For a handful of months, I drove a taxi in Orange County, California. It paid the bills. Barely.
My taxi-driving mentor, Ace, lived on his cell phone. He never took calls from the taxi dispatch, his gizmo wasn’t even hooked up. Some drivers in other places are scratching their heads over that because it works differently depending on where one is licensed to drive a cab. In some places, they work for the company and have to take the company dispatch calls.
In Orange County, we leased our taxis from California Yellow Cab, who didn’t care if we used their dispatch services or took personal calls on a cell phone, as long as we paid our weekly lease and didn’t do anything illegal. We bought our gas, paid all fees, and the only thing the company was responsible for was to provide dispatch services, insurance, and vehicle maintenance.
For some reason, Ace liked me and asked me one day if I’d like to help him out on busy weekends. That’s when the Huntington Beach area would go ballistic with partying and people who take cabs throughout the evening, going to and from the bars and clubs.
Plenty of them still drive themselves – Huntington Beach has one of the highest DUI rates in the nation – and plenty others take other cab companies that operate in the area. But hundreds of people still called Ace personally, and when it got busy he couldn’t handle it all himself.
He’d gotten up quite the database of personal clients over the years and, on weekend evenings, he’d function as a dispatcher while driving. He passed calls off to a handful of other drivers who he trusted not to rip-off, piss-off, or otherwise upset his longtime clients.
On one particular Friday night, we were slammed and Ace’s calls were stacked four deep. I was on my way back from a run to Long Beach and had just hit the 405 south when my phone rang. It was the boss.
“Hey, how far are you from the Beach and Atlanta area? I’ve got a client on the phone and I don’t want her to have to wait too long.”
I told him I’d just jumped on the 405 out of Long Beach and would get down there as soon as I could, which would be about a half-hour if all went smoothly.
“Great, I’ll have her call you and give you directions.”
She called and told me her name was Debbie. She was standing on her front lawn with her boyfriend and two of his pals. She said she had blonde hair and was holding her cellphone. She asked how long I’d be. I told her a half hour.
“Okay, please hurry! We’re going to “Sharkeez” in Newport and meeting friends tonight… they’re waiting for us now.”
The directions she’d given was to one of these neighborhoods where you turn off the main street onto such-and-such, then left at the corner and right at the next corner, then another right and another left and another right in this absolute MAZE of streets with names like Miramar, Dorsett, Posten and Stillwell, etc. All suburban hell with houses that look alike.
At least I wasn’t looking for an address. She said she was a blonde, 24 years old, standing on the lawn with three guys, so.. piece of cake. Or so you’d think.
I got down into the neighborhood and had turned off of Beach onto Atlanta, and was looking for the turn-off into suburbia. She called because traffic had been heavy and I was running a little behind the half-hour estimate I’d given her.
“Dave, are you almost here?”
“Yeah, sweetie, I just turned off of Beach.. give me a few more minutes.”
“Awesome! We’re still out on the lawn.. see you shortly!”
I found Miramar and made my right down to Dorsett. Okaaaay, Posten.. ah, there it is! Right turn and left down on Stillwell. Then onto Shaw, where they were supposed to be standing in front of the house.
WHOA, there they are! Cool!
The blonde standing on the lawn came running up to the cab with the three guys close behind her.
“Hi guys, nice to see ya!” I was always cheerful and friendly with passengers, which was one of the reasons Ace had brought me aboard.
“Yeah, we’re going to Sharkeez” she said, as she piled into the back seat with two of the guys and the other one came around to jump up front with me.
“I know, babe, sorry about the wait.”
“Oh, that’s okay, I know it’s busy.”
I took us back the way I’d come in and circumnavigated the maze while they talked about meeting up with their friends. Finally, we’d gotten out onto the Pacific Coast Highway and were on our way to Newport Beach. It was about a four-mile drive and then another couple of miles down the peninsula to Sharkeez once we were in town.
This is when she spoke up.
“Actually, you were pretty fast.. I was surprised.”
I looked at her in the rear-view mirror. Cute girl, this Debbie. Nice smile.
“What do you mean?”
“I’d just hung up from the cab company a few minutes earlier when you pulled up.”
I felt a flush of.. something. The knot in my stomach was unpleasant.
“Wait, you didn’t call Ace?”
Just then my cell phone rang.
“Excuse me,”… I answered. “Hello, this is Dave.”
“DAVE! Where the hell are you? It’s been fifteen minutes since you said you turned off of Beach.. are you lost or something?”
“Debbie?” I put the phone down and asked the girl in the back seat her name.
It was Karen.
She said she’d called the cab company – a competitor to ours – only ten minutes earlier, and it turned out she lived on the same street as Debbie, but just a few houses down. She didn’t know her.
I was tasked with explaining my faux pas to Debbie, who expressed her feelings back to me with strong language, delivered so loudly I had to hold the phone about six inches away from my ear.
She called Ace and gave him an earful too, and then he called me to find out what happened.
I asked him what the chances were that there would be another 24-year-old blonde girl, holding a cell phone with three guys standing next to her, on a lawn at that time in the evening, on the same street in that suburban maze, and that they also wanted to go to Sharkeez in Newport Beach.
He agreed that it was unlikely but that I still should have asked her name before leaving, like we’d do when picking up someone who called from a bar or club.
He was right. I told him that I’d offered to go back and get her for free once I’d dropped off my current passengers and that later I’d even take her home for no charge. She’d have none of it, she was too pissed off.
I’d finally suggested that she walk the half block up to Karen’s address because there would be a cab coming soon from another company and the driver would be looking for a blonde girl with three guys, so she should just tell that driver her name was Karen.
I think that’s what she ended up doing, but I never saw her after that. Sadly, neither did Ace.
I’d had better nights. Most of them, actually.