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.