Cab Fare — Episode #7: “Quitting Time”

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The “Last Saturday Night” Edition…

Friday Dues

Paying Friday dues at A Service Cab, in Metairie, LA: business as usual.

Every cab driver with the freedom to choose her hours has a unique approach to quitting time. Many drivers in the uber-capitalistic wilds of Louisiana favor the money pardon—once having made a personal, daily quota, they can stay on and earn lagniappe if business is still rolling, or they can go home then and only then. Since we don’t get paychecks, this is one part of a successful strategy for making a living driving a cab. We’re not employees; we’re independent contractors. The money doesn’t flow in; it flows out. Note that independent contractors should not be confused with independent cab drivers, i.e. the cabs without name recognition driven often by immigrants and/or as a family business.

Independent contractors pay whatever company with which we contract “dues” whether we own the vehicle or not and in dubious return we reap the benefit of the company’s license to operate, their logo (for better or worse), their radio dispatching services and, in the case of renters like myself, their vehicle maintenance services. The exchange here is, I say, dubious because our contractor status means taxi companies do not comply with OSHA safety regulations in a job the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as being 21-33 times more likely to result in our murder than any other occupation in the U.S. More to the point, in addition to not dispensing regular pay or health benefits (or benefits of any kind), taxi companies collect their dues from the still-living no matter what.

At $1440 a month to rent and $840 a month to own—not to mention gas, cleaning expenses and occasional tolls—that’s a lot of cab fare collected before one of us sees a dime of spendable currency. I figured it out one year and, on average, I have to make $2000 a month in fare and tips before I have any lunch money for myself. Or, breaking it down daily, based on a six-day work week, the first $60 cash I make goes directly to the company, the next $20-$40 goes to Exxon or Chevron (fuck Shell) and, sometime after that, I can eat. If I work only five days one week, the first $72 cash I make goes to the company; and so on… When cab drivers get sick and really have to stay off the streets, things get even dicier, to say nothing of the myriad ways in which we can be ticketed because, in addition to the police, we’re beholden to the Taxi Bureau.

Despite incredible pressure to maximize hours, not all of us choose to be dictated to by a quota—though we may (and more than likely do) have an amount in mind at the start of any given workday. Fellow Jefferson Parish driver Ricky McGehee claims he used to work 16 hour days, 7 days a week, but would take 3 days “off” every three weeks to drive to Florida to see his then-girlfriend. That’s lifer behavior, for sure, but it’s easy to get burnt out on those kinds of hours, even if a major advantage of doing that for the entire year Ricky did is that you have a basic framework for knowing when to hit the streets and when it might be in your better interest to do something else. So in addition to the quota system, a lot of drivers simply make a work schedule and more or less stick to it. This can be based on several variables, but more often than not it comes down to the dispatcher. Cab drivers tend to find a “main squeeze” in a dispatcher and some become quite loyal to that person who, unlike the driver, has a set shift schedule like that of a convenience store worker. Either way, though—quota or regularly scheduled hours, oft-printed on a business card—the cabbie has essentially married himself (roughly 80-90% at any given time in the company with which I contract) or herself (the remaining 10-20%) to the driver’s seat.

My Orleans Parish colleague Harry “Nebraska” Lehman has an approach to quitting time that he expresses with a personal maxim: Whenever something that normally would not bother him starts to bother him, he knows it is time to steer homeward. I have found this thinking useful many times since picking up two women against my better judgment in the middle of the night way out in St. Rose. They had a screaming baby. They had no car seat. They had a million mostly unpacked belongings they crammed into my front seat, back seat and trunk. They had no clear destination. They told me one place, then another, and then I was sitting in the car waiting for them at a Brother’s gas station while they bought fried chicken at four AM.

I left the meter running to help them get all of their stuff out at the cheap motel they finally settled on—(legally, the meter isn’t supposed to stop until the vehicle and driver are free to go)—and the older woman started yelling at me for that while I was trying to expedite their exit without any help. When people yell at me I rarely react well, but especially not when the bone of contention amounts to maybe fifty cents. I got everything out, collected the money, and just as I was pulling away, the older woman began yelling at me to stop. The motel was full up. They wanted me to drive them to the next one, and I foresaw an unending string of “no room at the inn” moments. Despite the baby and the hour, I decided that this was not my problem, shook my head and drove off. Her scream of Bitch! next resounded through the lot.

Naturally, I headed home after that. I can’t remember if it was Carnival time or not, but I know I had already worked an obscene amount of hours before I picked them up and I should have just gone home instead of giving into the voice that insists that you can take just one more run. That voice is up to no good, and to give in to it is to surrender your better judgment to the addictive pull of the 24/7 radio that becomes as ingrained into your psyche as the bump-and-grind effect of the dips and grooves in the I-10 between Mid-City and Lakeview while going 70 or 80 miles per hour—and just as potentially lethal. Never mind that you are working for tips and doing so by the book while people abuse your goodwill. While that’s annoying, that’s not what gets you killed—letting it get to you is what gets you killed. Or, that’s my working hypothesis.

As a service worker in a drinking city, I often find myself seeking a grace note on which to end the night. No matter how the day has been going, I look for that one person who—or experience which—will give me something new to think about, some perspective on life I previously didn’t possess. Last Saturday night, during the odd-man-out that the weekend before the Superbowl typically is, I found her when I least expected it. She waited for me despite the cold outside the Copa Cabana, a hopping Latin club on Metairie’s stretch of Airline Highway, at two in the morning. She was so happy to see that I was a woman at the precise moment when she wanted a strong, female hero. Her English was poor, and my Spanish almost non-existent, but somehow we got on. She is done with men, she declares to the insular space of the cab interior. All her life, she has only wanted men, but not anymore. Now, she wants only women.

You hear this facetiously a bit in my line of work, but unlike the others, she shook my hand, then kissed it. You drive a taxi, and you are a woman. It is so dangerous, but here you are. At first, my inner cynic suggested that she was trying to get away with a lower fare because she had handed me a wad of what looked like ones, but as I parked on the curb outside of her apartment complex, perhaps guessing my thoughts she asked me to tell her what she had given me and shook and kissed my hand once more. She had tipped me almost 100% for a relatively short run, all of $8. Then she was gone with a smile that seemed to start at her toes and carry her off into the atmosphere rather than to her door.

I wish they could all be like that. That same evening I had encountered a trio of young women who seemed to be auditioning for the alternative cast of Girls. The alpha female got in first after flagging me down at Barcadia—(and here, New Orleanians have a decided advantage over other readers because no good thing can ever come from Barcadia; the patrons, like the music, are vacuous and fatuous at best, often worse). Miss Alpha had gotten her period and her two fawning Betas were going home early without any fun having been had. The first third of our trip was spent hearing the Tragic History of Alpha’s First Day Ever of the Menstrual Cycle and the Betas’ servile replies that if their beloved Alpha could have no fun, then neither could they, fun be damned.

Sometime after that, as my brain’s defense mechanism let me drift in my own thoughts, shit got real as our 21-or-22-year-old Alpha described the night of her worst breakup, when she had drunkenly called the lad up on her cell outside of a bar to dump him. She found out from friends afterward that he had been cheating on her with an actress she didn’t really know. That’s when I got her ass fired from the Country Club, because Daddy is on the board, she boasted after singing some Taylor Swift acapella. The singing had brought my mind back to the trio in the car. It ended with a final apology for Mother Nature and a Beta mumbling something about studying pedagogy instead on a Saturday night.

Sometimes the passengers with the greatest potential to be the worst I will meet on any given evening end up reminding me how cab driving can be so fun. Two men waiting for me on an ill-lit street near the Jefferson Heights end of the levee with a bicycle, guitar and two backpacks became my working class heroes that same night. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a fun trip. The big man, who looked not unlike Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver in Deadwood, only dressed in t-shirt, sweatshirt and jeans, spent the first ten minutes disassembling his bike so that we could fit it in the trunk. After taking the seat and both wheels off, we still had to tie it down with the only thing on hand, a handkerchief, and hope for the best on some of the worst roads Jefferson has to offer. His friend got buried under first one guitar and the backpacks, and then a second guitar in a box, all on top of him in the backseat while his buddy shopped, my only respite the entire ride from them nagging each other like old crones.

Their story was pretty simple. They have a deal with a local rock ‘n roll “headliner” to hold his guitars for him in return for a jam session every now and then, which consists mainly of the little guy playing classic rock favorites while the big guy—the little guy’s student—adds his none-too-steady voice to what otherwise might be described as music. I know this because the big guy left his bike seat in the trunk and I had to return to give it back, at which juncture he invited me inside for a song. My instincts tell me no, I can’t, I need to go back to work, but I have learned that that voice is wrong, so I ignore the fuck out of it. Counter-intuition more often than not appears to be my best friend. I go inside. The little guy is no longer a dejected, mostly-toothless, old gasbag, but alive and well like Frampton never was with a Martin acoustic in his hands. Play that last one again, and I’ll sing, the big guy says, and they go to town on an obscure Credence Clearwater Revival song. The little guy wants to be John Fogerty so bad, he’s nearly popping out of his tie-dyed jeans to make the action on the neck look just that effortless.

Even though I don’t know the song and I hated every minute of driving these two, this aura of pure joy pervades the room. I don’t know what either of them does for a living or where they’re going next, but for just a few moments, both are so happy to be alive, singing and dancing and playing, that I forget about all of our differences and am really blessed to witness this moment, which is happening in just as sacred and sanctified a bubble as two little children playing in a field under the light of the sun. It is said again and again in various tongues that we carry our prisons around with us; but we carry the means of our redemption too. I thanked them for it with an uncontrollable smile and they reciprocated and then I stumbled back through the chill to the cab to pick up the mic. The dispatcher awaits a voice to answer his call.

