The view from Terry Gibson's driver seat
by Hannah Fleming; illustration by Holly Pretsky
In Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” the cabbies eat at a restaurant called the Belmore Cafeteria at 28th Street and Park Avenue South, New York City. One scene depicts Robert DeNiro’s character, Travis, gathered there with his buddies. They sit around a dimly lit table crudely debriefing the day’s events.
One of the cabbies, known as Doughboy, asks, “Travis, you run all over town, don’t you? I mean you handle some pretty rough customers.”
This is the iconic American image of taxi driving: back-room deals and tough-as-nails New Yorkers who work late hours ferrying strangers. According to Terry Gibson, a taxi driver in Colorado Springs, this image is fairly accurate.
It’s 4:10 a.m. Gibson picks me up at the 7-Eleven on Nevada. Unlike Robert DeNiro’s character, he opens the door for me and graciously asks if I want any coffee before we start. Then he relayed preliminary pieces of his origins, so I could begin to put together the puzzle that is Terry Gibson. He’s originally from Chicago, just south of the city in Wheaton, Illinois. He has a tall frame, soft brown hair, and wears a sweater and glasses. I feel as though I’m in the presence of a beat poet or a college professor.
Gibson went to the Academy of Dramatic Arts, about a block away from the Belmore. “I went and hung out on the set for a while when they were filming,” he says. I am sitting in the passenger seat of Gibson’s cab, wondering about the connection. How did an actor from New York become a taxi driver in Colorado Springs? The answer: he’s done just about everything in between, from conservation work at Mile High Youth Core to working at the Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL. These days he also reviews plays and a writes a weekly column, “Taxi Driver,” for the Colorado Springs Independent.
He pauses, and turns on a light in the car for me while I take notes.
“Sounds as though you like to keep busy with lots of different things,” I say. Gibson’s speech has been cautious thus far—but if you let him talk long enough, the introvert gives way to his natural wit.
“My answer to that is if they’re buying it, I’m selling it. That sounds cynical and course in a way but I do need to keep busy or otherwise I fall back. Colorado’s been an interesting adjustment in that way.”
The driver glances at his screen listing all of the zones. He says he usually gets three to four passengers until six on his Saturday shifts, most of whom he takes to the airport. We haven’t gotten any calls yet, and stop at another convenience store. He says he’s become quite the “connoisseur” of the convenience store, and warns against the coffee at 7-Eleven while praising the consistency of product placement at Loaf N’ Jug.
Caffeinated and ready, we get a call that Gibson says will take us “off-line,” but “you learn what calls to take and what calls not to take.” We plug an address into the GPS, and drive on.
“Depending on which zone you go into, you can anticipate the kind of clients you’re going to get,” Gibson says. He later gives me a zone sheet to look at, marked into sections that make little sense to an untrained eye.
I soon learn that there isn’t too much difference between a trained eye and an untrained eye—as long as you pass your eye test and have a valid driver’s license, you’re cleared to pay the three to four hundred dollars for a Hack license (the license you need to drive a cab). The difference between the tenderfoot and the expert comes with knowing when and where to work: in Gibson’s words, “find where you’re most comfortable and where the money is.” After filling out paperwork and participating in two or so hours of training, you’re turned loose. Sink or swim.
Gibson refers to himself as “Bambi” when it comes to prostitutes, drug dealers, and felons. In a recent issue of the Independent, Gibson titled his column “When one door closes, another closes.” It’s about a woman he’s had in the cab. She is a sex worker in the Web Cam industry.
Suzannah, 38, went into the field because she had to. She is battling addiction and a prison record, and uses Craigslist as a way to find living arrangements and advertise her prostitution services. Gibson writes about Suzannah with incredible grace, noting that she and others who’ve been through the state prison system “speak as if they’d written a book on the subject. Their thoughts are organized in a business-like way around times, dates and decisions, with a self-contained, controlled lack of emotion.”
It is clear enough that Gibson cares deeply for Suzannah and others engaged in week-to-week fights to keep a roof over their heads. He describes one instance of a hysterical woman who had just been evicted by her landlord whom he took to Human Resources, and another story that didn’t make the column:
“This girl would go right from high school study hall at the end of the day and into prostitution. I would pick her up outside a hotel at eleven o’ clock at night and she’d have her books and she’d sit there and do her homework where she’d just been prostituting. And she’d get her other girlfriends on the phone and talk and they would compare notes about guys they’d been with and how much money they’d made. I’d take her either to another hotel or home.”
Gibson is just doing his job—taking people where they need to go. The woman we pick up in a neighborhood north of Old Colorado City is treated no differently than a woman who can’t make her cab fare. We see her waving from inside and Gibson instantly turns on the charm, opening the door and offering to help her with her luggage.
Yvonne is Boston-bound, hoping to catch a glimpse of East Coast trees she’s heard about but never seen. I stay as quiet as I can while she and Gibson converse about topics ranging from the Celtics to General Palmer. Yvonne is an older woman, and a rare combination: a liberal who relishes tradition, a native-born Colorado Springs resident.
We drop her at the airport around five—it’s my second time ever at the Colorado Springs airport, and it’s crowded. Gibson explains that the first flights are going out around this time. He helps her with her luggage and teaches me the precise wrist motion involved in tearing a receipt out of a machine. Then he climbs back in, shuts the door, and remarks that his customers have been mild lately, making column material more difficult to come by. Gibson, his voice more soothing than NPR, says that, fortunately, he hasn’t had to get rough with people in a long time.
