One of my fellow hacks in my company has told me on more than one occasion that I should write more about the business aspects of driving a taxi. I asked him why, and he says that he gets asked about it all the time, that people are interested in the minutiae of taxi driving, and people like hearing about the actual business itself. Personally, I never get that… people that get in my car just want to hear funny stories about the drunken idiots I drive around. I suspect that HE is more interested in that than the typical passenger. But it is true that there is a lot more to driving a taxi than meets the eye… people think that you just stand on a corner, wave at a taxi, you get in, and he takes you home… how complicated is that? But there is so much more happening in that interaction than you may realize.
Imagine that you walk out of a bar, see me parked out front, and you walk up to my car and pull the door handle, but it is locked. You bend down and look in the passenger window, and I roll the glass down and say cheerfully, “Hey there… where do you need to go?” You reply that you want to go home to a nice neighborhood on the west side of town, and I say, “Sounds great… hop in,” and you hear the power locks open, you get in, and we are on our way.
Now, you may not understand what just happened there, but that was an interview. You were applying to get in my car. I want to look in your eyes, I want to hear you speak, I want to like your destination, and I want to be confident that you have money for this ride. I was profiling you by sobriety, by attire, by demeanor, by destination, and by attitude, and if I have any doubts about whether or not payment might be an issue, I might ask if this ride will be cash or charge… and how you answer that question may well determine whether or not I even bother to start the car. If you look sketchy or really buzzed or you want to go a long way, I might ask to see some money up front. I don’t do that often, but if you want to go on a fifty mile ride and you look like your card might be declined, we are gonna stop by a nearby ATM within a block or two for some cash before we hit the road in earnest.
This is just protecting myself… I have only had a few non-payment issues in the entire time I have driven a taxi, and that’s because I take great pains to avoid them entirely. I would rather turn down a $60 ride that smells fishy than drive some wasted girl to some one hundred-acre meth-lab mobile-home park out in the middle of nowhere, where she promises me that her ex-boyfriend will pay me for this ride and give me a great tip… if we can ever find his trailer…
Back when I worked for Jack’s Taxi, there was a noob there that picked up a well-dressed couple one night, and took them on an incredible four-hour long, cross-country adventure across several counties that ended up being $350 or $375 on the meter. And upon arrival at their final destination, none of their seven credit or debit cards will approve this charge. He put another ten or twenty bucks on the meter taking them to an ATM that doesn’t give them any money, and in the end, he accepted $40 in cash and a check made out to Jack’s Taxi from them, a check that included a generous tip, and a check that promptly bounced two days later. Management was not pleased, to say the least. The lesson here is to not put yourself in a position where this can happen, and definitely do not accept checks. When in doubt, ask for some money up front, or head directly to an ATM and park in a position where you can see the money being extracted. If they object to that procedure or the ATM produces no fruit, put them out and move on to someone who DOES have money.
So, here is a story from last weekend that illustrates some of the “inside baseball”, behind the scenes maneuvers and machinations that taxi drivers go through all the time in order to get you drunken boneheads home. One of our drivers is a great guy named Khalil… he is from northern Africa, but he looks more Middle-Eastern, but he doesn’t really look “Arab”, either… just an indeterminate, swarthy, cafe con leche brown complexioned guy with a very thick but indeterminate accent… he might be mistaken for Brazilian or Greek or Guatemalan. Don’t get me wrong; not being racial here… this guy speaks 4 or 5 languages, he’s hilarious to talk to, and I really like this guy… but if you don’t recognize his heavy accent, you wouldn’t have a clue where he is from.
One nite, a girl that sounded really drunk called and asked if I could tell her if one of our drivers in particular was working tonight. I asked which driver, and she said, “I can’t remember his name… Karneesh, maybe…? I think he was Mexican…”
Between guffaws of laughter, I told this wasted girl that Karneesh is not working tonight, and I would be happy to come get her… but she said, “No, that’s OK… I’ll get another ride,” and she hung up, which made me wonder what service Khalil could provide that I could not… hmmmmmmm….
So I have had a lot of fun for a while on the company communications system… saying that some girl called looking for the Mexican we hired named Karneesh, how young wasted white gurls are calling for him only, and that he must be doing something untoward with his passengers, telling the owners that they gotta stop hiring Mexicans, that Karneesh the Mexican may not even have the requisite paperwork to even work in this country… One night, he came in to work an hour or two later than normal, and I said, “Fuggin’ Mexicans… always late…“, and he “LOL‘ed” me back…
And a night or two later, I made some “Karneesh the Mexican” joke at the end of the evening when most of the nite shift was going home, and he replied, “11 hours, $660.00, mi amigo.”
