31 December 2008

Melbourne cabs

Love him or not, Jeff Kennett left a lasting legacy from his time as Victorian Premier. He reorganised Melbourne’s taxi system, directing that cabs be painted yellow, that drivers wear uniforms, and a number of other things. The drivers themselves might be as mixed a bunch as in any other city, but there are some proudly carrying the torch:

FAITH is central to Mohammed Jama's life. In keeping with his Muslim beliefs, he prays five times a day, often driving his taxi to a mosque in King Street mid-shift to carry out his spiritual obligations.

Jama, as he is known, keeps a tiny copy of the Koran discreetly on his dashboard, but don't ask him to discuss religion while he's driving; he has nothing to say on the matter since such conversation between Melbourne taxi drivers and their passengers was banned by the Victorian Taxi Directorate.

Likewise, don't expect a lively debate about the state of Australian or global politics; that's also a no-go under VTD guidelines.

Full story here in an article from The Age.

Driving to Melbourne and back, I didn’t need a cab, but I was impressed with the look of those I saw. They look clean and bright.

I relied upon my own Navman GPS, now nearly three years old, for directions. I didn’t have a copy of Melways, Melbourne’s excellent street directory, and although I have a rough idea of the layout of the city from living and working there twenty years back, there are a whole stack of new tollways and tunnels. Some of them aren’t in my Navman at all.

Driving down, with Ken beside me, I had his helpful guidance. Even so, the Navman directed us far too close to the CBD for my liking. In fact we drove along beside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the first of the crowd were beginning to straggle out from the stands. Another half hour and it would have been rush hour on what was all but a holiday.

Coming back from Frankston, I ignored the GPS advice for the most part. It seemed bent on steering me into the city before letting me out again. Instead I peeled off the freeway well east of the city centre and headed north. For the next half hour I tried to angle my way across a relentless grid, rapidly losing all but a rough idea of direction under the overcast sky, through a series of unhelpful signs bearing names of unfamiliar suburbs. I’d hit a junction: left would be Bungey, right Page, and Gullett ahead. Which way to go?

Eventually I found my way through Bundeela and saw a sign for the Hume Freeway, heading north. But without a street directory and under the guidance of a machine which reckoned the congestion of the CBD to be part of the swiftest route, it had been an uncertain trip.

Smart yellow cabs or no, I’m very glad that I’m not a Melbourne cabbie. Melbourne is too big to know well. No cabbie can be intimate with every street in every suburb. Not to mention the traffic. Canberra’s peak hour lasts an hour, and only along a handful of streets. In Melbourne, you can get gridlock lasting for hours.

Canberra has a well laid out system of arterial roads. Traffic flows smoothly along wide roads through dedicated reserves. Suburbs are clearly defined and grouped into town clusters. It’s just a joy to drive in Canberra.

Eventually I left Melbourne’s grid of trams and traffic lights behind, seven hours of freeway driving ahead. Melbourne’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to work there.

27 December 2008

Long fares

I’ve had all sorts of people in my cab, sharing a moment in their lives. Politicians, judges, artists, sportsfolk, authors: people whose doings and photographs fill newspapers. And the ordinary every day folk who are fascinating in themselves. We share a story, a joke, an observation, and I go on my way chuckling, or thoughtful.

But of all the passengers I’ve carried, by far the most fascinating, the most unforgettable is Ken Haley.

He’s an author, a world traveller in unlikely places, and he’s in the newspaper just about every day.

That’s because he’s a journalist, currently working as a sub-editor on The Canberra Times.

He has a memory crammed full of trivia, every Monty Python or Pete&Dud skit, a stock of quotes from movies and books and famous figures of history, and a love of puns and wordplay that made me his adoring fan after a few minutes in his company.

He’s written a book or two, and I’ve read and reread my copy of his quirky travel book, Emails from the edge. Now I’m waiting for the next adventure to be published. I’ve seen the manuscript on his kitchen table, and I long for the day when I have my own copy to add to my collection of Morris, Theroux, Chatwin and other great travel writers.

He’s all these things and more: he’s a paraplegic. Half man, half machine, I have to position the cab carefully to allow him to come alongside, transfer his bum into the front seat, and then shift his disassembled wheelchair into the back seat.

The result of a breakdown and attempted suicide, Ken’s paraplegia doesn’t stop him getting into places where most people would fear to tread. Places like South Ossetia, Syria, Botswana (where his taxidriver managed to get bogged in the only mud puddle in the nation).

He roams the world in a wheelchair, vital medical supplies and spare parts in his baggage, finding willing hands in unlikely places.

He pulled up beside my cab on Manuka rank one evening, and when I realised that instead of some fetching young lady leaning in my window, there was a head bobbing around at hip-height, I leapt out of the cab.

When I see a walking stick, a pair of crutches, a Zimmer frame, or a wheelchair, I know that the passenger has a genuine need for assistance, and I do my very best to supply it. People with mobility problems depend on cabs and cabbies to get around, and when you can’t walk, things as simple as popping down to the shop for a loaf of bread can become time-consuming and expensive adventures.

I like helping people, but I suspect that the real reason Ken keeps calling me when he needs a taxi, and I drive like a demon across town to be there, is that I laugh at his jokes.

Every trip with Ken is a delight. I chuckle happily, or listen enthralled, all the way home. Sometimes the trip is not enough, and I stand in his doorway, demanding more entertainment, until the lights on the cab begin to fade out.

There’s a legend in the lives of cabbies of the mother of all long fares. The lady who walked up to a cab rank in Sydney one day in the 1920s, asked “Do you take long fares?” and when an affirmative reply was given, asked to be taken to Sydney, the long way.

After visiting every mainland State and Territory, she paid the fare and walked off into history.

Ken related the story to me with gusto, and ever since, I’ve lived in hope and terror that the day will come when he wheels up to the door and asks, “Do you do long fares?”

Well, that day has come. We’re off to Melbourne in a few hours.

26 December 2008

The worst part

“It must get hard,” people say, when I tell them I drive the night shift. “Don’t you have trouble with the drunks?”

Well, yes, sometimes, but I take the position that everyone is entitled to a few drinks with their friends, and after a few drinks, you can’t drive, it’s too far to walk, the buses stop running at midnight, and how else you gunna get home, hey?

I have very little trouble with drunks.

The crazies give me more bother, but there’s none too many insane people wandering the streets of Canberra, despite what the rest of the country thinks. A few on the fringe, but they are more entertaining than scary.

“Nah,” I say, “it’s not the drunks and it’s not the crazies. It’s the herbivores.”

And that’s a fact. The absolute worst part of this job is the kangaroos.

It was the middle of a prolonged drought when I began cabdriving, and after dark, or indeed at any time of the day or night, you could find kangaroos browsing on the few patches of green, mainly the grassy verges of the main roads, or in suburban gardens.

I’ve seen them in the Parliamentary Triangle in mid-afternoon, attempting to cross six lanes of rush hour traffic on Adelaide Avenue outside the Prime Minister’s Lodge, bounding across the top of Hindmarsh Drive before sunset, two unlucky cars ahead, and of course after dark, they flood in from the surrounding bushland, looming up suddenly, five metres high, as I round a suburban corner.

Other nations have sacred cows, or deer, or elephants wandering through the streets, but in Canberra, the bush capital, the roos rule the road.

They can be big creatures, somewhere between a dog and a horse in bulk and speed, about as clever as your average chook, and mainly distinguished form other creatures by their long muscular legs, top-heavy appearance, and curious bounding movement. They move at speed by making long jumps, using the muscles and sinews in their legs to store energy as they land and then taking off again.

At full speed, they can appear out of a dark nowhere, up around windscreen height, in the space of an eyeblink. They don’t pause on the side of the road to peer nervously left and right, oh no, they jump across at full speed. And where there is one kangaroo, there is usually a mob of them. You can go in a heartbeat from being alone on a night road, your headlights picking out nothing but the white lines, to being surrounded by hurtling herbivores.

Kangaroos scare me. When you get down to it, they are just a big ball of muscle with sharp claws on the ends, and the thought of one of them crashing through the windscreen and thrashing around in the front seat is what gives me nightmares. People die from kangaroos: torn up behind the wheel, driving off the road or into other cars, or just from a heavy body suddenly demolishing the front end of the car.

