Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

06 March 2018

Cab Driver Stories: ...Drunker Than A Sailor

I was sitting on the taxi stand on a Friday night in downtown Pensacola some years ago. It was getting late and I was about to call it a night when two drunk Navy kids piled in. I mean, they were, as my friends up in Washington like to say, “drunker than ten Indians” whatever that means. Really drunk, I guess. And these two were.

The drunker of the two was a white kid. He immediately slumped in his seat, nearly unconscious. His black friend at least did not look like he was going to puke. The white one did. Other than that, they seemed like nice kids.

”Take us back to base!” the black kid said.

Before even moving the car, I turned around and looked at them for a bit. They seemed very, very young.

“How old are you guys?” I asked. “You guys 21 yet?”

There was an awkward silence: No answer.

Over the years, the Navy has had...varying...policies regarding underage drinking of their students at the NATTC (Naval Air Technical Training Command). Now, I hear that there that it's “zero-tolerance.” Underage drinking gets you “separated,” which means “kicked out.” But back then you might get away with it with just NJP (non-judicial punishment) or a visit to the “Captain's Mast” which is more serious and probably career-ending but might result in you staying in.

Back at the base, the boys would have to sign-in and get across the “Quarterdeck,” which is a reception desk of sorts where people monitor the comings and goings of their sailors. And these two never would've gotten away with it.

I told them that I wasn't taking them back to base. I said I'd take them to a fairly inexpensive hotel near the base so they could sleep it off and sober up, and that I'd pick them up and take them to base for free in the morning. I told them that if they could not afford the $70 for the room, I'd spring for it. After the usual macho bluster subsided, they agreed. I handed the white kid my puke bucket and we departed.

When I started driving a taxi, I'd work downtown on the weekends. This was before Uber came and pretty much put taxis out of business in Pensacola. Because of the fear of drunks getting sick in the cab, I bought some large plastic child's beach pails. They were, like, a buck at Walmart. I put some plastic bags in them and...voila! they look like little garbage pails. But they're not ;)

The black kid kept telling me about how the white kid was out partying with some older sailors (who could obviously hold their liquor better and) who'd abandoned him at some point in the night's festivities. The black kid took the white kid under his wing and assured him that he'd get them both back to base. He was very proud of himself for sticking up for his buddy and being The Protector. He was equally dissatisfied with the older guys.

We got to the Ashton Inn and Suites. The black kid went in to register. Then he disappeared (ostensibly somewhere to relieve himself, I'm sure). The receptionist, a woman about my age came outside to smoke a cigarette. She looked into the cab and saw my comatose young passenger, who was leaning forward in his seat, face buried in my emergency Bodily Fluid Ejection Device.

”He been that way for long?” she asked with a chuckle.

”All the way here from downtown,” I replied.

I gave the kids my number. I told them I'd pick them up whenever they wanted. With that, they stumbled away. I got up early the next morning, figuring that they'd call, but they never did. I assume they found their own way back to base.

22 February 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Speaking Of Service...

Pensacola is not exactly known as a “college town” although we do have the University of West Florida and Pensacola Christian College. It's nice having PCC here because the kids who attend it are universally clean-cut, well-dressed and well-mannered. We see them at Walmart and at the mall, instantly recognizable. Along with all the Navy and Marine kids from the Navy Base, our little town has a different look and feel than, say, Berkeley, CA. No scruffy hippies here!

I happened to be in my taxi, working the airport one Friday afternoon in January. The PCC kids were returning from their winter break. The college sends shuttle vans to pick them up (they are not free).  But many eschew them and opt for the $11.00 taxi ride to school. Don't ask me why.

This young, clean-cut kid walks up to my cab. His luggage is non-military (which is distinctive) and I know immediately where he's going. We exchange pleasantries, load up and take off.

It's not a long ride to the college, so I knew that my time with this passenger will be brief. I have to make the most of it. I asked and he told me that his major is Pre-Med.

ME: Sooooo...you want to be a doctor?”

HIM: Yeah, I guess...” he replied with a surprising lack of conviction. ”Trouble is, it's not going very well. My grades aren't very good.”

