Thursday, August 31, 2006

total recall

is of course impossible but that doesn't stop us trying. Last night was my final night driving for a while, so I thought I'd try to remember every ride ... went ok at first but there always comes a time when events overwhelm the apparently simple desire to record and recall. Pick up my first fare on Broadway, a cyclist and his manager. The cyclist talks about his legs. His manager talks about sports promotions. After I let them out at Martin Place, a few metres up on George Street there's a very out-of-it young woman yelling into her mobile phone and waving hysterically for a cab. I ease past her, something I hardly ever do, and am hailed immediately by a fellow in a suit with a battered leather briefcase. Manly he says then doesn't speak again for the entire journey. Blond, blue-eyed, English or perhaps South African, he looks like a dissolute Wehrmacht officer. Legs crossed, hands clasped on his knee, wrapped in some cloud of unspeakable sorrow. Coming back through Mosman, I score a radio job from HMAS Penguin. A sailor called Ben, going to Maroubra. He's having his wisdom teeth out and has just had a consultation at the Naval hospital there at Middle Head. He's been in Timor - you didn't see much - and thinks he's probably going to Iraq next. He's an electrician off HMAS Kanimbla, a helicopter capable amphibious transport ship. An impenetrable silence descends when I ask what he and his mates think about the death of Private Kovco. It'll go on for years, is all he'll say. There's been an accident on the bridge, traffic going north is backed up for kilometres. Doesn't bother us, we whizz down Southern Cross Drive and soon I'm heading back empty to the City again. It's only just after four and already I've made $90.00. Around about this time, or a little later, someone is run down and killed by a train in the tunnel between Central and Town Hall stations, on the Illawarra line. Passengers in the train behind have to get out and walk back to Central in the 45 degree underground heat. The City is thrown into chaos as commuters try to get home by road. I take a young Asian woman with a limp to a doctor's appointment in Hunter's Hill, she's so nervy that when someone toots me as I change lanes in front of him, she nearly jumps out of her seat. Coming back, I pick up a Macedonian woman in Bathurst Street and take her to Bondi. She's thin as a rake, with a great beaked nose, lustrous eyes and a bowed, generous mouth. A nice person. We chat happily together as we scoot away from the madness. In Macedonia, the cabs are 1980s Ford Lasers with the door handles and window winders in the back removed, there's no air and everybody smokes and yells and it's hopeless ... There are so many people looking for hails in the City it's ridiculous. On the corner of Oxford and College Streets I stop for a woman who's going up to St Vincent’s hospital to see her sister. She has visited her every evening after work since she was diagnosed with leukaemia late last year. Today her sister, after a bone marrow transplant, thinks she can eat so my fare is taking her a pear she bought at DJs. She's from New Zealand, an Aucklander. She doesn't think her sister's going to make it, she has that look ... I ignore all the frantically waving people on Liverpool Street and make my way up Pitt to Park. There's no cabs on the rank and a desperate huddle at the head, but I need cigarettes if I'm to survive the night, so I leave the car and buy a packet of Gudang Garam from the African in the convenience store. Three people pile into the wagon, they have luggage, they're going to the Airport. It's a multiple hire, they're a couple and a single guy, they don't know each other so, by rights, they should each pay two thirds of the metered fare. I tell them this and then say I can't be bothered enforcing the rule. The single guy in the front seat tells me that, on his way in from the airport last Sunday, his taxi driver fell asleep at the wheel. They stopped at some lights and when they went green, the cab didn't move. He had to lean over and wake the cabbie up. An old chap who drove at snail's pace anyway. When we get to the Virgin Blue terminal, there's 23 bucks on the meter but the guy writes $35 on the cab charge docket. I smoke an illicit cigarette, my first of the day, on my way back up O'Riordon Street to the City, where I'm once more besieged by hails. I get a young businessman going to Oyster Bay, at the southern limit of the metropolis. I can sit back and relax as we wind down towards Brighton Le Sands on the shores of Botany Bay. He's a Pom, he has a cold, his wife doesn't want to talk to him on the phone so he calls some mates instead to arrange boozy weekends in London and Paris. I can't work out if he's in music or sport and in the end decide it doesn't matter. This is where I start to lose it ... remember smoking another fag as I barrelled back up the Princes Highway into town, but what happened after that? Took a young woman to Central Station, the Country Trains, an Eastern European guy from there to the Casino, picked up in Pyrmont, a chef getting off work who was obsessed about the greasy smell he carried like an atmos around him and reckoned he wants to buy my car ... let him have my mobile number but doubt he'll ring. His grandmother gave away his deceased grandfather's '67 Chrysler Valiant with only 23,000 on the clock and the plastic still on the seats and he hasn't got over it yet - Steve, the chef from Adelaide, I mean. I took two people, one after the other, to Moore Park, a fussy woman and a fat American. Took a nice bloke to Potts Point ... might have gone any number of other places but I just can't remember now where, or if, they were. Much later, I sit for about three quarters of an hour on the Park Street rank outside the Criterion Hotel, watching the passing to and fro of the night people, until a sad Irishwoman who's been sitting on a nearby bench eating some kind of bun she bought from the McDonalds across the road, stands up wiping her fingers and, leaving the paper bag and the stained wrappers to blow away into the gutter with all the other detritus of the day, climbs into the back seat and asks to be taken to Lane Cove West. After that I go home.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Easy Street