Driving along at night, I see other creatures. Cats scamper across streets, foxes look up and down the road before picking their moment, and cows are big enough and slow enough to be seen from a safe distance.

But kangaroos are right there in front of you without warning. Twice I’ve had them jump out from roadside vegetation into my path and there was nothing I could do to avoid them.

The first one bounced off my passenger side quarter, taking out the headlight and half the bumper. The second one went under the car, taking out a headlight and half the bumper before demolishing various bits of the underneath machinery.

Both times, I was at the end of my shift, able to limp home on a single headlight with a surprise for the day driver. I was lucky to drive away.

“Bloody things!” I say to my passengers when they ask me about the worst part of my job. “Bloody kangaroos give me the screaming nightmares.”

That’s why I drive tense, hunched over the wheel and peering nervously into the dark, flipping on high beam whenever I can. My fellow human beings might be mad as cut snakes, sick up in the back seat, or run off without paying, but they are saints and angels compared to those bloody bounding kangaroos.

25 December 2008

Christmas Cabbies

My days are about forty-eight hours long. It’s not that the night shifts stretch out interminably - on the contrary, the hours flash by - but that I’m always conscious of the hours before and after Canberra’s day.

About the same time as I flip the meter onto the night-time rate, it’s midnight in New Zealand, where so many of my friends live. I drive through the dark, wash the car and crawl into bed on Thursday morning, but it’s still Wednesday for another six hours in Europe. And in the USA, where so many of my Internet friends live, it’s just about always yesterday. They must think I’m a being from the future sometimes.

And occasionally, I have a very long day indeed when I’m travelling with the sun. Typically Hong- Kong to Heathrow, but the longest Friday of my life had two dawns and two dusks, from waking up in Canberra to falling asleep in Washington DC, with a midnight pass over a glowing Hawaiian lava field somewhere in the middle.

For me, Christmas Day was yesterday, spent on the road up to Gosford, having lunch and a lazy afternoon, and then driving home again. But it’s still Christmas in other parts of the world.

We passed through the centre of Sydney on the way up, and, waking from sleep in the back seat whilst my wife and daughter shared the driving, I took a picture of two Sydney Silver Service taxis returning from the airport. My day driver later reported in, saying that he was having a profitable shift.

One cabbie was doing very well, I noticed. We were stuck in a creeping traffic jam from North Sydney to Pymble where the north coast freeway begins, and amongst all the grim-faced drivers was a happy cabbie crawling along beside us. And a couple of grim-faced passengers in the back seat.

We had a delightful lunch with my sister’s family, including my mother down from Rockhampton, played with the toys scattered about in various stages of assembly, experimented with Skypevision with other family members and just had a grand time before it came to an end too soon and we had to be back on the road.

Christmas is a special time in the Western world. My day driver and I exchanged presents, he dressed up in a Santa cap for his Christmas shift, and every single passenger I had on Christmas Eve wished me a Merry Christmas, often with a nice little tip.

Good humour, fellowship and smiles are the order of the day.

It’s been a great year for me. Sometimes I feel that it’s Christmas every day. Sometimes I just have to stop and savour my delight. Driving around the Arc de Triomphe was a highlight, as was kissing my wife on top of the Eiffel Tower. Looking out for giant gorillas on top of the Empire State Building, walking through the entrance to the National Building Museum in Washington, watching the incredible light show on Hong Kong Harbour.

Giving a helping hand to a lady in need, swapping travel stories with tourists picked up at the airport, singing along to Abba with some party-goers, laughing at the wicked wordplay of one of my regulars, hanging out with other cabbies - it’s been a blast.

Or just driving along a deserted freeway in Canberra, a favourite song playing as I pass some floodlit monument in between passengers. A happy cabbie.

But one moment sticks in my mind. Yesterday morning Paul and I wished each other a Merry Christmas as we sat in the front seat of the cab parked in my driveway. I’d finished my Christmas Eve shift, he was starting his Christmas Day, and we just sat and chatted for a few minutes.

Another cab passed by, stopped, reversed, and the driver got out. It was Geoff, who happens to be Paul’s father-in-law. We swapped more greetings, shook hands and then he was gone, Paul fired up the car and drove off, and I went back inside, very very happy with my job, my life, my family, my friends and the world in general.

It all comes back to what I answered on my taxi driver course two years ago, when we were asked, “What do you expect to get out of being a taxi driver”.

I thought for a moment and wrote down, “A lot of company for a short time, and a few good friends for a long time.”

The instructor looked at this and said, “You’ll have no troubles.”

And he was right.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

24 December 2008

The Cabosphere

I’d never taken much notice of taxis or taxidrivers before. Colourful characters in colourful cars. Part of the background. Lined up here and there, scurrying along city streets, minor characters in movies.

And then, when I became a cabbie myself, suddenly everything was cabs. I’d look at a line of cabs, pick out the tiniest details and point them out to my wife. I bought “Taxi Driver” to relish in Robert de Niro. I scoured the internet for taxi stories. I started my own taxi blog. I wrote copious accounts of my adventures.

I was hooked, plugged into a life I’d only guessed at before. The crackling radio conversations of codewords - suddenly they became clear.

Other taxidrivers fascinated me. We’d chat on ranks, occasionally I’d drive one home - mates rates - from a club, interstate or international cabbies would jump in at the airport. I relished the chance to swap stories with other cabbies. Each yarn would spark another memory, of runners, pukers, singers, jokers, kangaroos and caribous.

When I travelled, I’d go hunting taxi adventures, hauling my big yellow bags to a tiny yellow taxi, jumping in beside the driver in Frankfurt, Chicago, Hong Kong and swapping tales.

Hasim in Istanbul handed me his business card at the airport, with an email address of “Sultan of the Taxi”, posed with RingBear, and drove away out of my life.

Melissa Plaut encouraged me with my blog and when her superb book “Hack” was published, I bought my own copy, fresh mail-order from Amazon. I devoured the hilarious tales of a taxi despatcher in Arlngton, cabbies in Hawaii, London, Canada.

And I’m still loving it. There’s not enough hours in the day to drive a shift, read up on the blogs, and write up my own adventures. But I try.

And, in what may be a first for the cab sector of the blogosphere, my day driver Paul is tag-teaming with me. Two drivers, one car, night and day, the driver’s seat is never cold. His stories are my required reading, even when they’ve been summarised in a few words at shift changeover. He posts them in off moments from his iPhone, and he calls them Taxi Typos.

23 December 2008

Midnight granny

They were four young things, tweenie Australians out on the town, two from Perth giving their impressions of Canberra to a couple of locals as I drove them all home. A deserted freeway skirting Parliament House, the Prime Minister’s Lodge and the Mint. We owned Canberra.

“You’ve got the city planning down nice,” one said, “but it’s so far from anywhere.”

That was just great, I thought, coming from a sandgroper. Perth is three day’s hard driving across deserts and several State borders.

“It’s two hours to the beach,” said another. “In Perth it’s fifteen minutes max, and we can watch the sun set over the ocean.”

Fair call.

“Canberra’s public transport sucks.” The first one was on a roll. “The capital city and it sucks arse.”

No argument there, either. Canberra’s public transport consists of infrequent buses meandering through strings of suburbs. People sometimes accuse cabbies of going the long way, but with the bus system here, you get the maximum journey time for your money. And it stops running at midnight, long before the drunks get really ratty.

In fact, apart from the rare worker such as a baker beginning his shift, or a public servant burning the midnight oil when the government’s in a jam, it’s pretty much all drunks after midnight. Anyone else out at this hour has their own car.

So I was astonished to see someone waiting at a bus stop, getting on for two in the morning, after I delivered my four passengers home. It was a quiet night to begin with, and by now we cabbies were really scratching for fares. Luckily there were only a dozen or so cabs still on the road, so it kind of evened out.

I pulled up at the bus stop, and could hardly credit the sight. A little old lady, great-grandmother age, walking stick, sensible shoes, big handbag and floral dress.

She teetered over the kerb to me. “Are you a taxi?”

“Yes, hop in.”

Easier said than done, and I jumped out, scurried around the car, opened the door for her, tucked her in, made sure all was secure and closed the door.

“I can’t tell if it’s day or night,” she said, and then named a suburb about five minutes away.

