Monthly Archives: April 2013

Leading The Blind

I guess I never thought about it before I started driving cabs, but one thing all blind people have in common is that they can’t drive. I’ve picked up several blind customers since I started driving, some with guide dogs and some without. I don’t remember the circumstances of the first time I picked them up, but Earl and Brenda would become my longest lasting regular customers. I’ve never asked them their ages but they appear to be in their late sixties or early seventies. They’re both blind.  blind

Brenda said that she gradually went blind from the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa when she was a child. By the time she was seven years old she was completely blind. Earl had some kind of cancer of the eyeballs when he was a toddler, his eyes were removed and now he wears two glass eyes. Brenda has some light perception. She can tell day from night or when it’s sunny or overcast. Earl, of course, cannot; his blindness is complete. They’ve only lived in Birmingham for a little more than a year. They moved here because their son, Kevin had moved here after marrying a local woman.  Brenda and Earl wanted to be near their son. Kevin is also blind; he inherited his mother’s RP and went blind at an early age, just as Brenda had. They moved from Chicago where Earl had worked for a major university in a program that taught the blind to use computers, among other things. He’s now retired. I don’t think Brenda has worked much outside the home.

This couple has given me a valuable education about both the special needs and the normalness of the visually impaired. Brenda has a German Shepherd guide dog named Chloe. To be quite honest, Chloe isn’t the brightest guide dog that I’ve ever seen. Many times on our outings I find myself quite literally leading the blind. Sometimes I find myself leading the guide dog also.  As I’ve already said, these folks can’t drive. They’re completely dependent on others to take them everywhere they go. Believe me, they go plenty. They live in a relatively new brick house in a cookie cutter subdivision deep in zone 235. There are many doctor and dental appointments, vet trips for Chloe, trips to the bank and trips shopping. Yes, shopping. Brenda loves to shop. There are certain stores that have employees that will stay with her during the trip and find the stuff she’s looking for. Yes they do use such phrases as “looking for”, “see you later” ect. They also travel, which was a bit of a surprise for me. They go back to Chicago every few  epcotmonths to visit friends and relatives but their absolute favorite destination is the Epcot Center at Disney World in Florida. Apparently, the Epcot Center has representations of many nations. They can enjoy the food, music and other sounds, smells and tastes of other cultures without actually traveling abroad. When they take these trips I usually pick them up at the airport. I find them, find their luggage at the baggage claim, guide them back to the car and get them home safely.

It’s more important for blind people to find regular drivers and other service people than it is for sighted people. It’s important for them to build relationships that build trust. They can’t feel the difference between a one, a ten, a twenty or a hundred dollar bill. They have to trust people to tell them the truth. They can’t tell one credit or debit card from another without some difficulty and they always need help at the ATM. These are things that require trust, things that almost no one would feel comfortable letting a complete stranger do. They’ve told me that they save up their mail for about two weeks at a time and then have a “reader” to come to their house to read it to them. Although they’ve never mentioned it, I assume they also have sighted people helping with laundry, matching their clothes and cooking. Brenda does buy foods at the grocery store that require prepreation and cooking. Other than sometimes being covered with dog hair from Chloe, their clothes are neat and clean and never grossly mismatched. This couple is living in a strange place in a region they’re not used to. They have few friends or relatives to help them with daily life. I admire their strength and courage.

Sometimes the fact that I can be of service to people who truly need my service and to be trustworthy to those who need trustworthy people the most can be very satisfying. It makes me feel as if I’m doing something truly valuable to others, whether or not there is great profit to be made. Recently, a friend who is a long time taxi driver called me to ask a favor. He said that he was away on vacation but he had been informed that one of his regular blind customers had been taken advantage of by some scumbag driver who had answered the dispatch to pick this guy up. I’m not an extremely religious person but I’d like to think that there would be a special place in hell for any despicable piece of crap that would steal from a blind person. My friend ask if I could go by and pick Charles up and help him with his shopping and banking routine since it would involve money and shopping. I agreed.

