Uber may be getting off easy in cab war

Uber’s cocky corporate executives probably think they’re getting roughed up in court these days as they battle for a piece of Nevada’s lucrative transportation market against some cantankerous and well-connected cab company owners.

On the contrary.

In some ways, the Web-based ride-sharing outfit never had it so lucky.

As I follow developments in what promises to be a long and entertaining legal fight, I’m being reminded time and again of a conversation with longtime Nellis Cab owner Ray Chenoweth. The affable fellow not only survived the infamous Las Vegas cab wars of the 1960s, but he built his company from a single vehicle into an immensely lucrative operation before entering semiretirement. I included that interview with Chenoweth in my recent book “Vegas Voices: Conversations with Great Las Vegas Characters.”

Originally from St. Louis, Chenoweth grew up in San Diego. That’s where he met and eventually went to work for an intriguing character named Pete Balaban.

After moving to Las Vegas in 1962, Chenoweth quickly noticed the Strip’s busy cab racket was locked up. Undaunted, he managed to obtain a license in North Las Vegas, and one-car Nellis Cab was born. Chenoweth battled for years in the courts to grow his company.

“In 1966, there was a prolonged and violent taxi strike in Las Vegas,” he said. “People got beat up, cabs burned. It was a real fiasco that lasted for more than six months. Small companies like Western Cab went out of business. I was lucky just to keep my own company afloat. When the strike hit, it was kind of hairy. I had a couple or three cabs burn up. Those were tough times, but we got through it. In those days you had to watch your back. But that’s all history now.”

Of course it is.

But a single mention to Chenoweth of the Las Vegas cab war brought to mind the fate of his old friend and fellow cab company operator, Bill Mirin. For years folks around town talked about how Mirin got tired of being dogged and threatened by hulking hoodlum Mel Wolford and finally used a pistol to put him out of his misery. Big Mel intimidated just about everyone he met. But he didn’t impress little Bill Mirin.

“So when some people decided to have (Bill) killed, he didn’t appreciate it,” Chenoweth recalled. “Big Mel Wolford, who was about the size of a refrigerator, was hired to do the job. Mel was an enforcer who’d killed other people. When he threatened you, you’d better listen. But Bill had killed other people, too, and wasn’t waiting around for Mel …

“Mel said he’d kill Bill if he didn’t turn over a piece of his Strip Cab company to him and Ben Barrington, who owned Charlie’s Bar.”

The night Mirin shot Wolford at old Charlie’s Bar, Chenoweth recalled “Mel said, ‘Bill, you killed me.’ Bill replied, ‘What’s taking you so long?’ ”

Sentiment wasn’t Bill Mirin’s long suit.

Chenoweth and wife Elaine remained true to their friend Mirin even after he went to the penitentiary and eventually won his parole and pardon. Mirin lived the rest of his life on property owned by Chenoweth.

After surviving the cab wars, Chenoweth and other local owners battled in the Legislature and relied heavily on their pal, the late Western Cab owner Herb Tobman, to speak the language of Carson City. They fought tooth and nail and then some to carve out a piece of the action and fashion the kind of protectionist laws and regulations the cab companies enjoy today.

Those are some of the same laws Uber is trying to buck as it attempts to enter the market.

Las Vegas has experienced so much growth and undergone so many changes in recent years that it’s easy to forget our rough-and-tumble roots aren’t that far beneath the surface. It’s something officials from Uber surely are aware of by now.

Whoever said, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do” could easily have had Chenoweth in mind.

And little Bill Mirin, too.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. Follow @jlnevadasmith on Twitter.

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