Saturday, November 20, 2010

Use It or Lose It?

Finally, proof that reliance on a GPS system really does rot your brain.

Researchers at McGill University in Toronto recently reported the results of a test that suggests reliance on GPS navigation may lead to reduced brain function. The researchers took brain scans of adults who were GPS-users and those who were non-GPS users. They found that those who didn't use the devices were found to have higher activity and a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus than those who relied on GPS. These adults also did better on a standardized test used in the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, which often precedes the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

This comes on the tail of a study released in 2000 by scientists at University College London that showed that London taxi drivers given brain scans had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. That study also found that the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job.

Now Boston isn't London, particularly when it comes to driving a cab. In Boston, prospective cabbies take a 10-hour course that ends with a test in which they have to answer brain twisters like "True or False: It's okay to rush customers. That way you have more time for other fares." In London, prosective cabbies have to pass a three- to four-year course which involves learning the layout of 25,000 streets in the city center. Called "The Knowledge," three quarters of those who start the course end up washing out. Still, Boston has its challenges and as I've mentioned before, while a GPS will get you where you want to go, it won't get you there necessarily the fastest or even the shortest route.

All this doesn't mean NASA is going to start recruiting astronauts from the ranks of cab drivers and I'm not going to be a professor at Harvard, but it's interesting to think how all this might correlate with the increasing reliance on similar technology in other professions--say, flying an airliner. I'm not about to get rid of my GPS, but I think I'll turn it off once in a while.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Nose for Trouble

I have been away for three weeks. When I arrive at the garage, there's a new addition to the usual potpourri of aromas that greets me. Standing out among the usual mix of grease, solvents, paint, rotting fast food remnants, stale cigarettes and an overflowing toilet is the acrid and distinct stench of skunk. I ask the dispatcher what stinks (non-metaphorically). He chuckles and tells me the animal apparently took up residence under the building. The owner ordered the mechanic to locate the source of malevolent odor (Hey, why pay for an exterminator?). The mechanic, out of loyalty or a sense of adventure, did as he was told. Armed with a flashlight and broomstick, he squeezed himself underneath the building and following his nose crawled to the skunk's home. A quick visual told him everything he needed to know. Wriggling his way out, he reported back to the owner that the skunk had met an untimely death some time ago and that rats, drawn to the pungency, had begun feasting on its bloated remains. The owner, realizing that his problems were only beginning, told the mechanic to go back and recover the carcass before the building became uninhabitable. The mechanic, who lived in a world of fetid smells and perhaps understood the owner’s problems only in concept, was not a man to shrink from a challenge. He grabbed his flashlight, fixed a hook to the end of the broomstick and crawled back into the bowels of the garage. Finding his way back to the skunk's lair, he maneuvered his body so as to use his improvised tool in such a way as to gaff the stinking remains and haul them out. His eye steady, his aim sure, the mechanic, like those lyrical hunters Ahab or Crocodile Dundee, brought his weapon down on the swollen pelt. But the animal (if that's what you'd call it at that point) was not done. Like the mythical Phoenix, the skunk had taken on new life. It was now a city, a megalopolis, a universe of bacteria ingesting and exhaling the vital components of the former skunk, all of which were contained within a (relatively) airtight membrane. When punctured by the mechanic's hook, that universe, under considerable pressure, exploded—a kind of Big Bang, if you will. The result being that what was left of the former skunk was scattered. There was little left to haul out. Whether or not the mechanic needed a change of clothes, the dispatcher didn't say, but the objective was completed, sort of. The mechanic was unfazed, and there were plenty of other problems to deal with, lingering stink notwithstanding.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Long Way Home

A recent article in the New York Times ran a story about a 45-year-old Bavarian man who followed the directions of his GPS device onto the wrong end of a highway off-ramp near the town of Onsabruck and straight into an oncoming car, injuring an 11-year-old boy. A local newpaper called accident of "blind trust" in the gadget.

What an idiot.

Yes, but I say so not without some understanding of the situation. See, I have driven with a Tom Tom now for four months, and while I've never let the thing lead me the wrong way onto a highway, I can see how people can become mezmerized by the things.

I had mixed feelings about the purchase. One was cost (I'm cheap). The second was pride (I'm a cabbie, dammit). As the cost of the things has dropped, however, I can't really say I can't afford one. And because there are vast swaths of Dorchester, Roslindale, West Roxbury and Roxbury that I do not know by heart, I have to admit there are times it would come in handy.

