Monday, November 25, 2013

Life Lessons Learned in the Taxicab- A Pilot's Story

The Pilot Cab Driver- A Mama Epiphany

                          By Brian Settles

It was early 1991. Eastern Airlines was no more; bankruptcy had permanently closed her hangar doors, another brief flash of the journey into that place of disbelief I was now calling my life. My struggle was with not wanting to be there, challenged and annoyed with the ongoing stream of epiphanies that only enter your life when the challenge to be with What’s So is greatest. We say that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  But the part was left out- doesn’t give believers more than they can handle.  But my faith, like the tide, was up and down. I was among the ranks of the Sunshine Christians and I was working through the agony of feeling I was “doing the time but not doing the crime.”  The humiliation and embarrassment that I had put on my idiot hat for my United Airlines pilot interview haunted me daily. I had prolonged the purgatory of driving the Buckhead taxicab for financial survival, living on half the income and putting in three times the hours to earn it, working six, sometimes seven, days a week with no health insurance or a luxury called vacation. I was in daily quandary of rationalizing my circumstances and being okay with the inexorable events that had brought me to this place. 
My life’s entertainment had been reduced to amusing myself with the humor I could shift from the radio chatter between the other Buckhead drivers and the dispatchers, Clyde, Fish and Kim, who all had their unique talents beyond vectoring cab drivers to their next fare. Even with my thousands of hours of jet airplane flying, I was impressed with the skill it took to be a good cab dispatcher, particularly during peak rush hour mania managing nonstop, anxious customer phone requests for cabs in the early morning and late afternoon. Not only did the dispatchers handle the phone requests but transmitted two way radio assignments to drivers in the nano seconds between calls. Rush hour was a daily feeding frenzy for cabbies all over metro Atlanta- Checker, Yellow, Lenox and Buckhead Safety, all thumbing their rosaries for The Big Fare, a trip from Buckhead to upper Marietta, Stone Mountain or the thirty dollar half hour trip to Hartsfield Jackson Airport, renamed in 2006 to honor Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. It could have been fun had I not descended from a ninety thousand dollar salary to forty thousand.

Out of procedure Buckhead drivers reported into designated zones in three hundred sixty degree arc around the dispatch office whose center was at the corner of Peachtree Road and East Paces Ferry. The system for positioning was surprisingly simple but efficient.  As we dropped off fares all over metro Atlanta, we hastened back to the closest Buckhead zone to position for the next assignment, always given to the first driver reporting back in the zone, Buckhead, Brookewood, Lennox or Peachtree Battle,  were our zones.  Cabbies understood that it was about hourly pay; and keeping a customer in your back seat every hour of your shift was the objective but there were fret filled lulls to be endured when customer calls came to a screeching halt and engines shutdown. The down time of limited customer activity slung us all into varying levels of angst as we passed the waiting time chatting it up with other drivers in favorite wait places, catching up on the Atlanta Journal or USA Today newspapers, or stealing nap time in the shade of a hundred year old oak or elm tree near Bobby Jones Golf Course. Striving for contentment in my slick yellow and black nine passenger wagon with dark tinted windows, sporting shiny chrome spoke hub caps;   I worked on maintaining a healthy attitude about the ups and downs of fare quality. In the final analysis, at the end of the day, it was about hourly pay; it all seemed to average out, not over the day but the week, if you were able to make patience your friend. There in the cab business there were miserably slow days and blurry ones replete with one big trip after another, those three hundred dollar days.

 In the calamity of maintaining financial solvency driving a cab, it wasn’t always easy to remain cool when business was snail slow. When a driver’s call sign blasted across the radio for a fare, it was a challenge to accept with equanimity the crap shoot of whether it would be short fare to Piedmont Hospital for a senior citizen living near Lenox Mall, a six dollar trip, or the mother lode trip for the driver right behind you in line for a trip got a pick-up at the Atlanta Financial Center going to the Hartsfield, a thirty dollar trip. Some days that Piedmont Hospital trip was followed by a call to pick up at the Buckhead Villages going to the Kroger’s, a four dollar trip, all the time listening to dispatcher calls for cabs at the airport, marinating in “awe shucks” morass over I just missing that big trip. To keep the For Sale sign out my yard in Stone Mountain, I needed $2,400 net per month; six hundred dollars per week take home after gas, maintenance, dues and insurance. It often seemed like madness that I had lost my high paying career with bankrupt Eastern Airlines and was now trapped in the purgatory of cab driving, which added to the sense of protracted suffering waiting on liberation into the life of happy days again that I prayed awaited me.  How to survive it? That was the question

Being with What’s So… That was the buzz word that sustained me.  The phrase came up during one of the seminars I took at Landmark Education when I first began my survival lark driving the cab. I believe it was the Breakdown Seminar, transferring your relationship to Breakdowns life from  Upset and Being Stopped  to one of empowerment and creativity, becoming proficient at Being With What’s So.  It was that will to be with What Was So that brought on the best epiphany for looking at everyday as a privilege, whether I was going to Kroger’s, the hospital or the airport with a fare.  Knowing the other cab drivers were not in possession of my attitudinal philosophical advantage, I lamented the stories of verbal abuse the senior citizen customers often shared with me about the poor, disrespectful treatment they received from the other drivers who didn’t hold back their disgust with the short distance fares, shuttling the seniors around Buckhead causing them to miss out on the big money trips. I heard sad accounts of ignorant drivers refusing to transport a senior in a wheel chair unless they were accompanied by someone to aid them. Some drivers flooded with the notion that it was “about them,” and not the customer, wouldn’t get out of the driver’s seat to open a door for a senior who was being aided by a walker.  Sadly, many seniors were so beat down by burden of old age, family loss and poor health depression they were borderline apologetic for inconveniencing the cab drivers for even putting up with them. I listened to their seniors’ stories of struggle, offered words of encouragement and enthusiastically looked forward to the pickups at residences that housed them.  It brought flashes of joy and peace to me standing for seniors having a pleasant experience being with me in my comfortable yellow and black mobile. Over time, the familiarity with their family stories, and them mine, created a connection of relatedness that dwarfed any notions of missing out on a big trips to the airport or chatting with some cutie-pie show girl travelling to the Gold Club or Cheetah II for an evening of sliding up and down the polished brass pole.  One day, in the midst of standing for a Life I Loved, I got it:  I had indeed made lemonade from the taxicab relationships with my senior passengers.  I looked forward to serving them and brightening their days; it became clearer on that one gorgeous fall day of 1991 when I helped Mrs. Levine get out of her wheel chair at the Carlyle and into the backseat of my cab, painstakingly storing her chair in the back of my nine passenger wagon. I got why it meant so much to me to show kindness to the seniors. It was the communion.  My two sons and I had lost Mama just five years earlier to uterine cancer; she would have been eighty four years old, the same age as some of those seniors I was chauffeuring around Buckhead.  Unbeknownst to me until that moment, I was treating all my senior passengers like a hoped any cab driver would have treated my mother.  Compassion, relatedness, support and love- those were the gifts I offered all of them. Love- I was vicariously visiting Mama through them. And they thought I was just being a nice cab driver.

Captain Brian Settles is a Adjunct Faculty member at Mercer University in McDonough, Ga. and a retired Boeing 757 pilot who is the author of No Reason for Dying: A Reluctant Combat Pilot's Confession of Hypocrisy, Infidelity and War.   See website-





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