Prior summers had been filled by cutting grass and painting guardrails for the County of Allegheny Public Works, District #4; a great patronage job at the time, if you could get it… and I was lucky enough to get it. My next door neighbor was a Democratic state assemblyman in a Democratic city, in a Democratic county; just support the party and buy the raffle tickets, thank you very much. But the summer of 1973 would be different.
At that time, McKeesport was the third largest city in the state, had a population of 50,000-plus, three movie theaters, two radio stations, Sears, Penny’s and overall, a thriving downtown. The mills there and in the surrounding river towns were running at full capacity, as they had been ever since the New Deal and World War II, with the steel, mining, and auto industries being so critical to a nation’s industrial growth. The local malls, Eastland and Monroeville, indeed were destinations for many shoppers, but downtown McKeesport, with its hometown stores and local owners, remained a bustling hub of retail activity. Though by the end of the decade, things would begin to change, the summer of ’73 was filled with the unending promise of hope and prosperity.
On summer break from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I was a driver for Tube City Taxi, McKeesport’s local service. The town was known as “Tube City” because of National Tube, the #1 local employer that was U.S. Steel’s piping division.
Driving taxi in a working-class city certainly didn’t provide the perceived excitement, diversity, nor compensation of large metropolitans such as New York, LA, or Chicago. Danger, however not frequent, was present. Several drivers had been robbed or stabbed in recent years. That didn’t bother me as much since I worked the day shift; less likely to happen then, I thought.
The vehicles were of the iconic checker cab design, unlike today’s versions of standard brands and models simply painted yellow. Actually, Tube City taxis were of a very unattractive pea soup color.
A typical day started at 7am, checking in with dispatch. Securing my livery, I drove out of the garage not knowing the fares and destinations to come. Unlike the 70’s series “Taxi,” I witnessed no grumpy dispatcher, comical group of characters, or overall camaraderie. Whether because of my age (I was 20) the fact that I was a long-haired college student, or because I was only there for a few short months, I was not privy to nor did I participate in any level of garage activity that may have been present.
Most of my trips were within McKeesport proper, though I sometimes ventured to the wilds of Port Vue, Dravosburg, Glassport, and Duquesne. My fares consisted of routine doctor visits, trips to the supermarket, downtown, or church. Many were elderly, while some just didn’t have a vehicle. I carried groceries up long, concrete steps, held the door for the ladies, and performed all the perfunctory and customary duties of the public’s chauffeur.
There were many instances of being the “designated driver,” a task I enjoyed the most. The peak time, at least for the daylight shift, was mid-morning. This allowed the millworkers about 3-4 hours of solid drinking after the graveyard shift.
Taxi conversations varied greatly based on the fare and a sotted millhunk provided a colorful reprieve from a boring day. Hearing how they’d be in trouble with their wives, how they didn’t care about being in trouble with their wives and how their bosses were assholes were just some of the interesting topics heard. Politics, religion, and the war were subjects rarely touched.
Overall, tips were unpredictable except for my hard-drinking brothers of labor; they were always the best tippers. Once, Ernie, a crane operator at the Tube, was three sheets to the wind at 10:30am on a fine Wednesday morning, and gave me a $50 bill by mistake. Several times I tried to explain his error, but too smashed to comprehend anything, he kept insisting I keep it “Cause you’re such a great guy, Mikee.” I hated to be called Mikee. I quietly switched the $50 for a $20. $20 was a lot of money in 1973 and I was probably wrong in keeping that much, but hey, what the hell.
All in all, driving for Tube City taxi was, in the vernacular of the times, “a real trip.” I was a young man at a particularly interesting point in history – both mine and the world’s – the fading of the Age of Aquarius and the dawning of the rocking, drug-crazed, economic-shifting 70s. But unlike Harry Chapin’s song “The Taxi,” I did not discover that a particularly beautiful fare was an old girlfriend. However, as in that classic tune, I certainly did get stoned.