I would say about half half the cabbies today use a GPS, mostly newer drivers like myself. The old guys rely on memory or use street guides to look find obscure addresses. These compact books simply list street names alphabetically followed by the streets they intersect. Once you hit a street you know, you can construct a route to the destination. Easy, provided you know the major arteries in the city.

Ninety-five percent of the jobs I get are straightforward: airport to hotel, hotel to tourist attraction, tourist attraction to restaurant, restaurant to nightclub, nightclub to hospital... you get the picture. But then someone gets into your cab and says they need to go to 10 Shirley Street in Roxbury.

"Excuse me a minute while I look that up."

For the next four minutes you're fumbling in the dark trying to read the tiny print on the atlas or street guide while your fare is sitting impatiently in the back. Not good, espcecially if you expect a tip.

With a GPS, you just plug in the address and go. Passengers tend to be reassured by a GPS system. Most think a GPS won't get lost or rip them off.

True, a GPS won't rip you off intentionally, but they are far from perfect. I knew this even before I bought my own. A lot of people have Iphones nowadays. These have built-in GPS. A lot of people with these will get in my cab and offer to look up the directions to where they are going go on their phone. In general, it's helpful.

One time, however, a lady got in the cab with her Iphone. She insisted I follow the directions it gave to and address in Watertown. I complied. The route the device picked was not the most direct, and I knew we were in trouble when it told me to go up Belmont Avenue but she insisted we press on. We ended up on a dead-end street near Belmont Cemetery. I then took her to her destination, but the experiment cost her another $8 or $9.

Part of the problem is Boston itself. There are umpteen different ways to get from one place to another, and deciding which one is best is sometimes a relative thing, depending on the traffic, road construction, time of day and, yes, personal preference. Another problem are the settings of the device. You can program it to calculate the shortest route, the fastest route, to avoid highways or toll roads. And, once a route is calculated, you can then request alterations to the route. The devices are, in a way, handicapped from the very start.

With my Tom Tom, I sometimes plug in the address even if know where it is, just to see how directs me. For a trip from the Harvard Business School to the Boston Common, it told me to drive through back streets in Allson and then down Commonwealth Ave. rather than the much easier, faster and more direct Storrow Drive. In some cases, I've the GPS will tell me to take the next right, then the next right, then the next right and then the next right. Yup, right around the block. If I followed those directions, I likely not only would get an earful from the passenger but a call from the Hackney Bureau.

Some passengers will ask that I use the GPS, then marvel at the convoluted directions it spits out. "Take whichever way you think is best," they then say.

Don't get me wrong, a GPS will get you to your destination--eventually. The way I've come to use the device is to calculate the route, then work backwards: figuring out the neighborhood of the address, then figuring out my own way there, letting the machine recalculate the directions constantly, until I'm very close. Then I might follow its recommendations.

Which brings me to the man in Germany. Even though I don't rely on my Tom Tom, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the goddamn thing. Of course, I should be looking the road, watching for cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycle messengers, stalled vehicles, stray animals, UFOs, whatever. That little screen hypnotizes you, makes you suddenly unaware of what's really going on around you. And so I can understand how the guy mindlessly pulled onto the off-ramp.

Dumb, yes. But understandable.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wretched Excess

It's true. They're different than us. For example, I was in Augusta, Maine, last week. I picked up a friend at the airport. Tiny airport, especially for a state capital. Just four flights a day to Boston. But on the tarmac are parked dozens of huge corporate jets, dozens of them. So many, in fact, that they closed a runway to use as an overflow parking lot.

What's going on? Is there a hedge-fund convention this weekend?

"It's parents weekend."

Parents weekend?

"The summer camps. All the rich mummies and daddies have flown in to check on Billy--to make sure he's not lonely or homesick."

You gotta be kidding. I thought the reason you sent kids to camp was because you didn't want to see them.

A couple days later, at work, I get a job. Go to this office complex. A Mister Gorman needs a ride to Logan. He has a plane to catch to Nantucket and he's in a big hurry.

Gorman was heavy set. Expensive suit, with a flimsy set of wire-rimmed glasses and a couple suitcases.

It's rush hour. Storrow Drive is backed up to Mass. Ave. "Are we going to get there on time?" he asks, or rather, demands.

Sure. We'll go the back way, I tell him, through Haymarket. He seems pleased, as if he thought of it himself. Then he goes back to his Blackberry.

