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The Too-Smart Second Banana
Old-time Chicago Skepticism in Space City

By John Troesser

Back in the mid 1980s, there used to be shuttle bus service that ran from the Houston Intercontinental Airport to the 5000 block of Richmond Avenue. The stand-alone building was in the middle of a parking lot just west of the 610 Loop. It was long gone by the mid 1990s.

The building had seating for 20 passengers. It had large glass doors and two drive-through lanes for arriving and departing buses or courtesy vans from various hotels. Although there was a battery of telephones inside the air-conditioned building, they also had a single phone installed outside. The building was locked at 10 P.M. and someone somewhere had thoughtfully added the outside phone – considering the plight of a stranded passenger – or a patron of the nearby strip who came out of a restaurant or theater to find their car battery dead.

It was a ten dollar trip to the airport by bus (with one stop at Greenway Plaza) versus a direct trip by taxi which was $23.50.

Alongside the building were spaces assigned for six cabs and when a bus arrived, departing passengers would usually empty the stand. A “good” trip from these passengers might go to Sugar Land ($8-10) but the worst trips only went a few blocks to the Houston Oaks or the Galleria Plaza Hotel – less than $3.

Businessmen returning home to Sugar Land would always ask for a receipt. Being considerate of the driver’s time, the polite ones would say: “Please don’t bother filling it out” while others would simply say “I need a receipt – and leave it blank.”

Cab drivers around the world share one trait. While the law of averages says that roughly 50% of them may have been born at night – I can assure you, none of them were born last night. They knew a trip from the airport to Sugar Land was around $40 by taxi, so deducting the $10 for the bus and the $8-10 cab ride to finish the trip, a scheming fare could easily submit a $40 receipt plus a $5 tip and not arouse any suspicion from their company’s accounting department.

Somewhere during the course of one of these drives, there would be some friendly negotiation which usually resulted in a blank yellow receipt being exchanged for a green engraved portrait of Alexander Hamilton.

The drivers at “500 Richmond” as it was known, were a very loose confederacy. They used to pitch quarters between buses, in the same way newsboys used to pitch pennies back in the 1930s. In fact it may have been the very last practice of that mildest form of gambling.

The dominant personality of the crew at 5000 Richmond was Alex. Alex was the senior member at 65 and had the distinction of being one of very few drivers in Houston to be called by his name and not his taxi numbers. This was a respectful gesture by the other drivers – and please note I did not use the word “rare.”

While there was no real camaraderie between drivers, there was a certain amount of professionalism among drivers who operated from a specific location. Alex had tenure and was more or less treated as the crusty old professor of “taxiology”.

A transplanted New Yorker via Miami Beach (with the attitude and accent to prove it) Alex always pronounced the word Galleria as “Gonorrhea” and when he would repeat a fare’s destination to them. It was amusing to see the startled reactions. Alex griped and grouched about just about everything; but if you managed to make him laugh – he dropped the role and gave you a conspiratorial smile – but you had to be quick to see it.

Over the course of a fifteen hour day, a driver could catch one or two airport trips from 5000 Richmond – either from someone who had just missed a departing bus, or someone who was in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait. The drivers at 5000 Richmond were masochistic and enjoyed the magnified suspense the terminal provided.

Most of the time business people were dropped off by coworkers and there was that suspenseful moment when a panicked person emerged from a private car and either approached the door to the waiting area or ran directly to a cab. The drivers, wags that they were, had paraphrased the then-popular song “Another One Bites the Dust” to “Another One Takes The Bus.”

One night, the terminal ticket seller came out and told us that the courtesy van of the Adam’s Mark Hotel had broken down. The hotel had called him and asked him to relay the message to the drivers. The hotel would pay $6 for any taxi filling in for their broken van. I thought it was a pretty smart solution – even though the hotel paid by a voucher instead of cash.

That evening, if arriving passengers milled around for more than a few minutes, the drivers would ask if anyone was going to the Adam’s Mark. The drivers explained the situation and after being assured it was at no cost to them, the people would get in for a trip to “Deep Westheimer” – as the hotel’s neighborhood was then known.

In Taxi jargon, the opposite of deep was not shallow, but “short.” Short Westheimer would be within Houston’s encircling 610 Loop. Westheimer Road ran 20 miles from end to end – and probably still does.

But while people came and went, one short, strangely-familiar looking passenger simply paced back and forth, never getting more that ten feet from his suitcase. He looked at his watch every few minutes and tried using the pay phone that had been out-of-order for weeks.

Alex, in his deadpan manner asked if the man was going to Adam’s Mark and the man said “Yes, but I’m waiting for their courtesy van.” He was then informed that it wouldn’t be coming and after hearing the news, he smiled at Alex and said, “That’s okay, I’ll just wait anyway.”

Alex shrugged. He was the only man I knew who could shrug with a New York accent.

The drivers continued to pitch quarters and when a winner would approach the curb to collect his winnings, he might speak to the man, saying “Really, the van is broken and the hotel will pay us.” The man would give a patronizing smile and say again that he would wait. The drivers exchanged glances.

Now that we heard heard him speak, his voice was familiar, too. One of the drivers asked another sotto voce, “Isn’t that the guy from the TV show?”
“Yeah, that really narrows it down,” the other driver said sarcastically.
Which TV show?”
“You know, Dick Van Dyke!”
“Yeah, that’s it!”

Then a third driver (who had dropped off at Adam’s Mark) confirmed that he had seen the show card at the hotel’s front desk:
“Appearing in the Lounge for Three Nights Only: Morey Amsterdam!”
The man heard the exchange, smiled and raised his hand as if to say “guilty as charged.”

It was already after ten and the last bus had dropped off only two passengers – one of which was going to Adam’s Mark. The driver explained the situation to the man and the passenger (obviously not as worldly-wise as Mr. Amsterdam), didn’t hesitate to get in the cab.

I took the other fare to Sugar Land and checked to make sure I had a receipt. The two remaining cabs drove off empty to either work the ship channel or take a nap until 2 a.m. when there would be a fifteen minute flurry of calls when the clubs closed. One last effort was made to convince Mr. Amsterdam his “ride” wouldn’t be coming, but it was to no avail.

Born in Chicago, Mr. Amsterdam had once worked in a speak-easy owned by Al Capone. He clearly “knew the score” and knew what was “up.” Clearly, something was going on and he wasn’t about to be taken advantage of.

I saw one of the drivers a week later and asked if he knew the end to the story. He said he had passed by later that night and was flagged down by Mr. Amsterdam. When they arrived at Adam’s Mark, “Buddy” opened his wallet to pay the driver what was on the meter. The driver then laughed and said: “You should’ve seen his face when I went to the front desk to get the voucher.”

© John Troesser
September 21, 2014 Column
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