If you can envision a city as a living organism, with its heart beating outward from the epicenter of downtown, and if you can picture the crosshatching of streets as comprising a kind of circulatory system pumping the blood of commerce, then you might consider taxi cabs to be the white blood cells of urban life. The analogy is clunky but not completely infelicitous: Cabs do serve a particular purpose and, like white blood cells, they can be launched against certain malignancies. Most notably, taxis are an easy cure for the routinely terminal affliction of driving drunk.
To give a feel for those vampire cab rides I could mention the cute platinum-blond stripper out on Highway 99 who smiled, turned and, poking her preternaturally compact ass toward the windshield, gave us a brief lap dance … or tell you about the prim, pretty grade-school teacher hollering from the back seat, “I teach our youth and I touch myself and I sing about it and people love it!” ... or the diminutive woman in a short skirt reaching a finger around the passenger seat and dosing me behind the ears with pheromone enhancer ... describe the sour amalgamated uncirculated odor that emanates from five mouth-breathers with a collective blood-alcohol content deuce the legal limit ...
The guys at Go Taxi, a relatively new, independent cab fleet out of Eugene, were kind enough to let Eugene Weekly ride along on a few graveyard shifts over the past month, Friday and Saturday nights, just to see what we could see. The idea was to get a different, perhaps enlightening, possibly appalling perspective on unreconstructed Eugene culture, as seen through the windows of a cruising cab, and as heard in the boozy banter of patrons opting to do the right thing and steer clear of the steering wheel. Bless them, I say, every last one.
A city without taxis is not really a city. Look to Brooklyn, Boston, Mexico City: You can’t swing a cat without hitting a cab. Even in Eugene, a comparatively small city, taxis abound — especially on weekend nights, when the hordes of impaired, temporarily insane and nearly naked tourists of the Barmuda Triangle cluster up and rub together like limpets, sending out sex flares or telegraphing the mustered-up mustard of fight-club machismo.
Into the weird wee hours of weekend Eugene I rode along in Go Taxi’s Honda Odyssey van, twice with DJ Penselin and once with Adam Korinek, and we picked up a lot of people you could classify as something less than sober. So, seriously, if right about now you’re starting to recollect in bits and pieces that particularly entertaining talk we had late Friday, just know that whatever stupid drunken shit rolled out of your mouth during the cab ride couldn’t hold a candle to the overwhelming respect you deserve for having the common sense to stay off the wheel. Embarrassment and hangovers are temporary, but death is forever.
Out of the Darkness
Go Taxi driver Adam Korinek has a privileged perspective on the taxi industry. Along with Mike Spurling, Korinek co-founded Go Taxi some three and a half years back. The decision to bust out a competitive independent cab operation in the midst of a whopping recession seems to have been borne of equal parts wisdom and frustration. When it comes to the sticky science of economics, necessity becomes a contested ideal, but it nonetheless remains a spur to invention.
“Mike and I didn’t just start a taxi company on a whim,” Korinek explains. “I wanted to work in a fair business. We started in the worst economy of my lifetime. Gas was skyrocketing, customers had very little to spend and many people lost their entire career. How can we ever have any economic recovery if no one can find fair work?
“It seems like most companies want to take unfair advantage of everyone they can, employees and customers alike,” he continues. “Running a fair business is its own reward, and the best thing we can do to fight back.”
Spurling seems to share this desire to revamp the traditional model of taxi driving. “I began driving cab around nine years ago and slowly worked my way through just about every position that existed at several different taxi operations,” he says. “Through the years I observed that the general attitude toward our industry in this area was very negative.”
It was during those years that Spurling began working for the second largest cab company in Eugene. Then, when another company bought out Spurling’s employer, he suddenly found himself working for the biggest taxi service. Spurling became general manager, a position from which he believed he could start improving the public’s negative perception of taxis.
This proved a no-go. “I just didn’t feel that I was making much progress toward the goal of raising the taxi standard,” Spurling explains. After three years plus change struggling in a management role, he decided to take the leap. “I severed ties to begin what I hoped would be a better taxi company for the independent contract driver and the customer,” he says.
At the time, the perception of taxis as a shit industry in Eugene was well deserved, Spurling says. “It was my belief that the ride experience was more often than not poor for the customer because the majority of taxi drivers were miserable in their profession,” he says. High leases for drivers and too many cabs on the road contributed to a self-perpetuating sump of bad feelings and perceived sleaziness.
Spurling and Korinek at once tackled the root cause of taxi discontent — the drivers. “My theory for a solution was simple,” Spurling says. “If the drivers had a better environment in which to do their work, they would have better attitudes,” which, in turn, would lead to a more congenial public image and repeat business.
Even for a person as wary as Korinek, this newfangled business model has proven successful. “Because the company is fair, because we set it up that way,” Korinek explains, “we don’t have to cheat anyone.”
Like priests and proctologists, taxi drivers tend to inherit the sort of private info most folks keep from even their best friends. They are privy to the deepest drunken desires and conked-out confessions of absolute strangers and, because of this, cabbies tend to be either sullen, pessimistic loners or gregarious philosophers of the street.
