Things were better before the taxi war. Back in the 20th century, for example, Taxi Judy drove a beloved Checker Cab. When a tourist landed at the little airport on the edge of her little town, she was there to pick him up. Nobody coveted Judy's low-paying job. It was her niche.
The 21st century has been less kind. These days her cab is an old Ford van with a balky passenger window and 214,000 miles on the odometer. When the occasional tourist lands at the airstrip — by the way, it's not exactly Tampa International Airport — sometimes a competitor beats her to the business.
Cedar Key, population 900, is one of Florida's most charming towns, known for seafood, tourism and friendly residents. Some old-timers also brag about the unusual taxi service, born during the Depression when a lonely runway was built a few miles from downtown.
An incoming pilot who needed a ride would fly just above the downtown rooftops to let everyone know about the impending arrival. A dishwasher or a hotel clerk or even a child who knew how to drive would hop into whatever vehicle was available and speed to the airstrip to transport the fare.
As the years passed and the airstrip got busier, a real taxi service became a necessity. Over the past half century, the cabbie crew has been a colorful lot. Some cabbies have been friendly, one a little terrifying and one might throw in a haircut as part of the deal.
• • •
Taxi Judy, who also answers to Judy Bason, has been on the job since 1999. A fifth-generation Floridian, she is 59, has white hair, wears clothing that celebrates the football team in Gainesville and favors "Daisy by Marc Jacobs" perfume. Her cuddly terrier-poodle mix, Gaia, sprawls on her lap or across her shoulders as Judy travels through town. Between fares she reads page-turning romances. At present she's working her way through Coral Kiss, by Jayne Ann Krentz.
Some people are certain that Taxi Judy knows every soul in town, but she says, "I used to, but not anymore. Too much has changed."
Cedar Key, connected to the mainland by a bridge and a 20-mile two-lane road, has gotten sort of modern, with even the 150-year-old Island Hotel offering high-speed Wi-Fi. Taxi Judy graduated to a cellphone a few years back, but she has never worked a computer in her life. "I do know some people who have email," she admits.
George Oakley, by contrast, is a computer guy. After graduating from Michigan State, he enjoyed a long career with IBM in Southern California, Atlanta and New York. He believes in the power of advertising, especially on the Internet.
He rents golf carts for scooting around the island. If you contact him from the air, he runs out to the airport in one of those carts to fetch you. For $22 you and your party get a ride to town and use of the cart for the day. Taxi Judy charges $5 a head coming and going. If you fly in with three passengers, say, she charges $5 for each of you.
What does your party receive for $20? You get transport, a history tour, the pleasure of her company, a chance to pet Gaia and maybe hear a little gossip. But you don't get a solar-powered golf cart for the rest of the day.
"I am not in the taxi business," says Oakley. "I'm really not. I am in the golf cart rental business. But I can understand why she may not like me. I'm here, and some people call me when they arrive, and I am more than happy to shuttle them back to town."
• • •
Small towns change. Even Cedar Key.
Twelve thousand years ago, the Gulf of Mexico barrier islands known today as the Cedar Keys were a fishing paradise for American Indians. In 1839 Cedar Key hosted a federal fort to ward off irate Seminoles who objected to plans to deport them to reservations in Oklahoma. Cedar Key was a railroad town and a lumbering town and a commercial fishing town. Now Cedar Key harvests clams and tourists. And every year somebody new, often a retiree with money, discovers its charms and buys a lot.
Rustic cottages, once home to commercial mullet netters, are still part of the Cedar Key landscape. But so are the new expensive stilt homes, condos and apartments on the waterfront. Rising property taxes have driven some old-timers off the island.
Not Taxi Judy.
Divorced with two adult children, she makes do in a little working-class neighborhood called Kiss Me Quick. "The train used to come through here," she explains in her honeydew accent. "The conductor would yell 'kiss me quick' to his wife as he boarded."
Like many older Cedar Key residents still here, she scratches out a living. She tends bar, waits on tables and cleans at the new condos and apartments all over the island. Always close, no matter where she works, are her cellphone and aviation radio, just in case.
"Yes," she says. "Hello, honey. I'll be right out."
The George Lewis Airport consists of a 2,300-foot runway, a couple of air socks and a Portalet. Judy parks and waits.
"Honey," Judy tells the pilot over the radio. "There's a wicked crosswind. You might not want to land."
But Joaquin Barriola, a tourist from Spain, says everything will be fine. A moment later he taxis his Cherokee Warrior P28 rental up to Judy's van and wishes her a good day. It's the third time in two weeks he has flown across the state from the Daytona Beach area to Cedar Key, his new love. A commercial pilot, he is looking for work in America. Maybe he'll find something near Cedar Key.
