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Culture, Politics and Technology
From the Logs of Badge No. 54131. By John Whalen

Bill Skiff: 1940-2007

I just received an e-mail from Nick the Doper (aka: Nick the Pothead, aka Bear, aka "Hey You!", etc,) in San Francisco. My first surprise was that Nick had an e-mail address and knew how to operate a computer. I thought it might be spam with some worm or virus attached, to spy on me, steal my personal information or just cause some frustrating technical difficulties, there being people out there who enjoy messing with strangers' lives. I hovered the cursor clumsily over the link: SENDER: Nick.

I held my breath and pressed the mouse button, my face contorting as if I expected an explosion. Nothing. I looked at the page. It was indeed a letter from Nick. I read the words.

Bill Skiff and friend
Bill Skiff and friend
"Your buddy, Bill Skiff, died on July 17."

He continued on with some other mindless remarks with numerous grammatical and factual errors. Though a college graduate, Nick's brain is a bit slow, a bit dull, a bit fried.

I read the words again, slowly, one at a time:

"Your ... Buddy ... Bill ... Skiff ... died ... on ... July ... 17."

Of course, he was being sarcastic. Bill Skiff was not my buddy. He was my arch-nemesis, the longtime manager of the Veterans Cab Company. He had hired and fired me several times. In the last thirty years had stolen from me, framed me, slandered me, threatened me. Robin Hood had the Sheriff of Nottingham; Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty; Batman, the Riddler; Colonel Hogan, Kommandant Klink. I had Skiff.

Out of the above examples I'd have to say that our relationship was more like the latter. The Sheriff of Nottingham was violently ruthless. Moriarty, a genious. The Riddler, clever. Colonel Klink of Stalag 13 was an idiot. So was Skiff.

The odd part of this news was that I had just written a story about Skiff. It was not very complimentary, but of course was true. Along with my general exposure of the corruption of the cab business – the owners, general managers, shift managers, dispatchers (they're all scum! Have I ever mentioned that before?), insurance agents, cops, hotel doorman, mechanics, tow truck drivers, etc. – I exposed Skiff for his most famous attribute: He was a buffoon.

When most of us think of a baffoon, I suppose we think of circus clowns. I understand a lot of people hate circus clowns just as others hate mimes, magicians, break dancers, Nazis, Commies, men, women, gays, straights or the French. I guess it's in our nature to hate, at least sometimes, especially people who steal from or harass us. This man made my life miserable, but I couldn't hate him. He made me laugh. Whenever we would have words, I would win, simply by laughing at him. Oh true, he often had the last word but only when he ran to the company owner who enforced his will upon me by the usual threats and intimidation.

Have you noticed that when our enemies pass we usually don't celebrate? I can't think of too many people in my life that I personally hated. Naturally, I hated some public personalities: Stalin, Francisco Franco, Chiang Kai Shek, Richard Nixon. Did you notice that when these despicable and corrupt despots died, that there was little made of it? They mostly just faded away. Although some, like Nixon, were resurrected as heros. I hated Nixon more than anyone in my whole life but when Dick died I was confounded. Now who would I hate? Naturally Dick's evil offspring, Reagan and the two Bushes, were well worth hating, but without the strong emotionalism of the hatred I had for Dick Nixon.

I realized then that without a nemesis, a Moriarty, life was not as challenging. How many times did Robin Hood have the Sherriff of Nottingham in his bow's sites or better still, his sword at his throat? What did he do? He laughed at him and let him go. It makes sense when you think of it. If Robin had killed him, he'd have to move out of Sherwood Forest and get a real life. Poor Robin didn't know any other life. Nor do cabbies.

I first met Skiff around February 1978. Being a college bum, I hadn't had a real job in years, if ever. I was now twenty-five and could legally drive a cab. They say that you can't drive professionally until you're twenty-five for insurance reasons. The truth is that after careful testing, cab companies, bus companies, trucking outfits, delivery services, etc., discovered that people younger than that age still think they have a future, a chance to be someone, a chance at life. After twenty-five, if still unsure what we want or can do, we become desperate. Cab companies thrive on the desperate. That's what they are looking for. They've also discovered that hiring older drivers doesn't work out either. Those men and women have matured enough to know that there is another world out there because they've already seen it. They might drive for a while to get over a hard spot in life but they move on quickly, often after only one shift. No, it takes a special kind of loser to work for ten or twelve hours for only $20 or sometimes less. On my first shift I made $7 but then, I got lucky that night, if you know what I mean. Huh. It just occurred to me. Maybe Skiff arranged that "luck" so that I would return the next night. Think I'm stretching the possibility? You don't know the cab business. Let me try to enlighten you, at least with respect to Mr. Skiff.

Veteran's Cab Like I said, it is odd because I just finished a story on some of the corruption in the cab industry, much of it focusing on Bill Skiff, whom we often referred to as "Stiff." I've also been meaning to write about my first day on the job. Although that might seem appropriate at this time, it would just be too long of a story for my purposes here. Let me just give you the highlights now and fill you in at a future time on the details. After all, I am in mourning:

After hiring me, Bill Skiff sat me down at a picnic bench in the garage that had come over on the Mayflower (or was it the Santa Maria?) and gave me a very quick lecture: "This is how you use the mic. This is how you fill out the waybill. This is how you tip."

