In a space slightly larger than a walk-in closet where the only luster was a large, old Asian fan, housed all one man needed to run a cab company—a desk, a phone and a set of files.
To the left of the hanging fan that featured two flowers on a branch with a bird perched beneath it, was the brown desk where Sam Maffett sat daily dispatching calls, listening to patrons' complaints and keeping track of his six drivers.
Maffett was the manager, one of many since the death of Charles Heard, the owner of —reportedly one of the oldest black-owned cab companies in Atlanta.
Still Maffett, who has been managing the business based on Ralph David Abernathy for three years, knew much about the cab business.
He was raised by a cab driver who still remembered when anyone with a vehicle and a clean record could get into the business. Then fares were .50 cents a mile and earning $50 a day meant you were rich.
“It was good. There was a lot of people using cabs then,” said Wallace Maffett, who used to work 15 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
Now the fares were $2.50 and $50 a day will barely cover gas for many drivers, whose start-up cost to get into the business may range from $3,000 to $7,000, especially for those who wanted to have their own cabs rather than rent one from a company.
Aisde from buying their vehicles, they have to pay for the insurance, registration and the advertisement on their cars and vans, which have to be replaced after 10 years. They also have to pay $25 for a biannual inspections and $95 annually for training that, among other things, counseled them on how to treat customers and knowing the streets.
Then, there was the monthly fees of $525 or more to the cab company that provides them with a CPNC, a four-digit code that is posted on their vehicles and served as their validation.
To understand how much the business had changed, Maffett said in the past a taxi driver could buy a CPNC number for at least $100. Now the bid begins at $58,500, he said.
Maffett’s father, who spent 13 years in the business, now counseled others against becoming cab drivers.
“If you aren’t a rich person, you won’t get into the cab business now,” Maffett, 75, said. “I wouldn’t ever start a cab company now. It’s too dangerous.”
Taxi driving was often listed in the top 10 list of dangerous jobs because of the combination of job deaths due to traffic crashes and homicides.
The plunging economy not only changed the nature of the business, it also affected the nature of its patrons.
“Demands have dropped a lot because of the economy. By not having a job affects everybody,” Sam Maffett said.
The company's drivers range in age from 29 to 65, most of them were Africans and all of them were independent. Many depended mostly on regular customers to keep them afloat.
Heard, who was a cab driver, started Cascade Cab Company in 1970. After he died, his widow, a former school teacher, took over. But in 1982, she was diagnosed with dementia and lost the ability to run the business.
At one point, the company had 20 to 25 drivers. That number dwindled to 10 and now only six drivers carry the company’s red and white colors.
Still, the company remained part of a steady tradition that began in the mid 1600s with horse-drawn-for-hire hackney carriages before the first taxi service was established in Toronto in 1837 by an ex-slave. The taximeter and the gasoline-powered vehicle ushered in the modern taxi in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Paris, London and New York.
The taxicabs have since changed styles and models and have become a valuable part of the daily existence of the major U.S. cities. There are 2,019 cabbies in Atlanta. Perhaps a half traverse the night, covering miles of concrete with towering edifices looming before them in an environment ablaze with lights set against dark skies.
They pickup junkies and drunkards, crazies and club hoppers, theater goers and people working the late shift; all thronging the streets in search of the often belittled, but now prized taxi driver.
Before, the taxi drivers main concerns were patrons jumping out of the cabs without paying. Now the job has become deadly, and the drivers more cautious.
They watch hands, eyes and movements for any hint of a weapon or plans of deception before drifting down the city’s streets with their coveted fares. They become witnesses to their idiosyncrasies: perverts living out their fantasies, hedonists reveling in self satisfaction, couples having sex in the back seats.
During the day, they shuttle patrons to and from work, school, the hospital and the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where there is a flight every 35 seconds, Maffett said.
They endure many curses and insults. Often, they listen to patrons stories, lives laid out in a few miles with details of failed loves, abusive spouses and broken marriages.
But always in the back of their minds they wonder if they will become victims of some stranger’s greed and desperation.
Fuade Ali has been a driver for eight years, less than two of those years with Cascade Cab Company. Ali said he has never been robbed, though he had a fare jump out without paying.
Still, he was aware of the dangers on the job. He had a friend who was robbed and shot. After three weeks in the hospital and another year on the job, his friend quit and returned to Ethiopia.
“Even though it’s a dangerous job, someone has to do it,” Ali said.
At least 19 cabbies have been killed in the metro Atlanta since 2000, according to the website, Taxi-Library.org, that memorializes the slain and promotes cabdriver safety.
Between 2003 and 2009, 660 U.S. cab drivers stayed out of work because of assaults and violent acts, according to the Georgia Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Criminals target cab drivers because they carry cash, work alone and can be directed to isolated areas.
Taxi drivers are 60 times more likely than other workers to be killed while on the job, according to a May 2000 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“You hear the stories on the news,” Maffett said. “None of my drivers have been involved in anything like that. Of course we get a couple of trips where the fare jumped out of the car,” Maffett said. “I’ve had some drivers refuse to pick up some pay because of the neighborhood. You have to use common sense. Some place they won’t go at nights. It’s a very dangerous job.”
That’s why some drivers stay on the north side such as Buckhead, Maffett said. Others have placed cameras in their vehicles, and one driver installed a bullet proof glass in his vehicle after being robbed a few times, Maffett said.
“It’s very unsettling, but that’s part of the industry. That’s why you have to use your intuition and be a good judge of character. You have to know how to read people.”
Garara Bulo, 37, of Ethiopia, works 16 to 18 hours a day, 6 days a week for Cascade Cab Company.
A former welder and magazine publisher, Bulo started driving cabs three years ago when the money was good. Then, drivers would make $150 to $200 within 10 hours. Now they may make $80 on an average day, Bulo said. On a good day, they make $110.
Bulo said he has never been robbed.
“Security is always a concern if you are driving a cab. Working long hours 16 to 18 hours, we are outside always,” Bulo said. “I’ve had friends who were robbed, one of them injured.”
But Bulo never thought of quitting.
“Oh no, I don’t have any options,” said Bulo whose wife has been unemployed for three years.
Hours on the road also added up for taxi drivers.
In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an incident rate of 21 deaths and one injury per 100,000.
Many cab drivers work 10 to 16 hours each day, sometimes more, to make enough to pay for their vehicles and living expenses. The long hours can take its toll.
Maffett is thankful when a month passes without any drivers reporting they were involved in a wreck.
Still, the drivers’ long hours pose another problem; one that has led to many complaints from patrons – the cabbies’ body odor.
“Some of these drivers stay out here 24 hours a day and sleep in their cars. It’s all about the American dollar.”
The other complaints were about speeding, drivers getting lost and unclean vehicles, Maffett said.
“I only have one driver I have to stay on top of. He won’t keep his car clean or keep good tires on the car.
“No one wants to have a dirty car. It’s part of the city’s image.”