the First Day

-Alex Farr

It's a funny thing, driving a cab.  You do it, but you don't think about it.  You're better off if you don't think about it too much.  But people keep asking... "I bet you've got a lot of stories...".

Well, not at first I didn't.  I drive in Oakland, CA.  The dayshift is largely old ladies... going to the beauty shops, and the doctor's offices... but there're plenty of lunatics that slip through... Yeah, I guess I've collected some stories over the years.  But, is it anything that the public wants to hear?  It's not usually Hollywood style happy endings... It's usually gritty bits of weirdness... and if people really enjoyed that sort of stuff, then we'd all be down in the trenches, rolling along the avenues in cabs, risking our lives in search of amusing anecdotes... despite the fact that any city police force's Intro. Course for a new cab driver points out that it is the most dangerous job in the country.  Period.  More dangerous than being a cop, or a fireman, or even a fucking 7-11 night manager.  It is the most dangerous job in the country.

That's not to say it doesn't have its share of amusements.

It's a funny thing, I get asked how long I've been driving a cab maybe a dozen times a day.  I don't really think about it too much.  Maybe I'm just looking out for fares to start to telling me I'm going the long way, no matter how thick a load of shit it might be, just so they can try to hustle me for a buck or two.  A funny thing happened sometime in that week between Christmas and New Year though.  A cute little girl, named Noel of all things, asked me how I got into the business.

I guess I just forget, sometimes, that a punk with green dreads fading towards gangrene isn't the usual cabbie archetype.

When I throw people for a loop like that, I like to re-assure them that yes, I am in fact a half-breed Iranian... and I fit the cabbie archetype better than a half breed white boy punk with a BA in English would've fit the archetype of any office... and so I am in fact exactly where the Gods wanted me...

The funny thing is, when this girl asked, and I started telling the story of quitting my last job, changing people's kitty litter while they were off on vacation, I suddenly remembered what my first day on the job was like.

I'd decided to start my new career on a Sunday.  I managed to wake my ass up, which wasn't easy after a month long vacation blowing all my money in Amsterdam.  But, I was determined.  I wanted to start earning money before the whiskey money ran out.

 No one had really gone over the little details with me.  Like, where do I pick up the keys?  So I went into the dispatcher's office.
"Hey, where do I go to get myself a cab?" I asked.

 There were 2 guys in there, one just shrugged, and the other jumped to his feet faster than any job trainer I'd ever seen at McDonald's.
"I'll catch you later Bunny." said the guy who had hardly moved a muscle.

 Meanwhile, I followed... Bunny?  Thinking 'Whatever... his name isn't my problem.'

 "So, where you wanna go?" asked dude, as he opened the door of a van cab for me.

 "Uhh, I thought maybe I'd start with Pill Hill... or maybe downtown.  I don't know.  Whadda you recommend.?"

 Now, you gotta realize, as I was answering the questions, he was starting up his van, and then pulling out into the street, and starting the meter... I was mighty confused, but thinking quickly- I just assumed there was some other lot you go to to actually pick up the keys, or the cars, or something.

 What the hell did I know?

 Needless to say, when you turn to your cab driver and answer 'where do you wanna go?' with "What do you recommend?", well he quickly realizes something is wrong.  Not to say, looking back on it, I haven't had fares say exactly that... but it doesn't happen really often.

 So, anyway, before we'd made 5 blocks, it dawned on Dude that I wanted my own keys for my own cab...

 What marked him as a man with class, was the fact that he didn't try to charge me for the ride.

Once I'd made it back to the yard, Dude pointed me back toward the 'cage' where I was supposed to go to get my keys.

 Now, unlike 'Taxi' the tv show, it isn't a 'cage' looking cage. It's more like a room sealed off by big piece of plastic with a couple of little slits cut out to allow you to slide them their money.  If I'd've tried to turn that slab in back in 8th grade plastics class, I'd've gotten a 'D'.  The Indians that run the joint don't give a shit about how anything looks though.  Just that things work.  Not even work well.  Just work.  You know, mostly work.

 So I walked up to this thing, and there isn't a soul in sight.


 Eventually an Indian guy comes over from some other side office, and goes into the cage.

 "Yeah. What you want?" he asks, once he's in the cage.

