In the summer of 1974, I was 22 years old, and driving cab in Anchorage, Alaska. It was an "interesting" job. Interesting enough, in fact, that I later received a couple of "A's" in my creative writing classes at the Anchorage Community college simply by recounting true experiences I'd had behind the wheel of the Big Yellow Taxi. Including this one.
Anyway, early one afternoon in August of 1974, I was driving Yellow Cab #12, which we called "the old one-two," on the 6 am to 6 pm shift. It was Saturday, and had been a slow day. "Spenard One-Two, Spenard One-Two," The scratchy voice of the dispatcher called through my radio, "Spenard Motel."
"Ten-Four," I answered in my best radio voice. No reason to let any of the other cabbies know I was only a punk kid in my third month of driving.
The Spenard motel was not really a place for tourists. It was generally a "residence" motel for those who were not yet able to swing the ridiculous rents that were charged for even the most humble of efficiency apartments in this second year of Alaska Pipeline construction.
Anyway, I knew exactly where it was, and did not figure I would have any of the night shift problems of loud, or worse, nauseous, drunks at a little after one pm, even on Saturday, so I rolled on in to the motel's drive and sat for a minute, waiting for my fare.
The cab companies in Anchorage used a color code in those days, to give the dispatcher an easy read of their location and readiness for a new call.
"Red" was for an empty cab, and when you called that in, as "One-two, red, Spenard," the dispatcher would respond with your car number, and your position on the waiting list, as in "One-two, three Spenard." The city was divided into about six sections, and each driver was placed on the board as to where he was, and what order he would receive a call. One of those districts was Spenard.
Spenard had been a tiny separate town, way back when, until Anchorage's urban sprawl had overtaken it in the 1950's. Spenard was not the best neighborhood in Anchorage, and had, in fact, lent its name to a very informal form of divorce, usually involving a firearm and a futile attempt to hide a body.
"Green" meant you had a fare in the cab, whether dispatched, or a "flag." In the winter, cruising the bus stops was a great way to get flags during the day, as someone who had missed their bus had little desire to stand for twenty minutes in twenty below zero weather, waiting for the next bus. My very first day driving a cab, only a couple of months before this day, I had gone out with no instruction, and reversed the codes. I think the long-time cabbies are still amazed at the newbie who was "green" all over the city, and still made no money at all.
"Orange" was the one we all listened for. That was the code for a cabbie in trouble. It might be an accident. It might be a drunken fool screaming and refusing to pay. It might be a cabbie who had been shot by an armed robber, and was praying someone would get to him before he bled out. Both cab companies in Anchorage monitored each others frequencies, and an orange call from a Checker driver would be put out both by the Checker Cab dispatcher, and the Yellow Cab dispatcher, and the closest cabbie would be the first one on the scene. Color just did not matter.
There were too many of the wrong people in Anchorage, then. End of the roaders. People who had come thinking that anyone could get hired on the pipeline, and make thousands of dollars every week. People who had sold everything to get there, and found that they just did not have enough to live on.
So, armed robberies of cabbies had been increasing, but only at night.
So far, anyway.
The guy who walked out of the Spenard motel and climbed into the front seat of my cab was an average looking man of about 35 or so. He was average build, and average height, wearing a long grey coat, and his black hair was greased straight back off his forehead. "Head out the Seward Highway," he said, in a completely average voice.
"OK," I responded, and wheeled the old Plymouth out from under the covered portico as I flicked the meter over to "occupied." "One-two, green Spenard," I told the dispatcher. "One-two, green," she responded in her tired voice.
The Old Seward Highway had been overgrown with businesses and neighborhoods, and going that way was not at all unusual for a cabbie. In fact, it meant a pretty good trip, usually, as the mileage was never short on that end of town.
In 1974, before the sudden realization that nicotine and second hand smoke were playthings of the devil, it was a rare cab that was non-smoking, at least in Anchorage, Alaska. This was the Last Frontier, after all. So, after a couple of miles, when my fare asked "mind if I smoke?" I said "no, not at all. In fact, I will too."
I reached into my pocket for a Camel filter, and pushed in the car lighter as my fare unbuttoned his coat and brought out his own smoke. When the lighter popped, I lit mine, then held it out for him to light his. That is when I saw the butt of a large revolver standing out through the opening in his coat.
I gulped a few times, then asked casually, I think, "So, where you heading?"
"Just out the highway," he said. I don't think he had any idea I had seen the gun in his coat.
I kept driving, and thinking furiously. We were now on the New Seward Highway, where there is nothing, except miles of nothing, between Anchorage and Seward. The only thing I knew was out there was a place called Potter's Marsh, part of a migratory bird sanctuary, and just full of deep pools suitable for hiding a body. Finally I said "Well, if we're heading out of town, I've got to call in and let them know where I'm going."
"OK, go ahead."
I licked my lips, picked up my mike and announced "One-two, orange, heading south on the Seward Highway." There was no response. We were already out of town and heading into the valley. I realized we were out of radio range. I thought even faster.
I was not a night driver. I did not have a 12 inch Crescent wrench or foot long section of rebar beside my seat on the floor. I had nothing except a useless radio and an ever-increasing feeling of fear.
The fare smiled at me.
After a few more miles he said, "OK, there's a road coming on the right. Turn in there."
There had been no traffic for the last 10 minutes, at least. No one at all to see where Yellow Cab number 12 was going.
"Yeah," he said, "here, it's about a half mile in."
The things that flashed through my mind were incoherent. I thought of slamming on the brakes and making a run for it. I thought of running the cab off the road into a tree. I thought of dying.
As we came around a last corner, there was a sign. "Potter Marsh Rifle and Pistol Range."
"Ahh," he said with a smile, "my friend is here. You can drop me by that red Chevy truck."
I bit back a whimper.
He opened the door, and looked at the meter. It read $28.50. He handed me 2 twenties and got out. "See ya later, guy," he said, and closed the cab door.
As he walked toward his friends truck, I sat shaking. After a few moments, or maybe hours, I put the car in gear, and headed back out toward the highway. At least I did not throw up on the drive back into the city.
You know, before then, I don't think I ever realized just how beautiful the mountains and the sky were around Anchorage, Alaska.