Nightshift in the Taxi
Recently, I read a book written by a retired Boston Detective, William C. Dwyer, titled “ON THE STROLL”. He devoted a chapter to the Charles Stuart murder which took place, I think in the late 80s. As it turned out, Charles had staged the murder of his pregnant wife one night in Roxbury after attending birthing classes, shooting his wife, and then himself. The Boston Police initially were led to believe Stuart and his wife were the victim of a robbery / murder, and developed a suspect named Willie Bennett. Stuart also picked Bennett out of a photo array and more or less pinned the phony robbery on Bennett. Bennet had a significant criminal history, and after arresting Bennet for unrelated crimes, the murder case fell apart. Stuart himself became the murder suspect and ultimately committed suicide.
However, that brutal murder caused a ton of racial tensions in the city between the black community and the Boston Police. You see, Stuart and his wife were white suburbanites, and Bennet was black. Many in the black community thought that the BPD acted with a heavy hand in that black neighborhood, and did so because the victims were white. I won’t get into those dynamics now, other than to say that I believe the Boston Police Investigators acted in good faith. Many disagree. Suffice it to say that the case became one of the more notorious murder cases in Boston’s recent history. Late one night, several years before he was a suspect in the Charles Stuart case, I crossed paths with Willie Bennet. Or, maybe I should say I crossed his path and came upon the bloody carnage he left behind.
I may have mentioned somewhere along the way, that I once drove a taxi in Boston. I did so off and on, both part time and full time starting in 1974 and I gave it up for good around 1983. I got my hackney license from the Boston Police in 1974. At that time, to drive a taxi in Boston, you had to pass a background check and pass a written test in order to get the license. A friend of mine was driving a taxi in Boston at that time, and he kind of talked me into it. Since I am originally from Boston and very familiar with several Boston neighborhoods, I decided to give it a try.
The first owner I drove for owned about 20 taxicabs and ran them out of his garage located on West Second St. in South Boston. He belonged to the Independent Taxi Operators Association (ITOA or to most drivers, simply the TO) which consisted of about 700 taxis at the time. As a member, he painted his cabs in the association colors and we answered radio calls all over the city and did various package and charge work for numerous companies.
One thing I liked about the TO was, no matter where in the city I dropped a fare off, I did not have to go back to where I came from “deadhead” or without a passenger. If, for example, I picked up a job in Dorchester and took it to Brighton, I could just stay in Brighton and answer radio calls. I think that was the only company that was truly city wide. All the other companies worked in certain neighborhoods within the city, none being city wide.
A couple of other details about driving a cab in Boston in the 70s and 80s. There were two shifts, 4 to 4. That is you either drove from 4AM until 4PM, or 4PM till 4AM. Initially, I worked days on weekends, while working my jobs at Cumberland Farms and occasionally as a security guard at the Boston Globe.
The first day I ever drove a taxi, I showed up at the garage on W 2nd Street at about 330 AM. It was a Saturday morning, and I was told that not all night drivers worked till 4, so if I came in early and the night guy in the Taxi I was assigned to “put up”early, there was a chance I could get out earlier and get a jump start on my day shift.
So, the guy who had my taxi that Friday night, rolls into the garage about 345 AM. I notice right away that there are two bullet holes in the windshield. The garage man asked the driver what happened, and the driver nonchalantly answers by saying “they were sniping again last night in Columbia Point”. The garage man nodded sympathetically, as if this was no big deal. The driver goes on to explain that he knew he never should have taken that last job into Columbia Point, but he made the mistake of thinking, well, one more job before I turn in.
Now for those of you not familiar, Columbia Point was a section of land that juts out into the bay between Dorchester and South Boston. Some time in the 1950s, a pretty big public housing project was built there, and by the mid 70s it had become a crime infested, filthy neighborhood consisting of a deadly maze of pathways, roof tops and passageways connecting numerous five or six story buildings.
Making matters worse, there was only one way in and one way out of those projects from Morrissey Blvd, and the Columbia Rd Traffic Circle. Most cab drivers, both black and white, tried desperately to avoid those projects. Cab drivers were often shot at randomly (as well as the police) and drivers were often robbed and beaten at gun point. I personally knew one female driver that was raped when she was pulled out of her cab there by a mob.
The TO had some great accounts nearby, and they included the Boston Globe, Channel 56 and Boston College High School. However, the TO sent all those calls off the cab stand located at the “A building” or Administrative building of the projects. Some of the black drivers were brave enough to sit at the A building hoping to get a call or package run from one of those businesses. But most of us avoided going into Columbia Point like I tried to avoid Sadr City when I was in Iraq.
That first morning, I had to wait for a different taxi for my day shift, as the one that I was scheduled to drive had to be taken out of service to repair the windshield. But, that morning, I got the idea that driving a Taxi in Boston could be a dicey proposition.
Eventually, as time went on, I experimented, working different parts of the city, learning my way around certain neighborhoods that I wasn’t familiar with such as Jamaica Plain, Allston and Brighton. That first morning I was listening to the taxi radio, and the busiest cab stand where the majority of calls were being dispatched from was at the corner of Morton St. and Blue Hill Ave, in Mattapan, in front of a bar called the Old Brown Jug. So, I headed there. It was in a black neighborhood, and I certainly got many strange looks from both the black cab drivers that played that stand, and, whenever a black customer got into my cab, when they realized I was white. They were certainly startled and sometimes dismayed. But, I didn’t care. Money is money, right?
