“There will be no talking in any language,” the middle-aged blond lady says severely from behind her desk. We listen respectfully. No one says a word. There are seven of us in a classroom at the back of the Parking Authority building next to the County Jail on Vignes Street downtown. We are about to take the L.A. Department of Transportation’s test to get our cabdriver permits ($68 to take the test, $60 more if you pass). The blond lady has already called roll: “Chang . . .? Vailseko . . . v-a-i-s-k-o? Obeikea . . . o-b-e-i-k-e-a?” Me.
The test will consist of 20 questions (“905 S. Normandie Ave. is closest to the corner of: A) Melrose Ave., B) Pico Blvd., C) Olympic Blvd., D) Santa Monica Blvd.”), and armed with our Thomas Guides and a copy of the DOT’s Taxicab Rules (all 57 pages of it, including my favorite, 768 — “The driver shall not be required to transport any article which would cause the taxicab to become damaged, stained or evil smelling”) we have 45 minutes.
I’m nervous about the test, about driving cab again. It’s been 18 years since I last drove in L.A. or anyplace. Much has changed in the interim — in the L.A. cosmos, in the L.A. cab game itself, following the fold of Yellow Cab in the early ’80s and the advent of computers and co-ops and the almost total takeover by the many immigrant tribes that now dominate the trade: Russians by the platoon, Armenians, East Indians, Israelis, Latinos from all over. My tribe has become the smallest minority of all — they call me “the American.”
It has always been dangerous work but may be more so now, and I cannot completely remove from my mind the handwritten note I saw on a bulletin board at one of the cab shops: “We are looking for contributions to help the driver so brutally attacked yesterday in the Valley.” I asked a gloomy-looking character filling out a form on a nearby counter what happened to the guy and without looking at me he said, “Got throat cut.” Sensing I was straining his patience I asked him how it happened, but it was another driver who answered, offhandedly, with no great interest, “Maybe he was Marine and wouldn’t give up.” The man said he knew how to avoid such trouble. “Always have $100 bill in your pocket. You give it to them. No trouble.” Another note on the board offered the official solution: “Keep your bulletproof Plexiglas divider closed at all times.”
Of course keeping the divider open is exactly my reason for doing this. It’s a risk, opening yourself to your sometimes predatory fellow man, but I like the exchange, the stories of the fares, who in L.A. tend to be on the outs in one way or another, in between cars, lovers — en route from one slippery rock to another. And it’s something I’ve preached for years, the idea that a single day in a cab open to fantastic existential surprise is worth a month — hell, a year — of the Los Angeles Times for anyone wanting to get a sense of the city, its immensity, its unknowability. Each day after all is the same as every other day and absolutely different — the mystery of it the same, the specifics of that mystery different.
“Which of the following is true? A) It is okay to yell at rude passengers, B) Taxicabs are exempt from parking rules and regulations, C) It is good to be nice even to rude passengers, D) I can charge extra for heavy luggage.”
We’re allowed to miss four. I miss three.
742, 751, 755. The numbers come up, one after the other, and each time after a nanosecond of consideration Gregory pushes the reject button on his computer. “Too far,” he says.
A complete deluge downpour is dumping El Niño’s revenge on Gregory’s cab, huddled alongside the road on Vineland late one mid-February Thursday night. A 7-Eleven across the street seems abandoned, without customers. The streets are rivers and Gregory has been driving pretty nearly in the middle of the road — one hell of a night to be out, but a cabdriver is a cabdriver. The next number — 761, a Valley cab district west of Laurel Canyon, north of Moorpark — makes him think. “Addict?” he wonders, meaning the fare may be going to one of the Valley’s well-trafficked open-air dope bazaars — Delano Street off Van Nuys Boulevard, Columbus Avenue in Panorama City. But when he rejects the order it isn’t because of the dope — Gregory, the most pragmatically philosophical of cabdrivers, runs a well-considered laissez-faire cab. He even lets people smoke since it’s better for tips. No, he gives the proffered fare a pass because of a swift calculation born of a year’s education driving the Valley grids — a year of happy Friday- and Saturday-night drunks, sex performers on their way to the Industrial Strip off Lankershim, or the DeJaVu on Coldwater. His calculation is based 90 percent on a gambler’s estimation of payoff — time to get the fare, the sense of where the fare might be going and how remunerative the fare might be. Each number comes up with the cab zone, the maps to find it, the address. (The computer is a great boon to the non-English-speaker, taking the dispatcher, for the most part, out of the loop. Gregory, however, speaks six languages fluently, most advantageously among them English.) He can flick through six, eight potential fares on a busy night like this in about a minute, much like a man playing video poker, exchanging his cards, waiting for his best hand.
