Saturday, April 30, 2005

high on the hog

Aaaaaahhhh ... the weekend. Is blessed relief. However. I seem to have arrived at a way of working that works. Three nights, about nine hours a night (3 pm - midnight) during which I don't stop for anything except the odd cigarette, usually on a rank so that I'm still in contention. This because I found that every time I made a pitstop it took up to an hour to rediscover the serendipidities - or stochastics - or whatever. Every night is the same, only different; or different, but the same. The thing I'm most pleased about is that I'm managing to keep my resolve to be pleasant to my fares no matter what the provocations may be ... though I nearly lost it the other night. I picked up three people on Macquarie Street. Two men and a woman. They'd been to a restaurant, were fairly well liquored but clearly used to it. A big, bluff, red-faced man got into the front seat, the other two in the back. That took a while. They were old and unsteady. Once in they began to discuss who would be dropped off first. That took even longer. I didn't mind - the meter was running. He in the front was going to Darling Point. He in the back, a little old guy clutching a biography of newspaper magnate Conrad Black, lived in Elizabeth Bay. She, tiny and elegant, with an accent that might have been Viennese, was from Bellevue Hill. The obvious way to do it would have been Elizabeth Bay, Darling Point, Bellevue Hill. But he in the back was having none of it. He wanted to escort her home. So that's what we did, dropping first in Darling Point. The two men were well-heeled, complacent, with the braying Brit accents of the born to rule. Doctors or lawyers, or at least those they talked about were. London, Morocco, the south of France ... flitted by. Darling Point, Woollahra, Bondi Junction, too. The old couple canoodled in the back seat for a while outside the mansion in Benelong Crescent. They were sweet and tender, like young lovers of another era, with a curious formality to their endearments. But as soon as she had gone, he changed. He became querulous and demanding. He was too hot. 'Turn on the air conditioning, driver,' he ordered. I did. But still he wasn't comfortable. Not surprising - he was wearing a three piece suit on a sultry Sydney night and the air-con still isn't working properly. 'The air-con's not working properly,' I said. 'Why not?' he said. 'Probably the fluid needs replacing,' I said. 'You could try opening the window.' He grumbled as he did. Next: 'Are we going to Elizabeth Bay?' I didn't answer that one. As we entered Oxford Street, Paddington, he began muttering. 'Oh I see. We are.' Then: 'This is a very long way.' He had a point - I was using the old route, as I often do, not the new, slightly quicker one. On the other hand, there isn't much to choose between them. Two sides of a trapezium are much the same as the other two sides. And at that time of night ... At the end of Elizabeth Bay Road he said: 'Number 93, driver. On the corner.' I couldn't see any corner - the road ends in a semi-circular turn around. '93!' he shrieked. 'On the corner!' I saw the big bright numerals on the gates to the mansion and pulled over. We did the business. 'Goodnight,' he said. 'Goodnight,' I said. But he mustn't have heard me. 'I said, Goodnight!' he repeated, in his imperious accent. It was at this point I nearly lost it. I turned round and looked him in the eye, making sure he could see me too. I'm capable of a cold imperious gaze myself. 'Goodnight,' I said. He got the look. A moment of uncertainty, perhaps? His own unpleasant behaviour reflected in the eyes of a servant? Perhaps not. He was still muttering as he trailed off into the night, Conrad Black tucked under his arm.

