Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the Boys Recall the Ritz Cab Co.
This is another of the many stories I’ve filed on aspects of Omaha‘s African-American culture, in this case a retrospective piece on a long defunct black owned and operated taxi company, Ritz Cab. An old of age but young in spirit gentleman by the name of Billy Melton, who’s now gone, drove for Ritz, and one evening I interviewed Billy and some of his old Ritz cronies for the story. I enjoyed the way they swapped tales in a mood of sweet nostalgia. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons. Look for a related post in which I write about an Omaha theater company‘s production of August Wilson‘s play Jitney, which refers to the gypsy or illegal cabs that were and still are a presence in many inner cities.
Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the Boys Recall the Ritz Cab Co.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
With his snappy uniform cap, neatly pressed shirt, swank leather jacket and polished silver badge, Ritz Cab Company driver Billy O. Melton cut a jaunty figure behind the steering wheel of his gleaming new Chevrolet Bel Air sedan in the 1950s. Gliding down North 24th Street, he either raced to his next call or else coasted along knowing he could have his pick of fares from the throng of people shopping, strolling or spilling out of the district’s many night spots in search of a good time.
In an area teeming with activity, Ritz cabs always seemed to be where the action was and customers could always hail one with a wave, a whistle, a shout or a knock on the cab’s side window. Or, you could always call to order one. In what were heady times then, the North 24th strip jumped from dusk to dawn and Ritz Cab did a hopping business as the largest black owned and operated taxi line in Omaha.
Dedicated to providing speedy, polite service, Ritz cabbies carried themselves with a certain swagger. It had to do with their pride in being part of a brotherhood of black men (although some women and non-blacks were included among their ranks) banding together to forge a successful business on their own terms.
When Ritz Cab shut down in 1969 after 30 years of running hacks, it marked the end of an important but little known African-American enterprise in Nebraska. At the company’s peak in the 1950s, it was reputedly the largest black employer in north Omaha, boasting a crew of several dozen full and part-time drivers for a fleet of 30-plus taxis. Additionally, it employed a full-time mechanic and several operators and dispatchers. At a time when segregation still ruled, the company covered not only the north side but all parts of Omaha and the surrounding metro area as well.
Recently, some Ritz veterans, led by the irrepressible Melton, reunited to recall their days tearing up the streets around town as taxi men. Each spoke of a fierce devotion to his fellow drivers, to the job, to the company and to the brothers who started it all, the late Reuben and Chesley Pierce.
The Pierces, including a third brother named Claude, hailed from Jonesville, Texas. Facing hard times, they followed the great black migration up north around the time the Great Depression began. Reuben and Claude came first, followed by Chesley. It was Chesley who founded the family cab company in 1940 and, after serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, he continued as owner-operator of the business, which was located at 24th and Patrick, with his brothers. In Ritz’s final years, ownership passed to Chesley’s son, the late Chesley Pierce, Jr., under whose aegis it finally closed.
During Ritz’s heyday, Reuben and Chesley managed the business on a day to day basis and, like true entrepeneurs, “they put everything they had into it,” said Elgie Woods, one of Chesley’s daughters. “They were very dedicated to it. When they put their mind to something, they did it,” added Kathleen Pierce Greer, whose father was Reuben.
Those who knew them say the brothers were country folks with a penchant for wearing overalls and for abiding by down home principles. They possessed strong but opposite demeanors, with Reuben the loud, formidable enforcer and Chesley the quiet, mild-mannered appeaser. “Daddy had a rumbling, deep voice. It was a commanding voice,” said Pierce Greer. Freddie Judson, who began driving for Ritz in 1954, said, “Reuben would slap you down with a harsh word and Chesley would pick you up with a soft word.” Or, as longtime Ritz cabby John Butler put it, “Reuben would set you straight and then Chesley would make peace. There was a certain atmosphere set by those two that kept us all in line. Those two personalities made the system.”