"Tip?" I asked. "I thought I accepted tips, not gave them."

Skiff looked surprised. "Didn't they teach you anything in college kid? This is how it works. It's just business."

I had momentarily forgotten some of the lessons I had learned in my teen years from unscrupulous employers: Non-paid training periods, kickbacks, paying for "breakages," etc.

So he explained. I was to give the shift manager a minimum $1 tip at the beginning of the shift and another dollar at the end. The gasman (a union employee) was to get a minimum of twenty-five cents for "parking the cab." (I don't know why some payola has to be justified, but he made it very clear that the gasman was doing a great service parking the cab, something like a valet.) That was it. All in all it was not too bad. I thought.

When my name was called I dutifully gave the shift manager at the window, Big Bill, a dollar. He looked at me like I was a piece of shit. When I returned at the end of the night (a big smile on my face because I got "lucky") I waited for the gasman to fill my tank and give me a receipt. I then handed him the quarter as instructed. He threw it at me screaming expletives in Chinese! I ran for my life to the window to pay up while David, the gasman, continued his tantrum and went on strike, refusing to move my cab, which was blocking the gas line. The night man, "The Rebel" (handles and aliases are common in this industry), gave me a little talk. Seems that Skiff was understating the standard fees. Now I was told that $2 was the minimum for the window and fifty cents for the gasman. He also mentioned that it was "voluntary" to tip the actual dispatcher, the guy on the radio. I went back to David and apologized. I gave him another quarter. He kept it this time but started screaming again, jumped in my cab and roared out in reverse at about 40 mph. I slipped out the gate and ran for home.

The next day I discovered the truth. The gasman gets a dollar. I apologized again that night and gave him $1.50. I also soon came to realize that the actual "tip" to the window man was $5 in and out. That meant that I was handing over a minimum of $11 per day in 1978. Now quickly do the math: A man who can not speak English, probably an illegal alien, with union pay and benefits drives 100 cars forty or fifty feet for $100 in unreported cash plus his salary. (Turns out the gasmen also have other sidelines which we won't go into here.). A good driver typically had to wait until Friday night to make $100. Add up the $2-5 that the window men get from every driver and you have a little idea of what I am talking about.

Two weeks after I started, I was called into the office to see the insurance man, "Israel." I don't remember if that was his first name or last; makes no difference. He claimed that I had been involved in an accident recently and he'd make it "go away" for $20. At first I thought he had me confused with someone else.

"Oh no! I have the report right here," he said in a Yiddish accent, with multiple gold chains, an earlier form of bling, hanging around his wrinkled old neck and down to his open shirt. I saw what was going on and the real man in me (before they took most of it away) went ballistic.

"Why you no good son-of-a-bitch bastard! You can suck my dick before I'll give you a dime. I'll sue you, your mother, Veterans Cab and ..."

"What's going on in here?" Skiff came running in. This was in the days before he started popping Valium.

"This filthy prick thinks he's gonna frame me for an accident I didn't commit."

"Okay, okay, cool down. Let's get to the bottom of this."

Skiff lead me outside while he huddled with the petty slimeball Mafia wanna-be. He came back with the "proof." The company-generated accident report was from three weeks ago. I had only worked there two weeks, case solved. Skiff ran back into the insurance scum's office. They talked, nodded, looked out the door at me and shook hands. Skiff came running back.

"Okay, here's the deal. If you give me $20 I'll talk him out of it."

"You Goddamned son of an Irish-bitch-whore bastard! I'll give you my fist before I give you a cent!"

Skiff just turned his back and walked away, saying that I was "out of service," not fired, until I "took care of it."

Well, we had a union then and I had still had two weeks until I had to pay my initiation fee of $100. I took the night off and with $100 in my pocket went down and paid the fee. Now with my membership in place I said that I wanted to file a grievance. I explained the story to the union official. The scumbag leaned back in his chair and said, "Son, I think I can fix this whole thing ... for twenty dollars."

"Whaaat? You want me to pay 'em?"

He laughed hysterically.

"No, of course not. I want you to pay me! Then I'll phone them and work it out."

"Fuck you! You scum sucking Mafia barfbag ..." Well you get the picture.

I returned to Veterans' and went up to Skiff with a $5 bill in my hand.

"Will this make it go away?"

Skiff looked at me with a grin through his double chin (which was to grow over the years to a quadruple chin): "You're learning, kid."

I went back to work.

radio Over the next year, I learned how it was done. There was a certain dance, a negotiation to it and I wasn't always a very good dancer, hence the number of times I was fired. I'm proud of those firings, though, every one a badge of honor. Each one represented a time in my life when I said "No! Absolutely no!" Being fired? They were nothing more than forced vacations, which I always needed. One time Skiff fired me and naturally, as was my modus operandi, I threatened to sue. He offered a deal.

