Saturday, May 30, 2009

Graduation Day

Two-thirty in the morning. That time during a shift when all there is for work is picking up the dregs of the night: the drunken stragglers, the hookers, the drug addicts or the lost souls looking for a place to go and a warm place to sleep. For me, it's time to think about gassing the car up, bringing it in and going home. But then there he is: his arm at his side, his finger lazily pointing into the street as if uncertain he even wanted a cab, his head nearly resting on his shoulder, apparently too heavy from drink or a desire to sleep. At any other time of day I would have driven right by without a second notice.

"Thanks, man," the kid says as he slides in.

Not a problem, I say. "Where to?"

He gives me an address in Brighton. I put the car into gear and we're off. With his sport jacket, wire-rimmed glasses and trimmed beard and moustache he looks like Leon Trotsky.

"Good night?" he asks.

Not really, I say. A bit slow. That or perhaps I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time all night.

"Yeah, I've felt that way a alot lately," he says with a laugh.

You a student? I ask.

"Yup," he says. "This is my next to last night."

Graduating?

"Yeah. I guess I'm celebrating. I've spent the last five years in Boston. I got a degree in philosophy. Now I'm going home to the West Coast to live with my Mom. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how I feel about it all."

That's understandable, I say. Uncertainty is part of the college experience. Besides, Boston can spoil you. It's a great place to be a student. The town where I went to college was a pit. The first thing they told freshman coming in was to NEVER LEAVE THE CAMPUS.

"Really?" he laughs. "Where was this?"

New Haven.

"New Haven?" he asks. "What school?"

Yale.

"Ya...?" his voice falls away, sounding as if he has suddenly seen a ghost. Either horrified or dumbfounded, I sense him staring at me seeking to explain this apparent disconnect. That or he is wondering if perhaps the ghost he is seeing is that of his own future.

"But wha... what did you study?"

American Studies, history mostly.

A long silence followed. Rather than try to explain to him how an Ivy League grad could be so woefully underemployed, I let it rest. Maybe he felt sorry for me, thinking, "Gee, times really must be tough." Or maybe this newly minted philosophy major started making plans for applying to business school as soon as he got home to Mom's. Or, who knows, maybe he thought to himself: "Hey, this guy seems reasonably happy. Maybe it isn't such a bad job, after all?"

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Behind Closed Doors

You want to know what people say about you after you've separated for the night? Ask a cabbie.

I pick up young a couple outside a popular Back Bay bistro. They hop into the car and direct me to the North End. I punch the meter, and put the car into gear.

"Whew! I'm so glad you did most of the talking," the guy says. "I don't think I could have done it."

"Why not?" she answers. "He's one of your best friends."

"Since he moved in with her, he's become one of those guys we used to make fun of after they've moved in with their girlfriend. 'Yes dear'... 'No dear'... 'Can I get you anything else, dear?' He's practically turned into her butler. I mean she's very pretty, but what a pain in the ass."

"I think he must have sensed that from you because he opened up when you went to the bathroom."

"What'd ya mean?"

"I mean, he let his guard down and talked to me."

"And?"

"And he said he's very much in love with her..."

"Yeah, so?"

"But they've never slept together."

"Really? You gotta be kidding me! And they've been going out for a year, living together for nine months, sleeping in the same bed?"

"She told him that she respects him too much... that she's just not ready; that she's waiting for, what, I don't know, that perfect moment, I guess."

"Oh gawd... now I know it."

"Know what?"

"That she's sleeping around. There has always been something about her that bugged me. Something... I don't know... I guess you could say I had a hunch about her. But now I know it. She's just using him as a meal ticket until something better turns up."

"Wow. Can you imagine? It's like having all the worst parts of a relationship but none of the good parts."

"And he's like some poor schlump trying to push a boulder uphill while eagles are trying to peck out his eyes... aarhg! aarhg! aarhg!"

They both laugh. I'm grinning broadly, trying my best to keep from laughing out loud myself.

After the next block, they ask me to pull over. Right here's close enough, they say.

"You know what?" she says. "Maybe you should talk to him. Try to get him to see the light."

"No way," he answers as he reaches across to hand me a crisp $20 bill, telling me to keep two bucks for the tip.

"Why not?" she asks.

"Because he's gonna get his heart broken by this bimbo, that's for sure. And when it happens, it will be so awesome!"

