Category Archives: Race

The Unwanted

“Call em’ a cab.” That’s a popular way to get rid of a person causing a problem. Whenever someone is being belligerent, drunk and disorderly, obnoxious or just in the way, a favorite solution to many is to call us and a car will appear and rid them of their problem. The person calling usually never thinks of the problems that person will cause the driver or anyone else after they leave. They just know that the problem will no longer be theirs. The following stories are about two very different people who were unwanted where they were and the cab solution was employed.

Edna Jean

It was early in the evening, just after dusk when I c-booked a trip in the 130 zone. It’s a pretty big zone that stretches from the Lakeview and Highland Park areas in Southside almost to Irondale in the eastern part of the metro. This trip was at the IHOP on Crestwood Blvd which is on the eastern end of the zone. I called the dispatch and asked that they call the customer to make sure they would stay there until I could get there, it sucks to drive a long way for nothing and many customers are very impatient. An employee of the restaurant answered and assured me that “she’ll be here”. I assumed that Edna Jean was an employee that I would be taking home.

She wasn’t an employee. I think I may have jumped a little in my skin when I saw her come out. A white woman in her fifties who looked totally bizarre. Her silver hair was standing out in every direction and looked like it hadn’t seen a comb in weeks. She was wearing a man’s jacket which was about four times too big. Under that I could only see her bare legs and a pair of ragged flip flops on her gnarly, dirty feet. I just assumed she was wearing pants under that jacket, I didn’t ask. Her piercing but almost frighteningly empty eyes looked straight in to mine and said “My name’s Edna Jean. What’s yours?” Rod is my name, where do you need to go? “I live in Walker County. Do you know where Sumiton is? How much will it cost? I got fifty dollars.” I said I’m afraid it may cost a little more than that. A trip to Sumiton would probably run about seventy or eighty dollars. “I ain’t got but fifty but I’ll give you that.” I said I’m afraid it’ll cost more than that to get to Sumiton. “Well can you take me to Leeds?” That I can do. It’ll be about twenty dollars from here.

As we pulled out into Crestwood Blvd headed to Leeds she said again “My name’s Edna Jean, what’s yours?” My name’s Rod. It’s nice to meet you Edna Jean. “I live in Walker County, in Sumiton. You know where that is?” Yes, I know where it is but I thought you wanted to go to Leeds. “I really caint go to Leeds. I been staying out there with my brother. He lives in the housing project. He ain’t sposed to have nobody but his wife and kids in there. They been tryin’ to get me locked up, that’s why I left.” How did you get to the IHOP, I asked. “I walked, I had to leave there cause theys tryin’ to get me locked up.” Do you mean you walked all the way here from Leeds? “Yeah I did. I’m tarred.” Well do you know anyone around here? Where were you going? “My name’s Edna Jean, I live in Walker County, Sumiton. Do you know where that is?” Yes I know where it is, are you telling me you were planning to walk to Sumiton? “Yeah, but that’s too far ain’t it?” Yes, it’s way too far to walk, probably fifty or sixty miles. “That’s what the girl in the restaurant said. She said I’ll call you a cab.”

“Please take me to Sumiton. It’s in Walker County. I got fifty dollars, please take me. I caint go back to my brothers place, they want to lock me up and I caint stand to be locked up. Please take me. I live in Walker County.” OK, I said. Give me the fifty dollars. She handed me four little balls of money. I straightened them out and could see it was two twenties and two fives. I stuffed them deep into my pocket and drove up the ramp to I-20, headed west. I decided to run the meter just to see how much it would actually cost to get her there. By now it was black dark and cloudy with just a few drops of rain on the windshield. Traffic was light in my mind but Edna Jean was freaking out. “All this traffic scares me to death, I couldn’t never drive on this road. Specially them eighteen wheelers. Them thangs scare me to death.” The sound of an ambulance siren was sounding pretty shrill coming up behind us. I barely pay them much attention because I hear and see them so much, I often joke that the sound of emergency vehicles is Birmingham’s theme song. Not so with Edna Jean. “What’s that?” she gasped. Just an ambulance I said, we see them all the time. “Them thangs scare me too, I’m glad I ain’t got to drive.”

As we exited on Arkadelphia and headed toward Sumiton she couldn’t hide her excitement. “Where we at?  We already in Sumiton?” No we’re still in Birmingham, we’ve got a long way to go. “My name’s Edna Jean. I live in Walker County.” I said yes, Edna Jean. We’ve already established that. “All my folks is dead except for my brother and he don’t want me, he wants to have me locked up.” I’m sorry to hear that I said. “My husband just died about five years ago. He’s buried upair in Taylor’s cemetery in Sumiton, you know where that is?” I can’t say that I do. I said I’ll bet you miss your husband, did y’all have a good life together? “Naw, not really. He was a alky-holic. He got mean when he was drunk. He died of cirrhosis of the liver. Naw, I don’t miss him much.” That’s too bad, I said. And all your other relatives are dead? “Mama and all her sisters and brothers died a long time ago. Daddy’s been dead since I was little. Oh, I forgot about my daughter, she ain’t dead. I don’t have nothing to do with her and she don’t like me. She’s a dope addict.”

