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.