To a certain set of Duke students, there is a number programmed in their phones that they call as regularly as their own mothers, perhaps more often for some. The number belongs to Fodil Mahjoubi, a cab driver who is as famous among late night revelers as the Crazy Towel Guy is among Duke sports fans.
“I know that. Everybody told me that—thank you God,” he said with a bright smile when The Chronicle joined him for a ride on Saturday night.
Born in Algeria, Fodil has been a cabbie for almost six years. He speaks French, Arabic and Norwegian fluently, but when he first came to the States he spoke little English, though he has since improved.
Fodil has the smile of a former heartbreaker, though he is currently single.
“I’m looking,” he said. “I told you I’m picky, girl.”
He said that when he was younger he was a little bit wilder.
“I drink, sex, lotta things. This not good. I want to do some stuff good, so that God he can forgive me. It’s a like a scale, a balance,” he said.
His religious beliefs ultimately convinced him to settle down, thus starting his path to becoming the cab driver Duke students revere.
His clients, almost exclusively Duke students, love him. They make him CDs, and the front window of his van is filled with decorations that students have given him. Currently, a layer of decorative pink cotton lines his dashboard, Valentine’s Day-themed stickers pepper his window and two skulls in top hats hang from his rearview mirror.
Come the weekend—and even some weekdays—the calls start rolling in.
“At the nighttime, I’m so busy, especially on the weekend,” he said.
Fodil, who owns the van he drives, usually works with Durham shuttle service Charlene’s Safe Ride during the day when he waits from 11:30 a.m. for calls from the dispatcher.
On a Friday or Saturday night, though, Fodil gets calls directly from students looking for a lift. That night, he gave six or seven rides in an hour, while having to pass up several others.
“When I get call, I go,” he said.
At around 10:50 p.m. he picked up two girls from a house off campus. The girls sing along to the Taylor Swift song blasting from the stereo, while Fodil bobbed along.
“Call me, don’t lose my number,” he said to the girls after he dropped them off at an apartment complex.
Fodil, who has almost 100 numbers in his phone, programs in the names of repeat customers. One of them calls him now, the name “Justine” flashing on the screen of his android mobile and he turns down the music to answer.
“Hello, Justine,” he answered.
“Fodil, can you get me from K4?” said Justine Hong, a senior, on the other end of the call.
“Yes, baby, only for you,” he replied.
Hong asked him to wait 15 or 20 minutes before coming to get her.
He complained goodnaturedly, “Sometimes they call me and I say 10 or 15 and they say, ‘10 or 15? Oh no, no way.’ But when I say, ‘I’m here.’ They say, ‘Can you come in 10 or 20 minutes?’
He does not wait for everyone, but he is willing to wait for Hong.
“This one, she’s my favorite too, I love her. I can’t believe, I thought she junior, and she told me senior,” he said. “I hate that, when they told me they’re senior. I like when they say sophomore or freshman—I feel like I’m sitting with them for years.”
And he has driven many of these students—some for two to three years. Some are devoutly loyal to him, like the lacrosse player who refuses to ride with any other cabbie.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Very cold outside, she wait for me. I love her. I took her and she give me twenty, and other cab took her only ten and she don’t want to go.”
In the meantime, he gets a call from Natasha Kirtchuk, a junior who has ridden with Fodil all three of her years at Duke, and four of her friends.
“He’s the most trustworthy cab driver, he’s a very good person, and very welcoming. He’s definitely who you want to be riding with,” Kirtchuk said. “He’s the only one I call.”
She added that Fodil has good taste in music, noting that he plays the Spice Girls.
At this, Fodil changed the CD and a minute later “Wannabe” blasted from the stereo and all the girls stopped their conversations to belt out the lyrics.
After he dropped Kirtchuk off, he swung to K4 to pick up Hong and her friends, whom he drops off at the Blue Corn Cafe.
“Um, Fodil loves me,” Hong said. “He’s the type of person you rely on. Whenever you call him, he actually comes.”
Most of Fodil’s regular customers are girls, which he prefers. They may not tip as well as boys, but they are reliable, he said, unlike boys, who often get in fights and run away without paying the fare.
“They open the door and they run away,” he said. “What do I do?”
That is also why at night he only works with clients who call him directly instead of with Charlene’s.
Since Fodil drives a shuttle, his minimum charge is $8 for a short ride and $2 a person for groups exceeding four people.
“Somewhere far away 25, airport 30, it depends,” he said. “I know the price.”
He also often gives regular customers discounts and students usually ride in large groups, though his general maximum is eight.
“It’s good to put more [people in the car] because [they pay] $2 each, but then it’s not good for the car. When you put more, it’s not good for transmission,” he said.
Despite often being friends with the students he drives, they are ultimately paying clients, which sometimes complicates Fodil’s relationships with them. There was always that one person who did not pay up, and multiple times on the trip the wad of bills came up short. But he let it go.
“Sometimes I’m too shy to tell them,” Fodil said.
Usually, this only causes him to lose $2 or $4 a ride, but his generosity caught up to him in a big way later that night when he received a call from a young man who asked him to come to a house in Durham. He debated whether to answer the call.
“He’s far away, I don’t want to go there. I lose, if I get too many calls,” he said. “I want to make everybody happy, but some of them they call and I’m busy and they no like it. Come on! You think I’m your neighbor?”
In the end, he drove down after the student promised him $3 a person for fare. Fodil arrived expecting six passengers, and instead ten piled in.
“Are you jammin’?” one of the boys asked Fodil, who was bobbing to the music.
When they arrived at Shooters II, the group ran for the club’s entrance without paying Fodil, and the student who originally called Fodil was unwilling to front for all his friends. What was supposed to be a $30 fare evaporated into $10.
“Stop, stop. That’s so rude. Stop being cheap and just give him the money. It’s his f—ing job,” a young woman waiting outside the cab berated the student.
“It’s fine, fine,” Fodil said as the younger man left.
“What a piece of sh—,” said the newcomer, a brunette who was also one of Fodil’s regulars.
“This one, he looked like such a nice guy. He play football,” Fodil replied.
“You shouldn’t say OK,” she said vehemently. “If he plays football, who cares.”
“I went to almost Southpoint to pick him up, and he won’t pay me,” Fodil said.
“You say, ‘No, it’s not fine.’ Fodil, you need to know that,” she said. “That guy was an a—hole, he had plenty of money in his wallet. I saw it.”
But when Fodil dropped her off at an apartment, she only gave him $5, though his minimum is $8.
Usually Fodil drives until 4 a.m. He picks up people from dorms, apartment complexes and fraternity houses. The end destination is often Shooters, as it was for Katie Weidman and her friends.
When the car rolled up to Shooters, the girls cheered, “No line! No line!”
“But that could be a bad sign,” one of them deadpanned.
Fodil himself is no Shooters virgin.
“You know every time when school starts, they invite me to Shooters,” Fodil said. “One time, they push me to cage.”
Just then, another customer called him.
“Don’t worry sweetie,” he said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”