I watched him carefully as he made his way down the steps in front of his house to the sidewalk. He had a collapsible red and white cane with a little ball at the end that he used to find his way down the steps while holding onto the rails that looked like they had been put there just for his benefit. Our first stop was at the bank where I filled out his checking withdrawal slip in order for him to get the cash he needed for his shopping. I was almost hesitant to ask when I got to the line where I had to fill in the account number. He said “I don’t know the account number, just put my social security number on it and they can use that.” I wrote the number on the slip and then made a conscious effort to forget it. Our next stop was a large grocery store in the Five Points West area of Ensley. Unlike Brenda, who usually called ahead to the grocery stores to make sure that they would have someone there to help her pick out her groceries, Charles was depending on me to do this for him. I guess my friend had been doing it for him in the past. Charles hung onto my arm as we negotiated the aisles of the big store. I was able to find everything on his mental list in a relatively short time. When we got to the checkout it was time for him to put his trust of me to the test. He took money out of his pocket one bill at a time and asked “what’s that?” with each one. I said, that’s a fifty Charles, give it to the cashier. After repeating this exercise about three more times, the grocery bill was paid. The next stop was at a dollar store.  I went in while he sat in the car, bought a phone card and then put the minutes on his phone. There were then two fast food drive through trips where it seemed to me that Charles was buying enough food to feed an army. I guess it was stuff that he expected to last for a while, since getting out of the house was a major effort for him. I dropped him off where I had picked him up and carried his groceries in the house. Even though he did pay me for my service, I felt as if I had done my good deed for the day.

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

*All views and opinions are strictly those of R.W. Walker. These views do not reflect the views of any cab company.

Two Birds With One Stone

The volume of business in the cab business varies greatly. There are times during the day or even at night during the middle of the week when business is so slow that we are glad to get any trip. There have been times when a five dollar grocery store trip looked pretty good. Most times, especially on nights and weekends, the business is much steadier and busier than it is during the middle of the week. Most of the full time drivers have regular customers on a regular schedule for trips to work, to doctor’s visits, shopping and other places. These regulars are a godsend when business is slow and money is tight, they can make the difference between making money for the day or ending up in the hole. I don’t have many regulars; it’s because I don’t drive everyday and most regulars need someone more dependable than I to get them where they need to go. I do develop some short term regulars from time to time. Michael was an ambiguosly gay man who was a stage actor and singer. He was in town because of a musical that was running at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center in downtown Birmingham. He was bjccstaying at an extended stay inn on highway 280. He would call me fairly early in the evening and have me shuttle him between the three gay bars located within just a few blocks from each other in the Southside/ Lakeview area. He would usually call me to take him back to the inn by midnight.

There are a few times a year when the demand exceeds the supply. It usually happens on drinking holidays like New Years Eve or St. Patricks Day, but it can also happen when certain musicians are performing at concerts in town. When it happens, it gets to the point when you can’t afford to answer the dispatch. The dispatchers will give us the oldest trips first and since many of them can be near an hour old when we get them, the customer will almost certainly be already gone when we get there. Three or four of these “noshows” can ruin your night. You’ll be running all over town, burning gas and not making any money. When the business gets like this, the best thing to do is cruise around hotels, concert venues and bars looking for flaggers. There will also be many people asking for your card and calling you back because they know cabs are in short supply. One of the busiest and rowdiest concert nights that I can remember was a night when Kid Rock came to town.

I had picked up Michael early in the evening and dropped him off at Randy’s on Sixth, the gay bar in the Lakeview area. The early part of the evening started like most concert nights, picking up visitors at suburban hotels and bringing them downtown to the civic center. It makes sense to work the zones in the outer suburbs instead of the downtown and southside zones. Trips from these zones are much longer and much more lucrative. Most of the customers that we pick up on nights like this are very different from our usual over the mountain 20 somethings that are bound for the Lakeview bars. Most of them are from small rural towns around Alabama or the surrounding states and are generally older, less affluent, more family oriented and more socially conservative than our usual customers from the suburbs south of the city. Their southern accents are usually much stronger and their clothing and hairstyles are different.  After a couple of hours had passed and I had picked up several of these out of town concert goers, Michael called me and I shuttled him from Randy’s to the The Search, the oldest and most well known gay club in town.

I was vaguely familiar with Kid Rock, I knew that he was one who sort of bridged the gap between Country, Rock and Hip Hop but I didn’t know much about him beyond that.

