this is to make light of the grimness of the situation then. I think it’s easy to forget how much more crime there was in America in the late 20th century than there is now. Often around a Saturday night, you could hear occasional bursts of gunfire off somewhere in the distance, and the nightly local news on TV would usually include mention of the latest deaths. Sure, it wasn’t as bad as many of the things that go on in other parts of the world, but it was definitely a problem. Now every once in a while, I would get a radio call from one of the actual crack houses themselves. Sometimes it was a group of the kids who sold it, high-school or even junior-high kids, and they would talk business openly in the back as I drove them from crack corner to crack corner. They would always like it if I drove fast, and urge me to “bend the wheel” (make a screeching turn) as we barreled around the empty residential streets. But other times it would be an older gangster, and they would always want to go to this same gas station out in Richmond. Other drivers had told me that this was the drop-off point where they would pick you up and take you to whatever place supplied the cocaine to the East Bay. No doubt these older gangsters all had cars of their own, but they probably didn’t want the risk of getting pulled over by police while they carried some dangerously large amount of contraband or cash. I have to say that at least toward me, these gangster types were very friendly and laid back, with only very rare exceptions. It seems people in general are usually nice to cab drivers, for whatever reason. Much later, in 1995-96, I drove a taxi in Los Angeles, and it was a very different situation. I worked both nights and days, mostly around the Hollywood area (where the fares were usually to and from clubs and bars) and at LAX airport (where you would wait peacefully in a holding lot for an hour or so and then be given a fare usually worth around $40- $50). All the taxis had computers on board which dispatched the calls and spotted the cabs (so no bribing dispatchers), and most shockingly all the drivers were required to wear collared shirts.  
passengers were more mundane and included a lot of seniors with city-issued taxi vouchers going to the grocery store or to church.) And the police definitely knew where the drugs were sold too — hard to miss when there are a bunch of guys standing around on the street waiting for cars. In 1989, the gangster clothing of choice was still the track suit, but it was overtaken in the following years by the white-t-shirt- and-black-pants “gangster uniform.” Law enforcement strategy seemed to be to park a big police van right next to the crack house, forcing it to shut down until, usually about a week later, they would stop parking the police van there, and business would resume. I guess there was only so much they could do.
The Crack Cocaine Epidemic, 1988-92 
night-shift taxis in Oakland, California, for six months from December  1988 on, and again for some months in 1991-92. Before then, I hadn’t ridden very much in cabs, and for some reason I imagined that all the fares would be wealthy people going to the opera or somesuch, or else travelers on their way to the airport. Of course there were no people going to the opera, and those going to the airport were just a small portion of the traffic. (In fact, the airport trips were very lucrative, and you were expected to bribe the dispatchers to get them.) Instead, the customer base was a whole parade of night life, including gamblers playing until dawn at the poker clubs in Emeryville, prostitutes calling from one of the city’s wide selection of inexpensive motels, sailors traveling back and forth between those motels and the gigantic naval base on Alameda Island, and a lot of drunk people leaving bars after last call. But at that time, crack cocaine was also going on, and a major chunk of fares were actually crack heads going to buy smokeables from one of the East Bay’s far-flung network of crack houses. These were generally people who didn’t have a car but couldn’t risk just walking up to a crack house. On some nights, as much as half the business might be about crack, and anyone who had driven a taxi for a while knew at least half a dozen of the “corners” where the crack was sold to drive-up customers. (This was all in contrast to driving a taxi during the day, when the
The picture on my very first cab license, taken in late 1988 just before my 20th birthday. It’s cut out of a Polaroid that the fleet manager took of me when I came to sign up, with him insisting at the last moment that I wear a greasy old trucker hat with the company’s name on it. The hat had been lying on a table in the dispatch trailer, and it sits here barely balanced on my head.
Oakland, California in the early 1990s. (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
  could be sometimes a little hard to handle. Shortly after I started working and wasn’t too familiar with how it all went, I had one guy who (unsuccessfully!) tried to jump me for my wallet. He didn’t have a gun or knife but just leapt over onto the driver’s seat to try to beat me down, since Oakland taxis didn’t have partitions back then. I was able to toss him from the car, but only after he had bitten my hand during the fight so that it was bleeding. Afterwards, the cab company insisted I make a police report, and the police who came to meet me strongly suggested I get an AIDS test at the old Merritt Perlata hospital because of the bite. As a result, the whole thing ended up taking half of my shift, leaving me with only enough money to pay the gate (the rental fee paid to the cab company at the end of each shift), not to mention around $200 for the hospital visit. The gate, by the way, was $40 per 12 hours, and after paying that and buying a tank of gas, I’d usually have around $100 for myself at the end of the night. This was decent money in 1989, and it was all in cash. Anyway, it was pretty much essential to get a deposit from anyone going to buy cocaine, as I learned quickly that maybe a third of them would run away without paying (“go to bed on you,” as the drivers called it) if you let them. There was one exception though: Most of the taxis were old police cars, and there was one that still had the police cage doors in the back, meaning they could only be opened from the outside. On the one hand, this meant that whenever I drove that particular taxi, I had to get out of the car and come open the door every time I dropped someone off. But on the upside, I never had to haggle for a desposit from people going to buy drugs. Instead, I’d wait until I’d taken them back home and, not unusually, they might start jiggling the door handle, trying to rush out of the cab. At that point, I could turn around, try to look menacing despite my young age, and tell them that the door would open once they paid the fare. It was some amusing justice for me.
Emeryville — technically a separate city from Oakland —has changed a lot since the late 80s-early 90s. At that time, the area around San Pablo Avenue was better known for industrial lots and the poker clubs (the Oaks Club, the Key Club, and the King Midas), along with some cheap housing and discount grocers. But after Pixar moved in sometime around the turn of the millennium, it went dramatically upscale, and the neighborhood now has cafés, artisanal cheese shops and an Ikea. But the Oaks Club and the Black & White liquor store (above) still stand to this day, even if the Holiday Inn (below) is long gone. So too have other parts of the East Bay changed: Alameda lost its naval base, for example, and even West Oakland, notorious in its day, has gentrified.
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(Here are some notes from the miserable cocaine epidemic that hit U.S. cities in the 1980s and early 90s. Like with some of these other topics, I am in no way an expert on any of this  this is just  a recollection of my own experiences at the time.)
I drove
The crack fares
None of