The personal touch

The personal touch – Always there for his patrons, driver has earned loyal regular following

By: Melanie Zanona

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, May 23, 2010)


Author’s Note:

When I sat down to write this article, I remember being surprised by how different the story was from what I expected it to be. Once I got over my own notions of what the story “should be” and let the details guide me, the story quickly began to unfold before my eyes. In the end, I realized it’s not always about writing the story- it’s about finding the story. And that’s a lesson I use in my writing every day.

My story was a semi-finalist in the Hearst Award’s creative feature writing category.

– Melanie Zanona


The shamrock-embroidered button on Steve Robinette’s taxi van dashboard reads “Kiss Me, I’m the Designated Driver.” It’s from Unofficial St. Patrick’s day last year, when a group of his regular customers asked him to pull over and grab one from a vendor on the street. Small, plastic handcuff keys are dangling overhead on the mirror, from when Robinette picked up some girls at a Halloween party this October. Just below that, slung around his cup holder, is a faded glow-in-the-dark necklace that a customer gave him from a “hippy concert” at the Canopy Club last month. For Robinette, a Yellow Cab taxi driver, his van’s dashboard is just as colorful as his character.

“I try to form regulars and really get to know them,” Robinette says of his cab clientele. “My role is more like driving nieces and nephews around.”

The night starts out like most other nights. A group of sorority girls, their stiletto heels clicking on the pavement, scurries out of Mas Amigos restaurant and piles into Robinette’s elongated taxi van.

A ringing chorus of “Steve!” echoes through the cab as they scrunch up next to one another and get situated.

“Take us to Kams!” one of the girls shouts.

“Sure thing, ladies, just got to make one stop first.”

Robinette slips a Camel Filter cigarette out from its yellow-gold package and lights it, shielding the flame from the cool winter air. Although he is almost 40 years old, it’s hard to tell. Robinette has a round baby face with smooth skin and straight white teeth. His hair is graying, but thick. He’s nearly 6 feet 7 inches tall with a burly, round frame. But he still wears tiny, thin-rimmed silver glasses that look as though they have always belonged on him. Robinette takes a drag of his Camel with his left hand, switches gears with his right and pokes the van into acceleration.

“You know, this is a family affair for us, Steve,” says a smiling Kelly Rourke, the shorthaired brunette sitting in the seat directly behind Robinette. She turns and explains to her friends: “My cousin and older brother used to always go to him, and they passed his number down to me. Now I’ll only call him to be my driver. Steve’s my only choice!”

As the girls laugh and banter, Robinette pulls up to an apartment driveway. He grabs his Nextel phone from the cup holder and makes a quick call. Within seconds, a young man and his girlfriend climb into the cab and make their way to the back.

“What’s going on, Steve?” the man asks. “We’re just going to Potbelly’s.”

“No problem,” he replies in a slow, smooth voice that bubbles up straight from his belly, and his words project throughout the whole cab. His Boston accent peeks in now and then. When Robinette talks, he always keeps his eyes on the road, but his customers feel as though every last bit of his attention is on them.

Robinette listens and gives advice. He offers tissues to the crying girlfriend who just got dumped. He takes people where they need to go. He gives a cigarette to the drunken kid heading home for the night. In the taxicab world, the customer is always right, but in his regulars’ eyes, Robinette is never wrong.

As he backs out of a driveway, the large taxi van bottoms out on the street and scrapes against the rough concrete. Loud cheers and clapping erupt from the passengers. Robinette turns over his shoulder and smirks.

“That one’s always a crowd-pleaser.”

Robinette started delivering for Dominos pizza in Champaign in 2004, which helped him become familiar with local geography. Ask him any trivia about where things are on the University of Illinois campus, and he’ll know it. But pizza delivery was just too boring and impersonal. His manager at the time put him in touch with someone who worked with Yellow Checker Cab Company in Champaign, and Robinette has been driving taxis ever since.

He drives his taxi about five nights a week, starting at 2 p.m. and going till 3 a.m. or later, which might explain why his van is littered with empty sugar-free Red Bull cans and crumpled Jimmy John’s wrappers.

The key to Robinette’s success as a cab driver has been cultivating a following of regulars, who are known in the cab-driving world as “personals,” as opposed to random customers pulled off the street, who are known as “flaggers.” Robinette has so many personals that he doesn’t need to have the dispatcher radio on all the time.