After we passed through the last street lights of Forestdale, Adamsville and Graysville the road became significantly darker. “It ain’t far now is it?” We’re a lot closer than we were but we’ve still got a few miles, I told her. “I’m glad it was you that picked me up” Why is that? I asked. “I don’t trust colored men”. As much as I disagreed with this sentiment I decided that having a discussion about race with this woman wasn’t a good idea, so I just stayed silent and let it go. Soon we were passing Wesley’s Boobie Trap, an old strip club in the middle of nowhere near the Walker County line. “We close now,” she said. “Sumiton ain’t far from that old titty bar.” I said yeah, we’ll be there soon. As soon as we get into Sumiton you can show me where you live. “I don’t live nowhere, I ain’t got no home no more.” Alarms started going off in my mind. Ut oh, I thought. Where the hell am I gonna take her? So I asked, where am I gonna take you? “I’m gonna try to go up to my friend’s trailer. If she ain’t there or won’t let me in I’ll guess you can just take me to downtown Sumiton.” I was apprehensive. I’ve been in these situations before, where someone will hold you a long time going place to place for little to no money. In this case it would be no money.

Boobie Trap

In just a couple of miles after passing the Boobie Trap we started seeing the first few lights of Sumiton, mostly fast food. A McDonald’s and a couple of other chain burger joints. “We gonna go rat over this hill and turn by the Hardee’s.” This turn lead us down a winding country road that turned from pavement to gravel after about a half mile. “See that trailer up on the hill? I’m ona go upair and see if she’ll let me in.” I watched as she walked up the small hill in her ragged clothes to a ragged home. After some loud knocking the door cracked open and Edna walked in. I didn’t give her a chance to walk out again. I hit the road in a hurry. The meter was sitting at sixty eight dollars. Yes, I felt compassion for her but I’d already taken an eighteen dollar hit. That’s all I could afford for one night.

Jane

Picking up at upscale restaurants is usually easy. It’s almost always fairly affluent people who are visiting Birmingham and staying in the good hotels. Most of the time it’s a short trip to the Westin, The Sheraton, Embassy Suites or one of the other mainstream hotels near downtown. Once in a while it’s a twenty five to thirty dollar trip out to the hotel at Ross Bridge. The customers are almost always well behaved and never overly drunk.

This night was an exception. When I pulled up in front of the upscale seafood restaurant at five points south, a valet motioned for me to roll down my window. He ask, “are you here for Jane?” I said yes and he told me they were bringing her out. I thought it a little odd that she had to be brought out. Jane was an attractive young woman probably in her thirties. She had shoulder length blonde hair and was wearing a stylish looking blue dress. She was the kind of customer one would expect to see at this kind of restaurant. Jane was being escorted to the cab by the restaurant manager and another employee. She was holding on tight to both their arms. When they let her go to get in the cab she took a tumble when she stepped off the curb. They picked her up off the ground and physically put her in the back seat.

This was a strange situation. She seemed to be alone and was apparently well lubricated when she arrived. When I asked where she wanted to go she just gave me a blank stare, like “who are you and where am I?” The manager said “the best we can tell, she lives in Anniston and is in town for some kind of business meeting.” Can you tell me where you want to go? I ask her. “I don’t know, to my hotel I guess. My car’s here I can just drive.” “Ma’am we cannot allow you to drive” the manager said. “Why not?” she insisted. “Because you’re too intoxicated to drive, ma’am. If I let you drive our restaurant would be liable if you get into a wreck. You can leave in the cab or if you have a friend I can call them to pick you up. If you can’t do either of those things, I’m afraid I’ll have to call the police.”

I said ma’am I’ll be glad to take you to your hotel if you’ll just tell me where it is. “I don’t know. Fairfield Inn I think.” Which Fairfield Inn? I asked. “I don’t know I’m not from here.” I started googling Fairfield Inn near Birmingham on my phone. I found that the one I had remembered on highway 280 was closed. There were three others in the metro area. Bessemer, Fultondale and Pelham. I said we have three to chose from but they’re far apart. If we go to the wrong one we’re going to be a hell of a long way to the right one.

By this time she’s clutching my arm as she had the with the manager and the restaurant employee. “I don’t know just take me there.” she almost screamed. Ma’am I can’t take you anywhere until you can tell me where we’re going. She looked at the manager and yelled “I’M UNHAPPY WITH HIM.” as she pointed in my direction. I said I’m unhappy with you too. You’re taking up my time, and you can’t go anywhere with me if you can’t tell me where to go. You can’t ride around with me all night. The manager tried to convince her to let him see her phone. He thought maybe he could see where she had called a hotel and he could call to see which one. She flatly refused. “You’re not touching my phone” she told him.

It seemed abundantly clear that Jane wouldn’t be much help providing a destination. The manager and I started considering other options. He said “I really don’t want to call the police on her. Maybe you could take her to one the hotels in this area where she can get a room for the night. She can come back here and get her car tomorrow, when she’s sober. Good idea I said. I looked at her and said we have three hotels less than a mile from here. We have the Hotel Highland, the Doubletree and the Marriot Residence. Would you like to go to one of those? “Marriot Residence, take me there.” I did a u turn and headed down the hill. She was still clutching my arm and by this time laying her head on my shoulder in an almost flirty manner. After two red lights we were there.

