Category Archives: Working Class

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.

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Patient Discharge

I’m back. I haven’t written a post in quite a while now but I have a few stories that I think need to be told. This past spring  just after I made my last post, I was offered and accepted a job with a company that I had worked for back in 2010. This job involved a lot of travel and had me driving all over Alabama and Mississippi for a few months. When June rolled around the job was almost completed in those two states. There were two other states out west where the job needed to be done. The company sent me and a couple of other people from this area to do the job. I spent most of the month of June and part of July working in Colorado and New Mexico. I must say it was a grand experience. I was told to only work forty hours per week and I could usually complete that in four days. I then had time for sight seeing and time to experience places I had never been like Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Denver. When I returned home, there were a few weeks of clean up work around Alabama but when that was over I needed some other way to make money. Back to cab driving. The company I was working for says that there may be more work next year, but in the meantime it’s the streets of Birmingham that will keep me occupied.

Colorado-New Mexico 6-14-14 093

It was 9:00 am and my third dispatched trip of the day. The call was to the ramp at the front entrance of the VA hospital to pick up Ted. I usually don’t like coming to this place because if the customer isn’t outside waiting for you when you get there, you’re usually forced off the ramp by vehicles behind you and end up having to circle the hospital several times, sometimes in heavy traffic in order to pick up a customer. This day was no exception, a man in green scrubs came up to the cab when he saw me pull up to assure me that they were “about to bring him out”. I circled twice before they finally wheeled out a very frail, very elderly man with an oxygen tank by his side. There were several hospital staffers and a few that looked like administrators who were wearing blue blazers with matching ties and bright shiny name tags with the VA logo.

Several of them worked hard just to get my customer in the car. I was immediately alarmed because I could foresee several problems on the back end of this trip. First, I wasn’t convinced that this man could tell me where he lived, not only was he physically very frail but his communications skills also didn’t seem quite up to par. I expressed this concern to one of the men in the blue jackets and he immediately pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read off an address. There was another problem which was a much bigger one in my mind. How the hell was I gonna get him out of the car when I got him home? Judging by how difficult it was for the hospital staff to get him in the car, I knew that getting him out and inside his house would be even more difficult, impossible if there was no one there to help. When I asked the blue jacketed man about this he seemed not to know what to say. He looked at the man in the backseat and ask “is there anyone at your house to help you get out of the car?” My customer weakly nodded in the affirmative. The hospital staff and officials seemed only interested in getting rid of this man. Many people, from bar bouncers to these hospital big wigs consider cabs as human garbage disposals. They see it as an easy way to get rid of an unwanted person. Just call a cab and it will take them away, they don’t care where, just away. There was a well dressed woman overseeing the loading of this man in my car. She looked like she could have been a social worker or some similar professional. I cornered her and told her that I was seriously concerned about having help to get this man out of the car when I arrived at his house. I stressed the fact that I wasn’t a professional trained to deal with the disabled and that I couldn’t physically handle the man because of concerns about liability if it didn’t turn out as planned. She said “Well, he really needs to go to a nursing home. We tried to get him to go to a nursing home but he refused. Since he’s an adult of sound mind, we can’t hold him here, we have to let him go.” I said if there’s no one there to help when I get there I’m gonna have to call the authorities to get him out, because I can’t ride him around all day.  “He says there’s somebody there,  We have to take his word for it.”

The drive to his home was uneventful. He lived just beyond the very industrial, very working class suburb of Tarrant, formerly known as Tarrant City. Just a couple of miles past the big nasty coke refining plant we took a left on a side street and arrived at his modest but very neat and clean house. This area is mostly white working class. The homes are mostly small and old. Many are in disrepair. His driveway was on a slight incline and there were four steps up to his front porch. Considering what I had been told back at the hospital I assumed there was someone in the house that could come out and help. I asked him for a phone number so I could call the person inside the house. He just looked at me. I walked up on the porch and knocked on the door. It was apparent that my fear had been very real, there was no one there but Ted and me.

