surprise is that it lasted as long as it did.
Clay Coppedge © 2020
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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