(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. It's not unusual to get in a cab and find a paperback novel on the seat next to the driver. What makes Jack Clark's cab different is that he's both the driver and the author.
Clark is a 30-year-old, Chicago cab driver who's written three books. The Washington Post called his mystery novel Nobody's Angel a gem that doesn't contain a wasted word or a false note.
Its told in the voice of a Chicago cabbie named Eddie Miles, and is as much about the life of taxi drivers as it is about the two serial murderers on the loose in the Windy City. Clark originally published the book himself under the title Relita's Angel, and sold it for five bucks a copy from his cab. Its now published by Hard Case Crime.
Jack Clark wrote for the weekly paper the Chicago Reader years ago, but left journalism for the world of fiction writing and picking up fares. His story caught the eye of FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who once drove a cab in Philadelphia.
Mr. JACK CLARK (Author): On Clark Street, a well-dressed black woman waved, then approached the cab. Are you for hire, she asked? Come on, I said, and I reached back and opened the door.
What is wrong with you cab drivers, huh? Six cabs just passed me by. Lady, I started - do I look like a criminal? Lady, I tried again - now you answer my question. Do I look like a criminal? Lady, if you looked like a criminal, I wouldnt have picked you up. Now would you mind telling me where youre going? I'm going to the IC station, she said, I live in the suburbs. I'm not a criminal. I've never been a criminal. I do not associate with criminals. I have a good job. I pay my taxes. I go to church. But you cab drivers, all you can see is the color of my skin. Lady, why you giving me a hard time? I'm the guy who stopped.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jack Clark, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CLARK: Well, its nice to be here.
DAVIES: What do you like about driving a cab?
Mr. CLARK: Well, I love driving. You know, at night its just kind of, you know, you just float around. Things happen. Its, you know, its very relaxing if you dont let the traffic get you, and if the people don't get you and if youre not tired and - you know, its like playing jazz, I think, a little bit.
DAVIES: Hows it like playing jazz?
Mr. CLARK: Well, because you dont know where youre going until you, you know, you follow some path, and then you get somewhere you didnt know you were going to go.
DAVIES: And what hours do you typically drive?
Mr. CLARK: Late afternoon to early morning. You know, 4 to 4, something like that. The bars close here at 4 in the morning in Chicago, so thats kind of the end-of-the-night business.
DAVIES: You know, driving a cab is in some ways a unique job, in that youre the only one in the workplace. And every transaction is an encounter with a stranger, somebody who could be friendly or could be mean or could be abusive or even a criminal. And I wonder if you have to carry yourself in a certain way, maybe kind of adopt a persona that's a little different than the Jack Clark we would know if we just saw you at a restaurant.
Mr. CLARK: Oh, sure. You become a cab driver. You know, you become a little tougher, a little, you know, hey buddy; blah, blah, blah; or you can't do that in here or - you know. But youre always looking at people to see who they are. But you know, 99 percent of 99.9 percent of people are great. I've had a lot of great conversations with people in the cab and, you know, I'm generally just want to get their money at the end of the ride and get them out of the cab so I can get another load because I only have limited time. You know, I only drive a cab a couple of days a week so I got to make the money.
DAVIES: And how did you learn to kind of adopt the cab drivers persona?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, I think I did that right from the beginning, just so I could pretend to know what I was doing. You know, because you get in and you dont know what youre doing and its just, you know, I think its I was telling a waitress recently, a new waitress, that she should do that. You know, just pretend youre an old waitress. Nobody will know the difference.
DAVIES: Do you worry, as you get older, that - I dont know, you won't have quite the reflexes and reactions that you did as a young driver?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, yeah, I certainly - especially with, you know, they put bullet-proof shields in here, I would say, about 10 years ago. Its, you know, its a half-open shield. But before that, there was a lot more attacks on cab drivers a lot more guys jumping over the backseat at you, and that kind of stuff. And its a young mans game. But I couldnt foresee much of a future if they didnt have the bullet-proofs -although I was against them when they put them in. But it has really calmed all that down.
