07 November 2009

RIP Betsy

DFAT18
I returned home from the USA on Sunday morning, ready to drive my first night cabbie shift on Monday evening, rightly assuming I’d be tired and not wanting to drive.
That was the night the owner crashed our lovely new cab.
And now the car is written off.
We only drove it for a month, enjoying every moment. While I was away my day driver felt so emotionally attached, he gave our silver cab a name: Betsy.
Heavens to Betsy, but she was the cab they drive in Paradise. so much to love about her. Automatic windscreen wipers, for example. They worked off a sensor, so you never had to fiddle with intermittent settings, or even turn it on. They were always on, and the more rain you got, the faster they went.
Just remember to turn them off before going through the car wash!
So many lovable little features. She had an auxiliary input, so we could plug our iPhones straight into the sound system.
Built-in Bluetooth. Auto up/down on the driver’s window. Clever lighting under the doors to reveal puddles before you stepped into them. Fog lights.
She was a delight to drive. I’d finish a thirteen hour shift, get out and stroke her silver flanks with real affection.
I never found her limits on the road, either. She always had more to give if I needed to overtake, or to grab that last half second of amber light. I felt in control, sure of myself and my place on the road.
And she was new. Well, a couple of years old, but for a cab, that’s new. The previous owners had looked after her, and my co-driver and I were taking good car
The only drawbacks were small ones, such as the fact that the drivers seat had no memory function, or that the A pillars were wide, creating a blind spot that could obscure oncoming traffic.
Passengers would get in, look around admiringly, and say something like, “This is the cleanest cab I’ve ever been in!”
Music to a cabbie’s soul!
She was beautiful, and now she’s gone. Saturday night the owner drives the best shift of the week. He was crossing Jerrabomberra Avenue, four lanes of traffic with a service road each side, paused to let two cars past, and then floored it in the cabbie way. Unfortunately, there was a third car, coming up from the left in the blind spot on that side, and he collected it in the middle.
No injuries, which is the main thing, but poor old Betsy had her front crumpled right in, headlights and bumper dangling. After a short period of hope, she was written off by the assessor.
So now we’re driving replacement cabs and wondering what we’ll get next as a permanent mount.

27 September 2009

Turning eighteen

Silver18

Last night was a fresh start and a storm.
I've driven TX58 for the last time. A short shift, because I was so very tired. I collected my wife from the airport - it's been a long day, she warned me, I need some TLC! - and instead of taking her the short drive home, I headed for Belco, where the car is living at the moment.
I turned the meter on, which is something I do when running family and friends around in the cab. It means I have to pay the owner for half the metered fare, but it's his car, his investment, his gas.
Gassed up, vacuumed out, drove the few blocks to the day driver's house, where I cleaned out my gear, and drove home in my own car.
TX58 has been a mixed bag. I've crashed it a few times, run into a kangaroo (well, vice versa, actually), learnt to live with its engine quirks, and just driven it about a bazillion kilometres listening to some great music and chatting with some amazing passengers. But the car was getting ever more shabbier and rattlier, like all of the remaining Silver Service Fairlanes. Ford hasn't made a Fairlane for years.
On Friday my new owner let me know that the car would be on the road later today. He spent the day at the Dickson Motor Registry, battling bureaucracy to get the car registered, have all the boxes ticked, gas conversion approved and so on. It was about five when he swung past to pick me up.
"I've had the apprentice run it through the car wash and give it a good chamois," he said. And Taxi 18 was gleaming, pristine, pure and fresh when he gave me the keys and said "Have a great shift!"
It's a Holden (General Motors Australian arm, for my overseas friends) Statesman. A year or so old already, but in lovely condition, as Alfie said of Ruby. Pretty much all the same features as the Fairlane - and more, including a direct auxiliary input from our iPhones, which will finally see the end of the clunky radio transmitter - though this car doesn't have the Ford's leather seats.
So many buttons to press!
The controls are all slightly different, and it's going to take a few days for the muscle memory to kick out and in again. The window controls are on the centre console rather than the door, for example, and the audio and cruise controls are slightly different. So I'm fumbling a bit.
The drivetrain rumbles and roars under acceleration a bit more than it should for a car at this price level, but the power is there when I need it. Turning circle for this big car is workable. Front and rear park assist, always a handy feature in a cab. And a nice big back seat. "You could hold an aerobics class in here!" said one of my passengers.
First passenger was a charmer. A student from a boarding school, I picked him up at his gate to go into Civic to meet his girlfriend for a movie. We talked about movies and themes and novels and plots and music all the way in, and I gave him a card with my Monash Drive serial novel URL hand-scrawled on it. "Good night, First Passenger!"
Friday evening. A few airport jobs, a few people going home from work or dinner, and at the end of the shift, it was the regular drive the young people home from the nightclubs routine on Alinga. Despite my late start I was well over budget, and it was a good night.
The only problem was the drizzle of mud. The huge dust storms that have swept across Australia over the past few days have left fine red dust in the air, and the slightest rain is full of it. Light mud from the sky adding to that thrown up by the wheels on the road. By midnight the car was filthy.
My last passengers were a mixed bunch. I got one young man, who turned to ask the lengthening queue if anybody else was going to Belconnen. Three folk did, and climbed into the back seat together. They had aluminium foil packages in their hands, and my heart sank when I realised it. I wouldn't have unlocked the doors for them, but the first passenger had invited the, in to share his ride, and it would have been very awkward to refuse.
My misgivings were justified. They unwrapped their burritos and the cab filled with savoury smells - most unsettling for a man on a severe diet - and I knew the back seat would be littered with bits of dropped food, grease on the seats, wrappings in the footwells. Not a happy cabbie.
I dropped the young man in Bruce, and when he asked the others to share the $22 fare, they refused him. They wanted me to start the meter again. "So you've just had a free ride most of the way home?" the young man exclaimed angrily. And yes, they had.
I didn't restart the meter, pointing out that it would be an extra $4.00 flagfall and that I'd subtract the money already paid from the final bill. Bruce to Macgregor to drop off one passenger, and onto Ngunnawall to finish the trip. It was about $80 all up.
Past three in the morning - oh how the hours whizz past when you are having fun! I turned Sister Hazel up and headed for the servo. Gassed up, and went inside to get a taxi wash voucher.
"No use!" said the chap behind the counter. "Five minutes and it will be just as dirty."
Well, it had stopped raining, and I was hoping the short ride home wouldn't get too much road dirt on it, and there was no way I could return the car in that condition.
Ran the car through the wash, vacuumed it out - sure enough my bastard passengers had left flecks of onion and burrito all over - and drove home.
A lovely car, a good night, and I'm looking forward to many more happy shifts in Silver 18!

14 September 2009

Girl in a blanket

NLA

She was waiting for me outside Accident and Emergency. A cold night and she had a hospital blanket draped over her shoulders. I cranked up the heat as she got in, but she said, “No, I’m warm as toast. These things are great!”

I had Chet Baker blowing a golden trumpet on the CD. Mournful he wailed into the early morning. He’d been matching my mood, but my passenger grimaced and asked if we could change the station.

I looked at her. Female. My age. There was only one choice. I reached over to the iPhone, turning on the ABBA golden hits video.

That brightened her up. In fact, after a bit it was a battle to keep her from getting up and dancing. The Fairlane’s a big car, but not that big!

It was a long fare out to a far western suburb and in between songs, her story emerged.

A week back, she had driven home drunk and crashed her car. Some minor injuries, but only to herself. “Rooted me car, but.”

She’d been looked after in hospital, come home and some days later had had a bad day with the depression and concern over upcoming court appearance, the expense of fixing her car and repairing relationships. She’d said a few things she probably shouldn’t have, gone for an afternoon nap and woken to find a couple of policemen, who escorted her to hospital, where she was locked away in a room bare but for a bed and a bucket and placed on suicide watch.

She’d gotten loud and cranky to begin with, but after several hours managed to convince a doctor that she wasn’t going to harm herself and they’d let her go, giving her a blanket and a Cabcharge card good for a ride home.

She and I and ABBA had a party on the drive home and she was anything but depressed when I dropped her off. Outside, her car was indeed rooted, crumpled bonnet and half the front end missing.

But she was alive. Alive and vibrant, and as I smiled goodnight to her at two in the morning, I hoped she’d stay that way.

There’s no future in driving drunk. Let a stranger drive you home in a silver cab.

30 August 2009

Wait and return

Wine

Words to gladden the saddest of cabbie hearts. Wait and return means to collect a passenger, take them to a destination, wait with the meter running for them to pick up a package or complete an errand, and then take them back to the pickup point. Easy money.

I first met this particular regular passenger one Thursday a year or so back. Thursday afternoon with Parliament rising, height of the peak hour. Every cabbie in Canberra is flat out, and there are passengers waiting in every zone.

The address given was in my own suburb, and it had those magic words, "wait and return". I smiled all the way to the pickup point, a private residence in a quiet street. Waited in the driveway. Waited some more. Eventually a young lady about eighty years old came out, leaning on a cane. I jumped out and helped her into the front seat, holding the door for her.

She turned to me when I asked for a destination. "Just the shops, please, driver."

The shops. Two blocks away. This wasn't going to be a long trip.

I backed out of the driveway and a minute later we were at the local shops.

"The end shop, please."

