Inner Drive

I f Norma Jean Mortensen can become “Marilyn Monroe,” and Eldrick Woods can become “Tiger Woods,” and Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor can become “Lorde,” why can’t Reneé Hughes become “Lucy”? 

It’s not that she’s asked for it. It’s just that, as the hard-working owner of a tiny two-car cab company named Lucy’s Taxi, based out of a small one-room office in West Haven, Hughes gets mistaken for a Lucy—the Lucy—all the time. And, compared with trying to correct everyone, it’s been much easier to just go with it. By now, after 13 years in business, she says the only people who call her by her real first name are family and friends, and telemarketers.

In fact, the “Lucy” in Lucy’s Taxi didn’t start out as a she. Lucy started out as an it: a plucky 1993 Ford Crown Victoria, the first cab Hughes owned, which was eventually retired with over 700,000 miles on the odometer. For a stretch along the way, Hughes, then under contract as an “owner-operator” with Metro Taxi, shared the vehicle with another driver who’d secretly named it Lucy.

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One day at the beginning of Hughes’s shift, the usually reliable car wouldn’t start. She began to panic; “you can imagine the words that were coming out of my mouth,” she says, laughing. “And [the other driver] says to me, ‘Don’t talk that way to Lucy,’” referring to the Crown Vic.

To humor him, before her next ignition attempt, Hughes kissed her right hand, patted the vehicle with it and said, in a caring tone, “Okay, Lucy.” She then twisted the key and, to her amazement, the car started, turning the event into a de facto christening. When she later struck out on her own, forming what she says was the first female-owned cab service in New Haven, Lucy the cab was still going strong and, Hughes felt, had earned a spot in the business’s name.

So it was that Lucy’s Taxi became the only cabbie business in town named after its flagship vehicle. It also became the only one to employ pink as its trademark color, used to emblazon the company’s logo and phone number onto the sides of each car, and to illuminate the dome light that rests on each roof. Hughes says it was a very deliberate choice, intended to help her business stand out from the rest, and to subconsciously signal to riders, especially vulnerable-feeling women late at night, that her cabs are safe spaces. She has fun with it, too, wearing a variety of pink garments, from hats to shirts to sneakers, on the job.

Her love of pink notwithstanding, Hughes is not a girly-girl; she’s a mechanic’s daughter. As a teenager, she says, her father wouldn’t let her learn how to drive cars until she learned how to fix them, and during our conversation, she uses words like “fun” and “leisure” and “playing” to describe the act of tinkering with engines. She enjoys watching baseball, too, which is lucky considering that her HQ sits right across the street from the Quigley Stadium baseball diamond, where the Albertus Magnus Falcons played until this past spring, and where she’s collected foul and home run balls, including several specimens sitting on a ledge in her office.

Not that she’s there very often these days: Hughes still drives daily, while also fielding most of the phone calls that come in. Lucy’s gets the random call-ins and hail-downs you’d expect for any cab company, but it also does a lot of business you might not guess: airport runs to JFK and LaGuardia; chauffeur gigs for institutional visitors, like professors swinging through Yale to give talks; and “non-ambulatory” rides for people undergoing planned medical procedures. A recent customer even booked a ride to and from Queens, NY, to see the Mets play at Citi Field.

“I meet all kinds of people, and every day is an adventure,” she says. If she’s dropping off or picking up in New York and finds herself with time to spare, she’ll cross things off her bucket list. One time she climbed the Empire State Building; another time she got tickets to the Metropolitan Opera.

Back in New Haven, she’ll make time to enjoy the summer concerts on the green and check out Yale’s many year-round cultural offerings. She says she loves talking to customers to find out what’s new and good in town so that she can experience them for herself and advise future riders. Occasionally, especially when ferrying out-of-towners, Hughes says she ends up becoming an unofficial tour guide, sticking with them for the better part of the day.

In the past couple of years, a sly, existential threat to local taxi companies has emerged: Uber. (Also, Lyft.) Pointing out that state-certified taxi drivers such as herself have to meet public-protecting standards—like passing a background check, acquiring special insurance and hewing to well-defined meter rates—that Uber and Lyft drivers don’t, Hughes is worried not just for her business but also for the people who need taxiing. For now, at any rate, she actually seems more worried about the latter. “I’m a small company so I still have those regular customers,” she says, explaining why Lucy’s has weathered the storm as well as it has.

It probably also has something to do with dedication, and a humble spirit of service. Lucy the car may be gone, but Lucy a.k.a. Reneé Hughes is still in the driver’s seat, making it her business to get us to the places we want to go.

Lucy’s Taxi
445 Front Ave, West Haven (map)
(203) 933-1300
www.lucystaxi.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on May 22, 2014.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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