They both laugh again. As they climb out of the car the woman leans in before shutting the door, "Gee, sorry you had to hear all that."

Not a problem, I say. Actually, you made my night.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

You Are What You Drive

Cabbies like to think of themselves as good judges of character, able to size people up and put them ease, making them at home in the brief amount of time they spend in the car. It's self-interest, of course: We're just angling for a better tip. We also learn to judge people simply by the cars they drive: expecting the doofus in the minivan in the adjacent lane to suddenly swerve in front of us without using their turn signal; waiting before proceeding into an intersection so the guy in the Dodge Dakota pickup coming the other way can run the red light; learning that it's better to cut off the Mercedes versus the rusted out Bonneville, the logic being that the guy with more to lose should always give way.

The following list, started about 15 years ago and revised and updated over the years, is a thumbnail sketch of the personality types associated with various car models. I've tweaked it, but can't take credit for all the descriptions.

Feel free to add your own.


Acura Integra –I am impotent
Buick LaCrosse – I am older than 4 of the 50 states
Cadillac DeVille – I am a very good Mary Kay salesman
Cadillac Escalade – I am a pimp
Chevrolet Aveo – I delivered pizza for four years to get this car
Chevrolet Camaro – I enjoy beating the hell out of people
Chevrolet Corvette – I'm in a mid-life crisis
Chevrolet HHR – I wouldn't be caught dead in a PT Cruiser
Chevrolet Monte Carlo – I enjoy putting out engine fires
Chrysler Sebring Convertible – I have always wanted to own the Buick of sports cars
Chrysler Town & Country Minivan – Let me tell you about my kids
Dodge Caravan – (see above)
Dodge Magnum – I have a switchblade in my sock
Dodge Viper – I have an armor-plated prenuptial agreement
Ferrari Fiorano – I am known to prematurely ejaculate
Ford Crown Victoria – I enjoy having people slow to 55 mph and change lanes when I pull up behind them
Ford Escort – I teach third grade and voted for Eisenhower
Ford Focus – I have just graduated and have no credit
Ford Mustang – I have a kilo of cocaine in my wheel well
Ford Shelby – I slow down to 85 in school zones
Ford Taurus – I work at WalMart
Honda Accord – I lack any originality and am basically a lemming.
Hummer SUV – I have a three-inch weenie
Hummer H2 – I am leading a militia to overthrow the government
Infiniti Q45 – I'm too bland for German cars
Jaguar XJ6 – I am so rich I will pay 60K for a car that is in the shop 280 days per year.
Jeep Wrangler – I enjoy skinny dipping
Lamborghini Gallardo – I only have one testicle
Lexus GS – I am a physician with 17 malpractice suits pending.
Lincoln Town Car – I live for bingo and covered dish suppers
Mercury Grand Marquis – (See above)
Mercedes S Class – I will beat you up if you ask me for an auto-graph
Mercedes M Class – I have a daughter named Bitsy and a son named Cole
Mazda Miata – I do not fear being decapitated by an eighteen- wheeler
MGB – I am dating a mechanic
Mini – This car is my life
Oldsmobile Cutlass – I just stole this car and I'm going to make a fortune off the parts
Pontiac PT Cruiser – I have a thing for coffins, too.
Peugeot 505 Diesel – I am on the EPA's Ten Most Wanted List
Plymouth Neon – I sincerely enjoy doing the Macarena
Porsche Boxter – I have yet to complete my divorce proceedings.
Porsche Carrera – I am dating big haired women who otherwise would be inaccessible to me
Rolls Royce Phantom – I think Dick Cheney is a tad bit too liberal
Saturn Astra – Someday my car will be a collector's item
Smart Car – I always wanted to be a circus clown
Subaru Outback – I am still in the closet
Suzuki SX4 – I will start the 11th grade in the fall.
Suzuki SX4 – Crossover I will start the 12th grade in the fall.
Toyota Camry – See Honda Accord
Toyota Prius – I am a friend to animals and talk with my mouth full
Toyota Yaris – I don't know what it means either
Volkswagen New Beetle – I'm out of the closet
Volkswagen Jetta – I do not give a damn about J.D. Power or his reports.
Volkswagen Microbus – I am tripping right now
Volkswagen Touareg – Don't ask me to pronounce it
Volvo V700 Wagon – I am frightened of my wife