Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Down, down, to Summer Hill

Yesterday was Easter Monday so there was racing at Randwick. About four in the afternoon a general call went out for cabs to the Ascot Street entrance but I ignored it, figuring most drivers would go there, leaving plenty of work for those who didn’t. But I got a hail to Kingsford and ended up the general vicinity anyway. I was on my way to Ascot Street when I picked up a radio job in Darley Road, opposite the Alison Road entrance to the racecourse. There was a gaggle of people waiting for rides at the intersection, including a woman in a startling scarlet feather hat, scarlet dress, scarlet high heeled shoes. I was stopped at the lights in the far right hand lane, intending to turn up into Darley Road, when I saw her in the scarlet and her beau staggering across four lanes of traffic towards me. How did you know we were going this way? he said as he levered himself into the front seat. Hello, darling, she said, getting in the back. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Sir Les Patterson in his grey striped nylon suit, mustard shirt and heavy, gold glasses with yellow tinted lenses. He placed a natty mohair fedora on his head once he was settled. She was magnificent, her scarlet feathered hat down so low over her face all I could see was the red slash of her mouth. They were both on the far side of seventy, both cheerfully shickered. I cancelled the radio job, said I couldn’t help but pick up such remarkable people as they seemed to be, complimented her on her hat. I think I was wearing this one when I met the Queen, she said. But I might not have been. It was at Ascot. We were walking along, chatting as we are wont to, a couple of Aussie twits, when we realised something was coming up fast behind: Queen and entourage. She touched my hand, I haven’t washed it since, she hooted. I tried to curtsey but I nearly fell over. He was no Sir Les, but a gent of the old school, charming, gracious, avuncular, though a larrikin at heart. He regarded the world with a kind of scurrilous amusement. She was in party mode, rather more worse for wear than he was and inclined to trail off into conversational frolics of her own. We chatted gaily all the way to the Woollahra Hotel, exchanging fulsome, foolish praises. As they were getting out, he asked me where I lived. Summer Hill, I said. Aaaah, he replied. Then: Down, down, to Summer Hill. I had a sudden intimation of an old Sydney-sider, whose grasp of the social geography of the city is vast and intimate. I wished I could have talked more to him. As for her, she leaned over and gave me the hand the Queen had touched. She had blue eyes. You must have confidence, she said. If you have confidence, everything will go right for you. When she was out of the cab, she picked up her scarlet dress in two hands and danced a little jig on the footpath for the benefit of a couple of onlookers lounging outside the pub. Then they tottered inside.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Wei Jen Chang

You get these weird glimpses into other lives. Last night I accepted a radio booking in the city. I was to pick up at a block of brand new serviced apartments in World Tower. I knew where it was because I visited an immigration lawyer in his office there a couple of weeks ago to ask him a few questions relating to the screenplay I'm working on. The site also makes a brief appearance in Luca Antara so the portents were good. I left the cab in the street and rang the apartment number on the intercom but the intercom was busy. There was a Japanese man waiting but he had luggage and needed a station wagon. I was about to give up when I saw a slender young woman looking questioningly at me. Yeah, I said, I'm available. Did you call? She didn't say. She wanted to go just down the road but would it be alright if I took her boyfriend to suburb and back? Sure. What suburb? Her English was poor but we worked out 'suburb' was Dulwich Hill. I thought she was Japanese too but I was wrong - the name on her credit card was Wei Jen Chang. She looked delicate and fragile and was conservatively dressed; her boyfriend was the complete opposite: stylishly crumpled, world-weary, with a touch of a (very young) gangster about him. And a bad cough. She was going to work. She wanted to pay for her boyfriend's fare with her card. That meant using the antiquated system of manual registration of the card details on a driver's docket. This way, there's no guarantee the fare will be paid but what the hell. I let the boyfriend do it. Then she signed it, leaving the space for the fare empty for him to fill in later. As soon as we left her in Harbour Street, his demeanour changed. He made a mobile phone call and, while talking, directed me to Darling Harbour. He was asking someone to come down and meet us in the street. His directions were crisp and accurate. He called me Boss. We found the apartment building but there was no-one waiting. He didn't miss a beat. He directed me all the way to Dulwich Hill, using a route I wouldn't have taken but which was at least as quick, if not quicker, than the one I would have. I had a twinge of fear as we drove down what looked like a dead end street with a derelict industrial site on one hand and the backs of warehouses on the other, but there was a bend at the end and on the next corner, a brand new, fairly swish apartment block. Wait here, Boss, he said and went inside. He was gone maybe two minutes. Then we drove back to World Tower. The fare was $47.65 but he wrote down a round fifty. I have no idea what he was doing. Suspicions, but no real idea.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

