Cabbing It

photo by Eric Tadsen

"Most of the people we pick up [during the day] are going to see a doctor, or coming back from a doctor. At night, it’s all drunks. But bless their hearts, I don’t know what we’d do without them!"

Career cab driver Bruce Algozin, 64, isn’t kidding. There’s a reason he’s been with Badger Cab Company since 1978: "It’s never boring," as he said. "I never watch the clock and never know who the next person will be. It gets under your skin."

Algozin fits the description in the old Madison joke about ultra-educated students driving cabs. While he never earned a Ph.D., he did graduate in 1974 with English and philosophy degrees, then dabbled in grad school for a brief time. "Driving a cab was always much more real than sitting around a classroom," he said. "The teachers who were teaching just seemed detached from reality."

For a while, he tried his hand at writing, and the flexibility inherent in being a cab driver afforded him that pursuit. In fact, he even wrote for Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game, but in the end chose life in the trenches over fantasy. It was all about the people he’d meet, he explained. "This is reality."

It’s 2 p.m., and Algozin’s #94 Badger Cab has been cruising the city’s streets since 10 a.m. He’ll work until six, but his workweek is entirely flexible. He can choose to work five days a week, or one day a week, and typically eight or 12-hour shifts. "I’m not really an employee of Badger Cab, I’m an independent contractor," he said. Each day, at the end of his shift, he totals his take for the day, then pays the company’s take, on average $150 a day, which covers the vehicle’s maintenance, gas, and insurance. The remainder is his to keep.

"A driver can make $100 a day or more," he explains. It’s really up to them. Algozin has made enough to put three children through UW-Madison, but there are times when the sweat on his brow isn’t just because of the outside temperature. "Some summer nights have been really painful," he said, but on the other side of the spectrum, the best cab-driving weather is when it’s 10 below zero and streets are clear, when cars don’t start and people aren’t out walking.

As cab companies go, Badger Cab is an anomaly. First, every vehicle is propane-powered, and has been since 1980. The result is lower fuel costs to the company, and cabs that run cleaner. [A tank of propane is good for about 200 miles, according to Algozin.] Second, it’s ride-share philosophy, in place since 1946, according to Badger account representative Kurt Schneider, is the only one of its kind in the nation. Contrary to metered cabs, which carry one person or group to a single destination and run a meter whether moving or not, Badger Cab riders will share the cab with strangers heading to different locations. It’s a more efficient method of transporting people, explained Algozin, and makes his job much more interesting.

That’s primarily why Algozin enjoys the job so much. "People ride in this cab who don’t know each other," he said. "You might meet new friends. But you also might sit next to someone who smells bad, or meet a sociopath along the way, but you also have to have an underlying faith in humanity and believe that people are decent. For the most part, they are."

Not that he hasn’t gotten stiffed. He has. He’s also had a kid shove a pistol in his face. "He wasn’t in the car, so getting away was pretty easy." Chalk it all up to the cost of doing business.

The dispatchers keep Badger’s wheels turning. For a Badger Cab driver, the frenetic chirping emanating from the vehicle’s radio affects their financial well-being, since every call must be assigned in a unique system.

Several times an hour, a dispatcher calls out a series of routes representing the ride requests received, such as, "Woodman’s East to South Park; North Gammon to State." The drivers nearest the routes bid for the assignments by responding with their current location and direction, and the dispatcher, in split-second timing, assigns the fare to a specific cab, keeping a mental note to dole out the assignments fairly, to drivers who circle the city endlessly in hopes of being in the right place at the right time.

"It becomes an intellectual exercise," Algozin explains, "like a crossword puzzle. The radio is the constant key, and you always try to be somewhere where the calls will come in." The goal, he said, is to try to fill up the cab. "I don’t always think of the quickest route," he admitted, "I think of the route with the most potential."

Just then, a call comes in to take "Steve" from his job at the Unitarian Church on University Bay Drive to his east side home. Algozin knows Steve. He’s transported the 26-year old several times before; his name is on a list of mostly ambulatory fares the company handles through an arrangement with Madison Metro. The drivers keep the list at-the-ready.

Steve says goodbye to his job coach, then jumps in the back seat. "Is it snowing out?" he asks. "No, just some light rain," Algozin replies, just before a call comes in requesting a package pick up and delivery from the stadium to an address downtown. Algozin takes the call and delivers the package. Steve, meanwhile, appears to enjoy the diversion. Once in Steve’s driveway, Algozin writes up a $14 ticket and stashes it above his visor. The city will reimburse Badger Cab for this ride.

Algozin said package deliveries are less frequent these days. "We used to do a lot of package deliveries, before the Internet. It used to be that graphic designers had to send proofs out to clients before printing, but that’s no longer true."

And that’s not all that’s changed. "Madison has changed dramatically," he said. "The UW keeps growing … When I was in school, people did a lot of drugs, but they didn’t drink a lot. Now, alcohol rules."

It certainly rules on the weekends, when Algozin’s daily average of about 20 fares per day can jump to between 30 and 35 per night. "If I don’t pick up fares or work nonstop, I’m falling behind," he said.

Just then, a call comes in for "Shiela," and Algozin drives to Woodman’s East where she’s waiting. He loads several bags of groceries into the trunk, drives her home, then carries the bags to her door. Another eight dollars.

Badger Cab is unique in that it operates on a zone system, and there are 253 zones in the city of Madison. Fares start at $3, plus $1.25 for each zone crossed enroute. Drivers are equipped with books to help determine correct charges, but Algozin has certain routes etched in his mind. Through the years, he’s transported the U.S. Olympic Hockey team, Frank Zappa and his entourage, and even Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones when the Monkees were in town for a three-day stint. (Seriously. The Monkees? For three days?)

Another call comes in, and Algozin heads to an apartment complex on the northeast side. "Edward," (name changed), elderly and withered by the years, shakily opens the door, tosses his cane on the seat, and climbs in. A pleasant-enough fellow, he rattles off an address on East Washington Avenue. Algozin checks it again and heads out without a word.

The cab pulls up in front of The Geisha House, a self-described "adult entertainment bath house." Total fare, $5.50. Edward hands Algozin a ten dollar bill. "Give me three back," he says, as he reaches for his cane and inches out of the cab. Algozin looks at me and I at him. We silently wonder about Edward’s life history as he shuffles toward the door. Where did he come from? What did he do? And what brought him here?

"I’m not here to judge people," Algozin pipes up, breaking the silence as we drive away. "I’m not a cop. This is a public place."

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