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Looking pensive, he cocks his head slightly. "To me, money is just a way of keeping a record of how successful you are," he says. "And I've been successful, which bothers some people. But I don't care what they say." A chuckle, followed by a shift of his Jabba the Hut-like girth. "But there was one time, after a Herald editorial, I called the editorial page editor and asked to come down and talk to the editorial staff. So we talked." A pause, a smile. "And on the way out, I told them, 'I really wanted to thank you guys, because, truthfully, I've got about twenty percent of the power you make me out to have. You guys have done a better job for me than any P.R. firm I could have hired.'"
While Zilber's stab at modesty is touching, it's not entirely on the mark. Zilber -- who at one time presided over an imposing empire of cabs and employees -- once wielded enormous power. That empire provided him with money to retain super-connected lobbyists such as Rick Sisser and the late Steve Ross, and with their help (and that of friendly politicians), Zilber was able to protect and further his interests by cleverly manipulating -- and in some cases defining -- the government regulations associated with the ground-transportation industry. Indeed, for a man who takes a jaundiced view of government mixing with business ("He doesn't think it has any place in business," explains Zilber's 33-year-old son Martin, an attorney), Ziggy Zilber got to be pretty good at figuring out how to use the system to get what he wanted.
In his mind, if you've got a good idea that can make money, you should be able to execute it your way. Period. This philosophy has proved to be both inspired and regrettable over the years. When he tried to tighten his hold on the taxi industry in the late Seventies and early Eighties, his competitors essentially forced him out of it; years later when he went into the jitney business, his attempts to exempt the minibuses from regulation so infuriated cabbies and transit workers that, after a protracted legislative brouhaha, he was driven out of that business, too.
Today, Zilber's businesses, which operate under the aegis of Metro Transportation Service, Inc., and which he controls with partners Eddie Steinberg and Martin Zilber, are smaller and fewer. In addition to running an upscale corporate-car livery operation and a growing medical-transportation dispatch business, he also provides, for a fee, a dispatch service to area cabbies. Financially speaking, Zilber's no failure; even though he may have been banished from certain arenas of ground transportation, he made a hell of a lot of money in his heyday. But he's not quite the player he once was, and in order to understand his decline, it's necessary to go back in time and learn the convoluted nature of the taxi business and Zilber's machinations within it.
Currently in Dade County there are 1827 taxi permits, all of them issued by the county, each worth approximately $35,000 to $40,000. But back in the late Fifties, the area's cab industry was somewhat medieval in nature. Like feudal barons, a small coterie of owners struggled with one another for hegemony. In 1957, Ziggy's father, Moyshe Zilber, moved to Miami with his wife and bought the four-cab Key Biscayne Taxi Company. Ziggy moved from Baltimore shortly thereafter, and, in addition to driving a cab, the nineteen-year-old became de facto operations director for the company, renamed Hurricane Taxi.
At the time Key Biscayne was in the boondocks: three hotels, one motel, a few restaurants, and one cab stand. Not that it was a total backwater. Zilber fondly remembers shuttling around Missouri senator Stuart Symington and actor Richard Widmark. Back then, though, after Easter the Key became a ghost town. "So," Zilber recalls now, "we looked elsewhere for business." Even though "looking elsewhere" wasn't exactly legal.
In those days each Dade County municipality sold taxi permits -- permits that allowed a taxi to pick up fares only in that specific city. Technically speaking, even though Key Biscayne was not a municipality, Hurricane cabbies were restricted to picking up fares that originated on that island. The Zilbers considered the system ridiculous, and so during the slack periods Ziggy would lead the tiny fleet's three other cabbies to adjacent Virginia Key and, depending on how you look at it, once there he either demonstrated entrepreneurial savvy or contempt for the law: The Hurricane cabs would swoop down on the Miami Seaquarium bus stop and offer to take waiting passengers downtown for a quarter cheaper than it cost to take the bus. And once in Miami, should the Hurricane cabbies find themselves hailed by pedestrians, they'd pick them up too.
While most area drivers were cowed by the prospect of getting fined for such activities, Zilber routinely kept hustling. "Yeah, you couldn't pick up anyone in the city of Miami legally," he notes now. "But being a good driver, I'd pick up anyone." Fines were cheap. He could recoup the costs easily.
During this time, the Miami phone book contained listings for a number of "Yellow Cab" companies, but the behemoth was Yellow Cab of Miami, which held the permits for nearly 300 taxis. In 1959, Yellow began selling its City of Miami permits at $8000 apiece. The Zilbers bought six off the bat and kept right on purchasing them. By 1961 they held over 40 Yellow permits, more than any other local taxi company owner. After Yellow sold off all of its permits, the various purchasers decided to come together in a co-op arrangement. While permit owners retained their financial independence, they elected to pool their money to fund a unified dispatch system. By the late Sixties, the Eisenberg family, once proprietors of a small cab stand, held over 60 Yellow permits; on Miami Beach, Sol Green's Central Cab had a virtual lock on business. Zilber, however, towered over them all: He ran Hurricane Taxi, Key Biscayne Taxi, Yellow Cab of Key Biscayne, Miami Dade Yellow Cab, and controlled about one-fifth of Yellow Cab of Miami -- 140 permits in all. As his father eased into semi-retirement, Ziggy took on more responsibility, eventually becoming the co-op's first president. Times were good.