Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Tails

About Pubcat London Taxi Tails

I' m a London Cab Driver, writer, and a qualified Careers Adviser. I am also a former Knowledge of London Examiner (old customers need not call me Sir any more, we're all equals here, dude). I'll use this site to give my own idiosyncratic spin on the cab trade, and other social issues. There will be original edits of published magazine articles, plus shorter comments. So, why Pubcat? Simply because I like pubs and I like cats; and I support the social inclusion of all animals in pubs (Yes, that's my house tiger, Rocky, sat on a London map when I was studying the Knowledge the second time round).

Up The Workers

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

 

I read with interest that Uber drivers have taken strike action to demand they are recognised as employees and are paid the minimum wage. I thought this employees v self-employed thing was sorted ages ago. Apparently not; the appeals go on and there are still court cases pending. The last time I saw an Uber advert aimed at recruiting drivers they were promising huge amounts of money to drivers. Do you think they were telling porkies?

Anyway, I’m not here to have a pop at Uber drivers; they have it hard enough with their employer/agency supporting the ULEZ charge. Ain’t that a kick in the head? Good luck with the holiday and sick pay.

I wonder if we could claim we are employed workers of TfL and get holiday and sick pay? We’re told what to drive and where we can do it. TfL control just about everything to do with our business. We are just as dependent on TfL as Uber drivers are on their organisation.

In terms of vehicle, we’re even more restricted. We can only buy one model from new, and I’m unconvinced we’re going to see more. All London taxis have had to be wheelchair accessible as far back as I can remember. They also have to comply with the twenty-five feet turning circle. It’s a great feature, but it undoubtedly puts the price up. TfL have got it the wrong way round anyway: minicabs outnumber us about 4 to 1, so it’s minicabs that should have the turning circle requirement.

We’re told where to place the stickers and notices provided by TfL. We’re compelled to publicise certain credit card companies; but we could be in trouble if we publicise our own business ventures. All advertising has to conform to increasingly strict guidelines. TfL decide what’s permissible in the style of a Taliban censor: no women in underwear, and nothing dangerous like guns, bombs, salt or sugar. Are our cabs even our own? We learnt in a recent edition of Taxi that a taxi is “a designated public space.”

We used to think of the road network as a designated public space, but it now appears to be privately-owned by TfL. They decide who can use it, when to close it; and they can muck about with the roads as much as they like. The useable roads are reducing at an alarming rate each week, and whole areas are out of bounds (ie. Bank Junction). Their cameras are watching our every move. Any mistake and we get a photo of our cab in the post with a demand for money.

We’re told where we can work: fair enough. I don’t have much grasp of what goes on east of Bishopsgate so I’m not going to be plying for hire in Essex. There don’t seem to be the same restrictions for minicabs operating out of their licensing areas though. TfL-licenced cars are famously operating all over the country with impunity. If we tried picking up folk in Wolverhampton our feet wouldn’t touch.

We’re told what to charge by a tamper-proof meter.  Fine; but private hire companies can charge what they like. Uber are keeping their fares as low as possible until they’ve taken over the world, but they can’t resist ratchetting up the fare when there’s a spike in demand (in the unlikely event they do take over the world, their surge-pricing fares will become the norm. 370% I heard recently).

We have to use ranks appointed by TfL, and we can’t turn jobs down when our For Hire light is on. We’re compelled to take a passenger twelve miles out (we should be so lucky; I can’t remember the last time I had a job longer than twelve miles). Minicab drivers are under pressure to take every job offered, but the pressure come from their organisation rather than TfL – whether they’re self-employed or not.

Our training is clearly stipulated. You can combine study at home with riding around London with a clipboard, but there’s no distance learning option: you have to physically present yourself at an exam centre for a very traumatic series of Appearances. There’s virtually no transparency or flexibility. Complaining is pointless, resistance is futile.

What else? Ah yes, we haven’t yet been told what we can and can’t wear, but give it time. In fairness, the opposition tend to dress smarter than we do, though I don’t see why anyone needs to wear a suit to drive someone to Euston. Aspiring taxi drivers pretty much have to wear a suit and tie for Knowledge exams. I shouldn’t think trainee barristers have to wear suits for law exams.