Cab 109, go to where music and passion are always the fashion…

Jo Custer is a lot of things, but today she is just a writer happy to have a new post up after several months’ absence. You can follow her writing, filmmaking and cab driving adventures @Sonuvab and/or by following this blog. This summer she’ll be writing Cab Fare: The Book.

Cab Fare — Episode #5: OTR in Louisiana

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I’m always late to the party…

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Today is Tuesday, May 14, and I am ensconced in the airport Motel 6 in Monroe, Louisiana for a second night and possibly until Friday morning. I haven’t figured out why yet, but the air here smells particularly unappetizing. Nothing has smelled right since somewhere past Lafayette Sunday evening, not long after I left New Orleans, and now three distinct regions of Louisiana bring a certain olfactory expectation with them according to their cuisine. The Creole cooking of New Orleans I associate with subtle spice and night blooming jasmine, the Cajun cooking I’ve yet to try in the central/southern part of the state I already associate with the bayou air of the Atchafalaya Basin, while the barbecue of the western and northern ridges redoles of overpopulous refineries and freshly dead livestock.

I didn’t notice the drop in appetite until today when I went to a Chinese buffet against my better judgment. Some Asian buffets in Louisiana excel. There’s one in particular I like in Hammond, when I’m there. Any Chinese restaurant bearing the Englished-over name of Peking rather than its phonetically more Chinese rendering of Beijing is bound to disappoint but, tired of breathing the air outside, I relented and went inside. I ate for protein and vitamins, but even the sushi and salad seemed distressed, the cucumbers tasting like they had lived very unhappy, water-starved, little lives.

You’re probably wondering what the hell I’m doing in Monroe, Louisiana working out of the cab and choking down sad cucumbers. It’s a good question, a fair question — after all, just a little over two weeks ago, the Kickstarter for Sonuvabitch ended and we didn’t make our goal. I’ve been quiet on the social media since. Many have ascribed emotions to me that I haven’t felt. Mainly, I’ve just been working. The good news: Of the backers I’ve been able to talk to, all but two have renewed their pledges so that we may shoot this fall. The better news: I’m one of the drivers working on the other side of the state out of motel rooms and, if the work lasts long enough, I should be able to finance the remainder of the film. I’ve asked cast and crew to work without pay. For the most part, I’m not receiving much resistance. Right now, it’s good to have a break from the madness of trying to make and finance a film. Breaks can be invigorating, as can changes of scenery and routine. The last three days have provided a lot of scenery and are not yet routine.

Those closest to me in the last year know how I’ve grown to almost despise the cabbying life. It takes too much energy and time away from the writing and filming life. It requires too much of my attention — any — and often for little recompense. In times of feast, a driver has to lay plenty by for the famine, which often stretches from just after jazz fest until Halloween or later. It is a 70-75 hour week just to get by even in fair times and there have been far too many weeks where I was ready to split and the only reason I didn’t was because of the archetypal mystique of cabbying and its meager rewards. People think it’s cool. They want to know more.

What a sorry crutch for any writer or creator to nurse, and I haven’t even nursed it well. My cabbying days are numbered, have no doubt.

But the numbers haven’t come to an end just yet.

As with everything in life, nothing’s worth doing if it isn’t worth writing about. This new state-wide view from my steering wheel has pumped fresh blood to my brain and writing arm alike. This is Day Three of my new adventure and already I know more about this place in which I have lived for three years. I’ve driven through towns the Louisiana born and bred taxi company manager hasn’t even heard of.

I’ve seen a few things. I won’t surround your senses with Cajun country just yet. I haven’t seen enough of it and there’s too much I don’t know. But the insulating borders of the state intrigue me.

Some say that the western and northernmost borderlands of Louisiana might as well be Texas and Texarkana, respectively. These areas have verifiable similarities in styles of living, architecture and in accents. The architecture strikes me the most. There’s no joy in much of it. It isn’t typically hardcore western frontiers that might only last a few months before a new gold rush dictates a move of business and which demands, then, a prominent place for a sign more than any other consideration. It’s mainly low ceilinged structures with posts extending across the front porch so that the inhabitants can sit on the porch and catch the breezes without the other weather intruding.

Function trumps comfort; blandness, decoration.

I have often thought in the last three years that I would have trouble after this living anywhere a person identifying as male and heterosexual might have a problem emerging day after day from a house painted pink. So the juxtaposition of houses found in New Orleans and, say, Mansfield is sharp. The construction of them may as well be a century apart.

Last week, before I began living out of motels and had to drive back to New Orleans after every increasingly tiring trip, I was making my way back from the city I’m stationed outside of now, via US 61 south, when I saw a billboard telling me to stop at the plantation home of President Jefferson Davis. My memory has been failing a lot lately and so the only thought that really ran through my mind was that if there was a president I couldn’t recall, then it must be my duty as a lover of history to stop and refresh my memory. I needed a stretch anyway. I got to a pair of pillars off a state highway and read the following sign:

Please do not drive through the lane unless you plan to tour the house. It causes damage to the road. Thank you.

I shrug and continue down the lane. Of course I’ll take the tour.

After I park and go into the lobby of a converted outer building, I am greeted by a woman with a Texas accent I can’t quite place and am distracted during our entire conversation by the conversation between a man to my left and the couple with whom he is talking. The woman, the docent, tells me that the couple is from Maine — a man from Connecticut and a woman from Boothbay — and yet the man with whom they are speaking is prattling on about how he doesn’t understand how America could have “given it all away” in reparations. The couple is being polite in the New England sense — which is to say that they are listening to what he has to say without replying. I get a mild sense of vertigo as the docent takes ten dollars from me and directs me toward a gazebo-like structure to listen to a full ten minutes of audio touting what a good man Jefferson Davis was.

That’s Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy of the United States. Oh yes, it’s all coming back to me now…

I sit and listen to the audio which insists that Davis didn’t want to secede from the Union, but rather wanted states’ rights and state sovereignty. I actually don’t care about this. I believe in states’ rights as well, as long as we can all agree that human life is sacred. The bit about how the northern states used slavery as an emotional and political issue, though, leaves me a little cold. I’ve read the Civil War era letters insisting that Lincoln was a puppet being used against the South. I have no time for such speculation. The only thing that should matter is that an imbalance was corrected that had nothing to do with money or land or the price of cotton.

The rest of the tour is easier to take. It involves the plantation’s original architecture and heirlooms and graves and I even get to sit on the back verandah and listen to some audio that is supposed to be the voice of Jane Davis, Jefferson’s mother. I sniffed the pollen laden breezes and watched the lizards leap on her prize roses.

Sometimes New Orleans makes it easy to forget where I am. The day I left was Mother’s Day and there was a shooting at the parade. Many Louisianans fear and despise New Orleans and its drunkenness, violence, and excess. I see the looks on their faces when they realize a New Orleans cab driver has crossed their paths. They often cannot look away, wondering what on earth could have brought a cab so many miles away from all the very busy, important people who have to get to their hotels, restaurants, and bars. What could there possibly be here for someone who would prefer all that to God’s country?

Yet, when I drive through the town of Bastrop, Louisiana at 3:30 am — an eleven thousand person establishment whose city page lauds it as ‘a place where business is done by a handshake, where folks still wave to one another and say “how are you?” and where newcomers are welcomed with open arms’ — the only gas station open has a night box where newcomers and town folks alike stand in line to pay for gas.

I’ll take the dangerous place with less fear on pump one, please. Fill ‘er up.





Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer/director/producer and cab driver who has recently discovered the simple joy of a frozen strawberry daiquiri in a motel room with nothing to do but hit “publish.”

SONUVABITCH: Returning from Nothing

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The independent film community recreates a theme so often that at times I’m convinced we’re really at work perfecting how to not make film as an artistic approach, replete with its own rules of expression, more often than the actual business of filmmaking.

It happens, you know?

An actor presents a director with an openness to revisiting a role. A treatment goes into circulation, exciting the crew, to whom the process matters most. A second treatment draft sprouts the first draft of a script which also goes into circulation. People respond, some tried and tested, some new. Feedback returns, to be carefully weighed, eschewing commentary on that which will change. More drafts go out. More readers surface. More feedback returns. A few select readers — (the smallest contingent, because even stout enthusiasts weary of rereading) — stay the course but start to grind gears over minutiae having more to do with screenwriting technicalities than storytelling. The thrill of Kickstarter success wears off.

The high from the last film, finally cut, dissipates eventually too.

An independent filmmaker/cab driver faces her first summer of explosive heat, low tide business and a hurricane. After having been single for four years, she starts dating again and, sensing a glimmer of hope for an actual relationship, throws out a silent, temporary towel without so much as an email to the team. She’s been working on not one but two films for too long and she’s worn out. Some of the crew members have moved on. She’ll form a stronger team later. The best of them will be ready to return to making the film when the potential is hotter than the air.

A few months go by and she reaches out to people sporadically, a cat stretching her limbs, not ready to pounce quite yet, but checking all the muscles for the inevitable and anticipated. She writes a couple more drafts and reconnects with people over the script, some of whom thought the project may have been permanently shelved — because, hey, it happens.

It happens all the time, but it was never going to happen to Sonuvabitch. Almost a year to the day after appearing in treatment form, the not-quite-ten-page script Sonuvabitch has audition dates at The Shadowbox Theatre. The curtain will come up at 12:30 on Saturday, January 26 at which point Casting Director Michael Martin and Director Jo Custer will have to dance with the Mardi Gras clock to cast the film with talents who can commit to the production schedule.

Sonuvabitch goes into production on Sunday, May 19th. On that day, we’ll shoot the opening scene and the transitional scene, both interiors. On Monday, May 20th, we’ll shoot at least three of the four exteriors. We’ll be up very early that day and likely driving a fair amount. Saturday, May 25 and Sunday, May 26, we’ll be shooting a six page scene set in a jail.

Hurricanes and relationships come and go, but given enough time for reflection and personal and professional growth, a Jo Custer film is a sure thing. I can’t wait to get down to the real creative work.

