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."


"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.


"Then you have to quit."


"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."


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.