Rain pelts down on Gregory’s snug taxi van — state of the art, with telephone, two-way radio, the computer, a holder for coffee, a picture of the wife and kids, a boom box lending faint voices of pop music’s moral ä support . . . “hold on, hold on.” He’s in his late 30s, heavy, dark, one of the large contingent of Armenians driving cabs in L.A. (his people from Iran’s Armenian minority). I met him at one of the cab shops and he generously offered to show me the ropes while I waited for my permit (“Give the doorman at the Hilton and Marriott downtown $5 for an airport trip,” he advised, “but not the Sheraton. They have a rule against it”). A small portion of his choices of fares are based on his personal quirks and informed prejudices. “I like the Hispanic people. They go out at night whether they have money or not.” He hardly gives personal safety a glance. “I am ready for trouble but I don’t worry about it,” he says. The sex-club “dancers,” as he calls them, are a staple of his business, he explains, because most have a bunch of DUIs. “And many of them are drunk when they finish work.”
A 564 order he has accepted takes him to one of the performers waiting at a pay phone on Lankershim. Rain is wonderful for the cab business. The lady is en route to the DeJaVu, where, Greg-ory will tell me, she may make up to $300 a night depending on her expertise. Dishrag wet and no knockout to begin with, she does not strike me as particularly sexy, I say to Gregory later, and, something of a connoisseur, he cautions me: “You can’t tell much with their clothes on.” A week or two before, he dropped $186 at one of the clubs — a “rip-off,” he admits, but it would not do for a cabdriver to be a “cheap guy” in one of those places. On the way to the DeJaVu he tells the lady she ought to check out the Industrial Strip. “All of the girls there seem very happy,” he says. He thinks the cameras in place at the DeJaVu are inhibiting and that the Industrial Strip, without cameras, offers better value and hence the girls do better. When we arrive at the club she thanks him for the advice, goes in and comes out with some passes for him. The doorman gives him a warm wave and Gregory says to me, “Look, even the doorman here is Armenian.”
Soon we are on the notorious Delano Street, drug alley, off Van Nuys. When he was in the pizza business, one of several trades he’s plied since coming to the United States 10 years ago, the cops told him, “If you go in there you’re on your own.” It seems remarkable that even in this heavy unrelenting rain the dope merchants are out, standing here and there in driveways under umbrellas. I ask Gregory what they are selling and he says “crystal” (meth).
This night he is here to pick up a pudgy, cheerful middle-aged Hispanic “bar girl” and take her over to the Rodeo club on Van Nuys Boulevard. Usually he would be here with drug buyers, though he is careful to note that he never knows for sure what his clients come for. They do not talk about it. “I come and park and they walk off and come back in a few minutes. I don’t ask them what they do and they don’t tell me. They tip very well. Some drivers won’t come here for moral, religious reasons,” Gregory says. “I say it’s none of my business what they do.”
Some drivers won’t come to such places because, as well, they are nervous. Many of them, Gregory admits, are armed illegally with guns. As for himself, he uses only a long heavy black flashlight for personal protection. In a year he’s had only one truly threatening experience, when a swarm of teen gangsters chased his cab down an alley from which he backed out at full speed. “I didn’t even look where I was going, I just got out the quickest way I could,” he says.