Hey, maybe the kid is only trying to be a doctor because his father wants him to be one. Who knows. But this opens the door for me. 

ME: “Well, you're a Christian, right?  We Christians believe that God has a plan for all of us. Perhaps God's plan for you is that you not be a doctor.” I add,”But that's the problem with God's plan – it's usually not revealed to us in advance. Sometimes you just have to pray on it and trust in the Holy Spirit to guide you to where you're supposed to be.”

Big mistake. Now, as I've said I'm not afraid of talking about religion and/or spirituality.  It opened the door for him, too.

Do you believe in God?" he asked.

I told him that I do. 

HIM: "Well, if everything in your life went completely wrong...if your cab died and your house burned down...if everything that could go wrong did go wrong...would you still believe in God?”

It was such a strange, yet innocent and naive question that I actually laughed. Trying hard to not be or sound condescending, I said, “Son, you're too young to know this yet...but by the time you get to be my age you will have had some very good and some very bad times. Sometimes things go horribly wrong and you start to think that there's no way out. Life can be pretty scary sometimes.

But the bad times do not challenge my faith in God. If anything, they strengthen it.  Because through both the good times and bad, God has always been there with me – even when it seemed that no one else was. He has given me the strength to get through whatever was happening. And He has never let me down.”

The conversation got even more intense. The boy was evidently going through a struggle of faith. He was obviously trying to refine and develop his own beliefs. And he quite clearly needed someone to talk to.

The problem was that we'd gotten to his college. It was a Friday afternoon and that's when it gets busy for us cabdrivers. I needed to get out and make some money. But I also didn't want to just kick this kid out of the car. And so we talked. He kept asking me philosophical questions...questions without one single, absolute or even simple answer. Some things we just have to take on...you know...faith! He'd quote Scripture, especially the Old Testament; I'd dismiss it out of hand.

Finally, I said, Look, we Catholics focus more on the New Testament...on the life of Christ. Our Bible tells us to not take Scripture literally. The Bible is not God's word as dictated by a boss to his secretary. It is the 'inspired' word of God. We can't even be sure that Christ said all of the things that are attributed to him!  Once you wrap your head around that concept, it makes things a whole lot easier.”

Still, it's hard for many Christians to move away from thinking that the Bible is God's actual Word with a capital W. That belief is pounded into their heads from an early age.

Eventually we got out of the cab and I retrieved the kid's luggage from the trunk.  He held his hand out, looked me right in the eye and gave me a firm handshake.  Someone had taught him well.

"Thank you for your service," he said.

I wasn't sure how to take that.  Did he mean my service driving people around who don't have access to cars?  Or did he mean my service of talking to people about spirituality?  I hoped it was the latter...but you never know.

19 February 2018

Thoughts On Getting Older

You probably don't come to this blog to read about religion. To be honest, flying and motorcycles are the two topics with which I'm most familiar, so I kind of stick to them. But as I get older, my faith becomes more and more important to me. And so now I write about that. I'll try to be brief. But you know how that goes...

I don't know whether you believe that there is a Creator or not. But I'm sure you understand that there are many, many people for whom the belief in a Creator is a central part of their very being. Like me. I've run it through my brain six ways from Sunday, and while we cannot scientifically prove the existence of the Creator, neither can we disprove it (and no, evolution does not disprove God's existence). My gut, my eyes, my heart...and my brain...tell me that this world of ours was deliberately created for some reason, probably our benefit. And so if it was created, there must be a Creator! For the sake of convenience, many of us call this Creator “God.”

Now, I believe in God, but I cannot tell you what to believe. However I would hope that you can make a little room in your heart and mind for the possibility that our existence here is not due to happenstance. Because if we were created, then our lives here are not meaningless. If there is a God, and if He created us, then it must have been for some purpose. That's good enough for me. The quest for knowledge begins...

