30 August 2009

Wait and return


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


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


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.


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.


08 August 2009

West Waiting


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.