Today finds me meeting with Hotcakes co-producer, editor and IT guru Bob Krieger about the Sonuvabitch website. We may go with another WordPress, we may not. After that, the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) has its “3rd Thursday” at Rock ‘n Bowl. There’s a Big Lebowski theme that has me thinking about wearing this pink, fuzzy bathrobe within which I’m currently ensconced. Or not.

Decisions, decisions…

Jo Custer is the writer / director / producer of Hotcakes and Sonuvabitch, the latter of which is in pre-production. She’s also working on a video discussion series called Reel Point of View, a few sundry articles for which she is still researching and interviewing, and soon will embark on some film writing for a great, online feminist rag.

You can best keep up with the ongoing making of Sonuvabitch and the rest — not to mention Jo’s “Cab Fare” series — by following this blog.

Cab Fare – Episode #3

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New Orleans East, Land of All Our Hopes and Dreams.

Every occupation has its hazards, but for some reason, the majority of the population believes the cab driver to be a constantly endangered species. We had a new murder among us in New Orleans East last week. I didn’t hear of it until my housemate returned from San Diego. She and her boyfriend, their brows furrowed, hit me with the news. A cab driver turned up dead behind an apartment building in an area from which I pick up on occasion. The East, as it’s known locally, is always a little dicey. A good analogy might be that if New Orleans were New York, The East would be Hoboken. Or Newark.

Cab drivers, in my experience, are solitary creatures. One of my favorite dispatchers, a fellow writer, once said: “Cab drivers aren’t exactly known for their recognition of authority figures.” That might seem like a non-sequitur, but in truth, we tend to be so independent, so judgmental of herd mentalities, of people who can’t think or strategize for themselves, that we tend not to listen to anyone but ourselves. We also, with few and rare exceptions, don’t talk much outside of chance meetings while paying dues. I’m one the few drivers who has almost a dozen of the other drivers’ numbers, most of whom I call or talk to in person fairly regularly. I didn’t hear about the shooting in the East from any of them.

When people get into my cab, the conversation typically starts with the question, “Aren’t you scared, driving at night?” Or, it addresses my gender, which just boils down to the same thing, except wrapped in an unwelcome package. I’ve never cared much for the suggestion that I might be more at-risk than the next cab driver on the sole count of my being a woman. In fact, I dismiss it as fear-mongering, the kind that limits women’s habits and behavior too much. Several cab drivers have been attacked or killed since I started hacking — and I’ve heard all sorts of stories in the same vein, going back a few decades — and not a single one of those incidents involved a woman.

Probably my favorite conversation regarding my gender and its dubious connection to the more traditional shapes of cab drivers represented in the media occurred when I picked up a small bevy of Morgan City Cajuns with accents worthy of a movie of the week.

“I don’t believe,” Mr. Thibodaux (fake name) opened, drawlingly, “I’ve ever encountered a female cab driver before — and an American, to boot.” Women tend to be females more often than not in the southern vernacular, a trend I find viscerally off-putting, especially when preceded by the. He follows up with, “You are American, aren’t you?”

Normally, I wouldn’t let him get away with that and would spin the conversation around artfully, but I detected a playful note in his throaty voice and took a slightly different tack.

“Well, I was born in Maine, so I’m more American than you are.”

Thibodaux’s buddies in the back seat howled. “She’s got you there, pard!” one cried, and they all decided they liked me. Cajuns are funny, especially when you call them on shit. We ended up having a genuinely enjoyable cab ride to the Acme Oyster House, and Long John Thibodaux even took my card, saying he might be interested in investing in a film. I already knew that’s not happening, but it was nice of him to think of it as a possibility. More often than not, candor opens up a lot of doors — though it has the power to shut them too.

One of the major judgment calls I’ve had to make as a cab driver concerns an area known as Stand Six, which comprises all of Kenner north of Interstate 10, a rather large area to be considered a discrete stand. It used to be two stands, Five and Six, but was consolidated for reasons unknown into just plain Six, leaving no Five and confusing the hell out of many a new cab driver, since there’s no Stand Seven either. Those who know New Orleans’ redheaded suburb Kenner will not be surprised to learn that a certain portion of its nocturnal activities are given to people without cars — or without any desire for identifiers — who make their merry way typically to lower Kenner, south of the airport, to obtain their drug of choice. The first time this happened, things got a tad too personal for me.

I tend to love transvestites. I find them endearing. One of my brothers used to dress up in my mother’s negligees and heels and often put on makeup (sometimes, I helped) and call himself by a traditionally female name that only changed one letter of his given name. We thought it was adorable. So when I pick up my first transvestite, my heart strings flutter. I smile. I can’t help myself. I probably start using the word baby a little too gratuitously too, a word I’ve picked up more occupationally than personally. It helps to smooth the little pains a New Orleans cabbie can too often experience, floating from bar to bar.

She gets into my car and tells me she can’t say where we’re going, a sure sign of trouble. When I was just starting out, if I didn’t have an address to plug into the GPS, I would get a little worried unless it was a major landmark. When the passenger needs to make a series of calls to discern the destination, I still get downright anxious. We’re within 300 feet of the place when she finally discovers where we’re going, exactly. Half a dozen young men wait for us in a staggered sort of formation outside of a smallish shotgun house. She gets out of the car and makes a transaction right outside my window. I try very hard not to look, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t green. From the way she was acting, it was probably cocaine.

I also try not to think about the number of concealed weapons I can’t see.

As long as the transaction takes place outside the cab, I’m told, I’m not at fault. But I suspect that when I’ve seen it happen and the buyer gets back into the cab, I am. So I’m pretty annoyed with her right now, especially when she decides she wants to make a stop at the Brothers gas station up the street. I need gas anyway, so I tell her I’ll make her a deal and stop the meter while I fuel up, if that’s alright with her. It is. This is how I make nice.

While we’re inside the Brothers waiting in line to pay, she checks out my ass in the same way most convenience store patrons check out the front page of a newspaper they aren’t going to buy. “You really have no ass at all, do you?” she says. It’s a statement, not a question. All I can think about is George Carlin’s bit about the profound differences between a black ass and a white, because now I kind of want to hit her. When she’s two dollars short on the fare later on back at her place, the punching impulse returns. When I’m watching television news coverage about a shooting at an apartment building that looks just like hers a week later, I wonder if she got in over her head. Hard to say. Kenner attracts idle people with bad habits like an unsown field attracts weeds.

One of her relatively near neighbors hopped into my cab late one night, only a bit more forthcoming about the entire affair. The complaint you most often hear about black drug dealers and users from white cab drivers concerns a perception of naivety or out-and-out stupidity. To wit, certain veteran white cab drivers feel like these passengers think they’re stupid, like they don’t actually know what’s going on. I’m not sure that’s the correct analysis. I think more often than not, the passenger simply doesn’t care. That seemed to be the case with this guy, since he took me up a few streets before we found the right one, and then he had to literally get out of the cab and go door to door to find his dealership.

When he gets back into the cab, certain he has found the right house, he tells me we need to hit an ATM and mentions one around the corner. He already put $40 on the front seat as soon as he stepped into the cab, but the meter’s approaching that number rapidly. Never mind that ordinarily his ride would have only cost about $15. I turn the corner and mention back that the ATM he’s thinking of is in a gas station that’s closed. No, it’s open, he says. We go that way. It isn’t open. So we go to the next gas station, three miles down the road.

As it turns out, he has to go back to the neighborhood we were just in, and he puts another $40 down on the front seat before he gets out and starts talking to the people spilling into the street as the sun limns the horizon. A woman takes out her trash and steps onto the pavement. Three guys wander up from an apartment building, cloistered together. My guy stands in the middle of all of this as more and more people join them. When he finally gets back into the cab, people have to part like a curtain for us to get through them all.

On the way back to upper Kenner, to his place not far from the lake, he has relaxed some. His purchase is secured and safe in his pocket and he’s looking forward to his day.

Halfway back to his place, he clears his throat.

“I was really impressed with your demeanor through all of that.”

“Thanks,” I say. I felt neutral about it, to be entirely honest.

“Can I get your number? I’d like to take you out to dinner.”

“Thanks, but I don’t do that.”

“You don’t go out to dinner? You got a boyfriend or something?”

“Yes,” I lie. I figure I will need all the excuses I can muster with this guy.

“How about lunch? Can I take you out to lunch?”

“Nah, I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“I mean, like a business lunch. I’d like you to be my personal driver.”

“So I can be at your beck and call to pick you up whenever you want drugs?”

This takes him aback. I don’t think he thought me naive. I think I broke a code. We’re not supposed to talk about these things, apparently. I bow out of the dubious position. Maybe it’s because I went from potential girlfriend to personal chauffeur in under two minutes.

Hard to say.

I picked him up only one more time before I decided I didn’t want to take these kinds of orders anymore and stopped playing Stand Six at night. When he gets into the cab, as so many men often do, he has the words, “What’s up, brother?” on his lips and has already started talking about his day in a friendly manner. Then he sees who’s driving.

“Oh. It’s you.”

A stony silence follows, followed again by recriminations I’ve apparently inherited from our last encounter. Some passengers really do expect their cab drivers to entertain them. He obviously wanted me to, for sure, but I was in no mood for it. This was awkward. Even for me, this was awkward. I had half a mind to throw him out of the cab, but at some point when he mentions how much fun he’s not having, I tell him that if he just chills out, we’ll get through the cab ride just fine, and ask if I’m taking him to the same street. I don’t think he likes the fact that I still remember the street, a blindside many passengers have.

He has me park at a closed gas station on Loyola Avenue this time, a pretty rough section of town. This means he has to walk a block or two to make his buy, which is fine with me. It’s possible that by having me park there, he was being somewhat chivalrous. A guy with a cell phone and a not so fully concealed gun has been hanging out in an abandoned apartment back that way. I know that because I picked him up three times in one day, only to be approached by the little girl from next door whose father told her to tell me that no one lived in Apartment C. These, fair Kenner, are the people in your neighborhood.