Wikipedia tells us that there are something like 10,000 distinct religions in the world. Obviously there is something deep within us that makes us want to believe in a higher power. I see no harm in this. We can argue all day long about whether belief in God is a positive or a negative thing. I say: What difference does it make as long as we both agree that our time spent here should involve doing good for “the tribe” (i.e. everyone else on the planet). You do it your way; I'll do it mine.

Speaking of religion - the concept of infinity used to bother me. Not anymore. Not since my personal epiphany that we are part of God, not separate from Him as many contend. Imagine our whole universe being just an atom in God's bloodstream. (A simple analogy, I know, but humor me.) We circulate through His veins in an eternal journey, one that has no beginning nor end. Infinity!

Or maybe we're just a figment of God's imagination. Maybe we exist only within His brain. Our world certainly seems solid and “real” enough to us, but maybe it's not.

Either way – and they both work for me – the end result is that we are a part of God just as much as God is a part of us. Most Christians do prefer to think that God created us separate from him. I disagree.

Oooooh,” some Christians wince at the thought. “Then are you saying that we are God?”

In a way, yeah. We are a part of Him, but yet we are not Him. How did John Lennon put it? “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Maybe Lennon was onto something there.

The truth is that we do not know...we cannot know...and will never know. We puny humans cannot possibly conceive of what our Creator is really like. Some say that He made us in His image, but which image is that: Physical or spiritual? I do not think that the entity that created us has human physical qualities. But who knows?

A lot of organized religion is about behavior control. You must follow these rules if you wanna get to heaven. By and large, rules are good for society. But sometimes it gets kind of silly. My Mormon friends are not supposed to partake of “hot” beverages (e.g. alcohol and such). Am I consigned to hell for having a cup of coffee every morning and the occasional beer at night? I don't think so. We Catholics have no such prohibition. Oh, and rules change over time. We used to not be able to eat shellfish or pigs, remember.

...10,000 different religions.

I split hairs and tell people that I'm spiritual but not religious. They counter with, “Well, if you believe in God then you ARE religious by definition. HAH!” Okaaaay, well you got me there.

A lot of Christians believe that we were put here to serve God. But I think that we serve God best by serving our fellow man. So rather than subscribe to the beliefs of any one particular religion, I prefer to follow Christ's example and be a servant to man. That's servant, not slave. And it's not as simple as it sounds. In fact it's quite hard. But it is my philosophy, and I try my best.

CHRIST?!?!?” the atheists screech. “I was kind of with you on this Creator stuff, but who the hell said anything about Christ? Sheesh!”

Well...if we believe in a Creator, then I think it's entirely logical and plausible that the Creator sent us someone in our human form to be an example of how we should live. Thus, Christ.

You may not agree with my specific beliefs here. That's okay. But if all people, believers and non-believers just followed Christ's example and unselfishly lived their lives in service to each other, what a wonderful world we'd have, eh? Unrealistic? Maybe so. But it starts with us individually.  I just wish that I'd thought of this when I was younger.

08 February 2018

Cab Driver Stories: The Art of Conversation

My taxi driver friend, Terry is philosophical and spiritual - maybe more so than me. He and I often spend hours pondering the Meaning of Life and our place in the universe. Each of us has taken a different path to end up where we are. Neither of us would change a thing, nor would we swap lives with anyone else.

We marvel at the endless little variables...all the little coincidences of nature that had to occur for he and I to be at this particular place and time. If any one of a gazillion little things had changed, he would not be Terry and I would not be Bob. And like I said, I'm pretty happy being me.

Terry and I are...for lack of a better word, ministers.  Not officially, but we minister just the same.  We get people in our cabs and have an opportunity to bond with them for a few fleeting minutes. So we have to make those moments count.  As I see it, my goal is to get them to feel good about themselves, and feel good about the world.  It would be a profound tragedy to go through life without a positive outlook.

Some people clearly do not want to talk. A man and woman got in the cab at the airport the other night. They gave me an address in a swanky area downtown. As we took off I asked, as I always do, what brought them to Pensacola...visiting, or coming home?  (I kind of knew the answer - but you can never assume.)

"Coming home," was the woman's terse, icy reply.

I didn't push it.  I could tell she was having a bad day...or perhaps a bad life.  The man said nothing other than to direct me to their door.  At least they tipped well.

Other times...most of the time...you develop a connection with passengers. I do not like talking about politics, because I don't know much about it. But I'm never shy about talking about my faith. And I'll tell ya, faith figures large in most people's lives. It's just that we're so reluctant to talk about it – maybe because we don't want to be challenged? Given the opportunity and a receptive ear, most people are happy with the ability to talk about something so personal as faith that it just comes bubbling out!

Of course nobody likes having someone else's faith shoved down their throat. as the saying goes. And so as a cabdriver I have to walk a fine line. I simply cannot be judgmental. Say the wrong thing and you can piss off the customer and jeopardize your tip. Say the right thing and you've made an instant friend.  

It all boils down to the art of conversation. And the art is in listening more than you speak.

06 February 2018

The State of the Union

Back in 2008 I flew a helicopter for a rich guy in Alabama: an entrepreneur who, among other things was the owner of chain of mobile home dealerships. And a four-branch bank. He was (and probably still is) an extremely good investor.  He wasn't "Bill Gates rich," but he had enough money to do anything he wanted. He didn't flaunt his wealth, but he could afford three lavish homes (one of them a hunting camp on 4,000 acres), a helicopter and a jet. He bought a private box in the football stadium of the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!). He hung around with other rich guys like himself, not guys like me.

Although most of my boss's friends used business jets and sometimes helicopters in the course of their business dealings, few of them had personal helicopters, which were kind of a luxurious novelty. So my boss would keep me around, almost like how a guy would show off a "trophy wife." "Here's my pilot!" he'd beam proudly as he introduced me. Demeaning? Perhaps. But I was happy to let my boss act like a Big Dog if that's what he needed to compete with his peers. (As it says in my bio at the top of this page, I do know my place in the universe.)

Now, I am not a college graduate with a degree in business. Neither am I a successful entrepreneur. Nor do I own any big companies where I'm in charge of hundreds of employees. But I'm also not a dummy. And trust me, I know exactly how little to say to make myself seem funny and smart without coming off as someone with an exaggerated sense of self-importance or acting like a poseur. Then, like an obedient child, I'd ease off to the side and let the grownups talk. Thus, I got to hang around on the periphery of some very wealthy men and eavesdrop on what they talked about.

Occasionally during a lull in all of the business-talk, one of my boss's friends would engage me about flying. People are fascinated with aircraft, helicopters in particular. They'd ask the usual questions, and I'd answer them as clearly as I could without resorting to a bunch of aviation jargon that they would never understand. Explaining things can be tough. Really powerful men don't want minutia. They want the Big Picture, with just enough detail to allow them to understand what's going on without actually having to know the rivet pattern and torque specifications on all the nuts and bolts.

Unfortunately, pilots sometimes do fall into that kind of detail, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves seem more important. The old, "I may not be the CEO of a big company, but I know things you don't!"

When my boss and I flew, he always sat up front. We had some long, interesting conversations, mostly about money.

When Obama was elected president, my boss told me that he and his rich-guy buddies were sitting on their money, afraid to invest because they were filled with uncertainty. My boss said he had enough cash on hand to keep the company afloat and pay his people for one year if things got really bad. He sat out the entire Obama presidency, biding his time, saving his money. I suspect that many of his friends did the same.

Donald Trump is the most *un*-presidential president we've ever had. He does not fit the image of what we've come to believe of how a president should look, speak and act. He will probably go down in history as "The Great Exaggerator" because he plays so fast and loose with the truth.

But for all of his perceived faults, Donald Trump is business-friendly. Under his presidency, businesses will thrive. The rich will get richer. But when American businesses do well, all of us do well too. To put it on a scale I can understand and relate to: Maybe more heads of companies will buy helicopters and hire pilots.

Here is a speech our unpresidential President gave soon after his State Of The Union message.  The first five minutes are comedy gold.

05 February 2018

More Cab Driver Stories: Things That Make You Go, "Hmm..."