Maybe she was blind, but she seemed to know where she was as we owned along Adelaide Avenue. “Turn here,” she commanded, not that I had any option for the address she’d given me. Canberra’s like that - there’s only a certain number of ways you can get somewhere, and if you don’t make the turn, you’ve got a long drive and a cranky passenger to recover.

I figured she was befuddled, as folk my age and up so often are, and when she mentioned that her knee and her back were hurting bad, I wondered if she had had one pain-killer too many earlier in the day. She spoke with an accent as she repeated her address a few times, and I reassured her that this was exactly where we were headed.

It was a small house on a pleasant street, garden overgrown, narrow driveway, letterbox vanished in the foliage. But it was the right address, I was sure of it.

She peered out uncertainly at the house in the headlights, and when I flipped on the side light to give more illumination, she nodded.

“That’s fifteen dollars fifty,” I read the meter for her.

“Fifteen dollars? So much!”

She was living in another time and place inside herself, a time when fares were cheaper, maybe measured in shillings and pence. “Fünfzehn Reichsmarken fünfzig,” I almost said, but instead, when she emptied out her purse, I picked out four gold coins and left her the silver. Not a note in sight. I’d go backwards on this fare, once I paid half the meter amount to the owner.

“Let’s get you out.”

I opened the door for her, made sure she had everything, and torch in my teeth, provided one arm to steady her and the other to carry her handbag as we tottered together along the narrow garden path. She peered about uncertainly, but when we reached the steps and she automatically latched onto the handrail, I was relieved.

It took some painful movements to get up the four cement steps, but we got there. She looked at the porch and declared, “This is not my house.”

The house in her mind was half a world and half a century away, so I suggested she try her keys in the door. We had a job finding them in her complicated handbag, but a flash of metal in the torchlight, and there they were. Naturally they fitted, and we opened the doors. I turned on her hall light, and she beamed happily as I passed in her belongings, finishing up with a gorgeous silk scarf. I’m very sorry I didn’t ask her to put it on for me, because there would have been a beautiful lady beneath it, but the thought didn’t come to me until later.

“Thank you so much!” she smiled. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” I echoed. It might have cost me four dollars and half an hour, but for a Christmas gift, no diamond ring could have given either of us as much pleasure.

22 December 2008


I’ve been reading another cabbie blog, and his description of a funny incident set my memory gears working. See Somebody did a doougie in this cab?! for the full horror.

I remember my first vomit incident. I spent an hour after midnight cleaning the cab out, and I couldn't smell anything. I couldn't smell anything, full stop.

My next fare was a lady in expensive clothing, she was only going a couple of blocks, but she didn't want to walk in heels. She opens the door and instantly recoils. "Has somebody been sick in here?" she asks.

"No," I lie.

She gets in, goes the two blocks and shoots out, telling me to keep the change.

Next fare is a bloke, well sozzled, and he jumps in, gives the name of a town just over the border, and starts telling me what an awful night he's had and his mates left him, and now he's got to pay for the cab all by himself without splitting the fare.

Then he starts sniffing and looks at me, and I look at him.

"Ah, someone threw up in the car yesterday," I explained. "Bloody day driver."

The road stretched out ahead of us, long and lonely. We wound the windows down and he stuck his head out of his, and I kept mine inside, cause I couldn't smell anything but the faintest whiff if I put my mind to it, and the floral scent I'd spritzed inside the car from the dispenser at the car wash was covering that nicely. Three minutes worth, you'd hope so. That was a buck well spent.

But my passenger was gasping. He was in genuine distress. It was midwinter and he wasn't coping well with the icy blast. He was a Queenslander, and they only have a pale imitation of winter there. It was well below freezing and even though I had the cab heater cranked way up, the bits of him that were hanging outside weren't happy.

I could almost see his mental processes going. He'd had a bad night, this cab was costing him a fortune - he kept glancing at the meter - he was freezing his head off, he was likely sitting in a pile of stale vomit and the lying cabbie was taking him the wilderness route - I'd automatically gone down the back road - and nobody cared. I could see him running off without paying.

We entered town and you could smell it, above the whiff of vomit, the cloying floral and the clean blast of icy wind. He was going to run. He was fully justified.

"Ah, it's half rates for interstate," I said, looking at the meter which had forty lovely dollars on it. "A twenty will be fine."

He paid me, and I gave up for the night. Took the car home, stripped out the seats, washed everything washable, found a few puddles of recycled pizza had seeped under the back cushion, and I aired it out for a day and hung up a couple of air fresheners on full flow.

And you know, it never smelt right. Months after, I just had to open the door at the beginning of a shift, and I was instantly wearing that lady's high heels, my sweet little nose wrinkling in outrage and dismay.

21 December 2008

Cabdriver in paradise

A priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the pearly gates waiting for them.

‘Come with me’, said St. Peter to the taxi driver.

The taxi driver did as he was told and followed St. Peter to a mansion. It had everything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an olympic size pool in the extensive gardens.

‘Wow, thank you’, said the taxi driver.

Next, St. Peter led the priest to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old black and white television set.

‘Wait, I think you are a little mixed up’, said the priest. ‘Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a priest, went to church every day, and preached God’s word.’

‘Yes, that’s true. But during your sermons people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.’

20 December 2008

Screen test

From the Melbourne Herald-Sun:

TAXI drivers have ended a city blockade after ugly scenes today, but vow to continue their protest over safety screens.

They called on the minister to change laws introduced this year that make it compulsory for owners to purchase and install safety screens, regardless of whether drivers want them.

Earlier, about 50 drivers were behind a related wildcat action that brought the Tullamarine Freeway to a crawl, with cars three abreast across the road from Melbourne Airport soon after 8am.

Thousands of city-bound motorists were forced to crawl along behind them at just 5km/h, causing morning chaos along the airport-city link.

Full story here.

I’m with the Melbourne taxidrivers on this. The day they make me drive behind some sort of plastic shield is the day I stop driving.

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. Keep the driver safe from violent passengers. He doesn’t have to worry that someone’s going to pull a knife on him, or try to strangle him with the seatbelt.

Or kiss him.

The way to deal with crazies is to have the police deal with them. The message a safety shield sends is that it’s okay to have a go at the cabbie, we’re just going to make it more difficult to get to him.

For my part, I relish the personal contact with passengers. Sure I’ve been worried about some of them, but nobody’s ever offered me violence or threatened me. On the other hand, I’ve had a few kiss me or shake my hand, and that means the world to me. It means I’m doing my job right.

19 December 2008

Silence and Respect

Paul, my day driver, has bought an iPhone, and we share the mounting bracket. I pull my phone out at the end of a shift, he plugs his in, and the music and images continue. We're multimedia cabbies, albeit on a very small scale, and the passengers have to lean close to see the details.

Yesterday, about three in the morning, he plaid a music video that sent thrills up my spine. Trace Adkins' song "Arlington", in a moving video. A gravestone flickers onto the screen for an instant, that of Patrick Ray Nixon, for whom the bridge is named. There's a deeper message buried there.

But on the surface, the song explores a rich theme of American life, the tradition of duty and service, bearing arms for the nation. Arlington is perhaps its greatest expression - a dedicated resting place in sight of the nation's capital - and a pleasant place of grim reflection. Conceived in Civil War spite, the headstones stretching out from the very door of Robert E Lee's Virginia home, it is now an estate of majesty undreamt of in those days when the Union, like the Washington monument across the Potomac, was an unfinished stump.

I walked briefly through the rows of graves a few weeks ago, struck again by the beauty of the place. It is one of those things the Americans do so well, but also a reminder of my attitude towards the USA. Here those who gave their lives are treated with dignity and respect, the corporals and the presidents in site of each other. Yet over the river, living through the bitter winter in the snow, resting their heads on stone pillows amongst the monuments, one may find military veterans making the poorest of lives in the capital of the world's richest nation.

When death inevitably comes, those who wouldn't spit on the living man salute his dead remains when they lay him below the lawns of Arlington.

Much as I love America, there are things there to hate. Arrogance, incredible stupidity, inefficiency and ignorance on a colossal scale. And many other things. How could a nation that fought a great civil war, supposedly to free the slaves, then keep them downtrodden and humiliated for another century? Jefferson's high words of equality rang out in every American schoolhouse, but they echoed in empty heads, apparently.

