Category Archives: Urban

Falling Through The Cracks

Mental illness is a truly unfortunate condition. I have personal experience dealing with both loved ones and associates with this condition in one form or another. I have compassion for the mentally ill because I know this is a disease, just like cancer or diabetes.  Even though a stricken person can act very bizarre, removed from reality or even mean or hateful, it’s because of the disease. Most people who have never dealt with anything like this and don’t understand it, are likely to get very angry and in some cases react in ways that can do great harm to the sick person.

St. Vincent’s hospital is a very large Catholic hospital with multiple clinics and other places where a customer can be picked up. After some miscommunication with the dispatchers about exactly where my customer was located, I found her sitting outside the emergency room in a wheelchair. She looked very frail and sickly. She was so thin that it seemed there was a skeleton in the wheelchair with jet black skin stretched over the bones. I immediately thought of scenes from the third world I had seen in TV commercials for charities or in the pages of National Geographic. In spite of her frailty she had a big gap toothed smile with white teeth that contrasted against her dark skin.

With some difficulty, a nurse helped her up out of the chair and into the car. Left behind in the chair was a clear plastic bag with some rags, waded up napkins, candy wrappers and a little plastic cup of some kind of fruit. My customer asked “can you get my bag? It’s very important to me.” I took the bag from the chair and placed it securely in the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. The nurse handed me a voucher, the hospital was paying for the trip over to psychiatric services at UAB. The voucher had the words “no stops” written across the top. The hospital doesn’t like to pay for any detours.

Before we out of the parking lot my customer asked “If I axed you to help me would you?” I looked at her and asked, are you asking me for money? “I need sumpin’ to eat, I’m starving.” My immediate reaction was to think that almost all panhandlers will tell you that they need to money for something to eat. I guess they think that most folks are more sympathetic to hunger than they are for the need of drugs or booze. I asked her what she wanted to eat. “Cap’n D’s” she said immediately. I thought maybe she’s telling me the truth. Thinking about the “no stops” on the voucher, I said just let me take you to where you’re going and I’ll give you five bucks and you can go to Captain D’s later. “OK” she said. By the time we got to the first traffic light she said “please let’s go to Cap’n D’s now, I’m starving”. If someone is truly hungry I certainly don’t mind feeding them. I decided that I would only charge the hospital for the trip to Captain D’s and take her the rest of the way to the clinic pro bono.

She began to complain that St. Vincent’s wouldn’t let her stay there because they said “they ain’t no medical reason to keep me.” She then started to expound on all the medical reasons they could have kept her. “I got these thangs all over me that’s drivin’ me crazy” she put her leg up on the console for me to see a hole, too small for a bullet hole but one that looked like it had been drilled with a drill or some kind of burrowing parasite in her lower leg. “That ain’t all, I got a buncha  big knots on my coochie and in my butt that hurt like a muthafucka.” While stopped at a red light she almost shouted “LOOK, look at these thangs on my privates!” I instinctively turned around only for a second to see the she had pulled up the skirt of the long dress she was wearing to reveal her naked, pantyless vagina in all it’s glory. I quickly turned my eyes away before I could get a glimpse of any knots or boils. “I got em in my butt too, they worser in my butt. These on my coochie hurt but they mostly in my butt.” The only thing I could think was lady, please don’t try to show me your butthole. Thankfully she didn’t.

When we arrived in the drive thru I asked her what she wanted. “A three piece fish and some corn on the cob. Water to drink.” She was telling me the truth about being hungry. She ate her fish and corn like a mad woman. She was completely finished by the time we drove the short distance to psychiatric services. We pulled up in front and I took her bag up to the door and went inside to ask if someone could get her in a wheelchair, she seemed too frail to get out on her own. A woman told me to take her to the ramp in the back of the building and someone would get her. A couple of professional women came out and put her through the third degree about why she was there and who had sent her. She told them that St. Vincent’s had sent her. I showed them the voucher from that hospital. They went back inside for a moment. When they came back out they said “you don’t have an appointment, you’re going to have to go to the emergency room.” One of the women then instructed me to take her to the UAB emergency room which was just a couple of blocks away.