Like many in the L.A. cab corps, manned as it is with refugee drivers from every dangerous corner of the world, Gregory comes by his quietly fatalistic sang-froid honestly as a survivor of extraordinary events. Ten years ago, a conscript in the Iranian army fighting on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war, Gregory deserted with 15 others and went up into the Iranian and then Turkish mountains, making it eventually to Germany, forged passport in hand, and ultimately to the States with $200 in his pocket.
A cab on the main streets of L.A. — might make a man watchful, but for many it is a lesser war zone compared to the ones they’ve already known. Splashing through the streets this night Gregory talks about the 12-year-old soldiers he fought with who wore plastic keys around their neck. “They would get you into heaven when you died,” he says. “These boys believed that, and you’d see them run into minefields hoping to die. Now does that make any sense to you?”
It’s been a tough shift — what with all the rain and a fluid leak in his power steering — and Gregory’s ready to call it a night close to midnight, only five hours out. He leases a cab, as most L.A. drivers do, and pays $60 per shift. Usually he’ll drive 12 hours to make it worthwhile (many drivers I’ll meet drive 15 and even 20 hours), and after five hours he’s only got $86. Looking at the address the computer is offering him he says well, what the hell — maybe one more . . .
A grim two-story beige apartment cube in a sea of such places. No one comes out, and Gregory punches a button on his computer that activates an automated phone call: “Your cab is waiting.”
Now walking through the rain toward us is a midnight apparition. The long blond hair, the Pamela Anderson shape — spray-on pants, a bare midriff — the lady looks ready for the finale of Grease. Her perfume gets in the cab first and then she does, and leaning forward from the back seat she says, “How you boys doing?” and gives an address a mile or two away — her voice, full of rainy-night gladness, unmistakably a man’s.
The house at the end of the cul-de-sac is on the right and there are no lights. The lady says pull into the driveway there and, getting out, says to Gregory, “Would you come to the door with me?”
I see Gregory pick up his flashlight nightstick and know he is thinking the same thing I am: a setup for a robbery. Why direct him into the driveway when the little shabby gray house is so close to the street? Why does she want him to come to the door with her? My gut tightens and I’m wondering if there is any trick to using the phone and I have the feeling that even with all the high tech in the world, you are still awfully vulnerable out here.
One minute, another . . . I have time to regret wearing my stupid cowboy boots when what I usually wear are running shoes . . . the lady and Gregory at the door . . . ringing the doorbell again . . . the radio song says, “Oh baby come back and say you won’t leave” . . . the rain pelting down . . . No one answers — nothing happens — and they come back to the cab where Jacqueline, as she calls herself, uses the cab phone to call the man she has come to see. The house remains dark. Taken back to her own place, Jacqueline goes in through a side window — with great slithery agility, like a big mermaid, that fine ass last to disappear. She’s told Gregory to come back in an hour when the guy in question will ostensibly be there with the fare she owes but Gregory shrugs it off. Like most drivers, he’s used to getting stiffed at least once a week; there’s little to be done about it.
I ask him if he was nervous back there and he says yeah, it didn’t look right. But not scared. “I’ve seen the worst that people can do to each other,” he says, thinking no doubt of the 12-year-old warriors and their plastic keys. “Nothing scares me now.”
Driving me to where I left my car, he goes on. “My people have a saying,” he says. “‘The date of your death is written on your forehead when you’re born.’ There’s nothing you can do about it. When your time comes, it comes.”
He came to this country with $200, worked for that pizza company, had his best years driving for a super-rich thug in Brentwood whom he once accompanied as he bought a $240,000 Rolls-Royce for cash. The man fired him for not answering his pager fast enough. “He expected me to apologize but I don’t do that,” he says.
I thank him for his counsel and he says anytime. We shake hands and he touches his forehead — not this Thursday, not this night.
There are a number of immutables in L.A. cab driving:
2. “Shorties,” which the powers that be insist you take or they’ll whop you with a big fine but you still avoid whenever possible.
