By the time Saturday night becomes Sunday morning, West Sixth Street is a virtual tailgate party. Six taxis are double-parked near the curb, along with two limos and a fleet of civilian machines wedged unhappily between. Packs of partyers weave freely through the mayhem. When a cop arrests a would-be brawler in front of the Velvet Dog, everyone stops to rubberneck, stalling traffic further.
Elizabeth Bard swings her big yellow van onto West Sixth and into the melee. "Here we go into the madness," she says cheerfully. A retired teacher, Bard has been a cabbie long enough to know her competitors, and she points them out as her cab creeps past the line. This one turns down any trip shorter than Bay Village; that's one of the just-off-the-boat Somalis everyone's griping about. "He doesn't know the rules," she says, watching the man maneuver to the front of the line. "You have to wait your turn."
And you have to keep your eye out for the police. As Bard turns onto St. Clair, she's flagged almost immediately by a pair of tipsy twentysomethings in front of the Cleveland Chop House. One is so drunk, he can hardly stand. She pulls over and lets them in. "What they're doing is illegal, and what we're doing is illegal," she says.
The crime? Cruising. In the busiest parts of town -- downtown hot spots like the Warehouse District and the streets near Jacobs Field -- cab drivers are supposed to confine pickups and drop-offs to designated spots. Make a drop outside those spots, and you can be ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic. Pick up someone flagging you, and you can be ticketed for cruising.
"Cruising" is barely enforced. Christy Harst, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jane Campbell, reports no cruising citations in the Flats/Warehouse area in the last three months. Public records show just 13 citations in four years.
"Impeding the flow of traffic" is a different story. Cabbies complain that such tickets are commonplace. While city records don't distinguish between hacks and other drivers, they show more than 5,200 citations in the last four years.
Marc Steffans, a cabbie for six years, was ticketed while dropping a passenger off at City Hall. Tony Rini, who's been driving for seven, estimates that 10 to 15 cabbies get ticketed every weekend -- just for delivering passengers to their chosen destinations.
"We pay out of our own pocket, too," Rini says. "That's like working two to three extra days for free."
It doesn't help people visiting downtown, either. With parking a constant complaint and drunk driving taboo, a taxi ride home seems ideal. But even regular clubgoers don't know where the cabstands are. And the rules impede customer service, essentially forcing cabbies to break the law to comply with a fare's wishes.
"I've gotten to the point where I tell passengers, 'I don't want to be rude, but have your money ready,'" Steffans says. "Because if I sit there for even a minute while they're looking for it, I get harassed." For a city that constantly frets about bringing people downtown, it seems to be doing its best to create obstacles.
It's hard to blame the cops. The traffic situation in the busiest part of the Warehouse District is a nightmare, with cabbies idling two abreast in front of hot spots. But it's also hard to blame the cabbies. The city has provided them with just two designated spaces between St. Clair and Lakeside on West Sixth Street. And those are usually clogged with cars instead of taxis.
Cabbies have long begged City Hall for another stand. Last year, the city obliged, providing one in front of Sushi Rock on West Sixth Street.
But, Harst admits, it didn't last long. "Business owners were complaining," she says. Patrons couldn't park in front of the restaurants, nor could the spots be used for valet parking. The stand was removed.
When it comes to political power, hacks are a decidedly minor force. There's a drivers' association, but most cabbies are too busy to get involved, Bard says. Still, they've managed to get the attention of City Hall. "This is not a situation the city is not aware of, and not a situation the city is doing nothing about," Harst says. "We really want to work toward a solution, because it doesn't make sense." The best she can promise, however, is future meetings.
Councilman Joe Cimperman is working on a proposal to open up all downtown streets for free evening parking. That, in turn, should make more space for cabstands, he says. "If we're able to make better cab zones and not take up any more parking, the cabbies benefit, and so does everyone else." After all, he says, "Cabbies are our ambassadors to the city. We need to listen to them."
Drivers are none too confident. One of the biggest problems, Rini says, is civilians parking in cabstands. Police ticket the cars, but they won't tow them. For the cabbies, that does little good: The spaces are still blocked, and cabbies are forced to double-park and risk a ticket of their own. (Police spokeswoman Nancy Dominik referred questions to City Hall.)
They also point to the Sushi Rock debacle, where the city quickly acquiesced to business interests. "I don't expect them to give us the whole block, but I do expect to be able to take people safely to the curb to drop them off," Bard says. "I can't even show you the places that are cabstands, because they're so full of cars."
The attitude from the top doesn't seem to help. Several cabbies report that Mayor Campbell has been known to park in the cabstand at Jacobs Field while making appearances there. One time, the cabbies called the cops, Bard says. "And they said, 'Get real; we're not going to ticket the mayor.'
"And you know what?" Bard asks. "She sat through the whole game."