Category Archives: Scary Customers

The Craziest Thing

One of the most frequently asked questions by customers has always been “what is the craziest thing that has ever happened?” For a long time I always told the story from the blog post Not A Good To Die. That situation was crazy, scary and usually very entertaining to the customers. That story was recently eclipsed as my craziest cab story.

It had been a slow morning and I was beginning to worry about even making my lease. I had been out for four hours and I had picked up one person for a six dollar trip. I was sitting in a parking place on Highland Avenue and had just finished my lunch. Tom and Jerry’s Chevron offers a sweet hot dog deal. You have to make them yourself but two dogs with all the trimmings and a bag of chips for a buck ninety nine, can’t beat it. A call finally came through in the 120 zone. It was an account trip, a trip paid for with a voucher by the account of a business or institution. It was to St. Vincent’s, the big Catholic hospital in Birmingham. I like account trips because they’re often long trips and you don’t have to worry about getting paid whether your rider has any money or not. A few months earlier I had gotten an account trip out of this same hospital that went to Moulton, a small town in the northwest corner of Alabama. That trip had paid me one hundred and seventy dollars.

I could tell something was different when I pulled up in front of the hospital. You usually have to wait several minutes for nurses to wheel your customer out and help them get in the car. This time I was greeted by a security guard. “Are you here for Miss Emma?” Yes, I told him. He handed me the voucher which had NO STOPS written across the top in big letters. “Don’t stop anywhere and don’t take her anywhere but home” he said. Emma was a white woman of about sixty. She was small but had a fiery look about her, she seemed to be speeding ninety to nothing. Her home was in McCalla. This made my eyes light up because I knew this would be about a fifty dollar trip, just what I needed after such a slow start to the day.

“I ain’t lettin’ them zombies do that to me.” What? I asked. “Them folks at that hospital, they all zombies. They want to do all kinds of terrible thangs to me. You don’t blame me for gettin’ outta there do you?” What were you in there for, I asked. “They said I had a heart attack but I don’t thank I did” Now I knew that I had a real doozie on my hands. My plan, as it always is when I get someone like this is just agree with what they say and get them where they’re going ASAP and then get the hell away. Yeah, you right, I said. That’s my standard answer when someone asks me a question this crazy. The last thing you want to do is start an argument. “Them zombies was walking around with them holler eyes, all wantin’ to stick needles in me and wantin’ my blood. They was scaring me. You don’t blame me for gettin’ outta there do you?” No, I don’t blame you a bit. Sometimes you just gotta go.

I had set my GPS to the address provided and was headed out I-20/59 toward McCalla. “I want you to take me by my brother’s house, he lives in Hueytown. I want to tell him what them folks was trying to do to me.” I told her that I could only take her to the address on the voucher because the hospital was paying for her trip. I said if you were paying for it I could take you anywhere but when they’re paying I have to follow their instructions. “OK” she said weakly and was then quiet for a couple of minutes. We soon passed the Valley Road exit in Fairfield. “That’s where you get off”, she said. No it’s not I told her. I’m following my GPS. I asked her if she lived at the address provided. “Yeah, but that’s where you get off.” I said I’m taking you home, we’ll be there shortly and you don’t have to pay for it so it really doesn’t matter which way I go, does it? When we approached the Allison-Bonnet exit to Hueytown, where she had already said she wanted to go, she became even more agitated. “That’s where we going, get off here, that’s where I live”. I said I can’t, the hospital guard told me specifically not to take you anywhere but to address on the voucher. “That’s where it is! YOU GOIN’ THE WRONG WAY!” she screamed.

She was strangely silent as I passed the exit. She was silent for a few minutes and I was able to drive for a couple of miles. I was in the right lane doing about seventy down the interstate when I heard a strange sound from the backseat. I turned around to see that she had the door open and was preparing to take a flying leap. I immediately hit the brakes and steered to the shoulder. Before I could bring it to a complete stop she was out. I could see her in the rear view running in her long colorful dress at first down the shoulder and then out into the highway, out into traffic!

woman stops traffic

I was screaming at the 911 dispatcher. SEND SOMEONE NOW! SHE’S IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INTERSTATE AND THERE’S HEAVY TRAFFIC! PLEASE SEND SOMEONE NOW! I was hearing the chorus of all different tones of horns as I saw her in the mirror holding up both arms out in the middle of I-20/59. I heard the air brakes and long horn blowing from an eighteen wheeler that was making his best effort not to splatter her all over the road. Just as I was sure I was about to see body parts flying and witness her death on the highway, I saw a fire truck pull off the road near where she was standing.