My dispatcher comes on the radio to ask me how I’m doing. Sometimes a new driver takes this question, always phrased the same way, literally, and we all hear the dispatcher reply, I wasn’t enquiring after your health or some such. I tell him where I am and that I’m on a continuous, the kind of continuous I’d rather not be on. Oh, it’s one of those, he says. He used to be a cab driver too, but some serious health problems and a general disdain and mistrust of people got in the way. I tell him that I’m not going to take these kinds of runs anymore. He doesn’t blame me. Then don’t take those kinds of runs anymore.

That same week, a cab driver friend of mine named John pulled up in that same area and proceeded to wait for the guy to come out of the abandoned house. I called him on the phone to tell him what the little girl had told me and to warn him that he had been really active with us lately and to watch himself. I hated to do it because John was once attacked by four youths who stabbed him repeatedly and left him for dead in an empty lot. If it hadn’t been for the dispatch radio, he would more than likely be dead. He pressed the dispatcher so much for a phone call that the dispatcher told him to calm down and not be so impatient about leaving the premises. After three minutes, we’re allowed to start the meter. After five, we can just take off. Most of us will wait when it’s slow, but if we have any reason to believe that there’s danger or a hassle afoot, we tend not to stick around.

I never like to cause fear in anyone and hate to hear it in their voices or see it in their actions. It sends ’round ripples. But, you have to watch yourself out there, player.

I’ve been hearing that one since before I left Pittsburgh, where I lived as a minority in a neighborhood in upheaval from threatening gentrification. I prefer to leave it at that.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wed., August 1. Follow her on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Casting for Independence

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Recently, I sent out a casting call to a few places on the web in the hopes of eschewing the bottom-feeder element among those who troll regularly on craigslist looking for “speaking parts” and roles that pay, a sorry impediment for any independent filmmaker in any of the 43 states which employ a tax credit. I kept it brief and to-the-point.

Here’s a screen cap of the thing:

A Final Draft script page followed that announcement with centered character names and character descriptions where the dialogue normally goes, like so.

I thought when I sent it like so that it would attract talented people who might enjoy fun, creativity and a relief from the often too businesslike nature of a highly malleable artform. I thought it might speak to some people — and it did. Utilizing my direct, one-on-one approach to all communication surrounding this casting call, I’ve found a few people who will be auditioning with me in my home starting this month. I’ve even found a couple of probable crew members — people with gumption and drive, people who speak up.

But as the net so often facilitates, I also turned up something unpleasant: The Professional Extra. If you’ve never dealt with A Professional Extra, here’s an example of what a run-in between an independent filmmaker and The Professional Extra looks like. First, his initial response, or what non-filmies might call an application for employment…

did treme, the tomb, breakout kings. Sunuvabitch western short audition. batob rouge [name and number omitted] 5’11”, 228 lbs, shoe 10, coat 44L, pants 38w/32seam, shirt 17.5 L. baton rouge . age 50 aug2012. [sic]

He sends this appalling introduction to himself as a person along with six attachments, all of which are non-professional head shots and none of which are a resume, reel or a link to a piece of his work. In keeping with my tradition of personal contact, I respond.

Thanks for responding. Apologies for the late response, but I like to handle the casting communication one-on-one. It takes more time, but it’s better quality in the long run. I have a few concerns. You mention Treme, The Tomb and Breakout Kings, but no independent films. Have you ever worked on a smaller set before? Also, in addition to not having a professional head shot, you don’t have a resume or a reel for me to look over? Finally, you live in Baton Rouge. That’s a ways away for an audition, especially without a res, reel or head shot. If you can handle guns, especially, that needs to be spelled out in your resume… Let me know if maybe you just overlooked these things or if you can put them together and we’ll talk some more. Thanks again, and thanks for your patience.

Fair enough, right? Mm. My friend Jeremy Sloan’s advice not to respond to people who didn’t comply with the casting call criteria starts looking like gold with his next email:

I think the instructions, in the holding tent: posts, should be more clear as to the need.  We were instructed to submit for extra/background work.  I’ve heard horror stories about independent films and how the cast background were treated.  Please remove me.

My gut tells me that if his request is sincere, his email ends here. It does not:

for the record: I worked at Sony Pictures/The Culver Studios in California on 33films, 22music videos and 9 TV-sit-coms.  Im also a dance-choreographer with Military experience: my weapon is the M-16, .380 handgun, M-60 & M-30 rapid-fire tripods, explosives and I shot “sharp-shooter” 37/40 when qualifying with the weapon.  No one worth their weight in salt, would refer to a fire-arm as a “gun” had they ever truly handled one. I also, can perform/execute the 21point fire-arm inspection in the 21seconds required & take one apart, clean it and put it back together … but thanks.

So I respond, probably a little rashly, but now, I have a pretty fine point to make:

I’m sorry you were misinformed. I never use background or extras in any of my films. We don’t have the time to train non-professional actors who don’t already live and breathe the theatre and film world and have a basic understanding of project needs, how communication works, and who lack the fundamental understanding that the first words out of any actor’s mouth should be inquiring after the story. And since I pay all of my people, I like the extra layer of comfort knowing that they’ve earned it — and aren’t just looking for handouts. Please consider yourself removed from this one-on-one communication. Truly, no reply is necessary.

..and part of that point involves shameless invoking my Vietnam vet father:

But I will forward your email to my 30 year military father. He will laugh, no doubt.

We’ll stop here for now — partly because we’ll need a little more backstory to continue and partly for suspense’s sake. The backstory: I ran into fellow filmmakers Dave Kirtland and Tracey Davenport last summer and we talked about people we had both worked with and how independent filmmakers really do need to share more so that we can get screwed less. At the moment, it would appear that we’ve both hired a heroin addict in the past, which might help to explain why he crapped out on both of our projects, but certainly doesn’t help us — especially since we’d had no communication regarding said employee during the long-past, critical, respective timeframes. Hindsight indeed.

My feeling on Professional Extras is mixed. I certainly don’t want to equate them with or treat them as heroin addicts — and, as I pointed out to my co-producer, considering some of the things heroin addicts do for money to fill their veins, set work ain’t that bad.

But I feel as though a cattle element has muddied the waters for too many aspiring actors and I’d like to clear the air a little, for the percentage of people who are accustomed to responding to casting calls as though they were little more than measurements when they would much rather be reading script after script. I know you’re out there, and that’s why I take the time to respond to my casting call trawling yield, despite the surprises of the net.

Let’s start with the basics and hopefully get more in-depth from there:

1.) You are a person, not a set of numbers. Is it good to have this information at hand? Absolutely. I just spent weeks getting measurements from one of my actors way in advance of his performance or even a rehearsal because we need to outfit him for the poster. Part of the reason it took weeks is that he’s a stage actor and not accustomed to this part of the regimen. Wardrobes are scrounged and adjusted for actors and the process is seldom quite so corporate as studio film sets tend to be. We could do with less of that, not more. Sizes and looks shouldn’t matter nearly as much as they do. That’s one of the powers that independent filmmakers stand up to every day, fist out, ready for the tank to roll us.

2.) You should have something to say. You should be looking for a role that will challenge you, a script that will move you or make you think differently about the world, or at least about some part of it. You won’t get a script sent back to you because of a set of measurements. You’ll get a script sent back to you by virtue of your ability to communicate who you are, what you’re looking for and what you bring to the table. I’ve never minded working with people with little experience. What I mind are the folks who don’t try or who are too impatient or full of themselves to recognize an opportunity for future work.

3.) While you’re at it, never send a response to a casting call from your phone unless it is wicked smart and you’re prepared to write 500 words with clarity of spelling, mechanics, grammar and punctuation. This should be a given, but I get that most of us are on the go. You should also always try to make sure you get it “in one” — meaning that you provide all the materials requested on the first go. If you forget something, follow up by all means, but don’t follow up needlessly. Don’t send a second email telling me that you’ve lost weight since the last head shot and a third email to tell me how much weight, exactly. One, I don’t care. Two, it makes me think you’re too insecure to have good camera presence.

4.) I’m not sure when references ceased to be a part of a resume, but it appears to have coincided with the equation of a “C” grade with that of an “A.” In my day, you had to earn an “A” and a “C” meant you were simply checking off the list. References should be on your resume, not name-dropping. It doesn’t matter if you worked on Django Unchained if I can’t call Quentin Tarantino to ask him how you were to work with, one on one. This independent filmmaking sphere contrasts sharply with the larger sets and some of us would never want that to change. Matthew Libatique said in an interview years ago that he never wanted to direct on a Hollywood set again because, unlike his role as a DP, he never even got to talk to the actors. That’s even truer on pay channel TV shows like Treme. Directors come and go; the DP runs the show. Even if you somehow ascend from the ranks of A Professional Extra, chances are the only references you can send me are going to be in costume, hair and makeup or other actors. That’s assuming they remember your name.

5.) Go out into the independent world and get dirty, my friends. Don’t stay thirsty. New Orleans has a vibrant arts scene and actors are constantly in demand onstage and in student films, both of which are a great way to start. With Fringe Festival coming up this November, even more opportunities to wet your beak will appear. Take advantage. The commitments on student films and opps like Fringe are small but sturdy. You get a real view into what it’s like to be a professional actor and then you have a trail to follow. I dropped out of a grad program in film because it wasn’t a good fit, not because I hate students or learning. You should always be a student of whatever field you pursue and hiring someone who has helped out a student likes me just fine. It’s a solid.