Capn D 010

My customer had obviously fallen through the cracks of the mental health system and indeed the health care system. Knowing that she would have sat in the emergency room waiting room all day, she didn’t even consider staying there. “Just take me down by Alley’s drug store and let me out.” she said. I told her I couldn’t do that because the woman at psychiatric services had instructed me to take her to the emergency room, she seemed to understand. She got out of the car on her own power at the ER. Before I could leave she noticed that her bag was missing. I had left it by the door of psychiatric services. ” I gots to have that, you don’t know how important it is. I gotta have it.” I said just stay here and I’ll go back and get it. The bag, which looked to me like a bag full of car trash, was still sitting by the door where I had left it earlier.

I didn’t see her when I arrived back at the ER. I was thinking that maybe I’d just leave the bag there and ask someone to be on the lookout for the lady to which it belonged. Suddenly, I heard “over here.” She was walking around easily without the aid of a wheelchair or anything else. When I got out with her bag she flashed that big toothy smile and thanked me for bringing it to her. She went on her way and I went on to the next call.

copyright 2015, R.W, Walker

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

A Matter Of Class

Income inequality is a major issue across America and indeed the world. The issue is profound in this area and as I may have mentioned previously, driving a cab allows one to see it in a very personal way. Some, including some fellow drivers, say that they’re unable to see it or think that’s just the way it is and there’s nothing that can be done about it. I guess they’re right, at least to some degree. I don’t know if a classless society would ever be possible but seeing some with far more than they need to live a luxurious life and others without the life’s basic necessities rubs me the wrong way. I have absolutely nothing against educating one’s self, working hard, having great ideas and making a lot of money. In fact I think that’s very admirable. What’s even more admirable are the people who are the big winners in this crazy money game we all have to play who don’t forget about their fellow humans who haven’t been so lucky. Some high profile billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates are very charitable and have done a great deal to help those in need. That’s fantastic. Unfortunately, not every mover and shaker wants to help the less fortunate, some in fact are the causes of the problems.

The following stories are about real life people on the extreme ends of the income gap. These are situations that paint a realistic picture of income inequality and the expectations of privilege by some on the good side of the gap. There are many days when we serve both the richest and the poorest residents of our community, sometimes on back to back trips. I hope these situational accounts will help someone, maybe someone who is in denial, see the issues clearly.

THE WEDDING PARTY

It was a busy night. One of those nights when there was far more demand for cabs than there were cabs. That happens sometimes when there are concerts, festivals or other big events that bring a lot of people to town. I had just dropped off a customer in the 150 zone. That’s Mountain Brook, the richest neighborhood in Alabama and one of the top ten in the southeast. There were 6 calls on the board for the zone and I decided to take one hoping that it wasn’t too old and that the people were still there. It was to Otey’s Tavern, as many of the calls in this zone are. Otey’s is a small bar in the Crestline Village section of Mountain Brook that is very popular with the young “Brookies”, the children and grandchildren of the old money elites who populate this posh suburb.

wedding party

There was to be a wedding of a Mountain Brook girl and a fellow from New York the next day. A large group in the wedding party was celebrating early at Otey’s, there were eight of them in all. We’ve been warned many times not to overload a cab. The capacity is five people, the driver and four passengers. Anything more than that is against the law because there aren’t enough seatbelts for more than five. If a driver should be pulled over, or worse yet have an accident with the car overloaded, his or her ass is grass. It’s not a chance that I’m willing to take. The guy who seemed to be the leader of this group decided that he was going to put all eight of his friends in the car, I flatly refused which started a firestorm of hate aimed in my direction.  They had been waiting for a while. When I told them that I wouldn’t take any of them if they insisted on overloading the car, four of them reluctantly agreed to make the trip while the others waited on another cab.

It was a very unpleasant trip. The girls kept trying to shame me for leaving their friends behind, all of the logic in the world didn’t matter. In their mind I was supposed to forget about the warnings that had been passed down and do as they wanted in order to please them. The guy who had first tried to orchestrate the eight person trip was sitting behind me kicking me in the back with his knees through the back of the seat. Once I screamed “what the fuck are you doing?” at this asshole he subsided for a little while. Now, I regret not stopping the car and putting his ass out on the side of the road.

