27 December 2008
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.