Ninety Years On

Because it was a Monday this year, and I do Mondays, I worked Anzac Day. A big night for cabbies. Cash flying all over the place, sometimes seemingly unconnected to human hands or pockets. Couple of things struck me: the City was full of young guys in suits wearing medals. I picked up several of them. One of them told me he was 34 but didn't say which campaign he served on. If he was born about 1970, what could it have been? The First Gulf War? East Timor? Iraq? Another one said that Anzac Day was the best day of the year, better than Christmas. He and his wife had woken at one am, too excited to go back to sleep. He said last year he was crawling on his hands and knees back to Cronulla by 6 pm but was pacing himself better this year. These young guys - in their twenties or thirties - were extremely polite no matter how drunk they were, they had a strong sense of entitlement, though friendly they all had a remote quality, as if they breathed a different air from the rest of us. They were part of a self conscious elite I guess, a military caste. Later on I took a couple of truckies far out west. They said the same thing: Anzac Day is the best day of the year, better than Christmas. They'd been to the Dawn Service at Brighton le Sands, then played two-up somewhere else, then gone to The Rocks, where I picked them up. It wasn't clear if they'd served or not. But they were part of the emotion of the day, no doubt. At one point in the evening, waiting on a rank mid-town, I watched a young Aboriginal woman in a party dress savagely kicking a full water bottle the length of Park Street. By that time the whole City looked like a vast open-air public bar, drunks everywhere, men and women in uniform clasped together staggering by, old diggers threading their fragile way through the melee to their rides: was the war over or had it not yet begun? Or is it some kind of perpetual state now? I couldn't help thinking of Our Leader, driving in his limo down to Anzac Cove on a road specially constructed for him by the Turkish Government ... over, literally, the bones of the dead.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Total Recall?

This week, for the first time, I achieved my target amount within the hours I’ve allotted to cab driving … a celebration is in order perhaps? Instead, I thought I’d attempt an account of the last night, Wednesday, of my three day week. For what it’s worth …

The air-con is still not working. The day driver had an accident on Saturday and now the cab’s a mobile sauna. The internal light’s blown and there’s a headlight out as well. I’ll have to drive with the windows down which means I won’t hear the radio as well as I’d like. Oh, well.

About 3.30 pm I pick up a Pommie chippie outside Central Station and take him to Kings Cross, where he lives. He tells me that when he started working in Australia, his first pay packet came at the end of his first week, not after three weeks as it would have in England, plus one week’s Australian wages was double what three week’s English wages would have been. In ten years, he’s never been back. Why would he? ($10)

Around the corner are three Japanese tourists, young, well-dressed men. I take them to Circular Quay. ($12)

At the rank in Chifley Square, from which you can see, surrounded by palms, the giant, perforated metal cut out sculpture of Ben Chifley – as if shot full of holes by all that has happened since he proclaimed the light on the hill – I get a fare to Market and Kent. A businessman making a delivery. He speaks confidently on his mobile to an associate he’s meeting in ten minutes at the Niko (?) Hotel then confesses to me he has no idea where it is. Nor do I. And it’s not in the street directory either. ($8)

At the Park Street rank I pick up a guy going to Lindfield. Overweight, black – or rather light brown – American, he's in IT. He spends the trip making work calls on his mobile. He pays with an Amex and when I cheekily ask him for a tip (the request comes up automatically on the terminal menu) he says crisply, no. ($40)

A young couple, seeming diffident, hail me as I drive away after dropping off the IT guy. Turns out they’re hiding a trolley full of shopping, thinking no cabbie will stop if he sees it. I don’t care – a fare’s a fare. I take them to Roseville. ($10)

I’m being harassed by the computer over a couple of small jobs in Chatswood, which I don’t want because I don’t know where they are and would take ages to find. But I head for there anyway. In Archer Street I get offered a job in … Archer Street. A diminutive, roly poly country doctor, a Pacific Islander by the look of him, perhaps a descendant of someone blackbirded out of Melanesia, he’s from the Northern Rivers and has eye trouble. I take him from the surgery to a private hospital in Killara. ($20)

Another radio job … Killara to the Airport. One of those plums cabbies dream of, worth at least fifty bucks, specially welcome since I would probably otherwise have driven back to the City vacant. She’s a nice woman, a South African, who starts out asking me about the safety screen I sit within, like the Pope in his Popemobile, and ends up receiving a full confession of recent complications in my personal life. I can’t believe I’m telling her all this, some of which I’ve never articulated to anyone before. She’s a psychologist, she tells me finally, almost apologetically. As she hands over the money I think I should be paying her; I feel so much better. ($60)

On the way back up O’Riordan Street, heading to the City, I cop a hail to Alice Street in Newtown. A young guy going home from work. Nice guy. ($10)