City of Forking Cabs

Starting taxi driving on Monday. Did three days or rather nights. Today, Thursday, I'm having a break before the Easter weekend. Will drive Friday and Sunday. Then next week ... was amazed to find I can still do it. It was stranger than that. Almost as if I'd never been away, as if the fifteen years since I last did it, the nearly twenty-five since I first drove, hadn't happened. As if my cab-driving personality had been waiting all that time to be resumed, as if in some part of my mind I had actually been driving all those forgotten years. I felt like an actor re-assuming a role he played in his youth and finding he was still word and gesture perfect. Some things are different: there were no gold coins back then; cabs had no credit card facilities; mobile phones didn't exist; and radio jobs were offered and awarded personally via a despatcher. The system was bizarre: a job would be called and drivers would bid for it by hitting a button. The first three to register were then required to call in their position and the one closest to the job got it. This system was open to abuse. There was collusion between despatchers and drivers who were their mates. There were drivers who, knowing or guessing where the job was, would call in false positions. There was a built-in bias towards experienced drivers. Now, jobs are offered via a computer system and your acceptance is also automatic. Doesn't mean you can't arrive somewhere and find no-one waiting but it's definitely fairer. Plus you don't have to listen to some windbag who thinks he's a radio jock. On the other hand, it was sometimes fascinating hearing what was going on around the city on a live network and you don't get that now. In a way the isolation of the job is more extreme. Nowadays, every taxi has either a camera system that photographs each person who gets in and out of the cab, or else a hard perspex safety capsule surrounding the driver's seat. This is meant to stop someone stabbing or grabbing you from behind but it also has the effect of making communication with passengers more difficult. Even if they sit in the front seat you're still talking through perspex. Another change is that most single people now ride in the back, whereas before Sydney-siders made a point of riding in the front: it showed that they were of an egalitarian temper. No-one, or very few, bothers with that pretence now. Other things I notice: it's still true that the wrong people have the money. That the world is run for and by clerks. That fear is a constant accompaniment to material comfort. One thing I'd forgotten: what Borges wrote about in The Garden of Forking Paths is a sine qua non of the job. You go to pick someone up to take them to the airport and they're not there. So you end up taking someone else somewhere else. Had you got the fare to the airport, your whole night would have been different. This happens all the time. You are always at a nodal point where destinies fork. Most of these destinies are (probably) trivial and have no meaning in the larger scheme of things. On the other hand ... who can say? The two preoccupations of all cab drivers are money and safety, usually, in a practical sense, in that order although there isn't anyone who would say that's the right order. But when you cut across two lanes of busy flowing traffic to catch a hail from the footpath, what are you doing? Some concept of benign fate, a good angel perhaps, is essential for me to do the job at all. I have to believe the (fairly minor) risks I take are sanctioned by some beneficent power. That dropping off in Burwood and picking up on the opposite corner a fifty dollar fare to Roseville is 'meant'. I don't really believe this in any rational way; but, as a working assumption, I do. It helps to get me through the night. Umberto Eco once wrote: Superstition brings bad luck. It's the epigraph to Foucault's Penduluum. He's probably right; but I can't help transgressing against this particular piece of wisdom because on the job superstition is just what I need. I don't think I'm alone there.