Sunday, March 30, 2008

some mother's son

Friday night, about eight. Or Eight-thirty. After a busy few hours I hit a lull. Drive up George Street, which I usually avoid, towards Circular Quay. Cabs are copping hails all around but I seem to have become invisible. Then, just past Wynyard Station, an arm. He ducks behind some mail boxes on his way to the car so I don't get to check him out properly until he gets into the front seat beside me. First impression, of a young clerk or some such, is completely wrong. In fact I don't know who this person is, he escapes all my casual categories. He is young, early twenties perhaps. Grossly over weight but in an unusual way - he seems lumpy, with strange protrusions all over his body, rather than the more typical rolly polly gathering of surplus flesh at the waist. The skin of his face is mottled purple and brown, and also seems afflicted by that same lumpiness. He's clutching two enormous bags of McDonald's takeaways and wants to go to Botany Road in Mascot. That peculiar odour or stench fills the car and my heart sinks. Is he going to eat all the way to Mascot? I don't think I can stand it if he does. It's not that I'm hungry myself, rather the opposite - I've just eaten a homemade sourdough roll with cheese and salami and tomato on it, followed by an apple, a crisp Fuji. Anyway, we're going round the block so I can head south again, he's sneaking a chip or two from one of the bags and I'm thinking, I don't care, for twenty bucks, it's not worth it. You're not allowed to eat in cabs, I say. Why don't you hop out, finish your meal, and catch another cab afterwards? I slow down next to one of the blue benches at the bus terminal but he isn't interested. No, no, he says, seemingly in a panic. I won't eat ... Then, abruptly, he goes to sleep, or seems to, with his eyes closed and his head leaning back against the headrest. Those huge greasy bags in his lap. Must have been the stress of possible eviction, I suppose. We mosey on down George Street, and towards the bottom he wakes up. I hear the furtive rustle of his fingers in the brown paper bags and then, slowly at first, but then shockingly fast, he begins again to eat, his head tilted to one side, tearing at the buns like a famished animal tearing at meat. He crams handfuls of chips into his mouth as well then, periodically, pauses to fumble in his pocket for his wallet. I realise that he's been doing this compulsively since he got in the cab, fumbling for his wallet I mean, which usually signals an anxiety about paying. He has money though, I've seen the corner of a fifty dollar note poking out. We're going down Elizabeth Street now, through Surry Hills and into Waterloo and suddenly I can't stand it any more. Listen, mate, I say, I told you, no eating in the cab, ok? Just put it away and wait until you get home, alright? I realise I sound quite stern, I'm using the voice I use to tell my kids off. He reacts in the same abject way as before ... sorry, sorry ... crumpling up the tops of the bags and replacing them on his lap. I feel bad but I feel good as well, or at least, relieved. There's only one further piece of conversation, when he mistakenly suggests I should be turning into O'Riordan Street, not Botany Road. Then the ride is over. Or is it? He can't find his wallet. He's getting really distressed. He climbs out of the cab and I turn the internal light on. There are woody chips all over the floor and he starts to sweep them out onto the road with his hands. But no wallet. I look across his seat, spy a corner of yellow paper poking up on the other side and reach across to pluck it. It's that fifty dollar note I saw before, damp and slightly greasy from his fingers. Is fifty alright? he says, beseechingly. Is that enough? There's only eighteen and a bit dollars on the meter but I, cravenly, feeling really awful - but why not? - say, Yeah, fifty dollars is fine. I look over into the back seat and there, on the floor, beside another chip container, amongst more spilled chips, is his wallet. I give it to him. And the chip container. Thank you, he mumbles, thank you ... as if I've done him some huge favour. He shambles off into the night and I roar away myself, almost weeping at the spectacle this ruined person has made of himself, while also trying to rationalise the implications of my own predatory behaviour and at the same time clear the clammy, disgusting, miasmic atmos in the cab by opening all the windows and driving at speed through the dark and deserted streets of Zetland. But it can't have worked because my next fare, a thin-lipped, stitched-up-looking, possibly Kiwi, lawyer's receptionist who I pick up in Flinders Street, halfway to Mosman says: I've got to get something to eat. Can you pull into the McDonald's on Military Road? To the drive-through. She manages not to eat her Super Cheeseburger Meal or drink her Coke until after I drop her off but again I have to try to clear the car of the Macca miasma and it isn't until I'm hailed by a genial drunk holding up a lamppost in Crows Nest and ask him that I'm finally sure that I don't smell like a travelling advertisement for malign, malnourishing, horribly addictive shit burgers and salty chips made out of woody grease.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bloody tears flow

A cab-driving friend is off to NZ for ten days so he asks me to drive his shifts for him. He's got a new boss, Alex, who was his old boss, years ago, and thinks that it might be a good idea for me to work for Alex too. I'm running out of money so I say yes. Then I learn that the balance of an award, not due until June, can be paid early. It's too late, I'm committed. Then Alex rings up and says I can have the car for the whole weekend. I don't want to but he's very persuasive and there's the future to consider ...

