Chicago Cab as Melting Pot

You could say that cabs are urban equalizers in the sense that at some point in time absolutely anyone may hail a cab. I drive everyone from people making their daily commute to/from work, to those in need of a ride home after spending the evening in a bar/pub, to business or leisure travellors. In my relatively brief time driving cab, I’ve had fares including an Archbishop from South Africa, an NFL quarterback who played in the superbowl, a local ABC news anchor, a former IL attorney general/one time gubernatorial candidate, a successful pop music song writer, a well-known Chicago luxury auto dealer, and an FBI agent here for a NATO conference. Further, I meet local Chicagoans, and businesspeople and leisure travelers from throughout the world. This access to others is always an honor and something I take seriously, e.g., always keeping my passengers’ experience at the forefront. I seek to make the service I provide a professional and courteous exchange where passengers’ preferences are respected – everything from following a fare’s instructions regarding a preferred route, to maintaining a comfortable interior temperature, to keeping conversation at an acceptable level for the fare. For example, some passengers seek out friendly conversation from their driver, discussing everything from current events, to the weather, to local restaurants and points of interest. While others are more reserved and desire to keep social exchanges brief and utilitarian. Anyway, I see passengers I serve in the cab as a fairly representative slice of this society. Further, I believe that the customer is almost always right, and maintaining this outlook serves me well as I proceed through my day. Thanks for reading.

THE SCAM

A ‘surprise fare’ ends with a 911 call. Let me explain. It was very late, about 3:15am, and I was falling asleep. I was parked and awaiting a bar-closing, end-of-shift kind of fare. Before I continue – some context. Despite what you may have heard, Chicago isn’t a 24-hour city. Midwest sensibilities still rule here, and the latest of the late-night bars close at 4:00am – long before sunrise. This provides ample opportunity for cab fares (i.e., many fares in a short time period). Though sometimes rapid-fire, late night fares can seem like ‘easy’ money, the situation demands that you stay on top of your game and keep yourself safe. Even drivers seemingly accustomed to the night shift sometimes fall victim to that ever so powerful ‘wave of fatigue,’ and the seductive pleasure of a nap. An intended 15-minute nap can so easily end up being 30-60 minutes of lost working hours. Further, make no mistake, whether driving or parked, being fatigued and anything less than fully alert in a cab is risky at best, and dangerous at worst. Given all of that, late night cab driving often offers good money and customers in a good mood after having had fun in their favorite night spot. Or I get lucky and transport fares working in the service industry – consistently my most generously tipping customers.

Anyway, I should return to the intended story line. While parked and waiting for a fare, that was slow to materialize, I was falling in and out of sleep. Realizing I was drifting, I decided to do the reasonable thing and go home for the night. I put the car in drive and began to slowly pull away from my parking spot. I quickly glanced at the rear-view mirror and, to my surprise, SOMEONE WAS SITTING IN THE BACK SEAT! Thankfully I didn’t scream. I immediately pulled the car over and said, “I do apologize maam. Where can I take you?”. The ‘surprise’ passenger, a middle-aged woman, said, “No problem, if you could just give me my $40 I’ll be on my way.” Next, an annoyingly long and ridiculous interchange/argument ensued. I’ll spare you the details other than to say that I repeatedly informed the fare that I didn’t have any of her money. And she kept saying that she had given me 2 twenty-dollar bills. Two of her male friends, one in his 20’s and one apparently in his mid to late 50’s, walked up to the car and began insisting that I give their friend her money back. I told them that I didn’t have her money and suggested that they ask her to leave my car since I was about to call the police. Then, out of the blue, the woman said she was pregnant and bleeding, and she wanted me to take her to a hospital. She appeared to be at least my age, 50, so the possibility that I was witness to such a medical rarety (pregnant at 50) seemed unlikely. I then said I wasn’t going to take any chances with her health and I would just call her an ambulance. She then quickly responded that an ambulance wasn’t needed.
At that point, I threatened to call the police to resolve the situation. Undeterred by my threat of police involvement, she stuck to her story that I had her money. So, I called the police, who arrived in about three minutes. As soon as the officer walked up to the cab, I told him what was happening. He then asked her to step out of the cab, which she did. The officer then stepped to the side and briefly spoke to the woman. He then walked back to my cab and said I should drive away, which, after thanking him, I glady did.
First I want to thank the Chicago Police Department for helping me out of this situation. I certainly learned that rather than losing almost 30 minutes of work time I has should’ve just asked for the help I needed immediately. With the clarity of hindsight I see this was another in a long list of life situations where my pride and refusal to ask for help was self-defeating. To my readers, if you are a driver, I hope this post helps you see such a problem coming, rather than falling victim to this type of scam. If you don’t drive the public for pay, I hope this post made for an interesting look into the life of an urban cabbie. Thanks for reading, and “Cheers” to you all!