My ideas might be a touch under-baked, but there is certainly compelling evidence suggesting that we are merely employees of TfL. I could do with some holiday pay, so I think it’s worth taking this one to court. To register your interest in my crowdfunding claim, just send me your money in a brown paper bag. I regret I’m unable to accept credit cards or give change. Oh, I forgot to mention mandatory credit card acceptance…

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Mutiny on the High Seas

(Original version of article written for TAXI magazine)

Yacht Club

Those of you who read my last article will know that I had another enforced holiday in April when my cab failed its annual licensing inspection. Did I miss much? I don’t think so. While I was trying to enjoy myself as a man of leisure I watched the horror of the Extinction Rebellion fiasco unfold on BBC news. The last time this group disrupted the streets I drove home in despair unable to work. This time I wasn’t a war correspondent, I was a spectator watching it on TV.

It seems the police had learnt nothing from last time. They carried people off the streets one at a time, but it was a futile exercise as other demonstrators quickly came to replace them. They reacted too slowly and too indecisively, and pretty much let them get on with it. There were video clips circulating showing the police dancing to music with the protestors. The protestors even sat on a yacht at Oxford Circus. A yacht! How can you unload a yacht at one of Central London’s busiest junctions without anybody noticing?

As protestors glued themselves to Waterloo Bridge I was shouting at the TV: “Why don’t they just hose them off the streets?!” I don’t mean Boris’s water cannon; I just mean some kind of beefed-up garden hose. I suppose they were worried about infringing human rights, or something. There might even be an EU law against it.

I agree that more needs to be done about the environment, and that it needs to be done now; but such disruption just annoys people: even people like who are watching it on TV in the comfort of their own homes. What about the rights of people innocently going about their business in London? And where did the buses go??

The whole thing is estimated to have cost the country seven million pounds. They also left a hell of a mess for people so concerned about the environment. The specific demands of Extinction Rebellion aren’t clear. I probably support their aims – if not their methods. They want to talk to the government about global issues, but what can we do on the ground? I’m painfully aware that I’m part of the problem driving my diesel cab around London. I’d be specific and ask why electric vehicles are so expensive, and why there still aren’t enough charging points. The trustafarians gluing themselves to bridges, and the luvvies speaking to the media from the Oxford Circus yacht don’t need to worry too much about the price of electric vehicles, but most regular drivers simply can’t afford to dump their diesels.

Waterworks

I turned off the TV and read the papers instead. Something I read both annoyed and amused me. I read about a water company that used Uber drivers to report on leaks. Severn Trent is one of several firms to have missed water leak reduction targets. In a series of two-week trials named “Virtual Fieldworker Programme”, the company hired taxis and Uber drivers to visit around 50 sites and film evidence of water leaks. The drivers then send images back to the company for them to despatch engineers out as appropriate. It’s obviously cheaper than sending surveyors out. Not everyone was amused. The GMB union’s National Officer, Stuart Fegan, spoke of the safety implications, commentating that trained engineers should be deciding if water is contaminated, not taxi drivers: “And how is someone going to feel after they report a leak, expecting a Severn Trent worker to attend with a uniform and the necessary training and a taxi driver turns up. They’d think it was a hoax call.”

When I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw a utility worker in a uniform inspecting anything. No-one’s been to read my gas and electricity meters for about ten years. I’ve been with various companies and they’ve all hassled me every three months to read my own meters and email the figures through. I suppose it saves paying an Uber driver to do it.

I wonder what else taxi and minicab drivers could get involved in? Perhaps feeding the cat when I’m on holiday? Changing the litter, £4 extra? We’ve all been used as a removal van. Shopping? Most of us who do account work have gone shopping for our esteemed clients. I’ve picked up dry cleaning and lost coats from offices, and boxes of gourmet cat food for a lady in Little Venice. Some years ago I picked up a lady from a posh block of flats on a Taxicard. Before we set off she persuaded me to walk down to St John’s Wood Station and buy her a newspaper. I was so amused by the request that I carried it out without question. Only when I dropped her off for her lunch date at Roast did I feel a slight twinge of resentment.

