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Taxi!

Our intrepid reporter goes along for the ride on the busiest night of the year for Las Cruces cabs.

By Jeff Berg

 

It is 10 p.m., Cinco de Mayo in Las Cruces, and Chase Zurek has just returned from a limo run. Tonight the owner of Las Cruces Limousine is dressed to the nines, perhaps even the 10s, though he looks a trifle weary. His day started at 8:30 in the morning and is far from over, as now he has to drive one of the cabs he also owns.

The taxi fleet. (Photo by Lisa D. Fryxell)

"Tonight is the busiest night of the year," Zurek says to me. "We have three drivers out, and you can ride with me."

Although one may think that New Year's Eve would be THE night for a cabdriver, it turns out that May 5 will see a lot more calls to Zurek's LCL Taxi Service.

Zurek explains, "It is prom night, Cinco de Mayo, there is a concert [the rock band Tool performing at NMSU's Pan Am Center], and there are at least two big outdoor parties, one at the Ramada Palms and another at Garduno's."

He is inhaling a Subway sandwich while his night dispatcher, Rita Norwood, answers calls and dispatches drivers. So far, it is not overwhelmingly busy, but the tension is starting to build as the clock ticks.

"There are some weird characters out there," Zurek adds. He laughs as he recounts some of his limousine customers from earlier in the evening: "The guys must have blown all their money getting ready for the prom, because I took this group to Taco Bell for their prom dinner!

"Taco Bell," he repeats with another good laugh. "I've never taken anyone to Taco Bell before. I think they were kind of embarrassed, too. They invited me in, and kept asking if they could buy me a burrito or a Coke."

Zurek politely turned them down, but he figures the story he got from those students is certainly worth more than a Taco Bell dinner.

He has owned the limo service for four years; he operates five limos, ranging in size from four to 27 passengers. Two years ago he added the taxi service, which now boasts a fleet of 10 cabs.

"It all started when I rented a limo myself a few years ago, and I didn't like the service I received," Zurek recalls. "I was in the liquor business then, and owned three retail stores and five bars. I got into this business before I sold those, and it has grown from there."

The first week that Zurek ran the taxi service, he knew that he would need more cars, and got two more. "Then I got the idea to get a van with a lift to accommodate wheelchairs, and to charge the same price as for a taxi ride. The other cab companies would only accept Medicaid, so that has gone very well, too. We now have three wheelchair vans."

Las Cruces also has two, or perhaps one, other cab company. Although listed as Yellow Cab and Checker Cab, companies that have been around seemingly forever, the same person — who leases the cars to drivers — owns both. These drivers get to keep whatever income they get over the cost of the lease and gas/maintenance. There is a dispute as to whether the owner of the Yellow and Checker cabs can do what he is doing.

Southwest New Mexico not exactly being midtown Manhattan, that's almost the count of cab companies for this whole corner of the state. The Yellow Pages also lists A-W Taxi in Deming, and Gopher Taxi & Courier recently launched in Silver City, combining passenger with delivery service.

Zurek's operation is the closest thing for miles around to the image of a taxi service we carry around in our heads from TV and movies. But Zurek, a pleasant, detail-oriented man with a dry sense of humor, is not likely to remind anyone of Robert DeNiro's character in the movie Taxi Driver — much less Danny DeVito in "Taxi."

His 16 drivers are paid a "50/50" wage: They get 50 percent of every fare, and LCL gets 50 percent.

"You don't need a special license to drive a cab or limo in New Mexico, but the state does require pre-hiring drug screens and a DOT medical card has to be obtained," he says. "I don't need to do it, but I do get a background check on employees and arrange for random drug checks. I also do that myself, as I won't allow my employees to do anything I wouldn't do myself. I also don't allow smoking in the cabs or limos."

Zurek explains that his whole business is very customer-service oriented. "We offer fair, prompt and reliable service."

 

Zurek quickly changes into a more casual outfit, grabs some change and two radios, and we prepare to pile into one of his newer cabs. A fifth driver will hit the streets a bit later when he is done with a couple more limo runs.

While Zurek is changing and answering phone and radio calls, my attention goes back to Norwood, the dispatcher. She is a student studying radiology, and has been with LCL for about a year.

"It is my primary job, and a lot easier than my old one, at Pilot, where I was a gas cashier," she says.

She is originally from Rusk, Texas, and does a great job of juggling customer calls and dispatching drivers, all with a good sense of humor and organization. "On a normal night I'll handle about 40 calls," Norwood says. "But tonight is anything but normal."

Most of Zurek's drivers are men, but Norwood tells me that there is one female driver. "Janice Aragon. She really works hard — sometimes 18 hours a day. She is really dedicated."

