Tuesday, May 31, 2005

ghost cab

The first time I drove cabs, back in the 1980s, there was a live radio network, since replaced by computers. Some nights, a chilling voice would come onto this live network. It was low, male, guttural, almost unintelligible and its discourse consisted entirely of threats and obscenities. Perhaps some of these vocal qualities arose out of a desire to alter or disguise the voice - I don't know. There was a sinister chuckle in it that always raised the hackles on my neck. This guy, whoever he was, could not have been an on-the-job cabbie, because the network operators would have found him and thrown him off. He must either have been a disgruntled former driver or a working cabbie on downtime with grievances who, using some kind of CB set-up, had found a way to access the network. His intention was to drive the operators crazy and in this he was entirely successful. They used to become apoplectic when he showed up on the airwaves. I remembered about this guy the other night because of the legend of the ghost cab. The ghost cab is a rogue cab, out there somewhere in the darkness, picking up people who never arrive at their destination. Who is the driver? He's a man without a face and a voice borrowed from hell. There's a black hole in his back seat. He charges everything and gives no change. The number of his cab is 666. And so on ... well, there I was on the Bondi Junction rank, vaguely entertaining these gothic notions, when I looked up and saw a cab hurry past the line of us waiting. Number T666. It was an ordinary white Falcon with the yellow and black livery of Combined Services, which is the company I drive for. High-tailing up the hill with that peculiar kick-up-the-heels look of a taxi in a hurry. All I could see of the guy behind the wheel was a shadow hunched under a cap. He was Vacant. I nearly pulled out of the line and followed him ... & then decided, no. Some things are better left alone.

Friday, May 27, 2005

bracket creep

The other night after finishing work I called into the bottleshop of the Summer Hill Hotel to buy a bottle of red. The woman who serves there noticed my new cap and spoke to me in Greek. I laughed and shook my head. I just like these Greek fisherman's hats, I said. I paid for the wine with some of the massive amount of silver I'd gathered during the shift - one guy made up most of an eleven dollar fare with 50c pieces - and as I piled the coins onto the counter she smiled and said: Getting rid of the bracket creep, eh? Isn't that brilliant? I'll never be able to think of it simply as change again.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


I was at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Crows Nest, waiting for a guy to collect his X Rays before taking him on to Royal North Shore Hospital in St. Leonards, when a radio job came through at the adjoining Royal North Shore Private Hospital. A Greek couple, going to Killara. By the time I got there, they'd gone. A woman eating an enormous sandwich came over. Was I her cab? She was going to Narrabeen. I said no, then, not very long after, yes. She apologised for eating in the car, saying it was two days since she had. Fasting all the previous day, in hospital all today, giving blood tests, waiting for her Op, which was cancelled at the last minute ... just ten minutes after her husband, who'd waited with her all day, had gone home. The surgeon had rung from the operating theatre where he was cutting out someone's cancer to say his present job was going to take another couple of hours and it would be better if she just went home. She was quite upset, she said, then apologised. It was to be her fourth Op in two years, she'd really had to psych herself up for it, now it was cancelled, she didn't know when it would be re-scehduled for, she'd used up all her sick pay ... I'm sorry, she said. I shouldn't be telling you all this. I'm sorry. She never said what was wrong with her, only that it meant she and her husband would never be able to have children. She was fearful of just about everything, yet oddly resigned as well. Those parts of Mona Vale Road where it narrows to two lanes and passes through dark eucalypt forest on either side made her particularly afraid. Well, she explained, I'm not really worried, it's just that these days I expect anything can happen. Anything bad, she meant. I took extra care on those bits. We were coming round a bend in the dark carriage way when I saw a sandstone dome floating against the night sky. As if disembodied there. A blue light shone from the apex of the cupola. Then it was gone again. We came round another corner and there, shining straight down along the road, was a huge yellow moon, slightly gibbous, a day or maybe two after full. You could see all its craters and seas. Oh, the moon! I said. She did not reply. She was holding herself against the dark places on the road. The dome reappeared on the left, much larger, enormous, as if a piece of London had come down here. It was the Bahai Temple I have seen many times from the train on the Central Coast line, from where it always looks white like a mosque. I wanted to pull in and stop the car, get out, with my fare, and ... I don't know, not pray, just seek a little calm I guess. Some grace. We hurried on, down the hill to Narrabeen and through a maze of brand new streets, brand new identical brick houses, until we got to where she lived. The house was dark. Her husband was out. She had no key. She had no money or cards either - you can't take anything to hospital, she apologised. I saw her bent over the flower pot by the front door, a grotesque shadow. She was only stroking her cat. She crossed the road to a neighbour's house, the neighbour came out with a credit card and paid for her. The cat almost got under the wheels of the car as I pulled away, driving on into the yellow of the moon that was smaller already, whiter, casting a bony light down over the black glinting sea.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

slow night

First night back at work last night after my two weeks off. Well, actually, it was more like three. I knew it would be hard ... such a slow night. No cigarettes to mark the breaks between fares. A different cab, which had something wrong with its electrics, meaning I couldn't risk turning the motor off after the first time, when I only got it started again with the help of a guy on the Park Street rank, rocking the car up and down as I worked the ignition. A succession of blank fares, first time I think I've ever had a night without at least one person wanting to engage in conversation. And bugger all money ... if it wasn't for a guy I took out to Pennant Hills, and another, a sweet young American/Polynesian who was farewelled by her boyfriend at the Opera House and wanted to go to Regents Park, I would have come home out of pocket. As it was, I was passing my base about 10.30, on my way back to the City from Regents Park, when I decided to call in, fill up with gas and see what was the story with the electrics. Couldn't get the car to start again. I called my boss, Bob, who came straight down to check it out. And, since he didn't seem to be getting anywhere, bailed and came home. He called me later to say the cab was fine, no problem, just don't use air conditioning, too much for battery ... we'll see. I have to drive the same car tonight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


... . A few years ago, brain scans of London cabbies showed that the detailed mental maps they had built up in the course of navigating their city's complicated streets were apparent in their brains. Not only was the posterior hippocampus - one area of the brain where spatial representations are stored - larger in the drivers; the increase in size was proportional to the number of years they had been on the job.

