Sunday, December 27, 2015

Chapter 24: Mapping Out a Future

Chapter 24: Mapping Out a Future

Jobs 67 - 72

1997 - 1998

Job #67: Taxi Driver

After I left Turkey, I was able to get a job with one of O-Town’s two local cab companies. Unfortunately, I first had to pay 100 dollars I could ill afford to the city of O-Town for a permit to operate a cab. I had to pass a government-level background check and be fingerprinted and all that jazz. I was surprised that mere cab driving required such scrutiny, but considering the generally sleazy nature of most of the cab drivers I met, it’s probably for the best that not just anyone could drive a cab.

The cab company I worked for shared the name and color with the most famous cab company in the country: Yellow Cab. And by “shared”, I mean “stole” (I’m not really afraid of being sued by a guy who operates a small fleet of cabs out of a dodgy auto salvage yard; besides – he’d have to admit to stealing the name in order to sue me for saying it). It’s my understanding that Yellow Cab, whose ubiquitous name and color can be found in just about every city in the nation, franchises out those operations. There are, however, many small-time operators who just use the color/name combo without so much as a “by your leave” to the owner of the copyright. O-Town’s was one such operation, and I’m sure the real Yellow Cab corporation in Chicago couldn’t be bothered about what was going on in a Podunk town in northern California.

Yellow Cab’s rival also stole their name from another famous cab company: Checker. The owner of Checker had once worked for Yellow until going into business for himself. The competition between the two reached ridiculous levels. Yellow started painting checkers on their cabs in order to confuse and snag costumers from Checker, who responded by painting their cabs yellow. Finally the city council had to step in and order that henceforth and forevermore Yellow Cabs shall be yellow and Checker Cabs shall be checkered. The two idiots probably spent more money painting and repainting their cabs than they ever made from trying to steal each other’s passengers. Eventually Checker went out of business, and for a while Yellow Cab was the only game in town, but now there are a few smaller competitors to Yellow in O-Town. Shortly after he officially shut up shop, the former owner of Checker was rumored to still be hauling passengers for a fee in his private vehicle, which was illegal at the time, so I guess it’s a good thing that the city required permits to drive cabs. Now I suppose with the advent of such things as Uber, all bets are off.

Driving a cab was quite different from driving a paratransit vehicle. We didn’t have meters in our cabs, so we used a “zone” system drawn on a map of O-Town to determine the fares. There were two problems with this system. First, the zone map had been drawn when the cab company had been under different ownership and their office was located downtown. Now the office was a couple of miles away from its original location. The price of fares had been updated over the years, but the zones had not been redrawn to account for the new location of the origination point of the cabs. This was unfair to passengers and drivers for various reasons. If a passenger was making a short trip near the current office, they were actually paying more for their ride than someone making a trip of similar distance near the old office. By the same token, the drivers weren’t making as much money despite having to drive a couple of extra miles to transport someone near the old office. The company owner, Nick, was also losing money through this oversight, since he got a whopping 60 percent of our fares.
The other problem with the zone system was, of course, that the lines between the zones had to be drawn somewhere, usually coinciding with streets. If your destination was just on the far side of a zone line, the cost of your ride jumped up considerably. I spent so much time arguing with passengers over what they thought was a fair fare, among other things. I used to wish so badly that we had meters in the cabs, so that no matter how unreasonable the price may seem, at least the passengers couldn’t really argue with the amount showing on the screen. Besides, they could have monitored how much their ride was costing and asked to be let out short of their destination if it was starting to exceed their budget.

That’s a strange thing about cab rides – you often don’t know how much it’s going to cost until the end of the ride, and you don’t have to pay until the end. We had a flat “pick up” fee like most cab companies, and the zone system at least made it possible to know in advance how much the ride would cost. But there were additional fees, such as waiting, which was based upon a certain price per minute. IF someone wanted me to wait while they ran into a store or something before continuing their journey, that added to the price. This usually ended in an argument about how long they thought they had been away from the cab compared to my time-keeping. Again, if we’d had meters, there wouldn’t have been room for dispute.

I usually got ripped off by people who said that someone waiting for them at their destination had the money to pay for they ride. They’d disappear into the house and I’d never see them again. One time I took two teenage girls out to the reservation near one of O-Town’s two – count ‘em:TWO –  Native American casinos. At the time violent inter-tribal rivalry necessitated that the entrances to the reservation neighborhoods be closed to all vehicular traffic except those of residents. I stopped at the gate while one of the girls walked in to purportedly get the money for their fare. After several minutes of awkward waiting, I suddenly realized what was about to happened. Sure enough, the second girl suddenly jumped out of the cab and disappeared into the darkness as fast as her feet could carry her. I didn’t even bother yelling. I certainly wasn’t going to run after her – I could just imagine what might happen to a white man caught chasing a teenage girl through “the Rez” at night.

