25 years as a taxi driver in Hamilton

The real story of what it's like to be a cab driver

FLORENCE KERR
Last updated 05:00 17/03/2014
 Tony Brown. cab driver
Mark Taylor/FAIRFAX NX

CAB LIFE: Tony Brown has seen Hamilton in all her guises as a cab driver.

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Tony Brown has attended O-week activities for about 25 years.

He has been privy to extra marital affairs from the high profile to the young. He has transported a number of gang members, not to mention the few times he has been called as a witness by police in court. All of the above is typical for one of Hamilton's longest serving taxi drivers. Sitting in his shiny red taxi which is part of Red Cabs Hamilton, a subsidiary company of Red Alert Group, Mr Brown is relaxed.

This is his domain, and he makes it very clear: "I'm going to give you the real story of a cab driver."

Born on the East Coast, an uri of Ngati Porou, Mr Brown grew up with the ocean at his feet and whanau around every corner.

He remembers moving in with his uncle who worked tirelessly on the farm.

"Witi Smiler?"

He says asking if I know the name, I shrug, trying to track down a Smiler in my memory bank.

Seeing my face deep in thought, Mr Brown comes to the rescue.

"Witi Ihimaera is my first cousin. I was sent to live with his father," he said. Witi Ihimaera is a noted writer who has won a number of literacy awards for his short novels, most notable being The Whale Rider.

Once Mr Brown had married he moved to Hamilton with his wife to give his two children a good education.

"It's the best decision I've ever made."

He began driving taxis in Hamilton in the 1980s.

"Back then you had to have a taxi licence before the Hamilton Taxi Directors had confidence in you before they would allow you to operate as a owner operator," he said.

It was a move he believed should be reinstated.

Mr Brown owns and operates his Taxi, and is managed by Red Cabs, a company that he's happy to represent.

"It gives our customers assurance that I am answerable to my manager who is impartial. Let me explain, having owner operators that manage their own company is what I call humbug, because they won't take complaints seriously."

Doing the annual O-week celebrations has also changed.

"O-Week is not the same, it's very quiet now. Years ago in the 90s there were thousands of people going out, I was busy as all get out. Now we are taking students in the hundreds."

Being a taxi driver means you have to wear a lot of hats.

"I pick up a lot of people, some hop into the taxi wanting to talk, so I give them my ear, some jump in crying so I give them a tissue, they jump in angry and violent so I defuse the situation immediately.

"Duo's jump in randy as hell. If they ask for condoms I sell them for $10 which I keep in the glove box, I have blankets I sell as well."

The big man, who says his puku is a product of the typical cab driver cuisine which entails a long list of pies, chips and coke, has ensured his passengers arrive home safely and he is also known to help out in the most precarious situations.

"A few years ago, and I'm not going to name names, I picked up the wife of a high profile person, it was 3am and she was with a business partner. They were getting frisky and I heard the man tell her he didn't have a condom, they were a bit panicked, so I told them I had condoms for sale, $10 a pop. He bought it."

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The couple asked to be driven to a secluded space that required a blanket to lie on which he had in his boot and also sold to them for $10.

"They asked me to wait so I did. I mean, they're paying customers." Listening in to his radio, Mr Brown bore witness to the drunken love making that was done on council land.

"The woman asked to be dropped off home afterward, so I told her I would drop her a few houses down, so she wouldn't get into too much trouble.

"She asked how I knew she had a husband and I tuned around put the inside lights on and she recognised me straight away from other rides I'd given her and her husband, her face went as red as beetroot," Mr Brown said.

Mr Brown refuses to identify anyone in his stories, saying part of the taxi code is to keep customer confidence.

"It's their business, not mine, when I catch up with the other taxi drivers we share stories without names."

He has also witnessed a number of assaults on the streets of Hamilton.

"I've been called up as a witness for police a couple of times. One time I testified against a man who went away, about five years later I picked up the same guy in the city.

"He recognised me straight away, and I just couldn't place him at all.

"I know people by their address, not by name unless you are a regular.

"He said a few words, I made it very clear my expectations, I don't muck around when it comes to this sort of behaviour. I sort it out first off, it's about reading the signs."

Mr Brown is also privy to the expanding divide between the rich and the poor, which he says is getting bigger by the day.

"I see it all, from dropping off wealthy people and the poor, I get to have an insight into their life and it's heartbreaking." One night a woman who was in desperate need to get home to her children but was broke, offered to sleep with Mr Brown because she only had $8.

"You know when someone offers themselves, you know they are desperate, it made me feel for her situation."

He declined the offer and instead took the woman into the supermarket and bought her the essentials to feed her children.

He told her to pick out an ice cream for the kids.

"I'm not the richest man, but I look and see what is happening around this world and I feel lucky to have what I have, and on this night I was able to help."

His popularity with his customers is obvious, he has regular clients, in particular a gentleman in his late 50s who has been carted around by Mr Brown for more than 20 years.

Through his work Mr Brown has met the rich and the famous, he has driven Colin Meades, Todd Blackadder but his favorite was driving lyrical weaver Sam Hunt.

"He is a brilliant man. I should have given him a freebie, but I had the meter on so he had to pay full price."

Through his job Mr Brown has made life long friends.

He and his family have been invited to weddings, birthdays and have attended the odd funeral.

Starting at 4.30pm and finishing at 5.30am the next day has allowed him to see the underbelly of Waikato's largest city. He may not remember your name but he has the ability to match a face with an address.

He has seen the strong weep and the mighty fall, but these are nameless stories that he will take to the grave.

As I thank Mr Brown, and walk away from his shiny red taxi, he leans over the passenger seat and says, "see ya later Foreman Road." florence.kerr@waikatotimes.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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