An ibis flies between the towers, looking anxious and out of place as it glides down towards Hyde Park. Two Arab cabbies are doing standing jumps onto the round, fixed metal pillar where you're meant to drop your cigarette butts and your ash. The tubbie Indian from the cab behind mine smiles and says: They happy, they making good money. It's about, oh, 9.15 pm on Tuesday. I think. Could be Wednesday. The Park Street rank in the City. Outside the all night convenience store, in the bright white light, a kid in a green school uniform and an adolescent in torn jeans and T shirt are kicking an undersized soccer ball around. One of the happy Arabs decides to join in. All three of them start kicking the ball with what seems like excessive enthusiasm. It skitters past the legs of passers-by then cannons into the bags of rubbish piled outside McDonalds, spilling coke and hamburger mush onto the footpath. Everybody laughs. I'm thinking about Easy Street. I told the Ambassador there was one in Randwick but, although I've seen the street sign flash by, I've never actually worked out where it is. I crush the last of my Gudang Garam out into the free standing ashtray and get back into the cab to check in my Sydway. Turns out there's two, the other one's in Rozelle. But, this is disappointing, the Randwick one has been eaten by the Prince of Wales Hospital and is now entirely contained within the insititution while the other, in Rozelle, is a service road running between White Bay and the Glebe Island container terminal. Does this mean that nobody actually lives on Easy Street anymore, I'm wondering, as I move my cab up the front of the rank, point as it's called? What a shame. What a fine address to have, either in Randwick or in Rozelle. I see someone in the rearview mirror walking towards me with that oddly determined gait people have when they're going to catch a cab. I can only see the midriff, the tops of the legs, a suit, can't even say right off if it's man or woman. A woman. I have an absurd premonition that she'll ask to be taken to Easy Street. She's Scots and wants to go to Bondi, Francis Street ... that's fine. The kid picks up his greasy soccer ball and looks around for someone else to play with. The ibis will be splashing in the Archibald Fountain by now. Or maybe it's down at the ponds in the Botanical Gardens. The Scottie is pregnant and spends most of the trip on her mobile phone, calling people back home to tell them how Junior's getting on ... s/he's 23 cms long! Also relates in detail some fairly arcane vaginal exercises learned in a class, which her husband refuses to help her with. Insert two fingers and rotate, she hoots. Maybe their kid will live on Easy Street? Now I've got lines from Tom Waits in my head, the song from Small Change called The One That Got Away:

The jigolo's jumpin salty
ain't no trade out on the streets
half past the unlucky
and the hawk's a front-row seat
dressed in full orquestration
stage door johnnys got to pay
and sent him home
talking bout the one that got away

could a been on easy street
could a been a wheel
with irons in the fire
and all them business deals ....

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

rugger buggers

Was idling yesterday afternoon on the rank at Chifley Plaza - where stands an enormous cut-out of Our Ben, shot full of holes as his dream of a light on the hill - or maybe just rusting - when a giant of man came out of the government building that stands there. He had an aura and he was looking around as if he expected to be recognised. Jesus, I thought, it's Phil Kearns! And it was. Unfortunately - or perhaps not - I was one back from point, so he took the cab in front of me. Seconds later, another rugby player, as I thought, climbed into the front seat of mine. An expensive suit, a loud tie, the build of a 2nd five eighth, as they used to be known, rather than a front row forward. Going to Randwick. I asked him which way he wanted to go, because it was rush hour and it pays, literally, to implicate the fare in the chosen route, especially if you're likely to end up stuck in traffic together. He didn't mind. He wasn't au fait with Sydney traffic, he said, since, these days, he lived in Rome. What took you to Rome? I asked. I'm the Australian ambassador there, he said. You don't look old enough, I offered. I'm 52, he replied. What do you say to an ambassador? I wanted to ask him how he got the gig but it seemed too much like effrontery. I wanted to ask him about what a National Party staffer told me last week, that John Howard has a near perfect understanding of the dark underbelly of the Australian psyche. I would have liked to have heard a bit more about the fallout from the Andreotti affair that Peter Robb wrote about in Midnight in Sicily ... we talked of other things. Going up Oxford Street, his palm pilot rang with one of those old fashioned black telephone off at the hook rings. There was a brief discussion about the appointment of an honorary consul somewhere then we went back to talking about this and that. Via the Italian-Australian match at the (soccer) World Cup, we got on to rugby. Yep, I was right, he'd been a player. Knew his stuff. He said the Aussies can't win the (rugby) World Cup next year because their forwards are too young and their backs too old. But that the All Blacks will have to watch out for the French. You only want to play the French once, he said. When he got out in St. Marks Road, there was an odd hesitation between us. I had the sense that there were things he would have liked to ask me as well. But I'll never know what they were. Meanwhile, Phil Kearns was halfway to Mosman, driven by a perhaps oblivious, dour Pakistani with jihad pamphlets in his glove box.