We get to the airport. Plenty of time. The fare is about $30. He hands me a credit card. I ask him if he wants to include a tip.

"Sure. Add fifteen."

Gee, thanks.

I help get his bags out of the trunk and hand him the receipt.

"What's this?"

What's the problem?

"Thought you'd drive off before I noticed, huh?"

You said fifteen. That's what I plugged in.

"I meant fifteen percent. How many of your fares give you fifty percent tips? You take me for some kind of asshole?"

You get all kinds in this business, I tell him. If you meant fifteen percent instead of fifteen dollars, you should have said so. Here's ten dollars back, good-bye.

"Hey wait," he shouts. "What's your name? I'm gonna tell your boss."

Good. Tell him. I'm sure he'll get a laugh out of it.

A bit later, I'm turning a corner. There's an old man with a cane, disheveled, teetering to maintain his balance near the curb with his arm outstretched. I stop.

"I'm not going far," he says apologetically, gently lowering himself onto the seat.

That's not a problem, I tell him.

Once in, he thanks me. He gives me an address in Cambridge. Like he said, not far.

The fare when we arrive is about $8. He thanks me again, and hands over a wad of bills. I count it out: Two five dollar bills and three ones. Thirteen dollars. A 60 percent tip.

Excuse me, sir. Are you sure you want to give me this?

"What did I give you?" he asks. I hand back the bills.

"Oh gosh, I'm so sorry." He rummages through his wallet, then hands back the wad. I count it out again. A ten dollar bill, a five, and two ones. Seventeen dollars. 110 percent tip.

Are you sure?

No, no. You were so nice to stop for me. Keep it.

I thank him, wait for him to make it safely to the curb, then pull away.

Like I told Gorman, you see all kinds.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Quitting Time

We were both parked outside the same apartment building, waiting for our fares. It was warm, with a pleasant breeze, so we both got out and started chatting. He was a little older than me, heavier set with a bit of a stoop. He had warm eyes behind his half-glasses and an easy smile.

"You like driving for them?" he asked.

It's okay, I guess. How 'bout yourself?

He shrugged.

"How long you been driving?" he asked.

Couple years. You?

"Since 1993."

Wow.

"Yes, that's a long time."

Where'd you come from?

"Brazil. I used to be a school teacher. In Recife. Beautiful city. Beautiful beaches. I loved my work, my life. But one day I lost my job. They closed the school. I kept waiting to get a new assignment, but after six months I needed the money, so my brother living here bought me a plane ticket. When I got here, I got a job driving. I figured nine months, a year, then home. But here I am."

You ever go back?

"A couple of times. But I always come back, driving a cab. Next year I'll be sixty-two. Next year, for sure. I quit. Get out of the fucking business. Time to go home. Back to Brazil."

He then looks at me over his half-glasses.

"Three years? You have another year, maybe two," he said.

Whatdyamean?

"Then you have to quit."

Huh?

"You quit or drive the rest of your life. I've seen it all the time. Guys start driving, telling themselves they'll just do it for a bit. But after four years they're stuck. They're in for life. Like me."

C'mon...

He tilted his head down, looked at me over his half-glasses and pointed at my gut. "This job, it's not healthy. Look at yourself. When was the last time you had long walk?"

I didn't need to look at myself. Instead, I made some lame joke.

He smiled but didn't say anything. Instead, we stood there, letting the breeze cool us. The bell from a distant Green Line trolley reverberated in the night air.

"Well," he said. "it doesn't look like my fare is going to make it. Another no-go." He then got into the cab. "Nice talking to you."

He waved as he pulled away, leaving me standing alone in the driveway. The trolley bell rang again. I looked down at my bare arms, which under the sodium lamp of the building's exterior lights took on a bluish palor.

Maybe next year.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Century Mark

The century mark: 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The whole city seems to be moving in slow motion, as if it was under water, which is true in a sense. That is, if sweat can be considered water. Even the traffic is slogging along. The light turns green, and there seems to be about a five-second hesitation for the eye-to-brain-to-foot connection to get in gear. Usually, no sooner does the light turn green than the guy behind you honks.

The drivers coming off shift looked wrung out, as if they'd just crossed the Atlantic trapped in a shipping container.

"How'd you do?"

They shake their heads and groan. July is a slow month anyway. The heat just makes it more punishing.

