Wodonga Taxis’ John and Eleanor Fitz's love for the industry has been intertwined with their lives for more than 30 years.
When the tightknit community of Wodonga got word recently that ‘Taxi John’ was not well, his phone was running hot with messages of support.
Taxi John – real name John Fitz – hasn’t driven a cab since 1995, but many of the customers from his driving days had made such a connection with him they wanted to let him know they cared.
Perhaps it was because John was the type of driver who believes in old-style service, and going the extra mile to help someone out.
“I love dealing with the public,” he says. “Looking after little old ladies and carrying their shopping and things like that.”
“It drives me crazy when these blokes [cab drivers] sit in cars and make the poor old passenger take the bags out of the boot and carry their own bags to the door.”
John and his wife Eleanor Fitz are two of the directors of Wodonga Taxis, a co-operative of eight owners who have a total of nine perpetual licences. The co-operative also has an amalgamation of four maxi vehicles, with each owner having a share in these as well.
John and Eleanor bought their first taxi in 1984. John had spent his career up until that point in the transport industry and when he was transferred temporarily from Melbourne to Wodonga in 1980, the Fitzs fell in love with the region. When the time came to return to Melbourne, they decided to stay.
“John looked around for a small business opportunity that he could essentially do by himself, and a taxi seemed the ideal small business at that time,” Eleanor says.
It proved to be a wise decision, and one that saw the couple become an integral part of the Wodonga community. John was also on the executive council (now the Victorian Taxi Association) from 1992 to 1996.
John drove the taxi himself, getting to know the locals and the area like the back of his hand, and collecting a swag of stories along the way.
He says he could “write a book”, but one story that stands out is when John picked up one of his regulars, who had just won a raffle,from the local pub.
“The raffle included a dozen eggs,” John says with a chuckle. “He was drunk as a mug and said ‘I’ve won the chook raffle’ and put it on the seat. I said ‘for God’s sake don’t sit down’, but it was too late – he sat right on the bloody eggs.
“It was broad daylight and he leaned over the bonnet of the car while I wiped the eggs off the back of his pants. I don’t know what the people who were driving past thought!”
Eleanor, who has degrees in business services management majoring in tourism and hospitality, has never driven taxis but has been a driving force behind the scenes. And John and Eleanor’s son is following in his parents’ footsteps. He is also a proud taxi owner and operator in Wodonga.
Although John developed glaucoma (a disease which affects vision) and had to stop driving professionally in 1995, he and Elaine have maintained their ties to the industry through their investment in taxis in Geelong, and their continued involvement with Wodonga Taxis.
Wodonga sits on the southern side of the Murray River in Victoria, on the main transport route between Melbourne and Sydney. Its ‘twin’ city, Albury, lies on the other side of the river, in New South Wales. Wodonga’s location, as a major regional border city, gives it a unique character but also means it is not without its challenges, especially if you’re in the taxi business.
“The river impacts on our lives somewhat significantly,” Eleanor says.
John explains regular border crossings while driving taxi passengers carry strict rules that must be adhered to, which is, he says, a serious issue.
“Under Section 56 of the Constitution, there’s free trade between the states. So if we take someone over [the border] they can ring us to come back, but we can’t pick up and put down in Albury, NSW. We can pick up in NSW and put down in Wodonga, Victoria.”
The regional taxi industry needs to be recognised, according to John, as being vastly different to its city counterpart.
“There’s a lot of things that didn’t come out in the Fels Inquiry,” John says. “Regional and country areas are totally different from Melbourne.”
But there are many positives too – such as the sense of community and friendships that develop.
“You develop a relationship with your customers; you know their names and where they live,” Eleanor says.
“The phone would ring at the base and you’d just recognise ‘Mary’ or ‘Jim’s’ voice and say ‘I’ll be there in five minutes’.”
Outside of taxis, John and Eleanor are accomplished sequence dancers; in fact, Eleanor conducts special-interest tours, specialising in dance cruises and tours. And she is also a director at a large aged care facility in Wodonga. But taxis are, she says, “kind of in our blood”.
“I think it’s a good occupation,” she says.“You get to meet all kinds of people and it makes me enormously said that there is a degree of snobbery attached to taxi driving.
“People think no, I wouldn’t do it, there’s too much wrong with it. But it can provide a good income, it can provide opportunity to meet amazing people and form great friendships.”