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.

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