I don’t come into contact with ladies of the night as I no longer work late, but older drivers can tell tales of their cabs being used as knocking shops; by both professionals and skilled amateurs. Apparently being asked to drive slowly around Regent’s Park Outer Circle was once a common request by those desiring some privacy.

Anyway, back to the sea: the government has approved a new runway at Heathrow, so brace yourself for a return of the yacht.

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Welcome to my Nightmare

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine)

Those of us who run our own cabs know the stress of the annual licensing Inspection. If you’re the worrying type like me you’ll feel the tension building from a good month away: do my tyres need changing? Will those paint blisters and rust spots cause any problems with the inspectors? If I blow a bulb on the way to the inspection centre will I be able to change it? There’ll be the trip to the meter supplier to get that checked and certified; then the strategy of planning a service and MOT, followed by the licensing inspection itself. There’s the worry of how to pay for it all, and the nightmare scenario if the cab doesn’t pass. Well, this year the nightmare came to pass.

Years ago I used to leave a gap between the MOT and the licensing inspection. This would give me time to fix any problems should the cab fail the MOT. It made me nervous though as I always expected something bad to happen in the following week or so.

So last time I settled on a short gap of about three days. I decided that this was the optimum period, as it gives you enough time to get work done on the cab if it fails its MOT, but not so much as a gap to worry you that a lot more can go wrong in the run up to the big day.

This year I played a dangerous game – I scheduled the inspection for the day after the MOT. What could possibly go wrong? The cab had a new engine and gearbox fitted in October, so I had confidence in the mechanics. I knew the handbrake needed doing, and there was the creaky steering. Minor issues that I reckoned could be sorted in an hour or two. I drove to my usual garage in Luton for its 9.15 service and MOT.

I was on my third unlimited coffee at Wetherspoons when the garage phoned. The creaky steering was caused by a broken power steering pipe and all the fluid had drained away. It failed the MOT and they had to order a new pipe. I therefore couldn’t make tomorrow’s licensing inspection. After a pint from Spoon’s beer festival selection and a plate of nachos, I made the grimly familiar bus journey from Luton Interchange to Leighton Buzzard and home.

I was charged £66 to change the date of the inspection to Monday. I got the cab back from Luton on Thursday, but I couldn’t work as the plate had now expired. The garage told me that the cab probably wouldn’t pass its inspection anyway because of bodywork. The split in the bumper didn’t trouble the inspectors last year, but the word was that they’ve toughened up recently. When I treated the cab to its annual soapy hand wash I also didn’t like the look of all those patches of rust and paint blisters. It was too late to do anything about it at this late stage though. I’d take it up on Monday and hope for the best.

It’s a scary experience watching them put your cab on the ramp at the inspection centre: it’s as stressful as awaiting a job interview, or a Knowledge Appearance with The Smiling Assassin. I was too nervous to read so I just fiddled with my phone. The tester came back and spent some time typing. I still had hope in my heart.

He came over and handed me a sheet. I needed a new front bumper and I needed some rust removal and re-painting. There were three items on the failure sheet related to bodywork.

I drove up to Luton from Staples Corner. I ordered a new bumper, but the body shop attached to the garage was rammed and wouldn’t even be able to start work for at least two weeks. Apparently the place was full of London taxis that had suffered a similar fate at Staples Corner. Back home I found a local garage that would try to fit my cab in around their scheduled work. I’d bring it in as soon as I got the new bumper.

When my bumper was ready for collection a few days later in Luton I didn’t stop for any sightseeing. I dropped the cab off at my local body shop, not knowing when I’d see it again.

Bolam’s body shop did a great job. I immediately re-booked the cab inspection (it’s free if you do it within a month). The best I could get was Friday April 26th –  a calendar month after the first inspection was booked for.

Between getting the cab back on the 18th and the 26th I drove very carefully around town. I went to Morrison’s, but was too nervous to go much further in case something else went wrong. My finances had flat-lined; things would be really serious if the cab didn’t pass.

At the inspection centre they didn’t put my cab on the ramp. I guess they just wanted to look at the bodywork in relation to the points on the failure sheet. It was a huge relief when the man walked over to me with my new licence (he even screwed the plates on for me).

