Re-published from Blue, Dec 17, 2010. Based on my year driving cab in Oakland.
A tiny red light flashed on as the radio hissed and cracked through the lonesome quiet of the cab. Instantly, dispatch was barking out orders meant for everyone and all ears: "All cabs, I repeat: ALL CABS -- Stay OFF the air, ALL CABS. STAY OFF THE AIR...."
I knew most definitely something was up, and something bad, when I heard dispatch bark that one out for everyone. In the entire year I'd been driving I'd only heard dispatch say those words once before - and that turned out to be not so good, indeed (bad, extremely bad, in fact). Tonight there seemed to be even more a tone of urgency in his usually terse, unfriendly voice. Sure dispatch might tell one cabbie or another to just shut the hell up, as he'd told me personally several times, but never the entire fleet. Well, hardly ever. We had to stay in touch in order to do our jobs, after all, and, with Christmas coming up soon, we were all busy as hell between the shoppers and the last minute Big Time Holiday Sales. This sort of thing could only mean trouble, big trouble (and very bad news for us all). All that was coming across the radio now was static with dispatch breaking through on and off talking in code, so it seemed, to car 159.
"159/ Say again, 159.... Where are you?.... Come in, 159."
"That's just routine, just routine.................Hullo?... Say again, 159.... Where are you?...."
At 26, in 1979 I was on my fourth college and eighth year in chasing down my BA and I still had a solid year or two to go from snagging that almighty sheep skin. UC Berkeley was my best shot with what had been low state tuition and financial assistance at least manageable and working in my favor back in the day when state school students still had a chance. The problem back than was the same: getting by (as usual over my previous eight years) in the meanwhile, so driving cab seemed a likely route to go, if not an easy one (if there ever was one), once getting passed the front office.
In order to get on as a Cabbie I had to commit to starting out at the bottom at Yellow Cab out of Emeryville in the glorious, down and out Oakland, CA. That meant three, then four days a week of 12 hour shifts that begin, when you're on the bottom, at mid-night and run through noon. Fifty bucks buys you a tank of gas (not really) and all the folding green you can rake in responding to the fares that dispatch gives you, so long as he knows where you are - and likes you (so you'd better be nice to your dispatcher even if he doesn't have to be nice to you).
"Where the hell are you 107?"
Not being a Bay Area brat myself, that was often a loaded question for this young Cabbie.
"I'm headed toward the Hilton in Alameda right now, over..."
"There is no Hilton in Alameda, 107. Say again, where the hell are you?"
And so went many conversations.
"Look up at the skyline, 107. See the tallest building?"
"Copy that dispatch."
"OK., 107: Head for that and call me in 10 when you get somewhere fu*king close. OUT"
Not a good start, really, and Oakland was pretty bare naked when it came to calls for taxi cabs. The trick, as my teacher for a week who taught me the ropes told me, was to milk the fare you finally did come up with. Rob was in his forties and had been driving cab for twenty years. He had a degree himself in psychology and found that he could use his knowledge of people to full advantage as a Cabbie. If you got in Rob's cab with an Irish accent then you found out that Rob's sainted mother was from County Cork, God rest her soul. If you were going to the opera Rob's daughter was an understudy, or perhaps played second cello in the orchestra. He was great with the accents himself as well. Riding around with Rob for a day he'd take you from Macon, Georgia to East Brunswick, Maine in five minutes with his revolving native son inclination. He was a master at reading his fare and knowing their soft spot. "Here you go driver. Keep the change, and I do hope they finally find your daughter's puppy safe and sound."
But before kissing the Blarney Stone first you had to kiss the dispatcher's sense of power and importance to get those few fares. That meant checking in at all the designated "spots" all around the service area where Yellow was permitted to operate with the only places to spot downtown or way down the expressway across the Bay at the SF airport. All the work on the East Bay was from fares dispatch gave out with very little action off the street, unlike San Francisco where I made a point of disappearing to for a couple of hours at a time every night just hoping dispatch wouldn't notice that I wasn't spotting. You had to spot, and you had to spot all over if he were going to give you a damned thing.
Pulling up to a stop light I rolled down the window to get some fresh air while listening for any news at all from that cursed radio. All I could hear was off the street; the steady ringing of a bell from an overheated jolly old guy with a fluffy white beard and red Salvation Army kettle on the corner. "Merry Christmas, thank you, Mame. Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!" he bellowed without ever skipping a beat with all his insistent ringing.