And yet.

And yet, it is the words of America's founding fathers that I hold close to my heart. They stood up against tyranny and they brought forth a great modern democracy. Here the refugees from prejudice and oppression could create a new life. The sight of the Statue of Liberty greeting arrivals to New York, never fails to move me. The generosity, the friendship, the warmth of Americans and the genuine strength of each welcome keep me returning. No nation is perfect.

Last night I picked up a passenger from Civic. He'd been having Christmas drinks with friends, and he made me happy by naming a distant suburb. He spotted the iPhone, and an image on it - maybe the Iwo Jima Memorial, maybe the eternal flame above JFK's grave - set him talking of his two years posting in Washington. He was an army officer, and initially suspicious of years to be spent amongst politicians and bureaucrats, he quickly grew to delight in DC. The museums and the memorials, the people and their pleasures, it was all over too soon, and he yearns for the day he returns. We mentioned some of our favorite places. The National Building Museum, the Museum of American History, San Francisco and New York. He guided me into his street and summed it all up: "I love America".

18 December 2008

Funny runner

Wednesday night shift, winding down. I was hunting for the last few fares to put me over budget, and after I dropped a merry couple in Hackett a job came up in Dickson. I was torn between wanting to gas up at the Dickson service station where I could use the taxi’s fuel card (as opposed to paying for fuel myself and waiting several weeks for reimbursement) or earning a few dollars.

I figured any fare coming out of Dickson early Thursday morning wouldn’t be going too far, and I’d end up about as far from the Shell servo as I was now, so I hit the button and got the job.

Corey from Dickson going to the City. Well, that was fine too. There was a bit of work in the City, so I could string the jobs together and worry about gassing up later.

Corey wasn’t waiting at the address specified. He was over the other side of the street, on a corner, flagging me down. That’s a bad sign right there - he calls for a cab and then doesn’t wait a single minute, no he’s off looking for any passing cab. If I’d been any slower I might have lost my passenger to another cabbie.

But I collected him, quoted the name on the job screen and we were off to the City. He must have been a comedian in his day job, because he launches into a standup routine in my front seat, and geez he was funny. Kept me chuckling all the way down Northbourne Avenue.

“Any places still open?” he asks me, and I name Mooseheads as a possibility, and the Casino as a certainty. We pull up outside Mooseheads and he peers at it, saying that if it’s no fun, he’ll look for me at the cab rank. Then he gets out, disappears inside and that’s the last I see of him. There’s $12.90 on the meter, but I’m not about to leave my cab where the cops will pounce on me if I go inside to hunt up the money.

Funny guy.

I go around to the rank, but there’s a passenger waiting, I take him off to a distant suburb and I never get back to the city before my shift ends. Normally I’d not worry too much about thirteen dollars, but in this case, I’ve got the feeling I’ve been taken for a ride. So to speak.

Never mind. I’ve got Corey’s address to investigate, and I’ll try the polite approach first.


I wrote about last Friday’s sad queues of passengers waiting after midnight in rain-soaked lines for rare taxis. I worked long and hard that night, but eventually the stress, difficulty and danger of driving on wet roads got to me. I like getting people home safely, but one of those people is myself, and at some stage fatigue is going to end my shift one way or another. I prefer ending the night flat out in bed, not laid out on a slab.

A letter to the editor in The Canberra Times begins by asking, “Why aren’t holders of taxi licences fined heavily any time taxi queues of more than 100 people form?” In what is becoming a bad habit of mine, I responded:

Fran Emerson (letters, 17 December) speaks from the heart against taxi drivers for not being available when needed, and the government for not making more licences available, citing the long queues in Civic on a very wet Friday night. She calls for heavy fines to be levied against taxi owners whenever queues form beyond 100 people.

Well, okay, if she likewise comes out in support of taxi drivers being compensated whenever the numbers of cabs waiting at empty ranks builds up. The fact is that most of the time, there are cabs standing idle at ranks. Even on a busy drinking night, there will often be dozens of cabs lined up after midnight on the main Civic rank. Likewise at the airport: the cabyard is usually choked with taxis waiting to pass through the boomgates.

The reality of a cabbie’s life is that most of the long work days and nights are spent lining up for the chance of a passenger. We cabbies read books, fill out the puzzles in the paper, drink coffee, listen to the radio and dream of the rare times when we don’t have to wait.

During the busy periods, we cabbies are flat out. We live for such times. We’re not parked around a corner asleep, we’re on the road earning a living. We’re doing our very best to supply a service, and calls for cabbies to be heavily fined for doing their best aren’t helping.

And the paper published it, slightly modified.

I guess I shouldn’t really complain about people being unable to see things from a cabbie’s perspective. They see dozens of taxis around, a natural part of the urban landscape during slack times, and then at other times there are long queues for the cabs which have mysteriously vanished. Why aren’t all those cabs busy servicing the people who need them? Would it help if they were forced into line?

The answer is that mostly, we’re busy doing our jobs and carrying as many passengers as we can. Once we pick up a passenger, it’s an average of half an hour before we can return to the main cab rank to pick up the next, and we are as constrained by speed and distance as any other driver. We simply cannot be everywhere at once, If there are more people in the queue than cabs on the road, then there is naturally going to be a delay.

All the fines in the world aren’t going to create more cabs and cab drivers out of empty air. More likely, the sort of punitive fines envisaged by the original letter writer would push some operators out of business, and the situation would become worse, not better.

17 December 2008

Spinning out

Last Friday night I went home early, worn out by a shift of driving in pouring rain. I didn’t bother washing the car, parked it, went to bed. That was around three in the morning.

At 0420 - I remember the display on the bedside clock - I got a phone call from Tiny, who drives another Silver Service cab in the same mini fleet. They call him Tiny because he’s the tallest driver in Canberra. He’s been having a rough trot with health issues and car problems, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear him say, “I’ve spun out near Cook, can you do a silver job for me?”

This was exactly what I’d been fearing for myself and I felt sorry for Tiny that he’d had an accident on wet roads added to all his other troubles, but I’d finished my shift, I was fast asleep, and for all I knew the Saturday day driver had already collected the car and driven off, so I declined with thanks.

Now, I might have gone straight from dreaming to answering the phone, but I remembered the incident in the morning. Next time I saw my day driver, Paul, I mentioned that Tiny had spun out and I was very glad that it hadn’t been me. Paul passed this on to Geoff, who is Tiny’s day driver, and of course he gave Tiny a ribbing next time he saw him.

Wednesday night, and I pulled into the Shell servo in Tuggeranong. On the other side of the gas pump was Tiny, his Holden Statesman with the filler cap on the driver’s side.

“Listen, mate,” he said, “What did you think I said when I rang you?”

“That you’d spun out near Cook,” I replied, kind of puzzled.

“No, I said that I was wrung out, feeling crook, and going home.”


Still, I was glad that the joke was on me, after all, and that Tiny hadn’t had an accident. The shark bite on his leg is healing up nicely, too - he posted some gruesome looking photographs on his Facebook page.

I gassed up and went into Civic to collect a cabload of young nightclubbers. There was a queue already, young women in scanty clothing feeling the unseasonal chill in the air. It’s almost midsummer, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s cold and windy, with occasional showers, and putting a real damper on the Christmas festivities here.

They guy in the yellow jacket is a marshal, keeping control over the line, making sure that the cabbies pick up the passengers from the right end. Just a little bit of organisation works wonders. If left to themselves, the tired and emotional young folk can get competitive, battling for cabs, trying to jump the queue, scuffles breaking out...

But have someone guiding the cabs in, making sure they collect from the head of the line, it all flows smoothly, everyone confident that they’ll get a ride or a fare if they are patient. It’s good when the system works.

15 December 2008

Cabbies chase down fares

The Australian newspaper has a story about the lethal nature of cabbies:

SYDNEY'S taxis are knocking down pedestrians as fierce competition for passengers intensifies during the busy festive season.

Latest figures from the CBD's busiest hospital emergency department reveals about one in five pedestrians involved in road accidents are being hit by cabs.

To reduce the number of victims, doctors are issuing an alert to cab drivers, Christmas shoppers and revellers to take extra precautions on roadways.

The research, to be published in the next edition of the Australian Health Review, found 17.8 per cent of pedestrian victims admitted to St Vincent's Hospital last year had been hit by taxis.