3. You get lost. Even veteran drivers get lost in the little winding streets of the Hollywood Hills, all of which have “Oak” in their name (White Oak, Red Oak, Black Oak). San Vicente Boulevard is its own crazy-making doppelgänger, in that if you don’t concentrate you can find yourself bamboozled by the north-south San Vicente that disappears into Sunset and has nothing whatsoever to do with the east-west San Vicente that ends somewhere around the veterans’ cemetery in Westwood. “How could I have forgotten?” you say to your furious passenger when you discover yourself miles from where you ought to be.
4. Nobody trusts you; everybody thinks you’re a crook, when it is entirely likely that all you are is incompetent.
I do okay but not that good really, driving off and on for a couple different companies, crapping out most days after only five or six hours. The thing that comes back the quickest — it’s as if I’d driven it yesterday — is the swift surface run to LAX, La Brea to Stocker to La Cienega to La Tijera to Sepulveda to 96th Street, like a marble rolling in a groove, as if the cab has been programmed, knows just where the money is.
Then there are the people. Cab driving is like going on one blind date after another. I don’t know if everybody really went to Rick’s, but sooner or later, in one circumstance or another, everybody gets into your cab.
Unlike Gregory I am not fearless and I stay away, as much as I can, from dark corners. The closest I come to danger is when a drunk falls on the lemon meringue pie he had me buy for him. The meringue misses me by . . . this much.
What surprises me most is how quickly I’m sucked into the game itself, trying to pry every loose buck out of the ticking clock; how few old ladies in bad wigs, who come onboard holding their arthritic poodles, heading for
the Vons three blocks away — $3.60 and a quarter tip — how few it takes to make you want to avoid any more; how
swiftly the Altruist ducks out in order to be replaced ä by his Greedhead evil twin.
As I remember from before, the days have odd ways of collecting around themes, and I will in my brief comeback have the day of the remarkably linked Tales of the Very Old, another offering glimpses from the Hollywood Fringe, another in which we hear the varied Voices of the Lovelorn. At least the rain has subsided to a drizzle.
My first fare is an elderly blind lady and her companion who I pick up at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and because I go around the block instead of making a U and going directly west on Hollywood Boulevard I get stiffed. “You went the long way,” the blind lady says when they get out at an old-people’s hotel on Sunset.
No tip for you.
Thanks, blind lady.
That same day I get the call to the Koreatown bar on Vermont. Inside it’s wall-to-wall Koreans and a single Anglo, my fare, the gentleman in the checked jacket, mid-60s, a couple of hairs across his gleaming scalp, drunk as a skunk. As we head down Vermont toward an address near Wilshire, he tells me how he’s been going to that bar for five years trying to pick up a woman, so far without success. Which has to be an international record for failure, but he seems okay about it. We pass a Lucky and he says with the drunk’s obscure logic: “Hey, why don’t we get a pie? You’ll feel better and I’ll feel better.”
This is the lemon meringue pie previously mentioned, and he cradles it lovingly as I walk him up to his apartment in one of those ancient ivied old places near the ghost of the long-dead Ambassador Hotel. He drops his keys and when I open the door and get him in I find myself in a forest — redwoods, a perpetual moon peeking through the limbs, all of this painted with amazing realism on the walls up to a high ceiling. It’s been like this for a while, I’m thinking — 50 years maybe — and this fall back in time disconcerts me and causes me to take my eye off the ball, and my fare, let loose, takes the opportunity to fall across the table where he has placed the pie. Squish.
He’s out, zonked, and now the cabdriver must put the fare somewhere — his bedroom, why not — dropping him on his bed. The cabdriver takes what is owed him from the man’s wallet, giving himself a modest tip.
Leaving I see a wall of pictures, mostly of old-time tennis players, and imagine my fare to have been one of them, though I don’t know. But that’s the way of cab driv-ing: You get glimpses, parts of stories, never the whole thing.
In the same way I won’t know if the old doctor’s patient is dead, as I suspect.
