The news still hasn't quite sunk in: Benways Taxi is no more. In the blink of an eye, a full 20 percent of the Burlington taxi fleet — some 40 cabs — has vanished from the city streets.
In the early '80s, I drove for Benways for about a year before leaving to launch my own taxi company. Back then, Benways' taxi garage was located at the corner of Archibald and North Winooski, now an auto-repair shop specializing in transmissions. I worked the day shift — 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. If a 12-hour workday seems impossibly long, it is, though fairly standard for the cab industry. In the winter, this meant arriving at work before dawn and cashing out at dusk. For that year, my life was driving cab, eating and sleeping. I couldn't do it now, but could and did then.
For reasons I could never grasp, city regulations at that time prohibited the hailing of cabs, a prohibition that continued well into the '90s. In other words, a cabbie was forbidden to pick up random customers on the street. (The only exception was if you were parked at the taxi stand on the corner of St. Paul and Main, and even then it may have been technically illegal.) So the taxi business back then was almost entirely call-up service. We Benways drivers were dispatched from the garage; we completed the call; we returned to the garage, lining up for the next mission — first come, first dispatched.
While awaiting calls, the drivers chatted/gossiped endlessly — visiting in the cabs, outside the cabs, in the office. The dispatchers were all, or mostly, relatives of the owner, Paul Robar. (In the mid-'70s, a 20-year-old Paul had bought the company from Earl Benway and kept the name.) The dispatchers were a crusty bunch, but good for a few laughs if you caught them at the right moment. The only other entertainment between calls was the Pac-Man machine, the one and only video game I've ever really gotten into. I can still hear the Pac-Man "ghosts" crunching in my dreams — Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.
Every cabbie carried a supply of coins to make change, and I may still have the white rectangular box I used to carry my nickels, dimes and quarters. The fares involved coins — $1.15, $2.35, $3.50, etc. — and tips of a quarter were not unusual, a full dollar a generous surprise. By the 2000s, the natural rise in prices rendered coins essentially superfluous as the customers routinely began to round off to the higher dollar and then some; now, if I have to make coin change once a month, that's a lot. But I distinctly recall adding up the tip money at the end of my shift back then, often 10 to 20 dollars in jingling silver. (What is it about metal that feels "realer" than paper money? The weight? And don't even get me started on Bitcoin.)
Having recently migrated from New York City, I might not have been the best cabdriver, but I was hands down the fastest. (There's a reason for the phrase "a New York minute.") I've since slowed down (some), but in my early Vermont years, it felt like every other car was moving in slow motion, 33 rpm, while I sliced through traffic at 78. In any event, I was an intense young man, and that's how I went about the job — herding customers in and out of the cab with alacrity and speeding back to dispatch. Most every day I had the largest cash-out, prompting one dispatcher — Paul Sr., the owner's father — to suggest that I "slow down and give the other guys a chance." Yeah, like that was ever going to happen.
Three years ago, Paul Robar Jr. suffered a grievous heart attack while driving down North Avenue; a week later, he was gone. At the time, I felt the loss. Over decades, Paul had built up the largest taxi fleet Vermont had ever seen, and he knew more about the industry than all the rest of us put together. His company had employed many hundreds of local people; for more than a few, the job was a lifesaver. I include myself on that list; I was on a downward swing when Paul hired me, and I'm forever grateful for that.
Wanda Robar, Paul's widow, ably carried on with the company in her husband's absence. Fighting through her grief, she continued Paul's legacy of innovation and creativity in the taxi industry. Last month, she made the tough decision to liquidate, and I could only imagine how tough it was. It's notable that she couldn't find a buyer. In the press, Wanda cited large insurance-rate increases as the determinant factor, but I wonder if, in the end, Benways wasn't done in by the flood of competition.
Beginning in the mid-'90s, Burlington began to welcome groups of refugees from all over the world. Personally, I think this was a well-planned and well-executed civic policy, one grounded in compassion. The influx reinvigorated the town with an explosion of energy, and the Queen City is all the better for it. And it often seems like every single new immigrant has opened a taxi company. We have a Tibetan cab, a Somali cab, a Bosnian cab, an Iraqi cab, a Cambodian cab — a United Nations on wheels.
The result has been a massive expansion of the local taxi fleet. I think this was behind Benways' demise: not one big injury, but death by a thousand cuts. Or how about this metaphor? Benways was bitten to death by ducks.
So I've lost my backup. When I got a call I couldn't handle — a category including all early-morning airport runs — I would tell my customers, "Call Benways." To be honest, their service was never great, though it equaled or surpassed that of the other taxi fleets. In truth, I probably recommended them all those years primarily out of affinity.
Benways and its iconic logo — the white, black and red shield reading, "Dependable Transportation" — have now gone the way of Carbur's, Magram's and countless other local businesses of the past. A company is like a person — it's born, lives and dies. Benways is gone but will not be forgotten. Not by me.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.