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


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


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.