At the end of one of my earliest shifts, I'd spotted in a typically rotten area of Oakland just waiting for my limited time to run out and the shift to finally be over. That's when the dispatcher gives you a fare: when you don't actually want one. Trouble can find you at any time, any where.
"113, Pick up at 1458 E 135th. They'll be waiting in the doorway. Out."
Cruising slowly near my pick up, what little traffic there was was snarled. There was a patrol car with lights flashing up ahead and another two pulled off into a gas station which was being taped off as I rolled slowly by. The place had just been robbed and shot up apparently from all the glass laying around. While a paramedic bandaged one of the victims I drove on waved passed by a cop managing the traffic snail pacing its way by. My pick up was only two blocks away and my suspicions were definitely aroused, not to be too vulgarly blunt about it, as my mind explored the urgency of WTF? going down all around me.
As I came to the address I searched the doorway where dispatch had said my fare would be waiting but saw no-one. I only waited a quick second there before deciding to get out of my cab where I blew the horn and just kept leaning on it. After about five seconds of this, and with no intentions of letting up until my fare at least waved me off, two men scampered out of the bushes by the doorway I'd been called to and ran off down the street while I continued to blare my horn and starred in shockas I watched them disappear back into the jungle. That was one fare I didn't miss losing. I let dispatch know to tell the cops and that he owed me one BIG TIME.
"Tell'em yourself 113. OUT."
Rob covered that as well. He told me you can protect yourself from the robbers and thieves (and he'd teach me how) but the crazies, as Rob put it, the crazies you just can't do anything about.
A few months later I was cruising San Pablo Ave in Berkeley one night. Actually it was more like one or two in the morning, when the back door flew open while stopped at a light. What we Cabbies called a "jitter-bug" suddenly jumped in the back from out of nowhere and started fidgeting as he out-lined his mission. "Dude, take me down to Center City fast. My brother's got a shi#load of cash he'll pay you off with once we get there, man, down by the ATM. Come on, dude, step on it. Pronto, man!" Jitter-bug meant a strung out street freak, probably on meth or crack or both. Unfortunately the Bay Area had a lot of those back in the day although they were easy enough to spot. Usually...
Getting up a good head of steam I glanced back in my rear-view to see my fare reach across his chest into his jacket for something which was anymore I needed to see before he'd show me a pistol next, i figured. In a heartbeat I pulled a sharp Louey right there, hard, in the middle of the street pulling up onto the side walk while screeching all the way to a stop just inside the slanted window facade of an all night liquor store. Headlights, each one reflecting off of every bottle in the store, blared back at me and into the shop where I could see the clerk reaching under the counter (probably for his shotgun) as I glanced confidently back at my fare.
Needless to say, the guy was completely stunned and scared nearly to death by this little routine Rob had taught me so well with his eyes glaring so wide they nearly fell out of their sockets. Smiling back at him bathed finally in a prismatically brilliant light, I laid out the word according to Rob, "Sorry, I'm off duty, dude. Now, get the fu#* outta my cab... and have a good night."
Know Your Environment - one of Rob's Rules for Survival.
Tonight was a different kind of eerie though, probably even worse. The die had already been cast and someone was crapping out, coming up snake eyes. Someone had already come up short, in fact, we just couldn't know who.
"All cabs: STAY OFF THE AIR, all cabs. 159 say again.... 159 say again, do you copy?"
I'd only heard anything like it that once before, but this was going on and on not like earlier where the blackout was over in a short while before getting back to business as usual. I kept glancing up at all the colorful holiday decorations and tinsel that lined the streets drifting by as if they might somehow be able to tell me what was up before spinning off into the darkness.
Not all the people who drive cabs are necessarily up for every aspect that goes into driving cab successfully, I must admit. Lots of us are folks who for one reason or another just can't find any other kind of work anywhere; undeniably, though definitely belonging behind the wheel requires a variety of skills one has to be able to call upon in an instant often to avoid costly blunders. What I'm trying to say is you just can't go around half tanked all the time like 144. 144 was a guy in his early thirties, newly divorced and with a couple of small kids (and he wasn't handling it all that well either it turned out). I'd seen him tuck a flask into his hip pocket one day in the yard while waiting for my cab and just hoped he was at least off duty and not planning on tapping that thing while working. Later I ran into Rob and asked him about this guy, did he know him, was he alright or did he have a problem... "You know,... drinking?" Rob just kind of smiled and shrugged his shoulders as his way of blowing me off gently, "Who knows? Probably not. Whose business is it anyway, young'un?" As if for the benefit of an upstart rookie who couldn't possibly know any better. He added a final bit of fatherly advise, "Just,... leave it alone, son. Trust me..." and winked for assurance.
