He's an almost-omnipresent figure in Northeast Ohio. There's the big, blue van broadcasting the charming smile out the window at passing pedestrians, potential customers and, let's be honest, fans. Cabby Bill is an institution, but it's taken a decade of hard work and dedication to get that badge of honor. The first time we spoke on the phone, Bill explained to me that he truly relished the unseen parts of his job. "I've saved so many lives doing what I do." He was about to step up to his bank teller, so we decided to meet up later in the week at Pacer's in Lakewood to talk taxis.
How did you get started as a driver?
I started in late 2003. I want to give thanks to Patrick Keenan, general manager of Americab, who gave me my start and believed in me. It was a rough start. The one thing that I get a chuckle out of is that I get these young kids in my cab. They're always like, "Oh, I want to drive a cab!" And it's like, "Why?" They'll say, "You get all these drunk women in the cab!" And you gotta realize that this is a business. You're a franchise. I drive for ABC Taxi now. It's a business. You always have to remember that. And you're on call 24/7. I have so many great memories of being a cab driver—some are good, some are bad, some almost cost me my life.
The one incident that rings in my mind was August 4, 2008 at 1:30 in the morning. I was driving down Detroit Avenue. Got to about West 77th and Detroit. I saw two gentlemen who I thought had missed the bus, so I turned around. When the one guy got in my vehicle, I noticed he had wide-receiver gloves. It didn't make much sense to me until after we got to the house and I found out they were there to rob me, not get a ride from me. They got about $250 off me, then turned around and shot me.
It went through my bicep, and the bullet's right here. (He points to the right side of his chest.) It's still there to this day. (Bill orders a Diet Coke. I opt for a tall Yuengling.)
Well... Jesus Christ. How did this go down?
They were about to get out of the car. The last thing I heard was the word "fucking" and then pop pop. It was two white guys that robbed and shot me, and two black guys came to my aid. I met with the police, but they were so overwhelmed with everything. It was basically a waste of time. And currently, I'm going through another robbery case as we speak. May 24, I responded to a call for two passengers. They actually caught the perpetrator in this situation. He got me out of a $40 fare and he ran. Police responded. The guy got up into an apartment, and the police went all-out with a manhunt for this guy. When they got him down, he went apeshit. And it's petty theft at best, but they got him for robbery because he split my head open.
He punched you or something?
He had his cell phone in his hand and caught me at a bad angle (he points to just above his right eye). According to the prosecutor, the pictures were pretty gruesome. But it's healed nicely.
Being a Cleveland cab driver has been extremely rewarding sometimes. It's got its downsides. Contrary to what my colleagues will say about the Cleveland Police Department and West Sixth Street and all that... Listen, I get messed with every so often. But cops have only gotten better. A lot of these cab drivers—what we call "muck mucks"—they think because they're cab drivers they're entitled to get away with a lot more. And that shouldn't be the case.
So why are you in the game?
Driving a cab, to me, is about saving lives and preventing lawsuits one ride at a time. I live by that motto. Every time I have an intoxicated person in my cab, I feel like I'm saving their life. A couple weeks back, these two girls flagged me down to get to Akron. "How much for a ride?" "$80." "$80? That's too much money!" So what does this girl do? She puts her friend around her neck, carries her down the hill, and shoves her into the driver's seat. Now this girl is so out of it, it's not even funny. I do a U-turn, park on the other side of the street and call the police. This friend spends five minutes slapping the girl in the face to get her ready to drive. Sure enough, here comes the cop flying outta nowhere, and she almost runs him off the road pulling away. (Bill makes the sound of a police siren and waves his hand.) If you drive a cab for a long enough time, it's a good solution to stop drinking.
Does the job disrupt your life at all?
I mean, it does. I've got a daughter; she's 9. She's everything in the world to me. It gets nerve-racking every once in a while. I can't go out and party on the major holidays. Getting shot really woke me up. It changed my life in more ways than one. I never realized how many friends I truly have. I've had the honor and privilege of working with Americab, United Cab, Ace Taxi and now ABC. For the first time in 10 years, I actually feel like I work for a family.
On a lighter note, what are some of the best times you've had?
(Bill bursts out laughing as he ponders his favorite customers.) I wouldn't be who I am without Molly, Jackie, Brian—three customers that just really stand out. You've got to be in the cab to see it all play out. The people make it worth it. Oh, yeah, I got to drive the mayor of Venice, Italy, around town when he was here. Listen: It's taken some blood, sweat and tears to get where I am today, but I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world.
You seem to treat the job philosophically, which is quite different from typical cab drivers.
It's my hope and prayer that, when the holidays come, people remember that when you drink and drive, you're buying a lottery ticket. Obviously, you hope to make it home safely. Is the prize worth saving a couple dollars on a cab ride? I just stress: Don't drink and drive. It's not worth it. (We're offered another round of drinks; we decline.) Ah, good old Pacer's, man.
(Need a ride? Call Cabby Bill at 216-385-4447)