Gene Phillips, a spunky little nobody, did not mince any words: "If Dan Rather says I kidnapped him, he's a fat-faced liar."
Phillips, 38, was seething. He'd just left jail. He'd been told he wouldn't be able to work at his cab-driving job the next day. His license was probably going to be revoked forever.
But nobody was asking for his side of the story. Everybody assumed Dan Rather -- the multimillion-dollar TV newsreader -- had to be telling the truth.
"I'm being treated like a maniac," sputtered Phillips as he stomped into a coffee shop where he had agreed to meet. "Nobody wants to listen to my side of the story."
So let's listen.
"OK, to begin, I've been driving cabs for 12 years. I've got a good record. I've had one day of suspension in all those years. Call the company and ask if I cause trouble. They'll tell you no. I have two years in college. I'm no yo-yo.
"This is exactly what happened from O'Hare Field when he entered my cab. I didn't know who he was. I don't watch TV.
"He gave me a street -- Castlewood Terrace -- and asked me if I knew where it was. I said I didn't. (That's understandable. Castlewood is only a block long, near the Lakefront.)
"His directions were explicit. Go down the Kennedy to Lawrence. Go east on Lawrence, and Castlewood would come in between Marine Drive and Sheridan Road.
"I did. But Castlewood didn't come in. I said I hadn't seen it and asked him if he saw it. He said no. So we went up Marine Drive looking for it, but it wasn't there.
"By the time we got to Montrose, I said: 'Look, I've got to be in the garage by 1 p.m. I'm not going to be able to drive around all day looking for it.'"
(Phillips had to be in the garage because he leases his cab. If he's late turning it in, he pays a penalty.)
"He says: 'Are you trying to put me out of the cab?' I told him I wasn't putting him out, I just had limited time. And his directions were wrong."
"There was a policeman at Sheridan and Montrose. He said: 'There's a policeman. I think I might get out and just get in the police car.' I said: 'Do what you please, as long as you pay the fare.'
"By this time, we weren't shouting at each other, but the exchanges were becoming quite sharp. He's saying things rather abrupt and I'm saying things rather abrupt back to him.
"So the police told us we were only two blocks from it. When I got to the address, Rather went to get his wallet, then he leaned forward and said: 'Driver, where's your license?'
"I had received a ticket, and they had my chauffeur's license (the one displayed in a cab) as bond. That's why it wasn't displayed. I'm permitted to drive on the ticket.
"I said, 'Mister, will you give me my money? The fare is $12.55. Will you pay me?' He said: 'I'm not going to give you a thing until you produce a license.'
"I said: 'I'm going to ask you one more time -- give me my money and get out of this cab.' He said: 'You don't get nothing. I'll pay the company, but I'm not going to pay you until you produce a license.'
"I said: 'I got a ticket, mister, and that's really none of your business, but that's why I don't have the license there.'
"So this guy tells me: 'I'll tell you what -- I'm not paying you. I'm getting out right now. Get my luggage.' And when he put his hand on the door handle, I put my foot on the gas. And away we went. And I told him: 'You won't pay me? When we stop a squad car you're gonna pay me.'
"You see, that's the only thing a driver can legally do when somebody says they aren't going to pay. If I try to stop him physically, then he's got me for assault. If I keep his luggage, then they've got me for theft of his property. If I follow him into the house, they've got me for trespassing.
"So I did what a cab driver is supposed to do. I started driving and looking for a cop. I've done that a hundred times. Every cab driver has done it if he's been driving for a while."
Phillips said he drove to Lake Shore Drive, but didn't see any cops so he got on Lake Shore and headed downtown.
That, he says, is when Rather stuck his head and shoulders out of the window and began waving his arms shouting that he was being kidnapped.
"He told me: 'You don't know what you're doing.' He threatened to jump out of the cab. I said: 'OK, jump and you don't have to worry about paying the fare.' He's yelling: 'This is kidnapping. I'll make sure you never drive a cab again.' I said: 'Mister, you're going to pay. I'll make sure of that.'"
The ride ended when a uniformed woman waved a badge from another car. It turned out that she was a County Jail guard, not a policewoman. She said she had to curb Phillips. He said: "I pulled over on my own. When is a little Honda Civic going to curb a big car?"
That, Phillip said, is when the scene turned quite bizarre.
"I figured I'd get the police and have this guy arrested for theft of services because he wouldn't pay the fare. But then everybody starts going up to him and shaking his hand and calling him Mr. Rather. They're excited at meeting him. An ambulance thought he had an accident and stopped, and they're excited because he's Dan Rather. Then the police finally came and they get excited. I figure: 'Hey, who is this guy?'
"The only question the police asked me was: 'Are you the cab driver?' I said: 'Yes, and that was the one word I spoke. The next thing, I was frisked, put in the police car and wasn't told what I was charged with or nothing. Every time I opened my mouth, I was told to shut up. They didn't tell me a doggoned thing except 'Hey, that's Dan Rather. You're in big trouble.' So they printed me, mugged me and put me in a cell.
"Now I'm reading that I was driving recklessly and that Rather managed to jump out and escape a madman. Me? A madman?
"Then when I'm in jail, somebody tells me that Rather and somebody from City Hall are there, and Rather wants to pay the fare. I said: 'Not now. Why didn't you pay me before?'
Phillips finished his story and said: "What do you think is going to happen.?"
I had to tell him the truth. The famous Dan Rather says -- through a network spokesman -- that Phillips flipped out without provocation, and he doesn't ever want Phillips to drive a cab again.
(In New York, Marsha Stein, CBS associate director of public information, said Rather realized he had not paid the fare after he filed charges against the driver. CBS will send a check to cover the fare, she said.
("It certainly is not Dan's intention for anyone to lose their job, but he is concerned that a similar incident may happen to someone else," she said.)
The case has been rushed to Mayor Byrne's office, and she can instantly strip Phillips of his livelihood. Thus, Rather, who earns as much in three days as Phillips does in a good year pushing a hack, will probably have his way.
But I hope the mayor at least listens to both sides before she puts Phillips out of work. I don't know who is telling the truth, but my experience is that you can trust a Chicago cabbie more than a TV star.
Even if the cabbie doesn't speak through a spokesman.