I had a great night, and he beat me by more than two hundred bucks… that’s the kinda hack Khalil is…
So last Saturday, I got a call around 8 pm from Khalil, the ex-New York City hack with a black belt in taxi driving that makes really good money, and when he calls with a ride he can’t cover, it is usually a really good fare. He tells me that he has a group of 13 people that need to be picked up at a posh club downtown 30 minutes before bar close, going a long way into the next county to Woodland Oaks, an exclusive gated community. He can’t work the call himself because he drives a five-passenger Lincoln Continental, so we need my 6-passenger van, plus Darren, who has the only seven-passenger van in our fleet. Khalil has quoted them a flat rate of $70 per van, plus a gratuity, and he texted me the customer’s phone number.
Now before we go on, let me say that I do not get the idea behind “flat rates”. In my experience, people shopping for flat rates are cheap bastards that usually aren’t great tippers, and I don’t do flat rates except on very rare occasions, and on those occasions, my “flat rate” gets me an adequate fare with a gratuity built in. Why the hell do you think I bought a taxi meter? I paid good money for a sophisticated digital taxi meter to assure that YOU don’t get ripped off, and that I don’t get ripped off either. The fare is whatever my meter says it is. When people ask if I will give them a flat rate somewhere, I say, “Let me ask you this… do you walk into a grocery store and offer the check-out clerk $3 for a $4 gallon of milk? Do you ask a waiter in a restaurant if he will give you a flat-rate dinner, no matter what you order?” If someone wants a flat rate, I come up with a padded calculation on the fare, add at least a 20% gratuity, and get paid up front. If they don’t like my number, they can go niggle with another taxi driver… I don’t have time to deal with this bullshit.
So after I hung up with Khalil, I thought this $70 flat rate was a little scant… I called Darren and told him about the order, and he thought that the $70 quote was a little light as well, especially 30 minutes before bar close. He told me to call the customer, get the specific address, and run it through my GPS to get the actual fare. So I did just that, and after doing the calculations, the customer’s destination came out to about a $90 or $95 fare. I tell the customer that we can’t do this ride for the rate that was quoted, and he sounds really pissed off. He says that our staff gave him a quote, and we need to honor it. I replied that our staffer did not have all the necessary information to make an accurate quote, and the customer offered to compromise, and he says he will accept $75 per car.
I told the customer that this all hinges on Darren, the guy with the 7-passenger car. If he doesn’t like the job, he won’t do it, and we can’t force him to accept the job. If he won’t do it, we will need a third taxi, which the customer obviously wants to avoid. So I called Darren, and he is underwhelmed, which is not surprising. The customer wants him to to go on a solid half-hour drive and a solid half-hour drive back for $75, right when the bars are closing, when he might be able to do four or five or six $20 or $25 rides at bar close, right when everyone in the bar district wants a taxi.
Darren isn’t interested, and I don’t blame him one bit. But now I am the middleman on the phone, trying to assuage the customer and apologize for not being able to serve him and his group, and I refer him to Jack’s Taxi, who has a much larger fleet and can probably serve him better. But this guy just can not take “no” for an answer, and he is beating my ass on the phone, telling me that our staff quoted a rate, and that we had an obligation to honor that rate, that this was going to hurt our business, that he is a very important person, that he would tell everyone he knows to avoid our company (35 miles away in another county), and he won’t stop calling me… my phone log shows 15 or 16 calls from this guy, and I stopped answering him after 9 or 10. Finally, he texted me with a “final offer” of $170 for both cars… I called Darren with it and he said no, because at this point, the customer is pissed off, and pissed off people don’t tip.
So an hour or so later, I saw Khalil outside a bar, and I pulled up along side him, and said, “Dude, can you GPS this shit before you quote someone? This jackass has been blowing up my phone for two solid hours!” Khalil replied that he asked the guy how many miles it was, and based the quote on the distance he was given. I replied, “Hell, man, I don’t even know how many miles that is, and I drive people around for a living… you can’t trust these drunks to give you accurate mileage… you know that.”
