Colin Gerrard pulls up to a hotel in Wollongong, where the taxi base has told him a job is waiting. A young woman with her hair covering her face gets into the back of the taxi.
“Abercrombie Street, please,” she says in a London accent. Colin’s ears prick up; he recognises the woman. It is Lily Allen. She is touring Australia and visiting some friends; a rap duo from West Wollongong.
“I like your work,” he says politely, glancing at her in the rear-view mirror. She looks up at him and smiles; she’s recognised his accent as well.
“Where are you from, like?” she asks.
Colin smiles, “Oh, I’m from Liverpool.”
“Oh yeah,” she says, “Beatles.”
He nods, they always say that.
Colin’s introduction to music was the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but moved on to the Rolling Stones and progressive rock as he got older.
“I've kept up to date with Triple J,” he says.
“Even though I'm an aged person, I like to listen to modern stuff. Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White, people like that.”
Along with Lily Allen, Colin has driven a number of high profile people, such as a victim of the Rolf Harris scandal, councillor Ann Martin and Nick Rheinberger of the ABC.
“I love music and Nick Rheinberger is a big muso himself. We have had a few nice conversations. They have an account with Wollongong Radio Cabs,” he says.
Colin has been driving taxis since 2001, initially as a second job.
“I worked at a bank during the day and worked a couple of taxi shifts at night time and weekends. It was good money in those days. You could earn as much on a shift as you would at the steelworks,” he says.
But Wollongong has changed and the taxi industry has suffered as a result. Families now have more than one car and the introduction of the Free Shuttle Bus has reduced the need for taxis during daylight hours.
“I think it's rather unfair because the State Government pays Premier, who have the [Free Bus] contract, the running costs of the buses, they provide the buses and they pay the driver's wages. The taxi industry, in my opinion, provide a public service. We don't get anything from the government. Nothing. No subsidy whatsoever,” says Colin.
Taxi drivers in Wollongong don’t get an hourly rate, so if they don’t get any customers, they don’t get any money. This morning, Colin sat for two hours before he got a job.
“I'm not happy with the income, but I'm at a stage in my life now where I can retire next year if I want to,” he says.
“It suits me because my wife has a disability and I care for her and if I had a regular job I couldn't do that. So I go home for breakfast, home for lunch, go home at tea time.”
Colin has stopped doing night shifts due to the situation with his wife and for his own personal safety.
“I prefer not to be beaten up or robbed or things like that. I have had issues before,” he says.
All taxi drivers are taught how to deal with difficult patrons when they do their course.
“Some remember, some don't,” says Colin, “but good communication skills is basically it.”
With drug and alcohol affected patrons, it is important to make them feel at ease. Colin will often share a joke with patrons, ask them which way they would like to go and not overcharge them.
“Then there can't be any arguments and normally, 90% of the time, it's okay.”
Unfortunately, the unreasonable ten percent do exist and it is for that reason that taxis are fitted with an emergency button and security cameras. The emergency button can be activated by the driver’s foot, so that patrons are unaware. The button channels a connection with the base, so they can see and hear what is going on in the taxi and direct police and other taxis if required.
Colin has had to use these measures once before, when a man got in his taxi at the rank in Gwynneville.
“He got in and I said good morning, sir, and he said drive, just effing drive. I’ll tell you where we’re effing going. We went towards Denison Street and picked up a guy on the corner. They were going to buy some drugs,” Colin recounts.
“He said turn left, go here, go there. I've hired the cab, you go where I want to effing go. So I activated my M13 alarm and to cut a long story short, we ended up at a motel in Flinders Street. I heard them say what are we going to do with the driver? Are we going to knock him off?”
By this time, a few other taxi drivers were coming to Colin’s rescue. Two blocked off the entrance to the motel and the other pulled up beside him to see if he was alright.
“The two guys freaked, put $20 on the seat and ran off. The fare was over $40, but it was alright,” says Colin.
“It was just safety in numbers. They didn't have to get out of their cars, they were just there as a group to protect me. You could wait for the police for half an hour but you could be dead by then,” he says.
Taxi drivers are not allowed to use force against a patron, they can only assist the driver until the police arrive. In a difficult situation, they must rely on calm conversation, eye contact and good interpersonal skills.
“I always say 'sir' and 'ma'am', it sounds old fashioned, but it's a node of respect and it doesn't cost anything to be polite and respectful,” Colin says.
“90% of all customers I pick up are nice people. There are just the odd few,” says Colin,
“Unfortunately, the newspapers really focus on bad news stories rather than good ones. But generally, Wollongong's a pretty safe place. I love living here.”