DAVIES: What were some of the things that happened to you before they put them in?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, you know, just people robbing - trying to rob. I only got robbed once, but I've had several guys attempt, you know, to rob me. I had a guy jump over the backseat and grab me from behind and try to, you know - but I just jerked the cab forward and he kind of bounced back, and I bounced him around a little bit. And that was a lot easier to do before antilock brakes came in. You can't stop the cabs as quick as you used to.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLARK: You used to be able to just - boom, you know. And they'd go and then you hit the gas. And you can't really do that anymore unless your antilocks are broken.
DAVIES: So you'd use the cab, in effect, as a weapon to kind of throw him around the cab?
Mr. CLARK: Right. And Eddie does that in the book, in one of the climatic scenes in the book. He uses the cab as - thats how he gets control of this guy who is trying to rob him and is probably going to kill him.
DAVIES: Right. Its a big moment in the book.
Mr. CLARK: Yeah.
Mr. CLARK: And its a realistic scene because it used to - yeah, if you knew what you were doing, you could just bounce a guy back and forth like a ping pong ball, and he couldnt do anything. And hed beg you to let him out of the cab, you know.
DAVIES: Theres a lot of discussion in the book about what fares you pick up, and which ones you pass by; where you go, and where you dont go. And in effect, cabbies - for their own safety - become profilers, right?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, yeah. Well, you have to figure out who somebody is. I mean, but thats, you know, half the time somebody gets in a cab, if you know what youre doing, you know where they're going before they tell you. They're going to the Cubs game; you can tell how they dress. They're going to a bar in Lincoln Park; you can tell how they dress. You know, they're going home from a - you know, I mean, its just - they're going, you know, they're going to a gay bar, you know; they got the leather thing on. It used to be that transvestites would, you know, these women that were 64 with shoulders about as wide as a beer truck and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLARK: Then they'd get in the cab and it was Diversey & Clark, and you'd say, Cheeks? Because that was where all the transvestites hung out, at this little bar called Cheeks.
DAVIES: Do you think having to evaluate people all the time like that kind of gave you observational skills that informed your writing?
Mr. CLARK: You know, I dont know. I mean, I can maybe describe some of those things better. But you know, I'm really only looking at the surface there. But I think driving a cab just helped me as a writer just because the different ways to get places. There's a million ways to get places. You know, you dont have to go the conventional way. You can use a lot of shortcuts, and I think thats really helped in my writing.
DAVIES: I remember one rule that I learned from one of the veteran cabbies after a woman - I'd taken her to a bar. And then she said she didnt have any money, so she was going to go inside to get it. And she just assumed I wouldnt follow her in because I was a white kid, and it was an African-American neighborhood. But I went in, and she didnt have any money. And the thing that I remember the veteran cabbies told me after that experience was, never pick up a woman without - who isn't carrying a purse. Bad news.
Mr. CLARK: Oh, well, there's a lot of them that dont carry a purse. But I tell you, never get out of the cab, thats one of my rules for anything. You know, the cab is your little weapon. Its your security place and $10, just I'm not going into any bar. I had a guy run out of the cab one day on a $2 fare and run into a corner bar and it was like, well, good-bye, you know, I'm not going into a bar for $2.
And we had a guy we had a cab driver here killed a couple years ago in a fare dispute, where he got out of the cab to fight with the guy and he left the engine running. So thats rule two: If you do get out the cab, take the keys with you. And thats if youre pulling somebody out of the back seat, turn the engine off and take the keys with you. But he got right the passenger ended up getting back in the cab and ran him over. I think he ran him over like three times, and then he claimed it was an accident. But he went to jail.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jack Clark. He is a cab driver and novelist. His book is called Nobodys Angel.
Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with Jack Clark. He drives a cab and writes in the city of Chicago, and he has a book out now called Nobodys Angel.
Were you a writer who became a cab driver, or a cab driver who became a writer?
