I’ve never worked as a taxi driver, but I’ve taken plenty of taxis. It’s sort of like a blind date every time. You don’t know who’s in the front seat at the wheel. But before you panic, remember the guy in front doesn’t know who you are either.
Lou Solitske understands this dynamic. The former taxi driver in Sacramento, California, took the art of taxi driving to a new high: transforming it into a masterful collection of personal essays that present the world of taxi driving as not only one of getting from here to there, but of making momentary but meaningful human connections.
It doesn’t hurt that he has a heart of gold. “One of the things I do is get stranded people home, regardless of their ability to pay,” he writes in his memoir “Taxi Tales.” “All they have to do is let me know what’s going on from the very beginning of the ride and not treat me like a chump.”
Don’t worry — not too many people took Solitske as a chump.
“I have been a night driver for Sacramento Yellow Cab since 1987,” he writes. “Right off the bat I found myself in bizarre, humorous, sad, thought-provoking and scary situations.”
Solitske describes himself as standing 6feet, 2inches tall and weighing 275 pounds. “I wear black boots, black pants, a black shirt, a black leather vest, black fingerless gloves and a black fedora. All in all, not a pretty sight. My attire and demeanor are designed to project the image that I would be more trouble than I’m worth.”
Frequenters of the Seaside Coffee shop know him. He’s been spotted walking along Broadway and U.S. Highway 101 with a camera and long lens. And the signature black outfit.
Originally from Chicago, Solitske’s family moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1950.
He considers himself lucky in life “from the get-go.”
“When I was born they told my parents not to get attached to me because I wasn’t going to last too long,” he said.
Solitske was born with six holes in his ventricular septum, the wall separating the lower chamber of the heart.
“I had open-heart surgery in 1963, when 1 was 15, with a 75 percent mortality rate,” he said. “I knew what the odds were, but I made it. Ever since then I’ve felt compelled to give back.
He “escaped” in 1965 and never came back.
With a degree in economics from San Jose State, he went from economics to selling pharmaceuticals and later as a manager’s representative at the San Francisco Merchandise Mart selling computers to doctors.
He hated it — despite being the company’s No. 1 salesman.
“They had me training new people,” Solitske recalled. “This one trainee said ‘I oozed sincerity and dripped credibility.’ I was selling my soul.”
He transitioned from sales, driving cabs at night on a part-time basis. During those rides, he regaled passengers with words of wisdom, arias from famous operas and recitations of the works of Longfellow, Yeats and Poe — and Solitske.
Despite his affinity for arts and letters, Solitske stepped into the good-guys-wear-black wardrobe as a precaution in dicey neighborhoods where customers were as likely to pull a knife as they were a $5 bill.
“Looking like Guido the Hit Man helped me keep alive a little bit,” he recalled. “It was, ‘Hey, man, don’t tread on me.’ I had six robbery attempts. I was stabbed seven times.”
Driving a taxi was an opportunity for Solitske to make money, have fun and help people, he said.
At the instigation of friends and passengers, he started writing his memories down — soon finding enough material to fill a book. The project took 15 years, with the book’s release in 2001. It continues to sell.
Solitske’s memoirs are a little bit Robert De Niro, a little bit Judd Hirsch, with a lot of heart thrown in.
How many other taxi drivers would carry a wounded owl to a veterinary hospital? Kick bigots out of the back seat? Offer a free ride on Christmas? And recite poetry, too?
On to Seaside
After his memoir was published, Solitske continued driving, selling copies of “Taxi Tales” to his customers.
“I had a captive audience,” he smiled.
But his taxi driving days were coming to an end as he and Jackie moved to Half Moon Bay, California, on the coast.
“We loved Half Moon Bay, but she hated our home,” he said.
She also hated the heat.
They considered Portland and Astoria before a Realtor sent them a listing from Seaside.
“We bought it sight unseen. The Realtor was a nervous wreck — but it was perfect.”
They relocated in May 2015.
Tragically, Jackie died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, shortly after their move.
“I took care of her,” he said. “To watch this capable, confident woman melt away was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
Lens on life
Today he can be seen walking the streets of Seaside with a long lens. “I’m an omnivore, I’ll gobble up anything that gets in front of my camera,” he said.
Solitske describes Seaside as “a varied and target-rich environment for a photographer.”
Plus each camera weighs about 22 pounds. “I hump between 6 and 8 miles on a typical day — my lazy day I do 10 to 15 miles. If I don’t get my shots. I still get my exercise.”
At 71, Solitske said, “If I don’t use it, I’ll lose it and go right downhill.”
But nothing he has ever done to allow him to help more people in desperate situations than driving his cab.
“It’s in the middle of the night, I’ll have a parent call with a sick child, or a woman is battered and I’ve got to get her out of the situation before he kills her or she kills him,” Solitske said. “In situations like that money is not important.”
Solitske said he considered himself the luckiest driver in Sacramento. “I just got these trips out of nowhere — and I do believe it was a result of my deposits in the karma bank.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and the editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.