Tag Archives: poverty

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.

Caught In A Trap

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

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

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

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

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

green-loans-payday-loans

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

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

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

image: green loans-payday loans

All text copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

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

The First And The Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013 R.W. Walker

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

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