Mr. CLARK: No, I was a writer first. My first published story was in 75 and like I said, I didnt start driving until either 77 or 78. I actually quit a staff job at the Chicago Reader and went to Flash Cab.
DAVIES: Chicago Reader - it's a weekly, right?
Mr. CLARK: Weekly alternate paper.
DAVIES: Mm-hmm. Did you think of yourself as a writer coming up, or did you train for something else?
Mr. CLARK: No, I never went I took one course at Columbia College. What happened to me is, my dad gave me a copy of The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson Algrens novel, when I was 16 years old, and I just loved the book. And I think before I was finished with the first page, I wanted to be a writer. Thats how much I liked the book.
But I never really went to college. I took this story in journalism course at Columbia College here that was a great course, and I sold two stories out of the I was going to take fiction courses at Columbia. I think I was 23 years old at the time, and all the fiction courses were filled up by the time I got there. So I took this story in journalism course. And so thats how I kind of accidentally got into journalism because two of the stories I wrote for class, I sold - or my teacher pretty much sold - one to the Reader, one to Chicago magazine. So that got me into journalism. But I'm glad to be back out here in fiction.
DAVIES: Mm-hmm. So you left - and why did you go to drive a cab rather than sell insurance or take a computer course or something?
Mr. CLARK: Well, I never wanted to do anything that I had to use my real brain at, you know, as a full-time job. I just wanted to mostly, actually, I was a furniture mover when I went to Flash Cab I mean, when I went to the Reader, I was moving furniture and driving trucks and then - and thats what I did. I drove over the road for about 15 years, from like about 73 to - 70 to 89, or something like that, so...
DAVIES: So when you say over the road, you mean driving a truck?
Mr. CLARK: Yeah, I was a furniture mover for Allied Van Lines. I drove, you know, 48 states - and just moving people around the country. And so thats - I did that a lot. And then that was a summertime job. And then a cab, I would do in the winter when the trucks slowed down. And then in the 90s, I guess, I started doing the cab more as a steady source of income.
DAVIES: Now, you know, when you were a driver - as a driver, youre somebody who certainly has skills and ambitions that probably a lot of drivers dont. I mean, do you feel different from a lot of the other drivers that you know out there?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, no. I think, you know, nobody wants to be a cab driver. You know, they say you can never organize the cab drivers, and the reasons you can never organize the cab drivers is nobody ever thinks they're going to do it for long, because its all just somewhere on the way somewhere else. You know, they're - a lot of guys are going through school. A lot of these foreign drivers are well-educated, and they can't get a job in their field once they get over here. And then you start driving a cab. And if you work hard, you can make some decent money. So -but no, I think theres a lot of cab drivers that are I've certainly met a lot of cab drivers that want to write, you know.
DAVIES: Right. And then there are the legends of the old-timers who did do it as a real profession back when, you know, when cabbies wore uniforms and people in neighborhoods took cabs a lot more.
Mr. CLARK: Yeah. You know, even then I knew guys that I used this thing in the book, the guy who says - its a story I put in Ace is an old veteran cab driver in the book. And I put this story in his mouth that I heard from a veteran cab driver at Flash. And it was like, he was talking about when they were going to pull his license and he paid off a bunch of money so that, you know, which you used to be able to do here to, you know, to the inspector so he wouldnt lose his license. And now he's wondering, you know, what he would've done with his life if he hadn't done that. You know, he maybe would've done something with his life. He says, all I've been doing is driving around in circles.
DAVIES: But he has stayed with it, right?
Mr. CLARK: But he stayed with it, yeah. There were a lot of, you know, my friend, I have a friend who is a folk singer, Ed Holstein, and he said to me, he said: Our parents just wanted jobs; we all want to be artists. And I think theres a lot of truth to that. You know, my dad was a Depression kid, he was in World War II; he just wanted a job. He wanted to come back and have a job. And then, you know, as you get money and the middle-class, youre a middle-class kid, you want to be an artist and stuff like that. So I think the older drivers were more of that World War II generation. They just wanted a job and stability.
