The first call comes just before 6 a.m., from a woman who needs a ride from a cheap local motel to the methadone clinic. When she gets in the cab she looks tired, though she’s clear-eyed and articulate. She says she’s meeting a friend of hers at the clinic, for moral support. She’s older, but not elderly, a bit rough around the edges but quite pleasant, and we have an enjoyable conversation on the way over.
Later that afternoon I get another call from the same number, and this time she sounds flustered. She asks if she can get a ride from the same motel over to the Walmart on Mullan Road, and is it OK if she has some stuff to take with her? When I pull up at the motel, there’s a pile of large plastic garbage bags and small boxes outside in front of the room. A stern-faced woman from the hotel staff hovers, scowling, on the fringes of the scene. The woman from the morning ride, alongside another woman of roughly the same age, exit the room with the last of their stuff and stack it by the cab.
My fare apologizes for the amount of gear, but we’re able to jam everything into the Prius, including her companion. On the way to Walmart she mentions casually that their destination is actually the homeless camp under the Reserve Street bridge, apologizing again, this time for the deception, saying she feared I might have refused the ride if she had told the truth. She goes on to explain that her disability check was still three days away, and that some months require a little “camping” between motel stints. Her candor and earnestness is remarkable, and together we figure out the closest spot to the camp that we can get to in the car. I help them unload their belongings, and their genuine gratitude makes me feel both blessed and ashamed.
Given the recent arrival of Uber and Lyft in Missoula, it’s not necessarily a banner time to get into the taxi business. But I’ve never been known for my financial acumen, and when my buddy Mick, who owns Missoula’s Green Taxi, mentioned last year that he was looking for a driver, I signed on. Chasing seasonal and freelance work was becoming a grind. I like to drive, I enjoy talking to people, and I’m good at both. Why not?
Some nine months later, I’m still driving. I find the job to be a relatively equal mix of challenge, frustration and reward. The challenge is mostly logistical: calculating drive times and coordinating pick-ups and drop-offs while driving (Green Taxi drivers double as dispatchers during their shifts, though we pull over when necessary). The frustration comes in various forms: rude or inconsiderate customers, occasional long stretches of inactivity, the maddeningly bad habits of Missoula drivers, good service unrecognized by gratuity. The reward? I’ve been in love with this town since the day I moved here 27 years ago, and driving cab has given me a long look under its hood. It isn’t always pretty in there, but its heart is just as big as you’d expect it to be.
Long story short: I totally get ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft. When both local taxi companies are jammed, there are times when the wait for a cab can be an hour or longer, and when you can tap your phone and find a ride three minutes away, why wouldn’t you? It’s clear that ride-shares have a competitive advantage over taxis, chiefly due to the fact that ride-share drivers are contractors, not employees. Green Taxi pays me a wage even when I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for a fare, and they pay into the system via employment taxes and workers’ comp. Ride-share companies don’t pay their drivers a dime unless they are actively making the company money, and the burden for pay-in to the withholding system falls on the driver/contractor in the form of self-employment taxes (not to mention insurance, gas, and vehicle maintenance costs).
The ride-share toll on Green Taxi’s business is a double whammy. First, overall fare numbers are down. Mick estimates revenue loss at around 35 percent. And second, the demographic we lose tends to be that portion of the citizenry who have smartphones and credit cards—in other words, the relatively well-off of Missoula. That is bad news for cab company owners and for cab drivers, whose tips suffer in quantity and quality. The resulting stripped-down demographic for post-Uber Green Taxi rides fall into roughly three groups: those who want the assurance of setting pick-up times in advance (ride-share drivers are not supposed to take preset appointments); those who prefer taxi drivers to ride-share drivers (when the topic comes up, a significant number of our clients express concern about the perceived lack of experience of ride-share drivers); and those who don’t have the technological means to use ride-shares and can’t (or won’t) negotiate the sometimes complex and lengthy public-transit routes. The last category includes, but is not limited to, older folks going to medical or dental appointments; lower-income folks doing the same, along with a healthy sprinkling of court dates and probation appointments; and carless folks of all ages tending to the everyday business of life at banks, grocery stores, casinos, health clubs, strip clubs, restaurants, hair salons and the like. In other words, ride-shares have created an even more need-dependent clientele for Green Taxi services than was envisioned when the company received its charter as a utility from the Public Service Commission.
