Think back on all those nights when you had a few too many drinks and the ability to self-censor was gone. You call a cab, and you expect that the driver will regard you with the same indifference that you do them.
“When people get into the car, they don’t know who we are,” said Linda, an Ann Arbor cab driver who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “They make this assumption of what our intellectual capabilities are and what our limitations are.”
But the cab drivers that circulate the Ann Arbor area have your number, University of Michigan student. And they had a lot to say about you.
The Best and Brightest
Daryl Johnson, who moved to Ann Arbor this year, has been working for Yellow Cab for about a month. In that short time he’s been around the block more than once. So far, he says, he’s been impressed by the academic achievements of the people he drives around.
“I am just amazed all day long at the caliber of students at the University of Michigan,” he said. “I have met some amazingly bright people here. And it makes me think, you know what? This world’s gonna be alright.”
On the whole, students seem to make good customers, but there’s more backseat debauchery you than you might think – especially around closing time. Johnson, who doesn’t drive late at night, misses that side of student nightlife.
“I take ’em to the club and then I’m ready to go home,” he said.
The experience is different for other, more seasoned drivers.
Linda says she has seen a side of University students that makes her more pessimistic.
She’s met graduates of the University’s medical and law schools who act more like Miss Teen South Carolina than a doctor or a lawyer.
“Everybody thinks they’re here on their superior intellect, but that’s not true,” Linda said. “There are a lot of students who are here, not necessarily because they’re the best and brightest. They’re here because their parents have a big-ass pocketbook.”
Driving the nightshift isn’t all bad, though.
“A lot of (the passengers) are really fun and entertaining, whether they know it or not,” said Bruce Nielson, a driver for Yellow Cab.
Nielson said he often hears snippets of locker-room talk while driving students around at night. It’s late, it’s the weekend, and many of the conversations revolve around the one thing always on the typical college-student mind: hooking up.
“You try to pin them down as to what exactly hooking up means,” Nielson said. “I still don’t know.”
The common perception may be that men are the predatory gender, with sex constantly on the brain, but cab drivers know this isn’t the case.
“The girls are just as bad as the guys are,” said 15-year Yellow Cab veteran Alex Persu.
He said that while groups of men he drives speak frankly about their opinions of potential “dance-partners” and their intentions for them, the groups of bar-bound women often divulge even more intimate details.
And while the single guys may have a lot to say about how the night will end up on the way there, Persu said the cab conversations are much different on the way back.
“The girl dictates everything that goes on once they get in the cab,” he said. “It’s all ‘Yes honey. Yes baby. Where do you wanna go? Sure, no problem.’ It’s definitely a woman’s world after 2 a.m.”
Although the TV show “Taxi Cab Confessions” may suggest otherwise, but Persu said the couples keep it tame – for the most part.
“There’s been some couples that have gotten to second and third base,” he said. “But they usually get out before they go all the way.”
Dazed and confused
Although he’s seen plenty of wild things in his cab, Persu says he’s never kicked a passenger out or refused to someone ride. That’s impressive because, judging from the number of people Persu says can handle their alcohol, it seems like it would be wise to start screening customers.
Persu said a passenger in his cab vomits about once a shift, and he’s the one who has to clean it up.
“It really ruins your night,” he said.
Johnson said the worst for him are Football Saturdays.
“That’s when I think, some of these folks ain’t gonna make it,” he said.
After a point, the rowdy routine ceases to be amusing.
“If I had a snapshot of the idiots that get in here, it would be that they’re drunk and they need help,” Linda said. “But do I use that in conversation and treat them badly? No. But they do that to me.”
Bad backseat behavior
Linda says she has no problem kicking students out of her cab.
At the Sept. 22 Penn State game, she picked up some students who started insulting her, calling her a stupid bitch. So she turned the cab around. The passengers asked her what she was doing and if she knew she was going back to where they started.
“I’m taking you back to where I picked you up,” she recalled saying. “You’re not getting this ride. Sorry.”
While drivers like Alex are fine with being a fly on the wall, there’s a limit to what Linda will tolerate.
“I’ve kicked out people who were talking about other people using the N-word and stuff,” she said. She said people are entitled to their opinions, but sometimes they forget they’re not alone in the car.
She has also been solicited for sex while driving. There’s a big difference, Linda said, between the experience of male and female drivers.
“They don’t get asked how much for a little sugar at the end of the ride,” she said.
Linda says she has degrees in two different fields from Eastern Michigan University and Arizona State University in Temple, Ariz., but because she’s driving a cab, she said she encounters endless stereotypes.
“For example, people think I’m Mexican,” said Linda, who is Indian. “They get into my cab and throw out every Spanish word they know.
Linda said students don’t always acknowledge that they’re acting racist after making assumptions like that, though.
“Everybody thinks of themselves as noble,” she said.
Last year, a law school student said to her, “You must have dropped out in the third grade.” Once, a football player got in her cab and said, “OK, so you’re a crack whore, right?”
Apparently, that one player made enough of an impression on Linda to make her resent the whole team.
“I really love it when the football team gets spanked,” she said.
She still drives the cab, she said, because after putting herself through school, debt has limited her options.
“I am actually held hostage by student loans,” Linda said. “That’s why I started driving a cab, because I was taking my exams without books.”
The melting pot
If a statistician were to try to predict where University students come from based on the sample of students who ride with them, their results would likely be skewed.
“If you count every person that goes to school here, it’s gotta be fifty percent of the population coming out of Long Island,” Linda said. “How diverse can Long Island be?”
Johnson said the diversity among University students was one of the most prominent features of Ann Arbor. From the blend of ethnicities to the wide variety of subjects students pursue, Johnson said he has seen it all.
“I got a dancer in here one day, a nationally-ranked tennis player in here another and someone in med school doing breast cancer (research),” he said.
Despite Johnson’s rosy outlook on the University’s diversity, he said it’s far from the ideal mix he would like to see.
“The saddest thing I’ve seen is how few black students there are here,” Johnson said. “And it just breaks my heart.”
Because of this, Johnson, who is black, said he worries that if his teenage daughter doesn’t have a flawless academic record and sterling recommendations, she may not have a chance to get into a university she wants to attend when it’s time for her to apply to college.
Johnson said that one of the worst incidents he’s seen while driving a cab involved racism. He once drove a student home to a fraternity after a football game. When the student got out, a meter maid was issuing a warning because there was trash on the lawn.
“He talked to her like a dog,” Johnson said. “His disrespect for her really ticked me off.”
He said he couldn’t help but thinking that disrespect had to do with the fact that he was white and she was black.
Johnson, who volunteers at a non-profit organization through his church providing mentors for young African-Americans, said that usually when he encounters University students he feels confident that they’ll contribute to the greater good when they leave the University.
“But this guy scared me about our future,” he said. “I thought, wow, will this be our governor someday?”