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.


  1. Wow. You reminded me of my own long-past days as a driver for the TO (ITOA - we just called it "The T.O" - don't know if that's still the case.)

    I dreaded getting a fare such as you described, taking us for a lost journey, and then hoping the fare would understand. Sent a true shiver up my spine reading it and recalling my own.

    I'll have to write up my own stories someday soon.

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