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.


"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.