Category Archives: Safety Net

Working Hard For The Money

Get a job. Work hard and you’ll make it. How many times have you heard that? For some, taking a cab to work is a temporary condition, usually because their car is broken down. Some people take cabs to work because they’ve lost their licenses due to getting a DUI, too many tickets, too many accidents or some other reason. I’ve actually met a few people who have told me that they’ve simply never learned to drive a car.  There are still others that are disabled to the point that they can’t drive but have jobs they can do even with their disability.  For most, the reason that they don’t have cars is because they can’t afford them.

For most folks that take cabs to work it’s not temporary at all, it’s their primary mode of transportation to and from the job. Many take city buses when they can. Buses are much cheaper, but if a person lives a long distance from the bus stop or if they don’t have time to deal with the bus schedule, they often end up taking a cab. Most of the jobs we’re taking these folks to are at fast food restaurants, full service restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores or big box retail stores. Some of the jobs are in hospitals or other health care institutions but are usually lower paying jobs in food service or housekeeping.

burgers

I don’t want to get on a political soapbox, at least not for long but I will tell you that I get pretty damned upset when I hear people disrespecting the working poor. There’s a common belief that anyone can do anything or achieve any goal they set out to achieve in America if they will only work hard enough. Sure, I’ve seen examples of a few people overcoming great odds to become millionaires, but I believe it requires much more than just hard work. Quality education, a family that values education, examples of people around you who have achieved success, others who encourage you instead of working against you, family inheritance, access to capital and a lot of luck are just a few of the things that need to be present to go along with all the hard work.

No one works harder than a single mother working two jobs, day and night to support her kids or some guy trying to support a family by paving the roadways in the hellish summer heat for little more than minimum wage. Yes, sometimes these working people receive public assistance in the form of Food Stamps or housing subsidies. That’s because their jobs don’t pay enough to allow them to make a decent living without these programs. It makes my blood boil to hear people say that these people are “lazy” or that they are “moochers” on society. The same people who are against food stamps are also against raising minimum wage. I don’t understand this, what do they want? Do they want to see America become a third world country? Do they want people to work hard all day and go home to a garbage dump at night? It wouldn’t take much for most of the people saying these disgusting things about the working poor to be in the same situation. The loss of a job or a major illness would likely do it, why can’t they see that? OK, off my soapbox, Here are just a few examples of working folks before I let this topic go.

underpaid        two jobs

Jessie live in the projects in North Birmingham. Her work is at a fast food restaurant in Irondale. the fare from her house to where she works is nearly twenty dollars. She can’t take the bus because she has to be there at 4:30 am to get ready to open for breakfast at 5:00 am. Maybe she takes the bus home, maybe she gets a ride from a family member, I don’t know. Even if she goes to work only in morning by cab, it will cost her one hundred dollars per week. If she’s making minimum wage and working forty hours per week she makes $296 before deductions. So, just going to work in the morning costs her more than one third of her salary. That’s if, and that’s a big IF, she’s only taking a cab one way. She could be spending a much larger percentage of her salary commuting to work. You may ask, why doesn’t she just buy a car? I ask you, how will she get to work while she saves for the down payment?

Jimmy lives in a trailer park in Adamsville and works as a security guard in western Homewood. Going to work costs him more than thirty dollars one way. He often rides a bicycle. If you know much about the metro area you know that it’s a long way from Adamsville to Homewood. Not only is it a long way but it’s very treacherous with no bike lanes and heavy traffic including a lot of eighteen wheeler traffic. Of course he can’t ride his bike in heavy rain, thunderstorms and other inclement weather. Taking cabs is a common part of his commute to his low paying job.

Carolyn has braces on both legs. She’s able to stand and walk short distances but is mostly confined to a wheelchair. I’m not sure what her job entails but she has a job at a local hospital that she can do from a wheelchair. She lives in a nearby apartment complex near the top of Red Mountain. It’s so steep that she can’t go anywhere near the apartments without the aid of a cab. She said that she’s looking for a place that she can afford on more level ground. There’s not a lot of level ground in Birmingham. She goes to and from work and everywhere else she goes in taxis. Her taxi bill is substantial.

images courtesy of: businessinsider.com, peacock-panache.com, greanvildpost.com

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.