In the past month I’d spent a small fortune on keeping my cab on the road – more than I would have got through TfLs de-licensing scheme, which gave me pause for thought. Until next year…

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Sole Trader

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I’ve spent a fair bit of my working life as a self-employed sole trader, with reasonably success. It doesn’t suit everybody though. You need self-discipline and a sense of responsibility.

You need self-discipline, as every day we face the choice of getting out of bed or not to go to work. No-one but yourself is going to reprimand you for taking unauthorised leave – or throwing a sickie. We need to be able to handle responsibility because when things go wrong it’s down to us to sort out. When your cab is out of commission for any reason it can cost you dearly (as I write this, my cab is in a local body shop following a disastrous inspection failure – more about that next time).

Being your own boss has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Being self-employed helps give you motivation. You never know if you’re going to have a good or bad day, but you have some influence over the outcome. As an agent of my own destiny, I can choose my own hours using the twenty-four hour clock and experiment with different hours and days. I can work longer and turn a bad day into a one. Taking things further, I can choose to take on different work completely, or start a new business. Having a portfolio career would allow me to work the cab part-time.

I’d hate to do my job for a regular wage. It would be boring and restrictive to have to work the same hours every day for the same pay. Even the wage was good I’d be going through the motions. I’d need the motivation – excitement even – to know I had the ability to motivate myself to improve things.

Working to regular hours wouldn’t suit any of us who drive cabs. What if your agreed five days included days where it’s virtually impossible to work? I like working weekends but I’m regularly having days off to avoid disruption. I wrote a whole weekend off in March: I got just three hours in on Saturday 23rd until anti-Brexit demonstrators closed off Central London. I didn’t bother at all the following day when a half-marathon shut many of London’s key routes.

I could be having a slow day, and I’m watching the clock until I feel I’ve put in a shift and can justify heading home. Out of nowhere, someone stops me and asks for Terminal 5. A bad day has suddenly turned into a good day. This has often happened when I’m thinking of home but open to one last job.

A guaranteed income is over-rated. Whatever you’re paid you cut your cloth accordingly. If you’re not being paid much you know you’re not going to afford many luxuries, and if you sail too close to the wind, when unforeseen things happen and you’re presented with an unexpected bill, you’re in trouble. If you’re on good pay, you will get used to that level of income, and whatever you earn will be eaten up. It’s the same with having time on your hands: however much free time you have you’ll always find something to fill it with.

There’s also the matter of tax and National Insurance. It costs a lot to keep a cab on the road, but our tax bills are negligible compared with employees on similar pay. When I joined TfL as a Knowledge Examiner I was on a decent wage, but I was shocked when I received my first pay slip and saw how much I was deducted. When things were running well I was financially better off on the cab, even taking into account holiday and sick pay.

I’ve tried other self-employed pursuits, including writing. Writing is even more precarious. Few people make a full time income. I’d need five columns in national magazines every week, plus a best-selling book, to make a living. It’s a nice image, tapping a few words out in your pyjamas until it’s time to go to the pub to edit your work. You clock off after five pints and congratulate on a job well done. Of course, it’s not like that. When I look at the sales for my book the pint glass is always half empty before I start. Hence the cab

As everyone knows, driving a cab is one of the best part time jobs you can have. I’m often asked if I would choose to go into this job if I had my time again. I’d say it depends on where you’re coming from. Rather than spend three years doing the Knowledge, you could go to university (I’ve done both). It’s not always the answer. Everyone’s job has got harder, and few people have job security. After university I thought I was safe as a Careers Adviser. I took voluntary redundancy in 2010 and went back on the Knowledge. The company I worked for has downsized staff every year since then, and better folk than I were unceremoniously put out to grass in middle age. That’s scary. Probably more scary than worrying about Uber.

 

 

 

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Down at the Batcave

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

Some people think I must be a Knowledge genius because I used to be an examiner. I assure you that my knowledge of London is nothing special. As new roads are opened and (mostly) closed every week it’s a devil of a job to keep up with developments. I often use Knowledge website forums to keep on top of things. However much cab drivers think they keep up to date, Knowledge students are well ahead. While we were learning the new two-way system in Marylebone at our own pace, Knowledge students had already posted detailed maps of the affected area on forums and were discussing the matter furiously – and before their examiners caught up.