I certainly didn’t know that he had such a huge following.  As the night progressed, it became busier and busier. Once the concert hall was full and the concert had begun there was a bit of a lull, but it didn’t take long for the business to pick up again. Apparently a lot of people had come to town and hadn’t even gone to the concert, plus we had our regular weekend customers. When the concert was over the business reached a fever pitch. It had gotten to the point of turning off the dispatch. There was no need for dispatch, customers were literally fighting over cabs. I had one group already in the car when another group approached and offered to pay them to get out so that they could get in. There were many bird fingers being flipped along with shouts of “fuck you, assholes” when they refused. I was running back and forth from the civic center to hotels all over town and in the burbs as fast as I could. It was non-stop, money was flowing, I was loving it!

At some point in the middle of all this craziness, Michael had called for his trip back to the inn. I had other customers in the car at the time who were yelling and slurring drunk lyrics to Kid Rock songs when I talked to him and promised I would be there. When I dropped this load off, the concert had been over for a while and the crowd around the BJCC had thinned considerably. I thought i would make just one more pass by to see if there were any stragglers. As I rounded the curve between the Sheraton Hotel and the BJCC there was a large girl with long curly red hair standing on the curb with her hand up. I could tell immediately that this trip wasn’t going to be like the others. She wasn’t happy or drunk or in a jovial mood, she was crying her eyes out. I didn’t take me long to find out why. “He left me” she sobbed. It turns out that not only had the guy who she thought was her boyfriend, dumped her for another girl at the concert, he had also left her there high and dry without a ride home. She was sobbing almost uncontrollabaly as she finally was able to tell me her destination which was an apartment complex down highway 280. I quickly drove up the ramp to the Red Mountain expressway and put the pedal to the metal headed toward 280. As I was approaching the University Boulevard exit it dawned on me. OH SHIT! I had forgotten Michael!

I didn’t think about it twice, I took the exit and headed toward The Search. Michael had been a good dependable customer for several weeks and I wasn’t about to leave him stranded. Besides, she was going down 280 and he was going down 280, what the hell could it hurt to take them both? I told the girl what I was doing but she didn’t seem to care. She was boo hooing at the top of her lungs now, how was Michael going to react to that? When I pulled up at the club Michael was standing in the parking lot waiting on me. I didn’t like the look on his face when he saw the girl. I told him how busy the night had been and that she was going down his way and I thought I would take them both. He reluctantly got in the back seat with her but I could tell he didn’t like it. He introduced himself to her but all she could do was cry. It was awkward, they sat far apart, Michael didn’t say a word for most of the trip and the girl just continued to wail and moan and sob. At one point I almost became concerned about her health. She was crying so hard that she was hyperventilating. For a few minutes it seemed that she was having a difficult time just catching her breath. We arrived at Michael’s destination first. I had run the meter but hadn’t really thought about how to divide the fare. He threw a twenty in the front seat and said ” thanks for ruining my night. I was feeling good until I got in this cab. This ride has been like going to a goddamn funeral!” He was pissed, to say the least.

I dropped the girl off at her apartment about a mile down 280 from Michael’s hotel. She was still heaving and bawling when she made it through the front door. I felt bad because I had “ruined” Michael’s night. I called him the next day and apologized profusely. He said it was “weird” but he would forgive me. I told him that the next ride was on the house and I delivered on that promise the very next night. I drove him to the airport for his departure from Birmingham a few days later. We parted on good terms.

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

*All views and opinions are strictly those of R.W. Walker. These views do not reflect the views of any cab company.

Birmingcabbie Takes A Holiday

The state of Alabama doesn’t have a long coastline. It does however, have a short, very beautiful, very scenic coastline. The Alabama coast stretches for about 60 miles along the Gulf of Mexico in two counties in the extreme southwest corner of the state; Mobile and Baldwin. The main feature of the coastline is Mobile Bay, a shallow estuary where the waters of the Alabama and Tombigbee river systems meet the Gulf. Along the western side of the bay is the city of Mobile.   Pronounced MO-Beal, it’s the second largest city in Alabama and the state’s only Mo-bealseaport. Mobile is much older and very different from Birmingham, with it’s magnolias and moss draped live oaks it has much more of an old south feel. It was founded in the late 1600’s and has French and Spanish influences, something not present in Birmingham.