“Where are we? Why did you bring me here? What is this place? This is the Marriot Residence Hotel. You told me to bring you here. “Why?” Don’t you remember? The restaurant manager said you had to go somewhere or he would have to call the police. Are you going to get out? I asked. “No, I don’t know why I’m here. What kind of car is this?” It’s a cab. About a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria. “This is my car,” she said. I said ma’am if you don’t get out here at this hotel I will have to call the police. “I’m not getting out of my own car! How did you get my car?” I put the keys in my pocket and got out of the car. “What are you doing?”she asked. I went to the desk and told the clerk what was going on. I was very happy this clerk was working because she was very helpful. When we both walked back out of the hotel Jane was in the drivers seat with her hands on the wheel. “Let us help you ma’am, just come into the hotel and we’ll get you a room for the night.” “Why are you trying to make me get out of my car?” Jane insisted. “Ma’am, you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a cab. This is not your car.”

The clerk was very kind and gentle with Jane and apparently that worked. She took the clerk by the hand and stumbled into the hotel lobby. As with Edna Jean, I didn’t give her time to change her mind. I also didn’t ask her for any money as I knew that would be futile.

copyright R.W. Walker 2015

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

Choices And Complications

A few months ago I made two consecutive trips that made me ask mental questions about how life choices affect life situations. The first trip was obvious, this person was about to make some very intentional choices that were likely to affect him in a very negative way. The next trip was a woman who seemed to have made a choice not to give up no matter how much things beyond her control were beating her down.

The first call came from a mission which is a Christian oriented rehab center for men struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. When I drove into the parking lot I saw three men, two looked very straight laced. They were wearing white shirts with conservative looking ties, both wore glasses. They were talking to a man between them who looked a little like a football linebacker or a professional wrestler. He was a short white man, very stocky and had no visible neck. His bald head looked like a small ball that had been placed on his short muscular body. The two professional looking men were looking down at him and seemingly giving him instructions or advice. He looked back up at them nodding his head in agreement.

As I popped the trunk the short man quickly loaded his bags and hopped in the backseat. I’ll have to admit that I was a bit shocked by what he said. “I’m not gonna beat around the bush, I want drugs.” I turned around quickly and said I’m sorry but I can’t help you, I don’t do drugs! “Come on man! You’re a taxi driver for Christ’s sakes! Even if you don’t do them you’ve got to know where they are.” I said man, I’m not your father or your social worker or your rehab counselor. I don’t care what you do with your life but I’m telling you I don’t personally know any drug dealers and if I did I wouldn’t take the chance of taking them someone who I’ve never met.

“Surely you must know a part of town where it would be easy for me to find something, don’t you?” As I said, it’s not my job to keep you clean, my job is simply to take you where you want to go. I do know of several fleabag motels where; although I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, I’ve heard rumors of a lot of drug activity and prostitution. “Take me to the worst one” he demanded. OK, I said, we’re on our way. It wasn’t very far from the rehab center to the sleezy motels. He had time to tell me that he wasn’t from here, which I could easily tell from his accent. “I’m from upstate New York” he said proudly as most folks from New York do. “I’ve been stuck in this little hellhole down in the country. I’ve been in Faunsdale, Alabama. Do you know where that is?” I assured him that I did know where the little black belt farming town was located. He never explained how he ended up in Faunsdale, instead he went on to tell me how he had intentionally agreed to come to the mission where I picked him up. “I went ahead and agreed to come talk to these counselors, I just wanted to get to Birmingham to get some drugs. It was the only way I could get out of that hellhole. Now it’s over and I’m ready to have some fun.”

As we approached the motels I showed him the options. I said I was thinking of this one on the right as the most likely one to get what you’re looking for. It was the one with the sign advertising that it’s American owned. I said I’ve actually seen prostitutes here and have heard of constant drug activity. “What about the others?” he asked. Well, across the street is the Milky Way. His eyes lit up as I said it’s name. Apparently he had done some research. “Yeah, I’ve read about that one, it’s one of the one’s I was gonna look for.” Next, I showed him the Recline Inn. It’s the largest of the three but all three are in walking distance of the other. He said “take me to the nearest liquor store and let me stock up before I decide”. I continued on up 1st avenue to the little burglar bar adorned convenience store with the liquor store attached. “Is this a bad part of town?” he asked. It’s not a good one, I told him. There are worse parts. “Is it all black?” Mostly, there are some whites and some Hispanics. “How will the hookers treat me since I’m white?” I’ve never used a hooker but some of the hookers are white themselves and I can’t imagine that the others  would discriminate, as long as you have money. “How bad are the cops?” Well, sometimes they do stings and round up all the hookers and johns, I told him. That seemed to be a risk he was willing to take. He emerged from the ghetto store with a twelve pack of Bud Light and a bottle of vodka. His decision was to  go to the first motel I had shown him. He reasoned that if he didn’t like it, he could walk to one of the others. He had a few more questions before booking the room. “What’s the drug lingo like here?” I said I don’t really know since I don’t do drugs. “Well, how will I ask them?” That’s totally up to you I told him, but it probably won’t be long before you get solicited by a hooker and I can imagine that it’ll just go from there.

He emerged from the grimey no tell, mo-tel office almost giddy. He pointed to the room they rented him and I drove on over so he could get his bags out. He was smiling gleefully now that he was here at this lower than a snake’s belly place where he could indulge his vices. He handed me a huge wad of cash, way more than his fare and said “thank you so much! I really appreciate it!” I simply said good luck buddy.