Eventually, I found that I enjoyed working nights much more that I did working days. For one thing, it was easier to navigate the city at night. Plus, I liked being part of what I’ll call the “pulse” of the city or the street scene at night. Of course, working nights had some drawbacks, mainly crime. During my time roaming the nocturnal streets of Boston I have had many close calls, saw many weird things. Over the years I knew taxi drivers who were shot, stabbed and murdered while driving a cab.
Sometime around 1980, I can’t remember for sure exactly what year it was, I found myself, by choice, working a 4PM to 4 AM, which was pretty common for me those days. I was driving for a cab association called Red and White Taxi. I remember it was probably a Monday night, very quiet, both on the street and on the taxi radio. I was cruising around the Back Bay, near the Prudential Center hoping to pick off a radio call or possibly get flagged down by someone.
Suddenly, the quiet of the radio was broken by a scream, a sound almost animal like in nature. I slowed down, as the dispatcher tried to interpret who was yelling, what he was yelling, and where that driver was. As it turned out, a driver in the 812 cab, if I remember correctly, was screaming, begging really, for help. As far as I could figure, he had been robbed and shot. The driver was calling from around Parker St, possibly Terrace St. near the projects off of Roxbury Crossing. I wasn’t too far away, so I headed there at a high speed, not stopping for red lights as the streets were pretty much deserted. I found the taxi in the middle of the street, stopped at a wierd angle, and I saw several doors open, including the front passenger seat door. I pulled up behind the cab, got out and looked cautiously around. No Police yet. No other taxis. No one at all in the area. Needless to say, the scene was quite eerie, especially in light of the call for help I had just heard over the radio.
I carefully approached the cab and the open passenger door. What I saw shocked me. In fact, up until this week, when I read Dwyer’s book, I thought I had been wrong about what I first saw that night in that cab. However this book I was reading confirmed my initial observations. To add to my initial shock, this was before I became a police officer, and before I had joined the Army, so I hadn’t seen too much carnage in my lifetime up to that point.
I looked inside the cab, and I saw the driver trying to exit the cab across the front seat through the passenger door. He cried to me, and I’ll never forget his plea, he begged “Please take me out of here. I’m dying and I don’t want to die here.” As he made his plea to me, in what really amounted to a dying declaration and last wish, I recoiled in horror. The driver seemed to be cut in two pieces! His torso was crawling across the front seat, while his legs were still under the steering wheel with, with his pants unbuckled as though some unworldly entity consisting of only legs inside of pants had been driving the taxi.
As the driver tried to pull himself out of the taxi using only his arms, and after I got over my initial shock, I knelt down by the front seat and tried to calm the driver, whom I had never met before. I could hear sirens off in the distance finally, and as they got closer and closer I tried to comfort the driver by telling him to stay put, help would be here in a few minutes. As I examined the drivers torso, I saw he was bleeding from what I thought were two bullet holes in his stomach. Reddish yellow fluid oozed from the two newly man made orifices. The driver explained through his pain as he believed he was dying, that the guy who robbed him shot him for no reason. The driver told me he did as instructed but the guy shot him anyway.
After what seemed an eternity, the ambulance arrived and many police cars. I stood back and let the professionals do their work. The driver was transported to nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and he actually did survive. The investigation continued and a guy name Willie Bennett was ultimately arrested and convicted for this robbery / shooting. He spent six years in prison. However, the details of the robbery were pretty grisly. Since I was also a taxi driver, and I was pretty friendly with the owner of that taxi I soon learned the following details:
The driver / victim picked up his assailant near by and was instructed to drop him at the nearby projects, on a quiet, deserted street. I should note that during that time, the rules and regulations for all Boston Taxicabs included, among other things, each had to contain a bullet proof plastic screen that separated the driver from the passengers and each had to be approved by the Boston Police Hackney Carriage Division, which was the licensing entity for the Boston taxi industry. Mine was made of Lexan, and it had a slot to do business through without opening. However, the driver could leave the partition open, as I often did in order to have more pleasant interactions with my customers, which obviously defeats the purpose of the shield in the first place.
In this drivers case, he was working bad neighborhoods, and he always kept his shield closed and locked. The flaw in the concept, as my new friend discovered, was that the shield was only from the top of the front seat to the roof. The back of the drivers seat had a metal plate on the back, as the driver discovered, that was not bullet proof.
After being directed to this deserted location, the passenger pulled a pistol and ordered the driver to give him all his money. The driver, understandably fearing for his life, complied, handing over his nights earnings right away. But then, the robber added a demand. He ordered the driver to remove his running shoes and hand them over. Since the driver was a double amputee, (which the author confirmed in the book I was reading) you may well imagine that removing his footwear was a problem, while sitting in the drivers seat, never mind while having a gun pointed at him. When the driver was unable to comply fast enough, the shooter fired three rounds at the driver. The bullets penetrated the seat and the two bullet holes I thought I was looking at in the drivers stomach were actually exit wounds. Later, during my police career, I learned to be able to discern entrance wounds from exit bullet wounds.
The driver himself was an immigrant trying to scratch out a living for his family driving a taxi at night. The bullets caused massive internal damage, and during a long recovery, with no job benefits, his family was in a bad way.
The owner of that taxi, eventually set up a garage at the corner of Gallivan Blvd and Washington Street in Dorchester. His name was Frank, and he was from somewhere in the Caribbean. If memory serves me correct, his brother was murdered shortly thereafter, also during a robbery, but that may not have happened in Boston. As time went on, they all left the States with their families because their attempts at chasing the American dream were literally destroyed and wrought with tragedy.
For me, it became one of several memorable nights. Nights when I tried not to become a victim myself, and nights when I witnessed some of the violence that occurred regularly in the Taxi business in the City of Boston, back in the late 70s and early 80s.