I’d never actually ridden in an Athens
cab before. I'd been in very few taxi at that. But I was hired to write
a brief piece about the local taxi system
- ask a few questions to see if any of the drivers had any interesting stories. This was in 1998.
It was shortly before midnight on a Thursday in October and I could smell the surprisingly clean leather upholstery of the van the photographer and I boarded. Amidst the cacophony of Athens nightlife outside and the occasional garble spilling out of the CB, I met 21-year-old Carly Shockley, an Athens native and rookie taxi driver. She had only been cab driving for approximately two months, but she says she enjoys it.
“It’s mostly just college kids,” Carly spoke with a congenial voice. “And I can relate to the drunks.”
As we talk, she turns onto Broad Street and begins munching on a candy bar. My first thought was that she was young with an outgoing demeanor and the furthest from a taxi driver stereotype I could imagine. (Cut to a vision of De Niro in you-know-what-film.) I ask her if there are many female drivers in town. She shakes her head.
“I’m one of the only girls, and they don’t send me places I shouldn’t have to go.”
Carly was saving money to go to Europe. She works at the Holiday Inn on a 3:00-11:00 shift and then drives from 11:00 to 5:00. Although she’d only been servicing the inebriated for two months, she’d already had some strange experiences.
Once she had a call to pick someone up, and it turned out that a guy had gone into a house he didn’t belong in. Two men placed him in the cab. “I picked him up,” she laughed. “And he says his name is Donnie Walberg or something, and he doesn’t know where he is or where he’s going.” She ended up dropping him off to someone who’d help him figure out where he needed to go once he sobered up.
On another less humorous occasion she ended up having to kick two guys out on the bypass because they were insulting her father—who happens to be a professor at UGA. She claimed they were propositioning her as well. She felt that people were nice most of the time, and that instances like this were rare.
“The most interesting thing,” Carly said. “Is to see the way the guys talk about girls when they’re not in the cab as compared to when they are. And the networking that goes on between the fraternities and sororities. They all go ‘Oh you must know so-and-so and he’s in my class’, and it’s very entertaining.”
At about 12:10 she got a call to pick someone up at the Holiday Inn. We traveled into the hotel parking lot and picked up a tall thin young man dressed very sharp and sporting a crew cut. We grilled him and learned that he’s a member of the salsa band Bio Ritmo, and he’s headed to the 40 Watt for a gig. He has a languid voice when he speaks, and he claims he’d had bad tacos earlier that day and that was why he couldn’t walk to the club.
Once he hopped out so did we, ready to stalk our next taxi cab.
Maybe “stalk” isn’t an appropriate word to use; a 1993 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that taxi drivers, police officers, hotel clerks and gas station personnel are six times more likely to be killed on the job than the average employee. A job as a writer sounded even more appealing to me once I learned this.
Soooo, at around 12:20 we hailed down Mike Hassler, a twenty-nine-year old cab driver with three and a half years experience. He drives a van similar to Carly’s, and puffs vigorously on a cigarette as he makes his rounds downtown.
“Being a cab driver does take a certain type of mentality,” he said. “That’s something I’ve learned. You end up with students that leave manners behind. It takes a lot to put up with the screaming and yelling.”
Mike said he quits at about 3:30 in the morning because by then it wears him down. He said it’s fun to drink and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes people take it too far.
Minutes later, two sorority girls flagged him down and asked to be taken to an SAE party. After Mike dropped them off he tells me that cabbies usually carry guns in case they have to deal with a rough situation. He said they are advised to. He occasionally talks to a cop who works on a rough part of town, and she told him something amusing once.
“She told me ‘Yeah, you have to deal with the druggies and stuff over here, but it’s nothing like dealing with the students.’” Interesting.
UGA scholars... what were they doing in these cabs?
I would soon find out. At 12:45 we caught a ride with Douglas, a ten year taxi veteran. Douglas was older, had a graying beard and spoke with a deep southern voice.
“I love it,” he claimed when I ask him about his job. “If you can’t have fun don’t do it. You get some of every type of person there is.”
Douglas told me a story about how he once drove a bunch of drunk guys home one night, and the next morning while he was cleaning up the back of the van he found some rather unusual waste— one of the guys was still there, passed out under the seat.
While we drove around town four girls hailed Douglas down on Broad Street. They also wanted a ride to the SAE party, and they decide to hassle with Douglas about the price. “One dollar, beba.” said a girl. “No, beba,” he replied. “Yeah, beba,” she returned, and this continued until they settled at two dollars. The girls’ voices steadily grew louder, and once we arrived at their stop I began wondering if they were drunk or if they were under some contract and desperately needed to generate more business for Miracle Ear. After the girl who said “beba” at least ten times got out along with her friends, Douglas spoke up.
“I have one rule of thumb,” he states, turning on the radio at a low level. “If you’re louder than that radio is, you’re too loud. I call it the six decibel rule.”
I assumed this rule was broken a lot.
Shortly after 1:00 we met Doris, a sweet faced woman who wore glasses and talked low. One would never guess she was shot six months before then while servicing in a bad area of town. They hassled her for money, and when the gun went off her hand blocked the bullet enough so it just lodged into her skull, luckily not hitting her brain. She was robbed and shot for eight dollars. I ask her if this deterred her from working after that.
“I came right back out,” she said proudly. “It didn’t hurt me at all.”
She also told me she once discovered a couple having sex in her back seat. Apparently she had delivered the couple to the apartment complex they wanted, but they wouldn’t get out. After a minute of silence she opened the back door and “found the two of them butt-naked and gettin’ it on.” She closed the door and waited, not knowing how to respond. Afterwards, the guy tipped her with a twenty.
“You can’t holler at these kids,” Doris said. “You can’t treat ‘em bad. They want to be treated with respect and I want to be treated with respect.”
Once she told me these stories, I definitely felt that Doris wasn’t being treated with enough respect.
At 1:25 Doris dropped us off in front of the Five Points Jittery Joe’s, and here we get into the taxi van of John Kytle, AKA “Little John.” Little John was from Portland, Oregon, sported a lengthy dark beard and possessed a very friendly voice. He’s been a taxi driver in Athens for three years and was one of the most popular and well known cabbies in the city. He told me an interesting story immediately.
“A young couple made love on the floor back there,” he claimed. Little John says this famous incident occurred about a year and half ago, and a girl and guy paid him to simply drive around the loop for a half hour. “They came up about four a.m.,” he tells me. “Both freshmen kids. Both fairly sober. I asked the girl, you know, ‘Is this okay?’ and she said ‘Yeah, I love ‘em,’ and I took the loop over at South Milledge and they got on the floor and made love.”
The way Little John spoke about the whole thing it almost sounds endearing... but... a taxi?
“No other way to put it they were horny,” he emphasized. “They were in love, it was a cold night, and the cabs were warm. They’re not together anymore, though.”
Little John enjoyed his job, and he’s good friends with a lot of the college students. “To me it’s a great way to make a living,” he said.
Once the evening of taxi jumping was over, I felt that having to deal with the loud, the rude and the sloshed so often would certainly be wearing in my mind. Taxi driving is a tough job in some ways, requiring patience and keen social skills that are given only to select people. It seemed the most important asset of all, though, was a sense of humor.