Tag Archives: wheelchair

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.

Advertisements

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.

Lucky To Be Alive

She was an early morning going to work customer. I picked her up in the 235 zone and took her to her server job at a chain restaurant near Lakeshore Parkway. She asked for my card and said that she would call later and give me some business. She told me that her husband was disabled. She called that very afternoon and said that her family needed to go to Walmart. I called when I got there and she told me to walk around to the back of her apartment.

Crossing the threshhold into someone’s home is a no-no. I didn’t want to do it, wasn’t gonna do it. She told me that she needed my help getting her husband out. I stood at the open door and could see him sitting there in an old manual wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the neck down. He seemed to be able to move his arms just a little but they were bent and twisted and nearly useless. His legs were totally paralyzed, he couldn’t move them at all. She introduced us and explained that he had had a wreck on Lakeshore Parkway just a few months earlier that had put him in this condition. In addition to the paralysis, he had numerous scars where surgery had been preformed to repair internal organs. Then she made the mistake of saying “He’s lucky to be alive”.

He went into a tirade. “I’m sick and tired of damned people, including you saying that I’m lucky to be alive. I am NOT lucky to be alive. I WISH I WAS DEAD!” After a moment of silence he started in again “I wish I had been killed in that wreck. People who say I’m lucky to be alive have never sat in this chair. They don’t know what it’s like to not be able to move, to be dependent on someone else for EVERYTHING! The only thing I hate worse than hearing I’m lucky to be alive is when they say God was looking out for me. What a crock of shit!” He then looked up at the ceiling with a scowl on his face and in his most sarcastic voice snarled “THANK YOU, GOD!”

Once his rant was over it was time to undertake the daunting task of getting him to the car and in the car. There were four people living here and they were all going to Walmart. There was the disabled husband, his wife, her mother and a two year old toddler. There was a wheelchair ramp set up on the opposite end of the building from their apartment. There was no sidewalk or any kind of flat concrete surface in between. He had to be wheeled through the yard, it was rough and uneven. Some places were covered with grass while other places were bare dirt. It also wasn’t flat, there was a hill and several holes to avoid.

When we finally made it to the car we had to put a plastic board between him and the front seat, using what little body movement he could muster and with a good deal of help from his wife, he slid across the board into the front seat. We went through the same process to get him out when we got there and again on the return trip. I could smell feces. I couldn’t tell if it was from the husband or the toddler but the smell was unmistakable.

Over the course of the next few weeks I made about four more similar trips with this family. Each time the smell was present. When we finally made a trip without the toddler there was no doubt left as to where it was coming from. On the last trip that we made, we arrived back at the apartments well after sundown, it was pitch black. The wife and mother jumped out and ran into the apartment, offering no help towards getting the husband in. They had taken my help for granted. Thank God I had a flashlight. The trip from the car was treacherous and dangerous but we made it safely. After asking the amount of the fare, the wife paid it with a two dollar tip. With a look of agitated embarassment on his face, the husband called me back and gave me $10. They never called me again. I don’t know the reason but I’m glad. I didn’t dislike them, but it was much more work than I was getting paid for.

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.