One in six - or 16.3 per cent - of motorcyclist patients had also been hit by cabs.

Full story here.

Two points to note before assuming that Sydney’s cabbies are incompetent or homicidal. First, this is the central city we’re talking about, and naturally there will be a high concentration of cabs in the CBD. Secondly, cabs are on the road twenty-four hours a day, far more than normal vehicles.

Put these two facts together and it may well be that cabs are actually safer than other vehicles.

A common complaint amongst cabbies is that they drive so much more than other road users, but they still have the same number of points on their licence, and they have to pay the same fines as everybody else.

Thank goodness I’ve largely managed to avoid losing much in the way of points or fines, with the two marginal instances down to those evil speed and red light cameras at intersections.

But in the two years I’ve been driving cabs, I’ve had more and worse accidents than in the preceding thirty.

Two kangaroos - they just jumped out at me from roadside vegetation at night and there was nothing I could do except wrench off the mangled bumper, stow it in the boot for the day driver, and haul the body off the road. Both times I lost lights and cables and damaged the underneaths of the car.

One hare. Almost missed this one, but he doubled back and took out a turning light.

One possum. He was crossing the road, low and slow, at the same time I was peering at the navigation display and wondering about my passenger, who subsequently ran off without paying the fare.

One car I rear-ended, when they stopped suddenly.

One car rear-ended me when I stopped suddenly. The very next shift.

One tree I backed into when using the side mirrors to reverse straight down a curving driveway.

One cyclist. Luckily there was only a slight dent in the panel and I was able to haul the carcass off the road.

No, only joking. I moved across the bikelane into the parking lane outside the bus terminal at rush hour, and this fast-moving cyclist, head down, elbows out, glanced off my door and rammed my side mirror. I was able to pick him up, brush him down, give him my details including the number of the car I used to drive and warn him against mixing it with cabs or semi-trailers. He wobbled off and I heard no more, so presumably a bus got him on the way home.

And I bruised my knee leaving JFK when some goose got off an international flight, hired a car and crossed two lanes to make the exit my cabbie was using.

No lasting damage, though it’s been expensive.

And now I drive more carefully than I ever used to before I was a cabbie.

Please excuse the shaky photograph of Taxi 911 above, bearing down on me. The driver got out and asked what the hell I thought I was doing, but I just wanted a good photo for the story, and the rego number tickled my humour.

14 December 2008

Sunday Morning Coming Down and Letting Go

After service this morning we lingered, we three:
The reverend Golightly, my dear wife and me.
The sun streamed in as we talked at the door;
The stained glass tinting the old wooden floor.
I relaxed for a moment, and then with a sigh
My breakfast beans blew quietly by.

I thought I’d escaped, and I would have if
It hadn’t been quite so much of a whiff.
My wife ceased her chatter, sniffed and said “Pooh!”
Then gazed at me sternly. “Was that awful smell you?”
She gave me a Look and my heart gave a lurch,
What, admit before God that I’d farted in church?

“Me, dear? Of course not!” I said without thinking,
Holding my ground as they both stood there blinking.
A moment of hush and the reverend mused,
“Oh it must have been me, then. Please do excuse!”

13 December 2008

So long, Blank Top?

I’ve been looking around for other taxi blogs. There are some crackers around and I get tingles running up my spine at the way that people in distant places share my life, unknowingly.

One of my long time favorites is “Blank Top Chronicles”, the blog of a taxi despatcher from Arlington, Virginia. Between the endless tedium of answering phonecalls from people wanting cabs and sending cabs to collect them, he keeps a blog of some of the more ridiculous examples of stupidity, ignorance and malevolence.

ME: What's the address you need to be picked up from?
GUY: I'm at Arlington Cemetery.
ME: Okay, the only place there where we pick up is the taxi stand inside the main gate. Is that where you are?
GUY: I'm not sure where that is.
ME: You can ask one of the guards, they'll direct you there.
GUY: Okay, hold on a second. . . Sir? SIR! EXCUSE ME, SIR! SIR?!?! EXCUSE ME!!! SIR!!! . . . I'm here at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the guards aren't paying any attention to me . . . SIR!!! HEY, EXCUSE ME. . .
ME: WAIT, STOP!!! You're at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? That's a CEREMONIAL GUARD! They aren't allowed to break routine!
GUY: Oh, I was wondering why they were being so serious.
ME: Good God. Just find a regular guard.
GUY: I don't see any around . . . Oh wait, here comes one.
ME: I'll bet.

These sorts of incidents, gleefully recounted, kept me limp with laughter for days while I scrolled back through the archives. But of late, the entries and updates have become increasingly sparse, and when I went to the site, there was a message saying Sorry, the blog at blanktop.blogspot.com has been removed.

However, all is not lost, and Google has cached some of the entries. The most recent pages are here.

12 December 2008

It was raining hard in Fyshwick

I’ve lived in Canberra for twenty years, give or take a day, and in all that time a day and night of solid rain is still a wonder. It just doesn’t happen. We’ve had full years go by with no rain at all.

Usually what happens is that it’s dry for a month and then we get a shower. Instantly all the oil and gunk that has seeped into the surface of the road rises on the water and turns our grand boulevards into skating rinks. Roundabouts, of which Canberra has about a bazillion, become even more hazardous than usual.

I remember going around Parliament House (enclosed by not one, but two giant roundabouts) and a young driver one lane over took the curve just a bit too fast. He spun around a couple of times, remaining in place, looking terribly embarrassed, and then, get this, he found he was pointing the right way so he took off again. Last I saw of him he was red tail-lights going down Commonwealth Avenue.

But there’s always a slew of drivers who aren’t so lucky. Half an hour after the first raindrops fall, and there are flashing lights, towtrucks and police all over. Messages come over the despatch system to avoid certain intersections “due to MVA”.

I’ve learnt to slow down in the rain, take it easy on the corners, and be prepared for idiot drivers. I drive a good car with excellent tyres, but I still pull back one or two notches from my usual speed.

Thursday night the rain began on Friday morning, just as my shift was ending. It had been a beautiful day and night, a few light showers here and there, just enough to get the car dirty from road spray. I ran it through the carwash and boy, was that five bucks down the drain!

Paul, my day driver, had twelve hours of solid rain, and rose to the occasion magnificently, sheltering little old ladies with the umbrella we keep in the boot, driving well under hotel porticoes, positioning the car to avoid puddles and so on. The highlight came, he recounted with relish, when he dropped a lady off at the airport, telling her “when you get out, stand over there out of the rain, and I’ll bring your bags over to you.” He did just this, and she handed him a twenty dollar note as a tip.

I was inspired by this, so when I took a trio of lady public servants to the airport I used Paul’s line and as I hauled their bags to them through the rain, I got three big smiles.

It was wet. Twelve hours of rain and the city was soaked. Drains were beginning to back up. Here and there puddles at low points on the road were turning into lakes and oceans. I know the places to avoid on the major routes, where I’ll slow down and change lanes while less cautious drivers throw up huge sheets of dirty brown water. But when one passenger asked to be delivered to the university, I took the off ramp and discovered too late, at seventy kilometres an hour, that there was half a metre of water on the road, gathered invisible in a little dip.

For a second the world turned into spray, and I wished that I was outside the cab taking photographs of the spectacle, rather than inside wondering if we were going to stay in one piece.

“Route!” I said, startled. “I might go a different way, next time.”

“Lucky we didn’t go sideways,” he agreed. No tip from him, neither.

I worked out of the airport during the evening, and the roadworks soon showed their weak spots. The small potholes here and there expanded under the traffic, linked up, and disappeared under deceptive sheets of muddy water. I went through the puddles at a walking pace, choosing my line very carefully indeed, but other drivers weren’t quite so wary, and you could almost hear the shouts of outrage and alarm as their cars bucked and dived through the hidden trenches, each impact crumbling the holes just a little bit further.

All in all, it was just a miserable night. I had the wipers going continuously, moving from intermittent to double speed as required. At one stage I took a few minutes out to gas up, taking the outside pump through force of habit and the placement of the fuel cap. Big mistake, as this placed me directly under the edge of the driveway canopy, a line of drops splattering down on my bald spot. Worse, the rain suddenly intensified, and I crouched miserably back against the bowser, holding the filling lever down at arm’s length. When I went inside to pay, the counter attendant was barely able to speak through his laughter.

