Friday, November 20, 2009

Show business

I was stopped at a light. It was late. The bars had all let out, and the only work left was catching the few stragglers and drunks left on the streets. I was debating with myself about whether to call it quits or cruise around for a final circuit when they stumbled in front of the cab, appearing seemingly from nowhere, a young man and woman, clinging to each other, flushed and laughing.

I waved for them to get in and the two made their way to the side of the cab. The guy flung the door open and threw the girl onto the back seat, her head hitting the opposite door with a loud thwunk! She groaned a little and giggled. He got in and gave me an address in the South End around Northeastern University. I punched the meter and pulled out.

"Can you put on some music?" the guy shouted, as if he was still in the bar he had just left.

Yeah, sure, I answered, tuning the radio to one of the city's alternative stations. The Clash's "London Calling" filled the cab.

"This song ab-so-lute-ly rocks!" slurred the girl. "Thanks mister."

I pretended not to hear. I was tired, and didn't feel like trying to socialize with a couple of stupid drunks. It didn't matter anyway. The two in the back were onto other things, and seemed to be cooing to each other.

Flock of Seagulls, a band I always hated, was about midway through their hit song "I ran," when suddenly there was stirring in the back seat.

"Hey!" the girl shouted. "That fucking hurt!"

"Ah, c'mon," the guy said.

"No," she continued. "That really hurt."

"Look, I was just trying to have a little fun," he countered.

"Get your fucking hands off me."

"Hey, what's the big deal?"

"You're a goddamned pig, you know that?" she screamed.

"What the hell do you know?," he shouted back.

"A lot more than you think, you pig. Maybe you're wife would like to know just what a sleazy fucking pig you are. Maybe I should call her up right now!"

This has now turned in a direction that I really don't like. I'm asking myself should I intervene? And if so, what can I do?

"You're nuts, you know that?" he said. He then leaned forward toward me. "Buddy, is it just me or is she completely out of her mind?"

Leave me outta this, I tell him, wishing now I had driven right past them and quit for the night.

"Yeah, pig, leave him out of it. Besides, I'm sure he knows all about being a sleazy fucking pig!"

What the...? I'm about tell her to shut up, too, but I stop myself. There's some rustling in the back.

"Hey!" he said. "Give that back!"

I could hear the tones of a cellphone being dialed.

"I'm calling her up right now," she said. "I'm gonna tell her all about her fucking pig of a husband."

"Goddammit" he said, reaching across the seat to grab the phone back.

I could feel the phone fly past my ear. It hit the front windshield with a heavy smack!

That's it. I pulled the car over. I picked up the cellphone, which landed on the seat beside me. I turned around. I held the phone in front of the guy, and was about to tell them both that they either shut up or the next stop was going to be the police station when the girl grabbed the phone, opened the door and bolted from the car.

"Crazy bitch," he said, as she crossed the street and disappears around a corner. "Look, I gotta get her. Wait here and we'll be right back, honest." Sure, I said, shaking my head. He took off, and I'm left cursing myself for not getting him to leave something behind. Sure enough, three, five, then seven minutes passes and there's no sign of them. They're gone.

I noticed then that I'm within a block of the address they gave me, and it occured to me that I've been played. This was a set-up from the beginning. All the screaming and the drama was a ploy to beat the fare, an elaborate charade to fool some dumb cabbie. And I fell for it. Probably next night they'll come up with a different routine, maybe where one of them pretends to get sick, or needs to run into a store for cigarettes. Who knows?

The $7 fare I have to eat. I should have quit when I had the chance.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Get Busy...

"Didja hear about Billy?," asked Rick.

"Billy?"

"You know... older guy, glasses, always wears a baseball cap."

Rick could be describing about half the drivers here, including myself.

"Yeah, well, last week Billy went to the doctor complaining about a back ache. Turns out he has terminal lung cancer. He has maybe two weeks to live."

"Geez... really?"

"For months he figured he was just stiff from driving long shifts. It got to the point he could barely stand up."

"Wow."

"All they can do is give him somethin' for the pain... He finished out the week, then went home to die."

"What? He decided to spend one of his days on earth drivin' a cab?"

"What else was he going to do? He's been driving a cab more than forty years. That's twelve hours a day, six days a week, every week of the year. I've been drivin' nearly thirty years and I don't remember him ever takin' a vacation. No hobbies. No real friends. Just drivin' a cab and his family. And them he only got to see maybe one day a week. He put his two kids through college, but that's a lot of missed recitals and Little League games. But whatcha you gonna do?"

"How old is he, Rick?"

" 'Bout 65, I guess."

"That's really depressing, Rick."

"I guess he figured his family could use the money."

Now I don't even know Billy but this shook me up. Not because of the tragedy of his death, but because of the tragedy of his life. I wonder if 40 years ago, when Billy first started driving, what dreams he had for himself. He'd be 25, strong, full of energy, with nothing but time and his imagination standing between him and the future. Perhaps he wanted to go to college, travel the world, start his own business. Perhaps he figured cab driving was a part-time gig, something to tide him over. Perhaps he looked at all the other middle-aged men driving cabs and told himself, "I'll never let myself turn into that." Who knows?

But then he met a girl, knocked her up, got married, had one kid, then another, and suddenly all those doors closed. He had responsibilities, bills to pay, obligations to keep. All of his dreams disappeared like his breath on a cold winter's morning. And maybe years later he looked in the mirror one morning. He saw the face staring back him with the graying temples and the thinning hair and the dark circles under his eyes and he asked himself, "Jesus, where did the last forty-fuckin'-years go?"

But heck, he may have told himself, he wasn't that old. He could still have dreams. Maybe once the kids are out of the house; maybe once the mortgage is paid off; maybe once the wife and I can finally save a little money and time for ourselves.

But first, he tells himself, I gotta go to the doctor and get my back checked out.

I ask Rick how he got into cab driving. He explained that he was welder, and that he worked in the boatyards in Quincy. After they shut down in the Eighties he couldn't find a welding job. There was a recession going on and a lot of welders out of work, so he started driving. Like the rest of us, he thought it would be a part-time thing. But, one thing led to another and, thirty years later, here he is.

Does he ever think about doing something else? "Nah, I don't give it much thought."

A couple of weeks later, a small note was posted on the office bulletin board announcing Billy's death with the name of the funeral home and the hours for the service. I don't know how many drivers went to the service. I don't know how many drivers who even knew Billy. A week after this, another note was posted, announcing that the city had awarded Billy the "Cab Driver of the Year" award--posthumously.

"Can you believe that?" Rick says. "Forty goddamned years and he has to die to get it. You think they could at least give to him while he was still alive."

I spend the rest of the night driving in a kind of daze. I keep thinking about the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, about a guy wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison who over the course of 25 years tunnels his way out. And I keep thinking about that line: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Short Night

Ah Haaaaa Yeah!! It's a gusher.


The Red Line has broken down. There's been a power outage, and the fire department is helping evacuate trains. Not only that, it's rush hour. The stations are jammed with people just looking to get home, and there aren't enough cabs for them all. The cops in Cambridge don't even care. They just want to clear the stations and the sidewalks and turn a blind eye to cabs from out of town. Forget the hotels. Forget the stands. Just head to the nearest Red Line station.

From Park Street to Andrew...Andrew to Central...Central back to Park...Park to Alewife...Harvard to South Station. For three hours, the gravy train ran non-stop. I booked $150, nearly as much as I do during an entire shift.

The end result was I could knock off early, get home, get a good night sleep and manage to get up early enough to make use of the next day.

Now, if only I could find some pimply faced, teen-aged computer expert to hack into the T's system and do this on a regular basis.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Modern Romance

I was sitting on the stand, half asleep, when the rear door suddenly opened and someone threw themself onto the back seat. The noise made me nearly jump out of my skin.

"You're available, aren't you?" the woman asked. She was twenty-something.

"Yeah, yeah, sure," I answered, grumbling to myself that I should lock the doors in the future. I mean, what if she was some crazed robber or something? I could have been be whacked over the head or stuck up, who knows? I mean...

"You okay?" she asks.

"I'm fine," I answer, composing myself. "You just startled me. Where to?"

She gives me the address. I punch the meter and we're off.

"Workin' late?" I ask.

"No, I was just having a couple drinks with friends after work. It's been a loooong day."

"Really?"

"Like I've never had."

"Whadayamean?"

"Do you do Face Book?"

"No," I answer. "But I've heard of it."

"Anyway, I get an e-mail from a friend telling me to check out my boyfriend's Face Book page. So I do. And he's changed his status from 'attached' to 'single'. In other words, I've been dumped."

"Wha?... You mean he didn't actually tell you this?"

"No, nothing. No discussion. No phone call. No message. Not even an e-mail. Not only that, all my friends found out before I did. I had to learn about it from them."

"Have you tried tried to call him?"

"Not yet, I've just been in shock. I don't even know what I'd say to him."

"When did you see him last?"

"Two days ago. We spent the weekend together."

"And there was no fight, no hint that anything was up?"

"No, nothing. I thought we had a wonderful weekend."

"How do you know it's not, like, a mistake?"

"Because he put up a picture of his new girlfriend! Some twit he met last week. I recognized her from a party we went to. I asked him who he was he was talking to and he said some girl from Vermont. She had tatoos, like he does, and likes motorcycles and the same kind of music he does. He thought she was cool."

"Wow."

"Yeah, he dumps me because I don't like heavy metal music and have tatoos! Well, I'm sorry, but I know I'm going to be old some day and don't want to look like some crumpled piece of newspaper with these faded, gross tatoos."

"And how long have you been going out?"

"About three months. He had just gotten out of a really bad relationship, he said, so I was trying to be extra gentle with him, give all the space he needed, not to pressure him or nag him about spending time with me... AND FOR WHAT!? Couldn't he have just called?"

"Unbelievable. I've heard of jerks breaking up with girlfriends by leaving messages on their phone machines, but this is a whole different level of contemptible. You don't cancel a magazine subscription that way. It's despicable, almost psychotic."

"He's too chicken to do it in person?"

"It's probably lucky it happened sooner than later, because just think of if you had spent some serious time with this butthole. You deserve better. Lot's better."

"You think so?"

"Definitely. And you will. In the meantime, I'd start thinking of some medieval-style revenge on him."

"You know, he's not worth the time and effort. I think I'll just hang out with my friends."

"There ya go."

"I feel better just venting about it. Thanks."

She handed me a twenty to cover the $13 fare. I started to make change.

"No, keep it. Thanks."

"Thank you."

Friday, September 4, 2009

End of an Era

The true measure of a man's importance I discovered this past week is not what he leaves in life, but the traffic snarl-ups he causes in death. Senator Ted Kennedy and mobster Gennaro "Jerry" Anguilo--two titans of Boston's power elite--were buried this past week, and I got stuck in the resulting traffic jams for both. First for Kennedy's procession, which tied up traffic for several hours downtown as it toured various sites in the city last Saturday. According to the radio, the crowds in places were eight deep to get a glimps of the flag-draped coffin and the surviving members of the ever-dwindling Kennedy clan. The second for Anguilo's wake in the North End on Wednesday, which practically shut down Commercial Street as a potpourri of old timers, thick-necked brutes in fancy Italian suits, bikers in Hell's Angels colors, and mothers with small children lined up outside Langone's Funeral Home to pay their last respects to one of the last old-school Italian mafiosa in the city.


I assume that Kennedy being Kennedy and Anguilo, having spent most of the past 20 years in jail, never personally met most of the throngs gathered in their honor. No doubt, some wanted to be there because they felt the deceased had somehow touched their lives. Others because they simply wanted be a part of the spectacle. But most, I suppose, were there to acknowledge the end of an era.


With Kennedy's and Angiulo's go the last vestiges of a time when Boston was run by powerful families and clans. Back then, who you knew and the neighborhood you lived in meant more than how much you earned or where you worked. Boston has always been a city of neighborhoods, more so then than today, but back then it meant something totally different if you said you lived in Southie or Charlestown or the South End or Brighton. It's still a city of neighborhoods, but it's much harder to tell them apart. Back then, the people you saw on TV representing Boston were guys who were part of those neighborhoods. Guys like Tip O'Neill, Mel King, Kevin White, Ray Flynn, Dap O'Neill. Mayor Menino is among them, but he is in dwindling company.

It was different, not necessarily better, but different. In a lot of ways, Boston is a better place today. It's cleaner, it's safer. There's more to do. It's easier to get around. But something's missing.

I had the same feeling when legendary rock radio station WBCN went off the air a couple months ago. The station had changed program formats so many times that I quit listening to it ages ago, but I remember when it was part of regular day: Charles Laquidara and Duane Glasscock, the Big Mattress, the Cosmic Muffin. Now it's gone, and in its place we have what? Twenty-four-hour sports talk?

What's missing I guess is character. Like every other place, Boston is becoming more like, well, every other place.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer Scenes

After two months of monsoons and cool temperatures, summer finally arrived in Boston this August. June and July were so wet and awful I practically had mushrooms growing between my toes. I had a fare from Seattle telling me how she looked forward to going home, being that it was the sunniest, warmest summer in memory. Usually, she said, summer is cool and wet, kinda like, like... Boston. I felt like stopping the car and demanding that she give us our summer back under threat of making her walk the rest of the way to the airport.

But now summer is here. About 90 degrees, 90 percent humidity. Hot and steamy. Things are, relatively speaking, back to normal. You can not only feel it, you can see it: Kids selling lemonade from makeshift stands in front of their houses, backyard barbecues, late-night games of softball.

Only that's not what I see. Here are a couple of the sights, sounds and smells of typical summer day from where I sit:

4:30 p.m.

At one of the busier intersections along Massachusetts Avenue, there's a large, black woman pushing a baby carriage with her two young children. She's in the crosswalk, stopped dead, glaring at a taxicab trying to turn onto the street. They are in a stand-off. Traffic is backing up in all directions. I have no idea what she's saying, but while she's yelling she's boring a hole in the driver with her eyes. She's waving, screaming now at the top of her lungs. Her two children stand by her side bewildered, frightened. Should they stand my their mother and risk getting run over? Or should they continue across the street and wait? They decide to stay put by their mom, who continues to yell above a rising chorus of car horns looking to move.

Now she's shaking, completely enraged. She's pounding on the car hood, then stands straight up and flings an empty plastic water battle at the car, which ricochets off the windshield and hits another woman crossing the street. The woman jumps at first, then looks perplexedly at the black woman, who glares back, daring her to say something, anything.

The taxi driver gets out of his car, pointing to the woman, then to the windshield and back to the woman. But the mother isn't moving. She steps forward, putting her finger right in his face. The driver takes this for about a minute, then turns around, throws up his hands and gets back in the car.

The woman steps back behind the carriage, gathers her children, and slowly, ever so slowly, begins to move on, throwing one last hard look back at the cab.

6:30 p.m.

At the entrance to one of the city's few budget hotels. There's a swarthy, heavy-set man with a thick moustache wearing a cheap sportcoat and waiting with a suitcase held together by duct tape. I pop the trunk and put the bag in the back.

"Where to?" I ask, guessing he's headed to the bus or train station. "Logan airport" he answers in a heavy, slavic accent. "Beetish Airways.

I'm pleasantly surprised. "But first, we wait for my daughter." It's hot, and the car is air-conditioned, so I decide to wait in the cab. "Not a problem," I say, inviting him to wait inside also, which he does.

I turn down the radio and grab my copy of the Herald when I notice the car is filling with a horrible stench. What is that smell? It's nearly overpowering. My nostrils are stinging and my stomach begins to churn. Where is it coming from? Then I realize it: It's him. Did he just get off a fishing trawler? Or is that body odor?

Oh my god, it's B.O.

I step out of the car and start fiddling with the windshield wipers trying to kill time until his daughter shows up. She's a sullen, sallow, thirtyish woman with stringy blond hair and wearing an ankle-length dress made of what looks to be burlap. She silently puts her suitcase in the trunk and gets into the back of the car with her father. I close the trunk, get into the driver's seat and throw the car into gear.

I fairly peal out of the entryway while simultaneously rolling down the window, sucking a few gulps of air before putting my seatbelt on. Father and daughter are in the back arguing in whatever language it is that they are from . Usually, it's about a ten-minute drive to the airport from where I started, but I'm looking to shave that by about half--running yellow lights, weaving in and out of traffic, consistently breaking the speed limit. If I don't, I think I'll pass out or throw up, maybe both.

In the tunnel, I pull up besides a hulking, noisy bus. The thick, black exhaust fumes are a welcome relief from the rolling cesspool I'm driving. How does this guy not notice how he smells? More perplexing, how does she not notice?

I get to the airport. The fare is $21.50. The guy hands me thirty bucks and I count out eight singles. He raises an eyebrow over the missing fifty cents, and I explain that I don't have coin.

"Okee-dokee," he says, handing me a buck for a tip. I feel like I should tell him maybe he might want to "freshen up" before getting on the plane, but hold my tongue. Let the airline suffer for a change. The two turn and plod into the terminal building.

2:30 a.m.

I'm waiting at another intersection on Mass. Ave. On the opposite end of the intersection there's an all-night convenience store. A couple of bums outside the front door are duking it out, rolling on the sidewalk, moving in slow-motion, flailing ridiculously at each other. My guess is that an argument over who was there first has escalated into fisticuffs. Soon, the police will show up and neither of them will get the spot. In the meantime, a couple of guys looking to go inside have stopped short. They look down at the bums. They appear to be assessing the best route to bypass this comic spectacle. After a few moments, they move down the sidewalk to to one side of the door and gingerly make their way around the entangled bums. Wrestlemania continues.

The guy behind me honks. The light is green.

It's time to go home.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fifteen Percent of Nothing

At taxi school, my instructor, a tall, heavy-set and impeccably dressed man named Al threw out a hypothetical situation to the class: Suppose you pick up someone at an apartment complex. It's an elderly woman who uses an walker. You assist her getting into the car, then fold up the walker and put it into the trunk. You then drive her to a grocery store. The fare is $7.50, which she pays for partly in cash and partly with a discount voucher the city distributes to senior citizens. How much should you expect for a tip?

"Three dollars!" shouted a man from the back of the room, as if anything less would be an insult.

Al smiled, then nodded to a middle-aged man with his hand raised.

"Fifty cents?" the man asked meekly, making some in the class laugh out loud.

Al then formed a circle with a his index finger and thumb, holding it up for the class to see.

"Zero," he exclaimed. Al warned us that we should never pressure or harangue passengers for tips. It's unseemly, he said, and could be the basis for a complaint. Besides, we should think of ourselves as ambassadors for the city, sometimes the first face a new visitor sees when the arrive or the last one before they leave.

Okay, point made. But the fact is cab drivers depend on tips. In my case, it accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of my pay. I don't get health benefits, no retirement, no unemployment insurance or disability. The car has no collision insurance, so if I hit a telephone pole, the repairs come out of my pocket. As it is, I earn, on a good night, maybe $17 or $18 per hour. Full-time cabbies drive 12 hours per day, six or seven days a week. By the end of the week, they're zombies, sleeping and eating in their cars, taking spit showers in public restrooms. They might have time to get their kids off to school or tuck them in at night--maybe--but they don't have much of a life outside of work, and they sure don't have much to show for it.

But since the economy tanked, zero is increasingly what I am expecting. Business is down, way down. Not only are fewer people taking cabs, but those who do are tipping less. Yes, cabs aren't cheap. For little old ladies living on fixed incomes a dollar-fifty tip on a $10 fare might make a dent in a budget, particularly if you depend on cabs every day to get to the grocery store, doctor appointments, community center, etc. But frequently, I find the best tippers are the little old ladies, especially those living in subsidized housing. They seem to understand our predicament.

People who used to tip well, businessmen, students, tourists and the like today seem to be keeping a tighter grip on their wallets. Where 15- to 20-percent used to be the norm, nowadays it seems to be 10- to 15-percent. Everybody seems to be acting like they're just one step away from the street.

Another problem for cabbies is Boston is increasingly an international city. A lot of people I pick up come from cultures that simply don't get the concept of tipping. I took a carful of Swedes to Andover not long ago, a flat rate, something like $55, and after I handed them back the change they all just got out and walked away. I was about to roll down the window and yell out my harshest Swedish curse ("Saab You!") when one of the group ran back and gave me, what's this, a whole five dollars. While I don't like to cast aspersions on one's nationality or culture, it's difficult when you repeatedly have a car full of students from the Middle East going to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where it's nothing for them to drop three thousand bucks in a night entertaining friends, to then have them scrounging around the bottom of their pocketbooks for a couple of lowly dollar bills for the cabbie.

But it's not just foreigners, everybody it seems has gotten cheaper. I used to hand the change back to customer and wait for them to hand back the tip. But it seems once the money's in their hands it's harder for them to part with it, so instead I now ask, "How much would you like back?" just to make it clear that tipping is the custom. If they say they want it all back, I'll give it all back--with a smile.

But it's tough.

I recently had one guy who had a $6.25 fare, handed me a $100 bill and then got ticked off that I didn't have the coin on hand so he could leave me a fifty-cent tip. Instead, I got bupkus.

Thanks, Al.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Celebrity Moment

"Hey, chief."

He wore a pork pie hat, a vest and a goatee. He was pulling a large suitcase, so I instantly sized him up as someone likely headed to the airport, a plum fare. But my sense of fairness and cabbie protocol kicked in.

You should go to the head of the stand, I told him. Those guys, I explained, have been waiting the longest.

"Nope. You're my man," he insisted, lugging the suitcase into the trunk. "I'm a man of the streets and I've learned how to judge people. I can tell you're just the guy to help me out."
I did my duty. Besides, who was I to argue? A fare can pick out any cab they want. He climbed in.

Sure, where ya headed?

"South Station. You know, to those Chinese buses. But first, I got to make a little stop. But hey, I'm good for it." He pulls out a wad of cash, flashing me a couple hundred dollar bills.

That's okay, I said. I didn't peg you for a cheat.

"Good," he said. "You know, I'm famous, world-famous, really. A poet."

Really, I answered, I didn't know there was such a thing, a world-famous poet.

"Yeah, I'm the next Charles Bukowski. That's what they call me. The next Bukowski, or a Kerouac."

Rain started to pelt the windshield. Big, fat drops that quickly came down faster than the wipers could clear them away. Maybe this was my "celebrity moment," that moment every cabbie dreams of in which they get to have their own private, really cool conversation with someone famous.

Where are we going? I asked.

"Downtown. I gotta score some crack," Mr. World-Famous poet said.

Jeezuz. Why me?

Look, I'm not going to let you score crack while sitting in the back of my cab, I said like I'm talking to a five-year-old.

"Hey, man, it's cool. I just need you to wait while I score. Besides, I'll give you a really good tip. I tell you, I'm good for it."

I spent about a millisecond debating this (crack, good tips, what's the difference?). Okay, I said, I'll wait, but I don't want to know about it, and you leave the suitcases behind.

"Good enough," he answered.

Again, where we going? I asked.

"You know, The Combat Zone."

Oh boy.

They tore the Combat Zone about twenty years ago, I explained to him. It's all hotels and fancy restaurants now. Again, where do you want to go?

"You know... downtown... where all the black people and hookers are," as if the two were synonymous. This guy was seriously beginning to annoy me.

"Hey!" he shouted in a sudden burst of paranoia. "Are you a cop?"

This guy was turning into real trouble. No, I'm not a cop, I told him. But I'm not just going to hang out waiting to see if you get yourself killed outside some housing project. I'll take you downtown, to Park Street, you can try your luck there.

"Cool. Cool. Hey, you mind if I light up a joint?"

On second thought, maybe I will just drop him off outside some housing project.

Generally, I told him, I don't care what you do. But given that smoking is illegal in cabs, and given that I'm ashmatic, I'm going to say no.

"Okay."

The rain started coming down harder than ever. I could barely see more than 30 feet in front of me. I wondered, exactly how dumb do you have to be in order to be a world-famous poet. So, I asked, Since you brought it up, who are you?

"No way, man," he said. "You never know when information will leak out and get printed all over the Internet. Let's just say that when I first became known they called me the 'Rust Poet.' "

Really, I asked, why the 'Rust Poet'?

"I dunno. They just did."

I had just turned a corner off Charles Street to Beacon Street when the entire car filled with flashing blue lights.

"FUCK MAN!" he screamed. "I knew it! You are a cop!"

I'm NOT a cop, I yelled. Just relax. We'll see what he wants.

As Mr. World-Famous Poet nervously shuffled things around, I rolled down the window. Rain began spitting inside the car.

"You in a hurry?" the cop said dryly.

No officer, what's the problem?

"You gotta yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk before turning, ya know."

But officer, there was no one in the crosswalk.

"License, please."

The cop walked away. Mr. World-Famous Poet, now slunken so far into the seat he's practically disappeared, raised his head. "Shit, man."

I clear the meter and pop the trunk. Look, this could take a while. Why don't you hop out here. You'll have no trouble finding another cab.

"Good idea," he handed over thirty bucks, a $10 tip. I watched as he crossed the street, scanning hungrily for another target. I was glad to see him go.

The cop returned after about five minutes, handing over a white piece of paper. "It's just a warning this time, but watch it. The streets are crawling with people this time of day."

Thank you, officer.

For once, I meant it.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Our Cheatin' Heart

I arrive at the garage and the owner is outside. It's odd, because the owner is almost never outside, prefering to lord over his domain from behind his desk in the back of the office like the pope or Jabba the Hut from "Star Wars." Seeing him outside is like seeing Count Dracula in daylight.

Something is up.

One of the mechanics is laying flat his back underneath the dashboard, his legs splayed out the driver's side door. The owner is yelling something incomprehensible, waving his arms and gesticulating wildly. He sees me and glowers, giving me a look that says, "You. You did this." I shrug, not having the faintest clue what's going on.


One of the other drivers standing around waiting to begin his shift tells me another driver tried to disable the odometer by pulling a fuse, hoping to hide from the boss excess mileage from running unbooked flat rates, fares not run off the meter (there are some legitimate flat rates, such as from some hotels to the airport). To guard against a driver running private flat rates, drivers have to turn in our mileage along with our meter tally at the end of each shift. The miles driven, in general, should be about half the meter's total for the shift. If not, we better have a good explanation why not or the boss will penalize us $2 per mile. But in pulling the fuse, this knucklehead also broke the speedometer and air conditioner, leading to the boss's current overheated condition. So now the mechanic has been ordered to seal every fuse box against tampering. Some guys have tried to disable the odometer by fishing a paper clip or wire through the dashboard to jam the odometer's wheels.

Such a ruse, however, would only work with drivers who, like me, work "on the waybill" (See "Lucky Numbers" post, Mar. 23, 2009), splitting the fares with company. Most cabbies lease their cars (at a rate of about $700 per week or $85 per shift). The company earns its money up front, and could care less about your mileage because you're paying for the gas.

But there are other ways to scam the system. The most obvious, of course, is to cheat customers, taking some unsuspecting tourist a roundabout route instead of a more direct route. Cynical fares probably assume we do this anyway, which is why a lot of people get in my cab and start barking directions at me. Others might consult online sites such as http://www.taxifarefinder.com/ to get a ballpark estimate of what a fare should be. In our defense, the best route in Boston can be a very subjective matter. By "best" do you mean shortest, or fastest? This can also vary greatly depending on the time of day and the traffic. A lot of drivers end up taking roundabout routes in order to avoid Boston's notorious traffic jams. Myself? My objective is to take as many fares as I can during a particular shift. The $1 or $2 gained in cheating a fare is time and money lost carrying another fare. Besides, why risk getting fired or, worse, having your hack license suspended?

Another way to skieve the system is to pick up fares outside of your area. Say you catch a fare from Boston to Cambridge. On the way back, you see a couple of kids with their arms outreached hailing you. Its dark, cold, raining and there's not a soul in sight. So you decide to give the kids a break and pull over. That's when the flashing blue lights of a city cop fill your rear windshield. Cities and towns in the state are very territorial when it comes to protecting their taxi business. In Boston, the city for years has been trying to crack down on "gypsy cabs", unlicensed taxis or out-of-town cabs picking up fares. Those caught face a ticket and a $500 fine (about 2 nights work). Granted, it doesn't make much sense in an era of declining oil and soaring gasoline prices to have bunches of cabs driving empty past customers, but that's the way it is.

Cheating seems to be a compulsion for some drivers. Some guys will call in on a stand, putting them on a queue for any call-in jobs in the area, then drive around looking for street hails, essentially two-timing the guys patiently waiting their turn on the stand. These guys will drive to the airport, collect the $5.25 tunnel toll from the customer for the return trip, then sneak around the back way home over the Tobin Bridge to pocket the $1.25 difference in tolls (the state recently caught on to this one, fining drivers $50 if they're caught avoiding the Sumner Tunnel). Or at the end of a shift they'll short-fill the tank for the next driver, leaving it a quarter of half-gallon shy of full. I can only hope that bad karma and/or bad luck will follow these guys to the end of their days--at least, their days as a cab driver.

But let's face it. Some people deserve to be hosed. A fellow driver at the company hit a pothole one day and blew a tire. The car jerked to the side and ran into a guardrail or barrier, causing perhaps $2500 damage. The boss is insured, the loss is covered. But he tells the driver he has to cover the deductible--something like $1500. This driver's got four kids and an ailing wife and is so poor he can't even afford a car and has to ride a bike to work. But he says nothing, and over the next couple months has the $1500 taken out in increments from his pay. I'm outraged for the guy. It wasn't his fault. Things like this happen. I ask him why he didn't protest more or try to challenge it. He says not to worry. The 2-to-1 ratio of fares-to-mileage is skewed a bit to the driver's advantage, he explained. Each shift, he'd pocket one or maybe two flat rates for himself. By the end of four months, the boss paid for the deductible three times over.

Not bad.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Half-baked

"I have a question for you," the young woman in back asks me cheerily, seeking to resolve a minor dispute she's having with her boyfriend, who's sitting beside her.

"Who would you value more as a friend: someone who's good at baking--you know, cookies and cakes--or someone who's just a good person?"

I ponder the question, thinking about how this relationship may depend on my answer and how I would enjoy a lemon square just about now.

"It depends on the circumstances," I say.

"Yeah, see?" the boyfriend nearly shouts, as if they had made a bet on what my answer would be.

"Say you're trapped in a blizzard inside a remote cabin stocked only with baking supplies," I continue. "Or suppose or you need to borrow two-thousand dollars from someone. It really depends."

"Exactly!" the boyfriend says.

"I don't get it," the girlfreind says. "You'd like someone who bakes cookies as much as someone who's a funny, decent person?"

"Well," I say, wondering silently if there's some other reason the girlfriend doesn't like this particular cookie-maker, "I know I have different friends for different activities, and then I have friends I just like to hang around with. Perhaps you could make a place in your life for both."

"That's what I've been sayin'," the boyfriend echoes.

"I suppose," the girlfriend says glumly, clearly not happy with the direction of this conversation.

The boyfriend picks up on this change, too, and decides to change the subject. "You want to go see a movie after dinner?"

"I dunno," she says curtly. "We'll see." They sit in silence the rest of the ride.

This, I tell myself, could be a long night for this guy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Graduation Day

Two-thirty in the morning. That time during a shift when all there is for work is picking up the dregs of the night: the drunken stragglers, the hookers, the drug addicts or the lost souls looking for a place to go and a warm place to sleep. For me, it's time to think about gassing the car up, bringing it in and going home. But then there he is: his arm at his side, his finger lazily pointing into the street as if uncertain he even wanted a cab, his head nearly resting on his shoulder, apparently too heavy from drink or a desire to sleep. At any other time of day I would have driven right by without a second notice.

"Thanks, man," the kid says as he slides in.

Not a problem, I say. "Where to?"

He gives me an address in Brighton. I put the car into gear and we're off. With his sport jacket, wire-rimmed glasses and trimmed beard and moustache he looks like Leon Trotsky.

"Good night?" he asks.

Not really, I say. A bit slow. That or perhaps I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time all night.

"Yeah, I've felt that way a alot lately," he says with a laugh.

You a student? I ask.

"Yup," he says. "This is my next to last night."

Graduating?

"Yeah. I guess I'm celebrating. I've spent the last five years in Boston. I got a degree in philosophy. Now I'm going home to the West Coast to live with my Mom. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how I feel about it all."

That's understandable, I say. Uncertainty is part of the college experience. Besides, Boston can spoil you. It's a great place to be a student. The town where I went to college was a pit. The first thing they told freshman coming in was to NEVER LEAVE THE CAMPUS.

"Really?" he laughs. "Where was this?"

New Haven.

"New Haven?" he asks. "What school?"

Yale.

"Ya...?" his voice falls away, sounding as if he has suddenly seen a ghost. Either horrified or dumbfounded, I sense him staring at me seeking to explain this apparent disconnect. That or he is wondering if perhaps the ghost he is seeing is that of his own future.

"But wha... what did you study?"

American Studies, history mostly.

A long silence followed. Rather than try to explain to him how an Ivy League grad could be so woefully underemployed, I let it rest. Maybe he felt sorry for me, thinking, "Gee, times really must be tough." Or maybe this newly minted philosophy major started making plans for applying to business school as soon as he got home to Mom's. Or, who knows, maybe he thought to himself: "Hey, this guy seems reasonably happy. Maybe it isn't such a bad job, after all?"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cab Ten-Twenty-One, Where Are You?

"Hey, Cab Ten-Twenty-One, where are you?"

I couldn't hear 1021's response. The radio system allows us to only hear the dispatcher's side of a conversation. Evidently, Cab 1021 has gone missing again. He's been lost most of the night. This time, apparently, his fare has called back twice to ask how much longer it will be.

"Cab Ten-Twenty-One, do you know where you are? The customer is waiting!"

This must be 1021's first night on the job. After getting hired, all newbies are supposed to ride around with an experienced driver for a couple nights in order to learn the ropes. But it seems 1021 either lied, telling the owner he already had experience, or that somehow he fell through the cracks and was inadvertently sent out onto the streets cold. That or he is just a really, really slow learner.

"Cab Ten-Twenty-One, do you have a GPS?... Yes? Well, USE IT!"

Granted, Boston is not the easiest city to navigate. Unlike Manhattan, it does not have streets laid out in a straightforward grid. They turn and twist--so crazily in places (such as downtown) they seem to doubleback on themselves. In other places (such as Back Bay) a street will start in one place, then stop, then start up again several blocks away. There are streets that go one way in multiple directions, so that depending on the address you have to know exactly where to enter the street. The signage, where there is any, is horrendous. On many thoroughfares, only the cross-streets are marked, so unless you already know what street you're on you will simply have to guess. But even if you did know you could still be lost. Say you're on Washington Street. Okay, which one? Boston has several. There's Washington Street that wends its way from downtown to the South End, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Roxbury and West Roxbury. But there's also a Washington Street in Brighton, another in Dorchester, another in Chelsea and yet another in Hyde Park. In cases such as this, a GPS is of limited use.

Boston, like most big American cities, only requires that potential drivers pass a brief course to get their license. The course reviews the city taxi regulations, including driver qualifications, vehicle requirements, the meters, and so forth; explains some rules of the road, such as how to use cab stands, using the radio, basic traffic laws; offers tips on etiquette, grooming and safety; but does little in the way of making sure drivers know their way around the city. This is done on the job.

In Europe, where taxi driving is more a bonafide career, drivers tend to be more extensively trained. In Paris, drivers undergo an average of 400 hours of training before getting their license. Drivers of London's famous "black cabs" go through the world's most rigorous training course. Expected to decide routes immediately without relying on a map or GPS system, drivers all must complete the Knowledge of London Examination System--better known simply as "The Knowledge"--before getting a license. In addition to the street layout, drivers must be familiar with the city's places of interest and traffic patterns in order to whisk passengers to their destination. It takes an average of 34 months to prepare for the examination, and most applicants will flunk it 12 times before passing.

"Cab Ten-Twenty-One! Cab Ten-Twenty-One! Who trained you, sir? ...Cab Ten-Twenty-One, were you trained?"

I know how Cab 1021 must feel. My first couple of weeks I could only find my way to the most obvious landmarks: Quincy Market, the airport, Boston Garden, South Station. It seems I spent half my time completely lost. I lived in dread of having to find an address in some out-of-the-way neighborhood, especially if the passenger couldn't help with directions. Too cheap to buy a GPS, I began each trip with a five-minute consultation with a street atlas. I remember picking up three businessmen from a hotel downtown who needed to get to an urgent meeting at address in the hospital district. After each wrong turn, the leader of the group would call the meeting's hosts and say, "Sorry, we'll be another five minutes." By the time they got out, they were 45 minutes late.

"Cab Ten-Twenty-One, the customer just canceled."

One night, I picked up a fare in Charlestown needing to go to Boston, usually a five to ten minute trip over the Charlestown Bridge. But traffic was being detoured around Bunker Hill Community College for a motion picture being shot, and the next thing I know, I'm bumping along an unpaved road underneath Interstate 93 trying to find my way around a surreal forest of giant concrete columns supporting the elevated freeway. My fare asked me if I knew where I was going. Oh sure, sure, I said, trying to make it sound like I was taking some exotic shortcut. I find what appears to be a way out, but the roadway leads me into a tunnel that goes God Knows Where. Before we know it, we are climbing the Tobin Bridge, and it's obvious that we're going the wrong way. I apologized to my passenger and assured him we'll get right back on track. But road construction in Chelsea closes the first exit, so I have to get off at the next exit, where another detour leads me into Everett and Chelsea. After ten minutes of wandering around an industrial wasteland, I finally found an on-ramp to go back over the Tobin Bridge. By the time I drop the fare off in Boston, 30 minutes passed and the meter read $22.45. I apologized again to the fare, who got out of the car, pulled a ten dollar bill out of his wallet, crumpled it, threw it at me, and said, "Go fuck yourself." Another driver might have gotten out and picked a fight, but I understood how the guy felt. I probably would have done the same thing. So I just put the car in gear and drove off, knowing the other $12.45 would taken out of my cut at the end of the night. A rather expensive lesson in Boston geography.

"Cab Ten-Twenty-One, tell ya what, gas it up and bring it in. You either have to be properly trained or think of something else. Right now, you're not cut out for this."

Having been there, I secretly wished for Ten-Twenty-One tough it out, even though I have absolutely no idea who he (or she) is.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Behind Closed Doors

You want to know what people say about you after you've separated for the night? Ask a cabbie.

I pick up young a couple outside a popular Back Bay bistro. They hop into the car and direct me to the North End. I punch the meter, and put the car into gear.

"Whew! I'm so glad you did most of the talking," the guy says. "I don't think I could have done it."

"Why not?" she answers. "He's one of your best friends."

"Since he moved in with her, he's become one of those guys we used to make fun of after they've moved in with their girlfriend. 'Yes dear'... 'No dear'... 'Can I get you anything else, dear?' He's practically turned into her butler. I mean she's very pretty, but what a pain in the ass."

"I think he must have sensed that from you because he opened up when you went to the bathroom."

"What'd ya mean?"

"I mean, he let his guard down and talked to me."

"And?"

"And he said he's very much in love with her..."

"Yeah, so?"

"But they've never slept together."

"Really? You gotta be kidding me! And they've been going out for a year, living together for nine months, sleeping in the same bed?"

"She told him that she respects him too much... that she's just not ready; that she's waiting for, what, I don't know, that perfect moment, I guess."

"Oh gawd... now I know it."

"Know what?"

"That she's sleeping around. There has always been something about her that bugged me. Something... I don't know... I guess you could say I had a hunch about her. But now I know it. She's just using him as a meal ticket until something better turns up."

"Wow. Can you imagine? It's like having all the worst parts of a relationship but none of the good parts."

"And he's like some poor schlump trying to push a boulder uphill while eagles are trying to peck out his eyes... aarhg! aarhg! aarhg!"

They both laugh. I'm grinning broadly, trying my best to keep from laughing out loud myself.

After the next block, they ask me to pull over. Right here's close enough, they say.

"You know what?" she says. "Maybe you should talk to him. Try to get him to see the light."

"No way," he answers as he reaches across to hand me a crisp $20 bill, telling me to keep two bucks for the tip.

"Why not?" she asks.

"Because he's gonna get his heart broken by this bimbo, that's for sure. And when it happens, it will be so awesome!"

They both laugh again. As they climb out of the car the woman leans in before shutting the door, "Gee, sorry you had to hear all that."

Not a problem, I say. Actually, you made my night.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

You Are What You Drive

Cabbies like to think of themselves as good judges of character, able to size people up and put them ease, making them at home in the brief amount of time they spend in the car. It's self-interest, of course: We're just angling for a better tip. We also learn to judge people simply by the cars they drive: expecting the doofus in the minivan in the adjacent lane to suddenly swerve in front of us without using their turn signal; waiting before proceeding into an intersection so the guy in the Dodge Dakota pickup coming the other way can run the red light; learning that it's better to cut off the Mercedes versus the rusted out Bonneville, the logic being that the guy with more to lose should always give way.

The following list, started about 15 years ago and revised and updated over the years, is a thumbnail sketch of the personality types associated with various car models. I've tweaked it, but can't take credit for all the descriptions.

Feel free to add your own.


Acura Integra –I am impotent
Buick LaCrosse – I am older than 4 of the 50 states
Cadillac DeVille – I am a very good Mary Kay salesman
Cadillac Escalade – I am a pimp
Chevrolet Aveo – I delivered pizza for four years to get this car
Chevrolet Camaro – I enjoy beating the hell out of people
Chevrolet Corvette – I'm in a mid-life crisis
Chevrolet HHR – I wouldn't be caught dead in a PT Cruiser
Chevrolet Monte Carlo – I enjoy putting out engine fires
Chrysler Sebring Convertible – I have always wanted to own the Buick of sports cars
Chrysler Town & Country Minivan – Let me tell you about my kids
Dodge Caravan – (see above)
Dodge Magnum – I have a switchblade in my sock
Dodge Viper – I have an armor-plated prenuptial agreement
Ferrari Fiorano – I am known to prematurely ejaculate
Ford Crown Victoria – I enjoy having people slow to 55 mph and change lanes when I pull up behind them
Ford Escort – I teach third grade and voted for Eisenhower
Ford Focus – I have just graduated and have no credit
Ford Mustang – I have a kilo of cocaine in my wheel well
Ford Shelby – I slow down to 85 in school zones
Ford Taurus – I work at WalMart
Honda Accord – I lack any originality and am basically a lemming.
Hummer SUV – I have a three-inch weenie
Hummer H2 – I am leading a militia to overthrow the government
Infiniti Q45 – I'm too bland for German cars
Jaguar XJ6 – I am so rich I will pay 60K for a car that is in the shop 280 days per year.
Jeep Wrangler – I enjoy skinny dipping
Lamborghini Gallardo – I only have one testicle
Lexus GS – I am a physician with 17 malpractice suits pending.
Lincoln Town Car – I live for bingo and covered dish suppers
Mercury Grand Marquis – (See above)
Mercedes S Class – I will beat you up if you ask me for an auto-graph
Mercedes M Class – I have a daughter named Bitsy and a son named Cole
Mazda Miata – I do not fear being decapitated by an eighteen- wheeler
MGB – I am dating a mechanic
Mini – This car is my life
Oldsmobile Cutlass – I just stole this car and I'm going to make a fortune off the parts
Pontiac PT Cruiser – I have a thing for coffins, too.
Peugeot 505 Diesel – I am on the EPA's Ten Most Wanted List
Plymouth Neon – I sincerely enjoy doing the Macarena
Porsche Boxter – I have yet to complete my divorce proceedings.
Porsche Carrera – I am dating big haired women who otherwise would be inaccessible to me
Rolls Royce Phantom – I think Dick Cheney is a tad bit too liberal
Saturn Astra – Someday my car will be a collector's item
Smart Car – I always wanted to be a circus clown
Subaru Outback – I am still in the closet
Suzuki SX4 – I will start the 11th grade in the fall.
Suzuki SX4 – Crossover I will start the 12th grade in the fall.
Toyota Camry – See Honda Accord
Toyota Prius – I am a friend to animals and talk with my mouth full
Toyota Yaris – I don't know what it means either
Volkswagen New Beetle – I'm out of the closet
Volkswagen Jetta – I do not give a damn about J.D. Power or his reports.
Volkswagen Microbus – I am tripping right now
Volkswagen Touareg – Don't ask me to pronounce it
Volvo V700 Wagon – I am frightened of my wife

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Change of Luck

It's a slow night, nothing is moving. The radio is quiet and the stands everywhere are full of idle cabs. Some drivers cruise the streets downtown hoping to catch a fare, others give up and call it an early night, others resign themselves to the situation. They park on a stand and wait. To relieve the boredom, they pull out a newspaper or book, talk on the phone, get out and chat with the other drivers, eat, sleep... anything.

What the hell is going on? Everybody is out but hardly anybody is taking a cab. Is the economy so bad no one can afford taxis anymore? Has everybody spontaneously decided to lose weight and get in shape by walking everywhere? Or is it a case of spring fever in which everyone has embraced the promise of summer by hoofing it around town?

Whatever the case, it's misery for cabbies. I've read through the paper twice, something I've never done, ever, not even when I worked at a newspaper. Perhaps sensing my frustration, the dispatcher takes pity on me. "Two-Zero-Five, Cab Two-Zero-Five." In a teasing voice he growls, "Would you like a little job, just a short local, or perhaps you would rather stay put and watch the pretty girls?" I ponder the question, not because I'm debating whether or not I want the job, but whether or not I want to give him the satisfaction of goading me with his show of munificence.

As I roll up to the address, there's a stocky, middle-aged woman standing on the sidewalk holding a couple of overstuffed shopping bags. She opens the door, pushes her stuff over, then heaves herself into the car.

"And how are we doing this evening?" says the woman in a voice that could fill an auditorium. It's a curious change in protocol, as I usually do the greeting.

Fine, I say.

"Busy, tonight?"

Not really. In fact, it's been pretty slow.

"Well, maybe I'll change your luck for you," she says in cool, reassuring voice.

I'd appreciate that.

"Say, you don't sound like you're from Boston."

I grew up in Colorado.

"A cowboy, huh? Actually, you sound more like a TV newsman."

I've been told that before.

"You go back home much?"

No, not for years.

"That's too bad. You still have family there."

Just a sister. Both my parents are gone.

"I'm so sorry. You don't visit your sister?"

No. We don't really get along.

"Why not?"

This woman has now ventured into territory I don't usually go with anybody, much less a stranger, but there's something about her manner, that and the atmosphere of a cab, that sense anonymity and isolation that makes a cab is a kind of sanctum, a place where truths are told and secrets revealed. And it cuts both ways. While I usually do the asking, I now find myself doing the talking. For the next few blocks, I tell the woman a bit about growing up, my family, about how my sister became estranged from my parents and how that, in turn, estranged me from her.

As she gathered her things, she told me, "You need to get in touch with your sister. You need to repair that relationship, even if it means betraying your parents. They're gone. You can't hurt their feelings, and she needs to have that validation. God bless you."

As I drove away, my head was swimming. Would I do as she told me? I didn't know. Still don't. But it certainly got me thinking. And, wouldn't you know it, my luck did change.

I booked more than $300 in fares. Not bad on any night.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Go Ahead, Make My Day

People ask if driving a cab is scary, if I ever feel threatened.

Naw, I say, I just stay alert and do my best to avoid trouble. But, they ask, what about the glass partitions? Isn't there a reason the city requires those?

From what I understand, the city made the partitions mandatory about 20 years ago following a wave of robberies and shootings of cab drivers. But me? I think they were really installed to protect passengers from cab drivers.

Take the other day. I pull up to a cab stand, getting in line behind two other cabs in front of me. I proceed to read my newspaper when I look up and notice the driver of the lead cab animatedly talking to the driver behind the wheel of the car directly in front of me. The guy is completely engrossed in what he is saying, waving his arms excitedly, when he points directly at my car, no, directly at me. This gets my attention, as I don't have any idea who this driver is. They continue talking for a bit when a woman walks up and gets into the lead cab. The driver breaks away from his conversation and runs back to his cab.

After he pulls away from the stand with his fare, the driver of the car in front of me gets out of his cab and walks back to my cab. I roll down my window.

"You da guy?"

What guy? I ask.

"Da guy who stabbed Georgie?"

What!?

"You were driving dis cab last night?"

Yeah, so?

"Da guy said da guy driving dis cab stabbed Georgie, dat Georgie cut in front of you on a stand and dat you got into an ahgument and stabbed him wid your key. Sent him to da hospital."

No kidding?

"But tell me, how'd ya get out of jail so soon?"

Now, I don't know this guy, never heard of Georgie (although some of the other cabbies later told me that Georgie is well-known nutcase with hair-trigger temper), and though I was driving this cab the night before, anyone who knows me knows I would never get into big argument over who's ahead of whom on a cab stand, much less do anything violent, no matter how wronged I was. This clearly was a case of mistaken identity.

Yeah, that was me, I said.

"Holy shit."

Don't ever cut in front of me on a cab stand. Now, scram, before I get irritated.

Being a badass never felt so good.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Last Fare of the Night

"Hey, over here, this guy speaks English."

The guy was shouting to his girlfriend, who was negotiating with another cab driver sitting on the stand in front of me. They were two kids, mid-twenties, maybe, and were both a little wobbly from a night out drinking.

"Hey, mister, can you help us, we need a hotel room?"

Whadyamean?

"Every hotel around here is sold out."

Yeah, well, it's Marathon weekend, and with the Bruins and the Celtics in the playoffs and the Red Sox, I'm not surprised. What do you expect me to do?

"Don't you know a place?"

I know a lot of places, but I can't tell you if they have a room. By the way, it's three in the morning, you picked a hell of time to begin looking.

"Yeah. But the subways and buses are shut down. Can't you just drive us around to hotels until we find a place?"

My cabbie ears prick up. This, I tell myself, could be extremely lucrative. But right now I'm at the end of my shift. I'm tired, and I just want to go home. Besides, these kids are so goofy and pathetic, I kinda feel sorry for them.

Look, I tell the bleary-eyed couple, I could drive you around but that will cost you a small fortune. I pull out my Boston-area street guide, which includes a listing of area hotels and their phone numbers. I hand over the book and tell them to start calling. After a few minutes they find a place in Somerville. I start the meter and start driving.

"Thanks, mister. You're the best."

Along the way, they insist on talking, so I ask them if they just dropped into town tonight.

"We used to go out together, but haven't seen each other in a long time," the boyfriend says. "Yeah," the girl chimes in. "I got into town and called him up. We met at bar and had a bunch of drinks."

You mean, I ask the boyfriend, you live in Boston?

"Jamaica Plain," he answers.

So, why aren't we driving to Jamaica Plain? Why are you going to spend $200 to stay the night in a hotel?

"It's a little complicated," the boyfriend says... "He's married," the girlfriend answers. "Oops! I shouldn't have said that," she says with a giggle.

Look, I don't care one way or another, I say. I just asked.

"It was a big mistake," the boyfriend says. "Getting married, that is."

And what, I ask myself, will he be thinking tomorrow morning? And what will he be telling his wife about his whereabouts the night before?

"We are soooo lucky," the girlfriend says. "We not only got a cab driver who speaks English, but a really cool cab driver." The boyfriend leans over, sticking his hand across for me to shake. "Hey, what's your name. I'm Trevor. I just want to shake the hand of Boston's coolest cab driver."

This makes me wince. I hate it when fares try to get chummy with me. I ignore the extended hand and give him a name, any name.

By the time we reach the hotel, the two are cooing and giggling in the back. At the hotel, they again thank me profusely, hand me the fare and a decent tip, and walk through the sliding glass doors--a disaster in the making.

I cash out for the night. At home, I lean over and give my wife a kiss on the forehead. She moans softly and rolls over. I go downstairs, crack open a beer, and watch the early morning news.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cabbie Economics

"Tom, did you turn in all your receipts, yesterday? Did you forget any vouchers?"

It was my boss. Actually, it wasn't yesterday. It was today. I had gotten off work just five hours before, around 4 a.m. It was now a little after 9 a.m. and I had barely 3 hours of sleep under my belt. What the fuck?

"Your waybill. It was short."

"No, I turned in everything," I answered. "And what do you mean, it's short?"

"Four dollars. Your total was off. You owe us four dollars."

"I didn't add it up," I said. "The dispatcher added it up, just like he always does. Take it up with him."

"You owe us four dollars."

Jeeezuz H. Christ. He wakes me up over four bucks? Look, I say, double-check with the dispatcher. If it turns out I owe you four dollars, I'll square it at the start of my next shift, okay?"

"Right," and he hangs up.

There might be cheaper species on earth, but taxi drivers, and particularly taxi owners, have got to be the cheapest. I've seen drivers fight over the right to take some old lady four blocks to the grocerey store for a loaf of bread and a fifty-cent tip, or nearly come to blows over whose turn it is to pay six bucks to get the car they share washed.

Owners, however, take it to entirely new level. At my garage, the owner this past winter refused to heat the garage. The mechanic ended up wearing two sets of long underwear under his overalls in order to try and stay warm. His hands were so cold he had a difficult time holding tools he needed for repairs, and his feet were numb by midway through the shift. Two assistant mechanics quit rather than deal with the indignity.

The garage staff--office, dispatchers and mechanics--all share a single restroom, a dank, dark cubby that is a converted closet. Like the garage, there's no heat, the floor's constantly wet, and there's no door, but privacy isn't much of an issue because there's no light, either.

Unless it's a safety issue, defects in cars go unrepaired for weeks. This includes seat belts, horns, interior lights, radios--the kinds of things that are really necessities when driving a cab. Drivers who hit potholes and are unlucky enough to blow a tire can expect to be charged for the replacement tire. Same goes for minor damage not covered by the owner's insurance.

Ironically, driver's--including myself--put up with it all. The alternative would be going out to find a "real" job.

Time to get some sleep.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lucky Numbers

Every shift begins the same. I'm handed the waybill. The waybill is a record of the work for each night. Regulations require every cabbie to keep a waybill for every fare they carry. In this case, it's an envelope. Inside are the car keys. Outside is printed a grid on which each fare is documented: where and when, the number of passengers, the total fare. On the opposite side are lines summarizing the work: the cab number, the odometer reading at the beginning of the shift and the end of the shift, the meter reading at the beginning of the shift and the end of the shift, and the total tally. When I finish my shift, the dispatcher adds up the numbers, tells me what I owe the company (I keep 45 percent plus tips). The money is stuffed back into the envelope for the owner to count later and a new waybill is written up for the next driver.

I turn the waybill over to check the cab number. Cab 77. Dammit.


"Cab 77?," asks Steve, who is cashing out at the end of his shift. "That's a good cab; a good number."


Who is he kidding? Cab 77 is a piece of shit. All these cars are pieces of shit, second-hand police cruisers driven into the ground and sold at auction. The mechanics do their best to put them into shape--after all, they have to pass inspection--but the cars are dogs to begin with and Boston streets and traffic only beat them up more. Rare is a cab that doesn't have something wrong with it: doors or windows that don't quite shut, a broken defroster or a heater that won't turn off, wipers that merely smear the windshield. In most cases, the defects are minor annoyances. In some cases--such as bad brakes or stearing alignment--it's a real problem.

In Cab 77's case, the horn doesn't work, and in Boston, I'd rather drive on four flat tires than not have my car's horn. Not an hour goes by that some idiot on a cell phone doesn't start drifting into my lane, or hesitates pulling into the intersection when the light turns green. When someone does something moronic like that, there's nothing like laying on a long, angry burst of the horn to get even. Without it, I feel powerless and vulnerable. It's a stress reliever, and after 12 hours of driving Cab 77, I'm so cranked up and irritable that it takes a six-pack to calm me down.

So Steve's comment about 77 being a good cab just ticks me off. But Steve, like a lot of cabbies, is superstitious. He believes that providence, not dumb luck or perseverence, is the secret to success. He's played the same lottery number for years after winning $500 with it once; he begins every shift by playing the same cab stand, swearing that it's his "lucky stand," no matter the time of day or how many cabs are backed up on the stand; and he never, absolutely never, will stop for a street hail for someone wearing a green overcoat. Why? Perhaps it's because Steve is Haitian. Maybe it's cultural, and has something to do with all that voodoo stuff. Who knows? Maybe it's just Steve.

I tend to take a more practical view of the job. Just sit down in the seat and drive.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Room with a View

One of the benefits of driving a cab is meeting people. At least, you better think so because you are going to meet a lot of them. Most cabbies probably don't remember the first fare they ever drove. Heck, most cabbies don't remember the first fare they carried at the beginning of a shift (For the record, my first fare ever were three guys who flagged me off a street corner at 5 o'clock in the morning. They were so drunk they couldn't remember their own addresses; I drove them a couple of blocks and let them out.). As personal interactions go, these exchanges are generally brief, to the point and detached. Occasionally a fare will chat me up, something I don't mind doing, but most people prefer to sit quietly in the back, reading the paper, watching the scenery go by, talking on their cell phone or texting to a friend.

For some reason, however, when couples or groups get into a cab they become very unselfconscious. Business meetings, drug deals, marriage proposals all take place in taxi cabs. Things that people would never othewise do in public they'll do in the back of a cab, assuming a level of privacy that is extraordinary considering they're still on public streets and that a total stranger is sitting less than two feet away. There's something about the sense of anonymity of riding in cab that gives people a sense of freedom. I've had couples break up, fall in love, and even make love in the back of my cab.

Once, I had all three happen during the same cab ride. I was a new driver, and still getting to know the city. I had picked up this couple outside a club right around last call. They tumbled into the back set laughing and giggling and gave me an address downtown near the Financial District--a twisting knot of one-way streets that still confuses me. I turned on the meter, put the car into gear and headed toward town. I hadn't driven a half-block when the mood in the back suddenly changed.

"I couldn't believe you tonight," said the girl in a lilting British accent of someone perhaps from India or Pakistan.

"Whatd'ya mean?" slurred the boyfriend.

"You acted as if I wasn't there... bragging to your friends, laughing grotesquely at your stupid jokes, going on about yourself. Really, I couldn't believe it."

"You seemed to have fun."

"You became a totally different person; someone I don't even recognize."

"Ah, c'mon."

"Really. I fell in love with a man who was gentle and sweet, a man who was sensitive and affectionate. Tonight, you were none of those things. That's not the man I love. That's not a man I can love."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying I don't love you. No, I don't even like you."

"You know, you gotta quit drinking when you take drugs," says the boyfriend with a heavy sigh, "because that's the drugs talking."

"No, I mean it. It's so sad. I just think what a horrible waste of time. I just want to go back to India."

"Okay, whatever."

This, I thought to myself, was going to be a long ride for these two. We still had about 10 or 15 minutes to go. There was nothing but silence from the back seat.

Then, from the back, I heard bodies shifting in the seat, the sounds of murmuring and kissing, of clothes being pulled at and unbuttoned. I glanced up at my rearview mirror, but saw nothing. They were clearly taking advantage of the rear seat couch.

"Say it," she whispered.

"Huh?"

"Say it," she repeated, followed by the sounds of more kissing and some slurping noises.

"Never," she said. "Never ever leave me."

The goings-on in the back were becoming a serious distraction. I really needed to fixate on the road. But soon, I was faced with another problem: I didn't know where I was going. I was hoping these two would finish up so I could ask for directions, but after another couple blocks I couldn't wait.

"Excuse me," I interrupted at the next stoplight. "Can you help me out with some directions?"

The two stopped what they were doing, pulled themselves together, and checked where they were.

"Go to the next light; make a left and then drop us off," said the boyfreind. "We'll walk the rest of the way."

In the time it took to drive less than 4 miles, these two had broken up, found each other, made love and devoted the rest of their lives to each other--at least until the next cab ride. At the curb, I stopped the meter. The fair was $16.75. The boyfriend handed me a twenty and told me to keep the change. Not a bad tip, either.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cash 'n' Carry

I just finished putting together my taxes for the year--never a pleasant task any year--but a rather eye-opening one this, my first year driving a taxi. Being paid in cash, and walking away from each shift with a thick, gambler's roll of dough in my pocket, I deluded myself into thinking that I was actually making good money. What a knucklehead!


Sure, many days I almost felt like a millionaire at the end of a shift with cash stuff in my socks (one of my rather lame systems of organization and anti-theft--what robber would possibly take the time to check my socks for money?) and my pockets. But, first off, all of the bills were all small, nothing bigger than a twenty. Second, by the time I gave the owner his cut (55 percent) and deducted the gas I paid to fill the car's tank (another $40 or $50 bucks), not to mention health insurance, time and money spent getting to and from work, and little things like snacks and bottled water over the course of the shift, the total amount dwindled by about two-thirds. Lastly, after factoring in the total time spent driving (12-hour shifts), I figured that, on an hourly basis, I earned less than most kids at Taco Bell.


Welcome to the real world, bucko.


But my naivete really showed itself when I walked into the owner's office a couple of weeks ago and asked if he did any kind of income reporting to the IRS for his drivers. His normally somnolent disposition, like a bull frog sunning himself on a rock, turned instantly to one of almost wide-eyed rage, like I had suddenly told him I was an undercover agent for the feds. "NO!," he shouted. "You report whatever you want. But..." he said, wagging his finger at me for emphasis, "don't go talking about this with the other drivers"--the implication being that not only did he not want to know if his drivers filed proper returns, but that he suspected many of them didn't.


"It's only a matter of time before they crack down on the cab industry," one veteran cabbie told me. "I mean, how many businesses are left that deal mostly in cash?"


He has a point. Having been through the unpleasant experience of an IRS audit once in my life, I'll play it safe and file.

Cash, and the lure of easy cash, make cabbies excellent targets for robbers and thieves. We are, in a world dominated by credit and debit cards, relatively rare. Though I haven't been robbed, just stiffed a couple of times, one driver I know has been. He was the unluckey recipient of a radio call one night to some address, only when he got there, he was jumped by three young hoodlums. They took his bankroll, his wallet, his cellphone and backpack, the keys to the car and ripped the hand mike out of the radio. Then, just for good measure, they slugged him, leaving him stranded on the streets. He was one of three cabbies from different companies robbed by the same gang in one night. When I asked the owner about it, he pretended not to know anything, which was total bs, because not only were all the drivers talking about it, but the police came by to search the company's dispatch records in order to find out from what number the call came in. We never learned if they caught the bastards, but to everyone's surprise, the driver showed up the next night for work as if nothing ever happened. Surprising because not from his standpoint, but that his wife even let him. Hell, I couldn't even tell mine about the incident or she'd never allow me to drive again.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Twenty Questions

Before being let out on my own. The owner wanted me trained, so he had me ride around for two nights with Pat, a veteran driver of 30 years. Pat, the onwer said, "is one of the best," "a guy who's seen it all."