"Where do you want to go?" she asks.
"I want a good hamburger," he says.
"I know just the place," she says.
Miss Glenda, over at Annie's Restaurant, throws a patty on the grill. Glenda is 42 now. When she was 11, she bused tables and swept the floor at a waterfront restaurant. When it was her turn, she drove out to the airstrip to pick up the crazed pilot who had dive-bombed the town.
"Sometimes it sounded like they were going to land on the roof," says Glenda, whose last name is Richburg. "Nobody seemed to care that the person picking them up in a motor vehicle was a little kid. It was how things got done in Cedar Key."
In the restaurant, Taxi Judy and Miss Glenda run through the list of taxi drivers they both knew and loved. Helen and Ray Brown. Lester and Shelby Ridgeway. Choppin' Charlie Crevasse, the town barber, ran the taxi when he wasn't terrifying teenage boys in the age of the Beatles. "They'd go in for just a clip," Taxi Judy says, "and come out with a crew cut."
Then came Miss Edna. Born on Hog Island in 1913, she grew up without electricity, running water or an adequate way to ward off mosquitoes. Edna Coulter learned to be as tough as her commercial fishing twin brother, Edgar, whom everybody called "Yellow Legs" for apparently no reason except that most men in Cedar Key were required to have nicknames.
Miss Edna feared no man, woman or child. She was a good mother to her children and a community matriarch She smoked like a cowboy and enjoyed her beer. Her skin was leathery, her eyes blue as the Gulf Stream.
She knew how to clean a mullet, pop the head from a shrimp and open a clam without damaging the meat. Nobody made a hearts-of-palm salad as tasty. Between taxi work she waited on tables and ironed clothes for the island's well-to-do residents. She tried to live like a good Christian — "If you were sick she brought you food, and if you needed to go to the doctor she'd drive you to Chiefland to see the doctor," says her son Henry — but felt uncomfortable among the hypocrites in church pews. Her daughter-in-law, Inez Worthington, says, "There was never a finer person than Miss Edna."
As a taxi driver, though, Miss Edna was never an angel. "If you want me to pick you in front of the Island Hotel at 1 p.m.," she was known to tell clients, "be out on the sidewalk in front of the hotel at 1 p.m. Don't make me wait." In a popular story, she marched inside the hotel, grabbed a dawdling tourist by the ear and dragged him into her taxi.
Taxi Judy and her best friend, Miss Anne Osteen, like that story. But they prefer the notorious Miss Edna road-rage story.
"What you have to understand," Miss Anne says, "was that Miss Edna was like a mother cub and her taxi service was like her cubs. You just didn't mess with her cubs."
So a couple of young women from the mainland heard about how they could earn easy money by picking up folks at the airstrip. Oblivious to the grave danger, they parked one afternoon next to the airstrip and waited for a plane and riches.
Alas, Miss Edna showed up first, breathing fire. Her youthful competitors, suddenly aware of their mortality, fled for their lives. Miss Edna drove inches behind them in her weathered Ford station wagon shaking her fists. The terrified out-of-towners sped over the bridge, figuring that Miss Edna would surely give up once they left Cedar Key.
"Miss Edna drove behind them," Miss Anne relates gleefully. "The story is, she bumped their rear bumper with her front bumper before she let them go on."
Nobody was killed.
"They were lucky," Taxi Judy chips in. "We're talking about Miss Edna, honey. Understand? They could have ended up in the Gulf of Mexico ate by sharks."
• • •
George Oakley, Miss Judy's new competition in the taxi/shuttle business, is a civilized, cosmopolitan man.
He is divorced, 69, brusque but not rude. He discovered Cedar Key four years ago and decided to never leave. He thought about retiring, but he wasn't good at it, and opened the golf cart business just to keep busy and because he believes in capitalism. He owns 14 neatly kept golf carts of different dimensions. When he drives a cart to the airport to pick up a customer, he drives fast, which is not the Cedar Key way. Oakley talks fast, too.
He has joined the Chamber of Commerce. He volunteers at the history museum down the street. He seldom misses a City Commission meeting, where he enjoys sharing his ideas.
"Cedar Key is a wonderful place and I don't want to change it one bit," he says. "But that doesn't mean it doesn't need improvements. Of course it does. I'm all about improving Cedar Key, but not changing it."
Mister George should have nothing to worry about.
Taxi Judy is a sweet-tempered soul, after all. She figures she'll somehow make ends meet no matter what happens.
Miss Edna died in 1991.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.