Glad I brightened his night, because it was just dismal out on the roads. I contemplated going home early, but there was just too much work around. I’d drop a passenger off and immediately I’d be offered a new radio job. At one point in the evening, I was given jobs that were an hour or so old. No passengers waiting outside for me, and no flicker of interest from darkened houses. After a few “no-shows”, I gave up on radio work, instead choosing ranks, street hails, and my own regular passengers ringing for a cab.

Friday night with Christmas parties and school formals in full swing. Young women in scanty wisps of evening dresses nervous under umbrellas. Cheerful drunks stomping through puddles. Bare-chested men striding through the rain.

The cabline on the main rank was a sight to behold. A lot of cabbies had given up driving through the rain and gone home early, and a lot more were attending to calls out in the suburbs. So there weren’t as many cabs in Civic as there would normally be, and the nightclubbers were facing an hour or two standing in the rain for a cab. This was misery made flesh, but I never got close enough to rescue anybody. I’d drop off a passenger at a hotel or club, and instantly there would be several people scrambling to get in.

“My knight in shining armour!” exclaimed one young lady, hopping in beside me, three soaked companions bundling damply into the back.

All told, it was a dreadful night to be needing a cab. There were delays at the airport, and planes were still arriving after midnight. Passengers waiting patiently in line with their luggage, cheering each rare set of cab headlights. At least they had a scrap of shelter.

Somewhere around two in the morning I gave up. I wasn’t sure if I had a Saturday driver to take over at three, but I couldn’t stand another hour of dark and dismal rain to hand over in person.

Driving up Canberra Avenue and there was Parliament House ahead of me, the floodlights atop the flagpole lighting up low cloud and drizzle. It looked spectacular, and I decided to brave the rain for a quick time exposure shot. Parliament House is a dramatic sight normally; tonight it was surreal.

I parked in the underground car park and rummaged around for my camera. Got out and felt in my bag. Drat. I had my little folding tripod, necessary for a time exposure, but I’d left the camera itself at home after uploading a few recent shots. All I had was my iPhone, and much as I love it, it isn’t my first choice for fine photography.

Nevertheless, I climbed the stairs out into the drizzle and trudged along to a good spot. A disbelieving patrol car loitered nearby as I clicked off a couple, turned and disappeared back underground.

And that was my night. I gave one last sad look at the dismal cabline in Civic before I gassed up and headed home.

11 December 2008

Cadet driver

Canberra is home to two of our military academies. Oldest is Duntroon, the Royal Military College built around the homestead of the region’s first land owner, Robert Campbell. The first intake of cadets predates Word War One, at a time when Canberra consisted of the Campbell property, a church, a few workers cottages and the bleak Limestone Plains. There’s real tradition here.

The second establishment is more recent. The Australian Defence Force Academy opened in 1986, the year I came to Canberra. It’s softened into the environment now, but in those days it was raw white against the dry brown landscape and it really stood out. It’s a tri-service acadamy, giving officer cadets a three year degree and a lot of military training before they attend the Army, Navy or Air Force college for a year to complete.

Duntroon’s for the Army cadets, and their graduation and ball was Wednesday night. They held the ball at the Old Bus Depot, and after pinning on their pips at midnight, there was a run for taxis. Typical army efficiency, they organised marshals to keep everything flowing and the queue disappeared in short order.

Thursday evening, and I got a call to the ADFA roundabout for a Silver Service job. The place was loaded up with cadets, all in formal mess dress, ready for the big night. One cadet approached me and he gave the name of the booking, so he was in, and most of the others looked downcast.

Usual story: three other cadets joined the one who’d booked the cab and we set off for the ball at the National Convention Centre.

The reason why it’s difficult to get a cab to pick up at ADFA, or Duntroon for that matter, is that if several different cadets order a cab, they’ll meet at the pickup location at the roundabout, and being good team players, they’ll share the first cab to show up. Which means that the other cabs booked there find no passengers, unless they hang around and steal another cabbie’s fare.

So I don’t pick up from the defence academies unless I’m really scratching for work.

But, having said that, cadets are excellent passengers. Well-behaved, law-abiding, a fine sense of discipline and generally intelligent and well-rounded characters, I love having them in the cab. No trouble at all, and frequently entertaining.

Force of habit almost kept me going along Constitution Avenue to Mooseheads, the regular cadet pub, but at the last moment I remembered and pulled into the drop-off point outside the convention centre. The place was alive with cadets, their parents, their girlfriends, their brothers. All dressed up in their finest.

“Don’t you move,” I warned the young lady cadet in the back, “until I get out and open the door for you.”

A special occasion for her - and her male classmates, of course - and having a uniformed chauffeur open the door helps the evening swing.

I then ignored the convention centre until midnight, when I knew there’d be a flood of passengers. Some of the cadets would walk down to Mooseheads - the only night when they were allowed out at night in uniform - but others would need taking back to the academy, and their guests would want rides to their hotels.

Come midnight and I lined up with the other cabbies. It was full-on for about an hour, and I had passengers going in all directions. One party stuck in my mind. He was an Air Commodore, proud of his son graduating. He opened the door for his wife, and his daughter got in on the other side. Mother was a little tipsy, and she exclaimed over my slide show of “happy holiday snaps” on the iPhone. I liked her.

Daughter was a little miffed that she hadn’t been allowed to go out clubbing with her brother. “But you’re not old enough,” her father said, “wait until next year and the Duntroon graduation.”

“I could get in,” she pouted. “I look eighteen.”

“Ooh, there’s Tower Bridge!” exclaimed her mother. “Can you take us to London, driver?”


We got to their hotel, and Father helped his ladies out. “I could drive around with you all night,” I told Mother.

Father leaned in the window and paid up, adding a generous tip. I thought he was pretty cool, too.

For the remaining hours of the morning, Civic was full of happy cadets, exhilarating in the completion of three hard years. I drove a few home, enjoying their company. I love having happy people in the car.

10 December 2008

Just follow the road

We got a new computer screen installed recently. Along with new GPS software.

I hate it. First off, few of the streets are labelled with their names at any sort of usable zoom level. That means if I don’t know the precise location of one of the several thousand streets in Canberra, I can no longer navigate the map to centre on the suburb and hunt around until I find the street. I can zoom to the highest magnification (when most (but not all) of the street names are displayed) but that takes a lot of scrolling, kind of like viewing an art gallery in postage stamp sized chunks.

Or I can stop under a streetlight and check the street directory.

The only good feature of the new system is that house numbers and block boundaries are displayed on the map. I no longer have to get out of the cab and hunt around with a torch to find house numbers obscured by foliage, rotted away or eaten by possums - I can glance at the map and find my exact destination.

The big selling point of the new system is that it includes driving directions. The old system was just a map, and drivers had to find their own route. No great problem - any driver with a bit of experience soon gets to know where all the suburbs are and the best ways between them.

When the new system was installed, I gave the routing software a try, and quickly discovered that, although it would get me to the destination, it must have been optimised for taxidrivers, because it would choose the longest plausible route between two destinations.

Or worse. The screenshot above is a good example of the idiot system. My car is marked by the red dot, and I’m coming up to a T intersection on Marconi Crescent. I’m instructed to turn left, follow Marconi Crescent looping north, turn left down Drakeford Drive and then right onto the cross street (which is O’Halloran Circuit, by the way).

A child could spot the best and shortest route. Go to Marconi Crescent, turn right, and right again onto the cross street, eliminating that wasteful loop north.

So no, I’m not a fan of the new system.

09 December 2008

I follow the Eagle

OK, this bit of netlore is a little corny, but oh, so close to home!

No one can make you serve customers well. That’s because great service is a choice.

Years ago, motivational speaker, Harvey Mackay, told a wonderful story about a cab driver that proved this point. He was waiting in line for a ride at the airport. When a cab pulled up, the first thing Harvey noticed was that the taxi was polished to a bright shine. Smartly dressed in a white shirt, black tie, and freshly pressed black slacks, the cab driver jumped out and rounded the car to open the back passenger door for Harvey. He handed my friend a laminated card and said:
‘I’m Wally, your driver. While I’m loading your bags in the trunk I’d like you to read my mission statement.’