One of the girls was busy calling the cab company to get their friends picked up. She tried being an authoritarian with the call taker. She said ” You’d better get a cab to pick up our friends, RIGHT NOW”. The call taker hung up on her. Realizing that her options were limited she changed her tone a bit. She started soliciting my help in getting a ride for her friends. She asked about other cab companies. I said there are several others but they’re mostly a joke, but please feel free to try one. I told her the name of two of the companies. She tried calling them both but neither of them would even answer the phone. She ask if I had any friends who could pick them up. Not tonight, I said. We’re crazy busy, everyone already has all they can do. Trying to make the best of the situation, I said maybe I could go back and pick them up when I drop you off. One of the girls in the back seat piped up and said “they wouldn’t ride in the car with you.” Great, I said. There are plenty of others that need rides and I won’t have to back track. The girl in front immediately flipped a switch and tried to become my best friend. “You’re a good cab driver” she said in a childlike voice. “I was on your side all along, you will go back and get them won’t you?” I’ll consider it, I said.

By the time we reached their destination, Lakeview, the other girls had joined in the love fest. “You’re the best driver we’ve ever had” one of them said. The guy who I had screamed at wasn’t feeling the love. He decided to try and put me in my place instead. “You’re a terrible cab driver” he yelled in my face! “YOU WORK IN THE SERVICE INDUSTRY, YOU DO AS YOU’RE TOLD! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” I managed to keep my cool even as I was fantasizing about bashing this stupid asshole’s brains out with a hammer. He slammed the door and stormed off. I don’t how long it took their friends to get a ride. I hope it was a long, long time.

A WARM FLOOR TO SLEEP ON

The address on the screen was to a park up behind the Civic Center in the 500 zone. As I approached I could see four scruffy looking white guys standing on the corner of the park waiting for my arrival. As I’ve noticed with all groups, no matter how rich or poor, no matter the race or ethnicity, there’s always one who seems to be the leader. One who makes the decisions for the rest of the group. I guess that’s just the way most humans operate. The leader of this group was a middle aged man wearing a U.S. Navy jacket and a baseball cap. The others were in dirty jeans, cheap tennis shoes, what I’m sure were hand me down coats and knit skull hats.

The destination was to a low rent extended stay hotel up on the mountain on the Homewood side. The leader, the man in the Navy jacket, had apparently received a check or some kind of significant income and he was putting the others up for the night in this hotel. They wanted to stop at a store to buy cigarettes. The youngest of the group said “I caint go in there, they done banned me.”  So he stayed in the car with me while the others got their smokes. Once back on the interstate the group began expressing their gratitude to the man in the Navy jacket. ” I been sleepin’ under that damn 280 bridge. I thought my feet was gonna freeze off last night. I sho am glad I’ll be sleepin’ in a motel tonight. I don’t care if I have to sleep on the floor. That warm floor will feel mighty good compared to where I been sleepin’.”

When we exited the interstate at the Greensprings Avenue exit, one of the other fellas decided to tell us all that this could be a very lucrative intersection. “Me and my son will stand out here with a sign saying I’ll work for food. Just about always somebody will take you to do some yard work, rakin’ leaves or sumpin’. They’ll usually give you sumpin’ to eat and a little money to boot.  You caint stay out there long though. The po-leece will run you off. They say it’s beggin’ even if you are offerin’ to work.”

work for food 2

We arrived at the hotel just a few minutes later. The man in the Navy jacket asked me to wait a few minutes just to make sure he could get all the fellas in. I was a bit nervous about the wait as I had yet to be paid. True to his word, our Navy friend returned in just a couple of minutes and said “we’re all in, how much do I owe you?” The meter was at seventeen dollars. He handed me a twenty and said “keep the change.” I’m glad these guys got off the street for at least one night. God bless the man in the Navy jacket.

These are just two examples, there are countless others. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that every wealthy customer is obnoxious like those in the wedding party. Many are very polite and pleasant company. I’m also not saying that every poor customer is honorable, some are not. The point I’m trying to get across here is that equality of human beings in this society is non existent. As I’ve already said, I don’t think a classless society is possible, but to narrow the huge divide between the classes would be a lofty goal indeed.

copyright 2015 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.

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.

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.

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.

bingo

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.

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!”

motel 091

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.