Wednesday, July 29, 2009

strange rides

Strange Ride One

I'm taking a Korean English language student to the Botany shops ... only in Oz two months, he speaks grammatically but laboriously, with a heavy accent, as we practise conversation all the way down Botany Road. I really need to pee so, after letting him out, do an illegal U turn and go up to the end of the block where there's a pub on the corner. Another cab has just picked up outside and, as I slide into the bus stop, I see an old gent apparently leaning against the pole there. He raises his hand and then, bereft of the support of the pole, gives a slight stagger. Uh oh, I think, he's pissed. Never mind. He's dapper and well-spoken and smells of sweet wine - port perhaps, or sherry. Sporting a black eye that looks maybe two or three days old. Take me to Taylor Square, he enunciates carefully. I think for a moment - and for several other moments during the ride - that he might put his hand on my knee, but he does not. Instead we speak of trivialities, cars and roads, the glare of the early morning sun over Southern Cross Drive as a traffic hazard, the perfidy of governments, as I sweep him up towards what I'm sure, by the time we part, is a hoped-for rendezvous with some as yet nameless and unknown young man whom he will find on Oxford Street. Several times, incongruously, he interpolates swearwords into his otherwise decorous sentences, as if thereby laying claim to a kind of credibility he might otherwise lack; but it just sounds odd. There's a convenient red light at the junction of Flinders and Oxford Streets, he extracts from his wallet a couple of notes, a 20 and a 10, and gives them to me before lurching off happily towards the Courthouse Hotel, where I trust he will find what he is looking for ... and not another shiner.

Strange Ride Two

I've just taken two girls all the way out to Hammondville, by the Holsworthy Military Base near Liverpool ($80.00) and I'm making my long weary way back to town. On Canterbury Road I get a call on my mobile and while we're talking another vacant cab overtakes me and then picks up the hail I'd almost sensed was waiting somewhere up ahead for me. This pisses me off but not for long. The next ride always banishes the disappointment of a missed opportunity and outside the Enmore Theatre a couple is waiting ... rock 'n' rollers, she's a bit Goth, with piercings, and he looks like a refugee from the 1980s, leather jacket, long hair swept back, some kind of hat? She gets in the back and he in the front and says: Take the next left. Station Street? I ask to be sure, because that's a grim little deserted street with nothing much down it. Yes, he says, we're going to Leichhardt. And mentions a street name I don't catch. But I do remember there's a shortcut, a rat run as they're known, down this way. Well, he calls every turn. Every turn! With his winey breath and a sense of ... what, exactly? Satisfaction? Pride might say it better. There's no other conversation but as we cross Parramatta Road he hands her in the back what looks like a packet and she takes it and starts doing something with it. The fare's 10, which brings an exclamation of pleasure from him - he probably does this ride a lot and likes to keep it under a tenner. Anyway, what she in the back was doing is filling out one of those yellow vouchers from a book that people with a disability get - they only pay half the fare, the government pays the rest. She hands the form over to him, and a pen, then he puts it right up to his face and scribbles hectically across the space where the signature goes. I'm tired, I'm a bit slow, it's not until she's got the door open and is helping him out that I realise what it is: he's blind. And he called every turn.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's like a jungle sometimes ...