Later that day I have the doctor, satchel in hand, fastidiously decked out in a blue suit, expensive maroon tie. “I’m a doctor,” he announces, “and I’m 92 years old.” Settling back, he gives me an address and tells me he’s en route to minister to his last patient, one he’s doctored for 40 years, deep into his own retirement. I’ve picked him up on Cloverdale south of Olympic and we’re heading to an address in Hancock Park, but the doctor does not believe we are headed in the right direction. He’s sure we’re going the wrong way. “No, no,” he says excitedly, “it’s that way, that way” — pointing west.
Nothing I say eases him of his anxiety and I stop and point out in my Thomas Guide, on Page 633, the street, but somehow he does not believe me.
This whole episode takes no more than 15 minutes but it is a long 15 minutes, with the doctor getting more and more upset and excited as we go, and I am relieved to arrive at the big house with about an acre of front lawn. As I leave I see a nurse come out to greet him and I imagine her telling him his last patient has died. (Of course she could have told him lunch was ready, I’d never know.)
“Hey. I’ll be with you in jus’ a minute.”
It is a loud belligerent voice, a drunk’s voice — jeez, just what I need — and comes about two or three minutes after the cabdriver’s knock. A black Lab sleeps next to a Y-shaped trellis. It’s an anonymous street of little Spanish houses, south of Pico. The drizzle has finally stopped and it’s warm and clear out, close to 10 in the evening. I hear the man get off a couch — the release of the springs — and now he appears, wearing suspenders and a checked shirt. He looks me in the eye. “Let’s go, buddy,” he says with boozy authority.
He’s unusual, taking the front seat with me. We’re going to his favorite bar on Western a few minutes away — a real shortie — and he isn’t going to waste the opportunity for a conversation. “I’m 82,” he says. I tell him he doesn’t look 82 (he looks older than the doctor, really).
“I take a bath every day, you know what I mean? I keep clean and I don’t take any shit off of anybody.”
“Yeah. Hey, you ain’t gettin’ smart with me, are you?”
“You don’t think I’m anybody, do you,” he says.
“I have no idea,” I say truthfully enough. He’s quiet, and then with great icy dignity informs me that he flew during World War II. “P-38s,” he says.
Cabdrivers are always pretending interest in things in which they have no interest.
“Is that a good plane?”
“Damn good,” he says, “except for one thing.”
The driver waits for that one thing and when it doesn’t come he glances over at the old man, who is withholding the punch line until he gets an interest-confirming look. “The chatter,” he says. “Too damn much chatter.”
The driver might have continued the interrogation but we’re at the bar and the man is gone.
Was the man really a pilot?
And what was “chatter,” anyway?
“Suspended 1/28 to 2/28: Shin Kwang Kang.”
“Suspended 1/14 to 2/14: Anselmo Fiorentio.”
And on they go, one driver after another, set down the same way they do jockeys at the racetrack who cause interference, all announcements signed with considerable flourish by one Behzad Bitaraf, General Manager.
I’m in the taxicab holding pen at LAX. There are about three lines of us — Checker and Bell and Beverly Hills Cab, L.A. Taxi Co-op and Fiesta and Long Beach Cab, white, blue, yellow and red, waiting to be fed out, one at a time, to TWA and United and Continental — and I’ve been inspecting the bulletin board here, which includes many stern warnings from Mr. Bitaraf about infractions of all kinds: “I have received several complaints that some of the drivers are speeding around Airport Drive . . .”
I can remember the first time I drove in the early ’70s, when the ’port was wide-open and drivers would tear around, snatching any fare they could find. It’s different now of course, not just the holding pen where the cabs are rigidly contained — don’t even think about it, buddy, nobody moves until we say so — but everywhere in the L.A. cab world various controls are in place, new ways to keep the lid on the anarchy. Among other things, driv-ers can be heavily fined for picking up outside their appointed zones (greater L.A. is balkanized into six major districts, with the seven licensed companies allotted certain pickup areas), and drivers are limited to six pickup days a month at the airport (otherwise you go in full, come out painfully . . . empty). I know the image of the sudden swift ambush by the law is much with Gregory, who hasn’t experienced it but has heard about it from other drivers: “The cops will cut you off. You’re suddenly surrounded, arrested, they consider it theft.” All this for picking up in some forbidden zone.
