They flagged me down around 2:00 AM---a couple of grungy-looking characters standing in front of the Daily Pint in Santa Monica. The bar was closed, and they were looking to go to McArthur Park, round trip---which meant they were looking to score. This was back when McArthur Park was a teeming, open-air bazaar fueled by the early 'nineties floodtide of crack on the streets of L.A.
So I got my money up front, and headed for the freeway. A lot of cab drivers wouldn't mess with crack runs---but in the midst of that cold winter of 1990-'91, I couldn't pass it up.
When we got downtown, I took them to Alvarado and 7th and followed the procedure experience had taught me: I parked the car in a legal space---leaving enough room in front for an unobstructed getaway---then took it out of gear, rolled up the windows, turned off the lights, and kept my foot away from the brake pedal. (The idea was to be invisible to any units of the LAPD circulating in the area.)
I told them they had five minutes, and they got out of the car.
The harsh glow of halogen street lights threw everything into maximum contrast; I watched for black-and-whites as the two white kids in my rearview mirror crossed the street to where a posse of tall black street warriors had staked out a prominent piece of ground. The pair were like sheep begging to be fleeced---seemingly oblivious to the reality that McArthur Park was that freest of free markets: a place where the powerful were free to prey upon the weak.
Then I remembered the milkshake in the console's cup holder. It'd been an undrinkable mass of ice cream when I picked it up in Santa Monica---but that'd been forty minutes before. So I popped off the lid and took a swig. Ahh, Cappuccino Blast....
Then I looked in my rearview mirror, and here's these two fools hauling-ass back to the car with a gang of those thugs hot on their tails. They must've whipped out a wad of chash like they were buying a couple 6-packs at 7-Eleven. I put the car in gear, turned on the lights, and cranked the wheel over. The faster of the two jumped in the back seat and shut the door; the second one---finding the back door locked,---jumped in front with me. But he was just a shade slow, and before he could slam the door, a couple of these bruisers were all over him. I stepped on the gas---but they had a hold of him, and he began to slide out the door. So I hit the brake and sat there---with the wheel in one hand and my Cappuccino Blast in the other---and watched for a moment as they began bludgeoning the poor bastard and going through his pockets as he thrashed around on the seat beside me. I felt oddly detached---until it occurred to me that I had a couple hundred in my T-shirt pocket, and was, after all, only inches away....
Luckily, I've always had a head for mechanical principles, and I saw a way to apply a little leverage to the situation. With the wheels turned just enough to get the car's nose around the van in front, I eased off the brake and let the cab creep forward---slowly enough that the ongoing assault could move along with it; then, as the open door came in contact with the van's bumper, it began squashing the assailants like trash in a compactor---forcing them to hastily extract themselves from the doorway or suffer grievous injury. My besieged passenger pulled his legs in a thin moment before the door slammed shut---thus averting any inadvertent amputations---and we made good our escape in a blast of toxic fumes.
But having lost one of his shoes, all of his money, and maybe a few teeth besides, that pitiful, beaten crackhead could only sit there weeping and bleeding as we hauled-ass up 7th Street. The trade mission had obviously concluded, so I took the bloodied delegation back to Santa Monica.
The universe, of course, had been kinder to me: I'd covered the lease on the taxi, gotten a couple of hapless characters out of a bad situation, and even managed to do it without denting the car's door---or spilling my Cappuccino Blast.
And if that weren't enough, I had another taxi story to tell.
But my point in telling it here is this: at no time during the incident---or during any of the hairy situations I got into back in my cab driving days---did I find myself wishing I had a gun. And I'm a big pussy, take my word. It's true, of course, that driving taxi is routinely rated among the nation's ten most dangerous occupations---but it's also true that it's mainly the driving that makes it dangerous. (It's a reality you internalize after you've wrecked a couple of cars.)
Also, it's not exactly like I was unarmed. As a lifer told me early on, the most effective weapon a cab driver has is the car itself---and that certainly proved to be the case in that McArthur Park situation. I was also packing a little something called imagination; it'd saved my ass more than once, and I never left home without it. And then there was the Maglite I always kept wedged between the driver's seat and the console; it had no application on that particular occasion, but that hefty little club came in real handy on another night, when a head-case who'd apparently neglected to take his Thorazine wrapped an arm around my neck from behind and made a determined effort to choke me---while we were rolling. (Most of the taxis I drove had no partitions.) In short, things like preperation, experience, and imagination all count; you're almost never helpless.
But what got me revisiting my cab driving days in the wake of the Newtown massacre was the surprising number of commentators, interviewees, and callers to talk radio who claimed to own guns for reasons of "personal safety." It struck me that most of these people probably never have to deal with the spectrum of unsavory characters an unarmed cabby deals with routinely on the streets of L.A.---nor resided in the sort of war zone I called home for many years: the Oakwood section of Venice, where the Venice Shoreline Crips and the V13 kept the rents affordable through much of the 'nineties with continual shootouts and drive-bys in the "Ghost Town" turf wars. I'll admit to being part crazy, but anyone who believes a loaded gun is the ultimate security needs to get rid of the widescreen and join the fact-based community. I personally know of at least three people who were shot to death with their own guns---but not one who got out of a tight spot because he or she was armed. (And I know for sure that if cab drivers started packing, they'd all be shooting each other over airport trips.)
In his Christmas Eve blog post, Michael Moore suggested that most of the guns sold in America are purchased in the suburbs and country by white folks fearful of blacks. Whites have reason to fear blacks, of course---the same reason the one-percent fears the rest of us: by their very crimes, victimizers doom themselves to fearing their victims. Yet whatever the threat of lingering black resentment, you almost have to be a scriptwriter to dream up a situation in which a gun would actually save your white ass. (Or mine; even if I'd been packing that night at McArthur Park, it would've been beyond stupid to get into a shootout with a bunch of gangbangers.)
So if it's security all those fearful white folks are longing for, they might want to rid themselves of the artillery and start working toward a more egalitarian world---a world, that is, without so many anxiety-inducing victims.