by Brian Clarey, Amy Kingsley and Jordan Green

You need a cab.

Maybe you want to have a couple drinks, or perhaps you’re concerned about parking. Maybe you’re going to the airport. Or maybe you don’t have a car and are sick of riding the bus. Doesn’t matter.

What matters is you need a cab, and you want it fast. You want it to be reasonably safe and clean, and you want to get from point A to point B on a route that most closely resembles a straight line.

So who you gonna call?

There are nine taxicab companies operating in the city of Greensboro, each, no doubt, with its own merits and deficiencies. In order to determine which is best we subjected the three best-known lines to an unscientific experiment – a three-stop jaunt on a Wednesday night beginning at the YES! Weekly offices in Adam’s Farm and ending downtown.

Each of us was assigned one cab line: Jordan Green rode Daniel-Keck taxis, Amy Kingsley worked with Blue Bird and Brian Clarey stuck with United Yellow Taxi. Phone calls to the companies were placed concurrently. Time of call, wait for cab, duration of ride and fare were noted, and a minimum 20-minute grace period was observed before calling for the next ride.

Here’s what we found.

STAGE I: YES! Weekly offices (5500 Adams Farm Lane) to the Red Oak Brewpub (714 Francis King St.); 6.7 miles

Calls were placed at 7:14 p.m., and Daniel-Keck was the first on the scene at 7:29, followed by a Blue Bird sighting at 7:30, though the Blue Bird driver circled the block for eight minutes looking for the address. United Yellow picked up at 7:37.

Jordan’s Daniel-Keck ride made it to the Red Oak first, at 7:42, registering a fare of $16.20 (plus a $2 tip). United Yellow delivered its passenger at 7:49 for a fare of $15 even (again, plus $2 for a tip) and Blue Bird came in a minute later for a fare of $16.50; Ms. Kingsley paid with a twenty and was not offered change.

STAGE WINNER: Daniel-Keck. Though United Yellow had the lowest fare, Daniel-Keck’s prompt response time gave it a slight advantage.

STAGE II: Red Oak Brewpub (714 Francis King St.) to Walker’s Bar (2116 Walker Ave.); 4.7 miles

The calls went out at 8:24 p.m., after a pint of Red Oak. This time Blue Bird was first on the scene, at 8:33, followed by United Yellow (8:36) and then Daniel-Keck (8:44). Predictably, Blue Bird was first to arrive at Walker’s at 8:46, carrying a fare of $13.20. But Daniel-Keck outpaced United Yellow on the road, completing the trip by 8:52 with a meter reading of $11.50, while United Yellow pulled to the curb at 8:54 with a charge of $14.40.

STAGE WINNER: Daniel-Keck. Not only did the Daniel-Keck driver make the trip in the fastest time, he also accepted $10 for the $11.50 fare.

STAGE III: Walker’s Bar (2116 Walker Ave.) to the Flatiron (221-223 Summit Ave.); 3.2 miles

The pace slowed a bit in the final leg of the race, with calls going out at 9:45 p.m. United Yellow got there in two minutes, followed immediately by Blue Bird. Daniel-Keck cruised into the Whiskey District at 9:50. But Blue Bird got to the Flat first, at 9:58 with a charge of $8.40. United Yellow and Daniel-Keck came in at one-minute intervals – 9:59 and 10, respectively – with respective fares of $8.40 and $7.50.

STAGE WINNER: We’ll give this one to Blue Bird for a prompt response and faster driving time than United Yellow.

RESULTS: Blue Bird has the fastest overall response time, logging a total of 35 minutes despite a delay in the first leg when the cabbie got a bit lost, the second-best travel time at 36 minutes, and the most expensive fare total at $38.10. But Daniel-Keck had the best travel time, a total of 33 minutes, and also registered the lowest overall fares, $35.20 total. Yellow United had the worst overall response time, 42 minutes, the longest travel time, 40 minutes, and the second-best fare total at $37.80

OVERALL WINNER: Daniel-Keck. Quick response times, capable navigational skills, efficient driving and easygoing drivers put Daniel-Keck ahead of the competition in our cab race across the city of Greensboro.