Of course the great irony is that despite all this effort, all this strenuous attempt to get the game under absolute control, there is probably more anarchy in cab land than ever before. All the while Gregory and the other carefully watched drivers are doing their best to obey the rules and make a buck at the same time, the bandits are out in ever greater force — some say as many as 2,000 of them — unlicensed, unsupervised, creeping out in late evening, often in heavily touristed areas, with fake city decals on their sides, or no decals, picking up whom they please, where they please. All the drivers talk about it, all ä the drivers brood about it as if they were still soldiers in the armies of their desert homelands, grumbling at the lousy food, tyrannical officers, while some of their comrades go over the wall as Gregory did in the Iranian army — to the great Out There . . . freedom.
“My neighbor drives cab,” a young Russian in a very nice pigskin jacket is telling me here at the holding pen, “and they, the cops, they catch him with gun in cab — only for his protection, you see, but is felony — and now he can’t drive anything for anybody.
“So what’s he supposed to do, he has family to support, and he goes and buys himself a $1,000 car, paints it yellow — and he’s out there now. I see him sometimes along Melrose, late at night, picking up tourists, paying nothing to nobody.”
“Nothing to nobody” — the rebel cry, the threat of anarchy, disorder. It comes in different forms, involving both antagonism to the system and strife between ethnic groups. Bell Cab, for instance, it is explained to me, pretty much separates into three factions, with the Hispanics in the West Olympic office, the Koreans in Koreatown and an international polyglot in Westwood dominated by Russians, each group on the outs with the others. Says one of Bell’s Russian drivers of his problems with his Hispanic colleagues: “They try to make revolution!”
Waiting one day, fifth back at the Century Plaza Hotel, I wander up to talk to Rafik Asaturyan, resplendent in his vest and double-breasted suit, the man who keeps the cabs in line here, letting them loose when the guy in the Beefeater costume (the human gin label) toots his whistle. Asaturyan explains to me that 18 months ago the city offered 250 of the bandits the opportunity to “come in” — become legal. “But only 80 came in,” Asaturyan says. He is discouraged by the whole business, having tried to sell the idea of awarding medallions to L.A. cabdrivers the way they do in New York. “What happens to the bandits if they get caught? A $250 fine, so what — they are out driving the next day.” He scowls. “A lot of the drivers are angry,” he says.
In the old days it was the dispatcher you’d hear arguing, berating, cajoling (and it still is with many companies) — “I told you, 2345 South Western, not North, and if you’re not there in five minutes you can forget it.” A godly voice from on high.
But the future is definitely computerized. I have my first demonstration by José Torres, head of driver recruitment at the L.A. Taxi Co-op on Rosecrans (by far the biggest in L.A. with 900 cabs). As I have with other companies, I go there armed as directed with my DMV H-6 printout — my seven years’ driving record. While waiting my turn I hear Torres asking another candidate if he’s really, really sure he wants to drive. “I’ve been at this 12 years,” Torres says. “I have a sense when someone’s heart is not in it.” When my turn comes I too hear about his 12 years and have my own sincere devotion to cab driving questioned. I assure him I love driving cab.
Torres, a rather heavy, self-serious sort of fellow in his early 40s, examines my
driving record very carefully and then elaborately turns to the vehicle-code book he has on a shelf behind him. I had an accident in 1992. Nothing much, but it gives him something to ponder, a reason to make me squirm. (This is one area in which the foreign driver has a decided advantage. Despite all its huff-and-puff the L.A. Department of Transportation does not, as far as I know, subpoena Mikhail’s driving record from Moscow. He comes
in virginal, pristine. As one company’s recruiter said to me, “Anyone who’s been driving in California for seven years who comes in with a totally clean record, I ask him where he’s been, the witness protection program?”)
