Crimes of Hygiene

City inspectors battle the scourge of Houston -- ill-kempt cabbies

As cabdrivers go, Alice Fountain thought she looked pretty sharp that day in June. She was wearing silk, with stockings and heels, and she was loading up two old ladies at Intercontinental Airport when a voice told her to stop right there.

The inspector told Fountain she wasn't going anywhere dressed like that. He didn't care that she was wearing silk. Her blouse had no collar, he said, and those culottes sure looked like gym shorts to him. Fountain began shouting at him, and he called the police over to restrain her as he wrote her a $150 ticket for violating the cabby dress code.

"I understand I represent the city of Houston," Fountain said later. "That's why I dress nicely. Like I told him, I was dressed better than he was, and he works for the city."

There is probably no private businessman in Houston more governed by government than the cabdriver. The city determines the vehicles that may serve as cabs, the equipment within them, the number of cabs on the streets, the rates, where the cabs may go and what drivers may do to attract riders. A prospective driver must be able to read and write English (though the rules say nothing about speaking it). He must also provide witnesses to his good moral character. Houston has not yet followed New York's example in asking drivers to be more mannerly -- to say "yes, sir" and "no, sir" and "have a nice day, sir" -- but since 1986, the city has regulated the hygiene and appearance of its 2,000 cabbies.

"It shall be the duty of every taxicab driver to be hygienically clean, well groomed, neat and suitably dressed," reads Section 46-111 of the City Code. Men will be clean-shaven, as the law goes, or they will have their beards and hair trimmed and groomed "in order not to present a ragged appearance." Drivers will wear shirts with collars, and they will not wear, among other items, T-shirts or swimsuits or sandals.

Brian Wice, a part-time municipal court judge, said that dirty cab drivers are one reason "our country is going to hell in a hand basket." Then he laughed and confessed that he is another judge who finds the law rather absurd. As he understands it, most laws have something to do with the public welfare. "Does the public have a compelling interest in seeing that the taxi driver's shirt has a collar?" he asked. "I'm hard-pressed to see the public interest in upholding a statute of that ilk."

City Attorney Gene Locke declined to return phone calls, so it came to Joe Chernow, president of Yellow Cab Company, to explain the law's rationale. "Some of our drivers were an embarrassment," he said. They smelled. They looked like they came right off the beach. Because most cabbies are private contractors, Chernow and other company managers could do little to clean them up. So when the city proposed to regulate driver appearance, Chernow was grateful and offered his suggestions. It seemed to him good business, and to the city, it was just good foreign policy. This roving band of businessmen -- uneducated, mussed and malodorous as they may be -- are not merely taxicab drivers. These are the city's ambassadors.

"Think about it," Chernow explained. "You get off an airplane, and the first person you're likely to converse with is a cabdriver. When you leave, the last person you'll speak to is probably a cabdriver, too. To require them to wear trousers I think is appropriate."

The regulations have allowed Houston to create one of "the finest fleets" in the country, said Chernow. The long arm of the law extends from an agency with a name nearly as long: the Transportation Regulation Division of the city of Houston's Department of Finance and Administration. In the office on Sawyer Street, regulatory manager Blanton Daniels was wearing trousers and a starched shirt and tie. He was attired this way not because anyone told him to, he said, but because this was his idea of neat and suitably dressed. His thoughts on the matter might differ from other people's, and that's why there's a law for people like that, and 11 inspectors to enforce it.

"It's not really a safety issue," Daniels said. "It's more of a public service. If you get in a cab with a person who's got a dirty T-shirt on and hasn't had a bath, I think the city owes you the public service that the driver be clean."

Daniels' department regulates all the city's vehicles for hire, of which cabs are the largest contingent. Because judges don't like the dress code much, the inspectors have focused on other violations in recent years, Daniels said, and tickets for ragged appearances are down to only a few a month. In their dog-eat-dog world, it's often the cabdrivers who complain about the cabdrivers. "They snitch each other off," said Daniels. They'll call about a colleague's missing collar, or even to report that someone is "stinking, just physically stinking."

Alan Berreng pulled up to the taxi stand at Intercontinental with a few missing teeth and in need of a shave. The day before, an inspector had found him unfit for duty. His white pants had gone a little gray, and Berreng couldn't drive until he returned from Wal-mart in a new, $20 pair of jeans. It wasn't fair, he said.

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