Near Central Station I pick up a big guy wearing shorts, with suitcases. He wants to go up to the Country trains, he's going away somewhere, doesn't know where. He'll decide when he gets there. Half way to the trains he changes his mind, wants to go to the airport instead. Maybe I'm on the run, he jokes. You don't look stressed enough, I say, but I wonder. He doesn't even decide which terminal to go to until he sees the signs outside. T2. Virgin. Maybe he's been reading The Diceman I think but he doesn't look like the kind of guy you could have that sort of conversation with. Affable but sort of ... disinterested.

Somewhere in Bronte, about 8 pm, I pick up a young bloke who looks like a chippie. He's talking to another fellow outside an office building in a quiet suburban street. Turns out this was his counseller, he's been at an out patient's clinic, five weeks ago he quit a $1000 a day coke and alcohol habit. $30,000 a month, he says. Lost his business, his job. Lost everything except his wife and 7 month old son. We talk about addiction, its various and destructive parameters. When he gets out I steal a look at him. 29? early 30s? He doesn't look old enough to have been so badly down. And five weeks is such a short time. I fear from him but what can I do? Good luck, I say. It sounds like a hopeless thing to say.

On Oxford Street, about midnight, I'm hailed by a big bald guy wearing only blue shorty pyjamas with some kind of figure on them. This looks like a totally weird situation, what with all the clubbers and revellers milling around outside the Burdekin, but it isn't, he's actually hailing me for his friend, a diminutive Irish woman from Galway with one of those soft, lilting voices that make you want to weep with joy. Shorty pyjamas goes back into his apartment building and I take her up to the Cross. Her partner is a writer, she says, he's trying to finish his book. He's changed all the names but everyone will know who he is, she says, he's such a funny man, so wicked in his descriptions and he doesn't spare himself, either, to be sure. I envy this man back in Galway with his unfinished and perhaps unfinishable book.

It's the next day, Friday. I pick up a startling beautiful Swedish woman in Bondi. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed. She's dressed in a blue checked shirt and white shorts, as if going hiking, but she wants to go to the Establishment Bar, where the Corporates go to unwind after their week of money-making exertions. I'm dropping her off in Bridge Street when a woman hails me. Then she spends ages in conversation with some guy in the street who wants to come too. At the same time someone's trying to get me to open the boot but I don't, I don't know who he is. Turns out he's her husband to be and the other guy just a blow in. All three get in. The blow in is drunk and stupid and loud but he's only going a few blocks. Soon as he gets out the Bridenista starts in on her husband to be. The wedding's soon, they've spent a grand on invites, which the Post Office has gone and lost. So they have to email everybody. She's in a state of high anxiety, verbally precise, unstoppable, unremitting. He fields her demands with quite incredible good humour for about nine-tenths of the ride then starts to lose it. She doesn't stop. I'm thinking: this is clearly a mistake, they should call the wedding off but manage not to say so. They're going to Harold Park raceway of all places, to the trots. We get there, he pays, skedaddles, I breath a sigh of relief - but she doesn't move. She sits in the back, applying her mascara. I want to say something cutting to her but I don't, I wait, finally she goes, and I decide to head down to Glebe Point for a smoke. On the way I see someone I used to be with, she's walking home, she seems ... different. There's no way I could stop and say hello. I realise I'm not handling the stress as well as I think I am.

Then, much later, there's a woman who tells me in gory detail about her nephew in Auckland who died of bone disappearing disease, it's super rare, one in a billion, your bones are just consumed from within, he went in 8 months from a normal 17 year old kid to a wise old man of 18. None of the wounds from any of the treatment, exploratory or surgical, ever healed. She moves on to her husband's heart attack, Good Friday, two years ago. He survived but she's not sure if she has. She works for News Limited. I don't know what I'm doing she says, again and again, I'm right back where I started from. I tried something else but it didn't work out. I've never worked for anyone except Rupert. Cracking wise, but with a tremble of tears in her voice the whole time. Nobody knows, she says, how to spell the names of the celebrities who obsess us. It's her job to check but every time she does, half a dozen alternatives pop up on Google.