RACE REPORT: Yellow, submarined

by Brian Clarey

So I draw Yellow United Cab for our little experiment. Fine by me. It’s a combination of the taxis I’ve rode around in most of my life – United Cab in New Orleans, to which I used to funnel tourists when I was a bartender (522.9771. Tell ’em Brian from Igor’s sent ya) and the old-school yellow cars for hire I rode in New York City before I learned to read a subway map, rides which usually entailed the stomach-churning thrills of a loop on a roller coaster.

I like riding around in taxis. Easing into the seat and letting someone else mind the red lights and tailgaters. Chatting up the driver, seeing if I can get him to let me smoke or turn off the meter and go for a flat rate. I once moved in a cab, loading all my crap into the trunk and the backseat, the driver and me holding my mattress on the roof with our arms out the open windows. We made it in one trip, and I tipped him 20 bucks. I’ve called several cab drivers friends over the years – they usually have the best stories.

That’s why, when I take a cab, I like to ride in the front. Man of the people and all that. So I feel a touch of dismay when my United Yellow pulls up – a ’94 Crown Vic with a sagging dashboard and a thick patterned blanket tucked around the back seat – with some dude riding shotgun.

I get in the back.

My driver is a Sudanese named Adam Dousa. Many, many Greensboro cabbies are African, and in fact all my hires this night would turn out to be from somewhere on that huge continent. His running partner is Edison Perez, an exile from the Bronx who is literally just along for the ride.

Dousa doesn’t mind if I smoke, and while I light up he tells me about his best fare – a trip to Atlanta and back that netted about $800, plus a $50 tip which, if we’re talking percentages, is light by about a hundred bucks.

But Dousa says he didn’t mind. He’s a pretty good-natured guy. Just don’t accuse him of trying to rip you off.

“People,” he says, “they don’t trust the cab driver. They think always the cab driver is going to overcharge them. Everybody is suspicious. They think when you drive slow it going to cost them more.”

It doesn’t, by the way. The meter charges by mileage and switches to a lower rate when idling, as regulated by the Greensboro Police Department.

After saying goodbye to Dousa and Perez and knocking back a Red Oak (which, by the way, is a magnificent source of the entire Vitamin B complex), I hop into a ’95 Lincoln Town Car with my next chauffeur. He’s another Sudanese, Akram Osman, and he’s got a guy in front with him, too, by the name of Ibrahim Mohammed.

Fine. I’ll ride in the back.

Osman’s got a bulletproof shield between me and the cockpit. Damn right he does. Driving a cab is the eighth most dangerous job in the country, right before timber cutter, which is why so many of them keep a piece under the seat.

He’s no fool, Osman, and he’s not above turning down a fare.

“Actually [it happens] a lot,” he says. “If I get some calls in a [housing] project area, I’m like, ‘I’m not taking that one.’ If someone, he come out not from the same address I get [from the dispatcher], I don’t pick him up either.”

But Osman’s on short time: He’s got two semesters left at NC A&T University before graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. After that happens, he’ll be riding in the back seat.

My last driver, Daniel Gbaya-kokoya from Sierra Leone, has no qualms about turning down fares, either.

“You don’t know who exactly you pick up,” he says. “I pray before I go to work every day. I pray to God to protect me. I been blessed. God been looking out for me.”

Still, there are those nights….

“Oh yes,” he says. “If the customer is uncontrollable, I let him out. I can try the patience much, but if I can’t take it I let him out. For your own safety, it’s best if you let him out. But when I get scared, I try to talk as much as I can. If someone’s planning something evil, maybe you can change his mind.”

He’s seen two murders and a stabbing since he started driving, he says, but most of his fares are good people.

“I try to protect my fares,” he says. “I treat all my customers with respect, even if it is a five-year-old boy – some parents do that if he’s just going to school.”

He’s driving a real beaut, a ’99 Crown Vic with beads, shells and small plastic skulls hanging from the rear-view. He began driving it four years ago, after six years working in the Greensboro retail scene. The money, he says, is much better.

“The thing about the cab business is how you manage your money,” he says. “I’ve had other stuff, and to me, this cab is like one big bank. If I work really, really hard I can take home 800 dollars a week.”

Not bad.

I want to hear more, but he’s got a fare waiting out on Battleground and I’ve got folks sitting at the bar at the Flatiron.

Also I figure I’ve taken enough notes for one night.

