Becky Wheeler, an eight-year Union Cab veteran, embraces her Freakfest shift.
It's not even 9:30 p.m. and Kirk, a 50-something UW alum, with his quieter friend Mark have been drinking since before the Badger game earlier in the afternoon. "We're glad to see Madison is still cool," he says.
During the 20-minute ride to the Essen Haus, Kirk never stops talking about his daughter, about the costumes we pass, about the cold weather he's no longer used to after years living in Arizona. "I haven't had such a hard time getting a cab since I was in Tijuana," he says.
I'm riding shotgun with Becky Wheeler, an eight-year veteran of Union Cab, on one of the busiest nights of the cabbie's year. Saturday is a collision of parties with UW's Homecoming, including a football game, and Freakfest with its 33,000 ticket holders converging on State Street along with costume parties and nightclub celebrations taking place all over town. Becky's in costume, with elaborate sugar-skull face paint, and is offering candy to passengers. Every now and then she delightedly points out a costume outside her cab's windshield.
It's a surreal night: Garth from Wayne's World waits for a bus near West High School. On Broom Street, a bus is crammed with Mario Brothers characters and an assortment of furry suits.
And it seems like everyone wants a cab. At 9:45 p.m., with people still either heading to the party, or migrating from one to another, wait times for Union Cab passengers are at one hour. There are 75 calls waiting for pickups. There are hundreds of cabs on the road, but by 1:45 a.m., people calling Union face busy signals, unable to even get on hold.
At first, I think Becky is overreacting when she locks her doors each time we cruise through the "party zone," roughly composed of the Capitol Square, Broom Street, Johnson and University. But people dash into the street to flag us down, or cluster around the cab when Becky makes a stop hoping she will let them in. She usually can't, because she's there to pick up someone who's been waiting 30 or 40 minutes. At around midnight, people start flipping us off or shouting insults when Becky tells them she can't take them. Everywhere we go, people wave for her to stop.
Becky waves back. "I'm very popular," she says cheerfully.
At 1 a.m., Becky stops on Lake Street to get a passenger, Matt, bound for Maple Bluff. Before she can unlock the doors to let him in, an astronaut grabs hold of the left-side door handle, and won't let go. It's a standoff of several long, bizarrely tense minutes, with Becky telling the astronaut to let go, and the astronaut wordlessly hanging on.
"Hi!" she says, then it progresses to shouts. "I'm not letting you in. Get the fuck away from my cab. Hey astronaut! Get away from the vehicle. Go away. You're going to have to leave. Let go of the window."
The astronaut kicks at Matt's knee before finally letting him in, still impassive, and a bystander with a fake bird waves us off with his middle finger. It's almost, but not quite, the weirdest thing we see.
Becky started her shift at 3 p.m. and has already weathered the madness of post-Badger game traffic. She spends a large portion of the night on the periphery of the action with downtown as the start or end point. Her rides take her to Middleton (quiet), the west side of Madison (quiet) and Sun Prairie (dead quiet).
At 11 p.m., on the way to pick up a pair of teenage girls on the far west side, a meteor flares in the dark sky. The ride in the cab seems downright peaceful at this moment. The dispatcher's voice on the radio is at times the only link to the mess downtown, telling drivers how many people are still waiting for rides, how long they've been waiting and congratulating everyone for hanging in there.
Waiting for a pickup at the Old Fashioned, we see the backside of the Freakfest stage, the light show splashing up against nearby buildings, bass thumping. Along Regent, Gorham and Johnson, Frances and Lake, we see glimpses of the madness that must be taking place on State Street as floods of people cross streets, waiting or not waiting for the lights, often stepping off the curb without looking.
In the throngs, we see three women in binders, 27 Waldos (or the same Waldo in 27 places), a "distorted painting Jesus" and a very cold-looking Michael Phelps, complete with Speedo and a clattering array of gold medals around his neck.
Not everyone is aiming for the big party downtown, though. Becky takes two Madison residents, a chicken and her farmer, to the Hilldale Great Dane. A California man in town to start a new job just wants to find his phone and get back to his hotel room in Middleton. And Mark Metzger, after a 14-hour shift at Pasqual's on Monroe, wants nothing more than a quiet drink at Genna's. He's a bit dismayed by the crowd when he arrives.
"It sucks when you live here," he says. "Let me go somewhere in peace. You can just get drunk any day."
Three alums in an assortment of hastily-assembled costumes, on their way to Buck's around 10:30, tell us they no longer stress over costumes.
"My costumes have slowly declined over the years," says Dana Vosters, who describes herself as "girl in flannel carrying a tool belt."
"Freakfest is way overrated," says Houston Hoff, dressed as a '90s surf dude. "You find a bar that's not too crowded and you stay there."
There's a dark side, too. Around midnight, we pass the downtown jail on Carroll Street, its parking garage wide open and well lit. Inside are a few cars, but at least two dozen officers clearly in stand-by mode, standing and sitting around. Fire trucks wail past us three times. And at Maharani, as we wait for a pickup that never shows, one pulls up right next to us, followed shortly by an ambulance.
At 3 a.m., as we drive down University Avenue, someone is flat on his back on the sidewalk by Vilas Hall with two ambulances and a firetruck pulled over to the side while EMTs cluster around him. Another cluster of emergency vehicles occupies the sidewalk of the Equinox apartment building on Gorham.
After 1:30 a.m., with bar time looming, all of Becky's rides are now waiting at the Concourse Hotel. Freakfest starts closing down, and State Street partiers are looking for rides home. Dozens are waiting outside the hotel, hoping we're stopping for them.
"This is the start of the end," Becky says. She's been hungry since midnight but never gets a chance to do anything about it. The drive-through line for Taco Bell, her last resort, is so long that cars are waiting in the street. And even though she's officially off at 3, she'll keep plugging away and picking up fares until past 4.
The scene outside her cab gets more surreal.
A red Power Ranger, helmet on and face obscured, walks south along John Nolen, on the long lonely stretch between Monona Bay and Lake Monona, thumb stuck out. Fifteen minutes later, the same Power Ranger is on the other side, walking north, still hitchhiking.
By 2:30, Johnson Street is completely open again, and there's a tone of "Hallelujah" in the Union Cab dispatcher's voice. "Let's get these people home," he says. Union Cab will later announce that they received more than 3,000 calls per hour between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Business over the rest of the shift tapers slowly. Clumps of tired-looking revelers can be seen miles from downtown. We drive a group of 20-somethings in town from Antigo, including a furry monster, to a Sun Prairie hotel room. We take a Stevens Point couple in roaring-20s finery to a friend's south-side home. At 3:30 we scoop a shivering Milwaukee couple, a woman and a ketchup bottle, off the otherwise deserted corner of Randall and University. They've been walking for hours, they say, abandoned by friends, lost and unable to get a cab.
"This is probably one of the worst nights of my life," the woman says. The man is still shivering when we drop them off, too cold to sign Becky's log book. And when Becky offers them candy, their mood turns immediately to delight.
"Take as much as you want," she says. "And have a good rest of your night."