"Good fucking luck," one says as he hands over the keys.

After four minutes behind the wheel my back had soaks through and fuses to the car seat. I have to lean forward gently to peel it away from the vinyl every time I punch the meter. By the end of the first hour, it feels as if I was sitting in one of those kiddie pools. Keep moving, I tell myself, drink plenty of water and seek out cab stands in the shade. Ducking into a 7-11 for a bottle of water and I have to push through a crowd of people standing around just for the air conditioning. Probably the same crowd standing around in February just for the heater.

I have no proof, but I think the crime rate must go down in this heat. Who has the energy? The news, of course, is all over the story. Drink plenty of fluids. Seek out air conditioning. Never leave a loved one in enclosed automobile (Duh! Oh wait, that's me.) Still, there are plenty of jackasses jogging along the Charles, preparing for the long-term effects of global warming.

The Red Line breaks down--again. There's a trainful of commuters stranded on the Longfellow Bridge. Poor bastards! I can only imagine what the mood (and aroma) inside the stalled cars is like. Of course the T says nothing to those stuck in the stations. After waiting around for 50 minutes, they start to drift out into the streets to hail cabs. They're ticked off, of course, but things could have been worse for them--lots worse.

An Indian guy gets in. He's dressed sharply in a business suit. Unlike nearly everybody else, he looks completely unruffled. "I just flew in from Singapore," he said in lilting English. "This really is not so bad."

Really? End of conversation.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Schooled

There are something like 250 colleges and universities in the Boston area, and in May and June they all let out. The streets are swarming with kids pulling suitcases. It's time to go home for the summer, and they are all looking for a ride to the airport. To a cabbie, it's like watching salmon spawn, they're everywhere. If you can't make money at this time of year, you're either drunk or not trying.

This guy was older. He was well-dressed, almost professorial. He also didn't have a suitcase. So there was a twinge of disappointment when he got into the cab--a feeling confirmed when he said he was going to an address just a couple miles away. But he was polite and enjoyable to talk with. He spoke with a lilting British accent, which made him sound a bit like actor Michael Caine.
He said he was a professor of economics or something at the Harvard Business School.

"Excuse me, would it be possible for you to wait outside while I drop these papers off?"

Absolutely.

"I'm afraid I'm running a little late," he explained. "I have a plane to catch, but I have a few errands I need to run first. I'd be grateful if you would drive me around. There'll be a good tip in it for you."

Great. This may not be such a bad fare, after all.

After the first stop, he then said he needed to go to his office, a walk-up in the middle of Central Square, an odd location for a professor at Harvard, but who knows? Central Square has been coming up over the years. Still, its proximity to a shelter has always made it a hangout for derelicts, earning it the nickname of "Mental Square" among locals. After four or five minutes, he emerged. By then, the meter had tallied $15.55.

From there, he gave directions to his apartment, a place in Back Bay not far from Kenmore Square. After 20 nervous minutes ($10 in wait time), he came down carrying a shopping bag. Again, it seemed a strange way to pack, but driving around Boston you learn that a lot of academics are oddballs.

Now there's $35.50 on the meter.

"Thanks so much for your patience. You've been an enormous help. I assure you, I am headed to the airport, but I have just one more errand to do."

What's that?

"I need to go to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. I have to visit my mother before I leave. I need to make sure her care is arranged for while I'm away."

I understand.

"Just wait outside the main entrance. My plane departs at five-thirty so I shouldn't be long."
Ten minutes passes, then 15, 20, 25... He better hurry or he'll miss his plane altogether if we get stuck in traffic. Thirty minutes passes. Thirty-five minutes.

Dammit. Did he leave anything in the cab?

No. Nothing.

He carried the shopping bag with him. Ohhhh.... you motherfucking moron.

The meter now reads $58.15.

What now? Wait and hope the guy eventually comes out? Go inside and try to hunt him down? Call the cops? Sit on the curb and cry?

Really, there's nothing to do. Just clear the meter, put the car in gear and hope you can make it up.

And if anyone asks, you can say there is another way to lose money this time of year.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mother's Day

He’s an older guy. My age, I guess.

“Brighton Center,” he says, slamming the door.

It’s clear from the accent that he’s a native. Probably grew up in Brighton.

I start the meter, and put the car in gear.

“Which way you plan on goin’?” he asks.

We're down near Mass. General. I tell him my plan: Storrow Drive to Western Ave. to Market Street to Brighton Center.

