Friday, August 24, 2007


A precise relationship with money is both a condition and a lesson. Perpetual. And ... intermittent. Last night, needed another $20.00. Never mind why. Was on the stand at Park Street, after 10 pm. One more ride, I thought. Two blokes from Melbourne, going up to the Travelodge in Kings X. Ten, max, probably less. It was seven. Drove through the strip, hoping I wouldn't get hailed. Hookers standing in the road, dealers, spruikers, punters, desperados everywhere. Just like me. In Wolloomooloo, pulled over for a stitched up looking fellow. Going to West Pennant Hills. Sixty bucks, maybe more. He was drunk. I demurred. You're just not fucking interested, are you!? he snarled, and slammed the door again. Well, no. On through the City, my usual haunts. Nothing. Market Street. Outside the QVB, a young chap, polite. Epping. Forty, fifty bucks. Didn't want to go to Epping. He was OK about it. Could see, up ahead, a couple, waving, frantic. Try them. Already a whiff of the familiar. Pulled up, thinking, yes, know these two. He was the younger brother of an old friend. A thirty five year old friendship. But we fell out, couple of years ago. Have seen each other since but the intimacy has gone. The brother is a public figure. Union official. Lefty. Heard him on the radio, just the other day. We've had Christmasses together, we've got drunk in each other's company, a few times. I looked him in the eye as he piled in the back seat. His wife after him. He didn't know me. Didn't look at me. Not really. Drunk, not wrecked. Functioning. There was a moment when I could have said, hey, it's me. Didn't. Weird. Heard all of their conversation, in the back, knowing far more than they would have thought I knew. Mostly about their kid. The logistics. Busy lives. She was going to have to pack two identical suitcases next day. One for the red car, one for the blue. Felt myself drifting, further and further out ... into anonymity. Nobody. Own fault. Coulda been someone, coulda been me. Going to Leichhardt, a tricky route, had to confirm it with him. Surely he'd know me now? No. Dropped them off in Catherine Street. He was very sincere, the union guy standing up for the working man, doing the right thing. Impeccable. I should have felt terrible but I felt ... nothing. Nothing that $14.80 wouldn't fix. Pulling into the servo, the radio offered a job to Padstow. Thirty, forty bucks. Didn't take it. Gassing up, a fellow came out with a pie and a drink. Going to Peakhurst. Ditto. Guess I just wanted to go home. Just wanted to be ... me. Not the cabbie me but the other one. This ... one.

Hallelujah I'm a Bum

One night last week I saw, at about 8.30 pm, on the busy corner of William & Palmer Streets, a fellow stretched out fast asleep on his back. He wore a beanie on his head and the nondescript clothes of a clochard. Next to him was an empty champagne glass and next to the glass was a bottle of champagne, whether full or empty I could not say. Next to that, tied up by a ratty piece of string to the hurricane wire fence overlooking the motorway, was his little dog, a silky cross. Waiting patiently, a little anxiously, for him to wake and their peripatesis to continue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Driver's Docket

Was taking some fellow from Alexandria to Rozelle when the job came through. He was telling me about how he'd had a stroke during a kidney biopsy taken to try to work out why he had high blood pressure, when all the time it was sleep apnoea that was to blame. Now, as a result of the stroke, he was half blind and couldn't remember as many of the 5000 characters of Chinese writing as he used to. So I didn't clearly focus on the job and it was only when the operator called to ask if I had the details that I realised it was one of a kind I hadn't done before: payment by driver's docket.

It was a doctor's rooms up on Darling Street. No-one outside so I left the car in the street and went in. In the corner of the waiting room was a gent in a beret who looked like a Scotty. He was painfully slow, coming out of the room, along the corridor, out the front door, into the street, into the car. Various irate motorists bellowed on their horns but I felt justified in holding up the traffic by the evident disability of my fare. He took his time, too. Just before getting in, he pointed at the facade of the building across the road. There was a figure carved out of white stone at the apex of the arch, silhouetted against the evening sky. Who's that? he said. Athena, I replied, wondering if it was in fact her. Humph, he said. She has the attributes.

I've only got one leg and one hand and my wife's just left me,
he announced when he was settled and we were on our way. With a kind of grim satisfaction. She's sick of looking after me. Says she wants some time to herself. There was a pause. It seemed I needed to say something. Where'd she go? I asked. To her brother's, he said. She comes back every morning to cook my breakfast and spends the whole day looking after me then goes home at midnight. She does more for me now than when she lived with me.

He was Irish not Scots and had recently returned from a visit to the ancestral home. It was everything you'd expect of Ireland, he said, describing a castle 350 years old from which the dust had never been cleared. Cobwebs hung from floor to ceiling and in the library the leather-bound, gold-spined books were thick with grime. My wife's a librarian, he said. She's going back to clean up all those old books. Worth a fortune. I looked sideways at him. He was expressionless. After she finishes leaving me, he said. When we've got the place set up so I can look after myself. It's not so hard. Mainly just things like tying my shoe laces. Things that need two hands.

Turned out he was a writer. Had been to Duntroon, the military academy, and had fought with the South Vietnamese Army - the ARVN - as an adviser during the Vietnam War. That's what his next book was to be about. Bryce Courtenay came to me, he said, and asked if he could write it. I said no. He said, come on, Michael, I'd do a better job than you. No, you won't, I said. Yes, I will, he said. I'd write it as fiction whereas you'll probably write it as non-fiction. Fiction outsells non-fiction ten to one.

He expatiated for a while upon the marketing genius of Mr. Courtenay then said: He gave me this book of his to read. Called Smoky Joe's Cafe. Wanted to know what I thought of it. I read it and told him I thought it was a load of rubbish. Not just the factual errors, the whole thing, he had the whole thing wrong, Vietnam wasn't like that at all. Well, next thing I know, I'm in a bookshop and it's on the best seller list! Everywhere I went, Smoky Joe's Cafe, a bestseller. It's still a load of rubbish though.

As with the news about his wife, this was delivered without acrimony, as of a curious fact about the world that I might or might not take notice of, as I wished. Was he aware of how amusing he was? I wasn't even sure of that, though reflection suggests he must have been. Anything I contributed to the conversation was listened to intently and then he went on with his tales as if nothing had been said. Telling me about the genealogy of his people and a graveyard out at Mudgee where many of them are buried.

I suppose I have to sign something, he said when I pulled into the drive of the house in Cremorne. He wrote M McDermott in a firm, rather ornate hand then began the labour of hauling himself out of the car. Was there the ghost of a smile on that otherwise grim mouth as he shuffled around the front of the car? I don't know; by then, I was busy giving the details of the fare to the operator, so I could get back from her the docket number, so I could get paid.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"A Cabbie's Life hangs by a Thread"

photo by C. Garth Thompson