Mr. CLARK: They didnt want to remember the Depression or the war.
DAVIES: Now the book, Nobodys Angel, you wrote this in the 1990s - and is it true you sold it in the cab?
Mr. CLARK: Yeah, I wrote the first draft of this book about 1990, and then I kept trying to sell it. And I got a lot of good rejection letters, which do no good at all. And I was rewriting it all the time, because somebody would say this or somebody would say that - or I'd get my hopes up that something could happen with it.
And then I just got sick of it. So I decided if I self-published it, I could just get it out of my system, and I wouldnt have to keep rewriting the stupid thing. So thats what I did, and I found a place out in Nebraska, Morris Publishing, which did a great job for about $1.86 a copy. And its a really nice-looking book, Relita's Angel, and it was just 500 copies. So, you know, I sold them for five bucks a piece, and I got my money back, and I made a little money on it.
And right after I started selling the book in the cab, my sister, whos a professor out in Massachusetts, was at a party, and some woman finds out - shes from Chicago and she says, oh, my son just bought this most wonderful book from a cab driver in Chicago. And my sister says, could I see it? She goes upstairs and brings the book down and, of course, its my book. And my sister opens it and turns to the acknowledgment page where her name is, you know. So that was like immediately like, that was in a week or two after I started selling the book it ended up in a, you know, a thousand miles away, in Massachusetts.
DAVIES: What does the pitch sound like when I'm in your cab, and youre selling your book?
Mr. CLARK: Oh, no. I never pitched the book to anybody. I had a little baskets of the book up on a dashboard and if you and then I had one hanging from a hook, so it was facing you, so you could see the cover. And if people asked about it, I would tell them. But I never offered to sell it to them unless they asked, can I buy it? You know, nobody gets in the cab to have somebody try to sell them a T-shirt or a book or a -yeah, I would never do that.
DAVIES: Its interesting that you drive at night. I mean, the first time I drove a cab, I drove at night. And it just, it got kind of creepy, and so I kind of stuck to days.
Mr. CLARK: Well, see, I did the exact opposite. My first three days in the cab were daytime, and the traffic was so horrible and I just couldnt take it. So I thought, I'd rather get shot in the head.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLARK: And, you know, that was really my thought - I dont care, I cant do this anymore. And nights are so much better than days. I was on days just recently, a couple years back I was trying days again. And its just, people are boring. They're not happy. They're going to work and its your fault. You know, I'm at work, too. Give me a break. But you can't get them to talk. They're just grumpy. You know, at night, people are having fun. They're leaving work or they're having a drink or they're going out to dinner or, you know, they're much more relaxed. Daytime and the traffic is so horrible during the day.
And the people at daytime, they know their way around more. They take this route to work. They know the shortcuts. You can't go down the side streets. And you cut through allies; there's three cars cutting through the same alley because its a shortcut to somewhere. Nighttime, you dont have that problem.
DAVIES: When people get in the cab, do you try and strike up conversations? Do you let them take...
Mr. CLARK: Oh, yeah.
Mr. CLARK: Yeah, the great thing about the cab - it drives me crazy, all these guys who are on the phone. And I dont know if they do that in Philly, but in Chicago, half the cab drivers are on the phone. And they're just missing the best part of the job, I think - is you meet all these people, you talk to people, you find out stuff, you know, you hear about different countries, different cities, you know. You know, on the average night you'll get, Ill get maybe 30 fares in the cab. Thats a lot of people in and out of your cab.
They're great stories. You know, I've had a lot of fun with people. I've learned a lot of stuff in the cab. Dont ask me what any of it is but, you know.
DAVIES: That never gets old, huh?
Mr. CLARK: No, I, no. No, people are great. People are great. Thats the truth.
DAVIES: Well, Jack Clark, thanks so much for speaking with us. Its been fun.
Mr. CLARK: Oh, well, thanks. Thanks. Nice talking to you.
GROSS: Jack Clark spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Clarks latest book is called Nobodys Angel. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.