The second I left this crappy motel my dispatch computer was offering me another call. This one was also in the 110 zone so I knew it wasn’t very far away. It was a house in a run down neighborhood that I wasn’t sure was a house at all at first. It was brick but the windows didn’t look standard, this place looked more like a small warehouse or some other type of structure not for human habitation. I almost called dispatch to make sure they hadn’t given me the wrong address. Then I noticed the faint numbers above the door, this was the correct address. I pressed the callout button and in a minute or so got a message from the dispatchers that the customer was coming out. I still wasn’t completely convinced that anyone would actually come out of this place. About three minutes later I noticed the door gradually crack open. I could see the figure of a very frail African American woman who I would judge to be in her 50’s standing in the doorway supporting herself with an old fashioned walker, the kind without wheels that has to be folded to put in the trunk.

She was wearing a skirt which exposed her legs and feet clad with white sports socks and black leather flats which looked very worn. Her feet seemed to be almost useless except to stand up straight. She moved forward by gaining a firm stand and then lunging the walker out in front of her body, She would then pull her body toward the walker with her feet dangling like a ragdoll’s feet. I turned the car around in the appropriate direction and opened the back door for her. It was excruciating to see this woman drag herself to the car. She had apparently done this many times before. She turned around backwards to sit in the backseat and then pull her legs in. Pulling her legs in was no easy task. She basically had to lie down and force her body to the other side of the car in order to get her feet all the way in. I helped her by putting one of her flats back on that had fallen off in the process.

pig wig

She said “I just need to go to the Piggly Wiggly to get a few things, it’s not very far.” As we traveled the short distance to the pig I thought about the choices she was making to just survive in a cruel world. Was she totally alone? Could she have gotten the supplies any other way? I didn’t know but I did admire her determination to not allow her disability to completely control her life. At the door of the pig the process of getting her out of the car was a little easier than getting her in. She asked the fare and I said don’t worry about it, the guy before you was very generous. He paid for both yours and his fare. Her eyes lit up in disbelief and said “God bless him.” I noticed a scooter with a basket on the front in the store, and asked her if she’d like me to get it for her. “No, honey. It just makes things more complicated.” All I could think was My God, how could it possibly be any more complicated than it is already?

copyright 2014 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.

Let’s Make A Dill

It was about ten o’clock  on a Thursday morning. I was beginning to wish that I hadn’t leased the cab this day. I had started out at eight and I hadn’t gotten even one call in two hours, I felt almost certain that this day would be a lost cause. It looked like the company had just hired a bunch of new drivers. There were more cabs out than usual and so many were stacked up in the good zones that it would be impossible to get a trip in one of the usual spots. I studied the T-screen on the computer. This is the screen that shows how many cabs there are in each zone. There were cabs in all the zones except for one. I headed for zone 200, west of downtown where I would be first in line.

Much of zone 200 is what many people would consider ghetto. There are a couple of projects, as well as some pretty run down rental housing. This zone is the home of Legion Field, the stadium that used to be the pride of the state, where the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers played some of their biggest, most important home games. For years this stadium was known as “The Football Capital of the South”. It no longer carries that title. It’s still used as the home field of the UAB Blazers. It’s also the home of the “Magic City Classic” a big rivalry game between the state’s largest two historically black universities, Alabama State and Alabama A&M. The stadium also hosts the BBVA Compass Bowl every January. The stadium is still active but her glory days are long behind her, she looks a little sad in comparison to the now larger and more modern stadiums on the campuses of Alabama and Auburn.

A large part of the zone is somewhat of a industrial wasteland with many empty warehouses along with several scrap yards, junk yards and metal related businesses still operating. Needless to say, it isn’t one of the most beautiful areas of the city. I found a place to park and wait for a call across the street from a long closed business that used to be a car dealership, body shop and mechanical shop. I was amazed but not terribly surprised when I noticed some obvious misspellings on the sign painted on the wall of the building. I laughed out loud when I saw that they had spelled Used Car Dealer “Used Car Diller” and Mechanical Shop “Mecanical Shop”.

Make a dill

I wondered how long the place had been closed. I wondered who had painted the lettering and who had approved it. I wondered if anyone had ever pointed it out to them. How could they have stayed in business any length of time without bothering to correct it? It was one of those things that was so ridiculous that it was funny.

I took my eyes off the scene for a few minutes while fiddling with my phone camera and trying to post this thing to facebook. When I looked up, she had appeared out of nowhere. Out in the middle of the street in front of this God forsaken place was a young woman wearing what could best be described as upscale evening attire. It was a pretty dress, multi-colored and obviously not cheap. The quality of the garment was apparent. The person wearing the dress wasn’t quite as upscale. She was young, thin and very dark skinned. Not a beauty queen but not ugly either. She didn’t have the shoes to match the dress, she was wearing flip flops.

The thing that was most noticeable about her was that she was smashed, shit-faced, totally messed up on either drugs, alcohol or both. I have no idea where she came from, but she sure seemed out of place out here at 10 am.  She was waving a dollar in the air trying to get my attention. She slurred, “I need a ride, I got money”, I said, hop in. She told me she wanted to go to the Smithfield library, which was just a few bocks away. She immediately confessed to me “I ain’t gonna tell you no lie, I ain’t got but a dollar”. I told her not to worry about it, there was nothing else going on, I’d finish the ride. A few seconds later I noticed that she had slid forward in the seat, then her hand reached for my crotch. I gently removed her hand and told her that I wasn’t interested, I was just doing her a favor.

