Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels / drive you crazy

Most nights out driving I forget what happens almost before it has happened ... then there are those other nights when it seems possible to remember everything, even those things that didn't quite happen ...

Thursday, when I pull into the Park Street rank at the beginning of my shift, a small round woman with a large head climbs into the front seat and a vaguely familiar, raffish fellow in a black trilby hat gets in the back: this is Stuart Shepherd, artist, stalwart of Red Mole days from New York in the 1980s. We belong to different eras of the Moles but crossed over once, in 199o, at the Belvoir Street Theatre here in Sydney during The Book of Life, which Stuart designed and appeared in, and I did the sound for. He's making a film with Amy, his friend in the front seat and a self-taught artist. The film is Amy Goes To Sydney and when I see them the next day at the Art Gallery of NSW, they are off that evening to the Newtown Hotel to interview some drag queens. Saturday, they visit a palmist in The Rocks before winging back to Wellington.

I take them up to where they're staying at the Challis Lodge in Challis Avenue in Potts Points and then pick up a radio job from Victoria Street to the City. A mother and daughter come out of the small hotel, heavily laden with gear and looking exasperated. Turns out the daughter is booked on a train to Queensland and they've been waiting an hour and half for a cab to come to the back entrance of the hotel. On the way to the station, I fill the daughter in on the vagaries of Silver Service, the allegedly elite branch that gets offered all the radio jobs first, and how many of the drivers just will not do short trips. Gradually she de-stresses and when, on Wentworth Avenue, The Eagles come on the radio, singing Take It Easy, she starts singing along. That's nice.

On the stand at Country Trains, the guy handling the taxis tells me that the roadworks are because the station is leaking in the heavy rain we've been having. There's a fellow there with a docket, wanting to go to Gordon, but he has to wait for the actual cab he's booked, otherwise Railcorp won't pay out. I try half-heartedly to convince him to go with me until I find out that the Bridge is jammed. The high winds we've also been having have blown part of a maintenance shield off the roof of a train, bringing down wires near the South Pylon and closing lane 1 ... the chaos will go on for hours so I'm very happy when a nurse from Moruya with a cabcharge form asks me to take her to Cronulla. She's a very nice woman, but reticent and a bit hidden the way country folk sometimes are. We discuss the right age at which kids should get mobile phones these days, she has a 12 year old and a 10 year old, both boys, and girl twins who're nearly 7. When she hops out, just for a moment, she turns full face towards me and smiles, and she's beautiful.

On the way back up Southern Cross Drive, outside a pub in Waterloo, I'm hailed at the lights by a couple of refugees, drinkers for sure. She's Polynesian and sits in the back and doesn't say much; he's an Aussie with one of those craters of the moon faces. Somehow we start talking about the American ship, the Kitty Hawk, that's in town after the exercises up in Queensland, and that leads onto Vietnam, where this guy served. In a transport and supplies division. He tells me various things I didn't know, for instance that the Army sent conscripts up there and kept most of their regular forces at home, and that most conscripts served for less than one year so that the Army didn't have to pay them a pension afterwards. In the midst of it all, completely unconscious of the reference, he says: I was only nineteen ... and I almost lose it.

They get off outside the Criterion in Park Street and, immediately, another couple get in, he in front, she in back. They're French and there's one of those weird and wonderful moments when I hear their language without being able to recognize what it is ... before it settles into something more familiar though still strange. He's wearing a black and white striped shirt and though a bit shambolic and overweight, has Gallic charm in spades, that elegance and insouciance that always makes me think of Apollinaire. He tells me the taxi drivers in Paris are the worst in the world and that Sydney's, by comparison, are high class. When he gets out to go and buy some wine I say to his companion that he's a very charming man and she agrees. She's older than him and the cask of wine he brings back is for her. I like these people very much.

Down the bottom of Devonshire Street I'm hailed by a woman going home from work, she lives in Wolloomooloo and knows an intricate way to get there but that's where the Kitty Hawk is tied up and I know it's hopeless. On the way I tell her about the French couple until, in a laneway between Riley and Crown, she gives up and decides to walk the rest of the way. Leaving me stuck in horrific traffic, not just sightseers for the ship but cars trying to get into the Harbour Tunnel because the Bridge is still jammed. I do a couple of cheeky manouevres and am rewarded when a young woman, an art student or something similar by the folio she's carrying, crosses through the traffic and gets in, wanting to go to North Bondi. She's English and seems ok at first but gradually some kind of class thing enters her voice and I feel bound to shut off.

