By Rachael Diemert | Photo by Matt Schmachtenberg
For many nightcrawlers at JMU, cab rides are an integrated part of their nights. Students rely on cabs to get them home safely when the night buses aren’t convenient. Some lucky students have found their “go-to” cab drivers that enhance their weekend experience. A popular Harrisonburg cab driver, Chewy, is one of those go-to drivers. When riding with Chewy, students expect two things: A fun ride and a loyal cab driver.
Chewy begins his shift outside of Campus Corner. His Yellow Cab car sits with several others waiting for business along a busy stretch of Port Republic Road. With the car in park, Chewy sits inside with the windows down. One hand rests on the windowsill with a cigarette between his fingers as his other hand fiddles with the radio, settling on a rock station that gets interrupted every few minutes by a crackle of static. On the other end, a dispatcher directs him to his next customer.
Chewy, who doesn’t go by his real name for privacy reasons, has been doing this routine for 13 years. His shift begins at 5 p.m. and ends 12 hours later. He usually works Thursdays through Saturdays during the school year: the busiest nights for business. Roughly 80 percent of Chewy’s customers are JMU students, customers with whom he has made numerous connections. Many describe him as a friend, and some even say he has been a lifesaver.
Around 9:30 p.m., Chewy’s business picks up, and until 1:30 a.m., Chewy’s phone will ring incessantly. He answers the phone, managing to make a mental list of customers, which includes the time, their name and location, while driving around Harrisonburg. The phone calls could be from loyal customers or from new customers who have heard about Chewy from others or the Yellow Cab dispatcher.
Chewy calls the next customer in line as he pulls into Aspen Heights. Three girls trickle out of their apartment, stepping carefully in their heels to avoid red Solo cups scattered on the ground.
“Where are we going, darling?” he asks the girls as they file into the cab, his voice a raspy southern drawl.
“South View!” the girls tell him, and Chewy takes off. It’s dark outside now, and the lights of buildings, cars and street lamps blur together as they drive along Port Republic Road heading to a party the girls heard about.
“My friend Caroline told me about you!” the girl in the front seat tells Chewy.
“Oh, I could tell ya lots of funny stories about that girl,” Chewy says with a smile. Chewy proceeds to tell them a funny story about the girls’ friend, laughing at his each of his punch lines, making the girls laugh too.
“I love this song! Chewy, can you turn this up?” one girl in the back seat asks as she hears the One Republic song “Counting Stars” coming through the speakers. He obliges and cranks the music up as they all sing along. At the end of the ride, the girls ask for his name and number, and if they can call him whenever they need a ride. The girls pay, thank Chewy and leave the cab. Chewy says goodbye, puts the car into drive and heads toward the next customer.
This is how Chewy develops relationships with his customers. Students stumble into his cab, and afterward, they rely on him as their regular cab driver. After a few rides, customers turn into friends. Chewy says that through this job, he’s developed some of his greatest friendships.
“He’s a cab driver, but he’s also a loyal friend too,” Davis Ireland, a senior health sciences major and loyal customer of Chewy says. “You can always count on him. If he says he can do it, then he’s gonna do it for you.”
Ireland has driven with Chewy since his first night at JMU, when he got lost and didn’t know where he was. Chewy somehow located him, and brought him safely back to his dorm.
“He’s a safe, dependable way to get home,” Ireland says. “Whenever I call him, I get to A to B and have a good time. That’s why I don’t call anyone else.”
Ireland also commented on his experience with Chewy compared to other cab drivers, saying other cab drivers are less personal. Davis explains that Chewy is accommodating to your mood.
“He always matches the tempo of your night. When you’re really drunk and ready to go, he’s lively, he’s funny … he’ll crank the music and get loud with you and stuff. But when you’re having a s—ty night, he acts differently. When you’re tired and want to relax, he’ll do that too.”
When asked about his relationships with JMU students, Chewy says his customers are his friends.
“A few customers and I have pictures of each other on Facebook,” Chewy says. “One of my favorite customers came back for her sophomore year, and she put up a picture of us hugging, and it said ‘Two best friends finally get back together’ … When these kids turn 21, I’ll go out for drinks with them … I’ve developed some of the best friendships with them.”
Customers love Chewy because he is fun and personable, but also because he’s dependable. Pooja Rastogi, a junior health science major has been a loyal customer since sophomore year, and considers him a good friend. She describes Chewy as reliable, and says the relationship she has with Chewy is “the most stable relationship I’ve had in college.”
“There were times that I forgot money and needed a ride. Chewy picked me up anyway and gave me a ride, saying I could pay him back later,” Rastogi says.
Rastogi remembers a time when her friend left her wallet in Chewy’s car. Rastogi called Chewy and told him the situation. Chewy turned his cab around immediately, making sure to return it.
He also has developed relationships with students’ parents, receiving calls or texts to make sure their children arrive home safe.
“My parents liked having security and knowing who was taking me home, and getting me home safely,” says Allison Henry, a former JMU student who transferred last spring.
Henry used Chewy throughout her three years at JMU and was one of Chewy’s close customers. Henry called him desperately needing a ride one night, and he picked her up, even though he was not working.
Chewy described two other customers, a pair of brothers whose parents would call and text Chewy each time the boys went out to make they got home safely. The parents and Chewy communicated frequently, eventually having Chewy meet them in Philadelphia to treat him to a baseball game.
Working late nights, Chewy has encountered many troublesome situations with students.
“I’ve seen it all … I tell everybody, I could write a book on all the dumb s*** of what students have done,” he says.
Chewy tries to help them the best he can, often times going above and beyond just driving the customer to their desired location.
“I’ve literally thrown girls over my shoulder, and carried them into their apartments,” he says.
Chewy has also made sure friends take care of a student who is sick. He has had various students puke in his car. He has had to call the police to take a girl to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. He says he has also persuaded a woman who was sexually assaulted to report the crime.
“I can tell by talking to someone on the phone how urgent a situation is. They say, ‘Chewy I need you here right now!’ But sometimes a person will call me in tears and I’ll rush across town to try to help them out.”
What students may not think about during their rides from one apartment party to another, though, is that Chewy and other cab drivers rely on them, too. Cab companies generally do not pay drivers an hourly fee. Each night that Chewy works, he pays a leasing fee to use the cab, has to buy gas, and pays a fee on the amount of miles he racks up. This adds up to about $115-$150 dollars per night.
“Essentially, when we begin a shift, we are digging ourselves out of a hole. That’s why tipping is so important because it helps dig us out,” he says.
Chewy’s motivation is his two boys. He moved from Atlanta to Harrisonburg to be closer to his oldest son and started to drive cabs as a second job to make extra income to support his family.
“This is why I do this. It’s a great second income for their college funds.”
The next time you are out and need a friend to pick you up, call the Yellow Cab Company, and ask for Chewy.