We serve that need on a shoestring. Green Taxi has reduced its fleet from three to two cars, with only one in operation at any given time. Day drivers begin either at 6 a.m. — the start time defined by Green Taxi’s charter — or as early as 4:30 a.m. for airport rides, which we take by appointment. Shifts change at 3 p.m., and the night drivers roll until 3:00 a.m.
I’m a day driver, which means I miss most of the drunken shenanigans endured by my nocturnal brethren, though the price I pay for that convenience is waking up not long after they’ve parked their rig for the night.
Aside from the ungodly hour, those early fares are awesome. Roaming the streets well before Missoula wakes up is dreamlike, and people heading for the airport are generally engaged and talkative.
A few of the more memorable early fares I’ve had: trading one-ups about our respective country’s missteps with a woman from the U.K. who had been lodging at a local hostel, her bemoaning Brexit and me Trump (she also congratulated us on our new roundabouts, while noting that Missoula drivers could use a bit more instruction on how to use them, which presented the perfect opportunity to bust out my new joke: “Why do conservatives hate roundabouts? Because they have to yield to the left”); visiting with a gentleman who turned out to be the CEO of the credit union I belong to, gaining insight and affirmation of the credit union model; chatting with the literary agent of a writer buddy of mine and singing the praises of the debut novel of yet another writer friend, a moment that made me feel my cabby-ness more than any other; commiserating about the financial difficulties of being a struggling writer with a self-published fantasy novelist/janitor, and then getting stiffed cold by that same writer.
The arrival side of airport rides can be just as engaging. Locals are almost always happy to be home and often ask about recent headlines, happenings and weather (from last year’s smokepocalypse to the grind of another Montana winter, people love to talk about the weather). And it’s with no small measure of pleasure that I listen to visitors talk about Missoula’s reputation as a destination, information they’ve gleaned from family, friends or, increasingly, one of those top-10 lists Missoula seems to make on a regular basis. They have a voracious appetite for inside information on the local scene and reflexively show their appreciation via gratuity, on a scale commensurate with their residence in one of the distant, fantastical locales where people make actual money.
But my favorite airport pickup wasn’t a flight arrival. It was three hippies whose car had broken down on a road trip from Oregon to Minnesota. They had just returned a rental car to the terminal, and seeing them on the curb outside the airport on a sunny Missoula summer day triggered echoes of my own distant past as a road rat. They must have been in their mid-20s: a slender, dark-haired male; a drop-dead blond, all-American flower child; and a magnetic Portuguese beauty who more purred than talked. The fella was traveling to the heartland to apprentice with a renowned bootmaker, a skill he hoped to later parlay into a business making and selling footwear on the music-festival circuit. I gave them several rides over the span of a few days, long enough to almost feel like a fringe member of the group, and then they were gone.
During the stretch of time between those early morning airport rides and the beginning of the conventional workday, fares do not come all that frequently, but for whatever reason they tend to be memorable. The only time I ever dumped a fare and ran occurred after a 5:30 a.m. call from a chain hotel. The ride was a young man whose rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness rap included, among many other things, his confession as a drug dealer, the level of treachery attainable by the fairer sex, and several accusations that I had already taken the money he had removed from and reinserted into his pocket multiple times. He had indicated a trip with multiple stops, but after he got out at the first one, I busted out of there like a bat out of hell.