The grog shop. One of my favorites actually, because the owners have a great range of alcohol. I'll walk down of a weekend, tell the owner what I'm having for a dinner, and he'll recommend an appropriate wine. Often his recommendations are so good I'll come back and buy more.

We pulled up, and I sighed as I turned the meter off. "Wait and return" it might be, but for a pensioner, moving with difficulty, doing her weekly shopping and digging into her own pocket for the fare, well, I'm just not going to charge her for waiting.

I held the cab door for her, and followed as she went inside. "A half, James," she said to the chap behind the counter.

He smiled, reached into the display fridge, and came out with a half bottle of white wine.

She paid for the wine, counting out every coin, tucked it into her handbag and turned for the door. Walked across to the cab. I held the door open for her as she settled back in, my eyebrows reaching for the heavens. The busiest hour of the week, and I'm driving a pensioner down to the shop for a glass or two of wine. What on earth was she thinking?

Back home we went, all of two blocks.

"Ah, that will be five dollars," I said as we pulled up. Flagfall was less than four dollars in those days, and the meter had recorded four blocks of travel.

And then she produced a voucher, entitling her to 50% off the fare. Senior citizens and partially disabled folk get a supply of these to help ease the expense of travelling by taxi, given that they can't drive.

She handed me the two dollars and fifty cents, counting out the coins.

That was the first time. I went on my way feeling just a little cheated.

Since then, I've picked her up a few more times. Last Thursday, for example. I was driving a spare taxi while my regular limosine was in the workshop, and as is my habit when I'm driving a replacement cab, I looked under the seat cushions for loose change. Sometimes I've scored gold coins and notes.

This time it was $3.20, not a fortune, but even so a nice little start to the shift. And my first job, once I logged in, was a "wait and return" for an address in the next street, an address I recognised.

I've learnt my lesson now, and even if it is a busy period, it's pension day for my passenger, and she goes down to the grog shop for her "half", and it's too far to walk, so she calls a taxi.

And I was the taxi. I pulled up at her house, reversed up the steep and narrow driveway so that the passenger door was facing the right way, leapt out of my seat and scampered around to open the door and help her in, along with her walking stick and handbag.

Then I turned the meter on, drove down to the shops, parked outside the bottle shop, turned the meter off, jumped out to open the door and help her out and then gave her my arm for the short walk inside. I took the bottle from the sales assistant, she held onto my arm as we returned to the cab, I tucked her in again, turned the meter back on and drove back, again with the tricky reverse up the driveway.

She pulled out a 50% docket to pay the $6.60 fare - taxi rates have been bumped up by the government a couple of times - and when she dug around in her purse for her contribution, I remembered the $3.20 in coins I'd found in the back seat.

"No charge!" I assured her.

And then I helped her out and up the path to her door, telling her it was no trouble at all to offer my arm to a beautiful lady. "Oh, if only I were twenty years younger!" I said, looking into her smiling face.

"Go on with you!" she spluttered. "There must be something wrong with your eyes."

"Never in life," I replied.

"Then you've been kissing the Blarney Stone."

Maybe. But it's sheer delight to be in a position to help someone who needs it, and to put a smile on their face. If I see a passenger with a walking stick, I crank the passenger seat back to give them room, hold the door and tuck them in. If I see someone elderly living alone, I encourage them to chat.

Businessmen and public servants may be my bread and butter, but the passengers I treasure pay me in a currency that doesn't show up on any bank balance.

21 August 2009

Why I love this job!

Just a quickie.

I was waiting on Manuka rank on a slow evening, logged into the Manuka zone, and I got a radio booking. Collect a passenger at 2030 and take them to the airport for a late flight. Nice job, and I'd likely get a fare from the airport.

Pickup address is only a couple of minutes away, and I arrive early, waiting in the driveway when a young lady comes out. No luggage. She's not even dressed for the cold outside. Ok, I think, she's going to tell me the passenger(s) are on their way.

But she bends down, leans in the window and tells me the job's cancelled and is there any call-out fee to pay?

"No, of course not, that's fine!"

But she insists and gives me a five dollar note.

Thanks, good night, I say, and no-job the booking on the computer as I back out heading back for the tail end of Manuka rank.

Base calls me up, "Hey what's going on? That's a timed booking for 2030 there."

"She came out, leaned in the window, cancelled the booking and gave me five bucks," I reply.

"Oh, okay. Easiest five dollars you ever made, hey?"

"No, but certainly the most pleasant!"

16 August 2009

Assault update

Stark

First, I'd like to thank everyone who responded with messages of support and sympathy. Having such friends around the world is one of the joys of my life, and each message made my sun shine just that bit brighter. I'll be around to collect some of those hugs in person!

The security camera footage was downloaded from the car, and I got to see a few frames at the police station. It wasn't quite as broad and as complete as I was expecting, though the picture quality of the interior of a dark cab was excellent.

The police sergeant who took my statement told me that he believed my passenger was genuinely contrite, it was out of character for him, he was willing to apologise in person, pay the fare etc.

This pretty much matched up with what I'd been thinking on looking back. Sure, and I've labelled that photograph "Face of Evil", but he didn't come storming across the road, he didn't look agitated, he just stood there and let me take his picture. Nor was there any sense of following a script in the way that fare-evaders often have a routine performance they've used many times before.

And, although he was very drunk and unwilling to give me a destination address, I carry a lot of the responsibility. I should have found some way to jolly him along. Instead, I pretty much backed him into a corner outside the police station and then was astonished when a drunk man took a couple of swipes at me.

Given that he didn't do any real damage, I've decided not to proceed. If he had made a solid connection, or if the police had indicated he had a history of violence, I would have gone ahead.

I'd been feeling pretty cranky myself. I'd just made the decision to avoid Parliament House bookings because far too often my fares get stolen, and I enjoy carrying these sort of passengers, especially the folk from the Press Gallery. I've carried Michelle Grattan a number of times, and she is a real sweetie.

One of the drawbacks of driving drunks around is that they aren't always logical. I've been a cabbie long enough that I should have handled the situation better. In particular, I should have gotten a destination address before I even left the hotel. It was my failure as much as anybody else's, and the result is that several people, including me, have been inconvenienced, embarrassed and stuffed around.

Still, it was a stressful evening all round, and not one I'd care to repeat in a hurry.

13 August 2009

Four dickhead night

Todd on Bunda

Continuing on from my fare-evading punch drunk, I got back in my taxi and contemplated what to do with the rest of the night. Realistically, after a stressful event, I’d be best served by going home and taking an early mark.

But sitting down with the police sergeant and filling out a statement had calmed me down. I had the feeling that matters were in competent hands. That same time, however, had been carved out of a good fare-earning part of the evening. Take away the money I’d lost, and I was woefully short.

So I continued bravely on, looking with suspicion on each fresh passenger and being charmed each time by a succession of pleasant chats, medium jobs, nothing challenging.

But the work pretty much dried up after midnight, and I sat on the rank waiting, waiting, waiting.

At last I was first cab on the rank, with a few more hopefuls behind me.

A group of maybe ten people come out from one of the clubs and head to the rank. A young lady gets in, pulls out her phone and says, “Can you wait a minute? I just need to make a call.”

Of course, no problem. She makes her call to a friend, saying how she found this really hot young man, and he’s just walking past the cab now, going to the casino.

Behind me, I can see in the rear-view mirror, other people getting into the cabs behind me, their drivers smiling and pulling out. A couple of young men are walking off in the direction of the casino, which is about the only place left open at half past two.

My passenger finishes her call, says “Thanks! I just wanted to make sure my friends were out of the way!” and gets out to join the young men.

And there I am. Empty. On an empty rank on an empty street. I glance at the despatch screen. It’s been seventy-five minutes since I last had a passenger, it’s been a pretty shoddy night, and I’ve been screwed over once more.

I wait another fifteen minutes. Civic is dead. Finally, I get a call to the casino for a passenger. Uh-oh. The casino has another cab rank right outside. I’d better be quick!

I fire up the cab, whip around, disregard the speed limit on the deserted streets, and as I turn the last corner, there’s the sight of a pair of taxi tail-lights disappearing into the distance. And of course, there’s no passenger waiting for me.

Right. That’s it. Gas up the car, run it through the wash, drive home and fall into bed, punched by one passenger, stuffed about by another, and totally screwed by my brother cabbies.

Punch drunk

FaceofEvil

Two things before I begin.

If and when this bloke gets charged, and it becomes sub judice, then I’ll pull this, or at least make it restricted.

Second, this isn’t “alleged”. This is my story, and this is how it happened.

I’m a firm believer in the “three dickhead rule”. If I get stuffed around by three people, I give the night up as a loss and I go home and get some sleep. Or blog about it. This was one of those nights. This was a four dickhead night.

Parliament is sitting this week, and it’s been a mixed blessing. Parliamentary staffers, media folk and lobbyists are trouble-free passengers. Usually intelligent, well-read and well-informed. I like driving them around, the only drawbacks being that fares from Parliament House tend to be short and paid with cards, rather than cash.

Recently I’ve been noticing that other cabbies have been stealing these fares. I’ll get a call to one of the pick-up zones and be unable to find my passenger, no matter how quickly I get there or how long I wait. Some other cabbie has been illegally waiting and pretending that they have the booking when the passenger walks out. I’ll round the corner to see a cab’s tail-lights vanishing in the distance.

Frustrating.