A few months later I was spotting in one of the only decent pick up parts of town near our relatively small but very posh financial district when I heard the dispatcher go out to all cabs that one time before.
"All cabs: STAY OFF THE AIR. 144, where are you?"
A few minutes later I cruised the Center City area and saw 144 pulled over with two patrol cars, their lights flashing, and an ambulance taking off down the road like a bullet. Near the corner was a briefcase smashed open with its contents spewed up all along the curb. I'm pretty sure I said a prayer and cursed myself for not knowing better, or for not wanting to know better. For not helping 144 before he became 144. For not somehow stopping this all from happening. As if it were all my fault, in that moment it felt as if it were and i was to blame solely for everything wrong in the world.
A little while later the dispatcher was on the radio again handing out fares and calling on cabs to report in, or "spot", but not like this time. This time dispatch had lost control and the planet seemed adrift in a sea of holiday colored chaos.
You can't ever even hear the other Cabies on the radio. Its only you and dispatch so far as you care most of the time. But trying to figure out a conversation from only hearing one half of it is hard enough when that half isn't purposely trying to keep you in the dark. We're all just different numbers everyday arbitrarily according to whats painted on the side of the cab that particular shift. So we're all just a bunch of different numbers from day to day, no-one knowing who anyone is, trying to make nice with the very big, very fickle and oh so distant voice on the other end who'll wind up determining your fate every single day you show up for life. It hardly seemed fair, but the job market is a fair for all (and no fair for anyone). Tonight it was just 159 whose number was up (whoever that might be) and the ever loving voice.
"Come in 159.... What do you want, over?"
"That's a no can do, over."
"Where are you 159, over?"
My skin was beginning to crawl for some reason, the memory of 144 too fresh still, and even though my shift had only just begun it felt like enough for one night, for me at the very least. Just then a small child ran out in front of my cab disappearing it seemed into the pavement causing me to immediately hit the brakes hard and jerk to a stop, my heart in my mouth. Just a foot from my bumper she bent up from the ground once she'd scooped up the biggest parts of a giant candy cane that apparently had rolled away from her. As I sat there with my jaw gaping, she slowly looked up into my eyes making contact ever so briefly with a perfectly angelic face, innocent, unafraid and smiling, before scampering off happily, free from any worldly fear or concern, disappearing back into the sidewalk crowded with holiday shoppers, no sign of Mom or Dad. In amazement it suddenly occurred to me that I too could finally be just as free as that small child, as free as I wanted to be myself. Free of that demanding, controlling, and controlling old man's dying voice now and forever, if not the recurring moments like these of dreadful anticipation and that inescapable anguish which follows. I was free to go anywhere and do anything I wanted myself if I liked in this crazy world. Now, tonight, and I imagined scampering off in my very own little Yellow Cab kind of Way-Without-a-Number. After a year under a Yellow yoke, I'd pretty much had it with dispatch, thank you, so this, I decided, was finally going to be it for me after all. I turned off my radio just like that and drove straight across the Bay Bridge into the forbidden zone to strut my stuff and let my greazy ol' hair down if I wanted, killing however many hours might yet remain.