RACE REPORT: Daniel-Keck for the win

by Jordan Green

The last dispatcher to pick up when we call the three cab companies from our newspaper office is Daniel-Keck, but the first car to pull in the parking lot – diagonally, and so ready to make a quick arc and forego the turnabout – is Daniel-Keck.

The driver, a middle-aged African-American man wearing a band-aid across his chin and a two-day stubble, clears the front seat of the cluttered car to make room for me. An oversized plastic Bojangles’ cup is jammed in a holder and a length of hose, presumably connected to the AC, protrudes from the dashboard. He balks at the sight of my editor snapping photos outside, but agrees to talk about his line of work while declining to give his name.

We head west on Mackay Road and when we reach Guilford College Road he hesitates; this municipal borderland of new high-end housing developments is new territory him.

“The area we service the most is the downtown,” he says. “It might take you twenty minutes in Adams Farm. In the more affluent neighborhoods people have cars. They don’t take cabs as much. And it costs you so much – two dollars a mile.”

He usually works third shift because it’s the least covered, which means a lot of bar traffic. It starts slow at the beginning of the week, starts to gather momentum around Wednesday and hits full bore Friday and Saturday.

The driver disabuses me of the notion that cabbies try to strategically stack their fares by picking and choosing between assignments so they minimize unpaid drive time without passengers.

“You don’t know which fare is going where,” he says. “I try to make sure it’s fair. You have different locations where the cars sit and wait. There’s a lot of cars sitting downtown, so I’ll try to go over to the south side or the west side and wait.”

Only rarely do drivers tell the dispatcher they don’t want a fare, and then it’s usually a matter of safety rather than convenience. And oftentimes the dispatcher will screen out the sketchy calls.

“If they give you an address where you’ve had problems in the past, maybe you won’t go,” he says. “Say you had somebody who jumped out of the car without paying. The problem we have at night is with a lot of the projects because of the drug traffic. Sometimes they won’t send us there. It’s understandable…. If someone calls late at night and they want you to pick them up behind a warehouse – no way.”

On the next leg of the journey – from Red Oak Brew Pub to Walker’s bar – the dispatcher initially claims that no car is available. Daniel-Keck arrives last – after Blue Bird and Yellow United – but still manages to deposit me at the bar near the intersection of Walker and Elam avenues ahead of my editor in Yellow United.

It’s the same driver.

He regales me with stories, and by the end of the 10-minute journey he’s thinking about writing a memoir to chronicle his more than three decades in the business.

He talks about the fellow cabby who delivered a baby on the side of the road.

“He was just forced into a situation,” he says. “The girl was on the way to the hospital. She said, ‘You need to pull over.’ He pulled over and took out his jacket and laid it on the ground to catch the baby. And then they wrapped the baby in the jacket and went on to the hospital.”

And the worst experience of his life…

“I found a friend of mine, a cab driver, dead,” he says. “They shot him in the back of the head during a robbery. I was the first one to find him.”

He adds that the job is getting more dangerous.

“The young people are wilder,” he says. “There’s more drugs, more gangs. I just got a shield this year. I’ve been driving thirty-two years and I never had a shield. It’s bullet resistant. The older you get the more responsible you feel you have to be for yourself. You can’t fight back” – gesturing back to the divider – “it slows the situation, minimizes the danger.”

There was the time he got revenge on a cheat who tried to get a free ride from the bus station in Greensboro out to Lexington.

“He said, ‘Pull into the service station,’ and then he jumped out and ran,” the driver recalls. “When I was driving back a truck pulled out in front of me and I had to slam on the breaks. Well his wallet slid up to the front from the back. It had two hundred dollars in it. He beat the forty-dollar cab fare, but he lost two hundred dollars. I took the money out of it and threw it in the trash. That was the best day for me. That was a week’s salary back in those days.”

The journey from Walker’s bar to the Flatiron takes longer and features obstacles on both ends.

A patron standing in front of Wahoo’s bar tells me that Daniel-Keck is the best cab company in town. Just as my car arrives he gets into the passenger seat of a Monte Carlo parked on the sidewalk. The muscle car revs its engine and peels out the short distance to a red light at the intersection – slow-moving, making a prolonged shriek and leaving a blinding cloud of gray noxious vapor in its wake. The Nigerian driver, whose name is James Oyinwola, frowns.

