Maybe you’ve seen it after hopping into the back seat of a cab upon your arrival at O’Hare International Airport and chuckled at the sign posted next to the Taxi TV. Or perhaps one of your friends snapped a picture of it and uploaded it to Instagram so that all of their followers can laugh about it as they drive into the city.
It’s toward the end of the list of fares, between the fifty-cent rate for additional passengers and the two-dollar charge for a ride to or from the airport: a hefty price of $50 for the Vomit Clean-Up Fee.
I’d like to come clean and admit that I consider myself personally responsible for that.
I lived in Chicago during my early 20s, having moved there right after graduating from college in Virginia. It was the first big city I had ever lived in, and the metropolis offered a lot of promise: cool jobs, interesting people, the opportunity to see limited-run movies in the theater instead of waiting for them to come to the local video store. And, of course, there were the various cab companies that ushered a fleet of drivers who would pick me up and take me anywhere at any time of day and night. Just imagine the freedom it brought! I never had to worry about how I’d get home again! But, in addition to the spilled cups of wine, the forgotten cell phones, and the occasional passing out on beds covered with strangers’ coats, there was another certainty that came with my twenty-something drinking habits.
I threw up in a lot of cabs. A lot of them.
Now, before you judge me too harshly (although go ahead and suggest I had a drinking problem, because regular vomiting is a sign that certainly suggests as much), let me tell you that I tried my best to barf out of the window. That probably doesn’t sound like much of a feat, but when your head is so heavy and it’s tempting to just turn to the left and throw up in the seat (to save your lap, of course), one might pick the easier option. Even in my most incoherent state I would attempt to do the right thing—or at least the rightest thing, because the truly nice thing would be avoiding any sort of property damage and asking the driver to stop the cab. (But, you know, I was too embarrassed. And an idiot.)
This was such a reoccurring issue for me that when the Chicago alderman started discussing a fine for passengers to pay up for throwing up—at the insistence of the lobbying cab drivers, no doubt sick of my sick—they began tossing out absurd numbers. I read on a blog that the fine could be as expensive as $250. “What will I do?!” I asked myself, not coming up with obvious answer (“Stop drinking so much, you dolt.”) and instead imagining myself throwing up on a bus or a train instead. That drinking was so important to me then now seems like a red flag for other problems—depression, namely, exacerbated by the general feelings of malaise that came along with the post-graduate aimlessness of my twenties. I didn’t know what I was doing, or what I wanted to do, and so I put a focus on drinking (and making out with strangers in gay bars, two activities that are rarely mutually exclusive).
I’m not exactly sure how I snapped out of it, other than finally leaving town. In fact, on my last night in Chicago I hurled right out of the window of the last cab to drop me off in front of my apartment and sheepishly accepted the paper towels my driver tossed in my direction through the glass partition. I had made my last mark on the city before driving east to New York, where I blessedly haven’t christened in such a foul and dramatic fashion. Did I learn to hold my liquor better here? Did I suddenly grow up in a way that Chicago prevented? It’s all a mystery. But what I do know is this: if you’ve been slapped with the vomit clean-up fee in a Chicago cab, I’m so sorry. But you probably deserved it.