Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Celebrity Moment

"Hey, chief."

He wore a pork pie hat, a vest and a goatee. He was pulling a large suitcase, so I instantly sized him up as someone likely headed to the airport, a plum fare. But my sense of fairness and cabbie protocol kicked in.

You should go to the head of the stand, I told him. Those guys, I explained, have been waiting the longest.

"Nope. You're my man," he insisted, lugging the suitcase into the trunk. "I'm a man of the streets and I've learned how to judge people. I can tell you're just the guy to help me out."
I did my duty. Besides, who was I to argue? A fare can pick out any cab they want. He climbed in.

Sure, where ya headed?

"South Station. You know, to those Chinese buses. But first, I got to make a little stop. But hey, I'm good for it." He pulls out a wad of cash, flashing me a couple hundred dollar bills.

That's okay, I said. I didn't peg you for a cheat.

"Good," he said. "You know, I'm famous, world-famous, really. A poet."

Really, I answered, I didn't know there was such a thing, a world-famous poet.

"Yeah, I'm the next Charles Bukowski. That's what they call me. The next Bukowski, or a Kerouac."

Rain started to pelt the windshield. Big, fat drops that quickly came down faster than the wipers could clear them away. Maybe this was my "celebrity moment," that moment every cabbie dreams of in which they get to have their own private, really cool conversation with someone famous.

Where are we going? I asked.

"Downtown. I gotta score some crack," Mr. World-Famous poet said.

Jeezuz. Why me?

Look, I'm not going to let you score crack while sitting in the back of my cab, I said like I'm talking to a five-year-old.

"Hey, man, it's cool. I just need you to wait while I score. Besides, I'll give you a really good tip. I tell you, I'm good for it."

I spent about a millisecond debating this (crack, good tips, what's the difference?). Okay, I said, I'll wait, but I don't want to know about it, and you leave the suitcases behind.

"Good enough," he answered.

Again, where we going? I asked.

"You know, The Combat Zone."

Oh boy.

They tore the Combat Zone about twenty years ago, I explained to him. It's all hotels and fancy restaurants now. Again, where do you want to go?

"You know... downtown... where all the black people and hookers are," as if the two were synonymous. This guy was seriously beginning to annoy me.

"Hey!" he shouted in a sudden burst of paranoia. "Are you a cop?"

This guy was turning into real trouble. No, I'm not a cop, I told him. But I'm not just going to hang out waiting to see if you get yourself killed outside some housing project. I'll take you downtown, to Park Street, you can try your luck there.

"Cool. Cool. Hey, you mind if I light up a joint?"

On second thought, maybe I will just drop him off outside some housing project.

Generally, I told him, I don't care what you do. But given that smoking is illegal in cabs, and given that I'm ashmatic, I'm going to say no.

"Okay."

The rain started coming down harder than ever. I could barely see more than 30 feet in front of me. I wondered, exactly how dumb do you have to be in order to be a world-famous poet. So, I asked, Since you brought it up, who are you?

"No way, man," he said. "You never know when information will leak out and get printed all over the Internet. Let's just say that when I first became known they called me the 'Rust Poet.' "

Really, I asked, why the 'Rust Poet'?

"I dunno. They just did."

I had just turned a corner off Charles Street to Beacon Street when the entire car filled with flashing blue lights.

"FUCK MAN!" he screamed. "I knew it! You are a cop!"

I'm NOT a cop, I yelled. Just relax. We'll see what he wants.

As Mr. World-Famous Poet nervously shuffled things around, I rolled down the window. Rain began spitting inside the car.

"You in a hurry?" the cop said dryly.

No officer, what's the problem?

"You gotta yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk before turning, ya know."

But officer, there was no one in the crosswalk.

"License, please."

The cop walked away. Mr. World-Famous Poet, now slunken so far into the seat he's practically disappeared, raised his head. "Shit, man."

I clear the meter and pop the trunk. Look, this could take a while. Why don't you hop out here. You'll have no trouble finding another cab.

"Good idea," he handed over thirty bucks, a $10 tip. I watched as he crossed the street, scanning hungrily for another target. I was glad to see him go.

The cop returned after about five minutes, handing over a white piece of paper. "It's just a warning this time, but watch it. The streets are crawling with people this time of day."

Thank you, officer.

For once, I meant it.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Our Cheatin' Heart

I arrive at the garage and the owner is outside. It's odd, because the owner is almost never outside, prefering to lord over his domain from behind his desk in the back of the office like the pope or Jabba the Hut from "Star Wars." Seeing him outside is like seeing Count Dracula in daylight.

Something is up.

One of the mechanics is laying flat his back underneath the dashboard, his legs splayed out the driver's side door. The owner is yelling something incomprehensible, waving his arms and gesticulating wildly. He sees me and glowers, giving me a look that says, "You. You did this." I shrug, not having the faintest clue what's going on.


