The “Last Saturday Night” Edition…
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.