I never got to grips with some areas of London. I studied all the crescents of Notting Hill over thirty years ago, but still can’t remember them all. I also had problems with all those dead ends and roads running at funny angles in Pimlico. I’m sure I learnt them properly at the time, but the geography never stuck.

I know enough to get me out of trouble in these inner-London districts, but the outlying areas can still cause anxiety. For instance I dread getting a job to South-East London or the Far East. Anywhere past Canary Wharf sends the anxiety levels rocketing. Some time ago I took some people out to that scary industrial no-man’s land on the south side of the Blackwall Tunnel. I don’t know whether Tunnel Avenue is classed as East Greenwich, North Greenwich or Blackwall, but it’s not somewhere I learned on the Knowledge and it’s not somewhere I’d been to before. Anything involving the Blackwall Tunnel is fraught with anxiety. I once got into all kinds of bother when I missed the turn off to a hospital in Woolwich. Is the drop-off for the O2 Arena really at the bus stand?

East London is a mystery because I never go there: I’ve no idea if you can still use Abbotts Road, or if you can still drive the Devons Road route through Bow. Roads such as Devas Street and Twelvetrees Crescent remain in my consciousness from the Knowledge thirty years ago, but I don’t know if they still exist, or have any strategic use (and where’s Stepney Green gone? The last time I tried to get into it, I couldn’t find it.

You’d think I’d be comfortable with Stratford as the mighty West Ham play there. The truth is I rarely go to football now, and I can quite easily get lost walking from the Olympic Stadium to Stratford Station (I haven’t even attempted Hackney Wick Station). In the cab, I’ve found my way to Westfield and back a few times, but I recently had an anxious drive out to Stratford with some account customers. They were going to a meeting at a place called East Bay. If that means nothing to you, you’re in good company. I always thought it was a bit fanciful calling the area “Stratford City” but It’s another world up there, with smooth roads, bus routes, everything. I’m still not sure how I found my way to the M1 afterwards to go home. I don’t think I could replicate the route again.

The Batcave

Like a proper cab driver I spend my working day listening to talk radio. Some weeks ago, Robert Elms started a discussion about Lower Robert Street on his Notes & Queries phone-in. Robert jokingly said that cabbies used this road to show off. Not so: it’s actually a useful connect between the Strand area to the Embankment. I wasn’t aware of it on the Knowledge in the 80s, possibly because there were no website forums. I learnt it as an examiner about seven years ago. I read about it on a Knowledge web forum (only the vain examiners read Knowledge forums; usually to read what the students are saying about us). I drove down the road in order to see that it actually existed, then a little later on an account customer heading for the City from John Adam Street asked me to use it.

Cab drivers phoned Robert Elms to inform him that Lower Robert Street is known as The Batcave.  The Batcave is the only remaining street of its type in the area. In 1772 a complex of twenty-four grand houses was built. Named the Adelphi, the development was built on a slope down to the Thames. Under the houses were vaulted arches and underground streets, of which one was named Lower Robert Street – Charles Dickens even mentions the area in David Copperfield in 1850. As you can imagine, the subterranean arches became a den of crime and debauchery. There’s said to be a ghost; that of Poor Jenny, a murdered prostitute who lived and worked in The Batcave. The Batcave is now wisely closed between midnight and 7am. It’s a creepy place: more a narrow tunnel than a conventional street. One cab driver phoned in to say that when he drove through there his passengers started screaming because they thought they were being kidnapped!

Anyway, the Knowledge Boys on the forums know all about The Batcave. A great source of further information is Taxi contributor, Robert Lordan, whose View from the Mirror website will tell you everything you want to know, complete with lots of brilliant photos. For the ultimate experience though, try driving it yourself! The Knowledge Boys tell me it still exists.

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Access All Areas?

Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. For hard users only: this one’s a bit technical if you’re not used to driving in London.

 

People take taxis for many reasons: for work, for pleasure; and sometimes when they have little choice. Sometimes people have luggage they need to get across London to a rail station or airport. People need to make hospital appointments, and a taxi is often chosen because it’s fully accessible. Sometimes a cab is taken in an emergency. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing we sometimes thrive on the misfortune of others. More positively, a ride in a cab could be part of a holiday or a Christmas treat. The common denominator in every case is that the customer expects a door to door service. This is our unique selling point. Increasingly, our USP has become impossible to deliver.