Men being men, Ritz drivers needed some disciplining too. Judson tells of the time the cabbies disobeyed orders by breakfasting en mass at a local eatery where the coffee was hot, the food filling and the jukebox played all day long. While the men unwound inside, their cabs were parked around the joint — out of service, costing the Pierce brothers money. When Reuben found out where the men were holed-up, he taught the guys a lesson by going to the diner and driving, one-by-one, each cab back to the Ritz garage, forcing the embarrassed drivers to walk back to the garage to fetch their vehicles. The ringleaders behind the breakfast brigade were suspended for three days. Then, Judson said, there were those occasions when a cabby had celebrated too much the night before and was in no condition to drive, leaving Reuben to lay down the law with a simple but effective edict — “park it” — meaning you were off the streets until you sobered up.
The brothers were also known for being fair.
“They’d give anybody a job,” said Billy Melton, who drove for Ritz from 1948 until its demise. Melton said where Chesley was willing to tolerate the men dipping into the day’s take or collecting fares off the meter– as long as they eventually made good — Reuben was not so inclined. The way it was supposed to work was drivers got 40 cents out of every dollar, with the rest going to the brothers, but cabbies often helped themselves to more. “It was his (Chesley’s) money, but it was yours too because you had first count. Invariably, we’d check in short, but we tried to make it up before payday,” Melton said. But, when it came to Reuben, he added, “You didn’t mess with his money. He was looking for his money every morning. None of the guys would drive for him because they knew they had to turn in all their cash. But those brothers never fired anybody. They just took it out of your salary. A lot of times payday would come and a lot of drivers didn’t have anything coming.”
That’s because “they’d already got theirs,” said Stanley Pierce, whose father was Claude.
The lure of fast and easy bucks is why many of the men kept coming back year after year. “Fresh money every night. That was the bottom line. You came to work broke and you knew you’re going to make some money. On the first drive you’re going to make some money,” Melton said. Because most runs were short, fares usually ranged from as little as 35 to 55 cents. Therefore, men depended on tips to get by. Getting a dollar bill for a 35 cent fare and hearing the words “Keep the change” was music to their ears. “It all added up,” Melton said. “If you ran $20 (in tips) you had a spectacular day.” He and his cabby cohorts said the best tippers included packinghouse workers and railroaders. But there was a downside to handling all that loose change. As fast as it came in, it went out just as fast too. “It’s hard to save money when you’re making money every night,” Melton said.
For many years Ritz enjoyed a steady cash flow by nearly cornering the north Omaha taxi market. The big cab concerns — Yellow, Checker, Safeway — catered primarily to a white clientele. Ritz’s main competition on its home turf was United Cab Co., another black owned and operated firm, and the large number of unlicensed jitney or gypsy cab services then operating. According to Pierce family members and former Ritz drivers, it was the illegal jitneys, which operated off the books and outside state insurance, transportation and tax regulations, that eroded Ritz’s market share and eventually forced it out of business.
When it was still a thriving district, just the North 24th Street corridor alone provided Ritz with all the traffic it needed. “On Friday-Saturday nights we couldn’t handle the business right here in north Omaha. We had to run and hide from people. We were that busy,” Melton said. “Ninety-nine percent of our business was black.” Even Sundays brought a steady flow of customers. “On Sunday mornings, when we took people to church, we were booming,” said Butler, whose wife Juanita is one of Chesley Pierce’s daughters. “We were zip, zap, zip…I mean, we never stopped until church was over. You might carry 50 people.”
But it was Friday-Saturday nights when things really exploded. The district’s sidewalks and streets overflowed with patrons of its many theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, pool halls, gambling dens, rooming houses and more unmentionable hangouts. The traffic continued all through the night and, unlike today, pedestrians and drivers felt safe. “We’d sit and park with the window down — with a pocketful of money — and go to sleep, and nobody would bother us,” Melton said.
Half the battle for any cabby, he said, is being well-acquainted with the city and its various virtues and vices. “To be a cab driver, you have to know the city. When a guy got in your cab and said, ‘I’m new in town, where can I get a good meal? or Where can I get a drink? or Where can I have some fun?’ — you had to know. As cab drivers you got around. You saw the whole town.” As Butler said, “We knew every place. There was nothing we didn’t know about. If you were a cab driver and they wanted to know where something was going on, we could tell you.”