The short, stocky, middle aged firefighter heroically ran out, grabbed her and pulled to the side of the road. When he pulled off the road, a fire department Tahoe driven by a woman who worked with the fire department pulled off behind him. To avoid rear ending the fire truck she drove the Tahoe into the soft mud of the ditch beyond the shoulder. It added a bit to the excitement of the moment to see her futilely trying to get the SUV, with it’s red lights blazing, out of the ditch. As I’m quickly walking toward the scene I can see my customer lying on the side of the road completely limp. I thought well, she’s dead. Maybe she really did have a bad heart and she’s had a heart attack and died.

The driver of the Tahoe finally abandoned it and joined me to see what was happening with my customer. She sat up just before we reached the scene. I told the fire fighter what had happened and he said “yeah, she said you were trying to kill her. Don’t worry about it, she’s mental. I had a call out to her house yesterday. They took her to the psych unit at Brookwood, I don’t know how she ended up at St. Vincent’s.” By this time several police cars and ambulances had showed up. I asked the policeman if he needed any kind of statement. “No, you’re good to go” he said. I drove down to the next exit, and headed back to the Ham, with a brand new craziest story to tell.

copyright 2016, R.W. Walker

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Since The Last Time

I’ve taken a break from writing over the holidays but there have been a few notable cab adventures since the last time I posted back in November. Here are a few of them:

Not high enough

As soon as I accepted the call I immediately knew that something was wrong with the dispatch. It was an address that I knew didn’t exist. I called dispatch and told them that we needed to talk to the person who called, this address couldn’t be right. The voice on the other end was of a man in a drunken stupor. He couldn’t tell me the address so I asked him if there was a familiar landmark nearby. He said “I’m out by da golf cous.” I headed over to the golf course that I thought he was talking about that was only about a half mile away.

Sure enough, there he was standing out in the street looking like a zombie that had just stumbled out of a bar where he had been over served. He fell into the back seat but had a hard time getting his legs in the car. He wasn’t a young man, I would guess him to be in his mid 60’s, he obviously had issues with stiffness or arthritis which added to the mobility issues that he was already experiencing due to his serious intoxication. He said “I don’t know the address, I’ll just show you how to get there.” He began giving me street by street directions until we ended up at a house in a seedy part of Woodlawn, near the whore motels.

crack house

He had as much trouble getting out of the car as he had had getting into it. I could see shadows of people coming toward the car, one young man offered to help him get out but he refused. When he did finally get out he took a tumble in the street. I got the impression that the folks at this house were some pretty shady characters, maybe drug dealers. Whatever they were, they at least had the decency to pick this pathetic man up off the ground. “What chu doin’ here” I heard one of them ask as he helped hoist him to his feet. He apparently pulled a little cash out of his pocket and offered it to them, possibly in exchange for a little something to get him higher than he was already. “Three dollas? Dat all you got? We ain’t no thugs, we tryin’ to make a livin’ ” I heard one of them say, possibly aimed more at my ears than his. They opened the back door and sat his ass back down in the cab and said “take him on, cab driver. We don’t want him round here.”

Ok, where to now? I asked him. He wouldn’t give me a location, he just started back up with the directions. In just a few minutes I realized we had gone in a circle and was back at this house. I wouldn’t stop, I kept going for a couple of blocks in spite of his protests. I finally pulled over, turned around and looked at him and said I’m not going back to that house. Those guys have already made it clear that they don’t want you there. We may get shot if we go back there. He still insisted on going back. I said I’ll either take you somewhere else or you can get out here. He chose the latter. I said you owe me fourteen bucks, I want my money. “I ain’t got no damn fo-teen dollas,” he said. I can’t say that that’s not exactly what I expected him to say. I said well I could call the cops, but it’s your lucky night, I need to get back to where I can pick up some people who will actually pay me. I sped away leaving him looking like a drunken zombie stumbling in the middle of the street.