Another early call led me to a woman waiting at the bus stop near one of the local hospitals. On the phone she’d said she had to “get away from those people” at the hospital and didn’t want to run the risk of being forcibly readmitted. When she got in the car she still had I.V. tape on one arm and explained that she’d had emergency surgery the night before and hadn’t slept since coming out of anesthesia some five hours prior. All she wanted to do was get her car, which she had left at work, and go home to take a nap. She acknowledged the risk of post-operative infection, but in her mind that risk was outweighed by the cost of hospital time and the desire for her own bed.
Another 5:30 a.m. call came from a guy in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, his voice a bit slurred but not so much as to set off alarm bells. When I pulled in, the dude was upright but his buddy wasn’t. Against my better judgment (we can refuse a ride if we think our safety might be at risk, or if we judge somebody too incapacitated or otherwise incoherent to conduct a transaction), and after extracting a promise from the conscious one to sit in the back and assist in vomit control should the need arise, we packed the overindulgent one into the back seat. When we got to their place, the conscious one dug in his pockets and gave me a rueful look. “Oh shit, dude, I don’t have any cash on me!” he said. Credit or debit card, I asked? Nope. “Will you take a bud for payment? It’s killer shit.”
I told him we don’t accept that kind of green, and he promised he would get cash from the bank later that day and come by the office to pay. “I’m a stand-up dude, bro! I’m a man of my word! I use you guys all the time! I promise I’ll take care of this!” I weighed a bud in the hand versus a bond in the mouth and decided to go with the bond. I never heard from the guy again, despite multiple follow-up phone calls and occasional drive-bys of his place. So Luke, man, if you’re reading this, what happened to all that man-of-my-word stuff? If a fella can’t trust a desperate stoner in the wee hours of the morning, who can he trust?
Rides are occasionally quiet, when the fare responds tersely to an icebreaker or two, or spends the ride submerged in their phone. But most often the inside of the Prius becomes some mix of chat room, confessional and psychiatrist’s couch. A retired lady I delivered to a local hospital for an appointment seemed sweet and mild-mannered until I asked about her former career, at which point she exploded in an epithet-laden tirade against the facility that was our destination, which had let her go just weeks shy of a tenure that would have granted her better benefits.
One of our regular customers is a former manager at a fast-food restaurant who once vented about the owner-mandated “spirit day” workshop she was heading to, which emphasized the importance of smiling. She was not smiling when she said this, but cracked one when I opined that perhaps good wages and benefits would be the best way to cultivate staff cheer.
Another former fast-food-joint manager needed several rides in quick succession, one of which was comically short. Turns out she had been electrocuted while doing dishes at the restaurant and her short-term memory was almost completely wrecked, to the point that she could get lost walking a few blocks. She said this matter-of-factly, also noting that she hadn’t heard from the lawyer working on her settlement for quite awhile — longer, she said, than she could remember.
One of my most haunting fares was an attractive young woman whom I suspected to be a prostitute, since her ride had been arranged by a man about whom she quite casually knew next to nothing. For some reason our conversation drifted to Missoula’s meth problem, which she assured me was real and growing. She then grew quiet and told me to keep my eyes open for news of a recent double murder that, she confided, was “some real Breaking Bad-type shit.” Several days later the Missoulian reported that the remains of two bodies had been found in tubs of acid. A couple of days after that, a fare said that a friend of his suspected that her teenage daughter, who had been missing since the day of the crime, was one of the victims, and it turned out she was.
I’ll also always remember the bipolar guy on a manic run who scared me initially but reassured me with his Zen-like self-awareness, then tipped quite handsomely upon our arrival at the bus station. And the white girl in a burka who told me she converted to Islam because she distrusted all white men, saying this as she tried to maximize the space between us by melting into the front passenger door (the back of the Prius being occupied by her bike). And the older lady with a brain disease who needed a ride from an outlying town into Missoula because her husband, she said, had abandoned her. And the former Sikh priest turned truck driver who broke his ankle in a wreck when he got lost on a logging road and rolled his semi trying to turn around. And the chatty, cheerful lady going to a funeral who name-dropped a former Missoula serial killer who used to work at a furniture store we drove by. And the arm extending from a sheet-covered body that time I stopped at a traffic light just a few yards from an accident scene in the wee hours of the morning. And the dude with Queequeg-ian tattoos and a gentle soul who had just completed a meth rehab program and was in Missoula looking for a fresh start.