6.) Don’t count the lines, lest you discount the heart. I used to do that, in dramatics, as a kid. I would always feel so disappointed whenever I got another role that was “just a few lines.” I wasted quite a few roles with my disappointment, which is doubtless part of the reason why even in my final role in high school I didn’t get cast as the lead. I got cast as Liz King, Police Chief, NYPD in My Gun is Pink. You can bet your ass I didn’t throw that part away. I gave it all I got — because deep down, I knew that had I not been such a horse’s ass, I would have been Babe. When working in film, you can’t have any expectations about dialogue. It’s a visual medium. It took me 17 years to figure out the importance of giving it your all in the small things, but when I mention film, the importance doubles. For one thing, your performance is static. The best thing we get from you is the best thing we get from you, and that’s what goes into the cut. We can’t cut a character out of a film because I don’t write extraneous characters. If you turn in a shitty performance, all we can do is cut your part down. Trust me: You don’t want to be that gal or guy. The editor will not speak kindly of you and, frankly, neither will I. Give all or nothing. Those are your options.

7.) As crew member and friend Casey Moore is fond of pointing out, the short filmmakers of today are the feature filmmakers of tomorrow. Oh, some of us will fall by the wayside. Filmmaking is a lot of work and most people don’t find that out until they’ve failed a few times and feel too beaten to move. But the vibrancy of your art community and its hiring potential is in your hands, to some extent. When you see people expending effort, do yourself and your community a small favor and expend some back in their direction. It will never be wasted where it is appreciated, I can guarantee you that.

That pretty much covers the major flaws I detected in my casting call responses. Of course, some things simply go beyond repair. While I was responding to all of my potential actors and crew members, I duly forwarded my Professional Extra’s email thread to my father with a brief preface:

Hey Dad. We’ve been casting for the next film … I got this response from a guy which I thought you might get a kick out of. Were you aware that when you refer to a firearm as a gun, you obviously don’t know what a firearm is? I did not and I want to take this opportunity to yell at you for leaving that out of my education ;-)

To which my Dad replied in his own, charming way:

Hey Johanna – While in the Navy, I had to qualify on the range on the 12 Guage riot pump shotgun  & standard issue .38 revolver (prior to the D.C. riots, lootings, sit-ins in ’68) and before that the M-60 machine gun (we carried two in the after station windows in the P-2V in Vietnam). I guess we weren’t  well schooled in movie lingo — we just called them guns. Sorry for the shortcomings of your education. Penn State was supposed to pick up the slack!!!

Meanwhile, The Professional Extra can’t help but take one more predictable shot, since I promised my Dad would laugh:

the laugh will come when your film hits the screen

I manage somehow — though just barely — not to reply that I would certainly hope so. It is, after all, a comedy.

Our last film, Hotcakes, has a few laughs in it too. We’ve sent it to a few fests and today I said the hell with the password protection. You can watch its entirety on Vimeo.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wednesday, July 18. Follow on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Cab Fare — Episode #2

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I JUST GOT OUT OF PRISON… ARE YOU AVAILABLE?

Swamp outside Gramercy, LA along the Airline Highway (US 61). Yes, they have a jail there.

I picked up an ex-con for the second time before I realized it was his primary occupation. He’s a convivial sort of fellow, very easy to talk to, even if he doesn’t always know how to have a two-way conversation. At the very least, he never bores when his sentences begin to run a tad too long. I didn’t ask what he had served time for; I never do. He bragged of other places he had been, but spoke of Angola in a more demure tone when I mentioned it. “I think I could get in there,” he told me. “I think now I’ve got that kind of pull.”

Only a month before its controlling company laid off half the staff of New Orleans’ only newspaper, Times-Picayune reporter Cindy Chang began reporting the findings of a year’s worth of investigations into how Louisiana became the prison capitol of the world and what that has come to mean for the state and its citizens. In the 1990s, the state responded to the prisoner surplus by empowering sheriffs to build prison additions to their jails, offering a monetary incentive out of the state coffers of $25 per prisoner per day. Already taxed to supply basic, necessary equipment for their deputies, the sheriffs took such action that today, Louisiana has five times and thirteen times the incarceration rates of Iran and China respectively per capita, with some of the most aggressive sentencing in the country. The story is so involved and fascinating and the observations and conclusions so woeful that it got picked up by NPR’s Fresh Air.

There’s rather a schism between Louisiana’s jails and prisons. In prisons inmates learn a trade, work a job or attend classes. In jail inmates lay around. The average life expectancy of a Louisiana con is 72 years, with the last 20 years of their lives spent much of the time in bed, too sick to work. It’s easy to ferret how prison might be seen by a con as something to which he should aspire, especially one with a reputation — like Angola.  The average sentence in Angola is 25 years to life. That’s one of those prisons where freed men have been known to walk right up to the door and knock, begging to be let back in. Their artists and the rodeo they put on are almost as famous as their inmates’ crimes are infamous. An actress friend of mine once expressed interest in going to the rodeo and seeing some of the art work, though she said they’re not allowed to sell.

I didn’t ask my charge what it would take to find himself ensconced within Angola’s walls. That seemed too intimate a question. Since I had picked him up before, I knew I would eventually pick him up again, and that changes things substantially. With regulars especially, a sturdy wall of circumspection is prescribed. My cab — like 99% of other cabs — sports no plexiglass divider because they’re too costly. The smart cab driver substitutes that old divider metaphysically, by creating a supple, adequate buffer of separation. The sum total of what I put out there — via speech, body language and even driving tactics — always adds up to the same thing: You have your world and I have mine. I control the merging of our worlds, often with little more than the cab as the linking narrative.

Of course, some passengers don’t recognize our separateness. Usually, the drunker they are, the less they recognize where their life ends and yours begins — and this is very much in the physical world because drunk people don’t have time for the metaphysical. If they did have time for it, they wouldn’t be drunk, but perfectly sober, trying to see if they could make you drunk on the sheer abstraction and articulation of their every thought.

Tucked away in a seedy elbow of Metairie, there sits a bar called Cocktails and Dreams. Nothing on the outside of the place gives any indication of its name. Not until driving right up to it, amid crankily parked pickups and hot rods and deceptively deep gravel puddles, does the name present itself in a semi-circle from the trim of the bar’s colorful clock, inside. Only two kinds of clientele leave the inner sanctum of Cocktails and Dreams to stumble out into a cab, the drunk and randy and the randier — but also more drunk.

One of the nights I picked up a couple with long neck High Lifes still in their hands stands out above the rest. They were originally both going to the same address. It didn’t work out that way in the end, though. He stuck his hand down the front of her shirt and the only way that I know this — because I didn’t see it firsthand; I seldom, if ever, look — is because she announced that he had done so, and followed up with a report on how uncomfortable that made her feel inside a taxicab. I drove on, silently.

Often, as a cabbie, the mission is all.

When we arrive at her place, they have a rather lengthy discussion — about $4 worth of idle metering — and he gets back in the cab and supplies a second address. He is very put out. It takes him about 10 seconds after her rejection to lay it all out for me.

“That was my ex-girlfriend. I just got out of jail and she won’t give me no pussy. Can you believe that?” There’s a beat. It isn’t a long one, but I hear it and I know what’s next, before he even says it. It’s that kind of beat. “Are you available?” He doesn’t laugh, but I do.

In retrospect, I wish I had been up on the Louisiana prison system in advance of this particular meeting because I had no idea what he was talking about at the time and, lacking a proper context, failed to retain any of the names he mentioned — not even the name of the jail he’d gotten out of after 14 months. Naturally, I steered the conversation back to his former life, rather than his hopes for the evening’s outcome. I’ve gotten a lot of marriage proposals in the cab and have been asked out a few times (that’s a whole, ‘nother post), but this was the first time I’d been explicitly propositioned for sex.

So I used my years of phone room training and started by validating his feelings.

“Wow. If I had been locked up for 14 months, I’d feel the same way you do.”

Then I started asking about what jail was like, as any curious person might probe an expert. Never underestimate the psychological need of nearly any man to feel like an authority on a subject he knows enough to talk about at length, especially if it furnishes him with a means to save face. The ride was only a few miles away, but I remember enough to say that this man must have been released from one of the jails-turned-prison, and not a prison. He had never learned a trade and found being locked up boring in the extreme. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he didn’t want to go back.

I should also mention that in addition to paying for his lady friend’s fare, he tipped me rather well, after asking me one more time if I was sure I wasn’t available.

“No, I have to work all night. I don’t have a man at home paying the bills. I have to do that myself,” I said. Sometimes having a working class father pays off in dividends.

“Well, I can respect that,” he replied, just before he shut the door.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wednesday, June 27. Follow on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Cab Fare: Episode #9

Sonic

I procured my first prospective groom-to-be in the cab at the Kenner Sonic Drive-In. I’ve never eaten at Sonic and, judging by the greasy coating on his paper bag, I never will.

The poor thing had to blink several times after getting in the car. It’s not the first time a drunk who has never seen a woman behind the wheel of a cab has tried to blink away a mirage. Not many of us drive at night during prime bar hours. Two weeks ago when I handed in my keys, I could count all such women drivers on one hand within Jefferson Parish’s largest taxi service–four, maybe five. That was including me.

After I brought him to his apartment complex on Riverside Drive, he spent another moment blinking at me. Then he asked me to marry him.

I laughed. I really hadn’t expected that. He opened the door and, still blinking, got out and stumbled toward the next thing, a locked gate.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have laughed. Drunks don’t really need people laughing at them. For all I know, he had lost his job that day. For all I know, he had lost a loved one.

(Note: Since this writing, I’ve made a new policy: No laughing at drunk people.)

My second proposal took a lot longer and has proven to be the template for almost every other proposal I’ve gotten in the cab. I call him Mr. Clean for his almost full-headed baldness and thick, metal hoop rings. I don’t think the resemblance was deliberate.

Mr. Clean strolled out of Liuzza’s on West Metairie to inform me that he had just won $8,000 at video poker and was headed up to the Off-Track Betting on Joe Yenni Boulevard to try his luck at some real money. Also, he felt like getting hitched.

