Coffee, cigarettes and speed bumps:A night with a Carbondale cabby

Coffee, cigarettes and speed bumps:A night with a Carbondale cabby

A ride with David Trampier, Carbondale cab driver

He rolls his own - no filters. He keeps his smokes in a novelty box that displays the word "Outlaw," embossed in thick, red ink.

When the key is in the ignition, he's not just David Trampier. He's cabby No. 4, and he knows Carbondale better than people who have lived here their entire lives.

"I literally have a map of the entire city in my head," Trampier says.

Trampier has been driving in Carbondale for about eight months. The former Southern Illinois resident used to drive a cab in the northwest suburbs of Chicago but moved back to the area last year.

"This job suits my personality," Trampier said. "It's continually

dealing with different people. You're spending a little amount of time with people in a more intimate setting so there's more opportunity to get into interesting conversations."

A passenger in the backseat perks up and says, "Yeah, when we get drunk we start telling our lives."

But sometimes those conversations are heated - to a boiling point - and Trampier is left in the middle of the pot.

"I once gave a ride to an atheist who was just hard line against anything about the Christian dogma," Trampier said. "Then I picked up someone who happened to be a Baptist preacher, who was going to the other side of town and absolutely had to be on time, so I couldn't drop the atheist off first.

"Why don't you and you just park this cab and come into praise the Lord?" Trampier recalls the preacher asking him and the atheist.

"So they went at it after that," Trampier says. "I just tried to keep things from getting violent."

Cab drivers are independent contractors.

They rent the cabs for $64 a night. They pay for their own gas, and if the gas prices are high it can eat into their profits. Whatever money is surplus at the end of the night is take-home cash.

Last year,Yellow Cab Co. had to get an increase in fare approved by the city of Carbondale. It used to be only $1.70 to ride in a Yellow Cab, but after Sept. 11 that changed to a basic fare of $2.20 to make up for the jump in gasoline prices.

The city of Carbondale set up a 30-zone system and a basic fare structure. If someone gets a ride in a cab and stays within the same zone, it's a flat rate of $2.20. For every zone crossed it's 40 cents tacked on to the flat rate. Riding in a Yellow Cab is a business exchange.

"I dispatch the rides in an economical fashion," Trampier says.

Being a cab driver is immediate gratification. Cab drivers get paid daily; there's no wait on a bi-monthly paycheck.

"The harder you work, the better you get paid," Trampier says.

This job isn't easy. Driving a cab is a special skill and in order to do it well, Trampier must have multiple attention spans. He has to keep his mind on at least four things at the same time - all the time. First, Trampier has to think about the act of driving itself, something some people don't do so well.

"I see quite a few accidents," Trampier says. "I see all the stupid things people do with their cars."

Trampier remembers a specific accident that he was involved in. He was driving an older woman who was sitting in the backseat. At an intersection downtown, another car, driving into the sun, came screaming through and slammed into Trampier's right fender, sending his cab into a spin that covered 450 degrees.

"If I'd been any further up in the intersection the old woman might have died," Trampier says. "It scared me."

Secondly, he has to be aware of his destination and continually think about where to turn, east or west, right or left, one-way or four-way.

Thirdly, Trampier is engaged in conversation with the passengers and has to be alert for that as well.

"And somewhere in the Twilight Zone you've got to keep half an ear on the radio," Trampier says.

A golf term for hitting the ball into the water, also cabby jargon for a no-show.

"I wait five minutes," Trampier says. "Some day-shift cabbies wait only three."

A cabby usually gets three waterholes during every shift. If Trampier gets water-holed three times by the same party, he refuses to pick up at that address ever again.

"Some of these people need to realize that this is my job," Trampier says. "If they make me wait, the next person has to wait. It can be very frustrating."

Trampier keeps a flashlight under his seat. He pulls it out and turns it on. In a confusing part of town, he can't always see the house address numbers. The sun has left and all Trampier has to work with is the cool, dark night. He's looking for No. 5.

The flashlight dances on the front of houses and apartments. It catches glimpses of televisions flickering in living rooms, lonely chairs on porches and rusty screen doors.

"There's eight, we must be close," Trampier says.

Then they emerge, four people, ready to go to Key West for a good time.

"It'll be a tight fit but we can do it," Trampier says.

And the flashlight goes back under the seat.

"I think the most people fit into a Yellow Cab was nine," Trampier says. "The most ever was 16, in one of the old checkered cabs, but those aren't manufactured anymore."

Yellow Cab Co. owns three Dodge Diplomats and a few Ltd. Crown Victorias - all painted solid yellow, but these machines are in no way lemons.

"We're in a 1989 Crown Victoria," Trampier says. "I like these better, I'm actually thinking about getting one of my own."

Trampier pulls a silver thermos out from next to the driver's seat. He unscrews the lid and an aroma that would make Juan Valdez fall to his knees fills the cab. On long nights, the only shift Trampier works, coffee is a pleasant passenger to have aboard.

Though being a cabby may not have the perk of stock options, it does have its unique rewards. Trampier once picked up a student who had just graduated from the SIUC School of Law. The student didn't have any money on him so he asked Trampier to take him to the SIU credit union to withdraw some cash.

"When he was at the machine, from the expression on his face, it looked like he didn't have any money in the bank," Trampier says. "Turns out he was just deep in thought. When he came back he handed me $100 and asked me to hang out at the Hot Spot with him and have a drink."

Trampier couldn't have that drink because he was on the clock. The student understood but insisted on taking Trampier to breakfast.

"Later on he took me to breakfast and I ended up getting paid $100 for about two hours of work," Trampier says.

Sometimes the ride isn't so rewarding. Last year, Trampier made a pick up at Pinch Penny Pub. Two men said they were headed to Makanda. They went for a couple of miles, under the thick canopy of night, down a one-lane road into Union County, Trampier says.

"The two guys were talking about dogs," he says.

"Have you fed the dogs?" asked one of the guys.

"No," said the other.

"Those dogs are really big, I'm not getting out of this cab until you feed those dogs," the first man replied.

"Sometimes I get a hunch," Trampier says. "Or a feeling on the back of my neck. I mean, sometimes, I'm completely alone and in the middle of nowhere with these people."

The day shift starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 6 p.m. The night shift picks up at 6 p.m., then goes and goes and goes until 7 the next morning.

After all the drama, confessions, drunkenness and waiting - a full 13 hours later - Trampier is ready for sleep. And at the end of the night, which is actually the morning, No. 4 gets home, where he becomes just David Trampier again. He cracks a Milwaukee's Best, smokes a couple of cigarettes and finally closes his eyes.

Reporter Arin Thompson can be reached at