Henderson Hill steers his tan '06 Chevy Equinox around a chuckhole the size of Venango County. "Pittsburgh streets," he says, shaking his head.
Passenger Terri Baltimore sighs audibly.
"Miss Terri," he asks amiably, "you all right?"
"Fine," she smiles. "I'm just fine."
Hill, a Hill District jitney driver, jumped in the life more than 50 years ago at the Erin and Wylie station, the former Kleiman tailor shop made famous by August Wilson in his play Jitney. Hill would still be there, he says, except that the old building was torn down. Fell down is more like it, the drivers say, a miracle no one was killed.
Now, along with some two dozen others, Hill's headquartered in the 2600 block of Centre Avenue, in a ground-level warren marked by an outdoor pop machine and the nearby Warren United Methodist Church.
To get their names listed on the drivers' board, men like Hill pay majordomo Herman Westbrook $30 per week. When the calls come — and they come incessantly — Westbrook answers, "Hello, service." Listening, he says, "Next man," and the next driver in the queue will make the run.
Or not. Five o'clock? Airport? This next man, in a battered brown Pirates cap, turns it down. Too much traffic. Second man in takes it.
Of course, many jitney customers either arrange their rides in advance — regular man, regular time — or call a driver's cell. Some drivers carry printed cards. Some work only from their own phone, taking only riders whom they know personally, or are vouched for by someone they know.
The phone rings. "Service," Westbrook says. "Next man. Downtown." A man in a stingy black fedora — they all wear hats, seemingly part of the uniform — heads for the door.
Sure, jitneys aren't exactly legal, but since they provide a necessary service to underserved areas, and are generally crime- and trouble-free, they usually get a pass from John Law.
Illegal? Extra-legal? The drivers don't care for those descriptions. Unlicensed, maybe. Undocumented, better. Unregulated. Untaxed.
"Informal," suggests Terri Baltimore. A long-time jitney patron and doyenne of all things Hill, she's stationed at Hill House. Working in community relations, she collects many things — artifacts, stories, jitney anecdotes. "Let's say ‘informal.'"
Jitneys have been informal for roughly a century, since motorized transport found its way across cities. Where trolleys and taxis couldn't or wouldn't go, jitneys sprang up. While the etymology of the word is more or less lost, the best thinking is that it derives from the French jetton, for chip. Through Louisianan French, jetnée, the token for the original five-cent fare.
Rules of thumb: Bad weather means good business, so winter is better for jitneys than summer; rain and snow is better than sunshine and blue skies.
Routes include jobs, shopping, airport, church, doctors, even as far as Erie.
Henderson Hill made $125 for the latter, his biggest take ever. Driving since 1963, when, he says, "Snow was snow, and you put chains on your tires to get up and down these hills." He pauses. "That was a lot of work for 50 cents a ride."
Since then he's seen average fares rise steadily to $5 anywhere on the Hill. A trip Downtown takes it up another two dollars. East Liberty is $10; South Side and Mount Oliver, $12; Homewood and Wilkinsburg, $15; Penn Hills, $20 and up; the airport, $30 or $35, depending.
Like Henderson Hill, drivers all own their own cars — all unmarked, all undecorated — and are responsible for their upkeep.
Unlike Uber, where accounts are paid beforehand via credit card, and drivers carry no cash, jitneys are all cash. There is danger, certainly, but it's cash upfront. "We never wait for our money," Hill says.
Money dictates driver hours, too. Some supplement other jobs, some are retirees or receive benefits. "Everybody has an amount of money he wants to make," Hill says. "When he makes it, he goes home."
A full-timer, Hill generally punches a 10-hour clock, noon to 10 p.m., seven days a week. He puts some 33,000 miles a year on his Equinox, and the wear and tear is fearsome. "Jitney tears a car up," he says. "Tires. Shocks. Brakes. Struts. These streets," he shakes his head.
Tonight's bone-jarring ride over, Terri Baltimore arrives back in Wilkinsburg — and Henderson Hill is all charm.
"Miss Terri," he smiles as he reaches over to open her door, "you're home."