The Royal Couple

The call was to a barbecue joint in an upscale neighborhood that doubles as a bar in the late night hours. The name on the screen was “Prince”. It didn’t take him long to stagger out. He was a heavyweight guy with reddish short hair that had obviously had his share of adult beverages. He was drinking what appeared to be some kind of liquor on the rocks which he killed in one big gulp before getting in the car. He fell in the car and said “one more coming.” His partner was the straight man of the two. He was tall and lean with dark hair and thick horn rimmed glasses. I could tell he had had a few but he still had it under control and seemed to be the guy in charge. He started giving me directions to their home in the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook but Prince wasn’t through partying.

“I wanna go to five points” Prince said several times. The straight man said “we’re going home, you’ve had enough.” “I don’t wanna go home, I’ll pay for it,” he slurred. Stopped in front of their house, the straight man ran his debit card as Prince continued his nagging insistence on going to five points. “I’m not getting out, you can go home but I’m going to five points. Put it drive driver, take me to five points, I’ll pay you.”  “No, you’re going home,” insisted the other guy. “HELL NO I”M NOT, PUT IT IN DRIVE!!” I said I don’t care either way, I’ll take you to five points or you can stay here but you’ve got to decide because I need to go.

The straight man relented, I put in in drive and headed to five points. Somewhere along the way the decision was made to truncate the trip and instead of going to five points, just go to the popular bar in Crestline Village which was much closer. “You’d better not show your ass in there,” the straight man said to Prince. Prince didn’t like this at all. A commotion ensued in the back seat and I heard a few slaps and punches, all made by Prince with the straight man screaming “MY GLASSES, MY GLASSES!!” Before many more punches were thrown I pulled up at the front door of O.C.’s. The straight man shouted “pay the man and tip him well” Prince managed to hand me his credit card which I ran and added a twenty five percent tip. They actually had the nerve to ask for my card so they could call me to come back and take them home. Knowing that they would be kicked out in less than five minutes, I handed them my card, turned my phone off and headed to Lakeview.

Uncle Cotton’s Perdidium

They looked like two fish out of water standing in front of the big sliding doors of the Sheraton Hotel. One man probably in his 50’s and another about thirty something looked a little like members of the Darling family from the Andy Griffith show. “Get us outta here, this damn place wants nelly two hundurd dollars a night. Take us to the cheapest motel in town.” I ran the options through my mind and decided that Motel H in Woodlawn was probably the cheapest motel in town. There’s a big sign on the side of the building advertising $29.99 a night.

darlings

The younger man introduced himself as DeWayne and said “This is my uncle Cotton. We ain’t from around here, we from way up in North Carolina.” Uncle Cotton spoke up and said “we do hardwood floors, a church in Hoover hard us and paid for us to come down on the Greyhound but they didn’t give us but a hundurd dollar perdidium to stay in a motel on. That damn place is too damn high, we want to go to the cheapest place in town but we ain’t got but eight dollars to spend on a cab. Can you git us there for that?” I figured it would probably be about ten on the meter but I said yeah, I’ll do a flat rate of eight dollars for you.

Uncle Cotton had been hitting the sauce pretty hard on the Greyhound. He said “I’m drunk, I just wanna go somewhere and go to bed.” He decided to mess with me a little on the way to the motel. “I ain’t never seen this part of Burminham, where you takin’ us?” To the cheapest motel in town, I told him. “I thank you takin’ us somewhere funny, I don’t like it.” DeWayne spoke up and said ” it ain’t his fault, Uncle Cotton. He’s jest doin’ his job.” Uncle Cotton laughed a little and said “aw hell DeWayne, I’m jest fuckin’ with him.”

A rather downscale lady of the evening greeted the duo at the door of Motel H. She looked at Uncle Cotton and said “hey honey, what chu doin’ tonite?” I wonder if she got that perdidium?

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.

Not A Good Day To Die

It was late afternoon, just after 6:00 pm. The sun was starting to sink in the sky and the light was reflecting off the buildings in a way that made the colors more vivid than usual. I was sitting in one of my usual perch spots at the old closed down BP station on Highland Avenue when the call came through. Nothing seemed unusual, I was supposed to pick up Mark at a tattoo parlor in a run down part of Southside a few blocks away from 5 points south and near the projects. He came out immediately when I pulled up. He said he needed to go to Fultondale, which is a suburb just a couple of miles north of the city.

