Las Vegas cabbie who chronicled nightlife calls it quits

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Sin City’s favorite wheelman has hung up his keys.

After 15 years behind the wheel of local taxicabs, Andrew Gnatovich announced his retirement from the industry earlier this month. It would have been an unremarkable event for most cabbies, but most cabbies aren’t social media stars.

Gnatovich, better known as @LVCabChronicles on Twitter, has built a large and loyal following over the past decade. Sharing stories from his overnight shift in bite-size chunks drizzled with dry wit — some so ridiculous they spark disbelief among readers — the gonzo writer has amassed nearly 12,000 followers since first logging on in July 2009.

“I was blessed to be living in a world that people were interested in,” Gnatovich, 41, said. “There’s something inherently intriguing about what goes on in a taxicab, and then you add the element of being in Las Vegas.”

The era’s end came in August, when Desert Cab fired Gnatovich on the belief he violated a company safety policy by driving more than 12 hours a day, a company official confirmed. Gnatovich said he was picking up some extra hours driving ride-share on the side. Neither he nor the company seemed to harbor ill will toward the other.

“He was a great guy here,” the company official said. “We have nothing bad to say about the guy.”

Instead of finding work with another taxicab company, Gnatovich said he’s putting to use his years of moonlighting as a property manager to become a real estate agent at Signature Real Estate Group in the Las Vegas Valley. As he waits for his license to arrive, there’s time to look in the rearview and reflect.

There was the round-trip fare to the Chicken Ranch brothel near Pahrump that netted him $350. The time he declined a production company’s request to shoot an adult film scene in his taxicab. The plethora of passengers — intoxicated or not — who bared their souls to a complete stranger from the back seat.

And Gnatovich was eager to document it all between fares, although he did not share his passengers’ identities unless they were already famous. For some, what happened in Vegas found a national audience online.

“I think there’s a book to be had one day,” he said.

In a way, it was the stories that kept him driving long after making a living as a cabbie seemed to be more gamble than good idea. He never knew who would get in next.

“I never intended on doing it for 15 years,” he said. “I intended on doing it for 15 days.”

Kutcher, Phish and flip phones

Six years before he started driving a cab, Gnatovich was enrolled at UNLV studying music. A transplant from Iowa’s side of the Quad Cities, he recalled being awestruck by the Strip as he drove to class for the first time in 1998.

“Something about this town at night has this sort of allure to it. Some sort of mysticism,” he said. “I think it represents a lot of energy and freedom.”

Gnatovich eventually dropped out of college. Years later, jobless and broke after a road trip with friends, he spotted a newspaper advertisement seeking taxicab drivers in summer 2004.

Two weeks later he was driving the day shift, turning on his meter at 4 a.m. and cruising for 12 hours straight. A good day’s work could fetch a few hundred dollars, and Gnatovich liked the feeling of being out in the urban abyss, roaming the neon canyon of the Las Vegas Strip.

The weirdness was there from the start. He still remembers the time in 2005 he drove three college-aged guys with yardlong daiquiris from the Strip to Walmart to buy a basketball at 5 a.m. The group gave him another $100 to play two-on-two with them for an hour.

“The industry has a reputation for a reason,” Gnatovich said. “You’re kind of immediately thrust into a different world.”

About a year into the job he switched to the overnight shift. The stories had begun piling up, and Gnatovich felt like he had to share them.

He first posted the stories on an online message board for Phish fans, then began publishing his own blog. In the early days he would spend weeks writing stories that were thousands words long, obsessed with trying to perfect his prose.

Twitter caught his eye when actor Ashton Kutcher, a fellow Iowan, became its first user to hit 1 million followers. Gnatovich signed up, intrigued by the platform’s brevity and immediacy.

Armed with a Motorola flip phone, he would post tweets by texting a phone number the company set up instead of posting through the app.

It began to feel like he was hosting his own reality show. He had two goals in mind: be funny, or be interesting.

“After a while I started to become a character,” he said. “I consciously thought about that. What would that person do in this situation?”

The famous and not-so-famous

By this point, many of Gnatovich’s readers have a favorite story.

For some it’s the elderly shut-in who would call him to her house to buy her milk, cereal and cigarettes. Others enjoy his monthslong saga fighting a $60 traffic ticket in the Nevada Taxicab Authority’s administrative court to stick it to the man — an endeavor he ultimately lost. Some even tip their hats to him for sharing updates from his taxicab dispatch on the night of the Oct. 1 mass shooting.

But one of Gnatovich’s favorites is far more tame.

He fondly recalls picking up a newly married World War II veteran and his Japanese wife outside the Golden Nugget more than a decade ago. On their way to McCarran International Airport, the elderly man shared that he was in Las Vegas to marry the woman, whom he met while stationed at Pearl Harbor, and how he had traveled overseas to reunite with her after his first wife died of cancer.

“I can’t recall a ride that had more heartfelt realism to it than that one did,” Gnatovich said.

He also enjoys sharing the stories of celebrities who have graced his backseat.

Kevin Pollak needed a ride from the World Series of Poker. The late comedian John Pinette was unmoved by the jokes Gnatovich cracked on a trip to the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club. The cabbie didn’t recognize Eva Longoria until he saw her on a “Desperate Housewives” rerun a month later.

David Hasselhoff hopped in the cab after an Elton John concert at Caesars Palace, crooned a drunken rendition of “Rocket Man” and then asked for a dollar back from the $10 he handed Gnatovich.

Preposterous as the stories may sound, Gnatovich insists they’re all true. Fellow cabbie John Maddona, who started on the job one month before Gnatovich, said he believes his longtime friend.

“I think he’s done a good job of honestly and fairly presenting the experience of a taxi driver in Las Vegas to the public,” Maddona said. “The word ambassador is a good word to use. He’s done a good job putting a face on the job.”

‘Deathblow to the industry’

Technological advances have driven Gnatovich’s decision to quit driving taxicabs.

Ride-share companies like Lyft and Uber have dealt “a deathblow to the industry,” and Gnatovich said he believes self-driving cars will be the final nail in the coffin. He wagers his 8-year-old son’s generation will be the last in America that will need to learn to drive.

“All those jobs are at risk,” he said. “The question will be, who owns the cars?”

That particular uncertainty is behind him now as he prepares for the next chapter of his life. However, Gnatovich is still tweeting with candor.

And he always plans to enjoy some time behind the wheel.

“I tell ya, driving around this town at night with the windows down in the summer — when it’s still hot, some good tunes — that’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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