“You kiddin' me? You tryin’ to cheat me?”

Look, I'll take whatever route you want.

“I'm just joking,” he laughs. He then tells me to go to Kenmore Square and then up Comm. Ave.

We down near the Liberty Hotel, the old jail with its heavy stone fa├žade.

“Nice place,” he says.

Yeah, I suppose.

“I stayed there a night,” he says. “Of course, that was before it was a hotel. And it wasn’t no $400 per night.”

I laugh.

“Actually, that little jam cost me five grand by the time it was over.

I laugh again.

“You do anything nice for Mother’s Day,” he asks.

No, my mother's dead. I'm divorced. Instead, I'm driving a double.

"Well, I called my girlfriend to wish her a happy Mother's Day and she told me to fuck off. I got in late the other night after playing pool. She didn't like that, told me it was the last straw. So I guess we're broke up now."

Sorry to hear.

"I've been married twice and just have never been able to play Father Knows Best, ya know what I mean? But don't get me wrong. She's a good gal. Good Mom. I knew her way back in high school. Hadn't seen her in thirty years when I found her on the Internet a few months ago."

You were old flames?

"Oh yeah, we used to be quite an item. I went out with the two best-lookin' girls in school. One brunette, the other blonde. She was the blonde... She was something. Still is. But I'm too old, too set in my ways. I like doing my own thing. I like my cards and pool. She's better off without me."

Maybe now you can track down the brunette.

He laughs.

"You like drivin'?"

Yeah, I guess.

"I used to drive a cab, in Cambridge."

Really, when?

"About thirty years ago. Drove nights. After the bars closed and the trains and buses stopped running, I used to head over to Blue Hill Avenue. I'd make good money just doing short trips up and down the avenue."

But being a Cambridge cab, you're not allowed to pick up in Boston.

"You kidding me? None of the Boston cabs went to that part of town. Hell, the cops generally didn't go there, either. I had the place all to myself."

You never got robbed?

"A couple of times, sure. But they were just hopeless junkies. They just wanted money for a fix. They'd just grab whatever cash I handed to them and ran, not even bother to stick around and count it."

Still, sounds kind of dangerous.

"You do what you gotta do," he says, directing me to pull over to a corner. He peels off a few bills from his gambler's wad, hands them over. "Be safe, my friend."

I intend to.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

To the Moon

Think of the distance between Boston and Los Angeles (2,605 miles)--a hundred times over. Think of the distance around the Earth--(24,901 miles)--ten times over. Think of the distance to the moon (238, 857 miles)--with enough mileage to circle it three times over. A total of 258,671 miles, that's a lot of miles, especially when driven on Boston roads. With that many miles, this car should be in a junkyard. That or the Smithsonian Institution.

"You driving this pig?" Steve asks.

I nod.

He shakes his head. "Have the mechanic give you some spare fuses. It keeps locking up when you put it in park."

What? Why?

"How the hell do I know?" he says, handing me the keys.

The mechanic gives me a handful of fuses and tells me to remember to keep it out of park with the engine running.

I should have handed the keys back and just gone home.

"Put it in neutral, not park," I tell myself. "Neutral. Neutral. Neutral."

I make it through two fares, putting the car in neutral each time. No problem. My third fare is to 90 Tremont Street downtown, to one of those new boutique hotels near the Common. It's rush hour, and I'm fighting traffic all the way. But my fare is friendly and we're having a good conversation. Finally, we get to the hotel. I pull up to the corner of Tremont and Bosworth streets, outside the Beantown Pub. Without thinking, I automatically throw the car into park, collect the fare, say thanks, fill out my waybill, then try to put the car into gear.

Nothing doing. It's like the gear shift is embedded in concrete. I get under the dashboard, pull the fuse--blown. I get one of the spares and plug it in. Phfffttt! Blown. Another. Phfffttt! Another. Phffttt!

Six fuses, all blown.

By now traffic is backing up down Tremont Street. I'm stuck in a travel lane, reducing three lanes to two and forcing the traffic to squeeze over. Cars are honking. Even if I was able to push the cab aside, there's no place to push it to. Just sit and wait. I call the office and have them send a wrecker. I stand beside the cab, trying not to look too stupid. On one side of me people are rolling down their windows, yelling at me to move. Insults, epithets, threats are being hurled.

On my other side, pedestrians see that I'm a cabbie and are coming up ask me directions. Which way to the convention center? How far is South Station? You know where I can score some pot?

