Thursday, September 1, 2005

I drive by night

Behind the wheel with a taxi-driving mama
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Anew Magazine

It’s 4 a.m. Saturday morning. I let myself into the quiet house where my husband and baby slumber. I pull a folded stack of cash from my pocket, count out half and leave it in the center of the kitchen table. He drives, too. And we always split the tips.

I crawl into bed. Images of the past 13 hours flicker and fade as I sink into a sleep that I know will be deep and will only last a few hours.

I started work yesterday afternoon by selecting a car key in the dispatch office and heading to the lot to prep my taxicab for the shift ahead. Tire pressure, wiper fluid, headlamps, signal lights, empty trunk, clean interior – check. I flicked on the dispatch radio, logged onto the onboard data terminal and headed downtown, alert to the radio.

The dispatcher called out a string of intersections representing ride origins. I listened, thinking of a frequent call that comes out of a nearby high school around this time of day, a partially disabled student who rides home clear across town: a nice girl, prompt, and good booking on the meter. No tip – they just don’t happen with calls on social services accounts – but a plum ride, nonetheless.

What’s more, there’s a bartender in her neighborhood who often takes a cab to work right around the time she gets home. A good tipper, like most barkeeps and waitstaffers – gives a twenty for a $15 ride. The two calls together make a lucky combo, though they weren’t mine today.

During the four hours before my first baby break I shuttled a gang of Dutch bicycle executives from hotel to mall, an urban-landscape planner from office to car repair shop, seniors to fish fries, and, Lord help us, a guy from a tavern to the state Capitol Square. The early drunks – those are the surreal ones.

“Name anything you want to hear a poem about!”

“The moon,” I suggested.

“That’s good! Ahem. Placidly, vociferously, without surreptition… The empathetical vacuity awaits the… the… Wait. OK. Moon. OK. Here it is. The seashore magic of the… the… What was the poem about?”

The poem never was completed. He tipped $10 to make up for it.

I hit the road again around 8 p.m., after nursing and playing with the baby. Haven’t had to pump since quitting that office job. Nice. My husband’s homemade stew fueled the hours ahead.

Lots of rides back from fish fries. Then, a tavern call to the ER. Uh-oh. Bar fight? No – bicycle wreck, and the fellow needed stitches. He had walked to the closest establishment with a phone; it happened to be a bar. Whew.

After that, the radio was silent. I cruised to the airport and queued up behind a dozen other taxis. The 45-minute wait was excruciating. We don’t get hourly pay. Only a share of the meter, and tips.

Three uniformed flight attendants and a pilot piled into the cab ahead of me. Again, whew. Flight crews never, never tip. Once I even dared say it – “They say flight crews don’t tip, ha, ha!” – just to see what would happen. “Ha, ha!” laughed the pilot. “My passengers don’t tip me, either!”

My ride: a friendly Australian couple to a pricey downtown hotel. They were taking a months-long trip around the States, instead of their usual annual months-long European vacation, they said. The man handed me a twenty saying, grandly, “Just give me two back.” A $1.25 tip.

I should have known, but I’m always floored. Fancy vacation = crummy tip. Other bad-tip predictors: old mansions, new construction, verbal promises of a wonderful tip, praise for being “the best cab driver ever” and – mysteriously – somber, whispering couples.

After the second baby break, midnight. Empty streets. Many stop lights set to blinking. Perfect for shuttling bar-hoppers from one watering hole to the next. For taking folks to that next party. For gliding back downtown fast after delivering folks home.

Bar time was most exciting, with plentiful rides. But also riskiest. I screened carefully for possible troublemakers – and pukers. “Hi, what’s your name?” I would ask, reading body language and checking against my data terminal. “Where ya headed?” Wrong answers: “Just unlock the *!#&#! door!” “Hey! A girl! Let’s party!” and “Uhhhhhh....”

Best were the jolly, comfortably tipsy, groups of friends. The ones who told each other “I love you,” and “Take care, sweetie,” at ride’s end. And the ones who said, “Let’s give the cabby some more tip.”

Their faces and voices fading lightly from my mind, I drifted to sleep, looking forward to the next shift.

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