Hundreds of fans are leaving the stadium and crossing Randol Mill, but few pedicabs are parked in front of the skinny “pedicab” sign weighed down by sandbags on the median.
There are too many people and too few drivers to keep up with the demand. As a result, handfuls of people waiting for a ride back to their cars or hotels give up and start walking.
A man with three teenage boys in tow manages to snag one of the last available pedicabs. The blond, surfer-looking cabbie makes it clear up front that “it might be physically impossible” for him to make it uphill with that much weight, but the father waves him on.
Sure enough, the kids (not the dad, who stays put in the cab) hop out when the pedicab crawls almost to a standstill about halfway up the street. One of them even helps push.
After they reach the parking lot, the dad, who didn’t provide his name, says the inefficiency didn’t bother him.
“Hell, he wasn’t going to get up that hill by himself,” he says.
The teens pile into the dad’s red Mustang convertible, and they speed off toward I-30 with the top down.
Heading back to the stadium, the pedicabbers are clearly exhausted from their first or second fares of the end-game rush. Despite the brisk, almost chilly December air, their faces are sweaty and flushed, but they continue to pedal as if their livelihood depends on it, which it does.
At this point, just reaching their potential fares has become a frustrating ordeal. They curse and grunt trying to penetrate the human river of victorious Cowboys fans, nearly all of them in some variation of royal-blue jerseys and white denim shorts. Once past the people inundating streets and sidewalks, the pedicabbers face another obstacle as thousands of cars, trucks, and limousines pour out of the parking lots.
For several crucial minutes, it’s impossible for cabs to reach the waiting area, where would-be passengers, drunk or tired or both, ask with increasing agitation where the hell the pedicabs are. Told they may have to wait a few minutes, several of them storm off, muttering obscenities as they walk away, presumably to a vehicle in some far-off parking lot.
When a few pedicabs finally line up at the waiting area, the drivers try and fail to stick to decorum.
Beer in hand, the first customer stumbles up to Richards’ pedicab.
“Aight, let’s get going here!” he says.
Richards is third in line, and he politely tells the man to speak with the pedicabber who’s waiting at the front. But it’s chaos everywhere, and the man, who either can’t hear or doesn’t understand, continues to try to negotiate a price.
Proper pedicab etiquette becomes moot, however, as a drunken young woman in Mardi Gras beads leaps into Richards’ cab and belts out a triumphant, evil laugh.
“Whoo! Sorry, I love you!” she says to the still-confused drunken man. Richards, now resigned, shrugs his shoulders and pedals past the short line of pedicabbers waiting for fares.
The others don’t have to wait for long.
A smiling father who must weigh at least 250 pounds steps into a pedicab, and no fewer than five small boys, all about 6 or younger, climb up after him, all clad in blue jerseys like a miniature five-man football team.
As the last little boy finds a seat on top of the others, he turns to the pedicabber.
“I feel so sorry for you,” he says.
The blitzkrieg of fans has subsided by now, and a live band inside the stadium is playing a strange, genre-crossing mix of hits for the departing audience, from Adele to Kesha to Gloria Gaynor.
A recorded voice travels out the stadium and across the street.
Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye,
Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?
One of the young women who drives the golf carts is unimpressed with the vocals: “I could sing better than that, but then I’ve had lessons.”
In about a minute and a half, the line of waiting cabbies goes from zero to 15, and several of them are still eagerly calling out and ringing bells. The dullness of the others’ solicitations suggests some of the zeal has worn off by now, but they continue trying to nab the last fares of the evening.
“At this point, I’m exhausted,” says Martin, his scrawny legs squeezed together against the chilly night air.
Some of them turn down fares because the distance is too great or they’re not willing to drive only for tips. The latter question, about how pedicabbers should charge for their services, is a matter of some contention.
At the front of line, Cassie Baker, a pedicabber from Austin, turns down several people who want to pay only tips.