On the eastern side of Mobile Bay, in Baldwin County, there is a stretch of sugary white sand beaches that stretch 32 miles along the open Gulf of Mexico. On the eastern end of this stretch is an old roadhouse known as the Flora Bama. It’s on the Alabama/Florida state line and it’s a cultural icon along the Gulf Coast. It’s sometimes called America’s last great roadhouse. Driving west from the Flora Bama a visitor will pass through the resort towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. These towns are tourist destinations for many from the southeast as well as for many winter visitors from the northern states; known locally as “snowbirds”. There are many towering, concrete condo buildings and hotels, seafood restaurants with names like Live Bait, Sea and Suds, Doc’s and King Neptune’s. There are many souvenir shops, some with entry ways that look like a sharks jaws, selling all manner of over priced beach supplies, air brushed t-shirts with corny sayings, shot glasses and refrigerator magnents to take back to the dull inland work- a-day lives of most of the vacationers.

Traveling west from the resort towns, there is a long peninsula between the bay and the gulf. At the very western end of that peninsula sits Fort Morgan , one of two forts built in the early 1800’s to guard the entrance to Mobile Bay. Fort Morgan’s sister fort is called Fort Gaines and is situated on Dauphin Island just across the narrow mouth of the bay. On the way down highway 180, the road to Fort Morgan, the hotels and condos give way to beach houses and bay houses on stilts. It’s necessary for the houses to be elevated because of frequent hurricanes and tropical storms. A house is probably not going to survive a major hurricane, category 3 or higher, because of wind, flying debris and storm surge. If it’s a lesser storm most of the damage will be flooding from the surge. Many houses can survive that if elevated properly.

My wife and I have our own little hideaway about two miles east of the fort.  At this point the peninsula is narrow enough that one can stand in the middle and see water on both Ocean Springs 025 sides. We have a great bay view from our deck and if you look over our neighbor’s Palm trees, we also have a view of the open gulf. If you like sugar white sand beaches with rolling dunes studded with sea oats, rosemary and other vegetation, a sea which can be as calm as a lake and clear as drinking water or with pounding surfable waves, depending on offshore conditions, then we have one of the finest beaches in  America within about a 200 yard walk. Forgive me if I’m sounding like a tourism Kathy's Camera 116commercial but it really is a very pleasant place to be. Kathy's Camera 186

It’s pretty isolated out here. It’s a good idea to bring most of the supplies you think you’ll need with you since it’s almost 20 miles back to the town of Gulf Shores. There’s a bait shop, convenience store, pizza shop, liquor store combination with an adjacant seafood restuarant, which is new and very good, about 3 miles to the east. About a half mile to the west is Tacky Jack’s, a seafood restaurant with a bar downstairs. There’s a marina with a bait shop and dock store next to Tack Jacks. Life seems to revolve around this place down on this end of the road.

Life is good down here, even if you’re just sitting on the deck breathing the salt air and watching the big freighters come in and go out of the bay either chugging toward the port of Mobile or departing the port on their way to some harbor half way around the world. Kathy's Camera 215After a big rain the noise of what seems like millions of frogs be overwhelming; especially at night. Shelling is very good at certain times of the year, we picked up some fantastic shells at Thanksgiving last year. I know that fishing is good too, even though I haven’t quite gotten into the groove of it. Are there any downsides?  Very few, I’m sure we would find more if we lived here all the time. Mosquitos, and other biting insects can be bad at times, there are natural gas rigs visable in the gulf and the bay, most of the oil rigs are off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas but the gas rigs look remarkably similar. I just accept them as a fact that I can’t change, but if I had my choice, they would be gone. Then of course there are the hurricanes and tropical storms. The very first year we had the house we had a scare from Hurricane Isaac; thankfully it missed us but unfortunately, the folks in south Louisiana weren’t so lucky. I know that one day we’re going to get some hurricane damage, but for now I’ll just put my feet up, have a Makers on the rocks and bask in the pure beauty of this place.

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

*All views and opinions are strictly those of R.W. Walker. These views do not reflect the views of any cab company.

sources: Encyclopedia of Alabama, Wikipedia