 "Uhh," I try to answer, leaning down to sort of talk through the slit.  "Henry said I should pick up a cab today."

 Henry was the fleet manager.  He was a cool guy.  It wasn't until later that I learned that being fleet manager mostly meant that he was there to be yelled at by the drivers for all the things that the Indian owners didn't feel like getting around to doing, and he was the one who was supposed to collect the lease, and all the little extra fees that the Indians dreamed up to nickel and dime the drivers to death.

 "He what?" asked the guy again.

 "He said to come and pick up a cab today. Today is Sunday, right?"

 "Uhh, what kind of cab?" he asked now.

 Thing is, here in Oakland, Yellow, Metro, Friendly, Greyline, and California Cab are all owned by the same people.  Of course, Henry was only the fleet manager of Metro, but that was a little too subtle of a thought to occur to Dude on a sunny Sunday morning... getting on towards 7:30 by now.  Which meant, I had no doubts, that all this silliness was wasting time that I would still be charged for on the day's lease.

 "Metro.  A Metro cab.  He said he was gonna put me on the schedule."

 "Schedule?  Ohh yeah, schedule.  What's your name?"


 Dude spent about a minute and a half searching around before he found the schedule.  I'm just glad I started then, these days we don't even have a schedule, and I don't want to even think of what I would've gone through.

 "Ohh yeah, here you are." he finally agreed.  It took him another minute to find the keys.

 I smiled a determined smile, and, keys and waybill in one hand, and mapbook and permit and so on in the other, I went out to get my cab.

 It wasn't until I was out on the lot that I realized that there was absolutely no order to the ways the cars were parked.  None.

 I paced up and down and up again across the lot, dodging puddles of anti-freeze and oil, looking for that car. Eventually, I found it.  I didn't realize at the time how lucky I was to have it start on the first try.

 "Ok, let's do this thing." I said to myself, and I pulled off the lot.

 I'd been warned that the cabs were often brought in low on gas, sometimes on fumes... but this one had 3/4 of a tank.  I felt better suddenly, like things weren't gonna be so bad after all.  I still needed some cigarettes though. Desperately.  So my first stop was a gas station.

 I got my cigarettes, and figured I'd splurge on a little gas too.

Dumb luck was on my side.  I climbed back into the car, and realized the gas gauge hadn't moved.

 "Oh shit... don't tell me..." I muttered, but I couldn't maintain denial for very long.  No, there was no way around it. The gas gauge didn't work.

 "Fuck..." was all I could mutter, as I made a note of the mileage. I figured, giving the thing 10 miles to the gallon, I'd be alright.

 That done, I headed for downtown.  I called in to the dispatcher, spotting downtown.

 As I drove toward downtown, I smoked, and marvelled at how deserted the streets were.  I don't think I'd ever been out cruising the streets at 7:45 on a Sunday morning. There's really not much going on.

 After about another half hour, I got a call off the radio.  I went racing after it, picking up a couple that'd just gotten off the bus coming back from Reno, headed back to Adams Point.  I had to have them direct me.  I suddenly realized how many streets I'd never heard of.  The Sunday morning crowd's pretty mellow though.  They aren't running late for work, mostly.  And the little old ladies running late to church don't usually call you an asshole for taking more than 5 minutes to get to their house.  Mostly.

 So, I kept somewhat busy for my first 3 hours... just shuttling old folks to churches.

 "Take me to the Evergreen Church." an old lady would say.

 "Uhh, where's that... uhh that one." I'd answer, wondering if they honestly thought I knew where every church in town was by name... Did I look like a young man who went church hopping on Sunday mornings?... Did my breath reek of god's body and blood and whatever else churches might feed their flocks?

 "Ohh, that one's across from Mosswood."

 "Mosswood... that's..." I'd fumble, drawing desperately on what I'd picked up as a flower delivery boy once upon a time.  "Maybe, across... ohh, I know, that's the one on W. MacArthur!" I'd guess.

 "That's right young man.  And I'm gonna be late.  What took you so long, anyhow?"

 "Uhh, the speed limit.  Red lights..."

 I'd drive them, and when we got to the church in question, I'd have to pull up, and open their doors for them.
  I can't figure out why it is, but only maybe 1 in 3 old folks can ever find the handle to open a door.  It's mind boggling.  It wouldn't be so bad either, if it wasn't for the fact that half of the ones that do manage to find the handle can't seem to muster the strength to open it for themselves.