I got a call for a Silver Service job this afternoon. Parliament House, Ministerial Wing going to the airport. This was a job where I can charge an eleven dollar booking fee, and better yet, it was an immediate booking, meaning that I wouldn’t have to wait. I pulled up, and no passenger was waiting. Ten minutes later and he hadn’t shown, so I guessed he’d taken another cab. Base attempted to ring him, but no answer on his mobile.

Then and there I decided that I wouldn’t bother with Parliament House jobs again. It’s just not worth me losing my position on the Manuka rank to go hunting passengers who haven’t the decency to make sure they take the correct cab.

So I drove back to Manuka, worked my way up the rank, and got a radio booking for the Rydges Capital Hill hotel. I drove down Canberra Avenue, made the turn into the pick-up point, and there were three middle-aged men and a young lady, all busy making their farewells, hugging each other and so on.

The lady leaned in my window. “It’s alright,” she said, “he’s not dangerous, just drunk.”

They looked like happy drunks to me. Smiles and hugs. None of them seemed to be falling down drunk, and while throwing up drunk could be a worry, I’m fairly well prepared for that.

The lady got into the back seat, slid across to the other side, and one of the men followed her. A chunky guy, about my age, at a guess, wearing a jacket.

Then the lady opened the door on my side and got out. She wasn’t going anywhere with this bloke. Laughter and waves as I moved off.

I stopped ten metres later, still in the hotel forecourt, before heading out on the road where I’d have to make a choice, according to destination.

“Uh, where are we going?”

“Drive on!” he said.

I stayed put, debating with myself as to whether I should drive on, or just cut my losses. I’ve found that if a drunk stuffs me around right at the beginning of a trip, it’s unlikely that they are going to become sober and serious later on.

I could have refused to carry him, and been justified within the law as he was well under the influence of alcohol. But he would have been embarrassed in front of his friends, and ultimately it would have been another cabbie who had to drive him home anyway. I look on getting drunks home safely as an important part of the job, but still...

He muttered and swore a bit, but eventually said “Kambah.”

I asked him for an address. Two reasons for this. First, Kambah is a big suburb, and there are a couple of different ways of getting there, depending on the exact destination. Second, I’ve known drunks to fall asleep on the trip, and then when we get to the specified suburb and I want further direction, I have to wake up someone who doesn’t want to be woken, and isn’t all that coherent anyway.

“Kambah,” he said, more distinctly.

I made my decision and drove off. A u-turn at the lights, around Parliament House onto Adelaide Avenue heading south. Decision time coming up. For east and south Kambah, driving through Woden and onto Athlon Drive is the go. For west and north Kambah, ducking across to the Tuggeranong Parkway is quicker and cheaper.

“Go left here,” he mumbled as we came to the turn-off. I was glad of the direction. He was paying attention, and like as not would continue to give directions all the way home.

But then, as we headed west along Cotter Road, I was getting disturbed by the activities in the back seat. Judging by the sounds - and the smell - dinner hadn’t agreed with him. He also looked to be lying down on the back seat for a while. Never a good sign. But with several kilometres of empty road ahead, I couldn’t realistically drop him off on a cold night, so I drove on, hoping for the best and ready for a sudden stop if need be. Usually I get a few seconds’ warning, and so long as they spew outside the cab, I’m not going to worry. I’ll pull up, let them stagger out onto the verge, turn the meter off and let them empty themselves properly.

Approaching Kambah, I asked him again for a destination. At some point I’d have to go east or west - there are no houses fronting onto the main road - and I’d have to get into the correct lane well ahead of time. Drakeford Drive is six lanes wide going through Kambah, and I was glued to the left hand lane, just in case I had to stop in a hurry.

He wasn’t being helpful. “Take me home,” he said.

“What address is that?” I asked.

“Fuck you.”

“Could you give me directions?”

“Fuck you. Take me home. Take me to my beautiful house and two lovely kids!” he said.

“Where’s that?”

“Fuck you. Drive straight.”

I continued straight. We drove straight until we approached the last intersection in Kambah. Final choice.

“Look, we’re about to run out of Kambah. If you don’t tell me where to go, I’ll take you to the police station in Tuggeranong and we’ll let the police sort it out, okay?”

He didn’t want that. He didn’t want to tell me where to go either. He wanted to argue about some point I didn’t care about. Cripes. Why do people do this? They can see the meter’s running, they need to get home, and instead they play silly buggers with the poor cabbie. All I want to do is get people home safely, make a few more pitiful dollars to share with the cab owner and the tax man, and drive off to repeat the process. Twelve hours, ending at three on a winter morning. Heaven knows why I like the job so much.

As we drove on, I ignored the abuse from the back seat, called up base and told them what I was doing. They got back to me, saying that they’d get someone from the Tuggeranong police station to come out.

“Look, we’re going to the police station. If you don’t tell me where to take you, we’ll get the police to sort it out.”

“I’m getting out.”

“So long as you pay the fare, that’s fine by me.” We were amongst housing and buildings now. Tuggeranong Town Centre, with shops and service stations and cafes, bus and taxi zones, just a short walk away. He’d be okay.

“Fuck you,” he snarled.

We stopped for the lights and he fiddled with the door handle. The lights changed and I drove around the corner, stopping outside the police station.

“We’ll wait here for the police.”

“Fuck you.”

“Look the fare’s forty-eight dollars. Do you have the money?”

“Fuck you.” He began to open the door.

I drove off again. There’s no parking outside the police station on Anketell Street, and it isn’t really safe to stop in the traffic flow. We went into the car park. He opened the door. I put the car into reverse and moved slowly back. He stayed inside. I stopped and he began to get out. I moved the car forwards.

He looked at me. “We just going to go up and down all night?”

“When the policeman arrives, we’ll sort things out.”

“Fuck you. I’m going to knock your block off.”

I was really needing a tall figure in a blue uniform to appear about now. Lacking any outside assistance, I pressed the panic button. This immediately starts transmitting live video and audio back to the taxi base, and stores the stream to the hard disk in the boot. The infrared cameras work in the dark and it’s a useful tool for the protection of cabbie and passengers.

I guess I should have let him get out and go. I wasn’t going to run over him, for any number of really good reasons, the best one being that if I’d hurt him I’d really be in the poo. But he didn’t know this.

The point became moot anyway. The engine spluttered and stopped. This has been happening quite a bit recently, and the owner has promised to get it into the workshop, but so far the problem hasn’t been fixed, and I have to drive a car that runs rough every now and then.

He leaned forward and punched me in the face.

“Geez! Did you see that, base?”

As a punch it was a failure. He was in the back seat, the Fairlane’s a big car, and he was right at the end of his reach. He hit my glasses but they staid on.

I was far more astonished than injured. In three years, I’ve never had a passenger take a swing at me. I’ve had them shake my hand, give me an impromptu back rub, hug me, kiss me. Once a passenger laid a hand on my thigh, but I indicated that I wasn’t interested in his advances. But nobody’s ever done more than swear at me, and that’s been very bloody rare.

He hit me again. Same deal, weak and ineffective. And then he got out and ran away. Without paying.

I got out and watched him go down Anketell Street. He went straight past the door of the police station, crossed against the lights and headed on towards the taxi rank.

I went inside, and eventually hooked up with a policeman, who had gone out to the car park just in time to miss everything. We got an incident report started, and a call for patrols to keep a look out. I returned to the cab, let the base know what was going on, and a description and warning went out to the fleet.

I made a few notes while events were fresh in my memory, and then cruised around looking for him. With things like this, identification is key, and unless I could find him and direct the police onto him, he’d get away with it.

I figured that he’d try to walk home to Kambah, or look for a bus or cab. A quick patrol along the two main roads leading back to Kambah showed nothing but empty, so I hunted up and down Anketell Street.

Got him! There he was at the bus stop, mobile phone to his ear. I pulled out my phone and called up the constable who’d taken my details. Within a minute, there were police cars beside him and a police sergeant assured me that they were getting his name and details, and would I like to make a statement back at the station.

Too right I would. I’ve been known to give out free rides to get a drunk or a distressed young person home, and I don’t mind if they don’t have the money, so long as they are honest about it. I make enough in tips to cover an act of charity, and I feel good about helping someone in need. I tell them to be nice to somebody else tomorrow, and they smile. I’ll do a lot for a smile.

But I really hate it when someone tries to take advantage, or run off without paying. Or assault the driver. We had an incident a year or so back, where a driver was severely injured. Cabbies have been killed in Canberra. The last episode, there was an impromptu cab strike, and we heard all sorts of things from all sorts of people about cab safety. A few things were done, but not near enough.

So I sat down and made a statement, referring back to my notes. I’m sure that my passenger will tell his own story about a mad cabbie, but I’ve got the security footage to back me up. We’ll see what happens.

[Continuing]

08 August 2009

West Waiting

WestWing

I've been watching West Wing on the iPhone between passengers. Sometimes the waits get pretty bloody long, especially around one in the morning.

When the series was broadcast in Australia, it was usually late at night, often pulled for a sports broadcast, had huge gaps in transmission, switched channels and eventually just killed off.

I became a fan somewhere halfway through the first series. I had a hell of a job just trying to understand what was going on, especially when Josh would disappear off to congress and have complicated meetings with all sorts of monster-egoed people.

And it was West Wing I was watching - a crucial episode with the death of a minor character and an escalating world crisis - when a bulletin came in that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. The episode came to an end as fiction segued into reality and the world changed.

