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Seattle Law Ain't No Friend of His

David Vernon Groh, a.k.a. Cab Elvis, is fighting a $60 fine for his kingly taxi attire.

August 24, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — It used to be when David Vernon Groh walked down the aisles of Pike Place Market, he was greeted simply with "Hi, Elvis!" Which is what you expect when you're an Elvis impersonator.

But these days, the regulars at the downtown market greet him with rallying cries: "We're with you, Elvis!" and "Don't give up!" and "Go get 'em!" A bumper sticker circulating around town reads: "Free Elvis."

Besides being an Elvis impersonator, Groh, 37, is a cab driver. One day, about two years ago, he fused his two identities and became "Cab Elvis," the only taxi driver in town with jet-black sideburns, a bright red jumpsuit (with matching cape) and a song repertoire that included "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender."

Customers loved it; the tips multiplied. City inspectors were not as enthusiastic.

Mostly it was the red jumpsuit they objected to. The city fined him for violating the taxi driver dress code. One thing led to another, and Groh is in the middle of a legal battle grandly referred to by his fans as "Elvis vs. the City of Seattle" or "the King vs. the Emerald City."

At issue, according to Gary Keese, the assistant city attorney handling the case, is whether there is a constitutional right to dress like Elvis.

"They say yes. We say no," Keese said.

On a recent day, Groh appeared glum. He was sitting in a small booth at the Athenian restaurant in Pike Place Market, sipping black coffee and telling his story. Groh lives in an apartment above the market and spends much of his free time among its patrons.

At 6 feet 2, he's three inches taller than the real Elvis but not quite as chiseled in features. He's got the hair, the contemptuously curled lip and the paunch. He can switch to Elvis-talk in a snap -- "Thankyou vurrah much" -- but at the moment doesn't appear to be in the mood.

Litigation will do that to a king of rock 'n' roll, and perhaps more so to a regular guy like Groh. The former waiter and ice-cream vendor said he'd like to have a family someday but is "too poor to have a wife and kids."

He started the Cab Elvis thing to make a little extra money and to cheer people up, including himself. "It brings so much joy to so many people, and it brings joy to me," Groh said. "What could be wrong with that?"

His fame started small and has remained relatively modest, if you don't count the Japanese press. A slick Japanese monthly did a two-page spread on him, and a Japanese-language travel guide featured Groh in his full Elvis regalia as one of the highlights of visiting Seattle.

Much of Seattle didn't pay much attention to Groh until his tangles with city officials became public. Now he's a full-blown hero to some.

Locals couldn't resist the notion of Elvis going up against City Hall.

"There are so many bad things going on in the world," said waitress Catherine Strange, "and they [city bureaucrats] are worried about Elvis. Jeeesus."

In fairness to city bureaucrats, they have nothing against Elvis personally. In fact, the rules governing taxi cabs in the city were drawn up six years ago in response to public complaints. Apparently, some cab drivers didn't dress well, smelled bad and failed to maintain a hygienic atmosphere in their cars.

So the regulations included a dress code.

For Groh's employer, Red Top Taxi, that meant black pants and a blue dress shirt for all cabbies. In May, a city inspector issued Groh a $60 citation for wearing the red jumpsuit. Groh appealed and lost. The city warned him that fines would double if he was caught violating the code again.

Late last month, with the help of a local attorney who took on Groh's case pro bono, Cab Elvis sued the city, asserting that it had violated his freedom of expression. The suit contends the dress code is unconstitutional and silly. A hearing in King County Superior Court is tentatively scheduled for December.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin said he would introduce legislation, possibly next month, that would provide for exceptions to the taxi driver dress code.

Conlin said that colorful characters who present no harm to the city should be encouraged because it helps create "a lively street scene."

At the Athenian, Groh sipped his coffee and kept his head low so as not to attract attention. It didn't work. The hair does it every time. A dishwasher from the back spotted him and yelled: "How's the lawsuit of the century going?"

A woman at a nearby counter saw him and said, "I can't believe what they're doing to you. Hang in there."

Groh smiled that curled-lip smile and said, "Thankyou vurrah much."

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