Wednesday, September 27, 2006


There's a ritual at my taxi base. It's called Change and refers not so much to small denomination coins as to large notes. Every day when I go to work, I take with me an envelope in which is my work sheet and my pay-in (the hire of the cab for 12 hours) from the night before plus, if I'm lucky, the rest of the credit card receipts or cab charge dockets. The balance, if it's more than the pay-in, is the Change. The wife of my boss, Chinese Bob, sits at the wheel of their car in the service station forecourt with, among much else, an envelope full of banknotes and a plastic bag of coins. She redeems the change, invariably handing over the largest notes she can to make up the amount. She loves giving out, in descending order of importance, hundreds, fifties, twenties, tens, fives, gold coins, silver coins. Italo told me that her name is Estrela, which is also, coincidentally, the name of the love of Antonio da Nova's life in Luca Antara. Estrela, who's Chinese as well, used to worry about the small amounts of change I'd be getting. I would tell her it was partly because I sometimes cash in the cab charge receipts down at Five Dock, so I can go home with actual money in my pocket, but first she didn't believe me and then she couldn't understand why I'd sacrifice the small percentage (2%) they charge for the service. One afternoon she asked me if I'd ever had a $300.00 night. I said no, and she smiled sorrowfully and shook her head. Lately things have improved, making her happier on my account, which is sweet. And then, last night, I did have a $300.00 night. Not only that, but I was home before midnight. I'm looking forward to telling her today.

People just kept cliimbing into and out of my cab, though that doesn't necessarily mean you make a lot of money. But then, outside the Casino in Pyrmont, I had a windfall. Two blokes, one in a suit, one not, hurried across the road and waved me down. The one in the suit got in the front, his mate in the back. Wide boys. They were going to an address in Botany to get a document signed; they wanted me to wait and then take them back to Crows Nest. It was about nine pm and they were sweating. As we sailed down Botany Road, they nervously discussed the prospects. They didn't know the house they were going to and they didn't know the bloke they were meeting, either. There was speculation about the possible dangers they might face. They were under instructions to view the bloke's driver's licence, or passport, or something. He wouldn't send you anywhere dangerous, the guy in the back reassured the guy in the front. I'm glad you're coming with me, the guy in the front said. I was dying to know what it was all about but didn't like to ask. The guy in front changed the radio station and turned the music up real loud. The guy in the back navigated, using my street directory. We were on a mission. It was exciting as well as nerve-racking.

When we found the house, a small brick cottage on a corner next to a highway, with a little reserve called Arthur Park opposite, the suited one left his jacket on the front seat and said I could lock the cab if I wanted to. They said they'd be about ten minutes. I leaned on the bonnet of the cab, smoking a Gadung Garam, looking into the windy darkness, intermittently illuminated by white lights, very near the shores of Botany Bay. No-one around, hardly any traffic either. I was wondering if I might hear shots or shouts or furniture crashing over. It was a lonesome part of town. The windows of the house were the antique brown of rattan blinds lit by dim lamps from inside. Then the door banged, and the voices were loud but cheerful. They piled back in and we took off, real quick. I made an illegal U turn so we could go back up via Southern Cross Drive and the Eastern Distributor and then through the Harbour Tunnel to Crows Nest. They talked about the bloke, who, it turned out, didn't have a driver's licence but did have a birth certificate. They talked about the place ... a shithole, they said. How could a bloke who commands $2.3 million live like that? This sequed into a story the guy in the back told, about a unit in Abbotsford he rented off a mate. The mate had lived there eighteen years and never cleaned up. Before this guy moved in, he scrubbed the carpets with a wire brush and took away four garbage bags of rubbish from off the floors alone. But, and this was the point, his mate had paid for his new unit in cash. Half a million. So, squalor doesn't necessarily mean poverty.

As we came up to the Falcon Street exit the guy in the front said that I must think they were doing something dodgy like a drug deal. I said, yes, I was curious. Turns out it was property, a place in Byron Bay that would go to auction at eleven this morning if the contract wasn't signed. A cash deposit of $100,000 had been made and the document was the guarantee for the rest of it. Where's the hundred grand? I asked, looking around hopefully. In a safe place, he said, and laughed. I dropped them off outside the Crows Nest Hotel on the corner of the Pacific Highway. There was about 70 dollars on the meter plus $7.50 in tolls. The front guy handed me a green hundred dollar bill and asked for fifteen bucks change. And a receipt. I wrote the cab number on the receipt and told him he could fill the rest out himself. He was happy about that. Said he'd put maybe 102. They both thanked me as if I really had been the driver of the gang for a half hour or so. While I was resetting the meter, another bloke came out of the pub, crossed the road and got in. Lewisham, he said. Later I took a young Asian woman home from work, all the way from William Street in the City to Lugarno, another 70 dollar fare. The whole night was like that. Change.