As I’m dropping off another radio job comes through. Newtown to the City. It’s the Street of Crooked Houses a friend showed me when we were tripping one time. Unseen again from that day to this. But I don’t have time to look around, this couple booked the cab for the wrong time and they’re late for dinner. He gives me meticulous, even pedantic directions all the way and keeps changing his mind about what route he wants to take. She gives me a large tip when I let them off at Circular Quay. ($25)

Back at Chifley Square I don’t even have time to stretch my legs. A sweet young woman going home to Mosman after work climbs into the back seat. When we get close she says turn left at the next lights, by the Caltex Station, but there are no lights there and no Caltex Station, just a derelict yellow Midas sign. ($25)

I head straight back to the City and pick up a hail in Bridge Street. A businessman going to the Airport, a young guy who seems inordinately pleased with himself. But I don’t know why because he doesn’t speak to me. ($25)

I’m out of cigarettes so, back in the City, I stop off and buy a packet of Gadang Garam at the Chinese tobacconist next to the Kebab place by Scruffy Murphy’s in Goulburn Street. I go looking for a rank where I can have a smoke and still stay in contention for a job, but I’m hailed outside a pub almost as soon as I get back in the cab. Guy’s a bit drunk. He makes a call on his mobile, speaking baby talk, so I think he must be talking to his kid. When he gets off he says, in a normal voice, shit, I’m in trouble. It was his wife he was talking to. She’s Thai. He’s from Clapham, London, and works for Ernst Young. We talk about real estate values and immigration issues all the way to Bronte. (There’s been computer messages all night about a fare someone dropped off in Bronte yesterday. Sounds like a police matter. I was working in the Eastern Suburbs at that time but I didn’t pick up at the Coogee Bay Hotel. I’ll never know what this is about.) ($20)

I go to the Bondi Junction rank where I finally get a chance to smoke a cigarette. The rank is packed, and slow-moving. I watch a young couple manhandling a huge fluffy toy, a brown bear, into a Tobacco Station across the road. It’s bigger than she is. Reach the head at last and take a seemingly unhappy woman in her thirties to Vaucluse. She’s very nice to me, the way unhappy people sometimes are nice to strangers. ($15)

A radio job, Vaucluse to Rose Bay. I take it. But I misread the map and end up in Watsons Bay instead. Vaucluse is a maze and I get hopelessly lost. I’ve just about sorted it out when the walkie talkie crackles into life. A truly absurd dialogue ensues, with the despatcher trying to find out how long I’m going to be and me trying to tell her I’ll be there as soon as she stops hassling me. Turns out I’m nearly outside the house anyway. Three scantily dressed, heavily made up, violently perfumed teenage girls trip down the path from a mansion. Young as they are, they already assume the incontrovertible authority of the wealthy. The one in the front asks me to turn on the internal light so she can check her look in the mirror. They argue about the route. When we get there, one says, stop before the party; another says, no, drive past so we can get a look. There’s nothing to see – just another mansion. They dispute amongst themselves about the fare then underpay. ($8)

Another job off the radio, Bellevue Hill to Bondi Beach. An older guy, smelling of sweet port wine. ($10)

A hail on Bondi Road. Two English women, also going to party. We stop at a servo so they can buy cigarettes along the way. ($6)

I go back to Bondi Beach, intending to park on the rank, have another smoke and listen to the ocean for a while. As I pull up a young guy opens the door. Thanks for stopping, he says. I hadn’t even seen him. I take him to Redfern. ($25)

I’m very tired. You can’t really do this sort of thing on five hour’s sleep. Plus I haven’t eaten. My last job last night I nearly went through a red light in Enmore, could have killed both my fare and myself. She was talking about Rotorua and I was thinking about Tarawera. I go up to The Rocks, have a pee in the Hero of Waterloo and stop outside for a while, smoking and listening to the pianist doing Tom Waits’ "Jersey Girl" then Dylan’s "Make You Feel My Love". He’s a shit singer but plays piano nicely.