Torres then shows me the computer he has before him on his desk, one that if you press this button — and that one — can tell you where any cab is at any time, how long it has been waiting, how much money the driver has booked. Rhapsodizing over the power his computer gives him, he reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz as she gazed into the glass globe that allowed her to eavesdrop on every damn thing happening in the land. Some drivers own their own cabs but most drive for “entrepreneurs” — Torres himself owns a few, he says. And all he has to do is push this button here and he can see what the poor wretches are up to. He goes on to say how soon they will have it all on computers, that each night a driver will push a button and have his whole waybill printed out — in the cab and in the office.
I tell this to drivers I meet — Torres’ dream of total domination — and most of them laugh. Ah, such a brave new world.
“Am I burnt?” she asks.
“Not too bad,” I say.
I wonder how she got that much sun in the El Niño months. She’s just back from Catalina, where she was on somebody’s yacht, going home for a minute and then . . . What she’s really worried about is her dog. Should she go back to La Jolla and get him or leave him at the vet? They said she’d have to pick him up pretty soon. She’s sleepy — the wind and the sun make her sleepy — but somehow she’s got to be in San Diego in a day to take her friends shopping in Mexico.
“Haven’t stopped for a week,” she says as we head down Wilshire, palm trees reflected in bank-building glass. “I was in Vegas last week, probably be bored next week, but I’m meeting my boyfriend who’s come out from New York, probably been trying to call me all week . . .”
“Did you tell him where you’ve been?”
“Sure, why not?”
The last thing on her mind or anyone else’s for that matter is the plight of the L.A. cabdriver — out there 15, 20 hours a day, the “revolution” brewing at Bell, roach control from on high. In New York they might ask you stuff, think you know things, but in L.A. the cabdriver is generic, listening furniture, the interchangeable unit at the wheel. Besides, you probably speak Hindi or some damn language, talk pidgin English — why bother?
Well, that’s not completely true. The pretty black lady on Reservoir Street in Echo Park worries about the driver wasting his time. “If you want to help me,” she says, “put the meter on. It won’t take too long.”
Her lawn is heaped with books — Darkness at Noon, I see, The Great Gatsby. Since she is in the process of leaving her husband she’s getting as much gathered up as she can. But her brother arrives before we get much together and says he is going to take her. I get $10 for my trouble, which is okay.
And I do get asked one cabdriver question. A film director back from Mammoth, where he’s been shooting a commercial, and a colleague are deep in a discussion of gardens, how much he paid and how much the other guy paid. Then somehow they get onto poker, and the director leans forward and asks if a full house ä beats a straight. I think to myself: What planet has this guy been living on? But since cabdrivers know such things I tell him.
Talkers, though, are pretty consistent. Men talk about women; women talk about men.
The sports are back from Baja where they’ve all been fishing and maybe or maybe not getting laid. I wait five minutes at United for them to get in the cab because two of them have to finish their argument. One of them wears an ENSENADA SPORTS CLUB jacket. The man he’s been arguing with wears an orange Stetson. One of the others is wearing beady little round shades and a lavender shirt. They are surrounded by piles of tackle, fishing poles, ice chests. It takes them five more minutes to decide whose stuff goes where. I put them on waiting time. The two bring their argument into the cab. They have been discussing the wife of a friend, a woman they left back at the terminal.
“She’s a whore, isn’t she?” Orange Stetson says.
“Why do you say that?”
“Married the guy for one reason, right?”
“I don’t know.”
One guy gets left in Santa Monica with half of a frozen dolphin fish. I’m left with Orange Stetson, who is traveling to the Valley. He’s fuming and goes into his monologue:
“I’ve known this guy for 25 years and we’re good friends but we were ready to fight back there. Last night he comes into my room and pushes me out of bed. He’s got two cunts. One for me and one for him. I say I don’t want one. I’m faithful to my old lady. I don’t need to bring back a dose. He gets mad. He’s already paid for them. See, he’s a grown man who acts like a child. So they take him, $50 dinner and drinks and he gets nothing. Nothing.”
He subsides into a vast aggrieved reflection. The week cost him $5,000, four guys. Next time he’s going alone.
