This is a story about Willie Jones and cars.
When Jones gets his license, he buys a ’68 GTO, a metallic-orange, growling monster of a car. It does the quarter-mile stretch at Golden Gardens quicker than most cars he races. Jones’ GTO is a pretty sure bet, especially if he’s driving.
For a guy who knows cars, driving taxi kind of makes sense. In ’83 he starts working for Yellow Cab, and it’s only a year before Willie owns his own cab. Less than a year more and Willie owns a taxi company.
It’s almost the end of Jones’ shift when they come. There are 10 of them; they jerk open the doors; they grab the women Willie’s driving home; somebody screams, somebody yells; Willie steps out with the baseball bat in his hands, tells them they might as well kill him because there’s no way they’re getting away with this; he swings like crazy, connecting a couple times; but there are too many of them; they grab the bat from him; the streetlight’s glow flashes on gun metal; someone points and the hammer clicks and then all Willie can hear is sirens.
When the cops ask him, Willie says he’s all right.
The P-I runs a story about Willie, how he emerged unscathed from a fight with 10 men. In the picture, a photocopy of which is pinned to the walls of the Real Change office, he’s hanging out of his cab, his hands crossed. Less than a year later, those same hands grip the wheel when the man reaches over the seat, puts a knife in his ribs, and takes the money in his till.
The government covers Jones’ hospital bills, but not the three months’ business he loses getting better. He will never drive another cab.
Years pass. He gets healthier, stronger. Soon he’s lifting 100-pound bags over his head, driving forklifts. He does hard, grueling work (“the jobs nobody else would do”) for years, until a friend tells Willie about Real Change.
“Do I like it? I love it,” Jones says. That figures: It took him less than a year to become one of the paper’s top vendors.
Now he’s saving up to buy — you guessed it — a ’68 GTO.
—Story and photo by JP Gritton