Eventually I began watching the whole series on DVD, often with the subtitles turned on to catch the details I'd mist the first time around. I'm up to series six now, and a lot of the new characters are now making the sense they didn't when it was first screened, Channel Nine having decided that the first few episodes in the season didn't need to be shown.

Seasons Six (and presumably Seven) are very different to the first five. In a way this is good, because it was starting to get just a little bit predictable with the election out of the way and Jed Bartlett heading for retirement, but it was unsettling to see so many of the gang break out into other pursuits.

But enjoyable, full of incomprehensible American politics and as addictive as ever. One reason why I don't mind too much if the action becomes a little slow out on the taxi ranks. With a few screen touches, I'm back in Washington DC.

She hopped into the cab on the main city rank, late at night. "Oooh, that's cool!" she said, indicating the iPhone, showing Dire Straits. I considered changing to ABBA. She looked about the right age.

"Bit of in-flight entertainment," I said. "And when I'm waiting on a rank, I watch episodes of West Wing."

Oh boy! Was that the button to push! For the rest of the ride, a longish ride, we two West Wing fans enthused about the show. Our favorite episodes, our favorite characters. Like me, she had bought the series on DVD, but she had looped through it all two or three times - I'm still working my way through Season Six, with Season Seven to go.

Seldom have I let a passenger out of the cab with more reluctance, but she insisted.

19 May 2009

Walking in blue and gold

Gandhi in Glebe

I guess I'm a bad blogger nowadaze. It's been four weeks since the Christchurch convention ended, and two since I broke my arm, and in almost every respect my life is not at all what I thought it would be just now.

Seldom have I enjoyed a BookCrossing convention so much. It was so close to perfect, with the setting, the season, the fun and the friends. I don't think anybody wanted it to end!

I got home, and felt so incredibly blue. Yes, I know that Canberra is a beautiful city, and autumn is the best time of year, but after a week in paradise, everywhere else is bleak winter.

My friends found ways to buck me up, and I'm back to my normal operating mode, fondly remembering the good times past and dreaming of those to come. Looking forward to the Edinburgh trip, capped off with a few days in Rockhampton, which is always pleasant in midwinter, compared to Canberra's chill. Especially with the family around me. I'm getting to be one of the older generation now, with the youngest members down around kindergarten age.

I had a fairly normal week back in the cab, swapping shifts with my day driver, enjoying his twice-daily chats, and getting back into the swing of things. But then he went away on his own delightful holiday - and yes, I'm grateful for the updates, Paul - and I did double shifts until the owner found me a co-driver.

Doubles mean that I have the car 24 hours in a day, and it pretty much means dawn to dusk and beyond. Fifteen or eighteen hour shifts with a nap in the middle.

And then I broke my arm. No more driving, not even my own cars. I stay at home, do all the things I've been putting off for months if not years, read books, do housework, cook meals, and best of all, get to enjoy the company of my wife. My usual cabdriving life sees me spend huge amounts of each week either absent or asleep, and that's probably not the best way to be a good husband and father.

I'm enjoying the break. Could not be happier in fact. It is so pleasant to be able to chat with my friends online, or watch evening tv shows with the family. And I'm even getting a bit of exercise. My plan is to lose ten kilos of excess over the next 50 days, which should see me reach a healthful weight, rather than being just a bit tubby.

I walked into Civic yesterday, listening to my "Smiles" playlist on the iPhone, kicking through piles of leaves under trees of rapidly disappearing gold, and feeling on top of the world.

14 May 2009

Just a friend



This happens sometimes. They hop in the cab, all funked up, I put a music video on, they start singing and I singalong. I don’t have a wide range of stuff available on the iPhone, but I’ve usually got something.

Pleasant as it is to cruise around this beautiful city, enjoying the bus lanes and the easy parking and the other perks available to cabbies, it’s the people who make the job for me.

Most people are nice, a lot are good company, and a few are simply wonderful. Sharing their lives for a few minutes is what keeps me jumping in the cab, firing it up and heading out for another twelve hour shift.

It’s poor pay, long hours, appallingly unhealthy, sometimes stressful and dangerous, but Oh Lord, is it fun!

12 May 2009

Cast away

Cast

Today was my day for a review. Last Monday, I slipt over at the service station, breaking my fall with my outstretched wrist. The next day I had it x-rayed, confirmed as a break (though not a major one), given a sling and a temporary cast, and told to return in a week.

The temporary cast was sturdy enough, but basically just a moulded plaster slab along the underside of my forearm, held on with tightly wrapped gauze. I had to keep it dry, and it allowed a certain limited amount of movement, which although I tried to keep it down, was painful.

After battling my way around the hospital this morning - such an amazing rabbit warren of a place - I filled out various forms and got my wrist x-rayed afresh. Again, I barely had time to sit down and read a page of the book I brought along, so smoothly and efficiently were things going on.

Doctor called me in, showd me the images, and explained that the break wasn't serious enough for surgery - they probably wouldn't be able to fix it any better than was going to happen anyway - and I was to be put in a solid cast for four weeks. No driving - I asked specifically - and I would have a greater susceptibility to arthritis as I got older.

Then they put me in the comfy chair, rested my elbow on a little rubber cushion, and a pretty young nurse cut away the old cast. "You could probably unwind the gauze," I pointed out.

"Quicker this way!" she said, snapping open a set of mean-looking shears. She chomped them through the material and my arm was exposed to view for the first time in a week.

"You might want to give it a wash now," nurse said, directing me to a nearby sink and indicating the controls for the water flow. Wave your hand in front of the sensor and the tap runs.

I gave it a quick wash and patted it dry with paper towels. Swelling had gone down, mostly, and when I looked close, there was a fading pastel yellow purple bruise. I had a better one on my backside - really spectacular - but happily no photographs of that ever got taken.

At this point my nurse was called away, and I got a good look at the bloke in the next chair, who had either had some bad compound fracture, or had been given internal fixation of some sort. There was a long wound in his forearm, sutured shut, and I figured I'd gotten off lightly, considering. I averted my gaze when his nurse unwrapped something really sharp and began unstitching him.

First step in my new cast was a sort of sticky white bubblewrap underlay, wrapped around my arm to layer the skin against the cast. Nurse took some care with this, and I admired her professionalism. This had to guard against chafing for a month, and she wrapped me up carefully, cutting out bits around my thumb to allow finger movement.

Then she stuck on two blue strips of heavier tape, one each side. I raised an eyebrow.

"When we cut off the cast, this will stop the saw giving you friction burns."

Right. Hadn't thought that far ahead.

"You've done this before, haven't you?"

She smiled.

"Can I take a picture?" I pulled out my iPhone when she nodded yes.

Undercast

"Good idea!" the bloke next to me said, and he whipt out his phone to capture his rather more gruesome forearm for family consumption.

"You've got a choice of colours," my nurse said, showing me several swatches. "Anything but white."

Two shades of blue, black, white, and a dark pink. I indicated the pink. "That's more my colour."

She smiled at that. "We've actually got white - I just won't let you have it!"

Then she drew on some purple rubber gloves, dipt a roll of the pink material in water, and carefully wrapped my arm up. Three layers, just slightly inside the white underlayer. I could feel the thing growing warm. Some chemical reaction, triggered by the water, turning the flexible material into rock.

"We've got maybe five minutes before it hardens, so there's only a small window," nurse said, deftly cutting away curves for my thumb, working quickly and efficiently.

She smoothed in a few curves around the palm, giving me a bit of finger movement, and the thing was done. She handed me a sheet with some tips for care, and a card for an appointment in four weeks time for removal.

And that was it. It had all been very quick, efficient and friendly. Smiles all round, and I was outside, waiting for a ride home, texting the cab owner to let him know I was out of action for a month.

10 May 2009

Life in a sling

Mugshot

If Kerri's right on this, there's at least a month to go. "Bones don't knit in a week, Pete," she says.

Likely scenario is that I'll go back on Tuesday, get re-x-rayed, have an orthopaedic surgeon from over the pix, and then get my forearm encased in a full plaster until the middle of June.

That's going to stuff up my taxidriving career no end!

It's also going to put a serious dent in my income stream, just when I'm needing money to top up my credit cards and build up reserves for the Edinburgh trip.

Mind you, the time off isn't hard to take. It's been a long while since I had several days in a row to do nothing much.

The flip side of that is that it's bloody inconvenient to have my left arm in a sling. Not half as inconvenient as it would be to have my right arm out of action, but still...

Simple tasks, such as opening a jar or splashing aftershave on my face, become simple or impossible. Having a shower is interesting. I have to keep the plaster dry, so I wrap the cast in a plastic bag, slap a rubber band over and hold the arm high out of the way. Can't squirt shampoo into one hand with the other, so I apply it directly. And, of course, it's almost impossible to soap up my right arm!

Drying gets patchy, once I step out of the shower. And I have to wear my watch on my right wrist now.

Sleeping can be patchy as well with this great unbending lump clunking around. There's only a few positions where I'm remotely comfortable.

I can't drive, so if I can't walk someplace, I have to depend on others.

But, all in all, the discomfort and inconvenience is nothing compared to what some folk in the community go through. It's giving me more of an insight into the problems of others, and I trust I'll be more patient and understanding with them in future. As a taxidriver, meeting the very real needs of others is a big part of the job.