A normal shift for a driver is 12 hours, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Zurek later tells me that many of LCL's regular customers will request a certain driver, and Aragon is usually at the top of the list. "She's only been doing this for less than a year, but has done a great job," he says. "Lots of people request her, or if they request another driver, it is because it makes them feel like they have their own 'personal' driver."

 

It is about 10:30 when we are ready to hit the streets, and immediately Norwood dispatches Zurek to the El Patio Bar in Mesilla. Oh, yes, Mesilla was also supposed to be another one of THE places to go tonight, because of the village's Cinco de Mayo celebration.

We pull up to the plaza, where an empty Yellow Cab sits. The plaza is roped off for the celebration, but no one is celebrating. Zurek locates the two men who will be his first fare, they climb in the backseat, and we are off.

But no one knows where to.

The two young men, who are living temporarily in Las Cruces, grumble long and hard about how dull El Patio was, and ask Zurek "where the action is in this town." I have my own smart-ass answer to this, but hold my tongue, since no one asked me.

Zurek recommends the Ramada Palms, which is supposedly having a big outdoor blast with live music. The two men agree, and we head to the Palms, which is just a short distance from Mesilla.

The two men banter back and forth with Zurek as we drive, with Zurek offering suggestions on where else the "action" might be. "Hey," he says. "Do you want to know where there are a lot of hot chicks tonight?"

Without hesitation the two men lean forward and ply him for the information.

Zurek laughs and delivers his punch line: "At the Mayfield High School prom."

The two passengers groan and flop back against the seat of the cab, just before we pull in to the Palms parking lot.

There is indeed a good-size party here, and the band is belting out the old Kim Carnes song, "Bette Davis Eyes."

They pay the fare, tip well, and hop out to join the other revelers.

Norwood is busy on the radio and the phone as Zurek parks right in front of the entrance to the Ramada. We watch the partiers — an abundance of them, all of course, younger people — mill about in a fenced-off area of the parking lot. The band cranks up again, and the female lead singer rips into yet another hit song written before her audience was born, "Heart of Glass" by Blondie.

As we wait and watch, the party dries up — literally. None of these party folks is drinking. For reasons unknown, the LCPD has come by and shut down this jamboree.

 

Zurek assures me that business really will pick up soon. In the meantime, he remains parked and tells me more about his human-cartage business.

"The rates are not set by the state or any state agency," he explains. "We make our own tariff, but it does have to be approved by the state. When I set the rates, I couldn't charge more or less than the current competition."

The ride for the two gents from El Patio to the Ramada was $6.75. They had been drinking and — like most of the other fares Zurek picks up tonight — they tip heavily, to no one's objection. Taxi driving is a job I have always wanted to do, and the fares and tips do make it look lucrative. Zurek has no trouble getting drivers, and does not need any more at this time. Darn it — another career cut short.

Chase Zurek came to Las Cruces from Sacramento, Calif., a few years ago when he was still in the, shall we say, "direct sales" liquor business. He had tired of that career, and was ready for something new when LCL came to be. He is single and in his off time, he enjoys scuba diving, but he concedes that he hasn't done so in quite a while.

To save money, he does most of the maintenance of his fleet in-house, and by himself. A nearby repair shop offers tips and occasional help, but Zurek had spent part of this day doing oil changes on a few of the vehicles.

He tells me, "Check the tires on some of the other (competition) cabs around here. That will tell you a lot about them. I am very safety conscious, and just put some new heavy-duty brake pads on some of the cars."

(Indeed a few days later I am waiting at a light when a competitor's car pulls up, complete with balding tires.)

The mechanic friend had recommended the new brake pads, but Zurek finds them annoying, as the brakes now squeak a lot.

He receives no fuel discount in Las Cruces for his fleet, and most often uses the nearby Pilot Truck Stop for gas. Insurance is very high, and always a concern, but he points out that liability for the limos is half what it costs for a cab.

 

Norwood calls "99" — Zurek's ID number — on the radio, and says that "Elizabeth," who is at the Ramada, has called for a ride. We are still parked in front of the Ramada, and are now keeping an eye open for her. Numerous young women parade by, and it seems that bellybutton and cleavage revelations are still quite in vogue. The young men are hardly fashion plates, as most are dressed in T-shirts, jeans and ball caps.

Calling for taxis is yet another area that cell phones have heavily invaded, as Norwood usually calls back each customer with an ETA or to see if they still want a ride, since sometimes a patron will call hours in advance in anticipation of a safe ride home.

By now, there are almost more cops and security personnel at the Ramada than partiers, and Elizabeth is not among them.

Ironically, after about 15 minutes, the gents from our first fare show up, again grumbling about nothing to do in this burg, and hop back in the car.

"Where to?" Zurek queries.

"You tell us. What is there to do in this town?" they ask again, and again I hold my tongue.