One of the other drivers standing around waiting to begin his shift tells me another driver tried to disable the odometer by pulling a fuse, hoping to hide from the boss excess mileage from running unbooked flat rates, fares not run off the meter (there are some legitimate flat rates, such as from some hotels to the airport). To guard against a driver running private flat rates, drivers have to turn in our mileage along with our meter tally at the end of each shift. The miles driven, in general, should be about half the meter's total for the shift. If not, we better have a good explanation why not or the boss will penalize us $2 per mile. But in pulling the fuse, this knucklehead also broke the speedometer and air conditioner, leading to the boss's current overheated condition. So now the mechanic has been ordered to seal every fuse box against tampering. Some guys have tried to disable the odometer by fishing a paper clip or wire through the dashboard to jam the odometer's wheels.

Such a ruse, however, would only work with drivers who, like me, work "on the waybill" (See "Lucky Numbers" post, Mar. 23, 2009), splitting the fares with company. Most cabbies lease their cars (at a rate of about $700 per week or $85 per shift). The company earns its money up front, and could care less about your mileage because you're paying for the gas.

But there are other ways to scam the system. The most obvious, of course, is to cheat customers, taking some unsuspecting tourist a roundabout route instead of a more direct route. Cynical fares probably assume we do this anyway, which is why a lot of people get in my cab and start barking directions at me. Others might consult online sites such as http://www.taxifarefinder.com/ to get a ballpark estimate of what a fare should be. In our defense, the best route in Boston can be a very subjective matter. By "best" do you mean shortest, or fastest? This can also vary greatly depending on the time of day and the traffic. A lot of drivers end up taking roundabout routes in order to avoid Boston's notorious traffic jams. Myself? My objective is to take as many fares as I can during a particular shift. The $1 or $2 gained in cheating a fare is time and money lost carrying another fare. Besides, why risk getting fired or, worse, having your hack license suspended?

Another way to skieve the system is to pick up fares outside of your area. Say you catch a fare from Boston to Cambridge. On the way back, you see a couple of kids with their arms outreached hailing you. Its dark, cold, raining and there's not a soul in sight. So you decide to give the kids a break and pull over. That's when the flashing blue lights of a city cop fill your rear windshield. Cities and towns in the state are very territorial when it comes to protecting their taxi business. In Boston, the city for years has been trying to crack down on "gypsy cabs", unlicensed taxis or out-of-town cabs picking up fares. Those caught face a ticket and a $500 fine (about 2 nights work). Granted, it doesn't make much sense in an era of declining oil and soaring gasoline prices to have bunches of cabs driving empty past customers, but that's the way it is.

Cheating seems to be a compulsion for some drivers. Some guys will call in on a stand, putting them on a queue for any call-in jobs in the area, then drive around looking for street hails, essentially two-timing the guys patiently waiting their turn on the stand. These guys will drive to the airport, collect the $5.25 tunnel toll from the customer for the return trip, then sneak around the back way home over the Tobin Bridge to pocket the $1.25 difference in tolls (the state recently caught on to this one, fining drivers $50 if they're caught avoiding the Sumner Tunnel). Or at the end of a shift they'll short-fill the tank for the next driver, leaving it a quarter of half-gallon shy of full. I can only hope that bad karma and/or bad luck will follow these guys to the end of their days--at least, their days as a cab driver.

But let's face it. Some people deserve to be hosed. A fellow driver at the company hit a pothole one day and blew a tire. The car jerked to the side and ran into a guardrail or barrier, causing perhaps $2500 damage. The boss is insured, the loss is covered. But he tells the driver he has to cover the deductible--something like $1500. This driver's got four kids and an ailing wife and is so poor he can't even afford a car and has to ride a bike to work. But he says nothing, and over the next couple months has the $1500 taken out in increments from his pay. I'm outraged for the guy. It wasn't his fault. Things like this happen. I ask him why he didn't protest more or try to challenge it. He says not to worry. The 2-to-1 ratio of fares-to-mileage is skewed a bit to the driver's advantage, he explained. Each shift, he'd pocket one or maybe two flat rates for himself. By the end of four months, the boss paid for the deductible three times over.

Not bad.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Half-baked

"I have a question for you," the young woman in back asks me cheerily, seeking to resolve a minor dispute she's having with her boyfriend, who's sitting beside her.

"Who would you value more as a friend: someone who's good at baking--you know, cookies and cakes--or someone who's just a good person?"

I ponder the question, thinking about how this relationship may depend on my answer and how I would enjoy a lemon square just about now.

"It depends on the circumstances," I say.

"Yeah, see?" the boyfriend nearly shouts, as if they had made a bet on what my answer would be.

"Say you're trapped in a blizzard inside a remote cabin stocked only with baking supplies," I continue. "Or suppose or you need to borrow two-thousand dollars from someone. It really depends."

"Exactly!" the boyfriend says.

"I don't get it," the girlfreind says. "You'd like someone who bakes cookies as much as someone who's a funny, decent person?"

"Well," I say, wondering silently if there's some other reason the girlfriend doesn't like this particular cookie-maker, "I know I have different friends for different activities, and then I have friends I just like to hang around with. Perhaps you could make a place in your life for both."

"That's what I've been sayin'," the boyfriend echoes.

"I suppose," the girlfriend says glumly, clearly not happy with the direction of this conversation.

The boyfriend picks up on this change, too, and decides to change the subject. "You want to go see a movie after dinner?"

"I dunno," she says curtly. "We'll see." They sit in silence the rest of the ride.

This, I tell myself, could be a long night for this guy.