"Hey asshole! Get that fucking piece of shit out of the way!" That was one of the nicer comments thrown my way, from a cop no less. By law, I have thirty minutes to move the disabled vehicle. So he rolls on by with a sneer. A couple of other cabbies pull up and ask if there's anything they can do. I wish. A dignified older man in a glistening black Mercedes sedan creeps along, edging his way over to get by me. Once alongside me, he rolls down his window, says something to me I can't hear, then spits at the cab.

The traffic must be backed up at least a couple of blocks, for the long, angry wails of car horns start from a distance, then echo and reverberate around the high-rise buildings. As the traffic moves forward the horns become louder and more distinct. One old lady in a beat up Buick must be late for her hairdresser because she has been leaning on the horn pretty much non-stop for 10 minutes. Once she sees what the problem is, she doesn't let up, but all the pedestrians on the street are taking notice, turning around to see who this crazy person is. The old woman just keeps looking straight ahead, leaning against the horn.

Finally, I see the tow truck crawling up Tremont, the top of the truck and its emergency flashers looming above the rest of the vehicles. Whew. But then it turns down School Street. What the...?

I call the office and ask them if the tow company knows the correct address.

"Tremont and Bromfield streets, right?"

No, Tremont and Bosworth. Even so, why did he turn?

"I'll make sure they get it right," she tells me.

Ten minutes pass. Next I see the top of the truck pull out of Bromfield onto Tremont moving away from me. I run up the sidewalk to try and catch it, but the light changes and the truck turns up Park Street. Dammit.

I call again. The dispatcher tells me the tow company said the driver was a new guy, and but assured me he'd be right there.

By now, I'm almost getting used to people screaming at me. All I can do is smile and shrug.

Another five or six minutes pass, and I see the truck again crawling up Tremont. I wave my arms to make sure he sees me. This time he flashes his lights to show me, yes, he sees me. Once in position, the driver, a big, barrel-chested guy with a beard lumbers out. He apologizes up and down. That's okay, I assure him. Let's just get the heap hooked and get out of here.

The next day, the boss calls me. He too apologizes. Said the problem happened to be a broken brake switch or something, a $20 part. He laughs.

"Good as new," he says.

Sure, sure, I say. "Good for another 258,671 miles."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jimmy's in Trouble

Jimmy's hard to miss. A big, Boston-Irish guy, he stands more than six feet tall. His bald head is shaved so smooth that it shines like a peeled boiled egg. Usually he's wearing a big, mischievous grin--like he's pulled a fast one on you that you won't realize until after you've gotten home. I like Jimmy.

But right now, Jimmy's missing.

"Cab 175, where are you?"

The radios are a constant source of frustration. To hear anything you have to turn the volume way up, but the sound then is so distorted its nearly impossible to decipher what the dispatcher is saying. Buildings block the reception, so you'll be trying to answer a dispatch, trying to bid on a job, but the dispatcher won't hear you. I've lost a lot of work that way. When you're parked on a stand, you have to roll the car forward and back to find a spot where the reception is clear.

"Jeemy, answer da radio!"

But if you've got a long job to somewhere out in the 'burbs, transmissions will just be intermittent bursts of static. That's one reason we carry cellphones.

"Jeemy, you're not answering your phone. Turn on your phone!"

I just got on my shif, so I don't know how long this situation has been unfolding. But the dispatcher has an urgency in his voice that makes me think it's been going on a while.

"Jeemy, the other driver's waitin'. Gas it up and bring it in. NOW!"

A lot of drivers push it. They try to squeeze in one last airport run before the end of a shift, returning the car a half-hour late. It's not fair, and cheats the other driver, but some guys are like that. Jimmy, however, is now an hour late, and the dispatcher sounds frantic.

"Cab 175, Cab 175, Cab 175... Has anyone seen Cab 175? Jeemy, call in!"

I pull up alongside another driver and ask if he knows what's going on. He shrugs and shakes his head.

"Jeemy, call now if ya know what's good for ya."

The owner then takes the mike:

"Jimmy, c'mon. Call me and we'll talk about it. If not, I'll have to call in the cab as stolen."

I hear the dispatcher asking various cabbies when and where they last saw Cab 175. But the radio system is designed so that I only hear the dispatcher, so I don't know what the drivers said.