05 May 2009

Live at the Hospital Bowl

Hospital bowl

I went to bed, relatively early, with a planned 0300 start to my shift, but a bit after midnight I was awake with the pain from my wrist. I'd hoped it would settle and I'd be able to drive, but no, this was serious. No strength in my grasp and if I held my hand the wrong way or bumped my wrist, the pain would make me gasp.

I took another dose of painkillers and resigned myself to attending hospital. Kerri had warned me that if I had a break there and I toughed it out, then I'd likely have pain and arthritis for the rest of my life. One thing about having a doctor in the family, we might hide splinters and minor injuries from her, but if it's serious, we listen carefully.

She dropped me off at Accident & Emergency on her way to work. I was prepared for hours of waiting in a crowded room. Computer, painkillers, nice thick book.

But within a few seconds of entering the room, I had a nurse taking the details, probing my arm, testing the extent of injuries, tying a sling - "Um, could you bend down a little, please?" the tiny woman asked as she looped it over my head.

They wanted me to take off my wedding ring against potential swelling, but it hasn't been off my finger since Kerri put it there quarter of a century ago, so I promised I'd keep an eye on it.

That was triage, a few details from the clerk, then I barely had time to open my book and a doctor was calling me over. She looked carefully at my wrist, agreed that an x-ray was necessary, and escorted me to the waiting area. Just a page read, and I was inside, getting the images taken.

A little longer afterwards, but I took the time to twitter updates and take a picture of this lovely great silvered mirror dome on the ceiling above a four way intersection, which incidentally showed me with arm in sling and book on knees.

Pete in sling

"Yes, it's broken," the pretty young doctor said said, "but not badly."

The x-ray showed a tiny fracture line along one knob of my radius bone. Didn't look too bad, but she said a cast would be needed for a week, then review by an orthopod.

She then took me into the plaster room, and under supervision from a jolly nurse who called herself the Plasterqueen, I got a cast. What they call a volar slab, so it's not a big heavy thing, just a stiffener secured with some gauze.

Kerri says that's in case of swelling, and a full cast will go on for another five weeks after review.

And that was it. Quick, efficient, even enjoyable. Kerri picked me up and I was back home for a late morning tea in the sun.

I told the cab owner. I doubt he was happy, but if I can't drive, I can't drive. Somone collected the cab in the arvo, and I won't see it again for a week.

What worries me is the prospect of six weeks off work.

No sick leave or workers compensation in the taxidriving game, and I've got an ongoing tax liability, not to mention a world trip coming up in seven weeks, for which I've got no savings. I might have to find something else to bring in some money.

This is all a bit of a worry.

04 May 2009

Day tripper

While my day driver's off on a five week holiday - yesterday he drove the Great Ocean Road - I'm on the day shift. At first I was doing doubles, meaning that I could drive the car whenever I wanted within the 24 hours of the day, maybe with a nap here and there, and then I was supposedly given a night driver, putting me on the day shift.

I say supposedly, because as yet I haven't seen him, and though I know the cab was driven on the weekend, it certainly sat idle last night after I finished at three in the afternoon.

I've been enjoying day driving. There's more traffic on the road, but there's also fewer kangaroos, drunks and crazies. I get more of the little old ladies and gents who are scarce after dark but fun to chat up and be nice to.

And I get to be out on a series of glorious autumn days. Cool and clear, leaves in red and gold and everything in between. It's pure pleasure.

I was doing well yesterday. Took in about as much as I do in a nightshift, thanks mostly to a long duration "wait and return" government job. Banked the big notes, gassed up, ran the car through the wash, vacuumed it out...

And then, as I walked the tangled vacuum cleaner hose out across the service station forecourt to straighten it out before replacing it on the holder, I tripped. I lurched backwards, trying to gain some support from the slack hose before I went down under the wheels of an oncoming car, but after one or two steps, I landed heavily on my backside and outstretched hand, cap flying off.

Luckily the car stopped, the driver laughing on, I retrieved my cap and limped the hose back. Hurting like blazes, but that's how these things go - a day or three of bruising to show off and then fadeaway.

I drove home, unloaded the car, and waited a bit for a night driver. But not too long. I was hurting in two places and exhausted after a long day.

Woke when Kerri came home. She wasn't too concerned about my bum, but the wrist was a worry. It was hurting a lot, and though painkillers were found, I still have no strength in it. Maybe it's broken rather than spraint.

I'm to take the day off and get it x-raid. If it's broke, there's the chance of six weeks in plaster. Six weeks of no driving. Six weeks of no income. And me with a world trip coming up in seven weeks.

But if I can't hold the wheel firmly in two hands and lift baggage in and out of the boot, then I can't drive a taxi.

03 April 2009

Hitting the sweet spot

Shine Taxi

Once upon a time, tennis players knew their tools intimately. John McEnroe reckoned that rackets had a “sweet spot”, and the secret of his success lay in hitting the ball just right. He’d have extra bounce, extra control, extra spin if he could use just the right few square centimetres of racket.

The taxi racket has its own sweet spots, and every cabbie knows them well. For Canberra, on the weekday nights I drive, the sweetest spot is between four and six in the afternoon. That’s when demand is at a peak, finding a fare is easy, and the passengers are at their best.

I’ve mentioned the three questions that every night cabbie asks to himself of his passengers:
Is the passenger going to attack me?
Is he going to run off without paying?
Is he going to throw up in my cab?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes!”, then you lock your doors and drive away.

Afternoon passengers are definite “No’s”. Mostly, in Canberra, they are public servants wanting a ride to the airport. People in suits and briefcases, loaded down with corporate credit cards and Cabcharge vouchers. They might have a drinkie or two in the Qantas Club before their flight, but for now, they are solid, sober citizens, and every cabbie loves them.

For two hours, they line up on ranks, they clog up the radio despatch system and they leap out at you on the streets. Cabbies make half their night’s takings in the afternoon.

After six, the flow is the other way. It’s people wanting to get home. People finishing off in the city, people loaded down with groceries, people on the arriving flights at the airport. There’s no frenzy to it, but until about ten o’clock, it’s steady work. I generally work out of the airport, finishing up around ten, when two or three flights arrive at once to overload the waiting taxis. After that, the last flight is half past eleven, it’s often only half full, and most of those passengers on the no-frills carrier have a family member to give them a lift home. For a cabbie, it’s hardly worth waiting an hour for the chance of a fare.

But there’s not a lot of other work around in the late evenings. If Parliament is not sitting, with a flow of staffers catching cabs home, then it’s usually a matter of hoping for the final few restaurant patrons, and sharing the work with hungry cabbies all wanting one last good fare to go home on. The sweet spot is well and truly gone at this stage.

Sometimes there will be a concert or a conference or a ball finishing up. A hundred people in dinner suits, all wanting cabs. Be in the right place at the right time, and a good cabbie can make a quick fifty before the flow dries up.

Midnight, and there’s nothing much. Sit on the main city rank chatting with the other drivers, scanning the empty streets. Wait an hour for a passenger. Most of the fleet has gassed up and gone home, but there’s always a few people out and about, and with the public transport shut down at midnight, cabs are their only way home.

But it’s slow work, and on a quiet night, you might work two hours for five dollars in your pocket. Or get a good fare to a distant suburb for sixty.

Thursday nights can be busy, and there’s always a tonne on Fridays. But carting drunks home is where the cabbie has those three questions in the front of his mind. It can be good money, but it’s not sweet. Besides, on Thursdays and Fridays, those same cabbies who went home early on other nights are now staying on. More competition.

And as the end of the twelve hour shift approaches at three in the morning, the drunks are getting reasonably ratty. They have drunk their money away, and sometimes scamming a cabbie is the only way home.

It’s a matter of balance, skill and experience. Making the most of the shift’s “sweet spot” is what it’s all about.

27 March 2009

Sleeping on the job

I picked her up from the airport just after sundown. She’d had a long day travelling, and she gave out a few yawns on the way to her distant suburb.

“This cab is a non-yawning zone,” I mock-growled. “I’ve got another seven hours yet before I finish at three in the morning.”

But that didn’t stop her. Honestly, I was afraid that she might fall asleep on me, and I was glad I’d gotten the full address from her.

But we staid awake together, chatting about this and that. Give me a limousine, a lovely lady beside me, late night in the nation’s capital, and I’m in cabbie heaven. And then she pays me for my trouble. It doesn’t get better than this!

Found her house, right where she said it would be, she covered up one last yawn, and as I handed her the receipt, I used my stock joke, “...and now I’ll drive away with your suitcase.”

“Oh, don’t do that!” she exclaimed, “My pillow’s inside it!”

22 March 2009

The best coffee in the world

Ovenbear

When I began cabbing a couple of years ago, occasionally I’d pull a day shift on a Monday, or finish off the Saturday night shift around dawn on a Sunday. I’d be tired and needing something to kick off the day, or to keep me going after fifteen hours of driving.

The Manuka rank was always a good place for these times, and I followed the lead of the older cabbies, who would leave their cabs, walk across Franklin Street to the bakery, and return with a takeaway coffee and maybe something munchable in a paper bag.

So of course I followed them. And so began my love affair with Artoven.

At one end of the counter was the coffee machine, and while I waited for my espresso, I had leisure to look at the array of cakes and pastries for sale. Oh, the temptation!