Caught In A Trap

The thing that makes this job much more interesting than say, retail, factory work or office work is the fact that you get a chance to observe the lifestyles and culture of every segment of society in a very personal way. Sometimes it’s business people in suits discussing multimillion dollar deals on phone conversations on the way to the airport. It can be surgeons talking about the open heart surgery that they just performed or engineers going over the latest bridge project. I once had two engineers get into an argument about the depth of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. Sometimes it’s Latin American athletes speaking in Spanish or Portuguese about the latest soccer match. Cabbies are likely to see lavish displays of wealth and desperate, grinding poverty all in the same day, sometimes on back to back trips. Your emotions can vary greatly depending on the luck of the draw, the luck of who the dispatchers send you to pick up. It can be funny, ridiculous, dull, boring, delightful and disgusting. Sometimes it’s just downright sad and pitiful.

I was just getting started at about 8:00 am. My first dispatch of the day came from the 130 zone. I could tell by the zip code that this customer was in the far eastern section of the zone. I often reject trips that far away but on this morning I was headed out to the cab depot, which is near this customers location, so I went ahead and accepted the trip. I cringed a little when I saw that the call came from a low rent, quite gritty, extended stay hotel. I figured that it would just be a trip to the store for a pack of smokes or something similar. That’s the type of trip that typically comes out of this place.

The information page of the dispatch told me that this women needed to be picked up in front of her room which was on the back side of the hotel. I also noticed the code WC indicating that this customer was in a wheelchair. She was sitting outside, ready to go when I arrived. I could see that she had one partial leg that was the result of a below the knee amputation on the left side. The other leg seemed to be non existent. She had a very high above knee amputation on the right side. There was a toddler, probably about a year old, in her lap.

She asked if I would roll her down the wheelchair ramp and up to the car, she also requested that I let her ride in the front, she said it was “just easier” that way. She had another favor to ask before she wiggled her way into the car. She needed for me to hold the toddler while she accomplished this task. I was a bit surprised at how comfortable the little girl seemed in the arms of a strange man that she had never met. She didn’t resist at all, she just happily sucked on her bottle until her mother was securely in the car.

“You gonna make some money today” were the first words out of her mouth when I got behind the wheel. “I’ve got several errands to run, then we gonna go to Vestavia so I can get my power chair.” I told her that I couldn’t fit a power chair into the cab. “Don’t worry about that” she said, “they gonna bring me home.” All of the errands consisted of visits to payday loan/ title pawn businesses that are ubiquitous in lower income parts of town.

green-loans-payday-loans

“I’ve got to pay these folks, but I know I’ll have to borrow more before the end of the month. That’s the way it is every month, it just goes round and round.” Each visit required getting the wheelchair out of the trunk and positioning it for her and then holding the little girl. The process was reversed every time she came out of a business and back to the car. After the third visit she decided that she had to pay her rent. “I’d better go on and pay it now, cause I’m gonna run out of money then they’ll want to kick me out.” I asked if I could go in and pay it for her to avoid going through the process again at the hotel office. She enthusiastically agreed and handed me her debit card and told me her PIN. She volunteered it, I didn’t have to ask. There was a line at the office which was behind a bullet proof shield at the grimy hotel. She had told me to pay two weeks worth but the clerk said “You can’t do that here. A weeks worth, max.”

The next trip was to another payday loan place all the way across town on Green Springs Highway. After this she was supposed to be picking up her power chair, which I learned on the way that she would be renting, not owning. A call to the business supplying the chair yielded bad news, they wouldn’t be able to bring her back to the hotel after all. The power chair would have to be postponed indefinitely until she could figure out a way to get home.

By the time we got back to the hotel the fare was substantial. I had mixed emotions, on the one hand I truly had sympathy for this woman and her family living in a crappy hotel and caught in a hellish loan shark nightmare. On the other hand, I needed to get paid and this was enough to pay my lease for the day. I ran the card and purposely omitted adding a tip. I figured she had suffered enough for one day.

image: green loans-payday loans

All text 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 First And The Third

The eagle flies on the first and the third of each month. Money is flowing in places where it’s usually very scarce. EBT cards are reloaded, social security, SSI, disability and other goverment checks come out around this time. It doesn’t last long. It’s usually gone in two or three days. For a little while, just a few days, the cab business gets a big boost because many of the people dependent on this money are carless.

Many of our first of the month customers are elderly. Before I started cabbing I never realized there were so many people without checking accounts. I guess someone who has lived for seventy or eighty years without an account doesn’t see any need to start one at this point. After I had been driving for several months I found myself picking up many of the same people over and over around this time. A first of the month customer is typically a longer lasting fare than at most other times. It didn’t take me long to learn where all the utility companies and many of the finance companies were located. Going from place to place, the power company, the gas company, the water works, ect., it’s not uncommon to have a customer as long as two hours before all this in person bill paying is said and done. In addition to bill paying trips there are also many grocery store trips. Buying for an entire month when the EBT card is reloaded is a common practice.