Payment drama & other odd behavior

Maybe it’s a male thing to think you can say you’ve seen it all – actually, you haven’t (nor have I). Driving cab in Chicago, often at night, I’ve learned that, especially in cabs, all manner of bizarre things can happen. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the following are recent fares that I thought might be worth sharing. I hope you enjoy reading about these fares as much as I did being part of these scenarios. I plan to follow this blog post with an entry which consists of what I consider noteworthy observations of the behavior of cab drivers, myself included. We cabbies are human too, with our own strengths, weaknesses, and eccentricities. Laughter is truly the best medicine, and I think it’s especially curative when we laugh at ourselves. I hope this post brings a smile to your day, and please share your own thoughts/experiences in cabs.
#1 “Do you accept driver’s licenses?”
This title refers to a recent fare who tried to pay for his ride in a most usual way (with his IL driver’s license). When we reached the destination, I announced the amount that was due, and the fare said he would pay with a credit card. “I know you don’t like cards, but that’s how I’m paying,” he said. I said I’d be happy to take his card in payment. He then proceeded to repeatedly force his ‘card’ through the credit card reader mounted by the right rear door, all the while cursing in frustration. The fare then said, “These (expletive) things never work in cabs.” I said the stripe on the card needs to be on the left, and I asked if I could see his card. I turned on the interior light and immediately saw that he was holding his drivers’ license, not a credit card. I then said, “I do apologize sir but that’s not a credit card, that’s your drivers’ license.”. At that point the fare became angry and stated, “Don’t tell me what to do cabbie, you just want my cash.” He continued to repeatedly force his drivers’ license through the card reader. Despite his organ donor status, he was unable to process a credit payment with his driver’s license. The fare finally gave up his efforts and threw cash to me through the window opening of the barrier. Thankfully, despite his frustration, he still managed to leave a tip.
#2. “But that’s not my house.”
Very late, one recent night, a woman entered my cab outside a popular local bar. Her unsteady gait made it apparent that she may have had a few too many cocktails. Believe me, I don’t judge others for over-imbibing at times. After all, it increases my business, and who among us hasn’t over-indulged on occasion. She immediately gave her destination – an address in Oak Park. Oak Park is a picturesque, tree-lined Chicago suburb sprinkled with Frank Lloyd Wright homes. I took her there, about a 30-minute ride, and upon arrival I informed her we were at the destination. She had slumped down low in the seat, and when I said we were at her address, she sat up and peered out the window. She then said, “Where are we?” I repeated the address she had provided, to which she responded, “But that’s not my house.” After a couple ackward attempts on her part, where she threw out some streets to try, she thankfully gave me another residential address in Oak Park. When we arrived at the new address, she insisted this was indeed her correct destination. Amazingly, this uncertainty about one’s place of residence is not at all unusual in the taxi-driving industry. Another, more unusual scenario of this type follows. Outside a 24-hour restaurant, shortly after sunrise, a man flagged me down. He got in and thanked me for stopping, and said he really needed a ride home. I said, “No problem sir. Where can I take you?” At that point the man became silent and simply looked out the window. I again asked where to take him, and he again was silent. The fair then said he was so glad I picked him up, and he again asked if I could take him home. This purposeless exchange went on for several minutes, finally ending with the fare apologetically exiting the cab. I hope he made it home.
#3 ‘Illicit’ Fast Food.
For some reason I often find myself being given various take-out or drive-through items on fast food restaurant menus. Fares leaving bars/nightclubs often ask to go to drive-through windows for food to satisfy their late night appetites. At such times, fares often seem offended if I refuse their well-meaning offers of fried, fat-laden delicasies. Now I admit to having an appetite for greasy food which can be anonymously passed through a car window. However, I am no longer 18 with a flat stomach (and I never had ripped abs). Fast food tends to sit on my middle-aged gut, certainly hardening my arteries and doing a variety of damage to my less-than-fit body. Thus, I seek to minimize my self-destructive behaviors, and I avoid eating food with minimal nutritional value and maximum health risk. My recent solution to this conundrum has been to accept the burger, fries, taco, etc. After the fare exits the cab, I then give the fast food away to a nearby panhandler (unfortunately, there are usually homeless people nearby). Even though I avoid eating fast food, believe me, I do appreciate the generous gestures of others.
#4 The ‘mysterious’ cab light.
Cab lights are meant to readily inform others whether a cab is available to accept fares. However, on a daily basis, potential fares are frustrated when they mistakenly think an unavailable cab is “for hire.” Let me explain. The cab I drive is topped with an advertising banner, which is continually illuminated, spanning the entire length of the vehicle’s roof. Printed on each end of the banner are the cab’s medallion numbers. When the numbers are lit up, this indicates the cab is available. On many occasions, while I am stopped in traffic or at a light, people have walked up to the already-occupied cab and tried to enter. Sometimes, mainly on holidays when there are large numbers of intoxicated people on the streets, I go to the embarassing length of locking the doors to ensure my passengers do not have to deal with drunken strangers invading their personal space. However, the most annoying cab light-related scenario is when, as I drive by, pedestrians point and shout, “Turn off your light.” This occurs with a fare in the vehicle, when the light is already off. I guess many times people have ‘selective vision,’ meaning they see what they want to see.
As a cab driver I remain committed to helping fares in various states of intoxication safely reach their destinations. And as the song goes, when the bar closes, ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.’ Therein lies my business opportunity. Finally, if by some odd happenstance you see yourself depicted in any of the above entries please do not be offended. I mean no harm. I simply intend to share observations of human behavior in hopefully an entertaining and enlightening way. Please join me in my upcoming blog post where I poke fun at myself and other cabdrivers. Thanks for reading.