But business isn’t always lucrative. Sometimes he’ll go home because sales aren’t covering his $600-a-month gas expenses. Other slow times, he’ll run a few errands, call his mom or girlfriend, and listen to books on tape.

At home, Robinette doesn’t own a TV because his love for books always trumped his desire to watch television. Growing up he read E.M. Forster, Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde, but today he’ll usually read more current books in search of a new classic.

“I’m not saying that I don’t consume media,” Robinette admits. “I watched TV a lot when I was a kid, and even in my adolescence. I just think TV went to hell.”

Being up until the early hours of the morning every day makes it difficult for Robinette to have a normal life, which is another reason it is easier to read books instead of watch television, since primetime programs air while Robinette is working. The weird hours also make it harder to stay in shape, which is why Robinette’s girlfriend made him join a gym recently.

“I actually feel weird when I walk because I spend so much time in my van,” Robinette says. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can drive with my legs. I can even take corners with my knees!”

It’s early evening and business is slow. Robinette calls the dispatcher to see if she has anything. Two people at the Red Roof Inn in Champaign need a ride to campus. Robinette arrives at the hotel within a few minutes, and two people in their late 20s hop into the van carrying bags of Jim Beam products. They are representatives for the whiskey brand, and tonight they are doing promotions at a campus bar, Fubar Lounge.

The threesome cruises down Green Street. Just before the Beam reps step out of the van and pay, Robinette slips them his business card: a Yellow Taxi Van card with his name and number scribbled in black permanent marker.

“Call me if you need me later,” Robinette says. “It can be hard to get a ride out at that time of night.”

Robinette’s van comes to a halt at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house on Fourth Street. A few minutes later, two girls jog down the long pathway and hop into the cab.

“Steve, my fave cab driver!” one of the girls shouts. “We missed you!”

“Yeah, we denied three other cabs for you,” says the other.

“Well, thanks, ladies!” Robinette says as he pulls away, smoothly turning onto the street with his wrist, which is casually draped over the steering wheel. “What are you guys up to tonight?”

“Just frat hopping, the usual,” one girl says.

“Oh, man, but I am so hungry,” says the other.

“Spring break diet! We have to stay on our spring break diet!”

“OK, fine, you’re right.”

“But, actually, I’m kind of hungry, too. Hey, Steve, do you have the number to One World?”

Robinette pulls out a sleek, black iPhone, and happily dispenses the number to the girls, who call and order a medium cheese pizza with a side of ranch.

“Thanks, Steve!” the girls exclaim in unison as they get out at their destination. “Here’s a little extra tip just for you.”

Robinette pockets the money and puffs on a Camel.

“I always try to help out my customers,” he says as he flicks the disintegrating ashes out of the window. “I usually hear someone’s entire drunken story about a boyfriend or a friend or a policeman, and I just smile and nod and give advice when I can. Sometimes people just want someone to listen, though. That’s what I’m here for: the cab-driving psychologist.”

When he was younger, Robinette never envisioned himself becoming skilled in the art of cab driving. In fact, Robinette never envisioned himself becoming much of anything. He knew only what he didn’t want to do, which was to become an engineer, just like his father always wanted.

“My dad owns a factory that makes eyeglasses and telescopes,” Robinette says. “He wanted me to be an engineer because all the people in his life that he respected were engineers.”

Robinette was raised in Boston, where he attended Boston English School, a public high school that focuses on teaching business, mechanics and engineering trades. But he was resistant toward school and higher education. His family and teachers had high expectations of Robinette at a young age because of his natural intelligence, he says, but he had difficulty staying on track. It’s not that he wasn’t capable of completing his schoolwork; rather, he simply found it easier.

After high school, it came as no surprise to his family when Robinette flitted around among several liberal arts colleges on the East coast. For a while, he worked on a roofing crew in Boston, mending old Victorian buildings. And for his father’s sake, he gave the factory life a good run.

Nothing seemed to give Robinette any satisfaction, especially because he was carrying around the notion that he could just never be a suit-and-tie type of guy. Robinette eventually migrated to Chicago to give education another shot, but he never finished his degree.

He finally came to Champaign 15 years ago because one of his high school buddies was going to school there at the time. He figured it would be an opportunity to step away from the life that was expected of him and do something on his own in a completely new city.

Robinette may have walked away from his education, but he never walked away from being an intellectual. He still revisits the writings of his favorite philosophers, including Nietzsche, but is always on the lookout for new material to keep his mind engaged. And Robinette found something that comes naturally and easy to him – casual cab driving in a college town – because it allows his active mind to wander as he gets a chance to bounce ideas and conversation around with fresh new faces.

“I may grow old, but the students never do,” Robinette jokes.

As Robinette rounds the corner, he gets a call on his work cell phone, with the name “Sprint Sux Girl” popping up on the glowing screen.

“I have my phone filled with over 500 numbers of regulars from over the years,” Robinette says. “But half the time I don’t know their real names, so they’re just saved as something to jog my memory of who they are. Sprint Sux Girl is a college student who was complaining about how bad her service was. And Sprint really does suck.”

Robinette answers his cell and arranges for a personal as he pulls up to the Evans Scholars house, where a group of five guys come fist-pumping out of the door chanting: “Bull-et! Bull-et! Bull-et!”

Robinette quickly learns that the group is celebrating a birthday, and heading to Urbana’s Silver Bullet strip club to celebrate. As he cruises down quiet side streets, one of the customers asks for the music to be turned up and Robinette obliges, tuning to 105.5 and letting rapper Lil Wayne echo through the neighborhood.

“I don’t like this type of music,” says Robinette, whose favorite band is a gothic, dream pop group called Dead Can Dance. “I just play it because that’s what the people like.”

The cab pulls up to the club and he flips on the overhead lights.

“All right, guys, it’s gonna be four dollars a person, except the birthday boy gets a free one.”

“Aw, you gave him a birthday present!” says one of the passengers.

“I just hope you guys get him a better one!” Robinette chuckles.

It’s bar rush now, which in the cabby world means the time between 2 and 3 a.m. Taxis prowl the streets like predators.

“There’s a lot of nasty competition between cab companies, but I don’t let it get to me,” Robinette says. “I know my style is a lot different than some of these other drivers, who chase kids down when they don’t pay, or jack up the prices for extra profit. I just do me.”

Robinette’s yellow taxicab moseys up to the driveway of a house on Third Street, and it is not the first time Robinette has been here. As a group of regulars on their way to La Bamba slowly trickles out of the house and into the cab, Robinette’s phones start ringing at the same time.

“Wow, Steve, you’re popular!” laughs one of the girls in the van.

“Yeah, well, it’s hard being a rock star,” Robinette jokes back.

The group takes a while to climb in, but Robinette is patient. Although he is a big man who drives an even bigger car, he is kind and gentle. And so he waits. After 10 minutes, they’re finally ready to go.

“Let’s hit it!” Robinette says, putting his arm behind the passenger seat and reversing into the street. He whips through muddy alleys and avoids large potholes, and suddenly passes a parked cop car.

“Everyone be quiet; it’s the cops!” someone shouts.

“We aren’t doing anything illegal, idiot,” another passenger chimes in.

“Yeah, I mean, I haven’t smoked crack in like 20 minutes,” Robinette bellows to his regulars, who burst out in uproarious laughter.

“Steve, you the man!” shouts one of the guys as they pull up to the fast-food joint.

“Thank you, Steve!” the group yells as they exit.

“No, thank you,” Steve answers back.

Just as bar rush kicks into high gear, Robinette gets a phone call from the Jim Beam representatives he had dropped off at Fubar Lounge earlier in the night.

Robinette glances at the clock, which now reads 2:06 a.m., and realizes how much business he is going to lose if he drives off campus right now, but he decides to pick up the reps anyway. He knows that building a reliable relationship with the reps will ultimately be a better payoff than pulling random flaggers off the crowded streets of Champaign. So Robinette pulls up next to Fubar Lounge on Green Street and his returning customers climb in. They’re thankful they were able to get a ride back to their hotel, and their tip definitely shows it.

By the time Robinette rides back into town, he knows his night is almost over as bar rush begins to wind down. He cracks the window open and lights another Camel, inhaling slowly and leaning his head back against the headrest before exhaling. The Yellow taxi van cruises down a deserted Peabody Avenue, with 105.5 softly humming in the background, because that’s what the people like.

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