Over the last few years the number of roads closed off to us has increased dramatically. The good work in making Russell Square two-way was undermined when other parts of Bloomsbury were closed off in 2015. Many people with limited mobility need to get around the many hospitals and clinics in the Bloomsbury area, and journeys have been made slower – and consequently more expensive – for them. It’s become virtually impossible to set down passengers in some streets, notably Tavistock Place. I’ve done a fair amount of Taxicard work on ComCab recently, but I wouldn’t relish trying to unload a wheelchair in this one-way, single lane, thoroughfare. In late-2018, more roads were blocked off around Bloomsbury Square and more banned turns came in. Lord knows how difficult things could become accessing the UCH if Tottenham Court Road is closed to taxis.

Many people with limited mobility rely on taxis to get them around: you wouldn’t believe how many Taxicard jobs involve West End theatres. It’s now impossible to load a wheelchair at the door of the Lyceum Theatre.

The Ned hotel in the City is inaccessible for most of the day. Last year, certain streets around Shoreditch were closed to motor vehicles at certain times of the day. Hardly a day goes by without streets being closed off; some of them destined never to be re-opened. The whole area around King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations is a mess. Goodsway eastbound has been closed for several months, with no indications when it might re-open. The sudden closure at the top of Judd Street has resulted in misery. There are no signs informing us of what’s happening, or whether it’ll ever re-open. Many vehicle drivers think they can use Mabledon Place to escape the misery, only to find they’re being forced to turn right. The authorities should have allowed a left turn to alleviate this problem, but no; as usual, they are keeping vehicles on the roads as long as possible, thus adding to congestion and pollution.

Things used to be so much easier. Allow me to put on my psychedelic rose-tinted specs as I reflect on the time when you used to be able to drive straight down from Gresham Street on to Southwark Bridge using King Street, Queen Street and Queen Street Place. Southwark Bridge is near enough impossible to access from the west. Blackfriars is little better. The closure of Stonecutter Street causes bus congestion in Charterhouse Street, and forces other folk aiming for the bridge to drive around the smaller streets around Tudor Street – when our progress isn’t hampered by giant cranes and orange barriers.

Al Fresco reminded us of the joys of St Bride’s Street in a recent Taxi article. Indeed, when I started out we used to be able to drive straight up St Bride’s Street into Shoe Lane from just off Ludgate Circus. St Bride’s Street is now closed to through traffic, except bikes. As I sit on the Goldman Sachs rank I watch cycles scattering the suits as they quite legally tear along the path alongside the office blocks. It’s painful watching lorries making deliveries and being forced to reverse out past the Boris Bike park, cab rank, motorcycle parking area, and huge piles of building materials. It’s a miserable road for anyone who has to access this hazardous little road.

Occasionally one-way streets are opened up to two-way traffic. Baker Street and Gloucester Place worked OK as one-way streets, but we now have to sit behind buses on a single lane and swerve in and out of Right Turn lanes. It’s probably too early to provide a definitive assessment of this system, but I daresay I could get 900 words out of it another time.

Any useful road is ruined eventually. The War on Diesel ensures that the pollution side of things will eventually lessen, but it’s going to be many years before we’ve all gone electric. By that time I don’t think there will be any roads worth using anyway.

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Spoilt by Progress?

The bank with no money. My local Halifax bank branch recently re-opened without a counter; just machines, and one or two staff members standing around. I hadn’t really needed the counter service as I usually just pay in and take out cash.

On finding an old pound coin under the sofa – no doubt put there by the cat – I thought I’d take the coin to the bank and exchange it for a new-style coin. On asking what I could do with my obsolete coin I was told that the bank would change it for me – but not at this branch as they don’t have a counter service!

Rather than spend £4.80 on a return bus trip to the Halifax in Luton, I took my coin to the Post Office; on the advice of the bank that doesn’t deal in cash.

It’s a freakin’ bank! Isn’t that what a bank is for? Surely they’ve at least got a petty cash-type box hidden away somewhere? And don’t get me started on on-line banking – how do you pay cash in??.

Come on your millennials; tell me I’m out of touch and this is progress, I dare you…

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