How many people can you fit into a taxicab?
One driver of a Ford Crown Victoria tried to cram seven passengers into a car limited to five: two in the front seat, three in the back and two more in the trunk.
He would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for the Nevada Highway Patrol troopers and Taxicab Authority investigators working an accident right across the street. They spotted the bizarre spectacle and stopped the cab before the driver could leave.
Why did the driver--who lost his job on the spot after his employer was called--risk it? For the spiff, of course.
Spiff, a slang term for a gratuity offered by some restaurants, motels and adult clubs to taxi drivers who steer customers to those businesses, could have netted that ambitious driver $70 at $10 per customer.
"Things like that just can't be tolerated," Craig Harris, a 20-year taxi driver, says of the trunk incident.
Spiff has been around for years, but has become much more controversial in recent weeks because of a Taxicab Authority undercover sting operation this summer that saw 14 citations issued to drivers who illegally tried to persuade customers to go to adult clubs that pay drivers, rather than where the customers asked to be taken.
Under state law, drivers may not persuade customers to choose one business over another, but can offer their opinion if a passenger asks for advice.
The investigation was initiated after complaints from Pete Eliades, owner of the Olympic Garden. Eliades, who flatly refuses to pay drivers, says other spiff-paying adult clubs are costing him customers.
The citations carry a $500 fine and could result in suspension or revocation of a cabbie's license.
"The word is out throughout the city that it's a $500 fine," says Robert Flaven, chief investigator for the Taxicab Authority. Drivers for several companies were cited during the sting, which began July 3 and ran through Aug. 6. No citations have been issued since then, Flaven says, although undercover investigations are continuing.
State law makes it illegal for a driver to accept tips from anyone other than his employer or a passenger, and local regulations ban businesses with privileged licenses (like those which serve alcohol) from paying gratuities. But places without such licenses, like motels, wedding chapels and even some adult clubs, are not banned from proffering spiff. A local ordinance proposed to close that loophole has been delayed.
Even with a law making the practice illegal, proving in court that a business offers spiff is difficult, so authorities generally crack down on the drivers instead.
"If nobody was paying, there wouldn't be a problem," Flaven says.
While drivers legally cannot accept tips, the fact that they are offered is an open secret in the industry, passed from driver to driver at taxi stops, at the airport or even by car-to-car radio. A website (www.stripclubreview.com/cabbie.htm) even purports to catalog the rates paid by various adult clubs to cabbies, ranging from $10 to $25.
"I call it kidnapping, and then extortion," says Eliades, also a part owner of Checker Star Yellow cab company. "I do not blame the cab drivers so much. If every time I wave a $10 bill under your face, sooner or later you're going to have need for the $10 and you're going to take it."
Eliades says he refuses to pay because he fears losing his license to serve alcohol, and because he knows it would ignite a bidding war with competing adult clubs. "Why should I pay? If I pay, I've got to pass it [the cost of the driver's tip] on to the customers," he says. "Plus, if I pay $5, they pay $10. If I pay $10, they pay $15. Where do we stop?"
But it goes beyond just money. Since the Olympic Garden doesn't pay, Eliades says regular customers have told him taxi drivers lie to get them to choose another club, saying the Olympic Garden is closed, dirty, or even that it has become a gay nightspot.
"They use all kinds of gimmicks," Eliades says. "It's getting to be awful. It's not enough to take your business away, but to [give] you a black eye?"
Harris, who is also the associate editor of Trip Sheet, a magazine reporting on the taxi industry, says there is a schism between drivers: Some actively try to divert customers to places where drivers get paid, while others take passengers where they want to go and accept the money if it's offered.
"A lot of them really go for it. They solicit business as best they can," he says.
But Harris says he can understand the temptation, especially since drivers work on commission, making between $200 and $500 per week. "It's $10. I don't get $10 tips off most of my rides. I get two, three, four guys [to a spiff-paying establishment] and it makes my night."
Some places, like the Las Vegas Hilton's Star Trek: The Experience, for example, extend special offers to all cabbies (which, the state says, is OK, as long as it's open to everyone regardless of whether they've driven customers there) to engender a little goodwill, and make sure that if a customer asks, the driver has something good to say about the attraction. For the same reason, Binion's Horseshoe offers free turkeys to all cabbies around Thanksgiving, and some Strip resorts offer discounts to anyone with a taxi card.
Some adult clubs contacted for comment, such as Little Darlings and Deja Vu Showgirls, didn't return calls seeking comment.
Joe Malfifi, shift manager at the Crazy Horse Too, says his club does offer free coffee, T-shirts and hats, but no cash.
"They've got a rough job, back and forth," Malfifi says. "To us, it's a nice way of getting our name out."
But paying $10 a customer in spiff? "We'd have to be making a lot of money to pay $10 a head," he says. "We couldn't really afford to do that."