There was another case full of hot food. Pies, sausage rolls, stuffed flaky pastries, all sorts of savoury treats. A framed newspaper cutting and award certificate pointed out that Artoven made the best pies in Canberra.

It’s been a couple of years now, and Artoven in Manuka is a major focus of my taxidriving life. Sometimes my objective will be to get to Manuka, park and get my coffee without getting a radio job or picking someone up off the rank. Time and again, I’ll be Manuka-bound down Canberra Avenue and there will be a chime on the computer announcing a new job, meaning I have to go away to find my passenger, take them to where they want to go, and then return to Manuka. Sometimes it takes several attempts before the work slackens off.

But when I find a moment, it’s worth it.

First, the pastry. I’m not keen on light fluffy things, so some of the sticky cakes and airy creations are just for looking at. My preference in the sweet range is the rock cakes, which are the best I’ve ever tasted. They will last hours, one solid bite at a time, finishing off with the half cherry in the centre. Just the right consistency, just the right amount of dried fruit, just perfect.

There’s the prize-winning range of pies to choose from, and I’m torn between the meat, cheese and bacon pie, or the shepherds pie topped with a mound of mashed potato glazed with melted cheesiness. The frankfurt, mustard and onion roll is glorious, but it vanishes too fast to give good value for money. I can get through it in a few bites, whereas demolishing a pie is a more serious business.

But it’s the coffee that I’m really needing. A boost of caffeine gets me through a long shift. Sometimes it will be four or five hours before I’ve drained the cup. It’s good cold, but that first taste of steaming hot coffee is heaven itself. I go for a skinny latte nowadays, to counter the calories of a pie or rock cake. “Large family size,” I tell the barista, my hands sketching out a coffee cup the approximate size of a wheelie bin.

The very best part of the Artoven experience, however, isn’t the pastry or the rolls or even the coffee. It’s the smiles I get from the counter staff. They all know me by now, and they know how much I love my evening snack and drink. Having a quick chat with one of the baristas, and a smile as they hand over my coffee, it’s better than the sugar hit or the caffeine jolt.

Friday and Saturday nights, they don’t close at all. The place runs twenty-four hours, and it’s always packed. Forget the instant coffee and greasy pizza slices of roadside vans or sidewalk stalls - this is the real deal. Good tucker, served with genuine affection. People drive across town for an Artoven pie at four in the morning.

I’ve had cups of coffee at sidewalk cafes on the Boulevard St Germain, frothy cappucinos in trendy Flinders Lane boutiques, Kujo in Charleston, Kona in Honolulu, vanilla percolated in Fredricksburg, and flat white at the Tate Modern, but for the best coffee in the world, my money’s on Artoven when Franklin Street is buzzing on a mellow autumn evening.

For me, it’s not Artoven. It’s Heartoven. I love it.

13 March 2009

Full of dreams to last the years



It was a quiet shift last night. I have a book with me - at the moment it’s Paul Theroux’x Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - but I rarely read in the cab, even if it’s such a rattling good railway story as this.

Instead I succumbed to my romantic side and watched one of my favorite movies, reduced to a splinter of its original self on my iPhone, but still as grand a love story as you can get. In fact, just the thought that I had it ready to play when I got a spare couple of hours had inspired me to download a song to match.

Perry Como, my patron saint of sentiment, singing with the aid of a bass-voiced backer:
You pray that you will find
Someone warm and sweet and kind


I’ve met her on three continents now: child of New York, English language teacher in Japan, intrepid Greyhound explorer of Australia. She’s as much in love with travel, the world and its people as I am, and she is the sort of someone Perry Como would have us find.

I staid with her in Japan, sleeping on the couch in her tiny living room at night while by day we explored Hiroshima and climbed up to the pagodaed peak of Osaka Castle. I took a picture of her smiling out over a smoggy city. She had been there several times before, but was happy to guide yet another visitor up.

Cari atop Osaka Castle

I’ll be forever catching up to Cari, I think. She’s seen more of my country than I have, and she’s off to Antarctica later this year. My travels usually involve revisiting the same places, and I’m only half joking when I say that I have a favorite luggage trolley at all the great airports. My last world tour, there was only one new destination for me. But what a place!
The bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle
And the hills the greenest green...


So I watched Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle when I had time, and listened to Perry Como when I could only sneak a couple of minutes.

There were a few people I wanted to meet in Seattle, and the thought of visiting the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field was a bonus to an aviation nut like me, but mostly because it was a place I’d always longed to see ever since I learnt how to pronounce it properly. And to check out those blue skies.

The movie (and the song) were a way of revisiting this fascinating place, and I cherished the scenes where I could recognise landmarks. The Space Needle, of course, and Pikes Place Market, where Tom Hanks discussed the cuteness of his bum with a coworker and some years later I posed Ringbear for a night shot.



I loved Seattle. The Museum of Flight was all I could hope for, and I got to board a Concorde. The Space Needle was delightfully hokey, one of those Sixties visions of what the future would be like, but it had the most stunning view over Seattle. Forests, lakes, mountains bordered the corporate home of Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks. At one stage I looked out and there, just clearing itself out of the clouds, was the biggest mountain I’d ever seen. It was so much a part of the sky that at first I thought Mount Rainier was a cloud. I stood goggle-eyed.

I loved Seattle. So the song and the movie brought back some happy memories.

At a couple of points in the movie, a little map of the USA appeared, and a planetrail of dots showed the characters flying from Seattle to New York. That was me in October, and Cari was there to meet me that evening, sharing a dinner before I cabbed it back to my Harlem hostel.

The next day we did a bunch of touristy things, including a visit to the Empire State Building, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan began their shared life together.

Get this. Cari, born in New York, lived there for most of her life, at home on the viewing platforms of towers across the world, had never been to the top of the Empire State Building. She actually called her mother while we were there to report the fact!

Cari on top of the world

My day in Seattle and my guided tour of Manhattan: days to sparkle in my memory.
Never knew a day so fair,
It makes you feel so proud that you could cry!


I’ll admit it. There were tears in my eyes when the closing credits rolled, reflecting those when I hugged Cari goodbye before boarding the long evening flight to Sydney.

Back to my everyday world of cabdriving. Back to my days of smiling dreams of wonderful people and places.

I wonder if there are any sweet romantic films of New York?

12 March 2009

Duel Carriageway

Anzac Parade

Work began on the Anzac Parade resurfacing on 12 November last year, with a completion date of 24 April this year, so as not to upset the two major commemorative events of Armistice Day and Anzac Day.

For months, traffic has been limited to the eastern carriageway, with a line of concrete barriers dividing three lanes into two. It has been a major inconvenience, not to mention a continuing eyesore on one of Canberra's prime tourist views from the War Memorial down and across the lake to Parliament House.

I've mostly avoided Anzac Parade as a taxidriver for the past few months. There are other ways of getting places. But what has really bugged me is that they closed the cross street, which has been my prime method of getting home after a shift. It's one thing to go out of your way when the meter is running and someone else is paying. But when I've been driving a twelve hour shift and I just want to get home and into bed, well, it's different.

Today the concrete barriers were being removed and traffic was flowing smoothly again. Here the barrier blocks are being lifted onto trucks beside the Vietnam Memorial.

08 March 2009

Roundabout routing

Roundabout

I could fill my blog with these. Screenshots of the ridiculous routings that the despatch system GPS advises.

This was one afternoon last week, and I was heading along Constitution Avenue (my car indicated by the red circle/black arrow icon) when I got a job, with the pickup point on London Circuit (yellow circle marked "P1"). London Circuit, as the name implies, is an octagonal street, and as I didn’t recognise the street number and didn’t want to go the long way around, I hit the “Navigate to Pickup” button. It usually gets the pickup spot correct, because it knows all the street numbers.

But it likewise usually makes a hash of the route. The above is a typical example. I’ve moved further down Constitution Avenue from the point where I asked it to calculate a route, but it wanted me to turn left down Coranderrk Street, go once around the roundabout on Parkes Way, come back onto Constitution Avenue, make a right turn onto Allara, a left onto Bunda, follow that around and then make an illegal trip through the bus interchange before finally turning left onto London.

Not surprisingly, I ignored this advice, proceeded straight down Constitution Avenue to the end and made the right onto London, where I u-turned to stop in the loading zone at the pickup point. About a quarter of the recommended distance. Sometimes I wonder if the advice isn’t aimed at maximising the journey, rather than minimising it.

That’s Ringbear, peeping over my screen above. He was telling me to bear right.

06 March 2009

Kapooka cruising

Long Fares


Just when you start thinking that you’ve seen it all, along comes a shift like the last one.

Pat the day driver turned up early. I was fresh out of the shower and only partially uniformed, but I heard the dog give a bark, so I went out to chat. Once upon a time my little skittish terrier dog would have yelped herself into a frenzy, but nowadays someone can come along in the middle of the afternoon, park a limousine in my carport, get out and begin polishing the windows, and she barely mentions the fact.

We chatted for a while, and at one point I opened the car door to check something inside, and then we said goodbye. He was off to home and an early night, me to finish getting my stuff together to begin my shift.

Took me about five minutes to pack up my gear, put my shoes on, etc. I came down, logged onto the despatch system, got out a fresh envelope, jotted down the start of shift figures, stowed my bits and pieces away.