“Ah, hell no,” says one man upon hearing the $10-a-head rate –– a standard most of the Arlington pedicabbers adhere to.
Most, but not all.
Nate Lepke, who runs one of the handful of pedicab businesses that operate in Arlington, tells his cabbies to bike only for tips, not a flat rate. Lepke, a veteran with years of experience in multiple cities, is not especially well liked among the other pedicabbers, and the feeling is mutual.
As Baker continues to turn down customers who want to pay only in tips, Lepke grows increasingly angry. He and his cabbies would take those rides, but they’re not at the front of the line.
“C’mon man, are you kidding me?” he yells after Baker turns away another potential fare.
This is a continuing disagreement, and Lepke sounds unsurprised to be pissed off. Nobody else seems surprised, either. When Baker doesn’t hear a couple of customers calling for a pedicab on the far side of the street behind her, Lepke see the chance to snag another fare for himself. He steps out of line, hops his pedicab over the median, and takes them where they want to go.
When he returns, tempers flare, and soon enough Lepke is in a heated argument with Sokolov, a pedicab veteran with a powerful dislike of the tips-only business model.
“You are trying to dictate how we run our business!” Sokolov yells at him. “You are a dictator! You are a dictator!”
Obscenities fly, and the rest of the pedicabbers look the other way rather than get involved. Lepke, a burly, square-jawed type who looks like a bare-knuckle boxer, says Sokolov and the pedicabbers like him are fleecing customers for every possible nickel. He also tells Sokolov what he can do with himself.
“Long-term, it’s not a viable business model,” Lepke says of the flat rates after he and Sokolov have it out. “I’d love an ordinance saying we can only work for tips … . They’re ruining the business for the rest of us.”
Most of the stadium has emptied, and there are few people left on the streets. The dozen or so remaining pedicabbers are relaxed and reflective, like high school students waiting for the bell.
It takes commitment to pedicab night after night –– actually, it’s more like an addiction, says Baker, a skinny blonde perched on top of her bike frame.
“You know, I read once that getting cash sends endorphins to your brain just like cocaine,” she muses. “Pedicabbers get that first 20 bucks, and they’re hooked.”
Without missing a beat, Joel enthusiastically jumps into the conversation.
“That was me,” he says. “I made $900 my first day at an LSU game, and I was like, ‘I’m never going back [to anything else].’ ”
Many of the younger pedicabbers talk about their trade like an obsession, as though they are compelled to ride as often as they can. To hear Joel describe it, that’s the only way to survive. It’s like sharks: If you make a living on a bicycle, you can never stop moving.
“I know I’m fast. That’s the only way you make money. I’m always, like, ‘C’mon, just one more ride!’ ” Joel says. “You just got to keep going. Don’t ever stop.”
About this time, a City of Arlington pickup truck rolls up next to the line of pedicabbers. The maintenance guy steps out and takes away the sign that marks the pedicab stop. As the worker tosses it unceremoniously in the back of the truck, Richards decides it’s time to head home. He’d spent the previous four nights working in downtown Austin, hauling bike-loads of people. His legs, he decides, have had enough.
“I’m done. I’m not going to do this again until Thursday. I’m not going to do much of anything until Thursday.”
How did he do tonight?
“It hasn’t been great,” he says, maneuvering his pedicab toward the highway, “but I’m hard to please.”
The last few pedicabbers are biking the short 10-minute ride back to Uncle Bob’s Storage.
When they get there, the cabbies will pack up their bikes, listen to some Chili Peppers, and generally relax before heading home, or — if they’re from Austin — crashing in a hotel room. For now, they’re worn out from another long, hectic night, but the freedom to bike as they choose is enough to lighten their spirits again, and they speed up with renewed energy as they pedal away from the stadium.
They’ve got pockets full of cash, bikes between their legs, and the anonymity of a sleeping city. The sky opens up as they cross the highway, roller coasters silhouetted against the lighter firmament, and it’s easy to understand how that might be enough.