Thursday, April 11, 2013 | 12:47 p.m.
Complaints about cab drivers refusing to give people rides for relatively short distances are fairly commonplace downtown. Just try getting a cabbie to drive you from Fremont Street at Las Vegas Boulevard to Soho Lofts at Charleston and Las Vegas boulevards and watch him roll his eyes as he tells you he’s going on break.
But the story of how a cab driver Thursday night refused to give a ride to Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room, Emergency Arts, The Beat coffeehouse and part-owner of Oscar’s steakhouse in the Plaza, might beat them all.
Around 9:30 p.m., Cornthwaite walked over to a line of waiting taxis on Fourth Street, a block west of the Cocktail Room.
Tall and lanky, Cornthwaite played tight end at a small Midwestern college. He’s been in Las Vegas for 18 years, having worked for places on the Strip before opening the Cocktail Room seven years ago. But for his long hair that is usually pulled into a ponytail, he looks like anybody else you might see on the street.
Not that looks should make any kind of difference to someone seeking a cab ride.
But in this case they made a big difference.
Cornthwaite said he got into the back of a cab and gave the address of his home, which is in the Scotch 80s, the same neighborhood of Mayor Carolyn Goodman and comedian Jerry Lewis.
The cab driver, Cornthwaite said, sat for a minute and said nothing.
Then, looking at Cornthwaite’s reflection in his rear-view mirror, the cabbie said: “People that look like you, they don’t pay me!”
Cornthwaite was dumbfounded. He told the cabbie he lives about two miles away, the fare would be $12 and he would give an $8 tip.
“Please, please just get out of my cab!” the driver said. “I’m going on break; I’m going home!”
Cornthwaite didn’t budge. He said the driver got out, opened the backseat door and tugged at his bag, trying to throw it outside.
Cornthwaite got on his cell phone and called the Nevada Taxicab Authority to make a formal complaint. As Cornthwaite was talking, the cabbie got back in the driver's seat, put the vehicle into gear, then demanded a “deposit.”
Someone at the authority said it’s a driver’s right to ask for a deposit. So Cornthwaite gave the driver some money.
A few minutes later, they arrived at his home. By this time, the cabbie had been apologizing profusely. Cornthwaite even tipped him.
Talking about the story Thursday morning at The Beat, a Zappos employee who moved into a temporary space on Third Street last year chimed in that she had encountered problems getting cab rides, too.
Kristin Colbert said she had been refused rides from cabbies on four or five occasions, the last time being three months ago. They tell her the ride isn’t worth it to them because she doesn’t live very far away.
Colbert lives in Sky Las Vegas, a condo on the north part of the Strip. It’s 2.8 miles away from downtown; the fare is $13; and she usually pays with a $20 and doesn’t ask for change.
“I argue with them,” she said. “I literally say ‘it’s 2.8 miles away, it’s unsafe to walk at night, it’s late at night.’ I’m trying to abide by the law by not driving after drinking, and I’m willing to pay for the service.”
One time, she complained to police who were nearby and they told her to go to the El Cortez taxi stand. Since then, she's found, drivers there always give her a ride. (She thinks it’s because they believe she’s a hotel guest.)
Colbert has never filed a formal complaint with the Taxicab Authority, however.
The authority doesn’t receive many complaints about cab drivers downtown, said Terri Williams, public information officer.
“But just because we’re not receiving complaints doesn’t mean they are not happening,” Williams added.
State law lists reasons why a potential passenger may be denied a cab ride. The driver: has to fear for his or her safety; has already been “engaged” by another rider; or has to show it would be against the law to carry the passenger. The rider also has to be requesting a ride within the driver’s “allocated” area.
Nevada administrative code adds to the list of reasons for denial. Those reasons include:
• The passenger doesn’t specifically identify a destination.
• The passenger is hostile or uses offensive language.
• The driver believes the passenger is armed.
The list doesn’t include refusing someone because they look a certain way, or because they are requesting a relatively short ride.
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.