It’s about five p.m. on a Tuesday and I'm trying to squeeze onto the back of the Park Street rank in the City when a grey bomber spots me and starts waving her pad so I scarper, quick smart, hoping against hope that she didn't get my number. That's a $188 fine if she did. I go uptown instead, at least an hour earlier than I normally would, and that's how long it takes to get another fare. Sitting on the (illegal) rank outside the Deutsche Bank building, watching rush hour traffic coalesce then dissolve around me, I listen to the whole of Massive Attack's first album, Blue Lines. It's pretty boring, or would have been if the music hadn't sounded so good: But if you hurt what's mine / I'll sure as hell retaliate … You can free the world / You can free my mind / Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight ... When I do get a ride, it begins a roll that lasts the rest of the night and I make more than enough to pay the fine, should I be fined. It's music that keeps me sane out there and I'm starting to enjoy programming the night ahead. Some things work and others don't and that's interesting in itself. The fare from Deutsche Bank is a guy who's recently had a baby, the kid’s been ill, and he’s on the phone to his mother telling her in great detail how tough things are for his wife and himself (mostly for himself); but I’m listening with only half an ear because the other one and a half are engaged with a cd M picked up at the Adamstown Markets recently: Beyond Elysian Fields by Hugh Cornwell, who used to be the lead singer in The Stranglers. The record was made in New Orleans and there’s a song on it called The Story of Harry Power that I know I want to hear again: Harry Power is the guy who initiated Ned Kelly into the modus operandi of bushranging. It might even have been, though Hugh doesn’t think so, a young Ned who dobbed Harry in, which gives a new twist to the old outlaw tale. If an album sounds good on the night, and this one does, I generally let it run through twice; but by the time I pick up in Erskineville, three musos heading to the airport and back to Melbourne after a Sydney gig, I’m listening to one of my staples, Little Axe—the dub version of Slow Fuse, with the LOUD button on so the bass vibrates the shell of the cab. Little Axe is Skip McDonald, a guitarist and bluesman from Dayton, Ohio, who had a pretty good career in the States (he was, with percussionist Keith Le Blanc and bass player Doug Wimblish, in the house band at Sugar Hill Records and all three play on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's fabulous 1982 track The Message) before he moved to England and teamed up with Adrian Sherwood and Gary Clail and the On-U Sound System. With Le Blanc and Wimblish, he formed Tackhead; his Little Axe records started coming out in the mid-nineties and I now have four of the five ... just need to find a copy of Champagne & Grits somewhere. Anyway, after dropping off the musos at the airport I'm coming back up O'Riordan Street when, at a set of lights in the desolation of the warehouse district, a young woman hails me from the other side of the road. She's unusual looking, with a thin face and a big nose and very full lips—beautiful rather than pretty—and all dolled up with bags and packages too. At first I think Indian but then I don't know; and when she gets into the front seat and says she wants to go to Edgecliff Station, I don't look at her again. It's instinct—some people don't want to be looked at. I can smell her though: perfume and tobacco and perhaps a hint of some kind of alcohol. She starts rummaging and then does some texting and then some more rummaging, sipping now and again from a bottle of orange juice that might be laced with vodka or the like; but I don't pay much attention, I just turn up the music and start driving really fast through the dark and empty night time streets of Alexandria and Zetland and Waterloo while Little Axe soulfully mourn ... too late … too late will be your cry … It isn't till we're nearly at Edgecliff Station that she tells me that she's meeting a friend there and the friend's the one who'll be paying her fare. This is not a good thing to hear and it starts sounding worse when she calls her friend and her friend is somewhere else. The Royal Oak in Double Bay ... she says to me then cuts the connection before I can get her to ask her friend what street that is in. So I ask her ... I don't fucken know … she snaps. The Royal Oak in Double Bay. How hard can it be? I'm not so much upset at being sworn at as I am amazed: she's Aboriginal. And I hadn't picked it. And anyway there's no rancour in it, she's stressed but not because of anything I’ve done and ... that's just how she talks. She's rolling a cigarette as we go on down the hill to Double Bay and start searching the square of streets at the back of the main drag. She's not exactly apologetic but I can tell she's trying to make amends, speaking a bit more softly though no less vehemently: It's not fucken down here, it must be back up the other fucken way. You know, that pub where they all sit outside. We find it after not very long and she calls her friend again. Nothing happens for a while so, on her advice, I move the car into the quieter street running down the side of the pub towards the sea and it's while I'm doing this that she says: Here he is ... The guy crossing the road towards us is at least twice her age, i.e. in his 40s, wearing a knitted pale green jersey and faded blue jeans; I didn't get what he had on his feet. He's white and probably some kind of petty crim, though I couldn't say exactly what kind. Soon as she sees him coming she gets out of the car but leaves the door open. It’s alright, I got money … I hear him say but all I see are his hands and his midriff, the neat little dark green cotton darns in the paler green wool of his jersey, his small, tight, pot belly, as he pulls a large number of flattened, randomly folded, unsorted banknotes out of his jeans pocket and starts going through them. Fifties, twenties, tens, quite lot of money to have on you. Well, that's alright, once you see money you know you're going to get paid. How much? he asks and I tell him there’s $24.55 on the meter. He fillets a twenty and a five from the stash and hands them over. Nobody says thanks or goodbye or anything like that but, as they walk across the road towards the back bar of the Royal Oak, and I'm turning the car around, I can hear her going off at him ... fucken this and fucken that ... and him going off the same way, only not as loud, back at her. When they get to the door he's a little ahead and opens it as if to go in first; but thinks better of it and stops to let her through before him: just for a moment it looks as if she's going to refuse; then, with a little toss of her head, she goes in, and he does, and that's it. I head off towards the City wondering if it's sex or drugs; and after not very long decide most probably both. Maybe he’s her pimp and she’s done a trick that didn’t work out; or maybe he’s summoned her in to work and she didn’t want to go. Or maybe they’re just boyfriend and girlfriend after all though somehow I doubt it … one of my favourite tracks on the album, Judgement, is playing now so I turn it up and as I climb the hill to Edgecliff and go down the other side to Rushcutters Bay then up again into the tunnel under the Cross, I forget all about them and lose myself in the music … When we see his judgement come again / Ain’t no water to set to sail again … When we see his judgement fall on man / Only fire can cleanse the earth again … ain’t no water … only fire …