By Joey Kennedy
Photography by Beau Gustafson
My neighbor Rod Walker drives a taxi for Yellow Cab, and he showed me a cross-section of Birmingham that few of us ever see—or, frankly, even think about. I rode along with Rod for a couple of days not long ago. In that window of time, we picked up all of Birmingham: affluent people getting from here to there; drunks who had been partying; struggling folks trying to get to or from their jobs; the assistant manager of a major pharmacy chain spending $100 a week on a taxi; a young man with mental-health issues begging for a free ride (that Rod gave). Black and white, old and young.
All of Birmingham.
Rod usually drives his cab three days a week—Thursdays through Saturdays. Those are the most lucrative days, and he’ll work about 40 hours in that time. He’s been driving for more than four years, starting after his job auditing food stamp usage in stores went part time. “From what I’ve learned over the years, I avoid most of the crazy calls,” Rod says. A “crazy call,” he explains to me, is “a call to a hooker hotel” anywhere.
But Rod drives just about everywhere else—from Over the Mountain to Ensley. And for the past few years, Rod has been documenting his experiences in his taxi through a WordPress blog, Birmingcabbie (birmingcabbie.wordpress.com).
The taxis these days are equipped with the latest technology: GPS, camera, credit card machine. There’s no longer a radio; dispatching is through an electronic box from Little Rock, Ark. It’s not a gig just anybody can get, either. A driving record has to be good; Rod underwent a background check that included an FBI fingerprint check. And most of the drivers lease their cabs in 24-hour shifts. They have to make their lease before they earn a dime. They buy their own gas. “Some days, I’ll drive 400 or 500 miles,” Rod says. “Some days, only 150 or 200 miles.” But Rod says he almost always covers his lease and gas. “You want to make (the lease) and get it out of the way,” Rod says, “so you can make money.”
One woman Rod picks up in Vestavia Hills just missed the bus. Public transportation in the Birmingham area is so spotty, a taxi is the only way many people without cars can get around. “I have to work every Sunday,” says the woman, who is a room attendant at a budget hotel and who works a second job at a McDonald’s in Hoover. “The bus does not run on Sunday.”
“I will say business is a lot better than it was four years ago,” Rod says. “And the more you drive, the easier it gets to make money.” Rod says driving takes a lot of patience, “especially with the traffic, but sometimes with people, too.”
A group of obviously intoxicated young men get Rod to take them from WorkPlay to a bar in Lakeview. They are loud and obnoxious. Rod is calm. “It helps to be an open-minded person, because you have every kind of person in Birmingham,” Rod says. “I’ve been in every neighborhood in Birmingham. I’ve come out of all of them OK so far. There are bad neighborhoods, but they’re not as bad as people think.”
Yellow Cab is by far the largest taxi company in Birmingham, with more than 100 vehicles, says Paige Coker, the company’s vice president. “We’re running at capacity,” she says. “It’s on-demand transportation. We moved nearly 1 million people last year.” Coker calls Rod a “tier 1 driver,” one very good at customer service. “That’s what gets the callback,” Coker says. “If you eat in a restaurant and you get bad service, you’re never going to eat there again. It’s the same for us.”
Rod says he hasn’t really had any close calls with danger, but he knows it could happen and “I’m always aware of what’s going on.” Once, a customer left a steak knife in the back seat of his cab; “That freaked me out,” he says. Another time, a guy lit up a crack pipe; Rod made him put it out. And Rod gets stiffed every now and then, but he takes it in stride. Rod adds that if a customer “asks for the window to be down, you always oblige. That means they may throw up.”
In the more than four years he’s been driving, Rod says he’s seen major changes in Birmingham: Regions Field at midtown. The Uptown entertainment district. The growth of Lake View and Five Points South. All of Second Avenue North. “I’ve witnessed all the entertainment come back,” Rod says. “Everything that’s happened in Avondale. When I started, that was No-Man’s Land.”
Spring is one of the busiest times for driving, Rod says, because it’s tax season and “people have a little money.” Rod says many people don’t realize that taxi drivers provide a service far beyond taking customers to and from the airport. Plenty of folks have jobs but no cars, he says, and they’ll pay $15 or $20 to get to work. Others are riding to avoid a DUI.
None of those scenarios are the case when Rod picks up a father and daughter at Vulcan Park who walked there from a condo at the intersection of Green Springs and Broadway. The little girl wanted to get a view of the city at night. Despite their long walk, the girl is full of energy and talks nonstop about her exciting day. Rod smiles. Before she exits the cab, she tells me to “be sure to mention a little girl” in my column.
So I do.