I get a hail in Bridge Street, a non-descript young guy with a packet of white sliced bread in his hand. God knows why. He’s going to the Park Hyatt in College Street. ($9).

I really should head home now but, after leaving the Hyatt, I have to turn left into Oxford Street, where I’m hailed straightaway by two young dudes. They’re drunk but not aggressive. There is a lot of clinking from their bags and I figure that they’ve probably been pinching glasses from wherever they’ve been drinking. They’re work mates, one more senior than the other, and they have a startlingly explicit conversation about the women in their office. Detailed discussion of anatomical features plus lurid scenarios of possible action … I tune out. One gets off at the tennis courts in Rose Bay, the other I take to yet another mansion in Vaucluse. ($25)

That’s it. 11.30. I’m definitely going home now. FBI are doing a Crosby, Stills and Nash special on The Bug-Eyed Highway, their late night country music show. I turn it up full blast as I roll through Double Bay. "We are stardust/Billion year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden …" I couldn’t do this job without the radio. The City’s full of cabs cruising vacant, all the ranks are jammed up. I get another hail on Parramatta Road, two young blokes who’ve been at a gig. They’re cool. And Stanmore’s on my way. ($12)

I have to fill the tank up with gas - $20 – and put aside $130 for Chinese Bob, whose cab it is I drive. I’ve travelled 230 kilometres and made $375, which means my take home is $225. Or thereabouts. The young Iraqi guy, always so immaculate at the beginning of a shift, now looks tired and rumpled. We exchange mute, weary smiles. I buy a bottle of beer from the Summer Hill Hotel and go home to make myself some salami and tomato cheese melts.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Not so much feeding my head perhaps as unloading it of random images of nights in the life. Writing as a process of forgetting, in the way that the character of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", a malign immortal, records phenomena so that they can then be erased forever from the memory of time. Images without provenance, without explanation ... a curly-haired man lying face down, possibly dead, on a concrete slab in the lurid yellow neon light of the next door Church of Christ, Rockdale, with desultory police gathered and a slow ambulance on the way ... while down a nearby alley a man runs hectically toward the scene of the crime ... a Silver Service cab (they are the elite among taxis, immaculate Fairlanes with liveried drivers) stopped on Broadway with the back left hand door open as a young woman in a party dress bends over a pool of vomit glittering like jewels on the kerb and in the gutter ... a young Japanese hooker with meaty thighs striding towards an apartment building in Ward Avenue while her sixty year old John, who looks like Norman Mailer, pays off the cabbie and follows her in ... four drunk people in Kings Cross, three women and a man, throwing balled up paper bags at the cab in front ... they have been celebrating a day shooting a low budget movie, maybe a porno flick, and want to go to Paddington ... a couple having a leaden, nasty fight in the back seat after attending the World Premiere of the new Nicole Kidman film "The Interpreter" ... she fell asleep ten minutes in and snored and blames him for not waking her ... a man standing in the middle of Darlinghurst Road at the corner of Oxford Street, arms raised in praise at the way the night wind moves in the dark leaves of the trees outside the old jail ... the car-wash men, Arabs stripped to the waist with fags stuck in their mouths, manically hosing and soaping and wiping down and polishing the once grimy cabs under stark white fluorescents at the Ampol Station in Five Dock ... the guy who sleeps sitting down and bolstered in a complicated arrangement of bags while leaning forward into a shopping trolley in a bus shelter on the Hume Highway, whom I pass every night on my way home ...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Last night, late, I took a young woman up to St. Ives on Sydney's leafy far north shore. She paid with an Amex card and a strange twist to her face, half apology, half pride. Perhaps she thought I'd rather have cash. As she was getting out, she looked back and found something sitting on the back seat. It clearly wasn't hers so she handed it to me: a small oblong wooden box with a marbled inlay top. As I drove away through the white-lit yet somehow dark, deserted streets - like a Delvaux painting perhaps - through which occasional sleek expensive cars hissed, I picked the box up and gave it a shake. It rattled thinly. I got momentarily lost; I was running out of gas; so I put it aside until I found a 24 hour servo on nearby Mona Vale Road. While the car was filling I took another look at the box and discovered the sliding mechanism that opens it. Inside were pills: one and a half of them. They are pale green, smaller than an Aspro but not quite as small as a Valium. On one side of the whole tablet are the letters APO; on the other, WAR 2.5. What are they? Who left them there? Shall I try one? Maybe the half, on the weekend? The box is nicely made, with a small heart burnt into the base; inside there is a residue of pill-dust, as if it has been used to carry supplies of whatever it is for a long time. When I was lost up the wrong end of Warrimo Avenue where it turns into deadend Timbarra Road, a rabbit skittered across in front of the cab and disappeared into the darkness of Kuringai Chase, a wilderness of bush stretching all the way north to the Hawkesbury River. Must have been the coincidence of rabbit and pillbox, plus I'm reading Alice in Wonderland to my sons, that gave me the song I can't get out of my head today:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the doormouse said:
"Feed your head
Feed your head ... "