“Warm in here,” I thought, and reached down to start the engine and get the aircon working. Oooops. No key. Felt into my pocket, checked all the usual places, went and looked inside the house. No key.

“Errr,” I messaged Pat, “do you have the key in your pocket?”

He didn’t exactly reply that he did, but his response, that he had swearwords on his tongue, suggested to me that he was leadfooting it back.

So I began my shift a little late.

I got a lovely job early on, collecting some members of the Australian Academy of Science building from their distinctive meeting place, officially known as the Shine Dome, but shown off to bemused tourists as the Eskimo Embassy. Got a great picture of the cab outside, but that will have to wait for another day.

Later on, I got a call to a major government building for a ComCar offload job. ComCar is the Commonwealth limousine service, and they generally shuttle members of parliament around, taking up all the good slots at the airport, idling the evenings away outside restaurants etc. Usually they only work when parliament is sitting, which it isn’t at the moment, so occasionally they call on Silver Service for an odd job.

I won’t say who my passenger was, but he was a senior government minister, and I waited half an hour for him.

It wasn’t quite the same as a Washington DC cabbie giving Hillary Clinton a lift, but it was still an experience I don’t get every day. No photograph from this trip, neither.

I went back to the airport to meet the last flight, the one from the Gold Coast getting in half an hour before midnight. Normally this is a bit of a gamble. You don’t want to drive out to the airport, have nine passengers get off the plane heading for the cab rank, and be taxi number ten. On the other hand, jobs from the airport are usually a lot more pleasant and better paying than picking up folk from the nightclubs in town. I’ll often get some very cheerful drunks and we’ll have a wonderful time, but you never know.

On this occasion, I was taxi number eleven, and when it became obvious that the airport was clear for the night, there were a few swearwords on my tongue as I drove off.

Drove past the service station, accelerating away into the night, into town, when I got a job offer. “Canberra International Airport”, it said. The passengers from the Queensland flight were all gone, but every now and then I’ll get a job from a late worker at the business park, or the VIP squadron, or the private aviation hangars.

So I took the job. Better than lining up in Civic with a bazillion other cabs for the eight dollar fifty fares getting carloads of woozy students back to their colleges.

Well, blow me down and sweep me up! My job was to Wagga Wagga, for a five hundred and fifty dollar fare!

My pickup was outside the Qantas doors, and there they were, a few young folk chatting to a policeman. The cop approached as I drew up. “Looks like you’re going to Wagga!” he said.

We loaded the bags into the boot. A bit of a squeeze, but we filled up all the corners. Likewise my passengers.

Money up front - that’s the rule for long fares. I didn’t think that these youngsters were going to run off into the night when we got to Wagga Wagga, but best to get things sorted out before heading off several hours into regional New South Wales.

We got the fare settled - a bunch of pineapples and a card, for which I had to get authorisation, and then we headed off.

Oddly enough, it was the cab’s second long trip of the week. A day earlier Pat had taken a gentleman up to Sydney, and almost continued on to Brisbane with a thousand dollar tip in his pocket. His blog tells the story far better than I could have, but I’d had to drive a spare taxi that night, and my backside was still wincing after a shift spent sitting in the most uncomfortable car seat in the world.

I could tell there was a story to this trip, and with laughter and embarrassed sighs, it all came out.

My four passengers had a friend who was graduating from the Army recruit training centre at Kapooka, just outside Wagga Wagga. They had flown down, intending to hire a car for the two to three hour trip out. But when the only driver in the group went to the rental desk, he discovered that he’d left his drivers licence back in Queensland, and not surprisingly, the rental firm wasn’t going to hand over one of their cars to a group of teenagers without a drivers licence between them.

Midnight, and there are no trains, no buses out to Wagga. In a strange city, their options were either to camp in the terminal, or hire a taxi.

Five hundred and fifty dollars is a lot of money for a cab ride, but they scraped it up - probably their spending money for the trip - and luckily they drew a Silver Service car, with the leather seats, the legroom in the rear cabin, the driver who was polite enough not to laugh at their story...

No, seriously, I was thinking that these things happen to anyone. Even the most organised man in the world - my day driver - had forgotten a car key that very day.

Midnight, and a long drive ahead. But I swung around Parliament House for these late night tourists to have a look at the building and to get a photograph.

Then we headed up Anzac Parade, that glorious ceremonial avenue leading to the Australian War Memorial, and after that the buildings became ever more sparse.

They were tired after a big day, and gradually the chatter ceased, and the young lady who had been given the front seat cranked it back and began sleeping. I turned the music down and the heat up as we flew down the empty highway. It would have been a great trip in daytime, but at night it was just distant lights, roadsigns and a great darkness hiding the beautiful rolling golden hills of southern New South Wales.

We joined the Hume Highway, a stream of double-length semi trailers improving the midnight hours between Melbourne and Sydney, but after a few minutes of cruising with these monsters, I pulled in at the Yass services. The car needed gas, and I needed coffee for the long drive there and back.

I also took the opportunity to text Pat, letting him know that I wouldn’t be back until dawn. Just in case he got dressed and turned up at my place at three in the morning to wait for a taxi that was halfway across the next State.

It was a quiet ride down the Hume, apart from trying to share the road with people whose professional careers consist of steering mighty trucks through the night. They know every twist of the road, every speed sign, every lane change the same way I know the road out to the airport, and when we hit roadworks five miles from Gundagai, I had an impatient semitrailer not just filling all three rear-view mirrors, but illuminating the cab’s interior with blazing searchlights telling me to hurry up.

I hurried, sipping my coffee and anxiously looking out for wildlife on the road. At 120 kilometres an hour, I’d make a fine mess of any kangaroo. And vice versa.

The GPS display tightened up and eventually we were at a scale where street names made sense. Wagga Wagga, here we are!

Wagga Wagga was not interested, and the motel was dark and deserted. We found an all-night service station, unloaded the bags, posed for photographs, and parted ways. I had to get the car back for the day driver’s shift and there was a lot of driving to do before I could sleep.

I loaded up some junk food, put “The Long Tail” on the iPhone, and hit the road, enduring a series of horrible punning text messages from my waiting day driver.

Luckily, no wombats were injured in the making of this voyage and I delivered a car that was full of gas, if not sparkling clean, just as the sky began to pale.

And there’s one brand new soldier today, who has the best friends in the world. They were four lovable, engaging young folk, and it was my privilege to be of service to them.

20 February 2009

Rock Taxi

Shuttlebus

A new city, a new destination, and the first thing I look for outside the airport is the taxi rank. Professional interest, I guess. What sort of cabs do they have here? What’s different about them? What nifty little feature does the cabbie have that I can blog about?

There is a free bus service from the airport to Yulara resort, and we loaded our bags aboard. “Ayers Rock has no taxis,” the driver advised us, with just a touch of smugness.

Rental cars are available, but are limited to 150 kilometres per day, just in case tourists decide to drive out to Alice Springs, a good four or five hours away.

Apart from the large buses running the airport transfer, there is a smaller shuttlebus looping around the various resort options every twenty minutes.

And that’s it. Of course, you can walk between places, and nothing is more than ten minutes brisk pacing in the desert sun, but it’s not the same as jumping into a cab for the local commentary, the personalised service and Radio Al-Jazeera playing in the background.

Happy people


I picked my passenger up from the Kingston rank. She gave her friend a hug and smiled into the cab beside me, giving an address in a nearby suburb in a bright American accent.

It was a quick and pleasant late afternoon trip. The weather is mild after some weeks of extreme heat, and Canberra’s older suburbs are looking delightful in their summer foliage. In a few months, the leaves will turn to red and gold and all will be glorious autumn.

She paid the fare, adding “I know you don’t tip over here. It always makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“I don’t need a tip,” I replied. “Just a smile.”

She reacted in the nicest possible way, face crinkling into happiness. “Well, you’ve got that!”

I love making people smile. It makes my day.

That was the start of a good shift for me, and at midnight, I was once again at the Kingston rank, one more fare to make my night before knocking off early to get a few hours sleep before my morning flight to Ayers Rock.

Two cheerful young men approached, getting into the cab as I packed away the Air.

They were even more cheerful on seeing Dire Straits playing on the iPhone, and they bopped their way to destinations nearby.

“Let’s just ride around until the album finishes,” I suggested.

“I could do that!”

But of course we didn’t, and went home by the best route. They were full of laughter and smiles and good wishes. And I the same.

Some days, driving a cab is the best job in the world!

16 February 2009

Scum


A report in last week’s paper:

A taxi driver signing off for the night was robbed at gunpoint in Lyneham on Tuesday night. The victim was in the car park of a unit complex on Goodchild Street about 10pm when he was bailed up by a man with a handgun wearing a black balaclava. The gunman demanded the taxi driver hand over his takings, and then fled into bushland. (Canberra Times, 12 Feb 2009)

I’ve often dropped passengers off in this complex and noted that several cabs “live” there. The carpark is enclosed and not visible from the street, so my guess is that one of the residents noted the habits of the cabbie and either did the deed himself or told a mate. This is actually one of the things we’re warned about in taxi school. Don’t count your money in a secluded location, especially at night. All too often cabbies get into a predictable pattern and make themselves into targets.

Looking at my takings for that night, and it was a pretty good one for a Tuesday, well over half was through plastic cards or vouchers. I would have had maybe a hundred dollars in cash at that time of the night, and that’s including my float.

