With his freshly issued taxi licence in hand, a 23-year-old Coleman Varga nervously pulled over at Yonge and Wellesley and picked up a young lady.
“Boy, my pimp is going to get mad because I didn’t make any money today,” was the first thing she said.
As they drove a few blocks down to Jarvis and Carleton, Varga’s first fare described her working life in detail before leaving him with a fifty-cent piece for a forty-cent ride.
“That was the easiest dime I ever made,” said Varga. “I was hooked.”
Now 89 years old, Varga sits in his wood-panelled basement in Scarborough, surrounded by the tokens of a life funded by 38 years on the meter. There are mounted muskies reeled in at his cabin on Buckhorn Lake and black-and-white photos of himself in the boxing ring with a retired Jack Dempsey behind the ropes.
He recalls giving rides to John Diefenbaker and Bobby Hull. Sugar Ray Robinson was a talker, while Joe Lewis sat silent. And Benny Goodman was a great tipper.
Varga started driving cab in 1948 and bought his own licence in 1954. From then on, he drove six days a week until 1986, when back trouble took him out of the driver’s seat. But he still has his licence.
In fact, as far as the Star can tell, he’s had a taxi licence for longer than anyone else in the city.
There are 4,823 taxi licences in the City of Toronto. Twenty-six of them were issued on Jan. 1, 1957, when the taxis operating 13 municipalities were amalgamated into a single metropolitan Toronto taxi licence.
Eighteen of those original licences are owned by individuals, but none of them are driving their taxis anymore.
Varga, who bought a second licence in 1981, leases out his licences to an agent, who arranges for drivers with the major fleets. For this, he clears about $2,700 per month.
Varga admits he hasn’t been paying attention to the taxi debate. But his reflections on a life behind the wheel show just how much the industry — and the city it serves — has changed.
“There was no Gardiner, no 401, no nothing. Just the QEW to go to Hamilton,” he said.
Varga bought his first licence for $3,000 (licences now sell for almost $300,000) and it was legally supposed to come with the car, but he says sellers often arranged to get their car back under the table. So he bought a black ’49 Pontiac and put a roof sign on it.
The meter started at 40 cents and he’d make about $25 a day. Of course, gas cost 30 cents a gallon and you could fill up for less than $2.
Traffic was “nothing much” and Varga would cruise for street fares in the evenings after the bars dumped out. The first bar in the city opened in 1947 and people couldn’t handle the hard stuff, he said. There were lots of fights and more than a few confrontations in his cab.
“I banged a few guys,” he said. “I’m not a cream puff, you know. I’ve been around a little bit.”
One night, while driving along Shuter St., Varga’s fare leaned forward and said: “How would you like a knife in the back?”
“So I pulled into the lot there, I dragged him out and whacked him once and I still have the knife!” he said.
Hardly a trophy, the little bone-handled pen knife had to be fished out of a desk drawer to back up the story.
Varga says that while he loved the taxi life, he wouldn’t get into the business now.
“There are too many cabs,” he said. “You’d have one hell of a time trying to eke out a living.”