It’s part comedy club, part retail operation.
Randall Barnes should know — he’s been working the night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., for more than a year; some 30 years before that, he worked the streets, too. That was before he got, and then got laid off from, a job in manufacturing electric train motors.
But this gig is “a pretty fun job, pretty easy,” he says. There’s just the grumpy people to watch out for, to try to make happy. There are the flaggers, the frustrated drunks and, oh yeah, the yellers.
Barnes is one of six drivers for Jayhawk Taxi, a local business that’s been run by Shawn Hoefler since 2008 and is nearing its 100,000th ride.
Hoefler says the job’s not that easy: “It’s a lot more than just driving.” But he says Barnes is one of the best.
That’s because he’s good at customer service, the “making people happy and getting them along through their day.”
“Yeah, it’s a job,” Barnes said of the 12-hour shifts of constant sitting and driving. “But I actually have fun doing this; sometimes it’s like a comedy club. It’s entertaining to just sit back and listen to different stories people have to tell.”
He doesn’t mind the nights and weekends either, he says, even though “not everybody can deal with the bar crowd” because “a lot of people don’t realize how many people work the night shift — plant workers, law enforcement, people at the hospital — good people just living their lives.”
That’s the bulk of what it takes to be a good taxi driver, they both said: the ability to work with people.
“You’ve got 15 minutes to make them happy or keep them happy,” Hoefler said.
Only secondary to providing good service likely is strong map skills.
Barnes has lived his whole life in Lawrence and has never used GPS or gotten lost, he says. But he did have to ask a cop for directions once. Some of the new streets in west Lawrence developments trip him up sometimes.
“It was Doolittle Avenue, not on any map, not that I could find,” he said. “The police officer didn’t know either.”
He eventually found it (behind Hy-Vee on Sixth Street) and now he knows.
“People give vague descriptions all the time,” he said. “We prefer address to address, but we gotta know the town.”
Barnes is an independent contractor with Jayhawk Taxi, meaning the company owns and services the vehicle, takes and dispatches the calls and gets a cut of the $10 flat fare. Barnes gases up the minivan he drives — with nearly $10,000 in 2011 — and takes tips. Hoefler said the service is offering 10 free rides to the customer who takes that 100,000th ride, which he predicts will happen in the next month.
In the meantime, Barnes drives four nights a week, getting glimpses into other peoples’ lives in his minivan.
“We get people from all walks of life using taxis,” he said. “We get them picked up and dropped off.”