Very likely the gun was a fake. It is extremely rare for a gun to be used in a crime here, and when they are used, it’s for things like gangland murders or bank robberies. Far more common is for a passenger to pull a knife on a cabbie.

Even so, with the number of security cameras and devices in a cab nowadays, there’s going to be photographic evidence of a crime, and if it’s serious enough, the cops will track down the criminal.

I’ve occasionally felt uneasy about a passenger, but for the most part, people in Canberra are very good, and I’m far more likely to be swapping yarns with a late night passenger, or smiling as they sing along to Abba or play air guitar to Dire Straits.

I had a passenger pull a knife on me a few nights ago. He was canoodling with his girlfriend on the main rank in Civic, and when they eventually grew tired of this and wanted to get home, mine was the cab they jumped into.

He wanted to talk, and it was the usual opening step of “You must get some scary passengers.” He wanted to talk about the possibility of getting stabbed, but I deflected him onto the kangaroo track. Kangaroos scare me far more than passengers. His advice to me, based on sound physics, was to brake as hard as I could, and just before impact to accelerate suddenly, thereby raising the nose of the car and increasing the chance that the beast would go underneath, rather than over the bonnet and through the windscreen. Good advice if you’ve got several seconds to think about it, but in that time I can slow to a crawl and avoid hitting them entirely. The two times I’ve run into kangaroos, I’ve had maybe half a second to react, so I’ve never gotten past the stomp-on-the-brakes-as-hard-as-you-can part of the plan.

He was on something. Just a little bit odd in his manners. I didn’t think he was any danger, especially not with a young lady companion, so I was surprised when we pulled up at the destination and he produced a knife.

A sort of Swiss Army knife, except it had a box-cutter blade inside it, neatly folded up. He handed it to me and I took a look. I suppose the message was that he could have stuck it into my ribs.

Instead, he gave me a credit card for the $32 fare. Unfortunately, my card reader chose this moment to decide that it was out of radio range of the bank network, so the transaction was declined. He and his girlfriend scraped around and came up with twenty dollars, which was better than nothing.

The real danger to a cabbie in Canberra is runners. I’ve had a few, like maybe one every six months or so. Not a major threat to my income, and I make more in tips than I lose to runners, so I tend not to worry about them too much.

Still, it’s irritating when it happens. Not only do I lose my half of the fare, I’ve also got to take cash out of my own pocket to pay the owner’s half, meaning I’ve got to work another hour or so to make that money. So I usually end up having worked a couple of late night hours for no gain.

Worse is that the runners get rewarded for their actions and tend to become repeat offenders, ripping off cabbie after cabbie on a regular basis. For me, it’s no big deal, but for a cabbie depending on the long hours and poor income to support a family, it’s gotta hurt. And it’s always the long fares. Nobody ever runs on a ten dollar fare to the next suburb, but when it’s a forty or fifty dollar fare, and the passengers are young men trying to evade the security camera by sitting in the back seat, cabbie beware!

The excellent Sydney cabbie blogger Adrian Neylan made a recent entry about a runner. He was able to find a police car, and policemen who gave a stuff, which is rare on both counts.

One cabbie advised me to keep the car in reverse gear when stopping, and if a passenger runs, hit the gas, knock him down with the open door and run over him with the front wheels. A little extreme for the crime, but I can understand why a cabbie might do such a thing.

My last runners were a group of three young men, about the same age as my teenage son. Would I run over my own son? No. So why would I run over anybody else’s son?

But I’m seriously thinking of installing a webcam in the cab, so I have footage I can put up on Facebook and YouTube. I reckon anyone scum enough to rob a cabbie is also going to have a fair number of enemies in regular life.

Better yet, the cabs in Melbourne all advertise that advance payment is required during late night hours. I consider it rude to ask for money up front, but I might start doing it for high-risk fares. The argument against is that restaurants don’t ask you to pay for a meal before consuming it, but my response is that the average cab is more the equivalent of Macdonalds than The Golden Fingerbowl, and you just try to get a Big Mac without reaching into your wallet.

14 February 2009

My funny valentine


I picked up Kerri in the taxi this evening for a work related dinner. The sun was still high in the western sky at six thirty as we headed down past Russell Offices to go over the lake to the Brassey Hotel. She leaned over and gave me an affectionate squeeze. What a sweetie!

Better yet, Taxi 22 was passing by in the opposite lane, and the expression on the driver’s face was priceless!

Happy Valentines Day to all my friends and all the lovers reading my blog. So many of you have pieces of my heart. May love and romance sweeten your day, your weekend, your life.

12 February 2009

All that jazz


If there’s one thing cabdriving has given me, it’s a love of jazz. Experimenting with music in the cab, I soon gave up on commercial radio stations. The ads were too intrusive and the chatter too distracting.

Public radio was better, but even the classical radio station with its minimal human presence was sometimes unsatisfactory. The tracks they selected rarely matched my needs: some pieces were too quiet for easy listening in the ambient noise of a car, some were too raucous, and opera is an acquired taste.

But the jazz segments of a Saturday evening hit the spot. I soon learnt the big names and the best albums, and before too long I was building up a CD library of favorites.

“They made the mistake of putting the cab rank in Manuka outside Abel’s record store,” I’d tell the customers, “and I’m blowing all the profits in there.”

Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane and all the rest. I loved them, and every now and then I’d meet a fellow devotee amongst my passengers. Not everyone likes jazz, but few people dislike it, and it’s pleasant listening, with enough interest to keep the brain stimulated.

I picked up a couple of senior bureaucrats the other day, driving them back across the lake to Department of Foreign Affairs. They picked up on Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue, and reminisced to each other about jazz clubs in exotic locations. Little hole in the wall locations where you’d have to sneak a bottle in from the convenience store around the corner, but the last member of some famous band swung a mean saxophone.

“Let’s just stay in here for another hour until this finishes,” one said to the other. I smiled. My kind of people.

But they got out at the office. “Thanks for that, driver,” one said as he signed the chit. “I love My Funny Valentine.”

10 February 2009

Dusky


We’ve had a cool southerly change after the scorching heat of the past couple of weeks. A welcome treat for we night drivers, trying to get our sleep in before it gets too hot.

But the winds have brought in just a hint of haze from the devastating bushfires in Victoria. I stopped on Adelaide Avenue to take a picture of the declining sun slanting through the brown smoke coming up from a thousand kilometres away.

Nobody talks of anything but the bushfires. The memories of Canberrans stretch back to 2003, when we lost five hundred houses in the suburbs between lunch and afternoon tea. Five hundred houses but only four lives.

The news from Victoria is far worse. They have a death toll of well over a hundred now. And counting.

It’s quite rare to lose houses in a bushfire. Generally the rural fire brigades do a great job of protecting property. The bush burns, resprouts in the next rains, and two years later there’s nothing to see. The burnt bark falls off the trees and fresh treestuff grows.

It’s even more rare to lose lives. People stay to save their homes, but they have the car packed and ready to go. If things get too hot, they run for safety.

But every now and then we have a period of intense heat, drying out the fresh spring growth, hot winds from the desert interior, lightning storms to spark fires in remote areas, and if the hot windy conditions persist and worsen, the blazes become firestorms, speeding along valleys like a formation of jet fighters on afterburner, unstoppable, melting roads and vehicles, boiling swimming pools dry, racing through the tinder-dry forests to hit houses with a rain of embers before an explosion of flame.

The wind brought down trees onto roads, trapping people escaping the fires. It’s not something I want to think about too much.

But everyone had a thought for Victoria. One passenger said that the Commonwealth Government should divert some of the latest stimulus package toward rebuilding houses and infrastructure. Another, a journalist, read me out a piece he had written about his childhood holidays in one of the destroyed towns, learning to play piano and billiards in a quaint guest house.

And I thought about that town, where I’ve spent a few weekends on computer programmer conferences. The church camp we hired was spartan but comfortable, surrounded by green ridges, where “the tallest trees in the British Empire” had been drawing tourists since the 1800s. It was a delightful, restful retreat, and the small town of Marysville was a few tree-lined streets, old wooden houses and the sort of rural general stores and pubs that you don’t get in the slick cities any more. A community.

Now it’s gone. The black streets remain, but the rubble and ash of the buildings mark out from the air where people lived and worked. One or two lucky homes remain, but the rest, the houses, hotels and guesthouses are gone. Piano and billiard table just a few twisted remnants amongst the fallen walls.

Word is that my birthplace, up in the Ovens Valley, might be under threat. It’s been years since I was there, but I hate to think of that little community looking anxiously to the south as they tidy away their yards, piling garden rubbish away from houses, seeking out photographs and family treasures for the car, listening to the radio for warnings.

But they are also lining up to give blood for the burns victims pouring into the hospitals, taking boxes of canned goods and can-openers to the charity collection points, going through their wardrobes for those with just the clothes they stand up in.

Canberra, where the smell of smoke freshens memories of 2003, is collecting containerloads to send south. We might be an urban society, but in our hearts, we are out in the bush, standing firm to defend the family farm, packing into the shire hall to help out our neighbours, offering a place at the table and a bed in the spare room for those who need it.

Not much that I can do directly. Any bushfire survivors find their way to Canberra, they’ll get a ride for free from me. And for this week, I’m making a donation each night to send south. I don’t make a great deal as a cabbie, but I can certainly help those who have nothing but the ash-blackened shirts on their backs.