Zurek suggests two of the city's busier bars, Hurricane Alley and Graham Central Station. The two disappointed fares opt for Hurricane Alley, which is just a few minutes from the Ramada.

Hurricane Alley is indeed a happening place — so much so, that an armed officer is stationed outside. A bevy of young people is going in and out of the bar, and we can hear strains of rock music each time the door opens. A popular local band, The Liars, might be playing here; no one seems to remember where they are, but they are in demand.

Through the night, the conversations with the customers generally remain the same — what's going on, where is it happening, did you hear about the boxing match (big title fight tonight, too), and curiously an abundant usage of the f-word. I am amazed at the frequent use of this silly utterance, which usually makes the user sound like a nincompoop. Even the women are spouting it, but perhaps this is just another malady that occurs with the imbibing of too much John Barleycorn.

The next fare, conveniently, has called from Hurricane Alley. He approaches the cab, but the exchange between Zurek and the possible passenger slowly reveals that, since calling, the man has hooked up with a young woman or two, who are taking him to a house party instead. He is astonished by Zurek's honesty during the conversation, and apologizes several times for lying to him at first about the reason he no longer needs a ride. One wonders why he didn't announce his "success" in the first place.

 

Norwood, whose voice is now almost constantly on the radio, directing the four cabs to various places, announces that a number of customers are waiting across the street from the Pan Am, where the concert has ended. Zurek buzzes over to the McDonald's on University Avenue, which is kind of an ad hoc gathering place for those in need of a ride. Another LCL cab is cruising the area, looking for "flag fares," who might best be described as impulse customers, and a Checker cab, sans Checkers of any kind as part of its d‚cor, is also on hand.

We park briefly by the fast-food joint, and Zurek notes a dejected-looking young woman half-sitting on a barrier. She is dressed in a long, flowing, satin-ish prom-type dress, and looks quite sad and very alone.

"Do you need a cab?" Zurek calls out. She shakes her head, and looks down at her hands folded tightly in her lap.

The crowd is pretty much moving along at McDonald's, so Zurek moves next door to Bennigan's. As he does so, Norwood calls on the radio that there is indeed a fare to be picked up there.

The fare — John and his wife, whose name I forget to note — attended the Tool concert. As is their custom, they go to and from such events in a cab, knowing full well that night driving in Las Cruces requires nerves of steel, since most drivers have brains of pablum.

"I love taxis," John says as he gets in the cab.

The couple are transplants from Oregon, and will be the longest, in terms of mileage, fare of the night. Zurek needs to take them clear to the west edge of Las Cruces, to an area where the homes have a bit of acreage.

They keep up a healthy repartee with Zurek, and are the first customers to ask what I am doing riding along with him. They are actually acquainted with Desert Exposure, and acknowledge it heartily.

John used to be associated with the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, a band that capitalized on the brief incarnation of a sort of big band sound mixed with a bit of humor and funk that was popular for a short time in the late 1990s. Their best-known hit was "Zoot Suit Riot." The couple has fled the music business, however, and John now sells real estate in Las Cruces.

As we head up the dirt road that leads to their dirt road, we get a brief description of each neighbor whose abode we pass: This guy's place is called Fort Knox, as he is assumed to be wealthy. These two guys are artists. A couple of less complimentary capsules are tossed at other houses along the long road.

They pay the fare, tip well, and are glad to be home safely, off the mean streets of Saturday night Las Cruces.

 

Norwood has been on the radio steadily all of this time, and there is now a waiting list for the drivers to work through. Most of the "commercial" parties are about over: The Ramada bash was indeed shut down, and we pick up a disgruntled patron at Hurricane Alley, who discusses the pay-per-view boxing match and shares his facility with the f-word. We pick up another young man who has been drinking with some co-workers at a little after-hours get-together at an electrical supply shop, and take him to Graham Central Station, located just off of dormant downtown Las Cruces.

I am taken aback at the crowd that is gathered at this place. There is a line to get in, and our fare is just here to see if someone else is here. He is already pretty hammered, but after announcing his intention, he pays Zurek in advance to wait. Zurek, it turns out, has "pull" at this bar, and talks to the bouncers/doormen who are checking IDs and level of inebriation of the hopeful patrons. After a few words from Zurek, the young man is allowed in immediately. He returns directly, shares his good news, tips heartily, and is on his way, as we are, too.

Most of the rest of the evening's customers are leaving house parties and going home. And only one young couple that we pick up seems to be reasonably clearheaded.

They, and a number of other of these later fares, all take advantage of NMSU's Safe-Ride program, which has several other monikers, including Crimson Cab and Nightride. It is sponsored by the ASNMSU student organization, and allows a free taxi ride to any student with a valid university ID. Zurek gets the students to sign a form and present an ID — before he takes them to their destination — and is later reimbursed by the university.

