Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You Meet the Nicest People in Omaha

1

Omaha must surely rank as one of the safest cities in which to drive a taxi. Most customers are a joy to serve. There are also a few others…

You have to be pretty desperate to drive a cab - especially at night. As one customer bluntly told me, “Some of you guys look worse than those who walk the streets”. No wonder, a fellow driver recently remarked that we are not expected to possess such a thing as an IQ. We are the cave dwellers of the modern age.

This must be the reason why a sizable number of folks do not bother to inform us when they have found another ride. Like the Invisible Man I was supposed to reach in less than 10 minutes. Fortunately the next ride was honest enough to tell me she would take the first available cab, and that I’d better hurry. Maybe this would also explain why some people have the habit of calling more than one cab company. The driver who shows up last is the village idiot.

Then again, I was the dumb one in believing the guy who was on the way to rescue his four year old daughter from his ex - who was on the dope again. His story was so convincing I was willing to pray with him. Quietly content, I sat in the parking lot while he took off to save his precious little angel. I am still waiting…

There is always good money to be lost at the casinos. By the time you have found your fare, they don't have any cash left. But no worries, they will get home safely with the help of the casino cabs which always seem to go the other way. And don’t fret if your customer can’t pay - the Horseshoe will give you a voucher for the wrong cab company. If you don’t catch the oversight right there you can frame it, because collecting will cost you more than the ride, plus the aggravation.

We also serve the unfortunate. A young woman flagged me down. She was going to the Amtrak, and could she sit in the front, please? No problem. I considered myself lucky to have landed a good ride. Until her next question:

“Am I going to die?”

I struggled to unswallow my tongue. “Do you need help?” was the best I could muster. “Yes”, she said, then more forcefully, “YES!”

911 never seemed so hard to dial. Before I could reach them she developed a full blown panic attack and got out of the cab at 50 mph. I barely managed to grab onto her sleeve, while screeching to a halt at the same time. But she broke free and rolled across the road, narrowly missing a big rig doing that sideways thing.

After several feverish phone calls, help arrived. By now my medicine had stopped working and I was done for the night.

Some people disappear after you have them in the cab. A nice gentleman was helping Penny get in when she asked me to call the police. I turned around and the gentleman was no more. Only then did I notice her swollen face and the blood. Alarmed, I lunged for the radio. When I looked back again she had vanished as well. Just another figment of my imagination, I guess.

A stranger approached me at the hospital. He was leaving town, but there was a catch – the money was waiting on the other end. On the way I learned how he had tried to take his own life, and a whole bunch more. By the time we reached our destination I was suicidal myself. Well, what do you know? Suddenly he produced a $100 bill and told me to keep the change.

2

And don’t forget the perpetual thankful – those with a few DUIs under the belt. Through bitter experience they have concluded that a taxi is cheaper. Fortunately there are also some with the foresight to call a cab before they get into such trouble. Generally speaking, these are the nice folk. They strike up a good conversation, are polite, and compensate you well.

Then there are the old and the handicapped. Give or take a small number, you will have to go to Iowa to find such nice people. What a pleasure to help them out. They are always grateful. It does not matter that they cannot afford to tip; just having them in the cab is enough reward.

But as always, there are exceptions to the rule. Jeremy and Patricia like to empty Wal-Mart in the wee hours of the morning. As I found out the hard way, there is no gratuity for sweating their groceries to the front porch, while they wait inside. Also, beware if you had put the stuff in the wrong spot – after being severely scolded you will have to move all the bags three feet to the left, or you will not get paid.

The best rides seem to go nowhere. Take Johnny, for instance. Without even asking, he handed me $60 up front. After changing his mind several times, he wanted to pick up a friend. My pleasure; for sixty bucks I will do many things.

At one point the friend got out of the cab, while Johnny stayed put. “Turn your lights off and wait”, he informed me, “he will be back soon”. I started to get concerned. The alley was badly lit and several shadowy figures seemed to hang out in the dark. Suddenly there was this big menacing looking dude right by my door.

“What’s with the camera?” he wanted to know, pointing at the forgotten object around my neck.

“Lock the doors!” my passenger freaked.

“Oh, um, I take pictures of them Irish folk”, was all I could think of. It was St. Patrick’s Day anyway. The dude seemed pleased.

On the way back, Johnny opened the rear window and was having a cigarette, or something. I could swear I saw a blue flame. Did I just witness a drug deal? To this day I don’t know. Or maybe, I do.

Watching TV, one would get the impression that tons of people are having sex on the back seat. Not so, is my experience, although it is hard to be sure without looking. Twice I was too chicken to find out, but other than that my rides are pretty uneventful. In the final instance one can always crank up the radio.

