THE FIRST THING Erica Jones does when she gets in her Radio Cab is take out her mace. Usually, she keeps the mace in a cute leather case attached to her key ring. But when Jones is on the job, Portland's self-described only British, transgender cabbie keeps the conversation funny and the pepper spray always close at hand.
Jones picks me up at 10:30 pm on a Friday in Northwest. A couple of weeks before, a friend had given me her business card—a tantalizing square emblazoned with a phone number and the words "The Fab Cab."
"What's so fabulous about your cab?" I ask, sliding in to the passenger seat next to a GPS-and-radio array that looks identical to the ones in Radio Cab's 135 other vehicles.
"Me!" says Jones, before pointing out that our black-and-white outfits match. "You look like a penguin, just like I do."
We pull away from the curb and Jones shouts, "We're on our way to make some money! Can you believe that shit?"
And we're off! The Old Town crowds are hopping, but Jones heads over to North Portland to pick up a fare at one of her favorite bars—Ducketts on North Killingsworth. She crawls Portland's streets in the Fab Cab 5 pm to 5 am five nights a week, and she rolls off her most interesting fares in a quick list: "NHL players, hookers, arguing Arabs, the drummer of the Decemberists, vomiting lawyers."
But, really, she loves her job. Radio Cab is honest with money, she says, navigating is easy as long as she stays out of Beaverton, and she enjoys helping people get home safely.
"I have two rules for the cab: Don't get sick. Don't be a dick," says Jones in her deep-toned London accent.
Her voice is a giveaway that Jones is different from a lot of Portlanders—both as an immigrant, and as a biological man who has lived the past two years as a woman. Jones is honest about her gender even with strangers who are just along for a cab ride.
"I'm trans and I don't give a shit," she says, speeding along NE MLK in the sturdy Crown Victoria. "I look like a girl, but I speak like a Portuguese sailor."
We pull up to Ducketts and Jones ducks into the bar, tracking down the customer who meanders into the backseat after he pauses to swear amiably at the bartender. The customer is drunk and friendly, and has no problem shelling out $25 to head across town to SE 82nd's Canton Grill. More cash for Jones' fund to head to Thailand for a sex change!
Jones is just two months on the job, but says she has yet to feel threatened by a customer. Maybe that's because her past jobs were far more rugged: After all-boys school, she joined the British Merchant Navy and worked on heavily guarded oil tankers in the Middle East during the Iran/Iraq War.
"I was a seaman!" says Jones, cracking up while heading past SE Division's crowded bars. She's lighthearted now, but it was a rough time, dealing with post-Iraq post-traumatic stress disorder, drinking a lot, and trying to figure out the whole gender thing. Work with Shell Oil brought her to America, and then Portland, 25 years ago.
We drop off the customer at Canton Grill and tap into Jones' dispatch computer to find another fare, heading downtown to pick up someone who requests a female cabdriver.
It turns out to be a very happy drunk heading home early.
"My friends are assholes!" he cheerfully shouts from the back. "They took me out and got me drunk!"
"Well, what are asshole friends for?" asks Jones. The fare catches on that something's different.
"Where you from? You got an accent," he says, and Jones steers onward.