Anyone who has ridden with James Madden before will vividly recall their first trip. He is a big man with a lip piercing, skull rings, a thick beard and long, blonde hair, usually accompanied by a bandana. But the driver’s light-hearted and talkative nature contradicts any preconceptions a client might make upon meeting him at his mini-van marked “Madden Transportation” in large white stickers across the windows. Eager to offer the front passenger seat to students, Madden gets a good conversation going without fail before even pulling out of the airport. “I like to talk,” he said in an interview with the Collegian. “I don’t really know how to shut up.”
Madden is one of just three drivers for Madden Transportation; the other two are his parents, Ruth and John. They founded the company about five years ago after deciding they wanted to start a family business and finding that there was a need for transportation in the area. “We’ve thought about expanding, but … we’re so personal with everybody that if we hire someone, we can’t guarantee that the service is going to be the same,” he said.
Madden spoke fondly of his experiences as a driver. He doesn’t know the names of school buildings, so he and his family refer to them by nicknames, including “the tower” for Caples and “the milk crates,” strikingly similar to the student term “the milks,” for the Morgans.
Tristan Biber ’17 has been riding with Madden Transportation since his first year at Kenyon. During that time, Biber, who is from Switzerland and does not have a U.S. driver’s license, has grown close to Madden and his parents, whom he calls his “Ohio family.”
“Just the amount of care and quality and the consistency that they provide for me … has been not only a huge relief for me but also for my parents,” Biber said. James Madden said it has been a difficult adjustment to see his regular customers graduate from the College.
Although Madden has driven his fair share of great customers, he recalled some more stressful experiences. One time, he picked up a homeless man from the hospital under a contract with the government to provide sick people with insured transportation. The man was barefoot and wearing a tattered pair of shorts with a paper shirt. While Madden was driving, the man pulled out a deer knife from his pocket, cut open the shirt, and tossed it out the window.
“He was staring at me, holding the knife, like, smiling, and my kid was with me … in the backseat,” Madden said. Madden Transportation has been doing less business with that contract since the incident.
Madden often brings his 11 year old on shifts. He said that generally, clients appreciate the chance to interact with a child, and added that his son loves to meet new people and learn more about them.
Despite all of its ups and downs, Madden is grateful for the vast array of insight into the country and world his job has given him. Many of his clients come from countries like India and Kazakhstan to work for corporations like Siemens and Aerial, which have employees overseas. “They show us the world, and Kenyon shows us the U.S.,” Madden said. Students often show him the United States quite literally, as he is Madden Transportation’s designated out-of-state driver and has made trips as far as North Dakota, where he picked up a Kenyon family for a flat rate charge. He said the perspective he has gained on such a wide range of cultures and personalities has made him wish Kenyon students made more of an effort to learn about Ohio. He reflected on the array of activities in Columbus’s the Short North and the peaceful nature of living in a rural area. He urged students to try to broaden their worldview and come to understand a way of life different from their own, which is what he is trying to do through his job.
“Things aren’t what you think they are,” Madden said. “It’s a lot different from what you see.”
Madden Transportation’s flat rate for a single passenger is $80 between Kenyon and the John Glenn Int’l Airport, but multiple people can share a ride for cheaper individual prices.
Road Runner Transportation
There is no lull in conversation during a car ride with Larry Walker, founder and sole driver of Road Runner Transportation. Walker launched the company about four years ago, when he felt something missing from his life following his retirement from his career as an auto mechanic. Using his free time to volunteer for the Red Cross and do photography, among other hobbies, didn’t cut it for him. “I just got so, you know, out of place with myself,” Walker said. “I thought, you know, ‘I gotta have a little bit more of a purpose, because I’m waking up and I’m not really working, I’m just having fun all the time.’”
Since then, the business has rapidly gained popularity. Walker employed two other drivers at one point, but decided to let them go because he wanted to keep the company small. He drives students throughout the state of Ohio and occasionally does business out-of-state as well. One time, he drove a woman to Niagara Falls when she was visiting Ohio from Japan.
Walker’s intense energy and gregarious nature show how much he enjoys conversing with passengers. But his priority as a driver is safety. He explained that, whereas his service provides commercial insurance for clients in case of an accident, the vast majority of taxi companies, including Uber and Lyft, do not provide this protection. With a regard for safety rivaling that of a driving instructor, Walker keeps a small camera mounted at the top part of the windshield in his Honda CR-V to record any possible incident, such as a car accident.
Walker has never met a client he genuinely disliked, although sometimes he encounters people who carry guns. When such an instance arises, he asks to see the carrier’s license and then puts the weapon in the trunk out of reach while he drives.
He also recalled a time he got a call at 5 a.m. to pick up a young woman from the square in Mount Vernon. She asked to be dropped off at Walmart, and as she talked to Walker, he learned that she was homeless. He allowed her to her ride free of charge and tried to recommend various resources, but she insisted on remaining in the store’s lobby to ask people for help. “As a business provider, I can’t really get involved in that type of situation,” Walker said. “It was like she’d been left as a stray, and it just made me sad.”
Walker lives five minutes away from Kenyon’s campus. He grew up surfing in Vista, Calif. and moved to Ohio at the age of 11, at which time he shifted his passion from water to snow. “I … perfected pretty much everything with skiing, and I thought, ‘Whoa, snowboarding,’’’ Walker said. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s just like surfing!’ so I took up snowboarding … [It] isn’t liquid, but it’s pretty close!” In addition to operating Road Runner, Walker works as a ski and snowboard instructor at Snow Trails, a winter resort in Mansfield, Ohio, a town northeast of Kenyon.
Walker has gained a deep sense of the community over the past three decades. He remembers playing guitar with students outside of the Gambier Deli “back in the hippie days” a little over 30 years ago, when he wore a ponytail down to his waist. Since then, he has watched the College become more urban, drawing an increasing number of students from cities far from Gambier. Walker finds it bittersweet when students graduate. “You get to know students over four years,” he said. “You get to know their parents, you get to know their brothers and sisters, their boyfriends and girlfriends.”
Walker plans on retiring in three years and is content with the time he has spent as a driver. “I never thought I would experience what I have providing taxi services,” he said of the insight he has gained into his clients’ lives.
Road Runner’s flat rate for a single passenger is $85 between Kenyon’s campus and John Glenn Int’l Airport.