Clocking in when others clock out
It is 1:30 a.m. in a Midwest college town. A drunken co-ed leans through a half-open limousine window.
"Hey, how much does this cost?"
"To go where?"
"… Pshh, uh, I dunno."
The door slams shut and the driver grabs his cell phone off the dash, "Sweet Home Alabama," abruptly ends as he flips the phone to his face.
Many of the rides Roger Brown gives start with a conversation much like this one. On Fridays and Saturdays, he commands the wheel of a '95 Lincoln Crown Victoria. In his limousine-turned-oversized taxicab, Roger navigates the red brick streets and popular uptown haunts of Athens, Ohio, hunting for passengers. With a cell phone to his ear and Power 105 top 40 hits on the dial, he dodges potholes and ferries his thin-blooded, loud-voiced fares through the wee hours of the morning– even if their destinations are not totally clear.
I don't have a bad life, but I have a busy life. —Roger Brown
Roger works a separate day job as an assistant manager at Ohio University's Central Foods Facility during the week. While most of his coworkers might be working for the weekend, he never quits. He relies on the extra money he makes driving his limo weekend nights, and continues working at Ohio University to keep insurance coverage. If he retired, the costs of his diabetes medication would go through the roof. The tips he gets driving his cab end up on the table at Bob Evans once a week, when he, his wife Paula and his 16-year-old daughter, Dj – the last of Roger's five children still living at home – go out to eat most Sunday afternoons.
Keeping pace with this hectic work schedule means waking up each weekday morning at 5 a.m. for a nine-hour shift at OU's Central Foods Facility, which supplies the campuses dining halls. As assistant warehouse manager, he helps feed some of the very same customers that he will later chauffeur. As forklifts whine outside his office near stacks of non-perishables, Roger copies and files that day's paperwork.
Before getting behind the wheel for the night, though, Roger finds time for a nap. When he finishes up at the warehouse, he finds his car among the parking lot rows and races home between jobs to catch an hour or so of rest. The blinds drawn, he slumps on the couch for his brief recharge.
But tonight is Saturday. The uptown streets teem with polo shirts and ripped jeans, leggings and short-shorts. A local street musician plays an off-key piano for drunken dancers. Dressed to impress, students navigate through the dense bar crowds. The uneven brick streets wait to swallow a misplaced high heel, boot or sandal. Roger scans the huddled masses waiting for a call from the office. Then a Skynyrd ringtone blares from his phone. After a short conversation with his dispatcher, he sets off to pick up his next passengers.
All the drunks in here playing with the buttons and lights, they really are hard on 'em. —Roger Brown
"You see and hear some interesting stuff especially towards the middle of the night," he says with one hand draped over his black padded steering wheel.
Inside the limo, the action usually picks up after 11 p.m.. Roger plays witness to the mundane and the sometimes insane. Two girls cross tongues, craning over the seats. A guy holds his hand to his chest, bloodied and wrapped in a t-shirt after a drunken mishap. During particularly busy weekends, Roger lines his backseat with a plastic tarp. Mud and vomit are just part of the job. A trip to the car wash would mean losing time, and also money. Occasionally out-of-towners hire rides to comb the streets for their lost vehicle, unable to remember where they parked. The tow trucks often beat them to the punch.
"All the drunks in here playing with the buttons and lights, they really are hard on 'em," he says. Even though Roger regards drunk students with amused interest, his fatherly instincts kick in when girls get in his cab. With daughters of his own, he likes to make sure the ladies get home safely. Roger works with a purpose, picking up drunks and keeping them off the road.
Living in the house that his grandfather built, Roger comes from a long line of hard workers, and he takes pride in what he does. "Besides the monetary part," he says, "it's the sense of self-fulfillment" that keeps him filling time with work (he also serves on two Athens County school boards, which affect over 3,000 students). "It's fun to be known around town."
Beyond the extra income, the real reason Roger works is to support his family. His wife, Paula, understands why Roger works so much, but she still wishes he were around more. This year, their anniversary falls on a busy street "fest" weekend, and Roger cannot get the night off. As much as he tries, he cannot make the days longer, and his family life often takes a backseat to his work. Saturday mornings are this man's Sabbath, sleeping until noon to recover from a long night. On Sundays, Roger sets his alarm clock, because that is the day he spends with Paula and his daughter. "It's our day to spend together, so I don't want to sleep it away."