The driver pulled off the highway in Faribault, sent there to retrieve two truckers on their way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It was a good gig, a prearranged pickup that kept business going without having to resort to dispatch and the random street hails that made the first few years as a cabbie so dicey.
The driver opened the door of the sparkling Lincoln Town Car and stepped out into frigid winds to help the weathered truckers load their gear into the trunk.
Just before getting back behind the wheel, she paused outside the door and adjusted her pantyhose.
Chey Eisenman is not your typical cabbie. Yet in the past five years, she has built a lucrative business that launched her from driving drug addicts and sex workers in “the dirtiest, nastiest cab ever,” to becoming a self-employed limo driver chauffeuring a carefully cultivated client list in her own Town Car.
Usually dress-clad and carefully coifed, though with the self-described “mouth of a truck driver,” Eisenman, 34, has become one of the Twin Cities area’s most recognizable drivers. She tweets about her adventures on the road to a couple thousand followers (at @CheyCab) and blogs for the Star Tribune, all while shaking up the male-dominated taxi-driving establishment.
“It’s definitely a tough business,” she said. “It was very hostile at first. A lot of women wash out, so a lot of guys think women don’t belong in this business.”
Veteran cabbies have threatened her over turf. An instructor for her licensing class humiliated her in front of the other students. Another cabbie complained that because of the amenities she provides — on-time pickups, a clean cab, phone chargers, an iPad for customers to play their own music selections — his customers now were expecting more.
Does her devotion to better service come from her gender?
“I think it does,” she said. “I’m not perfect, and I don’t think women make better cabdrivers all the time.” But there is something womanly, she said, about trying to give people a comfortable experience.
“And I think women are better drivers,” she said. Women don’t put their egos “into [their] driving.”
Wendy Blossom is a business traveler who uses Eisenman for airport pickups. She said Eisenman, as a woman, knows when to talk to her and when to back off.
“She’s more attuned to where you’re at. If I get into the car and it’s been a crappy week and I don’t feel like talking, she’s very quiet,” Blossom said. “If it’s less hectic, we have some fun conversations. I think she’s just a little more attentive.”
When Eisenman fell into the profession five years ago, it was a combination of recession survival and a practical joke.
“It started out as an adventure,” she said.
Eisenman had been laid off from her IT job at a tech company in 2009 and was struggling to find work. So she made a list of ways to make money. A farm girl who grew up delivering calves in southern Minnesota, she was never one to shy away from challenging work.
‘A man’s world’
“I put cab driving on the list as a joke, and I think partly because of the reaction from people when I told them I was thinking about driving a cab, that’s what made me curious.”
Their reactions: “ ‘Who would do that? Nobody drives a cab.’ ”
What they meant was that people like Eisenman didn’t drive cabs. Taxi drivers are typically male, nonwhite and don’t have high school degrees, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census. Median pay in 2014 was $24,070 per year.
Although Eisenman eventually surpassed her IT income by working 80-hour weeks as a driver, acquaintances still think of her job as “a fourth-class thing,” she said. It’s made dating especially difficult.
“It’s a conversation stopper,” she said. “It was like telling people I was a stripper.”
In Minnesota, only 11.7 percent of drivers are women — less than the national average. Though for people who ride in taxis with any regularity, it might feel like even less than that.
“Every single night, I have passengers say to me they’ve never had a female driver,” said Jenny Stevens, who has been shuttling barflies home after last call for more than a year with Lyft, a ride-sharing service that lets customers hail a driver using a mobile app.
“It’s kind of like a man’s world,” said Sue Daly, a driver with 1010 Taxi in Bloomington, who got into the profession after being the designated driver to her two daughters all through college. “People don’t realize that it can be a good profession and you can definitely make pretty good money.”
Danger on the road
Eisenman, who gets a lot of business from Internet searches, says some passengers seek her out because it makes them feel safer to see a woman behind the wheel.
“It’s a little scary sometimes to get into a cab with a stranger, so it is comforting,” said Peggy Schommer, one of Eisenman’s regular clients. “I feel probably the safest I’ve ever felt in a cab when she’s driving.”
But safety is a two-way street when it comes to the taxi industry. Drivers are more than 20 times likelier to be murdered on the job than workers in other professions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While many people see safety as one of the main hindrances to women entering the profession, ride-sharing companies could be changing that. While Uber, another mobile ride-share app, does not give a gender breakdown, a Lyft spokeswoman said 30 percent of its drivers nationally are women.
Loni Leland said she never considered a career as a taxi driver, but Uber offered assurances that made her more comfortable. She’s been driving for the service since last May.
“Basically, everything is traceable by phone, by credit card, if something were to happen,” she said. “At first I was a little nervous being a female, but after my first few rides, I don’t think twice about my safety.”
Having gotten her start as a traditional taxi driver picking up street hails and getting calls from dispatch, Eisenman has been in her share of scary situations. She’s been robbed, assaulted, held at gunpoint and had passengers skip out on their fares. While these risks are things all taxi drivers have to deal with, “as a female cabdriver, the perception is we’re an easier target,” she said.
At the same time, she got to know the late-night underbelly of the Twin Cities — prostitutes and drug users who treated her like a confidante.
“I was exposed to people I never met in my life,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff a cabdriver sees.” From her cab, for example, she witnessed the explosion of heroin in the metro area, from suburb to suburb.
The cab evangelist
Very early in Eisenman’s career, a passenger tried to rob her at gunpoint. But she wasn’t frightened.
“I just got this feeling that he was more scared holding the gun than I was having it pointed at me,” she said.
Instead of handing over her money, she improvised. “I said, ‘You picked the wrong cabdriver to rob.’ ” There was a truck behind her car, and she told the robber that in the truck was her boyfriend, an off-duty cop. She gave him an ultimatum: Get out of the cab at the next light, or rob her and face the consequences. After “the longest 10 seconds of my life,” he got out at the stoplight.
“It’s embarrassing to admit, but that experience almost hooked me on cab driving,” she said. “Because I was like, ‘I got this. I can handle this.’ I realized very early on that I was uncovering skills I didn’t even know I had.”
Eisenman eventually became something of a cab evangelist, happy to proclaim the profession’s virtues in the hopes of finding converts. Before ride-sharing took a bite out of her business, she dreamed of having her own fleet of “lady cabs.” Even now, with things slowing down a bit, she believes driving can be the answer for people looking for a way out of poverty, a criminal past or disreputable work.
Having driven a steady stream of sex workers early in her career, she has taken on a side project of helping them out — sometimes with a free ride or a hot chocolate, other times with the offer to edit a résumé or pass on industry connections to get them off the streets and into a taxi career. They might be unlikely candidates for the job, but then, so was Eisenman.
A half-decade into her career as a cabbie, she’s still addicted to it. “Washing out” has never been an option for her.
“Imagine going to work every day and the experience is like a TV show,” she said. “Because the experience was so foreign to what I was used to, it was like every day I got up and it was the start of my own show, and I couldn’t wait to find out what the [expletive] was going to happen next.”