From the porch I looked across at the house across the street. It was very stereotypical of what someone from another part of the country may think they would see in Alabama. A small house decked out with the dollar store kind of old fashioned Christmas lights. There was a van up on a jack with the front tire missing in the front yard. Behind the van I noticed a very old looking plastic nativity scene with almost all the color faded from Mary, Joseph, the wise men and the baby Jesus. Just when I was running all the options through my head, the door opened and out came a man and a woman. The man, who was small and bearded was wearing an Alabama Crimson Tide pullover shirt. It was one of the shirts with all the years that the Tide has won national championships listed. The woman was short but much heftier than the man, she was wearing a bright pink T shirt over her big belly with the words “Bama Gal” prominently displayed on the front. The two were headed straight for their pick up truck. I had to get their attention before they could get away. I approached the man and ask if he knew of anyone I could call to help get Ted out of the car? The woman in pink immediately volunteered “we’ll help.” I was very grateful.

nativity set

The process was slow and tedious. First he had to be turned around to face the outside, then came the task of getting his legs out and his feet on the ground. They placed his walker in front of him and tried to get him to stand up. After considerable effort, he did stand up, for a little while. As they were going through the process the man in the Crimson Tide shirt asked Ted if he had money to pay the cab man. He handed him a wad of cash that he had had in his hand since we left the hospital. His fare was twenty three dollars. There was twenty eight in the wad I was handed. The woman in pink noticed and said “that’s too much” as she took back a five and put it in Ted’s pocket. I didn’t say anything.

Ted’s standing was short lived. After just a few minutes he could stand no longer and just sat down on the ground. His oxygen tubes came off his face as his tank rolled out into the yard. About that time a big bellied man of about 40 drove up in a pick up truck all decked out in Florida State Seminoles paraphernalia. I feel certain that this man had not attended Florida State University and may have never even been to Tallahassee. In my opinion it was probably the everyone loves them when they’re winning syndrome. He walked up as Ted was wallowing on the ground and said “hey Ted, how you doin’?” Ted just looked up and said “help me” in a very weak and shaky voice. The man never offered a hand to help.

The Bama Gal had the best idea so far. “We gonna have to call the paramedics, “We ain’t gonna be able to get him in the house.” They were there in about five minutes. A lieutenant of the Tarrant fire department was absolutely appalled that the VA had released this man in the condition he was in. I heard him call them on the phone to get all the information about Ted. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer. As the woman at the hospital had told me, they wanted him to go to a nursing home. Actually a hospice nursing home, which she had neglected to tell me. Ted of course had refused. To get around the “of sound mind” problem the lieutenant asked Ted a few questions. One of them was “what year is this?” When Ted answered “01” in his weak and feeble voice the lieutenant said “Ok, we’re going back to the hospital.” In a few minutes I was out of there and on my way to the next call. Ted was in an ambulance on his way back to the place that had so wanted to get rid of him.

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.

The Long Way Home

Hello, how are you guys tonight? “We’re doing well, how about you?” I’m great, I said. Where do you guys need to go? They gave me an address in a neighborhood just over the mountain in Homewood. I headed toward the Red Mountain Expressway, the easiest way to take them home. “So what brings you to America?” the woman asked. I was flabbergasted by the question. I thought damn, didn’t she just hear me greet them? I know I said at least a couple of sentences in my slightly southern but unmistakably American English. I could tell that the couple may have had a few drinks but they were a long way from what I would consider hammered. Yet, this woman obviously thought I was a foreigner. After a few seconds went by, I said well, I guess it was the delivery doctor. I was born about fifty miles southwest of here in Tuscaloosa.

She was embarrassed. I think this taught both she and I a valuable lesson. The power of stereotypes. The idea that all cab drivers are recent immigrants was so firmly ingrained in her psyche that even clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, which was right in her face, didn’t purge it from her mind.

That’s one stereotype many people have of us drivers but it’s not the only one. Another one which is more common and more hurtful, at least to me, is the idea that all cab drivers are out to cheat the customer. Customers usually think drivers cheat by driving a longer route than is necessary in order to run up the meter. I’m not saying  this hasn’t happened to some customers and I know that there’s some scumbag drivers that would do it, I’ve met them. What I am saying is that it’s not most drivers. It’s certainly not me, in fact I’ll usually go out of my way to keep from overcharging someone. I definitely do have a strategy to maximize my income but it doesn’t involve cheating anyone. My strategy is to purposely target  neighborhoods that are a good distance, but not too far from the entertainment districts. This will make each trip a lucrative one without taking too much time. I don’t want to go so far that I have to spend a lot of time riding empty. I want to go back and get another one shortly after I drop off the last one. I want to keep it going, non-stop. That’s how you make money, not by cheating people.

