Trade Runner

FootballRicky getting shot in the head cut my career at Yellow Cab short. That and the lies about money.

My trainer—let’s call him Frank—told me on the morning of my second day, which also turned out to be my last. Ricky, a nice guy, died behind the wheel of his taxi on a warm night this past June from more than one bullet to the brain. I listened as I buckled into the driver’s seat and lined up our first ride.

“Robbery gone wrong,” Frank explained with a regretful wag of his head.

I liked Frank. Puttering around town those two days, we talked about his favorite movies, his former life as a drug smuggler, the seafood dinner he was planning with his grandkids later that week, and a mélange of other wild stories from his years of driving cab on the streets of Iowa City.

Frank too had once felt the barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his skull. Some kid who came from behind and took all his cash. Robbery gone right. It happened to him on the redeye shift, which I was to be assigned to.

“Oh, the rivers of vomit you will clean out of this cab,” Frank said with a bark of smoky laughter, then unblinking in a low gravel, “You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes?”

Frank snapped his fingers.

A few weeks earlier I’d quit my newspaper job and moved back to Iowa City to help support my partner Sarah through grad school. Yellow Cab hired me. Many other places did not. I imagined speeding around back roads with attaché case wielding maniacs chattering into my ear from the backseat, windows rolled down, tunes cranked up and the sun blasting in. I was excited to get started.

The guy who hired me said that Uber had made only a small dent in the market. He went on to promise that if I worked hard the money was good, upwards of $18 an hour, more than I’d ever made as a college educated journalist.

The guy who hired me lied. Big surprise, I know.

Yellow Cab drivers don’t get an hourly wage. Instead, they get forty percent of their daily cab fare, which, even for an experienced driver like Frank, only amounts to about $100. That comes to less than $10 per for a twelve hour shift. Cab drivers often work twelve hour shifts.

Also, the company didn’t take out taxes or pay any benefits whatsoever. You try to set some cash aside for the feds, Frank said, but even so, he’d ended up owing $2,700 last year.

I was of course willing to go along with all this. The dismal pay, the vomit, and yes, having a gun held to my head. Because I’m just like Frank. I have bills to pay. It took my mom pleading over the phone to snap me to my senses.

The next place that hired me was the United States Postal Service.

The role I filled was essentially an understudy for a substitute to a postal carrier. If the postal carrier’s substitute couldn’t make it in, they’d call me. At best, I could expect work on the weekends. Maybe. My only guaranteed shifts would be every single holiday.

The postmaster told me not to fret, that I would soon be moved over to full-time.

“The U.S. Postal Service will never lie to you,” my trainer—let’s call him Howie—said to me one day as I watched him sort his case. “But they will misrepresent reality.”

Full time carriers like Howie work eight hours a day, six days a week. Six days.

Howie wore a backwards baseball cap and a Milk & Cheese t-shirt. Milk & Cheese are two comic book characters I recognized—Dairy Products Gone Bad—whose bread and butter are ultraviolence and drinking gin. They leered out of his chest, saying as one, “We hate what you hate. And we hate YOU!”

This made me smile.

LLV stands for “long life vehicle”. That’s what those boxy post office cars are. Long life vehicles. Most of the Grumman LLVs were built in the 1980s, and are still in use to this day. I bet you didn’t know that. The one I rode in with Howie had rusted out holes in the floor. In the back was an unnavigable sea of Amazon boxes.

“Without Amazon we’d be sunk,” Howie said.

Weeks of training went by. I quit when it became clear that I would never get more hours.

I ended up applying for more than a hundred jobs in the Iowa City area. I would set up camp at the library early in the morning and fill out applications and write cover letters all day. My years of professional experience. My expensive college degree. None of it seemed to matter.

There’s a studio in Fairfield that creates and restores intricately handcrafted stained glass windows, then sends workers out to install them in churches and schools and museums all over the world. They were hiring not too long ago.

In my letter I did my best to talk up all the set construction I’d done in high school drama club. I said that whatever I do next, I want it to be something beautiful. The owner, a woman with a kind voice, called and thanked me for my “lovely words.”

I never heard back from her.

I loved being a reporter. The crazy, beautiful people you meet, the never ending chase and slow burn of a good story. It filled up eight years of my life. The summer days and winter nights of 2016 that I spent with the brave men and women of the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp are seared forever in my mind. I have never felt as alive as I did then.

I also hated being a reporter. One day our editor’s body was found in the woods. We never found out why he took his own life, and only barely talked about it. Just as we barely talked about the constant drumbeat of corporate mandated budget cuts that regularly vanished other dear friends and coworkers from our newsrooms overnight.

Newspapers are dying. And watching powerless as something you love dies is a hard thing to do. I quit my most recent job at a newspaper. I was laid off from the one before that. I quit this time because I absolutely had to. Maybe someday I will go back. Maybe I never will.

I wrote most of this at work. During my lunches and fifteen minute breaks.

I schedule hospital appointments in a call center on the second floor of an old brick shopping mall in downtown Iowa City. The pay is better, the stress lower, and the hours more decent than what I’ve become accustomed to these last several years.

The guy in the cubicle next to mine—let’s call him Tim—spends his time between calls folding receipts into aerodynamic triangles and drawing designs on them with colored pens. He’s helpful and quick to a laugh. Before this he worked at Meals on Wheels, helping deliver food to elderly people until the day came he had to quit. Tim has a degree in microbiology.

It’s a job. That’s all it is. Something we do for money.


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