Haute Couture Withdrawal

I was looking for fares in Wicker Park, a.k.a., hipster land, at North Ave. and Damen. She got in, appearing somewhat distraught, stating, “Thank God you came along – it was icky in there.” I had two questions for her – was she ok, and, without waiting for an answer to the first question, where I could take her. She said urgently, “Just go! Take me where I’ll see Louis Vuittons.” I said I was unsure where she wanted to go, and suggested River North – an area usually viewed as more upscale than the area where she entered the cab. She said she trusted my judgment and River North was fine. She began telling me what was going on in her life, saying she was “newly single.” She said the bar she just left was not for her. She elaborated that she hadn’t seen a single Louis Vuitton in the entire place, so she knew she didn’t belong there. She said she had tried, but decided she could not be in such places. She said I had saved her life by coming along when I did. I suggested she sit back and relax, crack the window, and have a cigarette if she needed it. I usually don’t allow smoking in the cab, but she seemed needing an exception to this rule. She agreed that a cigarette was exactly what she needed, and asked me for a light. I then asked her if she would like to hear some music by my current favorite female, slightly retro-sounding, British songstress. She named a particular artist and song she really wanted to hear. I said I couldn’t make any promises as I use a free music app which ultimately controls the songs it plays, despite one’s best efforts to use its search function. The music she wanted began playing and she seemed visably more at ease. She then specified a club and I drove her to her preferred nightspot. She paid me, leaving a generous tip, and I wished her well as we parted ways. I guess it just goes to show that the seemingly welcoming, unpretentious attitude of hipster bars is not for everyone.
Anyway, cheers all.

“I can’t believe he stiffed me”