... there is also accumulating evidence that the brain can change autonomously, in response to its own internal signals. Last year, Tibetan Buddhist monks, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, submitted to functional magnetic resonance imaging as they practiced ''compassion meditation,'' which is aimed at achieving a mental state of pure loving kindness toward all beings. The brain scans showed only a slight effect in novice meditators. But for monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation, the differences in brain function were striking. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety. Activity was also heightened in the areas of the brain that direct planned motion: ''... as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress ... ''

from the NY Times

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Crook as Rookwood

No d(é)rives this week - I've had to take the time to try once more to whip this screenplay into shape. Given how much I complain about the job, if mostly only to myself, it's surprising to feel some regret as the phantasmagoria recedes for the nonce. How perverse ... meanwhile I console myself by drawing up a book proposal based partly around cab-driving. I've been plotting it for a while, thinking it was a film, but it crystallised the other night in conversation with an amused and amusing Englishman, from a village near Leeds, whom I took up to the Gordon railway station. I was telling him about Chinese Bob, my boss, whom I like a lot, and his mate Frank, whom I've also worked for, and a third, even more shadowy character called Tony. They're all Chinese. Tony, like Frank, runs his cabs out of the carpark of the Ashfield RSL club. He's quite stylish in his dress, apart from the Andy Capp he usually wears pulled down over his eyes; and somehow sinister. Frank has missing teeth, is handsome and plausible but untrustworthy. Bob's a straight up guy, or at least I think he is. I tried to sketch these characters to the guy from Leeds and he went off on a jag of his own, about how their operation was a front, they were money-laundering, it was really a drug business. And I thought, why not? That's great. It fits in with the plot I'm developing, about a cab driver who goes missing and another cabbie, his mate, who sets off to find out what's happened. There's other elements: a failing script consultancy business the disappeared cabbie ran; a complicated family situation; the old mental asylum at Rozelle, which has something to do with the last job (script consultancy, not cab driving) the guy had and may be the actual place he went missing; the necropolis at Rookwood, which I drove by on my last job Wednesday night. Felt the chill air rising over the old graves as we whistled by. Would be great to get the phantasmagoria, which it truly is, somehow into words ... then I could call my darg, research. And feel like I was being paid twice. But no, that'd be two jobs for the one wage, wouldn't it? Oh, well ...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

mighty dread

I never go out to drive without a sense of dread, even impending catastrophe. Why is this? Nothing bad has happened to me yet and I trust will not. No, it is more psychological, some deep conflict between how I would like to imagine myself existing in the world and how, incontrovertibly, I do. And yet the feeling soon passes, I settle into the rhythm of the shift, the rhythm, let it be said, of the pursuit of money. Plus the ancillary social research I cannot help following. Every fare is a question or a conundrum. Who are they? Where are they going? Why? I am always trying to find out as much as I can about the Other(s) in these relatively brief commercial transactions. Because I work through the evening rush hour and also because I pick up most of my fares in the City, I get a lot of business people in the cab. Most of them do not interact with me in any meaningful way. Mostly they use the travelling time to catch up with calls on their mobiles. Or, if there is more than one of them and they are colleagues, they discuss work matters between themselves. The language of business is at once highly metaphorical and deadly dull. Phrases recur ... 'up to the next level' (architecture?); 'driving the process' (transport?); 'put our beefs on the table' (culinary?); and so on. What is perhaps interesting is that this language is almost entirely uninflected by whatever line of business is being pursued. In fact it is sometimes difficult to discover the line of business at all. Whether it is sports promotion, health care products, banking, travel ... does not matter much insofar as the language itself is concerned. The universal subtext, largely assumed, almost never explicitly discussed, is the acquisition of wealth by means of struggle. 'Teams' use 'strategies' to 'get a win'. The sporting metaphor, derived ultimately from the practice of war, is ubiquitous, overarching. It too is never questioned. It is also, obviously, deeply implicit in the way we conduct politics in our so-called liberal democracies. Sometimes this world of contending factions in pursuit of wealth can seem very strange, sometimes I start to see it as if from very far away, like an alien observer of an equally alien culture. Every time I drive over the Anzac Bridge, which is a magnificent structure, and see the car-choked lanes of traffic heading towards and away from the lighted towers of the City, I experience a kind of vertigo, as if I really were from some other planet than this and could see with completely different eyes. The massed, serried ranks of red tail-lights heading one way, the similarly massed yellow-white array of head-lights going the other, can look very weird. This strangeness, this stimmung, is crystalised for me in an image: away to the left if I'm going to the City, on the vast flat wharfs of the Glebe Island Container Terminal, sit hundreds, perhaps thousands of brand new vehicles, cars, utilities, vans, all painted white, all awaiting their turn to navigate the already terminally hardened arteries of this steel and concrete body, whose heart, the City, is made neither of stone, nor light, nor even language, but of some ineluctable substance, some ether or electricity, of which we humans are also a part. Then my feeling of dread returns, no longer for myself but for all of us; and, mixed in with it, a sense of wonder.