She didn’t quite know how to react to that, she started slurring some jibberish about God and Jesus and how “we all the same, black and white”. I nodded in agreement as we passed the library, she wanted to go to a house just a little further up the street.  As I pulled up at the house she was making a drunken speech that made absolutely no sense. It ended with “you and me, baby, black and white, we da peoples of tha Earf!” I said have a nice day, I didn’t even ask for her dollar.

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.

The Elephant In The Backseat

This year, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of some of the ugliest, most violent and reprehensible events in the struggle for civil rights by African Americans. Unfortunately, this city and this state were at the epicenter of all this ugliness. Birmingham had become known as “Bombingham” because of the numerous bombings of the homes of civil rights leaders and others associated with the movement by the Ku Klux Klan. When the actions of the Birmingham police and fire departments under the direction of Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor came into the national and indeed worldwide spotlight, the image of this city became etched into the minds of most decent people as being a very racist, violent and backward place. We are still plagued by these memories. Those grainy black and white TV images of African American demonstrators being assaulted by firemen with water cannons and police with vicious dogs are still conjured up in the minds of many when they hear the words Birmingham, Alabama.

The City of Birmingham, in conjunction with the University of Alabama at Birmingham has launched a program called 50 years forward. The program is a series of events to commemorate some of the most pivotal events that occurred in the year 1963. The idea is to bring people back to this city to remember the hard fought struggles of the past but to also experience modern Birmingham and to see how much it’s changed. Has it really changed that much? Yes and no. Some things have turned around 180 degrees. The city elected it’s first African American Mayor in 1979 and has had all African American mayors ever since. The majority of the city council and most city officials are African American as is the Chief of Police. What brought about this kind of dramatic change? The short answer; white flight. Whites began fleeing the city for the suburbs shortly after the end of segregation and the exodus continued until recently. The city’s population declined from more than 340,000 in 1960 to just over 212,000 today. The racial makeup of the city today is 73.4% African American and 22.3% Caucasian with the remainder being made up of other races or ethnicities. When doing day to day business in Birmingham it seems that the population of whites is much higher than 22.3%. That’s because most whites live in the other 36 municipalities of Jefferson County (pop. 658,466) and in Shelby County (pop. 195,085) to the south. Most of them still work, do business, dine and play in Birmingham.

One can see a marked difference in race relations since the days of the civil rights struggles. There is no longer any kind of legal segregation. Many seem to have actually transcended race.  Interracial couples and families are quite common in many neighborhoods. Take a stroll through Five Points South, Railroad Park or many other areas and you are likely to see people of different races in loving relationships with each other. In my opinion, this is a very good development. It isn’t unusual to see black and white friends and co-workers having lunch and dinner together and there are several bars and clubs that cater to a racially mixed crowd. The Princeton Review rated UAB as the 3rd most diverse university in America in 2010.  Even what has traditionally been the most segregated time of the week; church time on Sunday morning, has begun to change. There are several churches around town that actively seek diverse congregations.

Yes, things have changed for the better in many areas and with many people.  Unfortunately, there are even more areas and more people that haven’t seen much change at all. Even after a half century there still seems to be two distinct cultures inhabiting the same city and the same metropolitan area. As I said earlier, there is no more legal segregation. There is however, plenty of voluntary segregation, de facto segregation by choice and the circumstances in which one lives. While some clubs and churches have embraced diversity, many others haven’t. There are certain festivals and events that draw overwhelmingly white crowds and there are others that draw almost entirely African American festival goers. The City of Birmingham public schools are very close to being all black. The majority of neighborhoods in the city limits are nearly all black. The Southside, Crestwood, Roebuck and a few other neighborhoods are diverse but most of the suburban neighborhoods, especially the more affluent south of the mountain suburbs, are almost lily white. There are some exceptions, notably in Hoover and parts of Homewood but most southern suburbs are still overwhelmingly white.

So change has come, but only for some it seems. Why is that? I think the answer to that is  probably it’s the people who WANT to change that have changed. Those that see change as a positive thing and not something frightening. Those who are open minded with more love than fear in their hearts are the people who have changed. For those who haven’t changed, living circumstances, poverty and less than quality educations may be a reason. Some probably don’t change because of peer pressure to stick with one’s own race. Still others may still believe in the old ideas of racial superiority that were the foundation of the Jim Crow segregation laws. I like to think that there aren’t many people still around today who believe this way. I like to think that the remaining white supremacists are on the fringes of society, not in the mainstream. I hope I’m right but sometimes I have my doubts.  Cab driving offers one the opportunity to see the change, and the non-change up close and personal. I for one, pick up people in all zones, in black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods and in neighborhoods and other areas where race is not such a big issue. Sometimes, my African American customers in segregated neighborhoods seem shocked and surprised that a white man has come to pick them up in cab. The shock is often visible on their faces but they rarely ever mention it. Some just settle in and say nothing until they reach their destination while others make friendly small talk while avoiding the issue like the proverbial elephant in the room.

