LONG BEACH — Gordon Clendening had a quiet Friday.
Cruising under the yellow street lights in his Yellow cab he picked up two merchant seamen out for a night on the town, an elderly couple on the way to the bank to cash their Social Security checks and a drunk carpenter making his way from a massage parlor to a bar.
All were fairly well-behaved. Part of the reason, Clendening believes, is that he was wearing a white shirt and black necktie.
"They have a little more regard for you when you look nice," the 50-year-old cabbie said of his customers. "They see a neatly dressed gentleman who looks like he has a little more dignity and authority."
Which is exactly the effect that Clendening's company--Yellow Cab of Long Beach--was after when it began requiring its drivers to wear black ties beginning late last month.
"I intend to put some distance between myself and the guys who gave this industry a bad name," declared Dennis Rouse, vice president and general manager of the Wilmington-based company that provides the only cab service for Long Beach. "The compliments have gone up 200% since we started wearing black ties."
Besides instituting the new dress code, the company in the last year has:
- Implemented two discount programs for senior citizens;
- Gotten involved in a host of local charities, including a Christmas food drive for the elderly and a flower distribution day for cancer patients;
- Offered cheaper rates, subsidized by local beer wholesalers and retailers, to encourage bar patrons to ride home in a taxi;
- Begun a Very Important Guest program offering fixed maximum rates from local hotels to various points of interest.
- Hired a full-time public relations and sales manager charged with improving the company's public image.
Also, according to Patrick Moran, the new public relations and sales manager, the company is working closely with the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Council to organize a series of inexpensive taxi tours for tourists.
The purpose of this multifaceted effort, Rouse said, is twofold: to change the image of taxi drivers from that of cigar-chomping brutes to one of dignified professionals offering first-rate service and thus regain the trust of the public, and to grow with Long Beach as it evolves into a "jewel" of the West Coast.
"This city is in a renaissance," Moran said, "and we want to be part of it. We want to be a source of pride to the city."
The industry's image problems, he said, began in 1982 with a series of television and newspaper reports on serious problems with the cab pickup service out of Los Angeles International Airport. Because drivers make more money on longer trips, many were refusing to take customers on short hops to nearby hotels. Also, Moran said, many were seen as slovenly, dishonest and unable to communicate in simple English.
"I got painted by the same black brush that they did," said Rouse, whose company, also known as United Checkered Cab, operates taxis throughout the Long Beach and South Bay areas but has never picked up fares at LAX.
One result of the bad publicity, he said, was a 15% to 20% drop in business that year and increased competition from various airport limousine services.
Business is back up now. Since expanding to take over the Long Beach franchise from the old Diamond Cab Co. and renaming it Yellow Cab in 1982, Rouse's company has operated 60 Long Beach cars answering an average of 1,200 calls a day on a 24-hour basis which, combined with the company's South Bay fleet, produces an annual gross income of about $3 million.
Customers come from everywhere.
"We always call a cab on the way over here," said Marilyn McGehee, 31, who with her sister, Teresa Lang, 33, had hailed a Yellow cab Friday night for the short ride from Teresa's apartment on the city's east side to a nearby disco called 4th Street Junction. "We know there are drunks out because we've been in there drinking with them. We take a cab to avoid the degenerates (in the street). This is Long Beach, you know."
Ruth Van der Veen, 71, said she found it convenient to take a cab home from the Long Beach Airport upon returning from her annual excursion to see her relatives in Kodiak, Alaska. "They're punctual," she said of the cab drivers. "Right on time."
A man named John, who wouldn't give his last name but said he is a pilot for a major airline, was holding his wallet in hand and wearing a wet pair of trunks, T-shirt and unlaced tennis shoes when the shiny yellow vehicle pulled up to retrieve him from a bar on Anaheim Street at about 11 p.m.
And Bob Hauser, picked up in front of The Breakers Hotel just before midnight, was barhopping. He began by asking the driver "where are we going?"
"Belmont Shore's nice," the cabby said.
"Yeah, that's a good idea," Hauser replied. "Let's head east. Bless you."