He seemed a little anxious, his voice was pressured and his speech didn’t flow smoothly. I tried to ask him about his tattoos but he didn’t seem interested in discussing them. He said “here’s an advance” as he handed me a sweaty twenty that looked like it had been folded over and over.  Just as I headed up the 3rd avenue ramp to I-65, a cloud of putrid chemical laden smoke which smelled like a science project gone bad, encircled my head. When I looked in the rearview I could see him toking hard on a glass crack pipe while holding a blue jet flame lighter to the bowl.

crack pipe

WHAT THE FUCK?, I screamed! Man, you can’t do that in here!  I rolled down all the windows and merged into the north bound traffic on the interstate. I said man, what the fuck are you thinking? “Are you the po-leece?” he asked. No, I’m not the police but these cabs are equipped with cameras. I pointed at the camera below the rearview which I immediately noticed wasn’t working. I said don’t do anything like that again! I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the camera, things started to go south fast. “I’m in trouble, they’re gonna kill me ain’t they?” I said, what? Nobody’s gonna kill you. “I’m gonna die tonight, they’re gonna kill me, I know it. I’m gonna die tonight ain’t I?”

I’m getting seriously freaked out by this point. It seems obvious that this guy is having genuine paranoid delusions that “they” are planning to kill him. I’m a square when it comes to most modern drugs. I smoked my share of weed in my younger days and tried powder a few times but I’ve never smoked crack, meth, heroin or any of the newer designer drugs. I like to think that’s a good thing but I honestly can’t tell the difference between the smell of these drugs when they’re being smoked. I know what he was smoking wasn’t marijuana but I can’t say exactly what it was. One of the other drivers to whom I told this story suggested that it could have been bath salts , a relatively new drug known to cause the paranoid hallucinations that this guy was experiencing.

“Hey mister, can you do me a favor?” What, I asked. “Please don’t let that guy in the front seat kill me.” There’s nobody in the car except me and you, I told him. “I CAN SEE HIM! He’s gonna kill me, he’s gonna torture me to death, please don’t do this, I ain’t never hurt nobody!” I made a point to check my temper and remain calm. I decided to try to put on my therapist hat and try to assure him that nothing bad was going to happen. I said we’re gonna be OK, I’m gonna get you home safely and nobody’s going to hurt you or kill you. “I’m gonna die tonight, I just know it.” No you’re not, you’re young, you’re not going to die for many many years, I told him.

I had to ask him which exit to take as we approached the first Fultondale exit. “Take the first one” he said. We drove up highway 31 for about a mile until he told me to stop at a Shell station. We sat there in silence for what seemed like a full minute before I ask him, well are you gonna get out? He said “my mama’s supposed to meet me here”. After another couple of minutes I said, don’t you think you should call her to see if she’s on her way? He took out his phone and seemed to hit twenty keys. I was convinced that he was so messed up that he couldn’t even operate a cell phone.

He said “how much would it cost to take me to where she is?” Well, that depends on where she is, I told him “She’s at Bingo Lucky’s up on Arkedelphia Road.” The meter was sitting at twenty five dollars. I said you’ve already paid me twenty and right now you owe me five bucks. It’ll probably cost at least another twenty to get over there, “OK” he said. I was pretty skeptical about a place called Bingo Lucky’s. A few years ago the state had cracked down on all the so called “bingo parlors” which were in reality just mini casinos, and closed them all down. I hadn’t heard of any of them reopening.

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Before we left the parking lot of the Shell, he said ” Mister, could I ask you a favor?” Yes, I said, what is it? “Could you let me ride in the front? I think I would feel better.” I thought about it for a few seconds and decided that I didn’t want to be the bad guy, I didn’t want him turning his fear and anger towards me instead of his imaginary demons. When he got up front I got a much better look at him. He was wearing a plaid taxi hat and had a neatly trimmed beard. He had a few tattoos on his forearms but they were not covered with tattoos. I noticed one small butterfly shaped tat that had a raised red area around it, I assumed this was his new one. He bore a close resemblence to one of my younger cousins but not nearly as healthy looking. I could see the fear and traces of insanity in his piercing ice blue eyes.