Go Taxi driver DJ Penselin is of the latter persuasion. He is the polar opposite of Robert Deniro’s Travis Bickle, the alienated cabbie anti-hero who cruises Manhattan picking up all the “whores, skunk pussies, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal” fares in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Sharp, flirty, smart and always ready to talk, Penselin is the anti-Bickle — a man of the people, especially if the people are women.
“I have noticed that the more entertaining and outgoing the driver is,” Penselin says, “the more, and better, their fares and tips become.” To generate a steady and loyal clientele, Penselin networks during his down time through social media like Facebook as well as by texting friends and generally trying to spark excitement about getting in his cab.
It’s a canny move: Not only is Penselin drumming up business and advertising himself as a kind of local celebrity, but he’s maintaining a regular Rolodex of familiar faces — a faithful posse that sometimes fills an entire night’s worth of driving. He has more than 600 contacts in his cell phone — names, addresss, sometimes notes to himself about who’s a good tipper, who’s prone to ditching rides. He knows most of his fares by name, and he’s one of those avuncular dudes who can call women “honey” and “sweety” and not take a shot to the chops. The guy has game.
He’s also a virgin. “I’m an open book,” says Penselin, a Eugene native who graduated from Willamette High School. Just a few years back, he was studying to be a minister at Northwest Christian College, and he is not oblivious of the irony of the synaptic gap that yawns between serving Jesus and working a job where he can wind up with a stripper’s ass in his face. Penselin is strictly straightedge, though he’s not necessarily against drug use — he draws a distinction between natural intoxicants and “dirty” drugs like meth — and he certainly has a thing for strippers.
Takin’ a Ride
Korinek is a tough nut — wry, scowly, taciturn. He can seem reluctant to offer strangers the benefit of the doubt, opting instead to wait, watch, listen and basically withhold judgment until he gets a good read on your character. For people guilty of overabundant faith in the goodness of homo sapiens, Korinek’s cautious demeanor might come across as downright cynical or snobby, though really he’s just being shrewd. Caution is a smart way to go — for taxi drivers at least, if not for people in general.
“This is one of the darkest, shadiest industries on Earth,” Korinek says not long after picking me up for a late-night ride-along. “Sometimes I’m in here with the scariest people in town.” He says he’s seen a lot of people go into the taxi business thinking they’d make great cab drivers, then burn out quickly.
“Most people could be a great cab driver,” Korinek says. “It’s usually other factors that keep people out. First, many people hate doing it. Seems easy, then after their first day, they are done.” Another obstacle to being a taxi driver is “all the things that can happen in a decent person’s life,” such as DUIs, traffic infractions, accidents or poor health.
In the end, however, whether someone takes to driving seems to depend on intangibles like attitude, tolerance and flexibility. “You just have to like it,” he says.
“This is a great job,” Penselin tells me, and I believe him. He usually drives Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 5 pm till 5 am, and whenever he’s driving, he’s also dispatching Go Taxi’s weekend fleet of between five and seven cabs. He keeps track of everything in his head, juggling times and locations — which cab’s where, how long before arrival, who’s doing the airport run. He rarely uses his GPS. An evening’s take can range anywhere between $100 and $250, Penselin says.
Yes, he’s witnessed sex in the backseat and, yes, he’s cleaned up more than his fare share — no pun intended — of gorp, puke, yawn, hork, hurl. Every now and then he fields requests like the one we heard this past Saturday, “FIND US VAGINA!” and sometimes, in his role as psychologist and father-confessor, Penselin is victim to TMI. “Sometimes they tell me too much,” he admits of certain chatty passengers.
Despite all this, Penselin seems to find something more than just financial remuneration in his role of tooling Eugene peeps about town for money — a means of plugging into the scene in a meaningful and rewarding way.
Much of this job satisfaction Penselin attributes directly to Go Taxi itself, which he sets apart from other local cab companies. “I wanted to work for a company that looked out for both drivers and customers,” he says, “not be greedy like other taxi companies ... I get upset when customers think I am ripping them off. Not all taxi drivers are out to screw the customer over.”
I Touch Myself
Saturday, approx. 11 pm, Go Taxi ride-along notes: Prim and pretty, our grade-school teacher was on fire, having located that perfect fulcrum of drunken equilibrium where we shoot our best pool and charm even ourselves. She was burning bright inside the cab. There was nothing sloppy about her. Our teacher was the quintessence of elegance.
“You put me in the karaoke bar, and I’m gonna turn everybody’s shit on!” she told us. Her friends took turns egging her on and cautioning her that the enemy of privacy was riding in the passenger seat.
But she was immune to warning. This teacher would have her moment. “The truth of the matter is, the general public is going to say, ‘A teacher drinking? Fuck yeah!” she shouted. “I’m really stressed out! Me touching myself tonight is the best thing that’s happened to me in six months! I’m a great teacher! I am jackpot, pretty much, any way you slice it!”
“There’s a reporter in the car,” somebody warned from the backseat.
“I’m not giving him any permanent information that could get me fired!” she shot back, pertinently. It was glorious to behold. This was the beauty and terror of driving cab — unpredictable, explosive, fragile, heartfelt and totally human.