Tag Archives: hood

Rick James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

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

Pain and Anguish

The centerpiece of modern Birmingham’s economy is healthcare. Just off the top of my head I can think of 11 hospitals including multiple campuses of UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and St Vincent’s around the metro area. In addition, there are a plethora of clinics of all types all over the area. As with carless people who still need to go to work, there are also many carless people who need to go home from the hospital or doctor’s office.

One of the first hospital trips I remember came shortly after I first started driving in the winter of 2010-11. Unlike many winters in the last few decades, this winter was actually a cold one. We had snow in Birmingham three times that year and had freezing temperatures for several consecutive days. When I picked him up at the ER of one of the largest hospitals there was still a little snow on the ground from a snow shower a few days earlier. I saw the nurses wheel out a very frail man who I would judge to be in his late 70’s. He was wearing a cap with some company’s logo on it, a plaid shirt and blue jeans. His legs were bent and the nurse had a hard time getting him out of the wheelchair and into the cab. When he was finally in I greeted him with my usual hello! how are you doing tonight? “There ain’t nothing they can do for me. They’re sending me home to die” was his response.Well, I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. I didn’t think telling him that I hoped he died peacefully and painlessly would be appropriate. I remained quiet, it was a bit awkward.

He gave me an address in one of the suburban towns north of the city. It was actually outside of the town on a sparsely traveled road in a single wide trailer. He had used my phone to call his son to tell him that we were on the way and that he, the son, would have to pay the fare. When we pulled up in the drive I could see the snow and ice covered ramp coming from the door of the trailer. The son came out looking pissed. He was a total ass. I assume he was pissed because his father had come home. The fare was $19, he handed me a twenty and I gave him a one. He didn’t offer a tip. He also didn’t offer a hello, a how are you or a thank you for bringing my father home.

When he finally got his father into the wheelchair it was time for him to be pushed up the icy, snow covered ramp. I pushed as the son pulled from the front. It wasn’t easy. When we finally got the old guy to the door, I turned and carefully headed back down the ramp to the cab. There was still no thank you or even an acknowledgement that I had helped. The son acted as if it was my job. It’s not. All I have to do is drive the customer from point A to point B. The fare doesn’t include any help beyond that. I was glad to help even though there was nothing in it for me, I didn’t see how it would have been possible for  the angry son to have done it on his own. The only regret I had as I left was that this pitiful old man would have to spend his last few days with a fucking asshole.

The trip started from a dispatch to a church affiliated hospital in west Birmingham. This hospital is in zone 210, what many would consider to be “the hood”. Good, lucrative trips can and sometimes do come from this hospital. When picking up at a hospital, any hospital, one big mystery will be the condition of your customer. Sometimes they walk out on their own power, get in alone, are completely coherent and the trip is no trouble at all. Other times the customer will need assistance from either the hospital staff or a family member but still no big deal. This time it was different. I was having serious doubts during the trip that I would be able to get this guy home before he died. His sister was with him, I think I would have refused the trip had she not been.

He was a young African American man probably in his 20’s. He could not stand or walk or even shift his sitting position in the back seat. Other than on TV commercials for C.A.R.E and other similar charities and maybe in National Geographic, I have never seen a human being so emaciated. I never asked about his diagnosis but it had to have been the final stages of AIDS or some kind of cancer. His bones and joints looked as if there was no muscle or fat at all, just skin and bones. His head was tilted back with his eyes rolled back in his head. We had to make a stop at a pharmacy near the hospital for his sister to pick up a prescription. During this time I was alone with him for about 10-15 minutes. I was looking for signs of life. After a few minutes of total quiet I heard a gurgling sound and I could see his bony chest rise and fall, albeit at a much slower rate than a healthy person.

We arrived at an old apartment complex in Ensley a few minutes after his sister returned. A teenage girl came out of the apartment to help the sister get him inside. The two of them were having a very hard time. I thought about just picking him up and carrying him inside. I thought about what could happen if I dropped him or broke one of his brittle, fragile bones and held back. In just a minute a man who was a friend and neighbor showed up and did exactly what I was thinking of, picked him up and carried him inside. I was glad.

A few months later I was back at the same hospital. This time it was an account trip, meaning that the hospital is paying for the trip. You simply fill out a voucher and get paid by the cab company. When  Alabama court 005we are dispatched an account trip, we are able to see the destination on the computer screen, that’s how I knew this would be a lucrative trip. I waited and waited and waited some more. The customer wasn’t coming out. Before pressing the noshow button I decided to call dispatch to see if they could get in touch with anyone at the hospital to see if the customer was indeed there. The company will pay us $5 for a noshow on an account trip but judging by the distance showing on my GPS this would be a $45 or $50 trip if the customer was there, so I was willing to wait a little longer if necessary. The dispatchers put me through to some hospital staff person who assured me that my customer would soon be out.

They eventually wheeled out a guy who looked like he had just been taken straight out of his hospital bed and sent out the door. He was bent over forward in the wheelchair with a string of saliva drooling from his toothless mouth. He was holding a pale pink kidney shaped drool or vomit receptacle. He was accompanied by a woman probably 10 or 15 years his junior. She had the look of a country woman but with a hard edge. When they got in she barely gave me a hello. It was clear that she wasn’t interested in exchanging niceties with me. Before we got out of the parking lot, the man with the drool pan started screaming in agony. “OH GOD, OH GOD, OH GOD”, he shouted! The screaming didn’t stop. All the way through west Birmingham and all the way out of town he continued to shout “OH GOD, OH GOD” while hyperventilating and clutching his side and chest. For a minute I was thinking that we may need to turn around and take him back to the hospital. I was wondering why they sent him home? No insurance, maybe? The screaming didn’t stop until we finally reached our destination northwest of the city near the Walker County line.

The only words that I heard come out of his mouth other than “OH GOD” were “I’m so thirsty”. After he repeated this several times, the woman asked me to stop at the next gas station to get him a Sprite. Sprite was his favorite soda. After a couple of minutes sitting at the gas station listening to this man scream, I saw her exit the store empty handed. She lacked 40 cents having enough money to buy a Sprite. I thought to myself, it’s a damn good thing the hospital is paying for this trip. I told her to get back in the car and I went in the store and bought the man a 20oz Sprite.

From the view of society that we cab drivers get, stereotypes are sometimes, even often, shattered. This wasn’t one of those times. It took four turns off the main road to get onto the two ruts that the woman called a road. I could almost hear banjos playing as we pulled up in front of a run down trailer with assorted rusty auto parts strewn about in the yard. It was a scene that would confirm the mental image that many have of poor whites in the rural south. A young man, probably in his late 20’s, wearing a camouflage hat and a shirt with cut off sleeves that exposed his tattoos, one of which was a confederate flag, came out and assisted the woman in getting the man in agony out of the car. I couldn’t turn around in front of the place. I drove probably a quarter mile before finding a safe place to turn around. When I came back by the trailer the young man and the woman were gone. The sick man was sitting on the ground leaning against the mailbox, clutching his Sprite.

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.