Rickshaw runner James Harris on the job. Photos courtesy James Harris
Unlike some recent grads stuck working the retail jobs they had during school until they can jump-start their careers, James Harris, 25, has taken to the streets. With what’s basically a 100-pound, human-drawn carriage in tow, Harris treks throughout the city’s downtown core in search of fares. We sat down with him to find out what being a rickshaw runner (or pedicab operator, to use his official designation) is all about.
So what made you want to become a rickshaw runner?
Well, I was pretty inactive over the winter. I couldn’t do many winter sports and wanted to kind of get out of my comfort zone, get fit. And I’ve always had a knack for talking to random people off the street. I’ve done tons of promo jobs in the past so I figured I could combine the gym membership with the promo in the form of rickshawing.
How exactly does one become a rickshaw runner?
There was a very minimal interview process. I had met up with the owner right after I sent an email applying for the job. Within a couple of hours, he gave me a call saying, ‘come down to the garage and I’ll give you the lowdown.’ He was impressed that I had done some tree planting before and had done some sales stuff, so he gave me the job on the spot. And then he told me all the hoops you jump through to actually get started.
What hoops does a rickshaw runner have to jump through to get started?
You have to get a criminal background check and a driver’s abstract, and then you have to go up near north of Coxwell to the Municipal Licensing and Standards Division office and that was tedious. I had to wait two hours in line with a bunch of budding strippers and taxicab drivers, got the license, and then [the owner] took me out for like an hour and I pulled him around and he showed me the spots, told me what to do, what not to do, check blind spots, just like a driver’s test. After that, it came pretty naturally.
What’s the hardest part of your job physically?
The hardest part is probably going uphill, against the wind, and doing those long trips (which for some people they want to go at a faster pace, other people you can just kind of walk and they want to take in the sites slowly). And dealing with cabbies and cyclists. We’re allowed to be in the bike lane, but a lot of cyclists don’t really want to share that lane. They feel entitled to it.
Have you had any altercations with cabbies or cyclists?
I’ve had cabbies come pretty close and they aren’t really yielding to us as much as they should. With cyclists, I’ve had them yell at me like, Get the fuck out. But you just have to take it with a grain of salt because we are a licensed vehicle, we have the right to be on the road just as much as they do.”
Have you ever had any difficult customers? It’s got to be an interesting dynamic when you’re still pulling them around.
I have had some difficult customers. For instance, the other day I took a few wobbly Jays fans that had probably a few beers each at the game, and they were yelling, ‘mush, mush’ the whole way. They were saying, We’ll only tip you if you run the whole whole way, but I kept a straight face. I ran and I pulled them a fair distance and one of them got off and tried to pull me and was staggering.
Just hitched: a rickshaw wedding.
How much cash do you take home after a day’s work?
It’s up and down. Like any job, there’s always going to be shitty days and good days, but most of the time we can make $100 easily. Some guys make $300. When tourist season picks up it’ll be easier.
What’s the longest fare you’ve done?
The longest fare was from City Hall to Bathurst and College and it was a drunk couple. The one guy really wanted to impress his drunk girlfriend and paid me $60 in advance and normally we charge $2 a block. We don’t advertise it on a sign. Our sign says $30 minimum for a half-hour ride but we usually do it by the block because we can quickly show the customer in advance how much it’s going to cost and add it up. But that ride was pretty tough. It was a significant ways north uphill. We don’t really venture that far west or north. But they paid me $60 and they tipped me another $20 and it was an $80 ride made in a period of 20 minutes.
That’s like stripper money. How about your most financially lucrative fare?
I think that was it. I also did one ride for a group of guys heading to a bachelor party at Zanzibar. I was in the entertainment district and they were kind of joking – there were five of them – they were like, We should take the ride, I don’t think he can lift us, and I was like, Do you wanna bet? That must’ve been at least 800 pounds, these guys were big. There were three of them on the seat and two of them on each other’s laps singing Rocket Man the whole way. They were all intoxicated and I was moving at a snail’s pace but we got as far as Bay and that was excruciating… They tipped pretty generously, they were blown away by the whole feat of it. I’ve been doing more rides like that, these sort of challenges, personal strength challenges.
Do you ever have to tap out? Is it an expectation the customer has that you might not be able to finish the fare?
Yeah. Usually the guys, they wanna see how strong you are.
That almost sounds sadistic.
It is, it is. There’s a bit of schadenfreude involved which you can profit off of. I’m not insulted by it. If anything, they’re more impressed after, when you actually managed to do it and you feel exhausted, but you walk away with some cash in your pocket.
What’s the best part of the job?
I would say the two perks of the job are the cash that you walk home with that isn’t taxed – it’s all yours – and getting to meet people and making their day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshuaxsherman.