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.