Friday, August 11, 2006

... queens ride in it ...

Twenty Rides & a Love Note

The Curator of Cambodian Art at the Denver Museum, name of Bunker, she looked like a cross between E Annie Proulx and Madelaine Albright and walked with a limp. Art Gallery of NSW to Sydney University.

A Japanese psychologist who specialised in coaching trauma victims giving evidence at criminal trials. A small, extremely alert, birdlike woman who said that Recovered Memory Syndrome does not exist in Japan. University of NSW to the City.

A Czech-born, German speaking, Swiss orthodontist here for a conference. We talked about that variety of homesickness which does not know where home is. City to Darling Harbour.

Two drunken Russian mafioso who'd been at the opening of a boutique in Double Bay and spent the ride to the City discussing recalcitrant employees and amenable strippers.

A Saudi man with three beautiful daughters and one son, whose wife rode on ahead with the boy in another cab, here with his family on holiday: a man of grave courtesy, impeccable manners and the air of a slightly weary prince from another age than ours. City to Glebe.

A mother and daughter, seemingly identical apart from the difference in their ages, 'of Middle Eastern appearance'. I could not tell if they were Arabs or Jews and didn't dare ask. City to Brighton le Sands.

Two Prison Architects from Melbourne who were extremely stressed by the manifold demands of their work. City to the Airport.

A chaotic, Botswana-born IT guy, a White African; we discussed, among other things, marijuana cultivation; he loved Australia but missed his adrenaline fuelled youth, when each day was an improvisation and the stakes life and/or death. He left his keys in the car, but it was a radio job so I remembered the street number and posted them back to him, resisting the temptation to address the envelope: Botswana Bwana. Newtown to Rose Bay.

A large, long-haired man of indeterminate occupation who'd worked for 25 years, on and off, in Chile. Very well informed about both banking and politics but veiled, veiled ... Darlinghurst to Brighton le Sands.

Two half cut Crim/Businessman picked up outside a car yard on Parramatta Road. They were going to a pub in Balmain but, when they realised ‘Jean’ would not be there, changed their minds and went to the Airport instead, along the way hatching nefarious schemes to eliminate rivals and defraud governments.

A Spanish girl with a broken elbow and wrist, sustained when she hit a speed bump while simultaneously riding her pushbike, texting a friend on her mobile phone and attempting to apply balm to her lips. She was delirious with morphine but her friend got her home. RPA Hospital in Camperdown to Marrickville.

Two young smarties on their way to a Christina Aguilera album launch. One of them said he had that very day discussed farting on set with Toni Collette; they other was involved in the buying and selling of pearls from Broome. Glebe to Kings Cross.

Two aging, serious music fans who'd been to hear the Arctic Monkeys at the Enmore and meticulously deconstructed the gig on the cab ride home. St Peters to Kogarah.

Two drunken young men who'd just cleaned up big in an illegal poker game. Though they were het boys, they spoke to each other like lovers as they planned further clean-outs. St Peters to Paddington via Surry Hills.

A garrulous Irish IT guy who spent the first part of the ride abusing the government and the second, after I'd been stopped by the police for speeding, abusing cops. As they wrote out the tickets (there were two, I hadn't filled out my worksheet properly) I found myself explaining the derivation of the word 'fiction'. City to Potts Point.

A woman and a man who'd been dining out together and were now going back to his place for a tryst. She called her husband and children as we drove along, setting him straight on details needed for the Census form and reassuring her kids that she loved them and would see them in the morning. Crows Nest to Bellevue Hill.

A Dancer with a little-girl voice, wrinkled hands, grey thighs, and pink feathers at ankle and wrist. She inadvertently left a perfumed feather behind on the front seat. Surry Hills to Kings Cross.

An obsessed Film Director (is there any other kind?) who meticulously summarised her day's emails for the benefit of her monosyllabic boyfriend, grunting in the back seat; it was about the financial shenanigans of her Producers and the deals they were or were not making with some crooked German financiers. They were looking for a writer but I managed to keep my mouth shut. Darlinghurst to The Rocks.

A couple of stock brokers who never said where they were going: I had to work it out from their conversation with each other; one, an American, rhapsodised about the $330.00 worth of fatty tuna he ate in a sushi bar in Hong Kong; he was making a special detour on his next overseas trip so he could gorge himself there again. City to Bondi.

The Head Caterer at the NSW Houses of Parliament, a big, beautiful Fijian man called Joseph. We spoke about Fiji and he knew every place I’d been there, some of which are very out-of-the-way. Invited me to come and dine at Parliament with him one day, and bring my sons. Macquarie Street to Kogarah.

On Wednesday when I took over from the day driver, an Ecuadorian called Italo, he showed me a love-note a fare had given him and said: This taxi has holes in the floor, but Queens ride in it ...