cab meter

Knowing that this stereotype is strongly in the minds of many cab customers, I usually try to head off any accusations by letting the customer choose the route. This will usually take the issue off the table. There are often several good ways to get where you’re going. The customer will sometimes choose the longest route simply because they don’t know the short way. I’ve learned however, that if I choose the route and it’s a route that they’re unfamiliar with, they will almost always believe that I’ve cheated them, even if it’s the shortest route possible. Therefore my policy is to let the customer be the boss when it comes to which way we go, which most customers appreciate. There are however, a very few that are so stubborn in believing this stereotype that they will find a way to accuse you of cheating them no matter what. I once had a woman that didn’t like the total even after she had chosen the route. She accused me of tampering with the meter.

We have a minimum charge to go out and pick a up a customer. In Birmingham (the city sets the cab rates) it’s three dollars. Once we get rolling, the rate is two dollars per mile. So if you go one mile you will be charged five dollars, but if you go two miles you will only be charged seven dollars. There is another way customers are charged. It’s for time when the cab is sitting still. The rate is twenty four dollars per hour. So, if you have a driver to stop and wait on you at a store, someone’s house, a fast food drive through or somewhere else, you will pay three dollars for seven and a half minutes, six dollars for fifteen minutes, twelve dollars for thirty minutes and so on. Many customers don’t like paying wait time but it’s absolutely necessary to keep customers from taking advantage of us. Some customers would have us waiting for hours and pay us very little if not for wait time. It’s designed to hurry them along. All the rates are posted on the window of the cab but some customers will pretend that they didn’t know about wait time and start a confrontation with the driver. It’s always a good idea to warn them about it whenever they make a stop. I will usually turn the wait time off in a situation beyond the customer’s control, such as having to wait on a train or a funeral procession. If it’s a regular customer and I like them, I will usually give them a few minutes of free time if they’re in a store.

M dayham 011

I’ve had many customers complain to me about other drivers cheating them. Sometimes it sounds like they were legitimately cheated and other times it sounds like it’s in their minds. One guy told me that a driver stopped at a store and kept moving the car around in the parking lot to run up the meter. I reminded him that a driver would have to drive a mile to run the meter up two dollars. If you’re familiar with Birmingham, that’s the distance from the fountain at five points south to the middle of the Lakeview district. The customer still insisted that the driver had cheated him. I simply said, I’m sorry that happened to you. I was convinced that the customer spent more time than he thought he had in that store.

So if you order a cab and you’re concerned about being cheated, and I do know that sometimes it’s a legitimate concern, try telling the driver the route that you would like to take. If he or she refuses, you may want to complain to the company or request that the dispatchers not send that particular cab the next time you call.  Always be aware of wait time if you decide to stop. I’m always truly disturbed when I hear of a customer being cheated because it makes me as well as all the other honest drivers look bad. Please know that while there may be a few bad apples, most of us want to make your cab experience as pleasant as possible.

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.

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.

Working Hard For The Money

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

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

burgers

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

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

underpaid        two jobs

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

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

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

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

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

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

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.

Early Morning Craving

As I’ve alrady told you in the story “Diaper Money” I have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy when it comes to shady dealings by my customers as long as it doesn’t involve violence or thievery. I don’t consider what my adult customers are doing to be my business as long as they’re not causing me any trouble and as long as I get paid. As I’ve said before, I’m not going to ask you what you’re up to and for God’s sake, please don’t tell me. If you don’t tell me I can always say I don’t know what’s going on even if it seems obvious. I can remember picking up a middle aged white man in a very rural part of zone 550. It was in the direction of Pinson but not actually in Pinson. He was very much a working class kind of guy wearing steel toed work boots and sporting a new crewcut. He said “I need to go into town for just a few minutes, this will be a round trip.”

He had his own route in mind which was fine with me. I always ask customers if they have a prefered route and if they do, I always abide by their wishes. Many customers believe the stereotype that all cab drivers are out to cheat them by trying to up the fare by driving a route that’s longer than necessary. Letting them be in charge of the route takes this issue off the table. We rode along some roads that I don’t think I’ve ever driven on. We eventually came out on I-65 near Fultondale, north of the city. We had made some small talk along the way but nothing concerning exactly where he was going or what he was doing. His destination was in a public housing project, one of the older ones that look like red brick barracks. This project was next to a large city high school, west of downtown in a neighborhood that’s almost entirely African American. He had me park a building away from the building where he was going. True to his word, he was in and out in less than five minutes. We followed the same route we had taken to the project back to his country home. The fare was $95, he handed me a hundred dollar bill and said “keep it”.