“Cab 175. You better bring it in, Jeemy. If ya don't I'm gonna have to make another call and believe me you're not gonna like it."

So Jimmy stole the cab? In what, a fit of anger, derangement? What is going on?

The owner's back on the radio. He's pleading, almost desperate.

"Jimmy, I'm trying to be reasonable. I don't want to call the police. I just want the cab back. Bring it in. We'll talk.

Another driver tells me this isn't the first time Jimmy has done this. The week before Jimmy left the car on a side-street. Took the waybill and the credit card machine and went home. He got ticked off or something and just left it there. Thing got towed and the owner had to pay $160 to get it back.

Why did he do that? I asked.

Dunno, the driver answers.
So why is Jimmy still driving?
Dunno, the driver says.

"Jeemy, I got a sergeant from the police department standing behind me. Bring it in now and MAYBE you won't face charges."

Jimmy never answered, never called in. Eventually, Cab 175 was spotted parked in front of a bar. The police found Jimmy inside, tanked to the gills. They took him away in handcuffs.

I asked the owner the next day what happened. Simple, he said, Jimmy stopped to get drunk. It was the same thing he did the week before.

After the first incident, Jimmy gave some sad story about his wife or his kid being sick, promised it would never happen again, and that he would turn in all his earnings from the next shift in compensation. The owner, who recently took over the business, took him at his word and gave him another shot.
The owner is new at the business. His family bought the company and over the past few months he's been learning the ropes.

Some lessons, especially in this business, can only be learned on the job.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day Special

I picked up a young man and his girlfriend at a popular restaurant. After getting their destination and punching the meter, I overheard the following:

Girlfriend: Well that was interesting.

Boyfriend: Yeah, that was some argument.

Girlfriend: Do you think they'll make up by the time they get home?

Boyfriend: And what? Then have really good make-up sex?

Girlfriend (coyingly): Well... yeahhh.

Boyfriend: I don't even want to think about that. They're pretty old.

Girlfriend: Oh, come on, they're not THAT old.

Boyfriend: Maybe. Still, it was a really interesting argument.

Girlfriend: What do you mean?

Boyfriend: I wish we had arguments that interesting.

Girlfriend: What?

Boyfriend: I mean, we ought to make a point of having more interesting arguments.

Girlfriend: I thought the point was to not have arguments.

I waited for the boyfriend to respond. Nothing. They finished the ride in silence, got out without saying another word, and went home to either have an interesting argument or tepid makeup sex.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bits & Pieces

While sitting on a stand the other night I saw one of the more amusing signs used by a bum:

Raising Capital for My Hedge Fund
Looking for more shares of UBS and AIG
Rock it like a Morganthau!
Maybe he really is.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Chicken Man

A typical shift is 12 hours, but it's not unusual to drive 14, 16, 18 hours or more, especially if you only do it a couple times a week. This may sound pretty rough, but there's practically no limit to what you can do given enough coffee and Red Bull (a beverage I discovered out of necessity but would hardly recommend) .


Generally speaking, I have no problem driving for long periods. In fact, there's something about driving a cab--the rhythm of the city, lots of activity, people coming and going. In fact, I find it relaxing. No problem.


But once I cash in at around 3 a.m. and head home on the Southeast Expressway, that's when the hallucinations kick in. Every light pole, every shadow, every piece of wastepaper blowing across the road suddenly becomes a deer jumping in front of my car, a truck about to sideswipe me or some other obstacle that I need to swerve around. My vision gets gauzy along the along the periphery. The first few times I drove for long periods, the experiences driving home were so harrowing that by the time I arrived I was soaked in sweat and couldn't get to sleep.


Over time I've trained myself to ignore the leaping animals, the corpses and the darting sprites. I learned to drive in a gauzy violet fog. The biggest challenge was trying to determine which trucks about to sideswipe me were real, and which ones were the figment of my imagination. So far, so good.


Reality, however, has a way of messing with you in a way your imagination cannot touch. Take the other night.


It started snowing by early evening. Just a few flakes at first, drifting lazily across the windshield. The forecasts had predicted this, saying it would pick up quickly by midnight, and fall at a rate of three inches an hour. The television news had announced all this a kind of hyperventilated excitement one might expect for a nuclear holocaust or the rapture. "Buy batteries and stock up on potable water," the buxom weather girl said cheerily.