Monday, April 04, 2005


In the previous post I probably should have written 'psychogeography' instead of 'social geography'. Which term comes out of Situationist practice with a provenance going back to the Surrealists, especially Breton's 'Nadja' and Aragon's 'Paris Peasant'. Current practitioners include Iain Sinclair with his exploratory journeys about London and the wild texts that document them. Probably John Birmingham's 'Leviathan,' a biography of Sydney which I still haven't read yet, is an example of the genre too. The dérive ('drift') as I understand it is a random walk in which you notice and interrogate everything you come across, consciously tracking your way through a forest of signs. Every night driving is a kind of inadvertent dérive (d'rive?) during which your unstructured bounce around the city and suburbs is at once both utterly meaningless and deeply meaningful ... trouble is, there's never enough time to reflect upon those signs you do manage to see, as opposed to merely encountering. I remember how I used to make a point of recalling in detail each night's peregrination at the end of a shift, but I'm too distracted at the moment to do that, so I just bring home those bits and pieces that stay with me, for whatever reason. So much of the city has altered in my time away from driving that I'm constantly finding myself at dead ends, in blocked off streets, taking turns I can't take or else driving along roads I don't want to be on. Other times, when I'm vacant, I'll visit parts of the city I love to see how they're getting on; it's surprising how often these random quests do result in fares. You find these dark solitary figures down dark solitary streets who want to go back to the bright lights. But it can go the other way too. I took a small risk yesterday, doing a U turn across traffic lights to pick up a couple of blokes in Bondi, one of whom said, in a thick, maybe Scottish accent, 'Pyrmont'. So off we went crawling through the atrocious after-football traffic all the way across town - third time in a row for me. I thought they seemed rather sanguine about the way the fare on the meter was climbing and I also wondered what they were muttering to each other in their unbreakable accent code which was hard even to hear with them both in the back seat and both fairly well shickered too. Anyway, Pyrmont ... I used to know it intimately and in fact in my last book, 'Chronicle of the Unsung', I practised a bit of psychogeography upon its then mostly derelict streets ... before I'd ever heard the term. It's unrecognisable now, casinos, hotels, TV studios and apartment blocks have replaced the vacant lots, crumbling industrial sites, disused churches, grimy pubs and marginal squats. Jones Road used to lead to the quarry where much of the stone for Sydney's grand Regency and Victorian buildings was cut but now, when I finally found it again, it's a street of brand new apartment buildings with a leafy park and a sandstone massif at the end. These guys didn't look like they lived in this kind of place and nor did they. As I pulled up and switched on the internal light they each popped their respective doors and took off into the greenery, skinny arms pumping. Shit! Thirty bucks just ran away, I thought. The bastards. In the instant I realised they'd not only planned it but must have tried it before. It was a perfect spot to do a runner. I didn't follow them - that'd be asking for trouble. I just turned around and drove back to the corner, where four young English women were waiting with a quite incredible amount of luggage to go to the Goldsbrough building ... which used to be the largest woolstore in the southern hemisphere, owned by the wonderfully named Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort but is now another luxe apartment building. So I didn't make the rent last night. I was thirty dollars short.