Mr Clean

One of those nights with a fine mist rolling off the lake, even the dullest of store signs and the traffic lights were more interesting to look at while he ranted in the back seat.

I’ve had exactly one real-life marriage proposal. I didn’t take that one seriously either, but they have a commonality. They both asked multiple times. I think John, my ex, asked fifty times before I relented and said yes to stem the flow of crocodile tears.

Mr. Clean didn’t cry. He kept asking, incredulous, as though getting the right response were a matter of cranking repetition, like getting three sets of cherries on a slot machine.

We went through the following bit at least four or five times with little variation:

“You don’t want to get married?”
“Not right now.”
“Do you want to come in and place some bets?”
“Not tonight.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want to get married?”
“I am. Trust me. I’ve thought this through completely.”

I’m starting to miss the greenhorn days a bit. I’m forgoing a lot of fun by focusing more on the bottom line. Sure, it’s nice to have a mission in life and all, but Abbott and Costello-like routines at three am outside of a casino do possess a certain charm.

These days, I would simply deflect with a joke as I got out of the car–something like, “Eh, you don’t want to marry me. I only like to fuck guys up the ass with a strap-on.” Then I would open his door while he was still working out how to use that to his advantage.

The Golden Rule serving your best interests in service and a healthy bottom line, by the way, is opening the car door for people–both when they get in and when they get out. I do this as often as weather and sensibility permit. Some people just want to get gone.

Then there’s Dr. Mushroom.

Once a longtime regular who appears to have moved or perhaps found a personal driver, Dr. Mushroom was renowned among the office staff and drivers alike. A trifle unpredictable in his barhopping and free with both talk and tips, he decided we should get married the third time I picked him up. I was trying to make a three-point turn in a narrow parking lot.

He gave me his calling card, a funny, little thing that essentially told everyone who received one yes, mushroom in the hallucinogenic sense pictorially.

I had to turn my head from side to side as I was maneuvering and I guess some moonlight limned my face, causing a monosyllabic reaction from the good doctor.

“Let me see you?” he said. I flipped on the interior lights mid-turn and looked at him. He was a very affable fellow and, for all I knew, I had some schmutz on my face.

“Oh, gosh, you’re really pretty. Are you married?”
“No,” I laughed.
“Would you like to get married?”

Dr Who

“Nah, I’m good,” I said. Essentially turning down a drink on this one, I kept my voice soft. Dr. Mushroom’s a gentleman, even blind drunk. If I were only a slightly different person, I wouldn’t have said no to a drink with him. I was depositing him at his next bar for the night, an out-of-the-way Metairie offering in the Lakeside area. He kept adding singles to his tip because each time I turned around, he decided he had undervalued my prettiness.

“Are you sure you don’t want to get married?” he asked once more before stepping outside. The dispatcher saved me from making further denials. A cabbie grabbing the mic to take instructions from the dispatcher tends to bring people back to the context of the moment. Dr. Mushroom followed suit and sighed off into the next bar, still a gentleman.

Things came full circle when I picked up the man from Sonic again.

He was sober this time. He didn’t remember me.

“Dave,” I shrugged into the radio with mock-seriousness, “I’m a little disappointed.”
“Why’s that?”
“Remember that guy who proposed to me almost a year ago? Well, I just had him in the cab again and he didn’t remember me.”

There’s a long pause and, as usual, a wee bit of of suspense. A driver never really knows if the night dispatcher’s going to see the humor in something or apply Vulcan logic to it.

“I think that should give you some pretty good insight into the male psyche,” he finally said.

I drove around a lot that night, wondering what I was doing with my life. Cab drivers tend to think about that a lot. Sometimes I think the best of us get out of the business early.

But humans have a capacity for resilience, an innate programming to make order out of those parts of the universe with which they come into contact, with the people who move them the most. You might not know it to look at me, but I am one of those people.

images

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Jo Custer is on a working vacation, a cab-funded writing sabbatical, as of yesterday. The next post will probably be a travel post from somewhere on the mid-Atlantic seaboard.

The next Cab Fare episode will go live on the morning of Wednesday, August 6.

Cab Fare: Episode #8, Pt. II

(Continued from yesterday’s post.)

My favorite personality among the dispatching staff, Dave Brown explains the peculiarity of the cab business as a whole like this:

“There’s no room for wasted time in the cab business. We don’t have a real, physical location like most businesses where people go and waste time. They waste time at the bank, at the grocery store, and then they call up to waste our time because that’s what they do all day long. Unlike other businesses, an interruption of the dispatching with a phone call can cost a driver a load. I just had to stop what I was doing three times to answer the phone, and each time it impeded my ability to get these people a cab.”

On some level, every cab driver has the same problem. We constantly try to find the line between providing people good service and getting them to stop wasting our time. Since both of these things directly affect our bottom line, we have a vested interest in balancing that equation–both inside our cab and in the dispatch office, where we have little control.

Since then, I’ve thrown a baker’s dozen more people out of the cab for various reasons, most of them not nearly as innocuous. My worst moment happened when a one-armed drunk went from surly to misogynistic with me and I told him to watch his mouth in my cab. He had already not listened to me when I told him three times to sit in the back, a terrible omen. Usually, the people who feel most entitled to sit in the front seat are the worst. This goes as much for doe-eyed, young queens-in-training who believe that some combination of their looks, the right clothes, and high-born magic will one day procure for them a lifestyle which validates their indifference to the working class as much as it does for one-armed, drunken assholes. Unlike those genuinely surprised to be invited to sit in the coveted seat, they don’t tip (or don’t tip well), and often have control freak tendencies I don’t want riding shotgun near all of my controls, not to mention me. Temperature, airflow, soundscape, and mood are all negotiable, but veto power is king.

When the one-armed asshole tried to hit me with his phantom limb, he missed my face with the edge of his stump by roughly half an arm. I got off at the next exit and dropped him off at the first bar I spotted, a short jaunt. I made sure he paid, waiting him out as he cussed me out up and down and told me that my cab driving days were over. Both scenarios happened in my first year of hacking, in what I’ve come to realize were my extreme greenhorn days. I handle mood management much better now, a skill intrinsic to a cab driver’s nerves, patience, and wallet. Yet challenging characters do materialize from time to time, like old curios in a display cabinet that I’d forgotten all about until someone declared loudly how dusty they were.

My most recent rough encounter occurred at Metairie’s infamous Bar 61. Little more than a dank biker hut across the street from the Saints’ practice fields and our local, minor league stadium (the Zephyrs) on Airline Drive, Bar 61 gives cab drivers some of the worst patrons that we’ll ever have. Dirty, disgruntled, smelly, mean–61 patrons seem to be those who’ve never recognized a moment’s kindness. The daytime bartender pushed this specimen at me one day quite forcefully just as the evening rush hour was getting going, shoving a ten dollar bill in my face with one arm while hoisting him with the other. His right arm was in a cast, to which she was clinging as she spat out in a deep Metairie (Brooklyn-cum-New Jersey) accent, “Here’s ten dollars. He just lives around the corner. And if that’s not enough, there’s more in his wallet.” It’s not unusual for bartenders to pay us to take out the garbage. He was so busy grabbing her ass with his good arm that he missed our exchange. I took a look at the bag she shoved into the back seat, noted the wallet poking out of the top, and waited calmly while she planted him like a tomato stake.

My mother used to bartend, cocktail waitress, sing, and even bounce at a bar and grill in Key West, and for a moment I thought about how she must have had to do this at least once in that time, before she dumped a pot of coffee over my dad’s head for telling her that he was taking her home with him one night while she was closing up. It awoke some interesting emotions in me, and I laid tire down Airline. “Golly,” the drunk in the cast said, and I thought for a moment that he was going to complain about my driving. “Pussy’s worth more than money is worth!”

I let him talk for a while. It was a jumble, but not in the ordinary, disconnected way that drunks jumble their words. His ramblings weren’t incoherent so much as they were lies he had to stop and think about at intervals. He may have been stressed out for some reason that made him think he could buy himself some touch at a local bar, but I didn’t believe for a second that he had finals week coming up. It was a cute story, though; I wondered what day in the 1970s he had manufactured it as a reliable pickup line. Taking a shortcut through the CVS parking lot at the intersection on David Drive, he let out a long line of bullshit about how I shouldn’t have taken that way, and the thing inside me that sometimes breaks broke. I’ve learned that the best way to handle rough, Louisianan drunks is to do the counterintuitive thing anyway, so I growled at him, “I took the shortcut through the parking lot to avoid the line of cars at the red light, bitch.” I didn’t bother to leave out any of the emotion on bitch. He cooed like a baby with a new toy.

“‘Bitch’…I like the way you talk.” Oh, good, I think, a trifle archly. I speak his language.

I pulled into his driveway just a few moments later, put it in park, and looked at the meter. Eight dollars. He tells me there’s a tenspot in his right pocket and that he’s not trying to get fresh or anything, but if I can reach in there, I can have it. I turn around. He’s already got his shorts pulled halfway down his ass over his right hip. I look at the bag with the wallet. I look at the meter. I remember the old adage someone who works for the company threw at me one day after telling him I had informed a rather malodorous passenger that he had given me a fifty rather than a twenty–and that’s when I made up my mind. Getting out, I grabbed the bag, walked around to the other side, opened his door, and then set the bag down like a goal post on the pavement–just a foot or so beyond the arc of the door’s swing–and told him it was time to get out. He got this look on his face like a storm had cleared, pulled up his pants (as best he could, because…cast) and gave me the tenner. I closed the door, got back in, shut off the meter, and said it out loud, like an affirmation: “A drunk and his money are soon parted, indeed. Thank you, [name omitted].”

