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.