He did indeed seem better on the interstate portion of our trip. I thought that perhaps the effects of the drug had worn off and that he would now act a little more normal and we could complete the trip without incident. I was wrong. Arkadelphia Road is heavily used by eighteen wheelers because it’s a connector road between I-20/59 and I-22, as soon as we took the exit we got into a traffic jam between the big trucks spewing their noxious diesel fumes. This is when it became apparent that all was not well with my customer. Now, instead of one guy in the front seat wanting to kill him, there were three in the backseat determined not to allow him to live through the night. “Please don’t do this, I’ve got two kids.” Once again I try my best to calm him by letting him know that he’s safe and no harm will come to him. “Don’t let them kill me!” he screamed! I was agitated enough to slightly raise my voice and say that there’s nobody else in the car. “YOU’RE LYING!” he shouted! “I CAN SEE THEM! THEY’RE RIGHT THERE!” “I know they’re gonna kill me, I’m gonna die tonight, they’re gonna torture me to death!” “Why are you letting them do this?” he asked as he narrowed his eyes at me. By this time I’m super freaked out and I told him so. I said this Bingo Lucky’s better be coming up soon because you are freaking me the fuck out! The big trucks slowly chugged up the road in front of us as he became agitated, couldn’t be still and seemed to be trying to get something out of his pockets. Again I asked, where is this Bingo Lucky’s? He said “just pull over there”, pointing to a big truck stop. I gladly pulled into the parking lot and he jumped out almost before I could come to a complete stop. I hauled ass! I turned right on Arkadelphia because I didn’t want to wait on traffic to turn left. The meter was sitting at forty two fifty but that was twenty two fifty that I was glad to sacrifice to get rid of this crazy motherfucker! I didn’t even want to turn around and pass the place again. I took a left into Pratt City and drove through Pratt and Ensley which are areas where some fear to tread. To me, Pratt and Ensley felt like the safest place in the world with this lunatic out of my car.

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.

brown doll

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.

Bullies

When we get a dispatch, a name usually appears on the screen of the dispatch computer. On this particular night the name was “Patton”. Patton had called from Calypso, the club about halfway up the mountain from Five Points South.

As I arrived I could see a group of young men standing in front of the entrance. As soon as I stopped one of them jumped in the back seat, his buddies were on their way. I asked him his name, he said “what difference does it make?” I told him that someone had called for the cab and I wanted to be sure I was picking up the right person. I looked up ahead and saw that the buddies of the guy in the backseat seemed to be having a confrontation with a much smaller guy that had just walked out of the bar. One of the big guys was pushing him around and calling him “you little faggot”. Another one of the group pushed him again, this time he almost fell. The scene was the exact image that most people think of when they think of bullies. There were three very large young men who looked like preppie jocks. They were college aged, in their early twenties. They were pushing and intimidating a much smaller young man who would have been no match for one of them in a fight, much less three.

bully

I intuitively knew that the victim of these bullies was Patton. It was more than just a gut feeling, I knew it deep down. I got out of the car and with a raised voice yelled IS SOMEONE HERE NAMED PATTON? I”M HERE TO PICK UP PATTON. The little guy raised his hand and said “I’m Patton.” I said come get in the car, this is your cab.

There was one big problem. Before I could get Patton in the car, I had to get the asshole that was already in the backseat, out. Patton’s tormentors started yelling ” hell no, this is our cab, we were here first!”  At this point I was almost certain that a visit from the police was going to be necessary. I looked at the guy in the backseat and said , get your ass out! This is not your cab. Get out now or I’m calling the police! He said “fuck you, cab driver, this is our cab.” I told him and the others to get out and back off or I’m calling the police, RIGHT GODDAMN NOW! They had to see me actually dialing the phone before they backed off. The biggest one told the guy in the backseat “come on, we’ll get another cab. We don’t want to ride with this faggot anyway.”

When he got out I motioned for Patton to get in. As we drove away there was a chorus of “fuck you” and “eat me faggots” as they all gave us the finger and made lewd gestures, grabbing their crotches. Patton said “thank you for standing up for me back there, I appreciate it.” I said no problem, I hate bullies.

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.

image courtesy of http://www.brainpowerlearning.com

Inner City Expressions

One benefit of working in all neighborhoods in the city is that you can see many of the ways in which residents of those neighborhoods express themselves. This post will mainly feature what I like to call Urban Art. Yes, we’re talking about graffiti but also very artful murals that can be seen around the city on abandoned buildings, occupied buildings, retaining walls, bridge pylons and just about anywhere else that can possibly serve as a canvas. Some of this art is very well thought out and high quality. Some of it is simply very crude ramblings about the frustrations of inner city life.