That night I drove all the way across San Francisco, winding through that sparkling "City by the Bay", with my off duty light on. Instead of picking up fares, or even trying to make any money. Slowly I drifted under and through one seasonal light display after another and the bustling city streets full of holiday tourists draped as well in Yule Tide tinsel splendor. All the way out to the Pacific coastline I drifted on that Yule tide where I finally washed up, pulled over and parked facing due West into the San Francisco surf beyond the confines of the pavement's shoulder. I got out and draped myself across the windshield staring out across the ocean and thinking back on my many "adventures" driving for cheap, very cheap, over the passed year. The hysterical tourist from Iowa who freaked out crying because she thought I was lost (I was), and that little girl who wouldn't get out of my cab because she wanted to keep watching the meter run. A child after my own heart. I remembered running out of gas in the middle of the Alameda tunnel (where my radio wouldn't work) on the way out to the US Naval Station with a cab full of drunken sailors all due to set sail at dawn. I thought of my only regular, a Queen from North Beach who'd typically only call for me when she was in a fix, for some reason trusting me especially more than any other to be there for her when she was afraid. And I remembered how I'd set up my homophobic landlord one night to take a big, much deserved and ever so merciless fall at her hands. I remembered the $100,000 Ferrari that tried to cut me off on an entrance ramp to the Freeway and the driver's shocked expression once he realized a 50 dollar taxi don't give a hot damn about his special, shinny black fender. And the bar tender I made give me 40 bucks upfront to drive off his nasty drunk, then helping her into her home as she cried all the way in my arms. I recalled how just a little while later the "Only-Other-Car-On-The-Road" went on to rear end me at three in the morning backing out my fares' damned driveway after I'd actually pulled to a stop and waited for the stoopid thing to go passed. I remembered watching him take off without a care as his bumper, license plate and all, flew off in his desperate escape bound for no-where.
I thought of the promise of this world and imagined I could almost make out eight tiny reindeer on the horizon and a chorus line of bare breasted hula girls all dancing just for me in their grass skirts on a small Atoll off the coast of Hawaii. All wearing leis made from sparkling red Poinsettias as my head nodded and I slowly drifted through that last unguarded intersection into sleep, her colorful sky rockets whistling before the bang off in the distance.
At dawn the new day abruptly interrupted my palm tree Christmas fantasies. I drove back wearily to the yard in Oakland, filled up the tank as I was supposed to, and turned in the cab finally and for ever. After paying for the gas I had a little more than bus fare to make it home but I was a year closer to my goal and that ultimate prize: a piece of paper proclaiming to the world that I AM Somebody indeed.
Gathering all my stuff together from inside the cab, I just tossed my empty fare sheet that we're obliged to turn in after each shift, not really giving a rat's ass since I hadn't picked anyone up all night anyway. To my surprise, however, I found an addressed Christmas card on the floor in the back. The envelop was all made out complete with the return address (Euclid Ave, right in the middle of the East Bay Grease, one of many dingy, dead end streets that go nowhere but down), ready to be mailed but with no postage attached. In curiosity I pried open the seal and looked inside. It was your standard scene of Joseph and Mary on a donkey with the trademark giant star shinning brilliantly in the back ground. Inside was a woman's handwriting scrawled large and a snapshot of her, I imagined, and her man. In the middle was their very own little donkey bump: a rug rat, perhaps five or six months old, smiling wildly like your perfect lunatic. After a chuckle, I licked the card back up and slipped one of several stamps I carry around in my wallet on it figuring that would be postage enough as I headed toward the office where I could just slip it into the Out box at the front desk. Despite not having any notion of where it'd come from to begin with, it was my final fare and the only one to ever ride with me all night. It was a fare and my farewell all in one.
"Hey,can you tell me what the hell was going on last night... with 159 and all?" I asked feeling the anticipated dread beginning to well up in my gut as the front counter man looked up incredulously and the card slipped from my finger tips off into the tray and out of sight.
"Damned man, you haven't heard? It was Rob. He'd picked up a fare downtown that emptied a .38 into his head. Then he stole Rob's cab and drove around all night till he ran out of gas. He'd only talk to dispatch, no police or no-one. They found the cab off the side of the freeway, all Rob's money still on him. Just fu#&ing crazy, man."
My jaw dropped as my mouth tried to form something like words.
"Crazy..." The word nearly took it all out of me as it hung there indifferently in the air, it's dark shadow falling everywhere. Passing over the keys I shook my head and looked him straight on "Just exactly what isn't around here? Keep 'em, I'm done." It was all I could say as my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach and head slipped down onto my chest as I headed for the exit. It felt as if I couldn't catch my breath as I struggled with the door for just a little fresh air. Tears filled my eyes. Tears for everyone. Tears for us all, every number in the book. There seemed to be no good reason to carry on any further. No good reason for anyone, anywhere, on either side of the glass divider we may find ourselves on.
And still, of all things, what came to mind as I stepped from that office and looked out upon all the cabs lined up in the yard, every one yellow and each exactly the same as the next except for its number, was the image of that little girl's face from the night before, smiling gracefully in my headlights without a trace of fear.
Be not afraid for the light of the world is all around you...
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. - Isaiah 11:6