The headlights swerved across the double yellow line. The car aimed straight at me. Suddenly, it accelerated. No time to be incredulous. I whipped the wheel to the left and hoped there was no other vehicle behind him. I felt the THUMP! of the air pressure as he blew by my right side, scant inches away, at a combined speed of almost 100 miles per hour.
As I swung the cab back into the right lane, I saw in the rearview mirror, the other car also return to his side of the road. Visibly shaken, I pulled off on the side to regain my equilibrium. The dashboard clock read 1:10 A.M. It was Saturday night.
A strange phenomenon occurs in scenes like this. Even thought the whole event lasted only three seconds, as it unfolds, everything happens in slow motion. Reactions take over. The fear comes later.
My hands were still shaking. I realized I just escaped death by about eight inches. The horrifying crash would almost certainly have killed anyone in either vehicle.
I wondered what caused that other driver to precipitate a deadly head-on collision. Did he or she fall asleep at the wheel? By the fact that he regained his own lane and apparently continued on without mishap, it is obvious he wasn’t having a seizure or heart attack.
A chilling thought flashed through my mind. Maybe it was deliberate! Was it a person so despondent that they decided to commit suicide and wanted to take somebody else along with him? Or was he simply so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing?
I was headed south on College Avenue toward Broad Ripple. That’s the nightclub district in my city. As the traffic streamed by my parked taxi, I wondered how many of those coming north from the bar scene were sober?
I’ll relate a funny (at least to me) story. On a Friday night, I received a call from the manager of a club on Indianapolis’ affluent north side. It went like this:
“Austin, this is Josh at the Velvet Lounge. How quick can you get here?”
“I’m freed up Josh,” I replied. “I’ll be there in seven minutes.”
Less than two minutes into my errand, the phone rang. It was Josh again.
“Austin, don’t come up here!” CLICK!
This was definitely not normal. In fact, it was downright strange. I provided taxi service to the Velvet Lounge for almost a year and had a good relationship with Josh. He sounded rattled. I decided to stop by early next evening before the action started.
Josh told me, “When I called you last night, we had a guy here who was so drunk he could barely stand up. By the time I got off the phone and turned around, this character stumbled out to his car, turned the ignition key and floored it in reverse. He backed into a brand new Mercedes in the parking lot. That Mercedes was so new it still had the dealer’s sticker on the window. He did $12,000 damage to it. The guy was really on tilt.”
The bar was in hot water and the drunk driver, by now quite sober, was in jail. I doubt that the Mercedes’ owner saw any humor in it.
I picked up another fellow one night at about five A.M. He tottered out of the motel with a paper bag in hand and asked me to take him home to his wife. Inside the bag was a half empty bottle of vodka. Fifteen minutes after dropping him off, his wife called and demanded that I come get him.
“Take him anywhere, but don’t bring him back here!” She made her point.
I drove him around for over an hour. He just wanted to kill some time until 7:00 A.M. During our aimless journey, he told me his name was Harvey and that he was a plumber. He owned his own business and his wife would be running it while he was gone. It was December 1st, and in one week he had to report to begin serving a four-year sentence in state prison for his fourteenth DUI. That’s right! His 14th!
He said, “I never hurt anyone, but the judge just lost patience with me.”
(H’mmm. I wonder why?)
Promptly at seven o’clock Harvey told me to turn left into a strip center. He was the liquor store’s first customer that morning. After emerging with the traditional paper bag, this one containing two bottles of the high octane, he asked me to take him to his office. While en route, he consumed one quart of vodka. I guess he was saving the other one for lunch. The crazy part is, when I dropped him off, Harvey was steady on his feet and totally articulate, to all appearances completely sober. Scary, isn’t it? At least, this time he wasn’t driving.
Every weekend night, the police in our city are out in force. They stakeout the streets and byways near the congestion of nightclubs and bars. At one or two A.M., they aren’t looking for bank robbers.
Even though Harvey, the alcoholic plumber, never hurt anyone (yet), the reason for law enforcement’s diligence is apparent to me. I drive a taxi on the weekend nights.
The convention center was filled to capacity. As I wandered past one booth, an attractive young lady caught my eye and asked me, “Would you like to have some fun and try something new?” She was holding a strange looking helmet.
I’m up for almost anything new. She put the helmet on my head and immediately I stumbled and began to fall. I literally didn’t know which end was up! She caught me before I hit the concrete floor. That girl is stronger than she looks.
She explained that she is a State Police Officer and the headgear is a virtual reality helmet. I had just experienced a .18 blood alcohol level.
“Well, wait a minute. The legal limit in Indiana is .10,” I demurred. (It has since been lowered to .08)
She was ready for that one. After resetting the level to .10, she again placed the helmet on my head.
“How do you feel now? Are you dizzy?” she inquired solicitously.
“No.” I replied. “Just a little bit relaxed,” I answered with confidence.
“Good,” she said in her sweetest tone. Then, “Catch this!”
She threw me a ping-pong ball from about eight feet away.
I didn’t win a gold glove that day as I flailed helplessly, vainly trying to grab that fleeting little ball. “I wasn’t ready!” I whined.
The second attempt didn’t go any better. Neither did the third and I was out of excuses.
That demonstration was an eye opener. Even if you can think coherently, speak clearly and walk a fairly steady gait, alcohol destroys your reflexes. An arrest for drunk driving isn’t the worst thing that could happen. The motto on the back of my business card reads:
“We Bring’em Back Alive.”
This last story is a bit chilling. I answered a call from an upscale restaurant on Indy’s north side. The middle aged couple were obviously well off and quite proud of it. From the back seat, the woman in her most patronizing manner, made it clear that they were taking a taxi that evening only out of a sense of social responsibility.
“My husband and I invited some of our employees out for dinner tonight. We really didn’t need to take a taxi. We’ve had a few cocktails but I’m sure that either one of us can drive a car. But with all the publicity and public awareness regarding drinking and driving, we had the restaurant call you.”
I was to be the recipient of their generosity in setting such a good example.
As we passed through the intersection at 116th street, she gasped! “What is that?”
In the grassy median to our left were several emergency vehicles and the twisted, charred remains of two automobiles.
“What are they doing?” she quavered as the EMT’s went about their business.
“Exactly what it looks like,” I answered. “They are covering the bodies with sheets before taking them to the morgue.”
Her demeanor changed dramatically. She quietly asked, “Have you seen that before?”
“Yes,” I replied. “About every five or six weeks.”
She and her husband were immensely grateful for a safe ride home. That grizzly scene produced a swift attitude adjustment.
Even if you don’t drink when you drive, you are sharing the road with a myriad of strangers. Not all of them may be in the same physical condition or frame of mind as you. It would be well to remember something from that TV series, The Hill Street Blues.
“Let’s all be careful out there!”
August 9, 2007 The Cab Driver
Postscript: Nine days after writing this article, I was rear-ended while driving my taxi. Fortunately, neither my seven passengers nor I suffered serious injury. The driver who caused the three-vehicle chain reaction collision wasn’t drunk on alcohol. He was high on drugs.
If I could venture a guess, it would be that at least 50% of our population on the highways isn't exactly sober. And that's a cautious guess--I think it could be 'higher'. Glad you weren't hurt when you got rear-ended. Beth (And my kids can't figure out why I worry every time they go out in a car!! I'm not even sure walking down the sidewalk is entirely safe anymore)
Austin, you kept my strict attention througout this article. You certainly know how to tell a story. Many people don't know what goes on in the past midnight hours. You do, being a taxi driver. I do, being a security officer in the ER of a hospital. Police officers and paramedics do. Sometimes it can seem so very unreal.