Khalil says that what he does is he runs the meter, and if it is significantly higher than his quote, he appeals to the customer’s sense of fairness and tells the passenger that we need to adjust this fare, as his mileage estimate that the rate was based on was low. Maybe Khalil gets more reasonable people than I do, but I know from experience that this tactic is just an invitation to an argument, a pissed off passenger, and again, no tip. I headed back to work, and I said to Khalil, “I hope Jack’s Taxi gets these people… it would be just my luck that Jack’s fucks this up and these people flag me down at bar close…”
And whaddaya know, about a half hour before bar close, an attractive but very drunk girl flags me down and asks if I can take her and her friends home… I asked where she needs to go, and she says, “Woodland Oaks”, and my heart sank.
Fuck! The pissed off people that were calling me for two hours are getting in my car!
I yell at the girl that they have to hurry up and get their people together, and a guy standing by her gives me $20.00 and tells me to relax… I tell him that he has to get them rounded up in 60 seconds or I have to move, because I am blocking traffic. Then I see a driver from Jack’s, out of his car and asking people milling around outside the club if they are the people that called for two taxis, so he isn’t having any more luck with these zombies than I am. The guy that gave me the twenty starts pushing people in, slams the door, and as he gets in the front seat, I see that he has a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka in his hand that he is trying to discreetly smuggle into my car, hidden behind his thigh and then wedged in between the door and the seat. I said, “Hey, let me see that bottle… it has to have a cap, or you have to get rid of it.”
He drunkenly replies, “What bottle?”
I said, “Dude, you are way too fucked up to be stealthy. It is against the law to have an open container in the car, and I can put you out for that alone, but my real concern is that it doesn’t get dumped in my car. Show me the bottle, or you have to get out.” He grudgingly complies, and it does indeed have a cap, so we hit the road.
These guys are zombies, but no one looks like they are likely to get sick. They talked loudly for a while, and I paid attention to their names, and the guy who was blowing up my phone earlier was not in the car, and no one is asking me about flat rates, so it looks like I am going to get the meter rate on this ride, and I already have a $20 tip in my pocket. The drunk in the front seat is a dick, but not the worst I have had to deal with. After a few minutes, a few of them nod out, and the rest are tolerable for the thirty minutes they are in my car.
So we are approaching the gate of their community, with a mere three hundred yards to go, and the guy in the middle row passenger seat abruptly and unexpectedly yaks. He just could not hold it together for another three minutes.
I slammed the car in Park, went to my back hatch and retrieved a roll of paper towels and The Bucket Of Shame, and mopped him up as best I could. Fortunately, about 90% of it was on his chest and lap, with very little on my carpet and seats. I told him to hold the bucket, and drove them quickly to their address. We are at right around $96.00 on the meter.
The guy in front digs out his wallet, and hands me $180.00 and asks if that will make up for his friend being a giant asshole. I took the money, double-checked the count, put it in my shirt pocket, and said, “The clean-up fee for puking in my car is $100.00; it is posted right there on the window, so I’d like another twenty dollars, please.”
The guy says, “Hey, man, I’m trying to be straight with you… why are you doing me like that? Why are you being a dick?”
I said, “I’m not being a dick. I’m running a business, and your friend back there has put me OUT OF BUSINESS for the rest of the night! I can’t make any more money tonight, I have to drive a long way back, I have to pay to steam clean and disinfect my car, and if it still stinks like puke, I have to pay for a professional carpet cleaning. Twenty more bucks, please…”
The guy in front says, “Fuck you, man… I was trying to be cool, and you are being an asshole! I’m not giving you more money… give me my money back,” and then he leans in close to me and reaches for my shirt pocket.
Pro-Tip for passengers riding in my taxi: Do not put your hands on me. This always provokes a very negative reaction on my part.
I swatted his hand away from my chest, shoved him back in his seat, picked up my trusty ball-peen hammer, hit the power doors, and bellowed, “Everybody out! Get the fuck out of my car or I am calling the cops!”
A girl in the far back says, “Wait! We need to go to our place next…”
I replied, “Not my problem. Sucks to be you. Were you listening just now? This car is OUT OF SERVICE. I suggest you call a taxi that IS in service. Everybody out, right fucking now!”
The guy in the front seat opens the door, and his bottle of vodka tumbles out and smashes on the street. The rest of them pile out, and I try to steer around the broken glass beside my car, and head off to the 24 hour car wash to steam clean my carpet.
So in the end, I got a $95 fare, a $5 tip, and the $100 clean-up fee… remember, the guy in the front seat gave me twenty bucks before we left the bar. But this story illustrates not only the wasted idiots we have to deal with, but also the business machinations and calculations that taxi drivers have to make all the time in their day-to-day operations. Driving a taxi is really much more complex than it may appear to the untrained eye.