We consistently serve people on society’s margins — low income, elderly, disabled. There are challenges inherent to driving folks on the fringe. Haggling over price is not uncommon, nor is inexact communication over pickup and destination locations, which can be a hindrance, and there are times when a fare’s body odor has me reaching for the jar of Mentholatum I keep near at hand. I understand that writing this makes me seem like an asshole, and maybe I am. But the honest truth is that while these issues are not exclusive to any particular group, my marginal customers do account for the lion’s share of such inconveniences.
So now comes the part where I tell you — with every ounce of conviction I have — that driving cab is not conducive to maintaining stereotypes. The reason is simple. As mentioned above, the inside of a cab tends to get people talking about their lives, so I hear firsthand the difficulties of life on the fringe. The landlord who is trying to kick an elderly couple out of their apartment by accusing them of smoking, though neither smokes. The woman who lost her job to a DUI conviction and then got thrown back in jail because the bus she took to the pre-release center to blow into a breathalyzer was late. The trailer tenant whose neighborhood is getting an upgrade (read: no more trailers) and is now buried on some waitlist for affordable housing and has no idea where to take her kids.
By and large these folks possess no apparent sense of entitlement. They chafe at their fate but are resigned to it. They face long odds for ever pulling themselves above the line of sustainability, but they do the best they can because it’s the only thing to do.
I once got a call for a ride from the food bank to one of the shabbier extended-stay motels in town — a call that, I’ll admit, did not fill me with anticipation. When I pulled up there were two men and a woman on the curb with a sizeable ration of groceries stuffed into bags and boxes all around them. They were in high spirits because their new digs at the motel were a considerable upgrade from where they’d been living (I didn’t ask where that was), and now they had a larder full of fresh groceries to stock it. After a short and lively conversation they tipped me a buck, which is the most unexpected and rewarding gratuity I’ve received to date. But the fares that stick with me the most are the Green Taxi regulars, a wide-ranging group who have become part of my life, and I, I’d like to think, part of theirs. There’s a nonagenarian who gets her hair colored at a salon nearly every week. She doesn’t like using her walker, and I’m happy to escort her from door to door. We talk about her fascinating life and former career on foreign soil, and she asks for regular updates on my family. We are on different sides of the political spectrum but enjoy each other’s company immensely.
Another woman, roughly my age, cannot drive because of seizures she developed as an adult. She loves music but can no longer attend concerts, so I tell her about the shows I see. We talk about all sorts of things, she fills the small car with sweet energy, and I never leave her without feeling quiet contentment and gratitude.
And then there’s perhaps my longest-running regular, a man dying of a terminal illness. He was living in an extended-stay motel when I first began picking him up, but after receiving a court settlement from an online nutrition company that had bilked him out of thousands of dollars, he was able to look for a place of his own. I took him to several prospective rentals, helping him in and out because he uses a walker. When we found the right place, we both knew it and ended that ride in high spirits. He’s a sports junkie and we talk about local and national sports and about my kid, who plays three sports. He was one of the few fares I told about the death of my father last winter, and his response helped me more than most. He’s an alcoholic, and most of our rides these days are booze runs, about which I have mixed feelings, but he’s honest and clear-eyed about his condition and his life, and I try to respect him by not preaching. I’m hoping I can get him to come to watch my kid pitch a baseball game this season. Because at some level, we Missoulians are all kind of a family, whether we know it, or like it, or not. And viewed from the driver’s seat, it’s a bigger family than we thought.