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He let me ride along with him on a Friday night. We chatted about his 40 years of experience as a driver on both sides of the debate. That shows. He didn't have to ask for an address the whole time during his shift, instead remembering where customers live and the location of just about every damn bar in Huntington Beach. He takes each of the incoming calls and dispatches to the other drivers on duty with skill. A caller to Ace will be greeted with "Y'ello," or "Yes, sir." He ends with "10-4."
Ace began driving in 1973 with a traditional taxi company when he was 21. "I started because I was young and dumb," he says. His grandma took taxis, and the owner happened to drive her. "Who's that long-haired kid who walked you out?" the man asked one day. "Oh, that's my grandson," she replied, mentioning he was looking for a job. He said, "Tell him to cut his hair, and we'll give him a job."
"'Course, I didn't cut my hair," Ace says. "I got a short-haired wig. For a while there, people thought I was brothers because I had long hair and my short-haired wig."
Despite this act of youthful rebellion, Ace says, the cab company trained him and his fellow drivers on honesty, integrity and service. But the game changed in the early 1980s, he recalls, with a new set of taxi regulations and the use of independent contractors.
"Cab companies found it was cheaper for them to have independent contractors," Ace says. "It used to be drivers were employees. When you were an employee, they told you where to go, and it was 'Yes, sir.' Now they do as they please."
Since the majority of drivers were no longer paid hourly, but rather after they recoup however much it cost them to lease the taxi from the company for a specific amount of time, the temptation rose for drivers to take longer routes to drive up the meter. Service slowed; instead of being dispatched in a rotation, many drivers can pick and choose which fares they want to pick up. If it's only going to be a $10 ride, some cabbies say, many independent contractors will pass on picking you up altogether because it's not worth the trouble.
Ace himself had to become an independent contractor because of the industry's change, so he started trying out different parts of the county—including Santa Ana and Newport Beach, which he didn't like at all ("The streets are narrow and the people are rude and obnoxious")—before settling in Huntington Beach.
"Among the drivers, they say, 'Ace went to Huntington Beach, picked up a beautiful blonde in a bikini smelling of coconut oil and never came back,'" he says with a chuckle.
He eventually joined forces with another local driver, Tiny, who drove a 1996 Lincoln limousine. He had been thinking about striking out on his own, and when 2007 rolled around, his car was no longer legal because Orange County taxi regulations only allow drivers to use cars that are 10 years old or newer. Instead, Tiny got his Transportation Charter Party (TCP) license, which allows him to carry customers legally, and hit the road as a free man. Tiny and Ace became categorized as Charter Party Carriers, or a personal car service—not regulated by OCTAP, although they still adhere to the CPUC's safety standards.
"I was tired of all the bull," Tiny says in Fat Taxi's common meeting ground, a parking lot off Goldenwest Avenue, as we wait for the next call to come. Tiny is a tongue-in-cheek nickname for him, as he is a Bunyan of a man with a magnificent white beard and a penchant for B-movies, which he likes to watch on his downtime. "Then Ace joined me, and it was all downhill from there," he continues in his typical self-deprecating way.
Fat Taxi has since become a fixture in Huntington Beach's nightlife scene. "I love the ones who get in the car and say, 'Oh, my God, I finally get to ride with you! I've heard so much about you,'" Tiny says. "Or the people who run up to you at a red light saying, 'Oh! I owe you $10 from last time.'"
During the ride-along, customers laud Ace, one even going so far as to say he's a local celebrity. "Let me be the 1 millionth guy to say we all think the world of him," says regular rider Greg Garlich.
When we pick up Fat Taxi regular Debbie "Cool" Kuhl, I move to the back seat because the front seat is her seat. She recalls the time when Ace dropped her off at Main Street in Huntington Beach. She called him back about an hour later and asked him to pick her up as soon as possible. Kuhl stumbled from the bar and threw up in a bush. Someone had spiked her drink.
By the time Ace got her home, Kuhl was nearly incapacitated, so he walked her upstairs to her apartment, told her to go to bed and went back to work. Kuhl expressed her gratitude to me, saying she felt other male drivers may have used her state to their advantage, but Ace was a perfect gentleman.