Evenings brought out a special breed of merrymakers. “Some people just don’t want to go to bed. Those are night people. All they want to do is drink, eat, hang out and have fun. There were a lot of temptations out there,” Melton said. Whether it was wine or women or barbecue these night owls sought, Ritz cabs transported people back and forth to venues that stayed open all night long.
Then there were those occasional lusty passengers who could not resist giving into passion while the meter was still running. “A lot of cab drivers didn’t want that, but those people paid well. Sometimes you were in a position where you didn’t know it was happening. And then, when you did, what were you going to do? You couldn’t put ‘em out. They hadn’t paid yet. So, you pulled into an alley or somewhere to be discreet,” Melton said.
Sometimes, cabbies were put in the indelicate position of ferrying mates who, unbeknownst to the other, were stepping out for a night on the town with someone else.
“You’d be surprised how many times I took a man to a spot and his wife to the same spot, but with someone different. I’d have to rig it so I took one back and picked the other one up without them running into each other,” Freddie Judson recalled. Melton recalled that “the worst scenario you got into was when a good friend of yours would ask, ‘Hey Billy, I notice my wife called a cab — where did you take her?’ Right away I would say, ‘Look, you’re a friend of mine. Now, suppose your wife called me and said, ‘Where did you take my husband?’ You know, what’s good for the gander, is good for the goose.”
Like bartenders and barbers, cabbies are privy to people’s private intrigues. The Ritz drivers heard a litany of heartache tales from folks fighting the blues.
“They told you all their problems,” Judson said. “Sometimes, you’d pick up a man and he wouldn’t be goin’ no particular place. He just wanted to ride and somebody to talk to about his woman troubles. Nine times out of ten he had a bottle back there. ‘C’mon, take a drink with me,” he’d say. And I might take a little sip, just to satisfy him. He just wanted somebody to listen to him.” Melton said he sometimes had no choice but to imbibe if he wanted his money. “I had guys who wouldn’t pay me unless I drank with them. Hey, that was all right.”
Because a cabby is a kind of amateur counselor whom people let their hair down around and pour their souls out to, they are entrusted with secrets they are wise not to reveal.
“A cab driver has got to keep his mouth shut. He knows too much,” Melton said.
Butler credits Melton with taking “me under his wing” and showing “me the ropes” when it came to maintaining confidentiality.
“One of the important things Billy said was, ‘Now, if you want to make money in this business you’ve got to learn how to take care of your customers, and whatever they tell you — don’t repeat it to anyone else.’ I got more customers that way, too, because I would never repeat what I heard. I got customers personally calling for me because I kept my mouth shut. I never forgot that.”
In a business where service was and still is the name of the game, virtually every Ritz driver cultivated their own stable of customers who, when needing a cab ride, specifically requested them. The better service you provided, the more personal calls you got. “I had so much business that when I came to work in the morning I would have 10 personal calls I had to make before I even took a call from the dispatcher,” Butler said. “We’d have customers call back for us every time,” Stanley Pierce added.
Melton said enough trust developed between cabbies and their frequent fares that payment was often deferred until they scraped up enough cash. “We had regular fares we took to work every morning, and sometimes they’d be short of cash until the weekend. They paid us when they got paid,” he said.
Ritz drivers prided themselves on going the extra mile. “We gave good service. We knew how to treat the public,” said Butler. “It was just known we were going to get out of the cab and carry your groceries or your luggage for you. People would tip you when you did that.” Stanley Pierce said, “We’d even carry your groceries in the house and put ‘em on the counter too.”
In what Melton said was an often “thankless job” devoid of health insurance benefits and looked down on as a kind of last resort for undesirables, the men of the Ritz Cab Company never forgot they were, in fact, “public servants.” The dignity they felt for themselves and the job they performed was reflected in the slick appearance they came to be known for.
“The image you projected helped a lot,” Melton said, “and we were always clean and well-dressed. We had uniforms, but not all of us could afford them. You could wear your own clothes, as long as they were neat and clean, but we all wore the cap and our badge. One of our drivers, Bill Smith, would come to work every day with a white shirt and black tie. And I don’t care how many orders were waiting, he would take a rag and wipe his cab off and sweep it out.”