By midnight, it was coming down hard. The windshield wipers could not keep up with the pace of accumulation, and every two or three stoplights I had to get out of the cab to scrape clean the wiper blades by hand. The plows had yet to emerge in force, so the streets were a mess--slushy and rutted. The work was dwindling, so I decided to quit early.

I cashed out at 1:30 a.m., and soon after was on the Southeast Expressway, carefully making my way home. Four lanes of highway had disappeared under three inches of fresh snow. Finding a lane was pure guesswork. In addition to the clumps of frozen muck, puddles and patches of ice, were the usual assortment of morons: drivers crawling along at five miles per hour in the left lane with their emergency flashers on, buttholes in Cadillac Escalades going 80 mph, and passive-aggressive weenies lining up alongside each other to create a rolling roadblock, all moving at one-quarter speed.

By the time I caught up to a phalanx of snowplows blocking the width of the freeway, my frustration and exhaustion had built up to the point that I ceased caring for my own life. I just wanted to get home. I saw an opening, and squeezed between two of the plows. I could practically hear the plow driver cursing at me, but I was free. Ahead of me was a seemingly endless stretch of pristine highway--four lanes of snow-covered Interstate to myself. With the lane markers obliterated it looked like a giant, white runway. I could spin out and gently ricochet down the road like bumper bowling.


I was happy.


Then, far ahead, I saw trouble. Flashing lights. Police action, I thought. Heads up.


The visibility was pretty bad, so I couldn't tell exactly what was going on. The flashing lights, however, weren't cops. They were too irregular, not stroboscopic, and mixed in with different colors--yellows, whites and reds--not the standard blue and red. They were also moving, not stopped as if at an accident. As I drew closer, I realized it was an advertisement of some sort.

It was an electronic sign attached to a truck, the kind in which the message scrolls across like the old news ticker in Times Square. But there was something else about this truck. The box itself was illuminated. In fact, the walls of the box weren't solid, but clear. It was a glass cube on wheels. Inside the cube was a room. It was a reading room with a deck chair, a table and a lamp. Fluorescent lights along the edge of the ceiling illuminated the room. And there was a man. At first, the man appeared in silhouette. He was squeegeeing the windows in long, vertical sweeps. the whole thing looked like a diorama from a natural history museum, a really weird museum. What the hell was this?


It had to be an advertisement. But for what? And why? And why at night on a desolate highway in the middle of a raging snowstorm?


The flashing lights announced the time: 2:28 a.m., the ad scrolled across: REMEMBER THE CHICKEN MAN. THE CHICKEN MAN IS COMING. The man inside the box put away the squeegee. He sat in the deck chair and opened up a laptop, like he was checking his email or updating his Face Book page. He seemed oblivious to the weather and peril surrounding him. I trailed the truck for a time, staring in disbelief at the spectacle.

This was nuts, and continuing to follow this truck in the dead of night in the middle of a blizzard was equally nuts. I needed to get home, so I pulled out to pass the truck, moving carefully. The man inside, an older guy pushing 50, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, ignored me. He was just doing his thing. As I rolled past the cab, I saw stenciled on the door "The Chicken Man--Boston" and a phone number (which I subsequently forgot).


By the time I got home, the episode seemed so unbelievable, so surreal that I had to find out what it was. I searched on the internet for "The Chicken Man" and Boston. All I got back were references to Frank Perdue, Bruce Springsteen's song "Atlantic City" and former Red Sox slugger Wade Boggs (whose locker room nickname was the "chicken man.") I told my wife about it the next morning. She didn't believe me. "You were hallucinating again, weren't you?" she said, advising me to quit driving such long hours.


"But I didn't imagine it!" I insisted.

"Uh huh."

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I asked the other drivers if they had seen the truck. One driver said he hadn't seen the Chicken Man, but he did see an IKEA truck with glass box containing a living room set with two people lounging around. Another driver remembered a truck advertising some travel agent hauling around a beach scene with some bikini-clad young girls inside. A subsequent web search revealed that trucks hauling constructed scenes are part of a vanguard in "mobile advertising" and named firms such as GoMobile Advertising in the Pacific Northwest and Minnesota Mobile Billboards tout such 3-D displays among those specializing in the service.


Finally, another driver told me, yes, he too had seen the Chicken Man. He remembered the room and saw the guy squeegeeing the windows. But he didn't give it much thought. After all, this was Boston, a lot of crazy things happen.

But I wasn't crazy. And I still want to know, who the hell is the Chicken Man?