When traveling in a cab, generally, people are respectful and appropriate. They’re seeking a service and ready to pay for the transportation they need. However, I have been ‘stiffed’ (not paid) a few times. This post addresses such a scenario.
To put today’s topic in context, let me explain my outlook to the job of driving a cab. I try to approach the task by following the Golden Rule – I treat others the way I would want to be treated. So, I meet people with the attitude that they sincerely want my service and are genuinely ready to pay for it. This perspective involves making an assumption, which is only occasionally proven wrong. Assumptions are certainly risky, so I try to use good common sense around my attitude to cab driving. First, I do what I can to minimize the likelihood that I am stiffed. For example, in my experience thus far I have noticed that I am most likely to get stiffed on the large fares occurring very late at night. So, for the later, larger fares, I sometimes request at least partial payment up front. Also, as I learned in the taxi training course, regarding the destination, the more specific information you have the better. Thus, I won’t try to take someone to an unknown destination. If the fare and I can’t at least agree upon going to the intersection of two streets, we’re not going. Otherwise I have found that the experience is frustrating for the fare, who usually feels disrespected and over-charged, and annoying for me, as I feel my time has been wasted by involving myself in a no-win situation.
I have broken down “stiffing” (intentional non-payment) into two types, as follows.
1) The runner: This person suddenly bolts from the cab without paying. I’ve never experienced this. I did have someone throw money, in excess of the metered fare, my direction and then bolt, while angrily shouting, “You took the longest way.” I had taken the most direct route, which was the point of contention, but, given he paid his fare, which I appreciated, the drama certainly made the day more memorable.
2) The liar: This person tries to avoid paying their fare with a lie. For example, upon arriving at the destination, the person tells me they forgot their money/credit card. They then apologize and offer a solution to the situation, such as, “I’ll get the money and come right back.” Regardless of how they say it, the key element involves exiting the cab without paying (and not returning). In a year of cab driving, this has happened about six times. One of the more memorable ‘liar’ scenario follows. Late one night, a man I’ll call ‘the bereaved’ hailed the cab near Belmont and Halsted streets. He gave me an address on the far west side of the city. He said he was in Chicago for a family funeral. He described his family as having suffered multiple losses over the past six months. As I said earlier, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I extended my condolences and, after discussing the estimated cost of the fare, drove him to his destination. Upon arriving at the requested address, the ‘bereaved’ said his mother would come out to pay me. He then exited the cab and walked down the gangway between two houses. After waiting five minutes, I began honking the horn. Given it was 2:30am, I hoped some responsible party, annoyed by the noise, would come outside (and pay me). No one seemed to notice my efforts. To my surprise, the Chicago police entered the block. I waved, they stopped to offer assistance, and I filled them in. The police said there was nothing they could do, since I didn’t see the fare go into a house, and they weren’t going to do a door-to-door search. The officers further said I was fortunate to have not been robbed. So I chalked that one up to the school of hard knocks.
Thankfully, I’ve never been robbed and the vast majority of the fares have paid appropriately (metered fare plus a tip). Occasionally people get impatient if the credit card reader is being tempermental or if I’m short of bills to offer them change. By the way, please don’t assume your driver can make change for a $100 bill on a $15 fare. To summarize, payment usually occurs without incident. And for that I thank my customers. (image courtesy http://www.fselectronics.net)

20130323-081132.jpg

Transporting NATO

NATO held a summit in Chicago in May of 2012. The influx of dignitaries, their entourages, and the media made for an interesting few days on the streets of the south loop near McCormick Place. Some of my NATO-related cab driving experiences follow.

The night before the summit was to begin, I picked up a man outside the Chicago Hilton on south Michigan Avenue. He asked to be taken to the main entrance of McCormick Place. I said to the gentleman that I would get him as close as possible but I knew the majority of the streets near there had been blocked by police securing the area. He smiled and said, “Just head there and I’ll get us through.” He then got on his cell phone and I heard him repeat back a route to someone on the other end of the call. He then gave me a route he said should get us to the convention center and circumvent blocked streets. As we approached McCormick Place, we passed street after street where large city vehicles were being used as blockades (garbage trucks, salt trucks, etc.). The route provided by the fare got us fairly close to the convention center, within three blocks, but we were finally unable to go any further. We came upon two garbage trucks, facing each other, parked bumper to bumper, blocking a street. Several uniformed police officers and a couple other men were standing near the trucks. I told the fare, who was looking down at his smart phone, that we couldn’t go any further. He looked up and asked me to pull up to the officers. I did as the fare requested, and the officers stepped up to the car. I lowered my window and the police told me the area was blocked off and I’d have to leave. The fare then lowered his window and began speaking with the police. Less than a minute later, one of the officers waved to the two men not in uniform, who then got in the trucks and backed them up so we could drive through. I pulled up to the main entrance of McCormick Place. There were many police SUV’s, and a wide variety of government vehicles lining the convention center’s drive. The fare asked me to wait, and he went inside. As I waited, I heard the cab office radio announce a request for cab #3995, my cab, to call dispatch. I called in and the dispatch operator asked me what I was doing at McCormick-she had seen on the dispatch GPS that I was there. She said she heard the area was being closed off and no vehicles were being allowed near the convention center. I said I was waiting on my fare who had gotten the police to let us through the roadblocks. The fare returned and said he needed to go back to the Hilton. He thanked me for waiting, and he said he was an FBI agent taking care of something important. I told him he was welcome, and said I appreciated his business. He went on to say that he had to go to make sure his segway was ready for the following day. He told me he would be using a specially designed mini segway so he wouldn’t have to walk as he patrolled the convention center. For some reason at this point in the conversation I imagined a segway outfitted with police lights and sirens-though an interesting thought, it’s probably not the way his segway looked. Maybe his segway was more of an unmarked, sedan type vehicle. Anyway, I digress.