Thankfully, I don’t have to always be like this, not even when I undergo something that most people would consider to be a blatant insult. Usually when I pick up an older gentleman, I breathe a sigh of relief. With his cane and curly hair, he reminded me an awful lot of Vonnegut, not just in looks but in his gentle, detached manner of speaking. If the conversation isn’t interesting, I think, at least he will leave me alone in a polite way. Most southerners know how to be polite and let a cab driver think her own thoughts as she drives. I like most southerners for that reason.

A supplier to the offshoremen who come through Houma (pronounced HO-muh), Louisiana, he was quiet most of the trip. It wasn’t until I realized I had gotten to daydreaming and had taken the 10 rather than the 610 and was missing a critical exit as a result that he really started speaking–at first, just to get us back on track. Then he mentioned that you have to watch out for those hookers in Houma…and that he wished he knew “more hookers” in New Orleans. I sort of realized what was about to come next, but I was busy navigating the thorny infrastructure around the Almonaster Boulevard trainyard, and he wasn’t helping. I tried being dismissive because, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t the kind of area you want to have a discussion about sex for hire.

Largely uninhabited and unlit, he kind of hit me with it at a bad moment. I’m not unused to sailors with sorry imaginations asking me where the hookers and blow can be found, but this usually happens in the light of day or under the warm, amber lights of a motel parking lot. It’s part of the archetype. In addition to knowing where all the blusiest music, fanciest eats, swankiest accommodations, and hippest entertainment can be found in any given area, cabbies are also supposed to know where to find the women and the drugs. I tell him that I only know of two sex workers in the whole of New Orleans and that neither of them is a streetwalker but rather require heavy screening processes including a criminal background check. I suggested Bangkok Palace instead, an Asian massage parlor that is known for its “happy endings.”

“No,” he insists. He “doesn’t want any…” He leaves the sentence unfinished, and comes straight to the point–or straight enough. “You’re a very attractive, female cab driver.” If you know anything about New Orleans cab drivers, you know this isn’t a compliment. This is also the part where I start to feel genuinely uncomfortable. He mentions that he’s “not looking for much, just a hand-j.” (No, really, gentle reader: he said “hand-j.” Because when you’re hitting up a cabbie for her Rolodex O’Hookers, it’s important to show restraint in word choice.)

He asked me how much I thought a hand-j would run, and I started to answer, “If I had to guess…” and then realized that this was the hook, albeit a little late. “No, I’m not even going to guess,” I say. “I really don’t know.” There’s some killer-perverse curiosity alive inside of writers, though, and that animal lives inside of me too. Curiosity is an understatement because curiosity at least gives you a choice. This is stronger, whatever it is, a burning need to see what happens if… So I guessed, after a moment of weird silence. “Well, if I had to guess,” I resume, volubly and shrugging to the point of perhaps caricaturing myself, “I dunno. Maybe fifty to a hundred?”

He came back with an offer of seventy-five right away and shit got real. My Libran brain is capable of seeing many outcomes at once, so I avoided coming back with things like, “I don’t think I could,” or “What if you’re unsatisfied?” I neither teased out the conversation, nor left an opening. “You know, if I were going to do that,” I said, “I wouldn’t be driving this cab.” He kept pushing, but obliquely, making sure to leave no stone unturned in an effort to ensure that all possibilities were exhausted. No, I knew no one looking for tricks out on the prowl. No, no friends who could use the money. No friends who were down on their luck. Well, I added–none in the shape of a woman. That finally shut him up. It was thirty-five on the meter, but I took off five for taking the long way. He gave me the shaved amount back as tip. I think he expected that at any moment I might change my mind because he took his goddamned time about doing so too.

It’s odd the things people will think you do for money just because you drive a cab. I’ve been told how to drive–often involving illegal maneuvers–more times than I can count, and often in the loudest of imperative voices. To be as fair as possible to the old man, he struck me as lonely. Although propositioning people for sex work is never a good idea (unless you know for a fact the person’s a sex worker, in which case I hold no opinion), he showed me two things that a lot of other passengers haven’t: first, a total respect for my autonomy. Second, value for work. Never mind for a moment that it’s not the kind of work I do; it’s an interesting takeaway. I got on the radio after I steered the car homeward and informed the night dispatcher of what had happened.

“Well, hell,” Dave replied, “Tell him I’ll do it for forty.”

As I said already while discussing the entire scenario among friends on Facebook, I have a lot of respect for sex workers, but I’m not one of them. Or, as my Scottish Aunt Catherine perhaps best articulated, it’s a job best left to the professionals. Me? I’ll stick with the arts.

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Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer, filmmaker, cab driver, theater gadfly, and status quo threat. Her next Cab Fare episode will publish on the morning of Wednesday, July 23. Shortly after, she will embark on a 3,500 mile road trip including Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, D.C., and North Carolina. She’ll blog about the trip along with any updates on Cab Fare: The Book. 

Cab Fare: Episode #8, Pt. I

Poydras

New Orleans: Prettiest from a distance. (St. Charles Ave at Poydras St.)

Although I can’t recall her name, one of the most sensible approaches to our problem known as the “service industry” came from a young woman I met on a Greyhound bus while en route to spend a couple of months with my grandmother on the Continental Divide in Montana. She was traveling home from college in Ohio somewhere to the Ann Arbor area and the air around us as we talked crackled so much it may have curled our hair. Her idea was that service work should be treated like the military is in some countries–that young people between 16 and 20, regardless of background, should work service jobs mandatorily. We were young and idealistic–I was unapologetically 23 at the time–and ready to change attitudes and practices all over the world, for good. That December of 1998, when I waved goodbye to her and Ann Arbor from my seat, fortified against the window with luggage, I had already been working for nine years, the bulk of it in service.

The problem is manifold and I’m really only going to scratch the surface in this post. I’ll give it the full treatment it deserves in Cab Fare: The Book. Suffice to say for now that the industry fails to live up to any sustainable standard of employment because its foundation relies on two concepts completely at odds with one another. The first is that customers are entitled to be treated like aristocracy, wherever and whenever they wish, and in return all they have to do is provide a percentage of a service worker’s wages, as they see fit.

The second is that service work is meant to be temporary, and not a full-time career. The cost of living for people who require more flexible schedules–teenagers, college students, and other part-timers–is perceived as lower and negotiable and so such workers are treated as though disposable. This circular logic perpetuates a broken system Congress never stops ignoring, despite crippling and far-reaching effects long after high school, college, and temporary hitches in life careers are expected to end–and by ignoring it, Congress denies the effect on workers’ mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

The mental aspect refers to the fact that no one is living up to their full potential (not to mention testing their own capabilities and capacities) by working in service; the emotional to the near-constant abnegation of a worker’s needs to the demands of her customers (and this sadly goes trebly for introverts); the physical to the unergonomic conditions that almost all service work supplies in abundance (and which Barbara Ehrenreich covered so thoroughly in her participatory sociological work Nickled and Dimed); and the spiritual to the harshest reality of all, that service workers must daily resolve to not let a job so at war with every element of themselves crush the richness of their inner lives, i.e. their spirits.

You see the memes on Facebook explaining again and again how service workers feel about their jobs, customers, coworkers and bosses. Whore has become a byword in an industry with its two foundational pillars so divided against themselves. To wit: it’s hard to get served like an aristocrat when the servants are more often than not unable to achieve veteran status because the industry is built to break them–or to release them while they’re still relatively young, at any rate. Waitstaff and bartenders in particular express serious discomfort with having to sell their personalities. Some cab drivers do too. They’d rather remain emotionally inaccessible and taciturn than chat up their clientele. I suspect that the best-paid veteran cab drivers are extroverts who love telling good stories, and that they spend years polishing and embellishing their little gems for tips and an exhilarating job.

Then there’s me. I do the listening, remember? I’ve been called out on it too–my favorite time undeniably being a Turkish woman who, after not letting me get a word in edgewise, said, “Cab drivers usually have great stories. You should listen to one of them sometime.”

Oh, I won’t deny that I tell stories and occasionally even embellish them–(though I save that for the tip-givers of course and not you, dear reader). I must admit that this sometimes takes great restraint on my part, giving you as accurate a picture as possible of what’s actually going on in that cab of mine night after night, season after season. Some of my best stories would be so much more complete with a fibbing, little garnish. But emotional authenticity is the goal of this blog. Sometimes, when the urge to discard that standard for a moment is particularly strong, I return to the very real plight of service workers everywhere and, with that, to the heart of the matter–that this industry is a cruel and unfair mistress who hasn’t even the decency to supply us a safeword, let alone a fair break.

Getting accurate figures even from the Bureau of Labor Statistics can be hard, but in 2014 U.S. service workers who rely on tips for 20% or more of their annual income appear to number somewhere between 10 and 15 million, and we are growing–especially those of us in transportation. We are perceived as bottom feeders, sometimes even by ourselves. I’ll never forget confronting that self-perception in 2001 upon my third trip to New Orleans, on unpaid leave from a pizza delivery job in Pennsylvania, when a girl named Sonora from El Paso asked what I did for a living and I shrugged, “I’m on the bottom rung of the ladder.”

“Oh, no!” Sonora gasped, her hands over her pretty, innocent boca, “You’re a prostitute?!” I chortled. Prostitutes at least call their own shots, I thought. Some even get work benefits.

Yet the appeal of cabbing comes back to that same contrast of perception that made me feel at the time like it would be in some ways more desirable to be a prostitute than a pizza delivery driver. We don’t do it because the money is good; we do it for the relative freedom and flexibility that it offers. You have to work long hours to get by. You have to deal with a lot of drunks. At least, you do in New Orleans and, I imagine, Vegas–towns with no buffer between day and night, rendering even the earliest of daylight hours unpredictable.

Every cab driver is essentially her own small business, and as with every business, the rules follow a pattern wholly unique to that individual. For example, I allow eating and drinking and pot smoking in my cab, even though the last two are illegal. I could get fined heavily for either or worse–although I have it on good authority from a couple of local cops who have hopped into my cab with open beers that only a “real dick” would concern himself with the alcohol. I do not allow cigarette smoke in my cab (also illegal now), although I will allow a vaporizer, provided the passenger asks nicely and cracks his or her window. Thus far, I haven’t allowed anyone to have sex in my cab, but one of these days I might–if the couple doesn’t creep me out and offers enough cash. The only couple who ever requested that suggested I could join in, ending the discussion.

