The jitney driver's world

Killing this week shows danger behind bootleg taxi service

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photosJitney driver Ron Gasden makes his way down Penn Avenue.
Mr. Gasden helps carry Christmas items out of the back of his car after giving a ride to a mother and her two daughters from East Liberty to Wilkinsburg on Thursday.

Ron Gasden gets his first fare at 5:50 p.m.

The sky is already black as a young mother waits for him on the corner of Highland Avenue and Broad Street Mall. Their paths crossed at the same corner last summer, when Mr. Gasden, a party promoter, flirted with her.

She climbs into Mr. Gasden's burgundy TrailBlazer and they ride off into the cold night.

Mr. Gasden, at 23, is a jitney driver, perhaps the youngest in Pittsburgh. In January, he marks his first anniversary of being in the brotherhood of bootleg taxi drivers.

They are an odd mix: Young and old. Gritty and smooth. Buttoned-down and blue-collar. An assortment of men and women who taxi their cars to earn extra money, send their kids to college or just make it through the week.

Many operate out of jitney stands, but when they begin a trip, the drivers are on their own. There is no dispatcher keeping track of where they are headed. The illegitimacy of their work often forces them into the shadows.

It can be dangerous.

On Tuesday, Nzubamunu Mitete, an immigrant from Congo, an associate minister at the Pentecostal Temple in East Liberty and a jitney driver, was found shot dead on a street in Lincoln-Lemington. Police haven't determined whether it was a robbery, but said they are looking at other recent jitney robberies in the area.

In the past five years, at least 13 jitney drivers have been victims of robbery or assaults -- four of them fatal -- while on trips or simply standing in front of their stations.

For protection, most jitney drivers carry a cell phone. Some carry a weapon.

But there is not too much you can do when your livelihood depends on picking up strangers.

It is standard procedure for them to ask a potential passenger for an address, a phone number, where they are headed and how many riders are going.

On the road, jitney drivers rarely keep in contact with one another. Nobody knows their destination except for them and their fares.

If it's a good ride, a jitney driver will give the passenger his cell phone number, figuring it's an easy buck to snare the same passenger on the way back.

Passengers can range from a single mom with children to drug dealers and buyers.

Most stay in territory that is familiar. You grew up in Beltzhoover, you drive in Beltzhoover.

Mr. Gasden, now of the North Side, grew up in Garfield and most of his runs are in the East End, where he feels comfortable.

"I don't like Homewood," he confessed. Not because it's so scary, but he tries to avoid the Pittsburgh police Street Response Unit that prowls the area cracking down on crime. The unit, he said, "is a hassle."

Mr. Gasden was on Montezuma -- the street where Mr. Mitete was shot inside his car -- the night of the slaying. He saw the police tape and noticed that roads were blocked off.

He didn't know what had happened until the next day.

When a jitney driver is assaulted, the news travels quickly through the grapevine.

Most drivers say they feel safe, though, because not that many young men use jitneys. It's mostly single moms or senior men who need lifts to the hospital or market.

For Mr. Gasden, his youth and hip-hop persona offer an additional level of protection.

This night he's dressed in a bulky down jacket with a fur-trimmed hood, big jeans accented with a pair of Christmas-red Timberland boots, loosely strung. Every week, he rents a flashy car to jitney. His latest is the burgundy TrailBlazer, which is spotless. He rarely rents any car that has more than 5,000 miles. The newer, the better.

"The majority assumes I sell drugs and have guns in the car," he said, "so they don't bother me."

Word on the street is that African immigrants, more of whom are turning to jitney driving to make extra money, are easier prey.

They are targets for "jumpers" -- riders who bail out just before their stop without paying -- and they are frequently harassed because riders believe they are illiterate and even less likely to call police than Pittsburgh-born jitney drivers.

More have been getting robbed, says Mr. Gasden, and "this is the third day I've heard about somebody jumping."

Mr. Gasden works out of a station along Highland Avenue -- a small room rented by the "station owner." It gives the half-dozen or so who call it home base a place to come in from the cold. Inside are a television, a phone, a price list and the easy camaraderie of those share the trade.

Between 5 and 9 p.m., the station hums with activity.

Two young boys walk up at about 6 p.m. Alone, with a roll of dollar bills, they timidly show a jitney driver their money and ask for a ride. They hop in a jitney and disappear down Highland.

"Renegades," drivers not associated with the station, lurk nearby and try to siphon passengers before they can knock on the door. "Hey, man," they whisper, "you looking for a car?"

Other stands are corners, the fronts of grocery stores, bus stops. Jitney drivers cruise places where customers are likely to be, tapping their horns to let them know an available jitney is driving by. There's no way of knowing how many jitneys operate in and around the city, but the stands are typically in low-income neighborhoods.

Good drivers get regular customers. They are trusted to drop off small children and are able to negotiate fares. A pretty woman will wait for a favorite driver -- with her looks she can often barter a discount.

Mr. Gasden is a former security guard. He majored in marketing at Clarion University, but did not graduate. In addition to his party promotions, he makes a living driving.

As he waited in the cold, glowing from the neon of Capri Pizza, Mr. Gasden said the year has been good.

There have been no robberies at his station.

"We're not rich, we're not rich," said a female colleague, as she hurries past for a fare. "Tell people there's no need to rob us."


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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