On the Bondi Junction rank, Saturday arvo, two kids, maybe immigrant kids. Well turned out but no-one will take them. I'm about the fourth guy they ask and I say yes. Got any money? I ask. The one in the back holds up two fives. They're going to Cooper Park in Double Bay. I think a footie game but no, it's a fight. A fight!? Yeah, a year 8 against a year 9. Their guy is the year 8 and they reckon he's going mash the other guy. I ask if they use gloves? One says yes, the other no, but it's clearly going to be a bare knuckle scrap. What about a referee? If one falls down to the ground we pick him up, that's it, the kid in the front says. These kids are spooky - about twelve or thirteen, they already talk like twenty-five year olds, they got the language, they got the attitude. The gang are gathering by mobile phone, at the tennis courts. I tell them about my father, how he boxed at Uni, hung onto his gloves but never fought again. He teach you any moves? Punches? I say no, he was non-violent. Huh, says the kid in the front. Like it was an option only an idiot would take. When we get there, there's $5.50 on the meter. Can I just give you five? the kid in the back says. I say to the one in the front, who's little and thin and feisty: Don't get hurt. He grins and says: Nah ... I watch them walk away - the little one has such skinny legs it's heartbreaking. About the age of my elder son. But he doesn't need my concern.

Bondi on a blue afternoon looks like a future city. J. G. Ballard territory. Some doomed hedonism that still has decades to run. I pick up two Americans on the strand. Rich people, a young woman, an older man. She's been showing him the sights. He's Jewish, a New Yorker, sounds just like Woody Allen. That same self-deprecating humour. He launches into a long story about how his roommate at College was one of the guys who wrote Friends. A bad actor, a failed screenwriter, a loser. Somehow they came up with the Sit Com idea, which this guy, in the back, says they stole from him. Or at least, stole the title from him. His surname is Friend. That's where they got it from. He riffs on this for ages, without rancour. He's very funny. We're in Darling Point by now, I'm dropping off the woman at an apartment building but she doesn't know the address. She calls her friend. It's not Darling Point, it's Darlinghurst. I say: You said Darling Point but she says no, she didn't. Definitively. But without rancour. The rich are different from you and I.

I get into a fight with one of three young women I pick up in Leichhardt. It's about nothing but the air is suddenly full of poison. It's stupid and it's my fault, I've broken my first rule, which is never lose it with a fare. Two of them are okay but the third is really nasty. She's enjoying the bad feeling, it brings out some instinct, not just to triumph but to utterly annihilate your opponent. I manage to shut her up, at least insofar as I'm concerned, but for the whole ride to Darling Harbour I can feel her, right behind me, breathing hatred onto the back of my neck. When they get out she makes a big play of noting down the taxi number on her mobile phone. She'll make a complaint and the truth of the situation, whatever it is, won't enter into it. I drive off into the City but I've lost it, lost the vibe, lost my way, lost, lost ... been driving for three nights now, it's only 9.30 on Saturday, I could go for another five hours, make another three or four hundred bucks, the cab's mine for the whole of tomorrow (that is, today) for nothing, I could make a couple of hundred more but I just can't work out how to do it. I drive around aimlessly for a while then find a park in Castlereagh Street, pull over, get out, light a smoke. Then I realise I'm right outside the Church of Scientology. Jesus this is where I've ended up. My engrams are about as low as they can go. This is not a Tom Cruise moment. I see another lost soul mooching down the street, he peers in to the front office of the C of S but it must be closed, he can't get in. This is too sad. I decide to finish the cigarette in the car but I peer in myself as I'm leaving. An impression of yellow and brown, of curling pamphlets in wooden holders at the front desk. It's like looking into the 1950s. Not the 1950s I grew up in but the mouldy ScFi version I used to read about in the 1960s. Suddenly I can't tell the future from the past. Or either from the present. A feeling of complete horror comes over me. I remember what the I Ching said earlier today: Six at the top means: Horse and wagon part. Bloody tears flow. I'm shaking when I get going again, only just keeping horse and wagon together. Two blokes climb in the back at the lights, they look like gangsters but they're not, they're just ... blokes. George Street looks like Sodom and Gomorrah moments before the cosmic ray descends and vaporises everything. I drop the blokes outside the QVB and head over the Westlink to the carwash. I'm gone.