Pat's a white guy, pushing sixty, with bottle-thick glasses and carrying a beer gut that looks like he's swallowed a beach ball. Over it stretches a gray, coffee-stained sweatshirt that perfectly matches his gray, coffee-stained sweatpants. Topping it off is a ubiquitous Boston Celtics cap that I assume will be replaced by a Patriots cap come fall. For a moment, I wondered if this was what I'd look like in 20 years.

Most of the time, Pat sits on a cab stand, either outside one of the hotels or at the airport. He doesn't like crusing so much, catching street hails, explaining that it's a waste of gasoline, and most of those jobs end up being short jobs. He hates short jobs. He tries to boost his chances of getting more airport runs, which typically run between $25 and $40, depending on where the fare is going to or from. His strategy means he also spends a lot of his shift killing time on a cab stand.

All this time just waiting around gives us time to talk. Pat it turns out grew up in the projects in Charlestown, after which he went into the military, which he hated. He then got a job at a bank, which he hated more, so he quit, and began working in his brother's construction business, which he liked okay, but then he got hurt and had to quit. He then started driving a cab, something he's done ever since. I asked him if he ever thought at the time that he'd be doing it 30 years later. Pat gives me a kind of perplexed look, and tells me no, he never thought about it one way or another. What does he like about it? The freedom: no one's lookin' over your shoulder. You set your own hours, go at your own pace. Also, adds Pat, he likes people.

I then ask him the usual "Twenty Questions" about driving a cab: Ever driven a big-time celebrity? Just Bob Villa, television shill and former host of This Old House. Ever been held up? "Nah, I can usually smell trouble before it happens--in which case I won't give the guy a ride." Anybody ever have sex in the back of your cab? "Jeezuz Christ, no way. I wouldn't let that happen." Anyone ever thrown up in the cab? "God no, and I don't intend to ever let that happen, either."

A week later, I was driving my own cab. I got a call to pick someone up for an early morning airport run. I pulled up to the address and two women were sitting on the front steps, waiting for me. While I put the suitcases in the trunk, the two hugged and the old woman then got into the cab.

On the way to Logan, the woman began knawing on an apple and chattering on about her trip to visit her son and grandson, about how cute the kid was and how difficult it was to keep the tot interested so she'd invent games to play with him, but then he came down with a flu and she felt so sad for him but was also afraid she might get it herself; about how she regretted how far away they lived and how she hated to meddle in his son's affairs but worked really hard not to...

I was nodding, wishing she'd just shut up. I had just pulled into the tunnel that goes under the harbor to the airport when, all of sudden, she coughed and then fell silent. I turned around to see if something was the matter. She was bug-eyed with her cheeks ballooned out. As soon as I saw that, I had one of those moments when you realize something awful is about to happen. The next moment she spewed all over the back of the seat. But we were in the tunnel; there was no place to pull over. I immediately rolled down her window and she graciously stuck her head out and wretched over the side of the car until we reached the other end, where I could then pull over. I handed her a wad of napkins wedged into the pocket of the door. She got out and did her best to clean up, flinging off bits of apple mixed with cereal. Pale and shaking, she apologized, saying she hadn't thrown up in years. I assured her it wasn't a problem; happens all the time.

I dropped her off at the terminal, gave her the suitcases and suggested she might want to change clothes before the flight. The next two hours I spent at a self-serve car wash cleaning up the cab. It looked okay, but I wasn't quite sure, figuring my nose had been innured to the smell. There was only one way to find out.

My next fare was a long ride to Beverly with a businessman on his way to an important meeting. He buckled himself in, and told me where we were going. A young, friendly Irish guy, we talked about sports and his various travels en route. The fact that he didn't say anything told me I had cleaned sufficiently.

We were about halfway there when I turned around and noticed that stuck on his shoulder belt was a fleck of regurgitated apple. Horrified, I kept him talking, hoping he wouldn't notice, trying to think of some lame excuse if he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and asked, "Excuse me, what's this?" Luckily, he didn't. At his destination, he got out and gave me generous tip, after which I flicked the belt clean and gave the cab another going over. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, although when I handed the keys to the night-shift driver, I again worried he would ask, "Say, what's that funny smell?" I didn't tell him what happened. I figured I'd hear about it if he noticed.

So far, not a word.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Breaking In



I'm still driving... almost 12 hours on the road and, oddly, I'm kind of enjoying it. I know I'll be wiped by the end of the shift, but when the meter is clicking away it's kind of addictive, like getting a streak in poker. You have a hard time pulling away from the table. It's my first week, and the hardest thing is not finding my way around. No, the hardest thing for me is understanding what the dispatchers are yelling at me.

These guys, who work in a dingy partition over a dark, grimy garage, are angry from the moment they sit down. This means that if you don't catch an address on the first pass they start yelling at you like you're an idiot. But between the radios in the cars--old, scratchy things that would make Sir Ben Kingsley sound like he's got a mouthful of mud--and the dispatchers' thick Arab or Boston accents, I can't tell what language they're speaking much less what address their giving me. And as they raise their voices, they just get increasingly unintelligible. Take the following exchange yesterday:

"Cab #77. "

"Cab 77, go ahead."

"Cab 77, go to 55 Behemoth Street."

Behemoth Street? I've never heard of Behemoth Street. So I ask, "Cab 77, say again."

"Cab 77, that's Five-Five Bee Myth Street" he yells.

"Bee Myth Street?" I answer back.

"NO!" he screams. "FIVE-FIVE BEE MYTH! ...B AS IN BALL."

Now I'm really flustered. I have no idea what he's saying. I apologize and ask for him to spell out the street name.

At the top of his lungs, the radio cracking in distortion. "SEVENTY-SEVEN, WUZ DA MATTA WISS YOU! I SAID BEE-MYTH. LIKE DA BILL GRIMS AND DA ROCK. B-L-Y-M-O-U-T-H... BEE MYTH."

Now I get it. "Oh, you mean Plymouth Street?"

"YES," he answers in total exasperation. "BEE MYTH. Geezuz, 77, clean out your ears or you will never make it in this business."

So far, I haven't been robbed, though I have been stiffed twice. One poor woman simply confessed shedidn't have the $6.50 fare. She knew I would have to cover it myself and felt bad about it. I knew she would have paid if she had the money on her, so I let it go. As it was, I was the one who felt bad for her.The other time the guy told me to wait outside while he ran upstairs to get some money. I never saw him again. Stupid me. I should have asked him to leave something behind.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Test driving

We're rude. We're slovenly. We barely speak English, or if we do, we never shut up. We have no idea where we're going. That, or we intentionally take a roundabout route in order to jack up the fare and rip you off. We drive like maniacs, endangering both pedestrians and other motorists. The cars we drive are dirty and cramped. We are ubiquitous except, of course, when you really need us, when, like cockroaches after you turn on the kitchen light, we disappear all at once. Like sewer rats or street bums, we are a part of the city--a necessary evil, and one of the things people most like to complain about. We are Boston's cabbies.

There are 1825 licensed cabs in Boston, and some 7,000 drivers to drive them. As professions go, we rank somewhere between garbageman and a fast-food server, yet every day thousands of people entrust their lives to us. For the most part, we get them to where they are going unscathed. In return, we get a brief glimpse into their lives. That plus $2.80 per mile and, perhaps, a tip. These little anonymous exchanges are the grist for this space.

I'm a newbie at driving a cab. As with most my hack colleagues, driving a cab is not my life's ambition. If asked, I tell people that driving is my job; writing is my career. Unfortunately, writing doesn't pay the bills. That's where driving comes in.

So, how does one become a cabbie?

Other than a lack of marketable skills and a valid driver's license, not much.

In Boston, getting behind the wheel requires one to:

1: Go to the Boston Police Headquarters. There you will submit to a criminal record check, a driving record check and a drug test. You'll then be given brief interview before being sent to...

2: Taxi school, a 3 day course at Roxbury Community College. Here you'll learn the finer points of driving for-hire in Boston, as well as get some handy tips to make your new career more profitable. Such as: "Shower every day" and "do not mumble." After passing the test, you...

3: Get a job. This entails asking around among the local taxi fleets, which generally lease a car at a rate of $700 per week. The car is shared among two drivers, who work 12-hour shifts, either 4 am to 4 pm, or 4 pm to 4 am. I work for one of the few outfits that allow to work part-time, driving two or three shifts a week, and splitting the fares with the owner on a 55 percent to 45 percent basis (I get 45 percent of the fares plus tips).

Most of the real learning, of course, happens on the job. This includes getting to know your way around town, learning what cab stands or streets to play and when, maximizing your time, dealing with passengers as well as other drivers, and protecting oneself (although in some cases the plexiglass barrier in cabs seems more designed to protect passengers from the driver rather than the other way around).

Driving isn't for everybody. It takes a certain temperment. But I for one, find it relaxing. For one thing, it gets me out of the house. Writing is very solitary and mentally strenuous. Driving allows me to socialize a bit and is relatively mindless. How long will I do it? Who knows, but as long as I do, I hope to keep up this space.