Of course, all our pick-ups and drop-offs were logged by the dispatcher, so if we got ripped off by a passenger, we still owed the owner his 60 percent for the time and use of his cab. We also had to pay for our own fuel. So I had to become very careful. The only time we actually asked anyone to pay upfront was for out-of-town trips. That was company policy. The dispatcher would calculate the cost of the trip, and the passenger paid that amount before we set out. For the local rides, though, if I didn’t know someone, or had any reason to doubt their willingness or ability to pay, I would sometimes ask to see their money before we started.

 O-Town is not like New York, where it seems like every other car on the streets is a taxi, and you could just hail one at any time. Since we had such a small fleet, and there weren’t any “taxi stands” where someone could expect to find a cab, a person on the streets could never know when or if a cab might pass by. Most of our rides were called into the office, and then the next driver in the rotation was dispatched to pick the passenger up. People could still hail us, but I quickly learned that people hailing a cab in 0-Town usually didn’t have any money. Often their decision to take a cab was a spur-of-the-moment thing based upon the unexpected appearance of a cab crossing their path. If they’d been planning on taking a cab, they would have called for one. The fact that they didn’t call usually meant that they didn’t even have enough money for a pay phone. It’s sad to report how many times I was accurate in this cynical assessment. Such passengers were the mostly likely to “rabbit” on you at the end of the ride.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that cab driving under such conditions as existed in O-Town at that time was just a money-losing proposition. I worked a twelve-hour shift from 6 at night until 6 in the morning, and some nights I barely made any money after paying the owner his lion’s share of my fares and refueling the cab. Many nights it didn’t pay nearly as well as working a normal human-type shift at a minimum wage job would have. Shortly after the new year, I decided to call it quits. The owner actually tried to talk me out of it, which was a new experience for me. I was flattered, but I just couldn’t keep working such long hours for such low pay.


Job #68: Cement Work

I found some temporary work with the step-father of our dear old family friend Becky, Lurleen’s niece. He was a free-lance cement mason, and a decent fellow. The work was sporadic, though, and nothing I could rely upon for regular income.

About this time I got pulled into one of many well-meaning programs which people on public assistance and unemployment insurance often find themselves. It was a series of job search workshops. I had been through such programs before, so they didn’t have much that was new to teach me. They did, however, offer instruction in job interview skills, which included video-taped mock job interviews. That was actually quite valuable and helpful. They also helped with job placement.

Job #69: Crop Dusting Company

With their help, I got a weird, short-lived job working for a crop-dusting company located in a remote corner of Butt County. Rice is a big crop here, and this company needed extra help during the seeding and fertilizing season, which was in full swing by now. We would meet at the company’s hangar, and then convoy in various vehicles out to whatever rice farm needed servicing that day. The basic set up was that a couple of open-top, bottom-dump hopper trailers full of seed or fertilizer would be parked alongside the “landing strip” (which was any piece of flat ground wide enough and long enough for the duster to land and take off). A couple of people would be stationed inside the hoppers with shovels to make sure the material all got out. A special loading machine, powered by a tractor, would suck up the material from underneath the trailers and transfer it into the hopper on the duster. The duster could only hold enough material for one or two passes of a typical rice paddy, so it was frequently landing and taking off. My usual job was to jump up on one wing while another guy took the other wing when the pilot landed. We would then clean the spattered bugs and dust off the windshield of the plane during the brief refilling procedure, then jump off and run clear so the pilot could roar off again for another pass or two. I really had to admire the skill and bravery of those duster pilots to operate safely under such conditions, which were often complicated by nearby power lines.

Of course, everything was done with great hustle. After a couple of days of repeatedly clambering on and off of the wings of an airplane, my nearly 40 year old body was just agonizingly sore. I begged off of that job, claiming that my car was not sufficient to the commute, which it really wasn’t. It was either that or ride with a co-worker I couldn’t stand.

It wasn’t long, though, before things started looking up for me, and good thing, too. I had been going through hell personally since leaving Turkey, and the financial fiasco of cab driving didn’t help. I went through one of the longest and darkest depressions of my life. When I wasn’t sleeping off my 12 hour shifts, I was surly and sullen to everyone around me. Mrs. R says that on at least one occasion she actually found me curled up in a ball inside our closed and dark bedroom closet. I have no memory of this, but I have no reason to doubt her. I was really low.

But there was hope on the horizon. It centered upon a kernel of an idea which had germinated when I was trucking. I was remembering how much I had actually enjoyed my time as a paratransit driver, and I realized that one of the things I liked best about the job was working with the elderly people who comprised the greater part of our ridership. Oh, sure, some of them were cranky, and some were downright demented, but for the most part they were an enjoyable group of people to work with. I thought that if I had the chance, I might like to return to school and learn to become a social worker specializing in the elderly.

