I spent a couple of years as a cab driver while I was working my way through graduate school. It was in the South, so my job was probably a lot different from what you big city Yankees are used to. The job does come with similar benefits and dangers everywhere, I think. You will get a gun pulled on you. You will have to haul belligerent drunks from their favorite watering hole when they're not quite ready to go. And you will occasionally get a really good tip. You might even have a very memorable experience. Here's mine.


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The dispatcher calls my number and says I should pick up a guy at the VA hospital. He's snickering, so I know something's up. "Where's he want to go?" I ask. Shorty (the dispatcher) says, "You'll find out when you get there."

I pull up at the VA and there's this guy in a wheelchair with his legs cut off up to his crotch. He tells me he wants to go to New Orleans. I say, "Man, you could fly to Nawlins 3 times for what you'll pay to go in a cab!" (It's about a 3 hour drive from where we are.) He says, "I want to take a cab." I get on the radio and ask Shorty what I should charge him. He says, "Flat rate: $300. But make sure you see some money first!"

I tell the guy the rate and ask him if he's got the money. He shows me his wallet. It's got 20 $100 bills neatly packed. I put him in the back seat and put his wheelchair in the trunk.

Well, the first place he wants to go is the liquor store. I go in and get him a quart of whisky. It's mid-afternoon. He doesn't speak; just sits in the back seat drinking the whisky straight out of the bottle. Within an hour, he's fried. After another half hour, each time I turn a curve on the highway, he's rolling around in the back seat like a bowling ball. I've got to drive with one hand and try to sit him back upright with the other. Half an hour later, he pukes all over my cab. I've got to stop and wash it out at a car wash. He wants some Krystal hamburgers from across the street. I go get him a couple. He pukes again. I wash the cab out again.

Back on the road, he finishes the bottle. He's snoring like crazy when we get to the city limits. I figure, what the hell? He's in Nawlins, technically, and I'm sick of him. So I pull in the first motel I see and check him in. He half wakes up and I haul him up to his room. He wants another drink. I go to the bar and get him a couple of drinks. When I give him these, I say, "OK, we're done now, right?"

He says, "Yeah. Just get whatever you think it's worth out of my wallet." I take 10 of the bills. I figure I've earned it.

I go spend the night in the French Quarter, but get up fairly early to come home. (This is the part that's hard to believe, but I've got no reason to lie to you folks.) I pull back into radio range and tell Shorty I'm home. He says, "Pick up one at Queen City and 21st for me, OK?" I say, "Man, I'm tired. I need to get home." He says, "Just do this for me, OK?" He's snickering again.

I get to the call and there the guy sits in the wheelchair. He has beaten me home. He doesn't even remember me, but he wants to go to the bank. He's broke.

I used that $700 tip to buy a Martin guitar which was the most important thing I had ever owned up to that point in my life. I wonder what the guy who brought him home used his tip for? If you're like me, you're thinking, "Hell, I should've taken another $500."

I guess the guy just wanted to go back to the VA and tell his buddies he'd been to Nawlins. I guess I could've gone out there and played him a tune or two on my new guitar. But, really, he wasn’t much of a listener.

If you want to establish a respectful and effective relationship with cab drivers as a group, here are three cab crimes to avoid:

1. Call a specific company for a cab, and then get in a cab from a different company. Triple karmic penalty if it's in the suburbs and the original driver has to wait 30 minutes before deciding you aren't going to show up.

2. Get in a cab first thing in the morning with a hundred dollar bill (I am writing this in y2000 before U.S. dollars became worthless) and no change. If you insist on paying with a huge bill, the driver will have to go to a convenience store and you will have to wait...or else you'll take all the driver's change (more bad karma).

3. Take a cab from a hotel taxi stand for a short (2-6 block) trip. Triple karmic penalty if it's in the slow middle part of the day, just around check out time, and the cabs have been waiting for hours to get to the head of the line and take someone to the airport. Much better: if you plan a short trip, walk to the nearest busy street and hail your own cab...maybe even one that's heading for the back of the hotel line but hasn't officially joined it.

I've discussed these three cab crimes with many drivers. They agree that ignorant customers cause them a lot of pain with the first two tricks, but most disagree with number three: they say that it's a customer's right to take a cab for as short a trip as s/he wants, and that a good driver will be philosophical and in the course of a day long and short trips even out, unless the guy ahead of them is illegally filtering by asking "Where are you going?" and sending the short trips down the line...

Nevertheless I avoid the hotel lines because right or wrong I don't like dealing with a lot of attitude. My friends have called me codependent with regard to cab drivers; what do you think (having read this)?

From my observation, the biggest challenges the drivers face aren't the cab crimes, but: (1) the two rush hours (when they can stay busy all the time and make money) are too far apart: to work both rush hours from start to finish is a very long day, hard on the spine; (2) fighting with the dispatchers, and the constantly changing equipment, to get enough jobs to make a living.

Cab drivers' absolute favorite weather (for business) tends to be below-freezing cold with no precipitation. People look outside and see it's clear and decide to go somewhere, but then when they get out they're so cold they decide to hail a cab. Yet on the dry streets the cabs can drive fast. Cab drivers also like rain, it's also good for business, but then they have to drive more slowly and look to their windshield wiper blades. Here in the northeastern US cabs don't like heavy snow: many customers stay home, driving is much more slow and dangerous than in rain, and over the course of a long snow storm the streets get narrower and narrower...

I resent journalists who quote cab drivers (to fill out an article or column) in lieu of getting out there and doing actual research. Cab drivers aren't the person on the street, they're in cars doing their jobs...

Rather than asking a cab driver to finish up your stupid article, ask about the current dispatching or radio equipment (it'll be right in front of you) and how new it is and what the driver thinks of it. The technology is constantly changing (with consequent high stress) and the general trend is to reduce the amount of time the drivers can talk to each other, and increase the amount of time that they're responding to orders on a screen. Other topics of conversation: Does the driver own the cab medallion? Does s/he always use the same cab or is this cab from a pool? Is this the beginning or end of the driver's day? What towns does this cab company chiefly work in? Are there too many cabs in town or just about the right amount? Is the dispatcher fair or does s/he play favorites (or) how long has it been since the dispatcher drove a cab out on the street?

Cab drivers only have a couple of urgent questions for you. They'll want to know if the driver ahead of them illegally turned you down after asking your destination. Most importantly, if you're in town for a convention they'll want to know its name, start and end dates, and official hotels...all to help them plan their hanging-out-waiting-for-work spots.

Silence (when riding in a cab) is perfectly OK too. Speaking of which...

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