Fast food trips are also common. For many, these trips are the one time each month that they get to eat somewhere other than home, or at least from somewhere other than home. Most choose to go through the drive through and take the food back home. I’m a fat guy so I don’t have much room to talk but the obesity epidemic among the poor is something that you just can’t not notice. There was once a family that weighed the car down so much that the body sat down on the tires and prevented the car from moving. One of the bigger folks had to get out so the others could go. It’s pretty easy to see the cause of the problem. Cheap food equals greasy, fatty, starchy, sugary, unhealthy food in most cases. Most of these folks never give a thought to nutritional value, fat, calories or cholesterol. The only issue is how much it costs. I get a strong impression that some of my first of the month customers never leave home except for their monthly cab trips.

Most of the first of the month business comes from poor zones. If you hang out over the mountian you’re not going to see much of a spike. Hang out in the zones west, north and east of downtown and you’ll see a big spike. For three months straight I was dispatched the same trip in zone 210. If you looked up the word “ghetto” in the dictionary, there would be a picture of this apartment building. Burglar bars adorn most windows not broken and covered with plywood. There’s crude grafitti on some of the plywood windows, most are just blank. ghetto 008

My customers are two women, one elderly and one middle aged. I assume they’re mother and daughter. The younger woman is quite obese, very dark skinned and wears very thick, coke bottle like glasses. I would judge her to be in her mid 40’s and she is obviously mentally handicapped. Both have walkers that must be folded and put in the trunk. The elderly woman is bent with osteoporosis and the younger woman has braces on both legs. The walkers are necessary for them to get around.

There’s something a little different about the younger woman’s walker. There’s a basket on it with a pillow inside. Upon the pillow lies a creamy brown colored plastic baby doll dressed in baby clothes and wrapped in a blanket. My customer lifts the baby and holds it gently to her breast before the walker goes in the trunk. She never lets go of the baby, where ever she goes, it goes. Just judging from our brief, once a month cab trips, I’d say that this plastic baby is the thing that gives her life the most meaning. I’ve never been bold enough to ask it’s name, although I’m sure it has one. The trip is always to the same two places. The mother has an account with a finance company in downtown Birmingham, this is always the first stop. The mother, probably in her mid 70’s, always has problems exiting the cab. I retrieve her walker from the trunk and give her a hand to get out. The mother of the plastic baby never gets out here. I wait in silence in the drivers seat as this proud mother sitting behind me nestles her baby. The next stop is always the same, a grocery store on the west side of town where they’ll buy groceries for a month. In an hour or so another driver will take them home.

On the first of the month some people who almost never have any money will have a little. It was almost midnight and I had just dropped off a customer in East Lake, in the 300 zone. A call came through to a gas station that was nearby on the main drag of First Avenue North. She was bundled up like an Eskimo but it wasn’t cold and hadn’t recently been cold. I’ve found that inapproprite seasonal dress is almost always a sign of mental instability. She had a big black plastic trash bag full of something and was pushing it around on a little folding cart. “Be careful, it’s very sensitive” she told me as I started to put the bag and the cart in the trunk.

I secured her “sensitive” materials in the trunk and got in the drivers seat. That’s when I smelled it. The odor of clothes soaked in week old piss filled the car. It was all I could do not to gag. Where are you going, I asked. “Piggy Wiggy” she said. Which one? “North Birmingham”. I knew this would be about a $15 trip and at first I wondered if she had $15. Then I remembered it was the first of the month and thought yeah…she probably does. I had the windows down and the air conditioning turned up. I was trying not to puke from the stench. Stopped at a traffic light she began to have a conversation. At first I thought she was trying to talk to me but quickly realized it wasn’t me she was talking to. Maybe it was the voices in her head, maybe it was imaginary friends, I don’t know.

“Things is strange now” I heard her say. “Yeah, things is strange and I know why. It’s because of all them atomic bombs, that’s why”. She continued on with her apocalyptic themed diatribe a while longer. She mentioned “fire in the sky” and as I expected, she soon started talking about God and Jesus. I had been silent since she started talking. Suddenly she shouted “IS YOU LISTENING TO ME?” Not knowing if yes or no was the right answer, I flipped the coin and said yes ma’am! She seemed to like that answer. She asked “I’m right, ain’t I?” I said yes ma’am you’re right. We rode the rest of the way to Piggly Wiggly in silence. When we arrived the store was dark and closed up tighter than a drum, just as I had expected it to be at this time of night. She told me to stop right out in the middle of the parking lot. She pulled a twenty out of her pee soaked pocket and handed it to me. I gave her back a five and she took it. I didn’t expect a tip.

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.

note: the building pictured is not the home of the two women in this story. It is very similar and nearby.