Even during a hectic St. Patrick’s Day, Wandell safely moved his customers around East Lansing, all while taking in sights of festive people decked out in green leprechaun outfits.
When it comes to his job, he said the most important thing is a mutual respect between cab drivers and passengers.
“We all know that drinking is going on, it’s a college town,” he said. “As long as everyone can be responsible and continue to be safe, everything can continue to be fun.”
With more than 20 taxi cab services on East Lansing streets, drivers who consistently taxi students across the city and campus say they enjoy their jobs and the people they meet, even if it gets a little crazy.
Adventures on the road
When it comes to the cab driving business, the concept of “normal” goes out the window, Shaggin’ Wagon co-owner Julie Voeller said.
“Everything becomes ‘normal’ to you with this job,” she said, jokingly. “You see so much.”
Voeller and her co-workers started Shaggin’ Wagon about six years ago. She said she’s seen everything that possibly could go hand-in-hand with young people drinking alcohol during the time she’s driven her 12-passenger van.
One interaction with a customer of hers led to the two of them working together to track down a stolen cellphone.
“She’d thought she left her phone in my cab,” Voeller said. “Later on, someone actually called me from her stolen phone, trying to get a ride.”
Voeller and the girl tried meeting with the man to retrieve her phone, but he ended up not showing up.
Wandell had his own run-in with the law while picking up a client when his customer ended up being arrested as he was getting into his cab.
“He was getting into the car, and six police cars started circling me,” he said. “The next thing I knew they arrested him right outside my car — they didn’t tell me why.”
Voeller’s daily shift starts either at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. From that point, she spends 12 hours answering calls and driving customers throughout the city.
Typically, her interactions with customers last from five to 10 minutes, but she said many cab drivers within the company develop paternal feelings toward their clientele.
“One of my customers even called me their ‘mom at MSU,’” she said. “You look after them out here, and they appreciate that.”
Her closer clients have access to her personal cellphone number, something that Wandell also does with his regulars. Known as “Jimbo,” he said he typically prefers interacting with the clients he knows on a more personal level.
“It’s more fulfilling that way,” he said. “I’ve known people long enough that I’ve become friends with them.”
The struggles of the job
Vigilance is vital on the road, but it is especially important when driving at 3 a.m. on a weekend.
Shifts for Shaggin’ Wagon run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Although staying awake at the wheel has never been an issue for her, she said one of her biggest fears is that a student will dart in front of her van.
“You have to keep an eye out for absolutely everything,” she said. “Pedestrians can get really scary. The last thing any of us wants is to hit a kid.”
The danger also has the potential to move inside the cab.
Valentino Hernandez, owner of iCab, said different parties sharing a cab have gotten aggressive toward each other while he was driving.
Before things got out of hand, Hernandez has had to drop one of the warring parties off at a secure area at least a few times.
“I hate to say it like this, but we’re essentially giant babysitters,” he said. “But we base all of our decisions on the safety of our clients.”
The busiest days of the year
Home football games are packed with tailgate parties, ecstatic fans and more than enough alcohol to go around.
On those days, calls to cab services are relentless.
Fall semester’s Welcome Week, New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day also are some of the biggest days, Hernandez said.
He said they average 300 customers a day on a typical weekend. However, last St. Patrick’s Day weekend brought iCab more than 100 extra customers per day.
Wandell said this year’s holiday was calmer than usual, but business definitely picked up during the weekend. From an elderly man dressed in a green pope outfit to an Irish superhero, he saw it all.
“Driver-permitting, companies can see a 10 percent increase in customers on busy days like this,” Hernandez said.
Breaking into the business
Matt Chase has had plenty of experience in cutting through the red tape of becoming a licensed cab driver.
The owner of Black & Yellow Cab runs another cab service in Mt Pleasant, Mich. Chase started his first cab service 10 years ago with only one car. Since then, he’s built the business up to 20 licensed vehicles and drivers.
“My advice for this business is to start slow, unless you have a lot to advertise,” he said. “If you jump right in and buy 10 vans right away, those are 10 vans that need to have insurance.”
During the six months he’s been in East Lansing, Chase has built Black & Yellow Cab up to three drivers and vehicles. It took him roughly two weeks to go through background checks and collect all the licenses needed to start his latest cab service.
Various visits to City Hall eventually led to him receiving a chauffeur license and business registration. Since then, he said his main struggle has simply been getting the word out about his cab service in a college town already filled with taxi cabs.
“We’re on campus on a daily basis,” he said. “It all been worth getting everything done.”