A bartender can grease a bouncer’s palm if a patron is getting out of line with her, but beyond that has to rely on the cooler and bathroom or maybe a smoke break to release frustrations, as do servers. I learned early on that I was my own bouncer. I threw someone out of my cab in my first month, and probably about a dozen times more since then. I don’t remember them all, but a cab driver’s first ejection of a drunk passenger back into the nocturnal mist from which he crawled is every bit as special as that first time smacking a boy for getting handsy. I remember him, an older man who just wanted to get his very uncooperative, button-down shirt off. His pink-splotched and mottled skin glowed almost radioactively under the high-pressure sodium streetlights. I don’t know what his story was and I never will. I got the call in the lull of night, when the bars in more civilized places with morality codes and other blue laws still on the books would have long since closed.

He wasn’t inside the building. That should have been my first sign to find someone less ambivalent about catching a ride. I saw the bartender’s thumb jerk toward the back of the building and I trudged back out to the cab and pulled around the side of the low-lying, West Metairie neighborhood tavern. In the back, where the thumb sent me, he stood–sort of–trying to pull off his apricot button-down to, presumably, get rid of an all-consuming sense of claustrophobia. Why else would he be in an empty lot, under the open sky? A gravitating belly and hamhock shoulder blades obstructed his efforts, which were pitiful to behold. I’ve known frat boys who had an easier time meeting their date-rape victims’ parents the next morning. Watching his elbows gyrate without success, I suggested that he get in.

Over the course of several minutes, he grunted out an address off of Jefferson Highway, and I ventured that way, the whole time listening to him struggle with the shirt which would simply not bend to his will. We arrived at the grunted address. He didn’t move.

“No…no…no….no,” was all I could get from him. At this point, common sense overrode my fascination with his fantastic state of distress. I asked for his driver’s license. But he either refused to process that information or couldn’t. He gave me a new street without a number and I started to drive that way when I got the same denial: “No…no…no.” With this second volley of Nos, I ran out of patience. It was three or four o’clock in the morning on a Friday night and I pulled up at a gas station roughly equidistant between the two locations he had given. I got out, opened his door, and tugged his arm until Newton’s first law of motion compelled him out of the vehicle. A working man in a ballcap using the after-hours credit card option to fill up his company’s pickup truck gave a curious-but-none-of-my-business glance in our direction. That’s okay, I thought, I got this. I locked the door, shut it, and got in the man’s face. “You won’t give me your ID, you can’t tell me where you live, and you can’t pay me. You have to live around here somewhere. If I ever see you again, you owe me thirteen dollars.”

I never did see him again, and that’s okay. This wasn’t about the money. It was about my time. Sometimes, roaming around alone late at night, I wonder if he ever got the shirt off.

(Continued.)

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Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer, filmmaker, cab driver, theater gadfly, and status quo threat. Cab Fare Episode #8, Pt. II will be on the blog tomorrow around lunch time, CDT. 

This View Is Only Temporary

Br-21SKCQAA_SJW

My current bedroom/office…for the next two weeks, anyway.

Hey, there!

When I wrote the last Cab Fare episode, I hadn’t anticipated attention from Word Press editors via the ‘Freshly Pressed’ vehicle WP uses as a means of driving its community. I definitely didn’t anticipate my following exploding to over 13 times what it was.

I have tried my best to sift through hundreds of user profiles and dozens of blogs. I have at least made a start. Please bear with me over the coming weeks and months as I try to get to know you better, and please forgive me for overlooking doubtless several of you with my next act. I’ve got a lot going on between my up-in-the-air living situation, an upcoming work vacation I’m taking (a 3500-4000 mile trip between July 22 and September 3 or so)–not to mention the research, interviewing and writing to be done for Cab Fare: The Book.

Speaking of which, I ran into a 30-year cab veteran last night. I had just gotten back from biking on the very fancy Tammany Trace, 26 miles away; he was on his bicycle at the filling station and flashed me the gun tucked into his cutoff jeans like a child showing me his bellybutton. I didn’t know he’d quit two Thursdays ago. He signed up for a free cell phone and food stamps, uninterested in paying slow-ass, dog-days summer’s dues with his meager social security checks. Unsure of what he’s going to do next, he’s telling me about this woman he once picked up who never had any money. She always paid in blow jobs. I ask for his cell number so I can interview him for the book. He can’t believe that he has anything interesting to contribute. Yeah, me neither. Eye roll

You better believe I got his number. The hard part will be wording the release form.

As soon as I figure out which questions I need to ask, I’ll begin interviewing cabbies–early next week at the latest. That should be a treat in and of itself. I turn my own keys to Cab #109 in tomorrow, with no plan to go back until sometime in October at the earliest.

To get back to the immediate business at hand, though, someone placed me on a list of “Sunshine Award” winners, and I’m accepting by shedding some sunshine on ten more writers (not just bloggers) who I fancy. I’m supposed to tell ten things about myself too, but this is a chore I often find boorish to undertake, so I made an adjustment by talking a little about why I picked each writer instead, with personal notes from me mixed into those.

Fair enough?

Thanks again so much for following, and have a gander at these fine folks while I work steadfastly on finishing the next Cab Fare episode and moving onto the next phase.

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+ Cassidy Frazee (@CassidyFrazee)

Cassidy has her work cut out for her as a computer programmer of the old school and a writer of the new. She’s currently pounding away at a 120K word novel from Harrisburg, PA–also known as the land I grew up in primarily. My childhood was kind of all over the place, as seems to be the case with Cassidy’s job. She’ll keep you abreast of all her goings-on with writing, the woes of the Internet, geek culture and more…

+ Bob Bogle (@BobRBogle)

Bob has a book out that I have never read titled Memphis Blues Again. It sounds like a book my father would like–the only college course he ever took just so happening to be on Tennessee state history–so one of these days I intend to buy it for him, very soon. Bob lives in Arizona, but like most writers and thinkers, he far exceeds his environment.

+ Zoe Ruiz (@RuizZoe)

Managing Editor of @The_Rumpus, Zoe has her hands full, to say the least. I enjoyed a piece she published a bit back, but was saddened soon after to learn that a thief had absconded with her bank card and bought Groupons for underworld-y things like yoga. So go follow her and cheer her up and maybe buy her a Groupon for something nice.

+ Sione Aeschliman (@writelearndream)

Sione is one of those rare gifts to the Internet: an editor and writing coach who can also write. I have a hard time trusting editors who can’t write. I used to work with engineers whose most oft-uttered phrase was “I’m a better editor than writer” while I was tasked with turning their scribblings into legible copy. When she last checked in on her “Round of Words in 80 Days,” Sione was in Madrid. She’s on Blogger, not WordPress, but who cares? You won’t, especially not after a few #writingsprints with her on Twitter.

+ Wendy C. Ortiz (@WendyCOrtiz)

I follow Wendy happily on Twitter, and have read a few of her stories now. It’s so nice when an online publication allows you to read a short work free of charge. A lot of writers wouldn’t get any play without that kind of necessary coverage. There’s just too much writing from which to choose and no other way to decide whether a publication is worth reading than trial-and-error forays. Wendy doesn’t blog anymore, but her website’s easily the best I’ve seen of any writer who isn’t a household name. I highly recommend her.

+ Cari Luna (@cari_luna)

Earlier this year, Cari and I corresponded via snail mail. It was just a one-time exchange, but it felt nice to write a letter to someone. It has become a lost medium and art form, and that is a thing which should be fought. In keeping with the digital age, Cari keeps one of those blogs on her writer’s website that’s essentially a sidebar. Her most recent spate of posts acts as a support group for writers with kids, a state Cari grapples with herself.

+ Bitch Flicks (@BitchFlicks, @veace)

Okay, not strictly a writer so much as a collection of writers–and voices–this is probably the only blog I follow (and occasionally write for) just to keep abreast of the conversation of intersectional feminism. (Is there any other kind?) Run by a couple of white girls out of Brooklyn, they do a pretty good job of keeping the search for a better tomorrow questioning rather than damning, even if not every last post is what I would call a proper article with the highest of journalistic standards. Women need more outlets, and this is one of them, and Stephanie Rogers (@veace) and company do a great job of making me feel a little less ambivalent about whether or not I would want to raise a daughter in this absurd world.

+ Susi Pet (@susipetherick)

Susi has a great weekly writing challenge going, and if you happen to be a beginning writer or someone trying to get back into writing or just discipline yourself, you might pick up some inspiration or at least some good, old get-up-and-go from Susi. We met on WP, but I’m about to start following her on Twitter to better keep tabs on what she’s up to…

+ Jim Towns (@jim_towns)

Jim’s an old friend at this point in time. We met as a couple of struggling filmmakers working a disease-inducing job at a Pittsburgh music and movie wholesaler–the largest of its kind on the Atlantic seaboard–before it went out of business. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue filmmaking just before I escaped to do the same here in New Orleans. Jim makes horror films primarily and also publishes short stories in mixed genres on his blog.

+ Tricia Orr (@WriteOrrElse)

Trish keeps a pretty energetic and eclectic blog full of encouragement to herself and others to keep at it. Sometimes, those are the best kinds of blogs to follow. I know a lot of writers on Twitter who try to keep things positive and light, so after you follow Trish, you should probably scroll on down through our follow lists. We follow some great folks.

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Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer, filmmaker, cab driver, theater gadfly, and status quo threat. Her next Cab Fare episode should be up on the blog Wednesday, July 9. She hopes to publish an episode every other Wednesday after that and will include some photography and slices of life from her upcoming travels with those overdue pieces.