Riding In Your Own Checker Cab

Commentator Daniel Pinkwater recalls a Checker cab he once owned. He rode around with his large dogs. Occasionally, people would mistake the car for a real taxi. He tells about one old woman who flagged him down and ignored the dogs, but paid for the ride with treats — which Pinkwater could share with the animals.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Sales of big cars are slumping as gas prices rise, but as many think small, commentator Daniel Pinkwater is thinking fondly about a big car he used to have.

DANIEL PINKWATER reporting:

I used to own one of those Checker automobiles. The ones designed for use as taxi cabs and made in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They manufactured them up until the early 80s. There was a civilian model known as the Marathon, but mine was the actual taxi with the synthetic elephant skin upholstery, the no frills rubber flooring, the heavy duty battery and no extras or adornments of any kind.

I bought my Checker brand new from Mr. Carver, the guy who owned the taxi company in Durham, North Carolina, a fine southern gentleman. It was a factory order and I could choose any color I wanted from a chart. Yellow was the popular choice and they offered many shades. I picked bright orange.

I was interested in the Checker because of the capacious interior. Not only was there plenty of room behind the wheel for a fat person, such as myself, but the back seat area was cavernous. If you ordered the folding jump seats you could carry five or six passengers in the back and three, including the driver, up front.

I used the back as a rolling kennel. The Malamutes were comfortable back there. It was a handmade car. I got a postcard saying they'd begun work on my car and it would come off the assembly line at the end of the week. The way they made them was to use an engine from one company. Mine was the good old Chevy straight six and the transmission was Ford, the suspension parts might be Chrysler and the steering gear by Saginaw.

And the body was extra extra strong. The frame was actually two frames. Mr. Carver had a Checker on display that had been whacked in a crossroads by a lumber truck. Everybody walked away. Imagine a Mercedes built, not by efficient Germans, but by whatever the opposite of efficient Germans are, sloppy Germans maybe.

I could've ordered power steering but in the spirit of maximum simplicity and economy, I didn't. My wife and I developed arms like Popeye from parking the thing in New York City.

Also, in New York City drivers automatically give way to Checkers, they know they don't care. The fenders and all body parts are bolted on so they can be changed between shifts. It took minutes to swap in a new door and in slack time the taxi garage could hammer out the one they just took off and make it ready to go on another cab.

More than once I'd be stopped at a light in New York and inadvertently pick up a fare. Someone would just open the door and get it. I remember a little old lady. She hopped in, pretty much oblivious of the two 90-pound sled dogs. Third Street and Avenue C, she said. Are these dogs alright? They're fine, I said stepping on the gas. We took her where she wanted to go. The old lady sitting with a Malamute on either side, each of them bigger than she was.

When we got there I declined to accept any money. Wait here, driver, she said. I'll be right back. She ducked into a shop and came back with a bag containing a half dozen hot bagels. Share them with the doggies, she said.

BLOCK: Daniel Pinkwater drives now Checker-less in the Hudson River Valley of New York.

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