I don't like working the airport.  Uber has just about killed the legitimate taxi business in Pensacola, and the airport is always slow.  But I live right nearby, and when I'm bored I'll sometimes go hang out there just to get out of the house and watch airplanes take-off and land.

I was number one in the taxi queue at the hilariously named Pensacola International Airport, waiting on a fare when a Delta Air Lines customer service agent approached. She had an odd look on her face.  She was escorting a slim, pleasant-looking middle-aged woman who was holding a piece of paper in her hand. The woman looked confused and apprehensive. My cabdriver Spidey-sense began tingling. This could either be good or bad.

Please...I've had stroke,” she said in halting English with a heavy accent that sounded like Russian.  

She handed me the paper. It said, “Hampton Inn, Pensacola Beach.” She asked if I knew where it was? I did. She asked how much the fare would be, and winced noticeably when I said it would be about thirty dollars.

I assured the Delta agent that I'd take good care of the woman. I loaded her in the car and we set off.

It's a good twenty-minute ride out to the beach, so I had time.  I always like to talk to my passengers and try to find out what brings them to dinky Pensacola, Florida? In this woman's case, because of her stroke and limited English, I made an extra effort to speak slowly and clearly.

"Vacation!” she said happily.

Do you have family here?" I asked.  "Are you meeting anyone here?”



She said her name was Kate and she was from the Ukraine. She was supposed to be meeting a friend for her week's stay. Sadly, it turned out that her friend's plans had changed and she was no longer coming. So Kate was on her own. Her son, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico had brought her plane ticket from the Ukraine and paid for her hotel as well. I surmised that he probably had not given her a ton of spending money, judging by her reaction to the taxi fare.

Pensacola Beach is pretty remote. It's not near the city of Pensacola at all.  I suspect that the name "Pensacola" Beach was some Chamber of Commerce marketing gimmick.  It's just a small strip of land with some hotels and condos. It's not a huge tourist destination. It's not correct to call it “primitive,” but development has been limited. There are no grocery stores on the beach; only a couple of convenience stores. There are also no fast food restaurants. For those luxuries you have to cross the bridge and go up into the town of Gulf Breeze. It's too far to walk. Luckily the Hampton Inn provides breakfast. But, for Kate, all of her other meals would be in restaurants.

At her hotel, which is literally right on the beach I gave Kate my business card and told her as sincerely as I could to call me if she needed anything. I asked her to give me her son's name and number. I wanted to talk to him about his mom's predicament, and offer whatever help I could provide. Oddly, he never returned my call or text message. So his mom, who speaks limited English and has had a stroke, was pretty much on her own.

There are some things in this world that I do not understand.

Postscript: Kate did not call me back for a ride to the airport at the end of her stay. 

31 January 2018

The Exciting, Glamorous Life of a Taxi Driver!

It was four years ago when I first mentioned that my part-time winter job was driving a taxi here in Pensacola. I had bought a nice, low-mileage Ford Freestar and turned it into a cab. I thought it would be fun and interesting. I promised plenty of cab-driving stories; I've delivered almost none. Turns out it's not quite the Big Adventure I'd predicted.

To be fair, Pensacola, Florida is not New York City. There is virtually no “street” business – nobody hails a cruising taxi. It's almost all done by radio-dispatch. Yellow Taxi and Lucky Cab handle all of the “civilian” work. And by that I mean they take the people who use taxis to go to Walmart and such...people who for some reason cannot or do not have cars. Sadly, this usually involves carrying those at the, ahem, lower economic strata of society. Call me a racist, but I don't like working in the ghetto where cabs are looked at as “rolling ATM's.”

A few years back, a woman I know named Mary, driving for Yellow was robbed at gunpoint. The man and woman took her money and then stuffed her in the trunk. According to Mary, the woman robber kept imploring her man to, “Shoot her! Just shoot her!” Fortunately, the man did not. Mary was rescued, and the couple was caught thanks to the fact that Yellow had just recently installed rear-facing dash-cams in all of their cabs.