 

Between stops, Zurek tells me that he estimates his first four cabs racked up 400,000 miles between them, the handicap-accessible vans already have 70,000 miles on them this year, and that the car we are using is indeed used, but he got a good deal on it. It does ride smoothly, and is comfortable, but those noisy brake pads....

I mention to him that in a recent visit to Vancouver, BC, a large number of the cabs that I saw on the streets were Toyota's hybrid Prius, the "greenest" car on the road. In turn, he tells me about the way that taxis are regulated in New York City and Chicago, where a "medallion," which more or less amounts to the right to drive a cab, can cost an independent driver up to $500,000. Not a job for the faint of heart or thin of wallet.

After a fare where Zurek takes a gentle jostling from a woman at the house where we are dropping the customer — this guy being the most sloshed of the night, and she being not much better, she insisting that she'd heard Zurek is engaged (he is not), as they are acquainted from his bar-owning days — Zurek admits he is about ready to call it a night. His workday is now in its 18th hour.

On our way to pick up what will be the last ride of the evening, I also learn that LCL drivers have never had an accident of note and that the record for a day's worth of fares is over $700.

"The guy went from here to Alamo(gordo) to El Paso, back to Alamo, and back to El Paso for medical appointments," Zurek recalls. "It cost him $733 by the time the day was over."

Daytime customers are of course a different breed. Many are on their way to places that are part of their daily routine — grocery stores, Target, medical appointments.

"But Las Cruces is a good town for tips," Zurek volunteers. So, it is not just the drunks who appreciate Zurek's drivers' extra-care service. There have been few fare skips and no LCL driver has been robbed, either.

It is, however, is true that some couples just can't wait to get home, and will cause a cab to get steamy windows. One of Zurek's most interesting stories about "adult" activities in a limo certainly can't appear here — sorry. This is not HBO's "Taxicab Confessions."

 

Norwood has called on the radio to say that there are several fares (perhaps) waiting at Graham's. We pull up, and the parking lot, which was packed (but Zurek noted that it wasn't "that" busy) when we were here before, is now almost empty. A number of empty beer cans blow across the asphalt, creating a sound that one could say is a wind chime for alcoholics. A lone couple stands in the parking lot. She is young, smartly dressed, and in tears. He — in jeans and a T-shirt — looks somewhat bewilderedly at the cell phone in his hand, as though he may or may not have called.

"Did you call for a cab?" Zurek asks.

The young man hesitates, like, Wow, how did that happen, I just called them. The woman continues to sob gently into her hands.

The young man says at last, "Uh, yeah, uh, well, let me go lock my car." A wise choice.

The couple stumble into the back of the cab. Of course, since we're ready to call it a night, their destination is across town, not far from where we just dropped off five students who sandwiched into the back of the cab, going for one last drink at the "f-ing" Hotel "E," which is trying to establish itself as a main player in the overpriced drink industry.

The couple are quiet for most of the way, and the girl has stopped crying. They whisper back in forth in Spanish, but just a little. About halfway to their destination, the young man announces in a loud, slurred voice, "I really need to piss."

No immediate solution is available, so Zurek encourages the lad by saying we are almost there. His voice is sounding tired, and our conversation has trailed off as weariness finally overtakes him. Sunday is his day off, and he smiles when he tells me what he has planned for tomorrow: "Sleep."

The young man is gently groaning in the back, and what is probably the longest red light that he has ever sat through finally changes to green, albeit briefly. Zurek steps on the gas, and in a couple of minutes we are at the apartment complex. I am amazed that all of these partygoers have no problem remembering how to get to their homes.

The young woman gets out immediately, the fare is paid, and indeed the kid wasn't lying when he said he had to go. The nearest tree is the recipient of an unscheduled watering.

Zurek gets on the radio to tell Norwood that he is heading in. The wait list is gone, and things are quieting down a bit. It is about 2:15 a.m.

We get back to the garage, where I bid farewell to Zurek after a brief tour of one of the massive and elegant limos. One of his drivers offers me a free ride, but I wearily pass, asking for a rain check.

I go inside the garage to bid adieu to Norwood, but she is back on the radio and the phone, taking more calls, which will go on until around 4 a.m., I am told.

Hell, the night is still young!

LCL Limousine Service provides all sizes of cars, and numerous luxury amenities, but no alcohol; call 524-5466 or (877) 688-5466. LCL Taxi runs 365 days a year, 24/7, and can be reached at 526-8294. Both services are fully licensed and insured.

 

After doing this story, senior writer Jeff Berg was glad to see that at least some people are using common sense and staying out of their cars if they have been drinking. He is also glad that his drinking days are over.

 

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