The name on the screen of the dispatch computer was a traditionally female name. When I saw the person come out of the house I thought this must be the wrong customer or maybe someone else called for him; that happens sometimes. I would have sworn this tall, broad shouldered person with close cropped hair was a man until she got in the car and I heard her voice. It was a deep voice for a woman but still a feminine voice. She wanted to go to one of the gentlemen's clubgentlemen’s clubs on the west side of town, she said she worked there. I certainly didn’t think she was a stripper so I figured she must have been a bartender, a bouncer or maybe even a manager. When we arrived I turned the meter off and told her the amount of the fare as I thought this was her final destination. She said “I’ll be back, wait on me. I won’t be long.”

When she returned a few minutes later I couldn’t see that she had anything that she didn’t have when she went in. But man, could I SMELL that she had something that she didn’t have when I picked her up. The skunky odor that filled the car was so pungent that it made my eyes water! It almost made me think that Cheech or Chong had just gotten in my cab. She said “let’s stop by the store. I’m gonna get some beeuh then you can take me to my gull house.” Was she aware of the smell? Maybe not, she went into the convenience store smelling like that. She came out with a twelve pack of Bud light, I guess she and her “gull” had a party.

This brings me to the only person who, as of yet, has violated my don’t ask, don’t tell policy. I had had some success earlier in the week by getting up early, by five or five-thirty am and catching the going to work crowd. It was about six in the morning when the call came through in the 235 zone. It was an old, low rent apartment complex almost to the summit of Red Mountain off of Greensprings Highway. This was late winter, it was still black dark, there was no hint of the morning sun.

She was standing outside when I arrived. A thin, middle-aged white woman wearing a V neck sweater, knee high leather boots and short hair dyed dark red, almost purple. I could tell she was no spring chicken but still not bad looking. I could tell something was awry by her hyperactive behavior. She got in and out of the cab four times before she finally settled in and was ready to go. It was obvious that she wasn’t one of the morning workers that I had been aiming for that morning. She said she wanted to go to the extended stay inn where my wife and I had lived when we first moved to town. I saw dollar signs because this place was clear on the other side of town from where we were. Shortly after we got started I was a little concerned when she said “after we go to the inn I need to go to Rugby.” Rugby avenue is a pretty seedy area in East Lake. I figured that this was probably a don’t ask, don’t tell situation.

About halfway to the inn she waved a big red flag indicating that this trip was probably not going to end well. She asked me “you’re cool ain’t you?” I said yeah, I guess I’m pretty cool, why? She said “you know we’re going to get my smoke. We don’t have to go to the inn if you’ll lend me twenty dollars to get it.” In hindsight, I should have stopped the car right where we were and put her ass out. We actually have a code that we can send to the dispatchers that means “refusing drug run.” I would have been better off this morning if I had used that code. I said, I’m not lending you any money. How the hell were you planning on paying me? She said “don’t worry honey, I’ve got PLENTY of money, just take me to the inn and I’ll get it.”  When we got there she frantically ran to one apartment and then to the next banging on doors. Someone finally let her in the second one she tried. After a few minutes she came back to the car and we headed to Rugby. After about five minutes of ringing the doorbell and knocking on the door she became frustrated and came back to the car. “I guess he must be dead asleep” she said. She now wanted to go to a house in Roebuck. By this time the sun was coming up and I felt a little safer as I could see my surroundings. I still had an inner knowing in the pit of my stomach that this wasn’t going to end well. I waited and waited and waited. After about 30 minutes I said to myself, if she doesn’t come out in five minutes I’m calling the cops. The meter was sitting at fifty two dollars, I had been fucking around with her all morning and hadn’t yet made a penny. I knew the chances were slim to none that I would see any of this money.

After forty minutes had gone by and she was still nowhere in sight I decided to call. I called the non-emergency number. I didn’t think this warranted a 911 call. I gave up after twenty rings. I decided to just drive to the nearest police station which I knew to be just behind the Roebuck Walmart. The policeman on duty was less than enthusiastic about writing up my report. I didn’t expect anything to come of it. I wasn’t wrong.

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.