Much like dating and porn, you don’t really think about taxis in rural parts of the U.S. because you just naturally assume that all those things are done by horses. But believe it or not, people living somewhere between Los Angeles and New York have actually mastered fire and routinely use it to explode liquid dinosaurs that power their steel horseless carriages. Some even make a career of it, like Allen, who drives a taxi in eastern Montana, which is wholly different than driving a cab in the big city. How so? This so:
Research by Evan Symon.
You Go Places That No One Else Wants To Go
Uber and other ridesharing apps have made it so much easier to drink till near-unconsciousness at bars located inconveniently more than walking distance from your house. I also heard rumors that people sometimes use them to get around sober. Well, Montana wouldn’t know much about it. Uber just got there, and is still just a minor presence in the state, leaving lonely cabbies like Allen to do everything, and I do mean everything.
“A German couple wanted to see some of the windswept plains here and thought they could walk or get taxis everywhere. They looked up hotels and everything else, but they read something wrong and found out the hard way that out here in Montana, you need a car or you’re fucked … The Germans would say, in the middle of a Reservation ‘Let us out here and be back at 6 please.’ It felt like the last time I was ever going to see them alive or they were going out to bury a body. They weren’t the only ones who got out in the middle of nowhere, but they barely knew English.”
*Furiously Googling “hidden Nazi gold Montana”* Hmm? Oh, right, the article. So Allen sometimes acts less like a taxi driver and more as a personal chauffer with the instincts of a professional babysitter.
“It happens a few times a month that someone asks to get out in a totally uninhabited area.”
“I try to ask, and most say ‘hiking’ or ‘bird-watching’, but I had a teenage couple get wordlessly out and give me a $50 too … I always make sure they have a ride back and I even offer to come back at a certain time to make sure they can get back home. Only that teenage couple didn’t use me to get back, and I later saw them in town a few days later, so they got back alive somehow.”
Well, at least we now know that the forests in eastern Montana are serial killer-free because those teenagers totally fucked in the woods and weren’t murdered.
“If you’re in a city or suburb, you won’t go out into the boonies often. Here, drive one minute from ‘downtown’ and you’re in the boonies. Of course we’re going here. You don’t grab a cab in Chicago and ask to be taken to a ranch or somewhere else rural. You’ll spend half a day in a cab. Out here it happens every single day.”
You’re On A First Name Basis With Everyone
It doesn’t matter what you do, when you’re the only game in town, everyone knows you by name. Remember buying weed from the only dealer in your school? You didn’t call him “a drug dealer.” You called him “Mr. Johnson” or “the shop teacher.” It’s the same with taxi drivers. John Oliver had a bit about it from a city in Michigan with just one cabbie in the entire town.
“I work chiefly on a 60 mile stretch of highway here (US Highway, not an interstate).”
“30 miles in one way is the airport, and on the other is the edge of the Reservation. Closer to the airport there’s other cabs, but on the other side, I’m it. So when someone is in a motel and asks the front desk for a cab, they won’t say ‘A Taxi is coming for you.’ No, it’s ‘Allen’s coming for you.’ I know several of the owners since I stop by so much. That John Oliver segment doesn’t surprise me. Every rural area has somebody like that.”
That’s also why Allen is OK with his taxi possibly not looking like a typical taxi at first glance. Everyone in the area knows its him, so he could drive up one day in the Wienermobile and everyone would be: “Oh, guess my ride’s here.” But it can get a bit awkward with people from out of town.
“I hate to pick on Los Angeles, but there was a nice family from Los Angeles visiting relatives, and for some reason they needed a cab back. I don’t know what their relatives told them (I drove them before once or twice) but when I pulled up they ignored me for five minutes before the father walked up and asked ‘Are you Allen?’ I told him I was and he scanned my cab (normal cab, but heavily salted and starting to rust) and asked again.”
“I lit up the ‘TAXI’ sign on top and he finally smiled and told everyone to get in. When they were walking up he apologized and said ‘Sorry, I didn’t see that. I’m used to cabs that have stickers all over them or Ubers. Not something like this.’ ‘Why, what were you thinking?’ He didn’t respond, but I think he thought I was a meth head or was stalking them or something.” But you have to understand their hesitation.
“I know some people are unsure about being picked up by someone by name. It doesn’t sound like a company – it sounds a little more rinky dink.”
“I mean, would you rather fly to Billings with Delta Airlines or Willie’s Cessna Service? But that’s the truth in small towns. You’re not always going to get those name brands you see in cities with more people.”
You Have A Lot Of Freedom But It Comes At A Price
“There was a group of ranch kids who had quads or dirtbikes who always rode on the shoulder or on field paths,” Allen explains. “Besides being noisy, they were harmless. They obeyed the laws and were kids being kids. Except one. There was a kid (let’s call him Chad) who started swerving into the lanes. He had on a small camera (GoPro) and was doing it to get good shots of cars going by, specifically (one of Chad’s friends told him) to ‘see the drivers faces’ when he did it. He did this to me a few times, and I was none too pleased.”
Fortunately, being the only taxi around, Allen had other means of revenge at his disposal besides buying up all the shitty cologne in town and watching Chad have a nervous breakdown.
“Well, one day, Chad was out doing this alone when he wiped out. The bike was totaled, and he needed a ride out of there so his parents wouldn’t have to come and get him. All of his friends said no, and when he called me, I was his last resort. He begged me, and all I said was ‘You nearly caused me to crash because you thought it was fun’ and I hung up.”
“He still lives in town, and I have never seen Chad on a bike after that.”
Allen also has a lot of freedom when it comes to setting his prices. Small-town taxis legally have a monopoly so they can theoretically charge as much as they want. But that may actually end up costing people their lives.
“I saw how much other taxis in the wider area charge (notably the other taxis at the airport) and I go off them. I could charge more, but at that point that’d be gouging and could hurt my business. I have a flat rate for inside towns, and then per mile outside, just like any city taxi. Say I doubled my rates. No Uber, no other taxi and no one will drive them, so if somebody comes out of a bar drunk, they either have to walk or attempt to drive because they won’t want to pay.”
“There are DUIs out here and there are people walking miles back home. I jack up my rates, they’ll be more. Not a lot because there aren’t that many people here to begin with, but it would happen.”
Allen knows that because that exact thing happened when he took a vacation and wasn’t around.
“During a vacation to Chicago two years ago, two DUIs happened. Probably seems like a small number, but for out here, it was unheard of. I probably was the cause of that. If one of them careened off the road and died, I would have secondary blood on my hands.”
“If people want or need to get somewhere badly, they’ll get there. I make sure they get there safe.”