The subject doesn’t come up frequently on cab trips, but I can remember a few notable occasions when it has. It’s usually whites that bring it up. That may be because whites feel more comfortable bringing it up with a white driver. It could be that black customers bring it up more often with black drivers, I don’t know. I can remember only one African American who brought it up in a big way with me. He made a speech about “white devils” and seemed to be having delusions that the Ku Klux Klan was just as active in Birmingham today as they were in the 1960’s. He kept saying “we ain’t gonna stand for it no more” in an angry tone. He asked me repeatedly, “why do y’all want to kill us?” I told him that I certainly didn’t want to kill him or anyone else, nor did I have any friends who wanted to kill anyone. After I made my best effort to respond to his question in a non-threatening, peaceful manner, he asked again “so why do all y’all want to kill us?” I didn’t answer, I was just hoping that his destination was coming up soon and that we didn’t get stopped by anymore traffic lights. I wanted him out of the car yesterday. I dropped him off in an area of east Birmingham known as Kingston. His fare was seventeen dollars, he handed me a twenty and said “keep it.” I was astonished that he actually tipped. Just a few blocks from where I dropped him off, I noticed some very crude writing on several old pieces of tin along Richard Arrington Boulevard. With curiosity getting the best of me, I turned around to see what it said. It was a paranoid rant that sounded much like the rhetoric that my customer had been spewing. It said something along the lines of “There is a plan to kill us. There’s a plan to kill our families, unite or die!”

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One thing I couldn’t help but notice on the rant was the crude image of a backward crescent moon. The backward crescent is the symbol of the Nation of Islam , which operates at least one mosque in Birmingham. Their members can often be seen handing out literature at intersections on the west side of town. Their clean cut grooming along with their conservative looking suits worn with small bow ties make them highly visible and unmistakably members of NOI. I don’t know if the author of this rant was a member of the group or just sympathized with their ideology, but he used their logo, this much we know.

This customer was a bit scary and I was glad to be rid of him. I do know however, that his behavior and beliefs were not representative of all African Americans. I think that he was misguided but I do not hate him. I think that most modern racism is fueled by people who may see an example of someone of the other race who they believe to be racist against them. They usually attribute this person’s beliefs and actions to all members of that race. They then use this perceived racism to justify their own racism. I call it the I hate you because I think you hate me syndrome, it goes round and round and spins like a cyclone. It may slow down from time to time but never seems to stop. If we are ever to eliminate racism in America we must find a way to stop this vortex.

As I said earlier, the subject of race isn’t brought up frequently on cab trips. When it is, at least in my cab, it’s brought up most often by working class whites. Some of these people seem to think that they’re in some kind of competition with the African race. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that when they start their racist diatribes I often react passively with silence. I never agree with them, because I assure you, I do not. But I also don’t confront them, I just want to get them where they want to go and get them out of my car ASAP. I am very much offended by their language and racist ideas. I’m offended because there have been, and still are many African Americans, bi-racial people and whites in interracial relationships that are very dear to me in my life. I don’t like hearing them disparaged by some racist idiot. I could imagine that I would be offended a great deal more if I were African American or if I had an interracial family. I’m offended because of the fact that they’ve stereotyped me. They think because I’m a white male from the south that I must feel the same way they do. They’re wrong.

I remember the first time it happened I was picking up an older white couple in North Birmingham. It was in a neighborhood that is now about 99% African American. I hadn’t been driving long and was driving an old cab with a dent in the door. The customer got in and immediately asked “what happened to your door? Did some n****r hit you?” I asked where they were going and was silent for the rest of the trip. When we arrived at their destination he said, “sorry for using the N word, it’s the way I was raised” as he exited the car. Yeah, whatever, I thought. A few months later I picked up a couple from a hotel in Homewood. I will usually make an attempt at conversation with customers, if they don’t respond well I will simply drive them to their destination in silence. This guy responded when I ask where they were from. He said “I’m originally from here but now we live in Destin. (Destin is a beach town in the Florida panhandle) I moved down there to get away from the n****rs, they done rurnt everthang up here.” I didn’t respond. Now that I knew what this guy was all about I just wanted to get him and his wife, or his girlfriend or whoever she was to their destination and get their stupid asses out of my cab.

There was silence for a minute, then he asked “where are you from?” I told him that I was originally from Tuscaloosa but had moved to Birmingham a few years ago. “Do you like it here?” he asked. Yeah, I like it, I told him. “Well what DON’T you like about it?”. Of course I recognized this as an attempt to feel me out. He wanted to see if I would go off on a racist rant that he could agree with; I disappointed him. I said I didn’t like the fact that there’s no big water. You have to drive for a good distance to even reach a big lake or river. I said I’ll bet it’s nice living down on the gulf coast. He didn’t like this answer, he remained silent until we reached the pizza restaurant where they would have dinner. The woman never said a word.

I mentioned earlier that it’s usually working class folks who go down the path of open racism. I remember one occasion when it wasn’t. It was obviously a well to do family. They were an all American looking family, a handsome father and an attractive mother with their little three year old daughter with curly blondish gold hair and bright blue eyes. I was picking them up at Children’s Hospital. Apparently, the little girl had some kind of medical condition that couldn’t be treated in the southeast Alabama town near the Florida border, where they lived. Instead of making the 4 hour drive in a car, they had chartered a private airplane to fly them to Birmingham. I was taking them to a private hangar in the backside of the airport for the return flight. There would be one stop before we got on the interstate to head to the airport. The little girl wanted a happy meal from McDonald’s.

What happened next made me think about an idea that I’ve heard repeated many times that says that children are not inherently racist, that it must be taught. This little girl caused me to question this belief. If it was taught, I guess her parents started early. As we were leaving the drive through, little blondie broke into the bag to check out the happy meal toy she had received. She immediately started crying. Pretty soon the crying devolved into a full blown tantrum. The issue was a little medium brown doll she had gotten in the happy meal. It was a cute little doll. It had long, waist length black hair and was dressed as a tennis player with a checkered skirt and visor. It was holding a tiny tennis ball in it’s hand. This little girl wasn’t having it, she wanted a white doll and wasn’t having anything else.