Now, I’ve said before that college and I were never a great mix. I like to learn, and I’m good at it, but I don’t enjoy formalized education. I had made some faltering attempts to return to college, but they never lasted long. Despite my personal feelings about school, the real road block to further education was my outstanding student loan debt. At the time, if you owed the gubmint money, you were ineligible for further educational financial assistance. Without that, college was out of the question for me. When Clinton came into office, he changed that. I could go back to school if I wanted!
And now I wanted to go to school. After scores of dead-end jobs, I was ready to make good on my earlier idea of becoming a geriatric social worker (before I myself became a geriatric). Despite my crushing depression, I somehow managed to make all the necessary arrangements and fill out the necessary forms for financial aid. I was slated to start school in the fall of 1998. I was a little dismayed to find out that all the courses I had taken when I was younger didn’t really count toward anything, so I was looking at a full four years of college (two at the community college and two at the university) before I could earn my bachelor’s degree.


Job #70: Pizza Cook/Delivery "Boy"

Now all I needed was a part-time job to supplement my financial aid. That soon came in the form of a job at a pizza place. The owner had a few independent video stores, one in O-Town, two in College Town and one inside a supermarket all the way up in Alturas, California. He used to be a manager at one of the supermarket chains in Butt County, before deciding to go into the video business. He also opened a pizza restaurant next to the O-Town store, and that’s where I worked. 

That was actually one of my favorite jobs. Working in a pizza place is probably not something I would have chosen for a career, but it was perfect as a part-time job for a middle-aged college student. There were also a lot of perks. We got discounts on the food, and free video rentals from next door. We also got free movies at work. The video store had a few TVs hanging from the ceiling, as well as one piped into the pizza place to show movies to shoppers and diners. The staff of the video chose what to put on, and they weren’t always careful about whether the movie was strictly family-oriented. I remember seeing the famous shower scene from “Sixteen Candles” and the “draw me like one of your French girls” scene from “Titanic” while working. I didn’t complain.

My favorite part of the job was delivering the food. The owner provided a car, so I didn’t have to worry about fuel, insurance and wear and tear on my own vehicle. Sometimes I shake my head when I remember some of the risks I took in pursuit of higher tips for a speedy delivery.

Meanwhile, my focus at school changed almost as soon as I started. My first semester, I had to take a geography class as part of my general education requirements. I discovered that I absolutely loved geography. I quickly changed my major to it and began to pursue it with vigor. I planned on becoming a cartographer. I had always loved maps, and I had this romantic image of myself sitting at a drafting table, patiently drawing lines and dots that represented the world. I was soon to learn that the new reality was much different than my old-fashioned notion, and that would present some problems further down the road. But I didn’t know that then, and was just happy to have found something I was passionate about.

I probably could have happily worked at the pizza place for the entire time I was in school, but it seems like whenever I find a job I like, the universe seems to need to strike some kind of balance by taking it from me. After about a year, the owner announced that he was going to have to close the pizza place because it wasn’t showing a profit. I was sad. Now I had to find a new job.

1999 – 2001

Jobs # 71 and 72:
Instructional Assistant and Geography Tutor

I had just started a new school year, and had become pretty friendly with one of my professors, whose name was Scot (yes, with only one “t”). He was a few years older than me, and had been a quadriplegic most of his adult life due to an unfortunate collision with a submerged boulder while diving into a local creek. His disability had not prevented him from achieving success in college and life. He was now the chair (no pun intended) of the geography department at the community college. One day after class I pushed his wheelchair across the hall to his office, which he shared with a couple of other professors. During the course of our conversation, I revealed that I was looking for work, and he said they needed help in the geography office. I was overjoyed. To actually work alongside the professors who were teaching my favorite subject. It was like a dream come true that I hadn’t even dared to dream.

I also worked for a time as a geography tutor in the learning center at Butt College as part of my financial aid package. I didn’t get many tutees. Geography really isn’t that hard.

In summation, I continued to work for Scot at the community college even when I moved on to the university in College Town, so that was actually one of the longer jobs I’ve had, if you don’t count winter and summer breaks. I can’t really remember how I made ends meet during those lulls in financial aid from the schools. I may have picked up work with Scoop from time to time.

I will touch briefly upon some of things that happened during my time at the Big U in the next chapter. I graduated in May of 2002, and my work history continued to take some interesting turns and bumps, but the overall rate at which I changed jobs began to decrease. We only have 13 more to go until we reach my current job.

By the way, at the time of this writing (December 27, 2015), tomorrow will be my fifth-year anniversary at my current job, making it my longest job by about a year and half over its predecessor. Hurray?

The end.

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