After dropping her off I go up to the Junction and pick up a couple of Irish boys, from Waterford, and take them up to Randwick. They say Waterford boys love the Craick and will go on until there's not another man left standing. When they tell me that some Aussie in a pub told them he hated them because he hates all the Irish, I tell them I like the Irish and round the fare down to an even ten bucks. I spin around outside the Royal and go back up Belmore Street where I'm hailed by a young woman with a plastic rubbish bag full of what looks like, and is, washing. She's talking on her mobile phone and the conversation goes all the way to Edgecliff where I drop her off in Glenmore Road at a brothel I haven't noticed before. Her conversation with her friend, another sex worker who's left town for some unspecified location, is intermittently fascinating but I'm not going to try and write it all down now, it'd take to long and there's money to be made.

At the north end of Glenmore Road you have to turn left and I'm soon stuck in traffic on William Street, cursing myself for not going the other way up to Oxford Street; but, again, by being cheeky I get through quick and make it to the Criterion for a pit - or piss - stop that I badly need. There's no cabs on the rank and as I get out two Indian boys come over and ask if I'll take them to Blacktown? Sure, I say, running inside. I doubt they'll still be there when I come out but they are, so I do take them to Blacktown. I've never been out that far before last night, when I took a young guy to Doonside, a ninety dollar fare, but these chaps want to go a different way and it's only about sixty-five ... still, it gets me out of town long enough for the chaos to be sorted out before I return and I find their soft voices, talking Hindi in the back seat, soothing.

I get a hail coming back on the Great Western Highway, a bloke I take to be a Maori but who is in fact some kind of Asian. When I remark on the coldness of the night, he shrugs and says he works in a cool store. He has a peculiar odour, not unpleasant, and after a while I identify it as the smell of chook ... maybe it's a chicken cool store he works in but I don't ask, I just take him home to Merrylands then ride the M4 back to the City. The chaos has cleared but there's still no cabs on either of the Park Street ranks and an unseemly clamour as those waiting jostle, not for me, but for the guy pulling in behind me. My fare's a dyke who spends the trip to Alexandria talking to her girlfriend on her mobile phone. Her girlfriend is far away, maybe in Canada, I don't know. I love you too, she says.

Head back into town and get hailed in Pitt Street by a young Asian couple who want to go first to Marsfield, then to Epping ... it's a good fare, forty or fifty dollars, just what I need this time of night but for some reason I don't want to go. It could be that I'm light on gas after the Blacktown epic, I'm not sure. Anyway, spooky as it sounds, on the Anzac Bridge they discover that she's left something - wallet? mobile phone? - behind and he wants us to go back. She says no, no, but he wears her down and in Rozelle I do an illegal U turn and take them back to the exact spot I picked them up, corner of Pitt and Liverpool. Am unsure if they'll want me to wait but no, he peels off a ten and twenty, says just give him five back and off they go into the night.

Two blocks up I get hailed by a group of American sailors going back to the Kitty Hawk. They look about fourteen and don't say much. I ask about the exercises up in Queensland but the guy in the front says no, they just came from Guam. Then he asks me how to get to Taronga Park Zoo, I tell him, and he says ... that's where the Steve Irwin memorial is, right? I'm dumbstruck ... all this way, to our great City, and it's Steve Irwin he wants to pay homage to? This kid from upstate Pennsylvania? Even the sight of the carrier looming above us all grey and sinister, with its batwing jets folded up on the flight deck, fails to shift my incredulity.

I don't wait around there for another fare even though there's plenty of milling around going on, I scoot back up to the City and find a South African who's going to Mosman. Don't trust Jaappies, they're volatile and emotional and can turn nasty, especially the Suits, so I'm very circumspect and professional and, good-oh, there's no trouble. Afterwards I figure I'm nearly done, but instead of taking the Westlink I go down George and pick up a young Scandinavian woman with her eyes enormous behind her spectacles and take her to Ultimo. She gets off in a very obscure part of town, behind the Powerhouse Museum and I notice a street I've never seen before, Sistrum Street. I watch her unlock a massive metal gate then walk up a ramp then I'm on my way, home James, and don't spare the horses.

... but on Parramatta Road at Camperdown I'm hailed by a joker wearing a leather jacket and holding a kebab upright in a bag so I pick him up. He's a Kiwi, from Hawkes Bay via Christchurch, quite drunk and with a bad stutter. Young, in his twenties. We chat about this and that and gradually, especially when he realises I'm from NZ too, his stutter gets less. All the time he's holding his kebab bag upright like it's the Olympic torch or something and when we get to where he lives, Palace Street, Ashfield, he doesn't know what to do with it while he's getting his wallet out, so asks me if I'll hold it. This is of course unwittingly comic but I keep a straight face, holding up his kebab while he fumbles for the money, then handing it back to him. I ddddidn't want to spill the sauce, he says and goes off into the night with his sauce unspilled. And so do I.