We’ll start with the artful, well thought out, high quality kind. In 2011 residents of the Fountain Heights neighborhood just north of downtown decided they wanted to beautify an old retaining wall that had become an eyesore along 18th street north. Students from the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which is technically located in the neighborhood, were invited to create a mural on the wall that would honor the various ethnic groups that had called the neighborhood home over the decades. A Union Jack, an Italian flag and a Star of David were a few of the symbols painted on the wall to represent the different groups. There was a large map of the African continent painted to represent the African American community which is the largest group that inhabits the neighborhood today. The overall theme of the mural is unity and co-operation of all the people of Birmingham to move forward into a brighter future. This is symbolized by a black hand and a white hand clasped together.

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This mural on the side of a convenience store in the Avondale neighborhood also has a theme of racial and ethnic reconciliation and co-operation. Too bad the business next door decided to hang an advertising banner in the middle of it.

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One of the most artful murals in the city, in my opinion, is a Norse themed mural on the side of a paint and body shop in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Their practice of parking cars that are in line to be repaired in front of it makes it difficult to photograph. Here are a couple of shots:

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One of the places that I often sit and wait for calls during the day is under a shade tree behind The Search Club. About a year and a half ago I noticed that someone had painted some bizarre looking but artful images on the wall of the building across the parking lot.

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One day when I arrived at the waiting spot I noticed that these images were gone but there was a guy there working on something new and much larger. He told me that he painted with a group of urban artists that went by the name “Shizquad.” Like the other images, this huge mural also looked quite bizarre and seemed to be prison themed. The central image in the mural was an Alabama inmate. I asked if I could photograph it and he said “sure but it isn’t finished, I’ll be through with it in a few days”. I went ahead and photographed what he had done and planned to come back and photograph the finished product a little later. I watched him work on his masterpiece for several days. I assumed he had permission to paint on this building since it was such a big project and he was doing it in broad open daylight. My assumption was wrong. When I returned to photograph the finished mural, it was gone. The building had been painted over with solid blue paint; that’s the way it remains today. Here’s the work in progress:

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Not all the expressions are artful and some are downright scary. Here’s a very crude paranoid rant on some old pieces of tin along Richard Arrington Boulevard North. I have dropped off a particular customer in this general area that I believe could have been the author of the rant. We’ll talk more about him in a future post.

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Another of my favorite murals is this African themed painting on the side wall of a business in the Smithfield neighborhood.

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Most graffiti artists like to refer to themselves as “taggers”. Tagging simply means painting one’s “tag” or name in as many places as possible. There are several around Birmingham, one of the more common tags is “Naro”, but by far the most ubiquitous of all is one who refers to himself or herself as “Moist”. “Moist” tags such as this one are so common that you almost don’t notice them after a while.

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There was one moist tag however, that caught my eye immediately because of the difficulty that had to be overcome to place the tag. It was on the front of the old  McWane  cast iron pipe foundry. Production ceased at the foundry a couple of years ago but the facility is still maintained by the company because they say they intend to re-open it if the demand increases. This tagger would have had to have gotten past several locked gates, security guards and climbed to the top of the building to place the tag. Once it was placed it was very prominent and very visible to all traffic headed south and west along Interstate 20/59.

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A few years ago, tags with a very positive message started to appear around town. The tags read “you are beautiful.” Some have been removed but there are a few of them still around. One of the most prominent actually reads “how beautiful you are” but I’m sure it was done by the same people. It’s on the top of an old abandoned, blighted building near downtown. It’s highly visible from the northbound side of the Red Mountain Expressway. I have no idea as to the significance of the Star of David on the same building.

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There is an old rail tunnel on first avenue south that used to be part of the city’s first train station. The walls of the tunnel as well as many buildings nearby have become the canvases of many taggers. The days of this area as a stage for this street art are numbered. Construction has already begun on a walking trail through the area that leads from Railroad Park to Sloss Furnaces . I’m sure a major effort to keep the area free of graffiti will be undertaken when the trail is complete. Here are a few images that can currently be seen:

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Sources: Wikipedia, Bhamwiki, Birmingham News, al.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.