NATO drew a large contingency of media to report on the summit. I transported several domestic and foreign journalists/photographers. I discovered that the Michigan avenue Hilton was a popular accomodation for NATO visitors. I picked up an east-coast based photographer at McCormick. He told me he needed to go to the Hilton to pick up something, and he then he’d be returning to the convention center, so he was requesting that I wait for him. I agreed and started driving toward the Hilton. The Hilton entrance was quite congested by cabs, limos, private cars, and police and other law enforcement vehicles. I got the cab as close as possible to the hotel entrance. The gentleman exited the cab, and I turned on the hazard lights and put the cab in park. A police officer then stepped up to the cab and asked me to move along. I told him I was waiting for my passenger, but he said I’d have to circle the block. At this point I thought I would lose my passenger as he’d think I had left him. Circling the block took longer than usual given the highly congested streets. When I made it back and pulled up near to where I had dropped the fare, I was pleasantly surprised to see him waiting. As he entered the cab I thanked him for waiting and said I had to circle the block. The fare told me that a police officer informed him that I would be there shortly to pick him up. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of all the NATO chaos a police officer took the time to protect my business, my income, and inform my fare I was on the way.

My thanks and appreciation go out to the Chicago Police Department for their successful management of what must have been an incredibly complex situation of unending logistically shifting security challenges. Hopefully Chicago’s successful handling of this very publicly watched and privately attended summit will lead to the city receiving additional international gatherings in the future. (NATO flag image courtesy of wikipedia.org)

20130202-094228.jpg

Cowboys at the Hyatt?

The cab company office had posted a flyer describing a convention for “IML” being held at the Hyatt. IML, I pondered? Maybe trade show participants, or health care professionals? The flyer estimated more than 10,000 people would attend the convention.
My evening had started out busy as I shuttled fares to and from many of River North’s hottest dining spots and nightclubs. When the pace finally slowed, I thought I’d head to the Hyatt to get a piece of profitable convention business. As I pulled up in front of the Hyatt entrance, I saw what must easily have been at least 1000 men dressed in what could be considered modern cowboy attire. Many wore black leather vests, chaps, and/or boots – they all sported some sort of leather apparel. ‘IML,’ I learned, was the acronym for International Men of Leather. The men stood outside socializing and smoking on what was a beautiful Chicago summer night. It was about 80 degrees, even as the midnight hour neared. Most of the men wearing vests were not wearing shirts. The cab line moved quickly, and as I pulled to the first position, two leather-clad men extinguished cigarettes, stepped toward the cab, and entered the vehicle. One wore a vest and chaps ensemble, like many of the other convention goers. The other wore what’s best described as a cook’s apron, made of dark red leather. Neither of the men wore shirts. They gave me a friendly “Hello, how’s it going?” and one of them said, “Halsted and Belmont please.” We chatted during the drive, and they said they were looking forward to checking out the Halsted street bars. One of them said he was here from the UK, and the other was an Aussie. They asked how late the bars stayed open, and I mentioned the names of a couple 4am bars where I often got fares (who happened to dress much like these gentlemen). They thanked me for the information, said good bye, and got out at their requested destination.
Now let me just interject that I am a country boy at heart, having grown up in rural Iowa where my elders still live on the family-owned farms. I’ve always especially enjoyed magical nights when the moon and stars cast a beautiful glow on rolling, green hills. Anyway, that said, let me return to the scenario at hand.
As my leather-clad fares walked away from the cab, I quickly learned more than I cared to know about them. I must say that the full moon was out for both of these men. Being a responsible cabbie, I try to always be prepared. I simply got out my antibacterial wipes, cleaned the back seat, and went back to the Hyatt for what proved to be a very profitable evening.
As I end this post, the words of a once-popular country song by Willie Nelson come to mind, “My heros have always been cowboys…” If I were more tech savvy I’d include a link to the song, but I’m sure you can find it yourself. Thanks for stopping by, and, happy trails – sorry, I couldn’t resist making one last cowboy reference. (image courtesy of 123rf.com).

20130131-032917.jpg