17 January 2010
12 January 2010
I was munching on a carrot in my cab, number two on the Manuka rank. Reading Further Tales of the City and just chilling.
So I was surprised when a passenger opened the door and got in. "What about him?" I asked, indicating the cab ahead.
"I didn't want to wake him up," she said, and gave me a destination on the further side of the city, an easy forty dollar fare.
I take the position that if a cabbie is asleep on a rank - especially at five in the afternoon - then he's too weary to drive safely.
Sleep management is an important part of a cabbie's life. The average rate per hour is so low that if a cabbie wants to make serious money, he's got to drive serious hours. In theory, I drive a thirteen hour shift each weeknight, and other drivers, especially those who own their own cabs, will drive even longer hours to make the money needed both to pay the huge costs of operating a cab and make some sort of living.
While a cabbie's shift isn't continuous driving, and it's a sight more interesting than the highway driving of long-haul truckers, it's still a long time to be awake and alert. A good cabbie, even if he's not actually driving, will be waiting for somebody to walk up and get in, or for the chime of an incoming radio job. He'll be watching the stats screen to work out where the work patterns are flowing best, and he'll be cleaning the windows or shaking out the floormats when there's nothing else to do.
Or he'll be chatting to other drivers, reading a book, doing the crossword puzzle, listening to the cricket... There's a lot of idle time in a cabbie's life.
What he shouldn't be doing is sleeping. Other cabbies will take his passengers, he'll miss out on radio jobs, he'll lose income.
In an ideal world, a cabbie gets eight hours of good, solid sleep, drives his twelve hour shift, and has four hours left over for recreation. Not much of a life, but, as I always tell the passengers, "It beats working!"
In the real world, it's hard to get a solid chunk of uninterrupted sleep, especially for a night cabbie like myself. There's the unavoidable noise and activity of the rest of the family waking up and going to work or school. There are traffic noises, horns honking, construction vehicles rumbling. There are phone calls. In summer it's hot, and there's always the problem of too much light seeping around the curtains.
I'm lucky if I get three hours of sleep in a row. I'll take a nap in the early afternoon before starting work at three, but somewhere around midnight, I'll be running down. With the last planes landed at the airport and streets full of cabbies competing over the last few fares, it's an ideal time for me to take a nap before joining the die-hard taxidrivers serving the empty city. There's always work around at two in the morning on a weeknight. You might have to drive a bit further to pick up a passenger, but in a city the size of Canberra with a floating population of students and parliamentary staffers and public servants staying a few nights for a course or a convention, there's always someone in the wee hours who needs to go somewhere.
I don't pump myself full of energy drinks or pills to stay awake. I know other cabbies do, and I've tried some of those pills many years ago, but it's an artificial alertness, and while the body stays awake, hands gripping the steering wheel, the mind goes off in strange directions. I know that everyone expects cabbies to be a little bit crazy, but I don't want artificial assistance in that direction.
But I can't drive when I'm tired. I start making mistakes. I'll give out the wrong change, I'll take an inefficient route, I'll miss out on fares. And, worst of all, I'll drive in an unsafe fashion. There are only so many traffic lights you can misjudge, only so many Stop signs you can roll through, only so many Give Way signs you can ignore.
Or I'll begin to microsleep.
When that happens, I'll stop work and take a nap immediately. I usually stop well before I get to that point, but sometimes when the flow of work on a busy night doesn't give a natural break, I'll find myself whipping down the Monaro Highway, long and straight down to the far suburbs of Tuggeranong, with eyes that don't want to stay open.
I've got my own private map of quiet little corners of the city. Dark and deserted at midnight. Parks, sporting fields, carparks. What I need is something off the streets, not too much light or noise. I'm lucky in that Canberra has many such places. In fact there are four excellent carparks right in the middle of the Parliamentary Triangle in Federation Mall that are dark and deserted. Telopea Park and Haig Park have some good spots. But there's always somewhere.
I park the car facing my best exit route, I lock the doors, turn off as many lights and displays as I can, crank the seat right back and zonk off. Even a five or ten minute powernap is good, but sometimes I'll doze for an hour. I don't set any alarm, because I figure that I'll wake when I feel rested.
Usually what happens is that I get woken up by an incoming radio job after fifteen or twenty minutes. I can ignore it if I want, but generally I take the job and get back to work, good to go for those last few hours before I hand the car over to the day driver at four in the morning.
An alternative strategy, one my wife prefers, is that on a slow night I finish early. Like most other night cabbies. Trouble is that if every cabbie did that, then there would be no taxis on the streets to cope with the small demand at that time, let alone the unexpected load of a delayed flight or a late bus or a big function going late. There are always people to be shifted around the city and it is at these times that I feel most useful, saving people a long wait or a long walk. And making myself a few quid getting them home safely and comfortably.
07 November 2009
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
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
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
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
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!"