Besides their spiffy appearance and super service, Ritz cabbies were known for one more thing — their fast driving. This was particularly true before two-way radios were installed when, after completing each run, a cabby had to return to Ritz headquarters to get his next order, meaning he was racing the clock and his mates. “We had to drive fast to get back and get another order. We drove fast to make some bucks,” Butler said. Between their careening through town, overturning an occasional cab and causing some accidents, Ritz cabs came to be jokingly called “death wagons,” Butler said. “People got out of the way when we were coming.”
Outside their lead feet and their various high jinks, drivers were expected to follow a rigid code of conduct, which the more experienced hands imparted to newcomers. It was all part of the esprit de corps the men say they felt and this tight bond saw them through many rough spots.
“The cab drivers were together with one another, they helped one another, they taught one another and they looked after one another,” Butler said. “That was the bottom line — the unity we had together.”
For Melton, “it was a family thing…a brotherhood.” Judson described it this way: “If something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. If one Ritz cab got in a problem, you would have every other Ritz cab there in 10 minutes.”
Butler can attest to that: “I remember one time in about 1956 I ran into a car at 24th and Clark and the other driver…a big guy…jumped on me,” he said. “I’ll bet we weren’t there 10 minutes fighting and fussing before half the cab stand was there. I don’t know how they knew it, because we didn’t have radios then, but they stopped the fight.”
Melton recalls how once two-way radios were installed many altercations were averted by drivers radioing their comrades for aid. “A lot of times people had been drinking and they gave you a bad time. They didn’t want to pay or they wanted to fight. And we’d just get on the horn and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem,’ and they’d all come. We were protective of each other. It was a family affair.”
The predominately black Ritz drivers say they were subjected to name calling and other slights because of the color of their skin. Although by law Ritz was constrained to operate on the north side, the company routinely ignored those boundaries to taxi fares all around town. It was a common practice and usually the authorities looked the other way. But sometimes drivers found themselves unwelcome outside some of Omaha’s posher hotels or restaurants, and police might show up “to bother us,” Butler said.
The Ritz men were also persona non grata with the major cab lines, which for a long time were segregated outfits. Where the Yellow, Checker and Safeway lines had reserved spaces in cab stands outside the train and bus stations and airport terminal, Ritz did not, but the enterprising Ritz men still found a way to snare their share of fares, which upset the competition. Ritz veterans say that as time wore on and attitudes changed, they finally got their due.
“Finally, the other cab companies gained respect for us,” Melton said, “because so many people gave us their business. They didn’t bother us anymore.” For Butler, it meant “the barriers started breaking down.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback to driving for Ritz was the long hours, as the men generally worked 12 hour shifts. “I think the worst part about driving a cab is you’re away from your family a lot,” Melton said. According to Butler, many relationships suffered under the strain, adding that he and Melton and Judson were lucky enough to have understanding wives. “The only reason any of us stayed married is we had a good woman who tolerated us.”
If there is one thing the men miss about their days behind the wheel it is the interaction they had with all kinds of people. As Melton said, “You never knew who was going to get in your cab.” Once, Butler said he found himself carting around Fats Domino. Judson said he gave Dean Martin a tour of Omaha during a stopover the crooner-actor had here. Celebrities aside, Butler said, “I liked the chance it gave me to meet new people all the time.” He used the contacts he made driving hacks to forge a career as an insurance agent. “I enjoyed meeting different people,” echoed Stanley Pierce. “We had fun.” Amen, the others chimed in.
Finally, the men feel it is important their story and the story of the Ritz Cab Co. be remembered. Why?
“Because it’s history,” Billy Melton said. “We laid the groundwork for young people today. We did a good job too. It’s a shame, but a lot of young people don’t even know what came before them.”
To put it in perspective, John Butler recalled a Pierce family reunion three years ago at which family members dressed-up a car to look like a Ritz cab and drove it in the Native Omaha Days parade along the very North 24th Street strip the taxi line served. “You should have seen the response that got. When people learned about there having been a black cab company here, they were amazed.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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