I think I am pretty good at spotting the barfing kind, always ready to stop fast. But I must have been fooled by the quality of their clothes and rolls of cash the guy produced when he asked, “will this be enough?” In this case, after his wife emptied her stomach on my back seat, he handed me a whopping $3 to take the cab to a professional car wash. I must be a wimp, other cab drivers would have slaughtered cattle.

A few are conscientious enough to puke outside of the cab. At least one guy was. The slight inconvenience was that we had to stop every 3 blocks for him to do so, and each time he leaned out he farted into the car. A most unpleasant experience, but even more so for his drunken pal sitting next to him. After I had dropped them off, his comrade rewarded him with a good whipping in the driveway. I declined to call the police. He kind of deserved it.

You Meet the Nicest People in Omaha

Some drunks want to perpetually kick your ass. “Don’t fear”, the bartender informed me while paying for my imminent demise, “he sounds aggressive, but he would not hurt a fly”. Sure enough, since I took him home against his wishes, he threatened to lick me good. Helping him out of the cab I had to duck under his swing to get him up the steps. But at the front door, he calmed down and thanked me profusely.

I was halfway back to the safety of my vehicle when I heard the crash. Somehow he had managed to fall backwards – into the arms of a thorn bush. I rushed to help. “You have hit the wrong man”, he informed me, “Look, I am bleeding. Now I'm going to kill you”. But it was all talk. This time I made sure he fell inwards, before I closed the door behind him.

Many midnight runners never get enough, so they buy some booze, and off to the Playhouse we go. It’s a good taxi ride, no matter from where you start. I am sure that is why they built the titty joint way out of town. Anyway, Joe was all worked up and ready to party. Would I be so kind as to be his friend for the night? He promised me $400 up front. Under normal circumstances I might have fallen for it, but there was one snag: the guy had $100 bills falling from several pockets. I would not bet a dime on him getting out of there without losing something important. It was time to for me to leave.

Then there is the big secret, the high school crowd who loves to sneak out at night. If only for a short while, they were some of the nicest people I knew. They appeared a bit young, but how do you distinguish some 15 year olds from college students? By the third time they wanted my number, and now I asked. It’s all innocent, they are just out visiting friends. Recalling an instance where an irate father almost peeled the roof off my taxi, I became duly concerned. Then again, these kids seemed well mannered and polite. They didn’t swear, they were always sober, and they paid their fare. What a break from some of the other rides out there!

Green Fun

I remembered how we also used to sneak out. Only difference, we had to walk.

Then the girls showed up. Again, they were nice and polite, but I couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling. I talked to the kids about my own sorry experience living with an alcoholic, and voiced my concerns. Slowly some ground rules emerged: To call 911 in any emergency, not to use me as a getaway driver, I would tell the truth if confronted, drinking would subject them to a stern lecture, and I would supply a free ride only if they were truly stranded.


But my worries persisted. After all, it was just a matter of time before someone got in trouble. Still, what was better; providing a safe ride, or leaving them to their own devices?

Then summer break arrived. Suddenly the floodgates opened and there were kids everywhere - going to Village Point, to Oak View Mall, to this party, to that event. Everyone seemed to have my number and know my name. The writing was on the wall, so I talked to the police, and then to my boss. Clearly this was a problem for the company as well. Do we ask everyone for their age? Is that even legal? Perhaps it is the parents’ responsibility? The answers were not immediately clear.

The situation resolved itself soon after I got my “new” cab. Like most taxis, this one had been bought after a lifetime of abuse. But the restored product appeared decent, and after my experience with a “loaner” I was only too happy to live with the few flaws. Until the next inspection. Complete with photographic evidence, the boss produced a $700 bill for the damage I had caused. This time I forgot about being a wimp. After proving them wrong, I walked. Who needs to do business with such people?

I don’t miss the job, but I miss the fun times, and the good people of Omaha. Especially, I miss the kids. I wish them well.

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I have been driving a taxi for 8 months in the 90’s, and again for the past year. For personal reasons I am taking a break from my regular occupation. All serious business folk should give this a try – for a totally new perspective on their customers and their own employees. At the very least, it is loads of fun.

The stories above are based on true events, although the details and names have been altered to protect the people involved. The photos are my own, and taken with the permission of the customers involved. They have been carefully selected not to pertain to any specific anecdotes in this essay.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The article was interesting. I enjoyed the stories and now I want to go to Omaha and drive a cab!

Laraine said...

Thanks for writing this.