In the days before ride-hailing apps, before Yellow cabs and Checker cabs, folks got around Cincinnati by hack, and in those days hackmen were the stuff of legend.
A hack was driven by a hackman, who waited for fares at a hackstand. The busiest hackstands were located on Third and Fourth streets and, later, around Fountain Square on Fifth Street. Now, a hack is short for a hackney, and a hackney originally referred to the horse and only later to the open, wheeled conveyance behind it. A hackney was a horse rented out indiscriminately. Such a horse became “commonplace through overuse” and yielded our word “hackneyed” to indicate something tired and trite. Cincinnati’s hackmen were anything but trite. By all reports they were some of the most colorful characters to populate our fair city, especially the night hackmen.
It was an unwritten rule that night hackmen and day hackmen were distinct species, with no commerce between them. A day hackman made his bread ferrying passengers from the trains to hotels, or from home to office and back, with the occasional funeral thrown in. The night hackman carried the same customers, but to very different destinations. There is an abundance of good hack tales in Frank Y. Grayson’s classic book, “Pioneers of Night Life on Vine Street.” Grayson has this to say about Cincinnati’s night hackmen:
“When a night man obtained a load the load was usually loaded. Nine times out of ten, after engaging a hack the first thing the fare would do was suggest a drink. I never saw a backward cabby when it came to that crisis. He met it like a man and a hero. Over the drink the fare would pour out all his troubles, fancied and real, into the saddlerock ears of the cabby, who was a whale of a yesser while the compensation was mounting without the assistance of a meter.”
Indeed, these were the days before intrusive devices like meters invaded the hack. Most fares were negotiated on the spot, although there were some standard routes. Most hackmen charged fifty cents to transport a man and one suitcase from the train to the nearest hotel. Or the nearest hotel offering tips to the hackman, because fares didn’t begin to cover the hackman’s salary. An enterprising hackman told the Cincinnati Post [19 December 1882]:
“We make off of what we ‘catch onto.’ You see, we watch the depots for strangers coming in who don’t know the ropes. They will ask us to drive them to a clothing store or something of the kind, and of course we take them to some merchant who has agreed to give us a commission on all the trade we bring them. We get 10, 15 or 20 per cent, and sometimes a present from the storekeeper.”
The hackman’s fares tended to be arrayed along the middle of Cincinnati’s social classes. Poor folks walked or took the public horsecars. Rich folks had their own carriages and chauffeurs. A good fare was often a gambling man or a sporting woman who had just come into a rare and munificent payday. According to Grayson’s book:
“When a fellah climbed into one of these open faced hacks that used to rattle over our well-paved thoroughfares in the old days, he just naturally harbored some plutocratic ideas. It was pretty soft to loll back on the cushions and lift your eight-by-twelve iron hat to some walking acquaintance as you dashed along up the gay white lane. You were overcome with a sense of dignity; you realized that the thrill of a lifetime had come to you and that an ambition to ride up Vine Street or down Vine Street, as the case might have been, behind a pair of spanking bays or grays, was at last fulfilled after all the years of yearning.”
And hackmen often had to earn their fares and tips as diplomats or warriors. Only a veteran hackman could be trusted to convey his intemperate passenger to the front door while his fare’s good wife endeavored to enact her frustrations with a rolling pin. The veterans knew how to handle a rider whose libations rendered him ten foot tall and bulletproof. Most importantly, the good hackman knew how to take a secret to his grave. The hackman saw everything and had nothing to say, except in some general terms, as the Post reported:
“Once I carried a tony bride to her wedding, and several years afterward met her when she came home, and drove her to the house, where her father would not admit her. At her request I then drove her to a house on Longworth-st. [the heart of the red-light district], and she has been there since. There was a big difference between those two rides; she was laughing on the first, but crying on the other.”
Hackmen made good money on drunks. Sometimes an inebriated fare, afraid to go home in that condition, hired a hack to wander a couple of hours until the toot had worn off. Sometimes after a few too many toasts, the fare needed assistance finding his home port. Far too often, there was a woman involved. As Grayson said:
“They knew how to keep a secret as gloatingly as a miser hoarded his three-cent pieces; if they had been loose-lipped the divorce court would have worked overtime and, gosh knows, it was bad enough when operating on a normal basis.”
A good score often involved a married pair out slumming among the demi-monde who required a level of discretion, according to the hackman interviewed by the Post:
“Sometimes a couple way up in society will be driven to places of questionable resort, and in that case we always sock it to the man heavy. He dasen’t kick, you know.”
Eventually, progress stilled the staccato clopping of the old hacks. By the dawn of the 1920s, horses had no place on Cincinnati’s streets. Some of the old “Jehus” (as they were called, after the biblical charioteer), adapted. One who made the transition was Louis Brizzolari, known as “Briz.” According to Grayson:
“Bris still clings to his little old Vine street. He can be found on it on any night. He now has a fleet of automobiles. Briz hasn’t gathered much more flesh than he packed a good many years ago; he has to wear glasses now when he reads; his hair is somewhat silvered, and there are little nests of crow’s feet under his eyes, but withal he is the same old genial Briz, witty, a good fellow, a dandy story teller and a square shooter who has seen the seamy side of life by gaslight ever since Hector was a purp.”
I am here to tell you, it is all but impossible to conjure that sort of personality from a ride-hailing app.