"What if I transfer you over to DeSoto? You stay there a year and then come back?"

"You guys own DeSoto?" (turns out that all the major SF cab companies are actually owned by the Hollywood mob which, if my understanding is correct, is in turn owned by the Las Vegas mob).

"Let me make a call."

So in front of me he phones the manager of DeSoto, Marv Grolnick (a real scum if there ever was one, long since dead and residing with the devil now).

"Marv, Skiff here. Yeah, good. I want to send you a driver. Yeah. Uh huh. Well, what did they do? Uh huh. Uh huh. Okay, how about I trade you Whalen for Epstein and Sanchez? Uh huh ... yeah ... okay it's a deal!"

"You start work on Monday at DeSoto. Your schedule is Friday through Tuesday nights."

That was it. I had been traded. I was impressed with myself. After all, I had been worth the value of two deSoto drivers, not one, and I actually got a better schedule than that which I currently had at Vets. Also, DeSoto was only one block from my home, cutting my commute time down to about two minutes and saving $3 per night in cab fare home. It was a much better deal for me all around. That's what I mean when I say that I usually won our fights.

I worked at DeSoto fourteen months and, after I pissed them off, true to his word Skiff hired me back at Veterans.

Over the years Bill deteriorated. The drivers made bets on when he would die. He made many trips to the hospital. He became neurotic and paranoid, popping Valium and who knows what else at the slightest provocation. Sometimes I would just piss him off so that he would pop another pill and wash it down with his many diet sodas. (Why do fat people drink diet soda? Who are they fooling?) He became heavier and heavier and would run at the sight of anyone he feared. I don't think the new owner met him until two years after he took over, even though they were both there every day. Skiff would see the boss coming and like Ensign Pulver, find a place to hide. Bill treated me the same, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I don't want to minimize the lack of ethics and just plain crimes this man committed against his fellow man, they are too numerous to list. There is one that I think will illustrate what he (and the other managers and owners in the industry) are like:

Shortly after the Vietnamese boat people arrived, they were each given $500 by the U.S government and sent out into our strange culture. Skiff hired about thirty of them for a "processing fee" of $300 a head. Besides the fact that we didn't need any drivers and had no cabs for them, these guys could not speak a word of English. The owner ordered them all fired within two weeks. Naturally Skiff did not return any of their "fees" His take on that scam was about $10,000. Not bad for a two-week con. Of course, that was the tip of the iceberg.

Among his (and the other companies') scams: Backbook – this was a driver-owed debt for not showing up for work and the company not getting the cab out. Theoretically, they lost money due to your absence. In reality they, always sent the cab out as they always had more drivers than they needed, some being sent home every night without work. A driver might avoid backbook by getting permission for a night off, usually for a fee of $10-$20. I have been charged backbook for days that I did show up or indeed for days that were my official nights off. Backbook was merely a pseudonym for payola and usually was collected about twice a year.

Damages – This was a good one. Whether at fault or not you were charged for collision damages, usually on the grounds that "the other parties insurance company didn't pay." Yeah right! They actually collected from you and the other party. The payments were strangely in round figures. Minimum damage (a scratch); $500. Medium; $1000; Major $1500.

I could go on and on, but as I said I am in mourning.

I have speculated for years as to the existence of heaven and hell. Of course, there is no way to know for certain until we pass over. We have been taught that heaven is a "happy" place, souls floating on clouds and playing harps. That doesn't impress me much. I can float on clouds here with the right herbs or medications and I'm not too much into harp music. Conversely, we imagine hell to be a place of great heat and fire with a gnome-type demon poking you with a pitchfork or some other, more horrible implement. Naturally this makes heaven a better choice. The idea, of course, is if you are good you'll go to heaven and, if not, to hell.

I've no opinion of what goes on in heaven, but I hope that in hell one receives a punishment comparable to the crimes he committed on earth. Therefore, I see Nixon down in Hades as a grunt in Viet Nam where every day for eternity he is gruesomely bayoneted, has his legs blown off or some other terrible agony that he inflicted so easily on others. I picture Skiff driving a cab (God, can you imagine what the fares in Hell are like?):

"Where to, Mac?"

"Driver, please take me to the Spanish Inquisition on the double!"

I see Skiff double shifting, wearing one set of clothes (from the Goodwill), living in a dingy hotel room not being able to afford a decent meal or to get ahead. On the rare occasion when he does, the devil takes it away from him. Hopefully, Bill Skiff is on the late shift now, driving a cab in Hell!

Note: To make certain he stays there, I have decided to return to San Francisco, find his grave and place a ring of salt and garlic around it. In the center, I will drive a wooden stake, made from slivers of Christ's cross, and also place a solid silver cross, blessed by the Pope – or Mel Gibson if the Holy Father is unavailable. Further, I will chant incantations from a book I found at the City Lights Bookstore on demon protection, all the while circling the grave counter-clockwise with burning incense of frankincense and myrrh. Hopefully, this will keep him there – otherwise he may come back. You don't know him like I do.

Quando omni flunkus, mortati.

("When all else fails, play dead" – Red Green

Published October 2006

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