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I started running all kinds of options through my head as to what I would do in a situation like this if this were my child. Maybe calm her down with something else and then later have a heart to heart talk with her about race and equality. I think I would tell her that it was OK to have a brown doll and that this was a beautiful little doll. I feel certain that I wouldn’t have done what her mother did; appease her racism. Her mother said “don’t worry honey, it’ll be OK. We’ll go to a McDonald’s that has white dolls when we get home.”

So have we really changed? Has Birmingham, has Alabama, has America really changed since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s? Yes, we’ve made some very significant and positive changes for the better. Have we changed enough? Is racism dead? Are we living in post-racial times? The answer to those questions is a resounding NO! We still have a long way to go.

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

happy meal doll image courtesy of www.happytoydepot.com

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

Birming-Images

For those of you who aren’t very familiar with our city, I thought that you may enjoy a bit of a photographic tour. These images are the landmarks that make us who we are; they’re the things that make us unique.

The Vulcan Statue is generally considered to be the symbol of Birmingham. It was sculpted, begining in 1903 by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti. He was Birmingham’s entry for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Vulcan was the god of the fire and the forge in Roman mythology. Since 1936 Vulcan has stood watch over the city from his perch atop Red Mountain. Symbolizing the city’s founding on the iron and steel industry, he is made from iron ore mined from the very mountain on which he stands. At 56 feet, he is the tallest cast iron statue on Earth and is the 7th tallest free standing statue in the United States.

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But Vulcan isn’t the only cool statue in Birmingham. “Miss Electra” has adorned the top of the Birming-images 005Alabama Power building since 1926. Unlike Vulcan who is partially clothed, Miss Electra is totally nude and has lighting bolts for hair and bolts in her hands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man greets visitors to the Medical Forum in downtown Birmingham.

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Once known as the “Football Capital of the South” Birmingham’s Legion Field has been home to some legendary games involving the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. For many years it was the largest stadium in the state and the Tide and the Tigers usually chose to play their biggest, most important home games here. Up until the last few years of the 20th century, the Tide and Tigers always played each other here. That’s why the label “Iron Bowl” became associated with the huge rivalry. When the two teams began updating the stadiums on their own campuses, Legion Field became less important. Now those two stadiums, especially Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, dwarf the “Gray Lady” , a name often used to refer to Legion Field. The stadium is still in use but not for the big glory games of the state’s largest two universities. It’s now the home field of the UAB Blazers and is the home of the “Magic City Classic” another big rivalry game between Alabama’s two largest historically black universities, Alabama State and Alabama A&M. The BBVA Compass Bowl is also played here every January.          Birming-images 023                                                                                 Birming-images 019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year, 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of a dark chapter in the history of Birmingham. A dark chapter in terms of the shameful way that city officials and many white citizens reacted to the struggles for civil rights by African Americans. On the other hand it could be viewed as a bright chapter in the city’s history because it was the catalyst of change. It was the begining of the dismantling of the segregation and discrimination that unfortunately; this city and state had become infamous for in the eyes of the world. The area along 16th street north between 4th and 6th avenue north is sacred ground. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute now stands across 16th street from Kelly Ingram Park, an area where Bull Connor once used water cannons and vicious police dogs to subdue civil rights demonstrators. It stands across 6th avenue north from 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of a Ku Klux Klan bombing that took the lives of 4 little girls in 1963. Birming-images 048

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As I’ve mentioned before, healthcare is the economic crown jewel of modern Birmingham. Banking is a close second. Regions Bank and BBVA Compass Bank are both headquarted here. Wells Fargo has a large presence. Birming-images 008

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One of the most interesting buildings in Birmingham IMO is Southside’s Quinlan Castle. Built in 1927 to resemble a medieval English castle, the building has served mainly as residential apartments throughout it’s history. It’s now owned by the Southern Research Institute and is not being used for apartments. According to the Bhamwiki article on the castle, in 1940 Quinlan Castle was rumored to have been the Birmingham headquarters of the Communist Party. It was in fact the home of party secretary Robert Hall. Hall’s apartment was raided by the Birmingham police but they didn’t find much of interest. Just a letter from someone at the Tennessee Valley Authority suggesting communist activities in that agency. Birming-images 043

 

 

 

 

 

 

Familiar to many visitors to the city is sculptor Frank Flemming’s “Storyteller” fountain at 5 points south. It sits in front of Highlands United Methodist Church and is at the center of the 5 points entertainment district. Birming-images 032

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tommy Lovoy, a 5 Points South icon gladly poses in front of the fountain.

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The newest building on Birmingham’s skyline is the gleaming new Benjamin Russell wing of Children’s Hospital. marcsteel 008

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Works is still operating just west of downtown. uss 007

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ensley Works of USS ceased operations in the early 1970’s CIMG6868

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the location of the famous Tuxedo Junction “The place where the people go to dance the night away”. The song was co-written by Birmingham composer Erskine Hawkins. It was originally written as an instrumental. The nightclub that was the subject of the song was located in this building on 20th street Ensley. The building briefly served as a punk rock venue in the 1980’s. 3312010 002

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sloss Furnaces operated from the late 19th century until 1971 near downtown Birmingham.  The old mill has been preserved and is now a National Historic Landmark. It serves as a museum as well as a music venue, a venue for weddings, beer festivals and even a haunted house in the weeks leading up to Halloween. It’s said that the ghosts of many men who died on the job here over the decades still haunt the old mill.