Taken aback, Harvey read the card. It said:
Wally’s Mission Statement:
To get my customers to their destination in the quickest,
safest and cheapest way possible in a friendly environment.

This blew Harvey away. Especially when he noticed that the inside of the cab matched the outside. Spotlessly clean!

As he slid behind the wheel, Wally said, ‘Would you like a cup of coffee? I have a thermos of regular and one of decaf.’

My friend said jokingly, ‘No, I’d prefer a soft drink.’

Wally smiled and said, ‘No problem. I have a cooler up front with regular and Diet Coke, water and orange juice.’

Almost stuttering, Harvey said, ‘I’ll take a Diet Coke.’

Handing him his drink, Wally said, ‘If you’d like something to read, I have The Wall Street Journal, Time, Sports Illustrated and USA Today.’

As they were pulling away, Wally handed my friend another laminated card. ‘These are the stations I get and the music they play, if you’d like to listen to the radio.’

And as if that weren’t enough, Wally told Harvey that he had the air conditioning on and asked if the temperature was comfortable for him. Then he advised Harvey of the best route to his destination for that time of day. He also let him know that he’d be happy to chat and tell him about some of the sights or, if Harvey preferred, to leave him with his own thoughts.

‘Tell me, Wally,’ my amazed friend asked the driver, ‘have you always served customers like this?’ 

Wally smiled into the rearview mirror. ‘No, not always. In fact, it’s only been in the last two years. My first five years driving, I spent most of my time complaining like all the rest of the cabbies do. Then I heard the personal growth guru, Wayne Dyer, on the radio one day.
He had just written a book called You’ll See It When You Believe It. Dyer said that if you get up in the morning expecting to have a bad day, you’ll rarely disappoint yourself. He said, ‘Stop complaining! Differentiate yourself from your competition. Don’t be a duck. Be an eagle. Ducks quack and complain. Eagles soar above the crowd.”

‘That hit me right between the eyes,’ said Wally. ‘Dyer was really talking about me. I was always quacking and complaining, so I decided to change my attitude and become an eagle. I looked around at the other cabs and their drivers. The cabs were dirty, the drivers were unfriendly, and the customers were unhappy. So I decided to make some changes. I put in a few at a time. When my customers responded well, I did more.’

‘I take it that has paid off for you,’ Harvey said.

‘It sure has,’ Wally replied. ‘My first year as an eagle, I doubled my income from the previous year. This year I’ll probably quadruple it. You were lucky to get me today. I don’t sit at cabstands anymore. My customers call me for appointments on my cell phone or leave a message on my answering machine. If I can’t pick them up myself, I get a reliable cabbie friend to do it and I take a piece of the action.’

Wally was phenomenal. He was running a limo service out of a Yellow Cab. I’ve probably told that story to more than fifty cab drivers over the years, and only two took the idea and ran with it. Whenever I go to their cities, I give them a call. The rest of the drivers quacked like ducks and told me all the reasons they couldn’t do any of what I was suggesting.

Wally the Cab Driver made a different choice. He decided to stop quacking like ducks and start soaring like eagles. How about you?

Wally’s mission statement is mine, word for word. I don’t do the drinks service - though it’s a good idea - but I like looking sharp and having a sparkling clean car. Perhaps my greatest blessing is that my day driver Paul thinks the same way but more so, and gives me an example to follow.

08 December 2008

Fat Monday

I’m not much of a one for religion, but sweet Lord, what a night it was! I smashed my all-time best record for a Monday night by a good hundred and fifty dollars.

From the moment I signed on, the work just flowed. There was nothing special. No Parliament sitting. No Floriade. No big exhibition. No sports events. Maybe a few high school and college formals, but any work from them usually doesn’t appear until around midnight.

But this was the golden shift. Job after job. I’d pull into the airport and instead of a packed cabyard, the red tail lights of the only other taxi disappearing through the boomgate to collect another passenger from the queue. I had long jobs, I had short jobs and the only way I could get some time out to have a meal or gas up was if I deliberately ignored the system.

It was odd, though. Usually when we cabbies are flat out, bookings pile up in the system until the busy areas have long listings of stale bookings. Bookings that are more than fifteen minutes old often spell trouble for the cabbie: either the passenger is tense after waiting so long, or they have given up, called another cab, flagged one down or just walked home.

But it wasn’t like that - bookings were handled promptly, drivers and passengers were happy and it was just a great shift.

Towards the end, I picked up a lady from a Christmas party. She was well sozzled and I kept a wary eye on her all the way down to Gordon at the bottom of Canberra. But she was OK. We talked about our children, the pains or pleasures of parenthood, and how the balance was positive.

After I dropped her off, there were a few jobs here and there, and about quarter past two I gave up for the night, facing a long drive back to the city to run the cab through the carwash and hand over to the day driver.

I found a service station that matched the fuel card the owner gives us - this time of night there’s only three remaining open in Canberra - and gassed up. As I got back into the car, I was offered a job on the despatch system. I looked at it as the seconds counted down. Chances were that it would be something local, something short. I had a bit of time left up my sleeve.

I hit the “Accept” button just as the counter hit zero. The details screen came up. “Town Centre Sports Club”. That was only a couple of blocks away. “Destination: City” - Woot! Jackpot!

I was going to drive back to the city anyway. Far better to do it with a passenger paying the fare than driving empty.

Turned out that the job involved three very drunken young cooks, and they sang along with my music videos all the way into the city. I dropped them outside Mooseheads nightclub with a few minutes to spare before three.

I topped up at the Braddon servo and asked for a “taxi wash”.

“How was your night?” asked the young chap running the night counter.

“Flat out!” I said happily. “I’ve had a fantastic night!”

“That’s because of Eid ul-Adha,”

“Ummm?” I looked blank.

“All the Muslim drivers are staying home. It’s a religious holiday.”

And that would be about half of Canberra’s taxi fleet. No wonder I’d had a great shift. On a slow Monday, when normally I’d be scratching for work, there was just the right number of cabbies on the road.

Praise Allah!

07 December 2008

New York, New Job

Or a return to an old job. Here’s a tale of an old cabbie, who has found a way to beat the recession:

A Cabbie Returns to a 'Recession-Proof' Field



According to Cesar Cascello, there’s one profession that will remain fundamentally recession proof—his own.

“Thank God for us. One thing about Manhattan is that people got to get where they got to get to,” Cascello says.

Cascello is a full-time taxi driver in New York City. His day starts at 3 a.m., when he gets out of bed just in time to punch in an hour later. He drives from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. and most days, he works straight through for 12 hours without stopping to eat. For him, eating just slows him down. “I’m gung-ho,” he says. “I just drive. I’ll just waste half an hour if I go somewhere to eat.”

Full story, here.

I can wholeheartedly endorse his comment: “You meet a lot of people if you’re driving all the time. I can never get bored of my job,” he says. 

Tired after a twelve-hour shift, yes. Bored, no!

05 December 2008

Three smiles

I picked up a lady on the airport rank this evening. Smartly dressed, small carryon bag. She got into the back seat and said “High Court”.

Not the usual destination for an airport passenger in the early evening, so I guessed that she was a lawyer or senior staff, possibly delivering or collecting some important papers.

I headed out over the jumble of construction barriers and uneven pavement that marks the airport road system nowadays, glanced out at the main road, and swung round to go the back way along Nomad Road. It’s got a 40 km/h limit on it, and a trio of speed bumps to keep cabbies honest, but when the main road is choked at peak hours, it’s the way to go.

“Has it changed this much?” my passenger asked. “I don’t remember going along here before.”

I explained that no, the roadworks hadn’t turned this road into the main exit, just that it was a good way to bypass the congestion, and I gestured over at the main road a few metres away, where the cars were crawling along.

And that got us started on the subject of roadworks and how Canberra does a poor job of implementing and upgrading roads. I rattled on, a subject close to my heart, and she murmured in agreement now and then.

Had a grand old natter, the two of us, and as we pulled into the High Court, we talked about the new National Portrait Gallery, just opened next door. I nodded over at the new entrance, commenting that it didn’t feel right to drive across the High Court’s grand entrance ramp, just in front of the fountain. “It’s not fitting,” I said, and it isn’t.

