Tuesday, May 29, 2007

easy come, easy go

Picked him up at the back of the Cross, it was maybe five in the afternoon, he was talking with another guy on the other side of Ward Avenue, near Kellet Street, just lighting a cigarette, when he hailed me. I was half wondering if he'd want to keep smoking in the cab but it had gone by the time he climbed in the front seat. Big guy, wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans, sneakers. Chains hung from his belt. He looked like a drug dealer from a German movie. Once in, having told me where to go - Kent and Napoleon, in the City - he took off one shoe and started pulling large denomination banknotes, fifties and hundreds, out of it. I used to keep my money in my sock, I offered. I'm just sick of being robbed, he said, taking off the other shoe and pulling out more money. Softly spoken, genuinely polite, feet not too smelly ... carrying about two grand, one in each shoe, although it was hard to tell exactly and I didn't like to appear too curious. Once he had the notes smoothed out and in his wallet he started fussing with plastic bags of coins; then did some stuff with his mobile phone, changing the SIM card I thought at first but perhaps not, perhaps just re-programming it now the day's hustling was over. As we neared his destination he started fiddling with the coin bags again, getting the fare ready, and dropped something down the side of the seat. Scrappled away down there for a while. I could turn the light on, I said. He stopped looking instantly. Easy come, easy go, he said. He paid in coins, the exact amount, then sloped off into the gathering dark. Much later in the shift, on the Park Street rank, I remembered he'd dropped something and went to look. I found it on the floor beneath the back seat. It was a five cent piece.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Since the Haberfield base closed, I've been walking to and from Croydon each day I work. Takes a bit longer and it isn't quite as nice a walk - no bat shrieks in Ashfield Park, no rosemary at the War Memorial - but it's still okay. I go through the back streets, past suburban gardens where chrysanthemums and dahlias grow, until I reach the traffic arteries again. There, yesterday arvo, as I went to cross busy Milton Street against the lights, I saw a book with its pages fluttering in the middle of the road.

Scooped it up as I passed, it lacked both front and back cover but all the matter of it was there. A sampler, from the 1990s, one of those books a publisher puts out which anthologizes bits and pieces from other books they're promoting. A selection from Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow was included, it's a time travel adventure set in The Rocks now and a hundred years ago. They were all Australian authors. I placed it carefully down on the corner post of the brick fence on the other side of the road and carried on.

Origin night, I was expecting it to be busy, with mean or boisterous drunks but it didn't quite turn out like that. Traffic was bad early and I broke one of my rules and became exasperated ... calmed down after a while. Later, when the game began, an eerie quiet descended on the City, people all over town glued to their TV sets. As soon as it ended, just after ten, the radio went crazy. Worked a bit longer than I usually do on a Wednesday, mopping up punters on the inner city outskirts then headed back to base.

I was walking home down Liverpool Road, that part where the Ashfield shops are mostly derelict, before you get to the top of the rise and go down the other side to Summer Hill, when a woman stopped me. I've been seeing her round a bit lately, perhaps she's a street person or a resident of one of the homes that sprinkle the area, I don't know. She looks Polynesian but could as well be Asian. Anyway.

Excuse me, sir, do you have the time? she said. I looked at my watch, angling my wrist to catch the dial in the ambient light. It's midnight! I said, somehow delighted to see that it was so. Oh, she said gravely. Twelve o'clock, on the dot. Afterwards, I had to look back to see if she was still there, walking away down the otherwise deserted street.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

an archangel slightly battered

He got in, with difficulty, into the back seat, on the Bent Street rank. I thought it was because of the slope or maybe I was too far from the curb: it was a time of chaos, rush hour, cabs sliding in and out of the traffic all over the place, horns sounding, deathwish pedestrians hurling themselves into the roadway. A gentle voice, a dishevelled suit, a vaguely East European look, a bit battered: Polish, probably. Castlereagh Street, unusually, was jammed up. We discussed the best way to get to Stanmore. I liked his attitude, it was without anxiety; instead of trying to stress me out, as so many fares do, he was actively calming me down. That's rare. At the corner of Liverpool Street, when I thought of turning right, he said softly: You can do that ... so I did. It wasn't until then that I took a good look at him and realised his right arm was sticking upright, at ninety degrees to the elbow, in a cast, one of those blue, modern, epoxy resin jobs. That's why he had such trouble getting in, I should have helped him. No, no ... he said. So I asked him how it happened and he said, a taxi hit him. He was on a motor scooter, in Redfern, the cab made a right turn in front of him, knocked him off onto the road, he broke his wrist. Three weeks ago now, most of the soft tissue damage had healed but he still needed to wear the cast. We chatted on down Parramatta Road and, in the course of the conversation, he mentioned another accident he'd had, this time on a push bike. How many accidents have you had? I asked, as we turned into Bridge Street. Six, he said thoughtfully. No, must be more like eight. Yes, about eight. I was incredulous. All on bikes? I said. Yes, he said. Push bikes and motor cycles. I looked in the rear view at his open, honest, slightly lugubrious face. And, when your arm's better, are you going back riding? He became almost animated. Yes, he said, of course. Why not? I could think of a few reasons, but didn't say them. When we'd stopped in Gladstone Street, and he was looking through all his many pockets for the cab charge docket he'd filled out earlier then mislaid, I told him I liked his attitude. He nodded, smiled sadly. Thank you, he said. It's all the accidents you see ... taught me ...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Two More Characters

