A fare way to survive

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A fare way to survive

It's 2:15 p.m. on a Saturday, two hours before his shift ends. For the taxi driver Yoon Suk-cho it has been a normal day, not good but not bad either: He has already met his daily deposit of 85,000 won ($72) for use of the company cab.

In Mapo district he picks up another customer, a woman in her late-40s.

"Ajeosi," she says. In Korea, everyone is an uncle. "Lotte Department Store."

"Which way do you want to take, Ma'am? You wanna go through Seodaemun or should I take the road through Malli-dong?" The 54-year-old taxi driver has every reason to ask for directions. He knows the way -- he has driven cabs for 30 years. He just wants to make sure that at the end of the ride he isn't blamed for having taken anyone "for a ride."

"Suit yourself, ajeosi," replies the woman. Mr. Yoon grunts.

Corona, Brisa, Pony and Sonata are some of the cars that Mr. Yoon has driven in his 30 years as a taxi driver. Just like anyone in his profession, he has seen his own share of ups and downs. Right now he is on a downward ride, or what he calls in his own words, "a bad ride since the early-90s for cab drivers."

Mr. Lee earned his driver's license in the summer of 1972 and the same year he became the personal driver for the owner of Mijo Textiles. Nevertheless, after a year, he had enough of the "corporate life" and chose to become a taxi driver. His first job was with Hapdeok Unsu and his first car, a Chevrolet with a 1,600-cubic-centimeter engine. He didn't own the car, but that did not matter. At the time there were not that many cars in Korea and few types of automobiles that someone could choose. "I was young and I was driving a car. I was pretty satisfied with that."

As he takes the cab over a little hill in Malli-dong, he sees a traffic cop on duty. He sweeps across his body, checking to make sure he is wearing his seat belt. "You know, in the old times people were much more generous," he says. Police officers did not reach for their ticket books and customers were accustomed to sharing the vehicle with others. "It's illegal, but back then a little bit of money to buy cigarettes was enough. The feeling that both sides had was that it was not bribery. Good for us and good for them. Now they ask for more if they ask at all."

In the early-'70s the peninsula was still under the rule of former President Park Chung Hee, who had imposed strict rules onto society. No miniskirts were allowed, there was a strict midnight curfew and guys with long hair had to watch out as well. Police officers patrolled the streets with measuring tape so that they could instantly determine whether a woman had violated the skirt rules. The legal limit was 10 centimeters above the knees; any more, and you were committing a crime. Because enforcing this law forced police officers to spend a lot of time looking at women's legs, the joke of the time was, "Let's become police officers."

The curfew forced people to go home before midnight, and when people were pressed for time, the taxis were about the only option. Seoul's subway system was still in its infant stages. "I don't think I waited for more than an hour for a customer. Sometimes people would fight for a cab. If the direction was right, I took everyone and they paid whatever I said. No questions asked."

The '70s weren't bad, but for Mr. Yoon the best times were the '80s when the country was earning its reputation as a tiger of Asia. "The '80s, those were the golden years for us."

Mr. Yoon recalls the time when driving a cab brought in a reasonable amount of money, enough to provide for a family of three. The strict measures imposed by President Park were gradually lifted by his successor Chun Doo-hwan as he tried to improve his popularity. People had more freedom and wanted to go out and enjoy. "Many customers were standing in the streets waiting for a cab to come by. We had our meters, but for places at the outskirts of Seoul, I could demand whatever I wanted. On a good day I could cover around 500 kilometers. Now it's about half that because of the traffic." These days, with so many people owning their own cars and a pretty good subway system, it is easy to see cab drivers lined up at such downtown hot spots as the Seoul Plaza Hotel and Samsung Electronics headquarters, waiting for customers.

The golden years were especially good after 1986, when Mr. Yoon became the owner of his own cab. The government had offered company cab drivers an opportunity to buy the right to operate private taxis. He drove his own taxi until 1992 when he sold it for 12 million won. After that, he started driving a taxi for Gukje Unsu, his current company. By driving his own cab, he says that he could make around 2.4 million won a month. After driving a cab for Gukje Unsu for four years, he quit his job to help out at the noodle shop his wife opened across from Jinro Department store in Uijeongbu. But after eight months there, the Asian economic crisis hit and many small businesses went bankrupt, including his wife's. Mr. Lee went back to Gukje.

The biggest challenge in driving a company cab is getting the daily fee for the taxi company. Failing to do so is considered a major loss of face. This is why Mr. Yoon prefers to take designated routes, which offer him the best opportunities to make money. For him the golden route is mainly around the downtown area around Seoul City Hall. He certainly would like to have more customers like the woman in the backseat.

After spending nearly 40 minutes battling Seoul's gridlock, Mr. Yoon's cab stops in front of Lotte Department Store. The meter shows 5,800 won. The woman gives him 6,000 won and waits for the 200 won he gives her.

A weak smile crosses the driver's face: "People used to leave the small change with me."

Many things have changed since the golden days, including his "golden hours." Now they run from midnight to 2 or 3 in the morning, hours subject to late-night premiums, two hours later than what they used to be in the 1970s. "I try to meet my quota, and when I am done with that then comes my extra pay that I take home."

Leaving his "golden route" means that it is less likely he will make his daily requirement, so he prefers not to take customers who are out of the way. For instance, to Ilsan. Technically this is a violation of taxi rules and drivers can be fined for it. Any driver reported refusing a customer has to face a fine of up to 300,000 won, which is worth more than three-days work. "Why wouldn't I know that it's a violation? I just pray that the customer doesn't report me."

Kim Man-kwon, 55, who has been driving cabs since 1971 and is a close friend to Mr. Yoon, shares some of the feelings of his colleague. "It's just getting worse every day," he says. "People are less willing to take a cab. Why would anyone want to pay more for something when it is getting slower and slower?"

Although eligible to buy a private cab, Mr. Yoon says he is not willing to invest the 70 million won or so one costs.

"I drove a private cab in the golden years," he says. "Now, I just don't think it's worth it. Considering all the maintenance costs, it's not what it used to be. I bring in around 1.3 million won per month by driving a company cab. Still, I think that it's a better deal. Times have changed."

by Brian Lee

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