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Built in 1929 this building was the home of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel. At that time it was one of the finest hotels in the south. In the 1970’s it became known as the Cabana Hotel and finally Leer Tower before it was closed in 1983. The object on the right side of the roof of the building is a zeppelin mooring mast, the last of it’s kind in the world. In 2012 a non-profit corporation was formed to raise money to buy the property and restore it back to it’s former glory. Jeff hotel 002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A mural with a message painted on the wall of an abandoned grocery store in west Birmingham.

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Sources: Wikipedia and Bhamwiki.

All photographs and text copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

Rick James

It was early in the evening, but it was winter and very dark. I had picked up a woman from her job at one of the hospitals and taken her to her home in North Birmingham, the 500 zone. As soon as I dropped her off, my computer booked me into that zone. I immediately heard the long beep, a trip was being offered. This is one of the zones where I don’t usually pick up customers after dark because of the high crime rate. I thought to myself well, it’s dark but it’s still really early, I decided to break my self imposed prohibition. I accepted the call.

I recognized the address as being in the Collegeville neighborhood. Collegeville is an industrial wasteland surrounded on all sides by railroad tracks. There was a big news story a couple of years ago when some people died in a house fire because the fire engines and ambulances were stopped by the train and there was no alternative route. There have also been recent issues with contaminated soil. When the new elementary school was completed, all kinds of cancer causing chemicals were found in the soil on which it was built. Even though the area had been home to many iron and steel related industries spewing all kinds of crap for a century, no one thought to do a soil test before building the school.

There’s a big public housing project in Collegeville but this address was a few blocks outside of it. A few of the old smokestack industries are still in operation. The largest is a plant that turns raw coal CIMG6788into coke, a product used in steel making. Patti LaBelle was crooning “If only you knew” on the radio when I saw the big orange flare from the plant dancing in the black sky. It was an old house fairly high off the ground, the kind of house that dogs often sleep underneath. There were several people on the front porch. The person who lived there was a small dark skinned African American man I would judge to be about 70. He wasn’t the customer. He had called for one of his relatives who had been visiting and apparently, drinking all day. 

The man of the house told me that he had been a cab driver back in the day. He talked, as I have heard many talk, about Mr. Strickland who had owned the company before the current owner bought it. My customer came out of the house with the glow of drunkenness on his face. He said he needed to go to Hueytown and wanted to know how much it would cost. I did the math and told him probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-35. He said ” I ain’t got nothing but twenty.” I said that’s not enough. The older man chimed in on his behalf. “He’s a good man. Let him ride up front with you and he’ll give you $25.” I agreed and he paid me up front.

“They call me Rick James“, he said as he stuck out his hand. I shook it and told him my name. Of course I recognized Rick James as the name of the late R&B/Funk icon from the 70’s and 80’s. He was thin, fairly dark skinned and probably in his 40’s or early 50’s. He was stinking of booze. We got along fine but he became really annoying really fast. He seemed to be obsessed with race and went into this routine about black folks do this and white folks do that. “Y’all white folk be eatin’ pussy don’t chall?” I’ve learned over the years to never argue with drunks. My responses consisted of head nods, um hmms and yeah, you right. “Black folk don’t eat no pussy” he said. “And y’all be kissin’ y’all dawgs.” Yeah, you right, I said. 

After a few minutes of his diatribe he wanted to use my phone. He needed to call his sister whose house I was taking him to. I knew it wasn’t a good sign when I heard loud, angry sounding talking coming through the phone from the passenger side. There was no doubt of trouble when I heard the words “hell naw” come from the phone. Plan B, he calls his other sister. There’s no answer here so he decides that’s where he’s going. First he has to stop at a gas station to pee. It was one of those old fashioned stations with the bathrooms on the outside around back. The door was locked and Rick didn’t bother to go ask the attendant for the key. He just whips it out right there and pees on the ground. I see him staggering all around peeing on the walls of the station, on a dumpster and everywhere else.

We’re not far from Hueytown at this point. We found his sister’s house, the one that didn’t answer the phone, pretty easily. The meter is sitting at $32. I’ve screwed myself out of $7 by making this deal with him. When he gets out and stands up, I can see that the entire front of his pants is wet from the crazy peeing that he did back at the station. I looked over at the seat, of course, it’s wet too. Unlike the similar situation that happend in “Pissy Drunk”, Rick was sitting on the front seat which was covered with cloth. This would make cleaning much more difficult. He wanted my card in case his sister wouldn’t let him in. There was a car in the driveway and a light on in the house. As much as I didn’t want him calling me, I wanted to get the hell out of there before his sister even realized he was there. I gave him my card and simply turned my phone off. I was out of there in a heartbeat.

I stopped at the first gas station I came to and bought a roll of paper towels, a can of Lysol and one of those huge 4X long T-shirts favored by the heavyweight dudes in the hood. I soaked the pee up as much as possible with the paper towels, sprayed it down good with Lysol and folded the big shirt and placed it over the wet spot. I was praying that I wouldn’t get a full car load and no one else would ride in the front seat that night. It did happen eventually. “Why is this shirt covering the seat?” the young, bar bound college boy asked. Oh, someone spilled their drink.

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.