Hospitality Girl

First job Monday arvo, off the radio, Leichhardt to Granville. I M2, get the word to start the meter, find the flat. No sign of life, I go and knock on the door. A voice calls from inside: Sorry, I didn't get text message, won't be long. I wait. She comes out eventually, young, plump, Chinese, dressed in pink. First thing she does is ask if I have a rubbish bag? She's cracked the seal on a bottle of cough mixture, which she drinks over the next five minutes or so. I ask if she's ill, she says no, this is like ... red wine. Sweet-natured, a bit scatty, chatty ... wants to get there quick, she's late for work, we banter back and forth about this, speed, traffic, time. Has a curious habit of timing the trip on her mobile phone but she's way out, I've been keeping an eye on my watch, we've been going far longer than she thinks. She's from the north but grew up in the south. Was studying medicine but gave it up for hospitality. As we stop-and-start along busy Parramatta Road she starts to sigh. Says she's carsick. That she has a headache. I suggest she open the window a little, she does. I show her the map, so that she can see how close we're getting. She's looking a little flushed now, a little bruised. Finally we get to the place and turn off. It's a very short street full of garages and warehouses and I'm wondering where on earth in this mess she works ... until we pull into #10 and I see the pink and blue neon lights burning in full daylight, the sign saying OPEN 24 HOURS. There's a brief, not acrimonious contretemps over the fare, I round it down to forty dollars and she hands of over two twenties, quicksmart. There's a guy loading a truck who leers at her as she passes, pausing at the industrial waste bin to throw out her empty bottle of cough mixture before disappearing inside.

Old Digger

Raised a stick for me in Philip Street and then limped, without hurry, across the road in front of the car. Going to Killara, had his own route, would show me. His wife was going blind, otherwise he would have stayed after the meeting for a few drinks. I'm slow to realise that it's the NSW Leagues Club I picked him up outside of, he was a first grade player before the war, on the wing for Balmain, and has spent the whole of the rest of his life working for the game. Been fifty times to NZ, been all over the world. Tells me about his daughter, died of cancer, all the places he took her in the last years when they knew it was hopeless. Walked over Sydney Harbour Bridge as kid when it opened, in 1932. At one point I start to say something about a book I'm reading but he cuts me off. Don't have any time for books, he says. I read 14 books on the ship coming back from the war and I haven't read another one since. That was enough for me. What kind of books were they? I ask. All kinds, he says, airily. Novels and that. I'm thinking that he must have been returning from Europe or North Africa but no, he was in New Guinea. Two and half years. Was at Wewak, East Sepik River province, where the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Shot a twenty-two foot python up there one day. Shows me with his hands how round it was. Spent one night sitting up to his neck in water, after a river flooded. Now he's telling me something about a right hand turn that he always takes, only you can't do it at rush hour, it's against the law. We come to the turn, just back from the Pacific Highway north of Chatswood, and there's no traffic approaching so I do it. He chortles at that, he's very happy, we're going the way he's gone for fifty years. We're friends for life, or as long as the ride lasts. You wouldn't read about it, he says. You wouldn't read about it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

some characters

Sand Castle Girl

Picked her up on the Bondi Junction rank, tall, leggy, young, with an unlit rollie in her hand. She was from Rye on the Victorian south coast, in Sydney for a month with her father, their business was sand sculpture. Had just made her first visit to Bondi Beach, could not believe the way a thousand eyes checked her and her accessories out as she walked down the strand. A lovely mixture of wide-eyed innocence and all-but-unconscious sophistication. Gave her the black Bic lighter someone had left in the cab.

Archaeologist / Accountant

In Riley Street, going to Presbyterian Lady's College in Croydon for a Parent-Teacher evening. He was an uncle, his niece would be reviewing career options. Soft-voiced, understated, highly ironical, had trained as an archaeologist but ended up working as an accountant. Said he still didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, even though he was passing fifty. Just ... to stop working. Was he gay? Did he have children of his own? Hard to say ...

