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.