Then, as we approach the heart of downtown moving eastward on Market Street, the sight of a garish orb of emergency lights sends us on a detour by way of Commerce Place and Bellemeade Street. Later, I learn that it’s an electrical fire on the roof of the building next door to Much and Heaven.

“It’s a lucky job,” Oyinwola says. “Some days you may be out twelve or fourteen hours and make next to nothing. You cannot rely on it. You do not have any specific amount that you can say, ‘Today, this is what I’m going to make.'”

As I peel off a ten spot to pay my fare, he adds, “You have to have the stamina of a warrior. You’ve got to have determination.”

RACE REPORT: A bad start for Blue Bird

by Amy Kingsley

“Bluebird Taxi,” the dispatcher drones. He picked up before the first ring.

It’s been a while since I called a taxi, but I think I remember the drill. It’s like ordering takeout: You call, submit your coordinates and hope the car ends up somewhere in the neighborhood.

Bad taxi service can be nightmarish. Take for instance my first trip to New York City, when I was a sophomore in college. My uncle called a gypsy cab to take me from his place in Brooklyn Heights to my friend’s dorm at the Pratt Institute. The driver couldn’t find the address and tried to eject me on a derelict corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 11 p.m.; he tried to leave me amongst the shadowy figures that then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had not yet flushed from New York proper.

My first and most heated New York City altercation ensued. In this case the hayseed – by that I mean myself – won out. Fifteen minutes after he tried to kick me out, the driver stumbled upon the campus, quite by accident, and let me out. I did not tip.

This time I’m on more familiar terrain. But it’s been 30 minutes since I called, and my experience so far isn’t shaping up to be much better. The Blue Bird taxi has passed me twice; each time I tried to flag him down. I call the dispatcher back, and he directs the cab into the Adams Farm business park where I wait, alone.

“The dispatcher told me the wrong street,” says my driver, Reggie. “He said Adams Farm Road.”

The taxi is a minivan, and the pockets behind the passenger seat bulge with ratchet sets and wrenches. Wind coming in through the open windows fill the sagging ceiling liner. After I give Reggie rough instructions to Red Oak Brewery, my man pilots the car silently and authoritatively, pushing a yellow light on Guilford College Road to make up some of the lost time.

Reggie, a stoic type, melts when I ask to take his picture.

“Thank you,” he says, genuinely. “That made me feel good. I ain’t never had anyone ask me for my picture before.”

After a drink at the Red Oak, we call again. And again the Blue Bird dispatcher is the first to pick up.

On the second trip, my car is the first to arrive. It’s a standard Crown Vic, driven by Sudanese immigrant and congenital smiler Mutaz. He says he’s been driving taxicabs since 2002, when he came to Greensboro from Africa.

“It’s just a job,” he says.

Mutaz is an electrical engineering student at NC A&T University, and about as far from the Travis Bickle type as possible.

He says he’s had some bad experiences driving cabs – it’s a dangerous job, after all. Most unpleasantness involves fighting drunks, he says. A lot of his countrymen drive cabs in Greensboro. In fact, Sudanese immigrants own Blue Bird Taxi.

Mutaz tells me where to get good Sudanese food, and delivers me to Walker’s Bar first. When I ask him how he spells his name, he raises a baseball hat that’s sitting in the passenger seat. It’s black and has “Mutaz” stitched across the front in red.

Another bar. Another drink. Brian chats up the regulars, and an hour later we’re placing our third and last calls.

It is during this last trip that I conclude for every bad taxi-riding experience, the taxi-driver has at least a dozen that are worse. My third driver doesn’t want to divulge his name, but he tells me that inebriated college girls and rising gas prices are the scourge of the modern jitney.

The state hasn’t raised taxi rates in two years, he says, and drivers burn at least $40 a night. I’m his first fare at almost 10 p.m. Even a $121 fare to Raleigh/Durham the week before didn’t amount to much after he factored in the fuel for the round trip.

As for the college girls, one doesn’t need an economics degree to figure out their liability. At least the last one rolled down the window and returned her dinner to the outside of the taxi, he says. When you lease a taxi, the company takes care of repairs, insurance and inspections. But you are own your own when it comes to cleaning up vomit.

It’s a slow night, but business might pick up around midnight, he says. The driver takes my fare and motors away.