For 20 hours over the five nights, instructor Larry Herman, a civilian police employee and former cabbie, encouraged such kindness as he worked to mold his students into professional drivers. Boston needs good-will ambassadors, Herman told them, not cellphone chatterers who mistreat some customers and make romantic advances on others.
“Your cab is not a dating bar,’’ he said.
The city, he said, can do without the kind of belligerent cabbies who settle disputes with unhappy customers by dumping them on the Zakim Bridge and in the Sumner Tunnel.
“OK, your customer is a jerk,’’ Herman said. “Bite your tongue.’’
Cabbies also have rights, he said. They are recorded in an 80-page police handbook and embodied in his lessons.
But many students who pass the 75-question exam will discover that the manual’s dense regulations and the instructor’s blunt words offer little protection against the industry’s hidden dangers, especially the high-handed tactics of some cab fleet owners — owners who, as the Spotlight Team found, in some cases regularly exploit drivers in small ways and large.
Herman, in fact, acknowledges this dark side of the trade, especially for newcomers like the students in his classroom.
“There are a lot of sharks out there,’’ he said. “If you are new to the business, they can take a lot of money from you.’’
It is a punishing dynamic that takes a toll on consumers, too. A cabbie who feels oppressed is unlikely to be lighthearted behind the wheel.
“When there’s no justice, you have to be [angry],’’ said taxi driver Jaafar Mohamed, a native Moroccan who said cab owners are routinely overcharging their drivers.
“How are you going to [serve] the customers?’’ he asked. “You’re not going to be smiling all the time. Trust me. You’re angry.’’
Students who pass the test in Charlestown pick up their licenses at police headquarters, then select their first destination as a taxi driver.
Many, like the Globe reporter, head directly to a gloomy garage on Kilmarnock Street, headquarters of Boston Cab. Because there are more than 6,200 licensed cabbies in the city and only 1,825 licensed taxis, finding a cab to rent can be challenging. That daunting math makes Boston Cab popular for new drivers. With 372 cars, it is by far the city’s largest fleet.
In the company’s basement garage in the Fenway, the reporter flashes his freshly laminated license and is sent to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for a copy of his driving record. He returns that Friday, driving record in hand, and receives a terse instruction. “Come back at 9 o’clock Wednesday with $500 cash,’’ a garage manager says without explanation.
Two other men — a Jamaican and a Moroccan — are waiting Wednesday with their $500. They are ushered into an orientation class, where an instructor takes their money — security deposits, he says — and hands them receipts.
It is the only receipt the Globe reporter will see in eight nights driving for Boston Cab — a violation of police regulations. Without a receipt for his nightly lease payments, a driver finds himself defenseless if management accuses him of owing additional money.
The class takes place in a room for drivers next to the dispatch office and the money room. The drivers’ area is dank, the walls cluttered with a flat-screen television, an array of cheap art prints, and an advertisement for an immigration lawyer. There are two arcade video games, a soda machine, and a couple of Muslim prayer rugs.
The orientation is brief. Three issues are underlined.
Students first must prove they can fill out an accident report.
They are warned never to return from a shift with empty gas tanks. “That’s the one that upsets the boss,’’ the instructor says, a reference to the company’s multimillionaire owner, Edward J. Tutunjian.
Finally, issue three: “The most important thing: how to drop the money.’’
Against the money room’s back wall is a bunker built of concrete and steel with a drop-box chute for drivers to deposit their payments in zippered plastic pouches after their shifts.
The chute can be a black hole for cabbies. With no cashiers to process their payments, Boston Cab drivers go home without assurances they have met the company’s obligations.
New drivers are told nothing about the city requirement that they get immediate receipts. No instruction on how to contest bogus overcharges by management. No word at all about drivers’ rights.
The instructor, who later is seen collecting “gratuities’’ from drivers as he distributes car keys, completes his orientation and hands his students off to a computer dispatch supervisor. As the supervisor speaks, two Muslim drivers enter the room, lay down the prayer rugs, and fall to their knees, facing toward Mecca — a common sight at Boston Cab and the airport taxi pool.Continued...