Two other drivers I know have been savagely beaten and robbed.  They both still drive taxis.  Miss Patty simply doesn't take civilian calls anymore.  But Mike does, inexplicably.  The beating he took affected his brain.  Some of the drivers cruelly call him "Mike Myers" after the crazy kid in those "Halloween" movies.  I don't know this for a fact, but I'm sure he carries a gun now in his cab.  I would.

If you don't want to work the streets, that leaves only the airport and the Navy Base.

The airport is okay – at least you can be fairly sure of two things: 1) Every passenger has money – hey, they flew in here, didn't they? And 2) They probably don't have a weapon on them. Airport passengers are fun. They're either coming home from a trip, or in the middle of a trip. So they all have a “trip story.” And it never takes much prodding to get them to tell it to you.

Trouble is, Uber has taken just about all of the airport business. So it's almost not worth working the airport anymore. Almost. There are still a surprising number of people who do not want to use Uber.  (Uber has taken virtually all of our night-time weekend downtown business too.  Just as well, for I do not like hauling drunks.)

Our other source of fares is the Navy Base: NAS Pensacola. Specifically the Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC). This is where sailors and Marines come right after boot camp for their advanced training before heading out into the fleet. There are about 4,000 “kids” on base. (They seem so very young to me.) They are not able to have cars because they're not here very long and don't know where their next duty station will be – and it could be Japan!

The kids have school all week. Once they're done they want nothing more than to be off the base, which they call “Prison-cola.” And so starting on Friday afternoon there is a non-stop rush of kids. We take them out to eat, to the mall, the movie theater, to downtown and, when it's warm the beach. It's very predictable. The rush lasts until Sunday night. For various reasons, the Navy doesn't let Uber on the base. So we taxis basically have a guaranteed, captive market.  

Some of the kids become regulars while they're stationed here.  They know that I'll take care of them, giving them a good, safe ride and making sure they get back to base.  Plus we all give our regulars a pretty good discount which brings the fare down to just about what Uber charges (since they cannot give a military discount).  

The great thing about carrying the Navy and Marines around is that: They are all unfailingly polite and respectful (and usually sober); they all have money to pay the fare; they're all happy and in a good mood; they're full of enthusiasm and a conquer-the-world attitude; and they all smell good. These are things that cannot always be said about civilian passengers, unfortunately. The only downside, if you could call it that is that they're pretty much just teenagers and haven't really learned how to tip.

At first I leased a cab, but it's hard to make money when the vehicle costs you $1500 a month plus gas (about $500/month). You really do have to work seven days a week to make any money at all. And at this stage of life ol' Bob ain't about to work that much. So I bought my own cab. Now my fixed-costs are a lot less.

And I work when I want, which is generally three or four days per week. I almost never stay out late. Most days I'm home and in bed by eleven p.m. Uber likes to think that they invented this, “drive when you want; make your own schedule” deal, but it's that way for independent cab drivers all over the country, and has been forever.

As now an owner/operator, I run under the umbrella of a cab company with about fifteen taxis. For a monthly fee, I put their name on the side of my van, and they feed me dispatch trips (only military, however; I do not accept calls to non-military, off-the-base addresses). The advantage here is that if I cannot cover one of my own personal trips, there are other cabs in my company that I can send. The passengers usually never have to wait more than five minutes or so for a taxi. Other drivers give me trips as well.

My friend Terry lives right down near the Navy Base. Driving the taxi is his full-time gig, so he "works" a little more than I do. During the week, when it's quiet Terry doesn't mind sitting on the base all day for a $30 trip to the mall or the airport. I don't mind wasting time at the airport. (Deal breaker: The airport has a bathroom; the base does not.) We compare our monthly revenue, and surprisingly it's very close. We're not getting rich from this job, but it's a fun way to keep busy now that we no longer work full-time in our former careers.

I know that driving a cab isn't the most glamorous thing an old, broken-down helicopter pilot can do. In reality, I couldn't...wouldn't! do this job in any other city in the country. I don't know how I ever lucked-out and moved here to Pensacola, but I'm damn glad I did!