TORONTO — He stood by the side of the road, briefcase in hand, and flagged down Katherine Monserie’s cab on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.
It was a late October afternoon and the man, who was about 30 years old and well-dressed, slid into the passenger seat. He curtly told her to drive to a location a few blocks away.
Two minutes later, he leaned over and wrapped his hands around her throat, demanding money. Monserie froze, but then her adrenaline kicked in and she elbowed him, slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a stop with a squeal, right in the middle of the road.
“That’s when I think he realized he wouldn’t get anything from me, and he opened the door and jumped out,” says Monserie, recalling the 1990 incident. She was shaken, but 15 minutes later she was back on the road looking for fares.
“One (incident) in all these years,” says one of the city’s few female cabbies. “That’s not bad, is it?”
There are about 10,000 taxi drivers in Greater Toronto. Not more than 15 are women, and that number hasn’t changed in 40 years, says Gail Souter of Beck Taxi. It’s the same story from Vancouver to Ottawa, from Montreal to Halifax.
“It’s not any woman’s first choice,” says Souter, who worked for the company on and off for 15 years before she took over the business. “There are robberies, shootings and knifings, and women are just more vulnerable.”
Beck Taxi has some 2,600 registered drivers; only three are female. Souter, who has run the company for 24 years since her father, founder Jim Beck, died, says it is viewed as a man’s job and women don’t see it as an option.
It was Souter who encouraged Shirley Marashi to give it a try. Her husband owned two taxis and had been asking her to drive one for years, but it wasn’t until Marashi met Souter at a company picnic three years ago that she changed her mind.
In June 2006, Marashi, now 50, enrolled in the mandatory taxi course and discovered she was a natural. “Very few pass it the first time around,” she says. “It was tough, but I did it.”
One of the main reasons women don’t flock to taxi driving is because hours are long. Most cabbies work a 12-hour shift, either from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. It is not a job that is compatible with raising children, although several women interviewed made it work.
One of the reasons Marashi resisted for so long was that her children were young. Now the former legal secretary works Monday to Friday while her husband works the night shift. She starts her day at 7:30 a.m. after packing lunch for her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.
She’s home by 5 p.m. to take them to extracurricular activities.
Customers are always surprised to see a woman driving.
“They start chatting with me and more often than not, I’ve heard some great story about their life before I’ve dropped them off.”
When Monserie started driving, one customer asked her if she was allowed to drive a car, and, if so, if she was allowed to work at night.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was Toronto and the year 1978, for God’s sake,” she says with a hearty laugh. “It wasn’t as if I was the first one.”
No one knows for sure who the first female cabbie was in Toronto, but in New York Wilma Russey was the first to drive a taxi in 1915.
One reason female cabbies do it is for the money. After paying insurance, gas and other expenses — a total of about $100 — a cabbie can make between $100 and $200 a day.
Wilma Walsh used to love driving, but an accident in August 2006 landed her in the hospital for five months with more than a dozen fractures. She was in her cab at a corner, waiting to turn left, when she was rear-ended by a speeding car. It pushed her into the path of oncoming traffic and she was hit by at least two cars and an armoured truck.
The 66-year-old now walks with two canes and wants to go back to driving, but she has been battling the city over her Ambassador licence plate. There is a tinge of sadness as Walsh talks about the plate.
“I used to love my work and I recommended it to every woman who asked me,” says Walsh. “I am really a people’s person and I liked meeting new people all the time.”
Now, male or female, Walsh tells them to find something else if they can. “This is a tough life, for men and women.”