We pulled up at the practitioner’s entrance, and she paid with a card. I glanced at the name on it, and my jaw dropped a little. I handed her a receipt, and made my usual joke, “I’ll just drive off with your baggage now.”

She smiled, and I leapt out, popped the boot up, hauled out her bag, extended the handle and opened her door in one fluid motion.

“Thank you very much,” she twinkled, “You’re a doll.”

And that made my day. Not every shift that a High Court Justice calls this cabbie a doll.

Next job from the airport was at the other end of the market. A young Asian lady, carrying two cloth bags, asking how much the fare to the city was. I picked her for a student.

“Oh, fifteen, twenty dollars,” I replied.

I packed her bags into the boot and she got into the front seat. I asked her for a destination, but she was a bit uncertain, asking if there were any backpackers hostels in town.

“Just one,” I said, “the YHA in the city centre.”

Had a quartet of cheery Christians from the hostel the previous day. They’d rated it highly. I’m a big consumer of hostels in my travels, though naturally I haven’t staid at the Canberra YHA, and I always find YHA or HI establishments very well kept, so I had no hesitation in recommending this one to her. Cheap and cheerful, excellent value, clean, tidy, comfortable and safe.

We made our way into the city centre. She’d been here before, and noted some landmarks as we got closer. I took the back way down the lane into Akuna Street, driving underneath an office building, and her eyes widened in alarm, but a few seconds later we were back in the open air, the hostel in front of us.

The meter read $17.60, but I stuck by my low estimate. “That’s exactly fifteen dollars,” I told her.

She pulled out a twenty and wanted to give me a tip, but I insisted on the five dollars change. Generally when people are anxious about the cab fare, they don’t have a real lot of money to splash around, and I wasn’t about to dig into the limited funds of a travelling student.

I pulled her bags out, and looking at the flight of steps up to the entrance, hoisted the heavier of the two. She wasn’t keen on this. “It’s too heavy!” she protested.

I laughed. She was a tiny thing, and if she thought the bag too heavy for me, it was definitely a load for her. We went up the steps, I set the bag down, and here she was, fumbling with her purse again. “Let me give you a tip,” she started, but I shushed her.

“I don’t need a tip, just a smile!”

And I got a smile from her. A big smile and a cheerful wave as I reversed the cab back into the evening traffic.

I love my job.

Cycle taxi

She hailed me down, standing on King Edward Terrace outside the brand new National Portrait Gallery.

I’ve been watching the new building from close up over the past year, from the time when the site office was the only structure, and I’d park outside for the engineers to come out for their ride to the airport. Through the autumn and winter months as the walls rose and the site was so crowded with construction materials that it was a wonder anyone could move at all, and finally to the spring days as the landscapers moved in. On my final trip the engineer asked me to detour via the High Court so that he could check the appearance of the completed main entrance from a distance.

And now the building is open, a fresh part of Canberra’s permanent collection of grand national institutions. She was standing outside in the new drop off/pick up zone, a lady in the prime of her life (i.e. my age) and she must have been getting anxious about her taxi’s arrival.

But here I was. She got into the back seat, gave me directions for a nearby hotel, and commenced a phone call. I turned down the music and listened with one ear in case instructions to the cabbie emerged.

“I’ll hold the taxi at the hotel, collect my luggage, and go to the airport,” she was saying to someone on the other end. Fair enough. It would work out a lot cheaper and quicker than paying me off and waiting for another taxi in the rush hour.

She hung up. “Driver, can I ask you something? It might seem a little unusual.”

“Sure.” I’ve stopped at hotels on the way to the airport to pick up luggage before.

“Could we go via Joyville Crescent? It’s not far.”

I recalculated the route in my head. “We’ll collect your bags from the hotel first, yeah?”

We pulled up at the hotel, and I followed her into reception. Always happy to carry a lady’s bags, and I stowed them in the boot and moved off, crossing one of Canberra’s main avenues into a suburban street.

“I used to live here in the Sixties,” she said, “and I haven’t been back since, apart from a quick trip in 1974. I’d like to see if the house where I lived is still there.”

I looked around. Most of the buildings in this part of the city, close to the Parliamentary Triangle, were modern or post-modern blah. Slab sides and lots of exposed cement. But here and there some of the older houses settled comfortably in mature gardens.

Canberra itself isn’t that old. A lifetime ago and there was nothing here but a church and the cottages of the construction crews as they worked on what is now Old Parliament House. People used to talk of Canberra as “a good sheep station spoilt”, and the black and white photographs show open plains, with the few scattered gum trees outnumbering the lonely buildings.

“There’s my old school! Can we drive past it?”

Of course we could. My passenger gazed hungrily out at the brick buildings.

“It’s all changed. I don’t remember any of that.”

Canberra was a sleepy town for the first fifty years. Dirt roads, open fields, cows grazing on the slopes of Red Hill. Then in the Sixties the government departments were pulled in from their temporary homes in the state capitals, office buildings sprang up and the residential suburbs ballooned out, arterial roads following them in the freeway frenzy of the Seventies.

“I used to ride my bike along here.”

We turned into another avenue, leading up to the bushland slopes of a hill, a few older houses left, open nature strips unchanged for decades. The modern buildings faded out as we looked at the remaining houses of an earlier Canberra.

Together we swung right, past parkland.

“This is looking familiar now.”

We pedalled along the crescent, my bike a blue Malvern Star freewheeler, hers a girl’s model in pink, maybe a basket on the handlebars. I couldn’t see the details clearly, but she could, and her hair streamed out as we sped along, smiling happy on the afternoon ride home from school through the golden summer.

I looked at the street numbers. “There it is!”

We pulled into the driveway, putting feet down to steady ourselves as we looked at the white-painted house.

“Oh, it’s just the same. But smaller.”

A moment more, and then we swung our bikes around, leaning on the pedals as we gained speed past more houses and the small shopping strip.

Late Sixties construction, but no memories for my companion. A motel that had once been a space-age wonder in a bold new Canberra, but it had just been an empty lot before the freeway came through.

The dusty streets firmed out as we accelerated up the ramp, the stark outlines of the new Parliament House ahead. It, too was just a construction site when I arrived here as a public servant in 1986. The great angled legs of the flagpole were lying in the dust, and there were huge stacks of blue fibreglass concrete moulds.

Now, it’s a spectacular landmark, looking down the hill to the lake that defines Canberra. Long ago there were two grand new bridges spanning the miserable trickle of the droughtshrunken Molonglo River, but after they closed the floodgates of the Scrivener Dam, the band playing as the VIPs leaned over the side, the water level slowly rose, until one morning after flooding rains in the mountains, suddenly Lake Burley Griffin was there, muddy and raw.

It’s parkland and carefully tended foreshores now. The modern world came flooding back as we passed Russell Offices. Roadworks on the way into the airport, and I handed her my card along with a receipt for the fare.

“I’ll go back, take a few pictures, and put them up on my website.”

She smiled her thanks, but I’d enjoyed our bike ride through old Canberra every bit as much as she had.

More photographs at my Flickr page.

04 December 2008

Brain surgery

I had a bad start to the day. The computer system wouldn’t turn on. Pressed all the buttons, jiggled all the cables, checked all the fuses. Nothing.

Blast. Just as the busy period began. Drove to the workshop out at Fyshwick and the mechanic pressed all the buttons, jiggled all the cables, checked all the fuses, popped his head under the dashboard. “Fifty dollar fee for soiling the cab,” I told him. “Wires are frayed,” he said, and so they were.

“You’ll have to take it out to the electricians,” he said, so off I went to Premier Instruments in Dickson, where the mechanic pressed all the buttons, jiggled all the cables, checked all the fuses. “The wires are frayed,” I said, pointing out the place.

“So they are,” he said, pulled down the back seat and checked the computer boxes tucked away there. “Not good. I think that’s cooked the brain. You’ll have to take it to the base.”

Back to the taxi company base in Fyshwick, steering my empty way through the streams of cabs, all of them full of passengers.

The technician didn’t bother with all the jiggling. “Think we’ve worked out what happened,” he said. Apparently the software had been updated remotely and it had gone to the wrong cabs. Logging out forced a software update, so after my day driver signed out, the system loaded an update, failed and went to sleep.

He pulled down the back seat, unscrewed the brain box, installed a fresh one, and got me on the air again. Off I went, just as another cabbie came in to have his brain replaced.