Pulling off the San Diego Freeway onto Mulholland I slip through a stop sign, which is Orange Stetson’s fault because he’s distracting me with all his blather. A cop happens to be there, pulls me over. I just get a warning. Phew. Finally I get the fisherman’s fish piled out in front of his great yellow house, spectacular, and he pays the $35 tab. No tip, he explains, because I put him on waiting time back in Santa Monica. And I say, as I’ve said once or twice before, “Thank you.”
I’m different, I realize that. To be truthful, few of the drivers I meet have a lot to say about their fares, the people who come and go in their cabs. For most of them it’s just work. Me, I’m a short-timer, essentially a driver manqué — ready to bail at any time — and this allows me to be looser about the whole thing, readier to waste time, to give fares that interest me more slack. This of course in part because I’m a congenital snoop. A reporter after all is a reporter . . .
It is in this way I find myself standing at a railing on the second-floor landing of a high-ceilinged apartment in Huntington Harbour near Long Beach. It’s a big, cavernous place — big enough to have a circular staircase leading to where I am, looking down on the living room, which is almost barren of furniture except for a white canvas couch that stands in isolated stark relief on a midnight-blue carpet. I have time to take all this in because my fare is down below there standing toe to toe with her ex. They are yelling at each other. She’s back from Chicago and told me en route from LAX that she wanted to go home and pick up a few things left behind with her ex, a creep she says, a rich creep who made his bundle with some mail-order scam.
“You think so little of yourself, you know that? Do you understand what I’m telling you?” he is yelling. A small nuggety guy who could be a welterweight wrestler, wearing nothing but the bottoms of his tan warm-ups. There’s something Asian in his ethnic mix but I can’t tell what exactly (there is a typical potbellied, supremely self-satisfied Buddha in a wall alcove close to where I stand, expressing a serenity not in evidence at this moment in this apartment).
My fare — early 30s, short spiky dark hair, dark suit — is taller than her ex (or it might be the thick platform shoes she’s wearing). As if to compensate, his voice is much louder than hers. “YOU ARE THE BIGGEST FUCKING MISTAKE OF MY WHOLE FUCKING LIFE,” he is saying.
I’m up at the top of these stairs because when we got here he wasn’t home and she brought us up here to look for something she couldn’t find. When he came home she rushed down to confront him.
In a couple of minutes I get sick of waiting and go down anyway. They’re still yelling at each other when I tell the lady I’ll be outside in the cab. She ignores me but the nuggety little ex looks like what he’d really like to do is punch me out.
The sun is shining, and this is a good thing. Midmorning, quiet. A wadded-up McDonald’s bag next to me on the seat, the Thomas Guide, the morning paper that I’m just picking up when I see her come out of the apartment and head as fast as she’s able, in her clunky shoes, for the cab.
I pretend to be reading the paper when she gets in, pretend to have heard nothing of the scream fest inside. The Plexiglas divider is open — she could have a 9mm in her briefcase I suppose, but I doubt it — and I wait for her to speak, to tell me where she wants to go. But she is silent, and after 30 seconds of this increasingly uncomfortable silence I abandon the pose of reading the paper, turn my head and say, “So where are we going now?”
She is sitting back there quite still, looking down in the general direction of her lap, and now looks up but still doesn’t speak.
I look at her. She looks at me. Maybe four feet separate us. A cab is a very intimate space, and I see I didn’t look very closely at her before. I think 25, more than 30 — and under the excessive mascara, the fashionable drab mud-red lipstick, the spiky hair of the newborn chick, a kid, really.
The look between us lasts all of three or four seconds and reminds me of a great line in one of my favorite books, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: “And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?”
I realize she is wrestling with some big issues in her life and am on the verge of leaping in with some terrific advice. But I don’t get the chance. “How much do I owe you?” she says, and I realize she’s made her own decision. I collect the fare and watch her for a second returning to the apartment, to the character in the tan warm-ups, back to Buddha.
One more time.
Some names and identifying details in this story have been changed.