Call me a cab.
And, hand me a gas mask.
If the fumes floating around the back seat - the overpowering scent of air fresheners, the smoke from burning sticks of incense on the dashboard and the body odors left by the drunks the night before - don't get you, the smoke belching from the taxi's exhaust pipe just might.
Especially if that cab's body sports a certain yellow hue and has license plates registered in Brown County . . . but works the streets of Cincinnati.
This yellow cab also might have had its emission control devices ''modified.'' That's fancy car talk for ''you take this here crowbar and yank out that there catalytic converter.''
Last week, 135 local cabs were found to fit one or all of those descriptions. Most were taken off the streets and had their rusty license plates seized.
The taxis, most belonging to the Yellow and Suburban Diamond Cab Cos., were rounded up by the clean-air police - Cincinnati cops, plus investigators from Ohio's Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Environmental Protection Agency.
The cabs' owners didn't want to do what everybody else does in Hamilton County, spend some money, wait in line and have their emissions tested. To keep the air clean. And breathable.
The cabs were registered in Brown County, where car registrations, like eggs, are cheaper in the country. Cheaper by at least 20 bucks than in Hamilton County.
Brown County is also a cheap place to have a heap that pollutes the air. That county has no emissions testing. Hamilton County does. Every other year, it costs every car $19.50 to get tested.
The annual savings to register a cab in Brown County amounts to $30 per set of wheels.
A cabbie can make that, and more, with two runs to the airport. One trip from downtown costs $22. Without the tip.
''It's all about money,'' says cabbie Michael Jones, a 10-year veteran who's driven the last two years for Skyline Taxi.
''It's always about the bottom line. Always has been. Always will. Some guy trying to make more and spend less.''
It's also about cheating and stinking up the place. Being dumb. And, in the end, deadly.
Polluting by the pound
When you register a car in Ohio, 92 percent of the first $20 goes to the county for road repairs. If you have to fork over any additional fees, 100 percent of that money goes into the fix-the-streets fund.
Register a cab in Brown County, drive it in Cincinnati and you're cheating no one but yourself. The potholes you're slamming into - rattling the riders' bones and the cab's fenders - are the ones you didn't pay to have filled.
Even worse is the amount of pollution spewing from a car with messed-up emissions controls.
Let me slip on my Dr. EPA lab coat and I'll show you just how much these clunkers pollute the air. Here we go:
Most of the grounded cabs were made between 1983 and 1989. If they're like Michael Jones' cab, they're driven 40,000 miles a year. At that rate, each of these old taxis puts 25 gallons of unburned gas and 170 pounds of nitrogen oxide - the main ingredients of smog - into the air every year.
These cabs are smog machines. They pollute at a rate nearly three times as much as a car made in 1994.
And, that's just one cab. Multiply its output by 135 and you have $4,445 worth of hi-test gasoline and 11.5 tons of nitrogen oxide.
Get in line
Now, I know cab drivers work hard for their money. Michael Jones works 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. On a good day, he'll make $350. On a bad day, he'll do zip.
Remember, that's a 12- to 15-hour shift with his engine running.
But, his cab has passed the emissions test.
His fellow drivers, the ones whose cabs are the shade of egg yolks, should get in line - with the rest of us - and get tested. It's good business and good sense.
The smart money says keep your cab in top running order and don't poison the air your riders breathe. If you kill your fares, you kill your business.
The last time I checked, dead men don't ride cabs.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.