A Class for Cab Drivers

January 7, 2014 AT 3:20 PM

By Mitch Smith

A man on the sidewalk tries to hail a taxi. He's wearing lots of jewelry. His pants are sagging. If you're a cabdriver looking for a fare, do you give him a ride?

"It's a judgment call," said one student in the back row of this class for prospective taxi drivers. "I would be judgmental. You've got to be careful. Cabdrivers have lost their life in Chicago." "But can you, as a public chauffeur, not pick him up?" replied Kirkland Burke, a former Chicago cabbie who now teaches future taxi drivers at Olive-Harvey College.

The students muttered "no" in unison, a correct but reluctant answer. Burke, who grew up on the city's South Side, decided to drill the point home. Safety is foremost, he said, but drivers have to pick up whoever hails their cab and go wherever they ask when the taxi's for-hire sign is on.

"Your own personal beliefs, feelings, even experiences _ you have to get beyond those if you're going to drive a cab," Burke told the class after some students expressed concern that the hypothetical customer might be a gang member or criminal.

Burke's classroom had the diversity of a United Nations summit, with 25 students from 13 countries representing every permanently inhabited continent except Australia.

Gabriela Voicu sat toward the front of the room. Some of her friends, fellow Romanians, drive cabs. When she decided it was time to leave the restaurant business, they suggested she join them. By working nights in a taxi, the 26-year-old figured it would be easier to eventually study graphic design in college.

Voicu, who grew up in a village outside Bucharest and came to the U.S. more than five years ago, said her parents didn't have a car when she was a child. It wasn't until after arriving in America that she got a driver's license.

Now Voicu was training to be a professional driver, entering a profession with tremendous racial diversity but very little gender balance. In fiscal year 2013, data show 87 women and 1,155 men enrolled in the class to become Chicago cabbies. Voicu would soon be working the night shift in America's third-largest city, picking up strangers and driving wherever they told her to go.

But before Voicu or her classmates could wait at a taxi stand in the Loop or haul a tourist to O'Hare, they'd have to pass the rigorous two-week City Colleges of Chicago course that's part law school, part geography bee and part etiquette class.

Some of the curriculum is obvious. Drivers must know, for example, which one-way streets go which direction. They also must master regulations for service animals (they're always allowed), long trips (for some suburban destinations, the fare increases outside of Chicago city limits) and payment (credit cards, the bane of many a driver's existence, must be accepted).

The class also stresses safety and covers less intuitive parts of the job. Though other motorists can talk on cellphones using hands-free devices while driving, cabbies cannot. And when waiting at a cab stand, customers are allowed to pick whichever taxi they like, even if it's not first in line.

One student, Samson Tecleghiorghis, said he spent weeks before the class studying the city's geographical quirks. Cabbies must know which direction Van Buren Street runs in the Loop (west) and where Dearborn Street turns from one-way to two-way (at Walton Street on the Near North Side).

"It's difficult," said Tecleghiorghis, originally from the African nation of Eritrea. "In downtown, it's very hard. It takes time." But it's time well spent, said Burke, who stressed to his students the importance of knowing the location of prominent hotels and tourist attractions.

"If someone gets in a cab, especially downtown, and says they're going to the Hilton, they don't expect you to pull out a GPS," Burke said in an interview. "If you don't know where City Hall is in Chicago, you shouldn't have a taxi license."

When talking about geography in class, Burke asked which students had been in Chicago at least five years. Voicu proudly raised her hand. Then the lecturer said the students who had been in town the longest _ and who thought they knew the most about the city's streets _ were the most likely to fail that section, victims of their own confidence.

"Some of them have the attitude, 'Why am I in this class? I've lived here all my life,' " Burke said. "I do that to explain to them that you may well know the city, but for the test you have to know it the way the city wants you to know it." And learning Chicago the city's way requires mastering the street numbering grid, memorizing intersections in the Loop and knowing which tourist attractions sit close to which cross streets.

There's money to be made for those willing to master the entire city's streets, said Joanne Ivory, Olive-Harvey's associate dean of college to careers, who oversees the taxi program.

More than 2,100 students enrolled in the program in 2013, a 10 percent increase over 2012, according to data provided by City Colleges of Chicago. More than 1,200 drivers were licensed by the city between January and November.

On a foggy Tuesday evening in Chicago's Mayfair neighborhood, Voicu arrived at the Dispatch Taxi Affiliation garage to pick up the 2011 Nissan Altima hybrid she leases seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.

It had been more than a month since Voicu finished Olive-Harvey's taxi program _ she said she got a 96 percent on her final exam _ and about three weeks since her first shift in the cab.

She looked around the parking lot to see if her car's daytime driver had returned early, as he often does, in hopes of being able to get downtown in time to pick up a commuter.

He wasn't back yet, so Voicu waited in the parking lot, chatting with fellow drivers in both English and Romanian. She held a cup of hot tea in one hand, but was careful not to drink too quickly, lest she require a sympathetic Mag Mile doorman to allow her to use a hotel restroom.

In her first days on the job, Voicu was involved in a minor wreck, mooned by an unruly customer (whose beverage of choice was presumably not tea) and had missed more than a couple turns. Voicu said she learned plenty in the class, but there were other lessons that only the streets could teach.

"It's very nerve-wracking," she said. "It's more than I expected. It's harder and more intense."

She'd driven a few wild passengers, including a young man who tried to kiss her and another she called the police on after he failed to pay his fare. Still, Voicu said she had yet to feel unsafe in her cab. Voicu and another female cabbie on the night shift check on each other with an iPhone app that shows where they are.

As the shifts passed and she gained familiarity with the Loop's labyrinth of one-ways, Voicu said, she started making fewer wrong turns and easing into a routine.

Back at the garage, one driver returning from her day shift called Voicu "strong and brave" for working nights. "And crazy," Voicu added jokingly.

With that, she headed over to the Altima, put her tea in the cup holder and prepared to find the evening's first fare.

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