Red-haired Boy

On a street corner in Petersham. Going to the ABC building in Ultimo. The red hair was shading towards pink and certainly not natural. A radio producer, he did a talkback show that started at 10 pm. Handled all the technical aspects, screened callers, managed delays ... told me a joke: Advisor to Bush: Mr President, today's kill figures in Iraq are: twelve Americans, three British, one hundred and seventy Iraqis and one Brazilian. Bush's face puckers up. Long pause. How much is a Brazilian? he asks.

Chinese Car Hunters

In Pitt Street, City. Going to a bar in Chatswood. A young couple, about to get married. She was enamoured of cars and wondering which kind he would buy her? Nervous of her prospective mother-in-law. Totally materialistic in a completely unselfconscious way. English not so good, she must have grown up in China. He, monosyllabic at first, I thought perhaps he spoke it less well that she did. Not at all, he was Australian Chinese. Don't worry about my mum, he said.

Party Girls

Corner of Redfern Street. Two blondes in little black dresses, going to a party in the City, a bar next to the Hilton. Chatting about the peccadillos, and worse, of the stars. Their drug habits, their compromised immune systems, their high class despair. One said: I've brought my camera, so if Nicole Ritchie starts snorting coke, I'll photograph her.

Marrickville Pair

In King Street, Newtown, going to a block of flats in Marrickville. Vaguely gothish. A couple, not long together. She from Melbourne. He: This wedding ... in terms of style, how would you rate it? She: Zero. The wedding was in Brisbane; she'd been asked to speak at it. The bride a friend of hers, the groom doesn't like her. The bride visits her in Melbourne then spends the whole time fucking this other guy; the groom doesn't know but clearly suspects something, hence his dislike of this girl. I don't want to go, she said, I won't go. Clearly, she would.

Cardiac Technician

A radio job, Summer Hill to Camperdown. Just round the corner from where I live, a pretty, serious young Indian woman. Going to the RPA. You a nurse? I ask? No. Cardiac Technician, she replies. I just got home, now I have to go back. Heart attacks don't wait. Me: I couldn't do that. She: Somebody has to. She didn't want to talk any more after that, obviously preparing herself for the op. At the hospital, I pull up at Emergency while she goes in to get the cabcharge docket. A curious delay, given the urgency of proceedings. I leave her to her higher purpose.


He's standing at the bus stop outside Sydney Uni in City Road, his arm out. Big guy in a baseball cap. Two cabs in front of me both make to stop then swerve away at the last moment ... so I get him. He's Aborigine, that's why they wouldn't take him. Fucking wogs! he says as he gets in the front seat. Articulate and very angry. Not interested in anything I have to say, just wants to get his message across. Used to rob cabbies when he was young, for fun, but wouldn't do it now. Hates priests and judges. Despises those who treat him with prejudice, enjoys getting right in their faces. When we stop down a dark street in Balmain, he pulls out a sheaf of fifty dollar notes, pays the exact amount then slopes off up the hill through a park.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tap Dancing Round the World

There's a fellow who tap dances on a board at the corner of Park and George Streets, perhaps the busiest corner in town. Have never stopped to watch him but often glimpsed him as I drive by: he looks good and, so far as I can tell, dances superbly. Plays fine music. Always has a crowd. Sometimes a woman with him who looks after the music and the money. One day I saw him dancing with his board balanced on top of the small rectangular column, about a metre and a half high, where the electronics for the traffic lights are.

Last night I was idling third on the rank a block back from there, at the corner of Park and Pitt, when he knocked on my window and asked, very politely, if I would take him to Waterloo? He'd chosen me above the two cars in front because I was driving a wagon and he had all his gear with him. We put the board flat in the back, then he stowed his music machine - compact, wheeled - in the back seat and got in the front next to me.

I complimented him on his act. He thanked me. I said I'd seen him dancing on the utility box, he said he had to stop doing that because it affected the operation of the traffic lights. He was reserved, well-spoken, a black American. From San Francisco. I mentioned that I'd lived there once, we talked about different parts of the city. His neighbourhood was the Tenderloin and, no, the Tenderloin hadn't changed from when I was there. Was doing a world tour, would go to Japan next but, at the end of it, after two years away, he would return to UCSF and complete his degree. In political science. You make enough to buy air fares? I asked. You'd be surprised, he said.

He lived in a new, quite flash, apartment building near where Waterloo shades into Zetland. When he came to pay, he pulled from his pocket a sheaf of notes, all of them fifties - several hundred dollars. He found the fifteen dollars for the fare in amongst some notes of smaller denominations in another pocket. As I pulled his dance-board from the back, I asked him if it travelled with him or did he find a new one in each new place? He looked gnomic at the board, which I saw was modified, or customised in some way, metal eyes had been sunk into the ply.

I like this board, he said. I think I'll keep it with me for a while. Thank you, sir ...