“Not physically, but if they started in with some kind of story of not being able to pay I’d tell ‘em okay well we have this camera here that’s already taken your picture eight times. I’d point at the camera and say I’ll call the police and they’ll take you to jail and I had people in tears,” Gibson laughs, reflecting his inner New York cabbie. “I felt pretty bad about that.”
Gibson never feels bad about returning money to customers who leave it in the car—even if they’re drug dealers, or were too high to realize how much they left. A dealer Gibson picked up near Yvonne’s house (zone 360), once left a wallet containing thirteen hundred dollars in the backseat.
“No driver’s license, no ID, just 1,300 fresh Benjamin Franklins. Which I could have easily kept,” Gibson says. “The company called me and asked me if I’d found any money in the cab and I told them can he tell me how much money he has in it. He took a pretty close guess. Of course, if his number hadn’t matched my number they would have accused me of taking money. I gave the wallet back to him at a car wash and he gave me 300 dollars from it and thanked me for being honest. And I left with a clear conscience.”
Other cab drivers, according to Gibson, say “any cash they find goes right in their pocket.” They mail the cards, but the cash they keep.
Our conversation continues as we pick up a native Texan from the north side of town and return to the airport once more. The Texan makes a single remark about the humidity in Houston and there’s no more exchange—the early death of a relationship built on weather laments.
Texas humidity accounted for, we turn to New York once again.
While Gibson was in school there, he waited tables and had to put up with customers putting rocks on their plates for a free meal, making similar scenes as they do in the back of the cab. It was so expensive to live there that three of them working full-time could barely afford the rent for an “old beat-up tenament.” Like college kids often do, he laments the days of living off of Quaker chewy bars, the kind of lifestyle that wears you down nutritionally and spiritually. Unlike most college kids making unhealthy choices, there was real necessity there.
“Then there were the rats. I hate rats. I’d come home to my building on 106th Street and they’d be running across my shoes at 2:30 in the morning,” he says. Rats and over-priced cereal aside, Gibson says that he left New York because he’s going to be 60 soon. He doesn’t want to be “climbing subway stairs as an old man.” The longest he’d ever lived in New York City was five years.
Each few-year stint had its highs and lows. “You know one morning I’d just get up and look at my life and say I want to go jump off the George Washington Bridge. And then at the end of the day I’m having a drink with Vanessa Redgrave through a friend.”
I ask him if he’d ever go back. He says he would.
“I still have some strong connections there with people and some of the people you meet are just fantastic, you’re not going to meet them anywhere else. And the theatre is terrific, and film. I was busy. I was doing episodes of ‘Law and Order’ and ‘Capote and Manchurian Candidate’ and working on other films.” Gibson was in the opening scene in ‘Capote,’ where the author attends a party in Greenwich Village. He was hired with a few other six-foot actors in order to make Philip Seymour Hoffman look shorter.
“I remember the very first day on the set, you know they usually don’t yell ‘ACTION!’ anymore, somehow the camera is just rolling. All of a sudden Hoffman started talking in that voice (Gibson begins to imitate Truman Capote) doing those lines and improvising and I just thought wow, I know why he won an Academy Award for that. He was a real nice guy and went around and talked to people and asked who they studied with and said ‘oh yeah I know him.’ Quite often movie actors are not that way, we’re told not to talk to them.”
He tells a story of a friend who was fired from the set of a film because he tried to talk to Brad Pitt. There are cuts made in other ways, of course. “Directors make six hours of movie and cut it down to two. The script is coming in; it’s getting changed…I’d end up on the cutting room floor a lot of times,” Gibson says.
I take a good look at this man driving the cab, with the understanding eyes and the careful speech, and—after reading his writing, his play reviews, seeing the way he interacts with passengers—I believe that he knows the cutting room floor as well as the spotlight. He’s lived long enough to see the virtue in both. “You still have the same wants, but you have a little more control over them. I’m not as susceptible, or sensitive. I’ve always been thin-skinned around people. But you know when you figure out what’s important to you and you just kind of focus on that…” he trails off.
It’s getting close to 6:15, and we pick up a final passenger close to downtown. Gibson takes her to her car on East Boulder where she left a bar the night before. She is silent, but me and Gibson's conversation fills the space. My mission to observe his interactions is null and void. He asks me if I’d like to see a play with him sometime.
We turn down Nevada. I have to go back now, but I am reluctant to leave Gibson in the cab for the rest of the morning. We are talking about the many original names for his column, and the wealth of material Gibson had when he started out.
“We must have gone through 300 names for it [the column]. We had ‘Beyond Mozambique,’ ‘Destination Fever,’ all kinds of things. I wanted something kind of colorful to start with.”
They decided on “Taxi Driver,” though “Destination Fever” also seemed right to me.
Perhaps when you see people at their worst you learn to appreciate the good in everyone.
“Now I have to pull people out of themselves,” Gibson says, pulling up next to the CC Inn. “I have to get my fingernails dirty again.” His task as a taxi driver, a writer, and a human being is to observe the good and the bad without judgment. But as far as the column’s concerned, the ugly’s run out. Gibson may have to venture into zones with more criminal activity, zones that he’s learned to avoid.
Another passenger waits outside. I get out of the cab. I wonder if Robert DeNiro’s character tried to understand anyone other than himself. Though it’s difficult in the limbo between night and morning to bring your attention outward, Terry Gibson receives the thoughts of every person who rides in his cab with an open mind. He’s a part of the city in a way most of us won’t be unless we decide to listen once in a while.