A new sense of direction found behind the wheel
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:48 PM
Call him Gunny.
Thats the nickname Oak Harbor taxi driver Jim OBrien has gone by since his stint in the military, when he served as gunnery sergeant for the US Marine Corps. And you might considered it a testament to OBriens unique character that Gunny isnt the only term of endearment dogging him since his early days in uniform. Due to an incident involving an early morning hang-over and an officer who refused to let him bag out on running laps, OBriens friends also know him fondly as Six-Pack.
As in: Okay, Six-Pack, lets go! Hup hup!
These are the kinds of charming and mildly self-deprecating stories you might hear when you flag a ride in Gunnys cab. As a driver for Whidbey Island Taxi Service, OBrien values the personal experience of his work over any consideration of profit motive. He loves to talk, to joke around and to discover the interests and concerns of his customers. The wage, he claims, is a secondary consideration.
You dont make money on this job, said OBrien. You have fun. Its better than watching Jerry Springer.
Such a carefree attitude may spring from the difficulties OBrien has had to overcome. As a young man, he served as a bush Marine for 13 months during the Vietnam war, where he had bad experiences that are only now beginning to come back to him. There have also been ongoing health problems, which culminated in heart surgery during March of last year. For a long time, OBrien was on disability, forced to use a walker and unable to work. To hear him speak of it, these were not good times. He was often depressed.
OBriens troubles began to take a turn for the good when his friend, George J.R Bissitt, made him an offer he obviously couldnt refuse. Bissitt, who owns and operates Whidbey Island Taxi, gave Gunny a job and a new sense of direction.
J.R. told me to get off the walker, and he put me to work, said OBrien.
The positive effects were immediate. Suddenly, OBrien was able to combine his passion for driving with his love of people. Whats more, his health improved. Now hes walking on his own two feet.
My doctor says Ive never looked so good, said the 61-year-old OBrien. I feel pretty good, all things considered. Its gotta be the fresh air.
OBrien works five or six days a week, mostly during daylight hours. He doesnt like to drive at night, even though business tends to pick up after the sun sets. On average, he said he gets between 15 and 20 fares a day, a lot of which are regulars. Though he usually only works an 8 hour day, every once in a while hell clock a 12 hour shift.
That gets to be a little too long, he said. It cuts into my cocktail hour.
When hes not pulling a shift, or when business is slow, OBrien prefers to hang out with his girlfriend of 11 years, Connie. He also enjoys kicking around pawn shops, browsing for movies on video. And a little while back, a friend helped OBrien purchase a computer, on which hes been surfing the Internet in his spare time. In fact, his new-found connection to the world-wide web recently had surprising results.
I met my son again after six years over the Internet, OBrien said. All it took, he said, was his daughter sending him his estranged sons e-mail address. Next thing he knew, OBrien was receiving photo scans of his sons family, grandkids included.
For the holiday season, OBrien has taken to wearing a Santa hat while he motors his cab around Whidbey Island. He said the Christmasy outfit seems to cheer people up, to make them feel better if they happen to be down. In one instance, OBriens fuzzy red cap even inspired a burst of spontaneous song.
I had a couple girls in here singing Christmas carols about a week or two ago, he said.
OBrien said hell keep driving his taxi until hes too old to do it anymore, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him. Its not every day that you find a job with the power to turn your life around.
I love this job, OBrien said. I dont think I could handle an office job.
He certainly wouldnt have the same opportunity to see new faces and hear new stories if he were stuck in a cubicle. And, for OBrien, its the camaraderie that keeps him going.
I like people, mainly, he said. What is it Will Rogers once said? I never met a man I didnt like. Thats how I feel.