 So I'd pull over, and I'd open the door for them.

 "You're gonna have to help me up the curb too, young man."

 They spring that one on you about 80% of the time. And, there's nothing you can do but help them... 'cause at that point they're still leaning on the car to steady themselves, and there's no way to explain to a cop that the old folk fell because they wouldn't let go of the car as I pulled away.

 So, with a shrug, I get to helping them step up the curb... and as they're laying on the thanks and telling me what a sweet young man I am, I can hear the radio calling out more calls for more old folks looking to get to church. And, by the time I get to the next order, it's "What took you so long..." all over again.

 So, my first day was rolling right along. The 20 to 60 cent tips that the old ladies and old couples are giving me are making me feel calm in the knowledge that I'll be able to afford a 99 cent burger for lunch.  But, looking down at the odometer, I can see I'm getting close to gas time.

 Of course, another call comes up right nearby.  I'm somewhere in North Oakland... I know an Arco nearby... I could maybe get gas, and then go pick up the order...

  Or, (b)- I can just pick them up, I figure I got maybe 10 more miles til I run out... and, there's always a chance that the car's getting better than 10 miles to the gallon.  And, let's face it, how far are they likely to go?  I haven't had an order over 7 bucks all morning, which is still less than 3 miles...

  Or, (c)- I could do the responsible thing, and just go and get the gas, and, if no one else has wound up in the area and taken the order, I can take it then.

I choose ... you guessed it, (b).

I make the house, and it turns out that some guy's throwing a birthday party for his daughter.  He's been planning it for weeks, or something.  He's gonna take his daughter, and maybe 6 friends, to Chuck E. Cheese's.  Only thing is, the nearest Chuck E. Cheese is up in El Cerrito, maybe 10 miles away...

 "Uhh," I try to explain, once I've heard the whole story, "Firstly, I don't have enough seat belts for all the kids."

 "Well, I'm sure we can squeeze in."

 Good answer, exactly what I was hoping for. "Ok, if you're good with that, I'm good with that... the other thing is, uhh, I was just on my way to get some gas, so we'll have to stop on the way."

 I mean, I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid...

 He just nods. "Sure, that's no problem."

 So the kids pile in, and off we go. I know a gas station along the way.  Then we'll be off to El Cerrito, and maybe I can make some money after all...

 'Wuuuhhh...' moans the car, and it dies.

 "Fuck." I mutter, as quietly as I can manage, for fear that this guy's gonna be paranoid about his kids, and his neighbor's kids, and all those other goddamned kids, are gonna hear me swearing.

 I give it a bit of gas.  I turn the ignition.  I use every trick I've learned from every battered piece of shit car I've ever owned... and I get it started.

 "Ok, no problem.  The gas station is just a bit up ahead... unfortunately the gas gauge doesn't work... yada yada yada..." I jabber at them, just to keep them cool.  Of course, I have no idea what's going on. I've never driven the car before, I know at least one gauge doesn't work, what about the rest?... Shit!!, I'm thinking to myself.  Mostly because this is the first decent fare I've ever had, and I don't want it slipping through my fingers.

 "Yeah, you weren't kidding about the gas... say, about how much you think it's gonna be?" asks Pa.

 What the fuck do I know?  It's my first day!  But, how do you tactfully say "Fuck if I know, buddy." to a guy whose taking care of a gaggle of pre-teen girls?... and how do you come up with the words when you're busily praying to gods that you don't believe in to get your ass safely to a gas station, and then to a Chuck E. Cheese?

 You'd think that all that service I'd done on behalf of the Lord, earlier in the morning, would've gotten me some brownie points with the Man...

 The car died another 3 blocks further on.

 "Just a second... maybe it's... a loose battery cable..." I bullshitted.

 I got out to check.  I popped the hood, or rather I pulled the hood popper lever.  It wasn't having any of it though.

 I scratched my chin, thinking desperately.  All I could come up with is '... I'm fucked!'

 All the same, I tried the ignition again.

 No dice.

 I tried the hood again.

 No dice.

 I felt 15 eyes on me.  Questioning eyes, wondering what it all meant... while one little girl's left eye seemed to wander to a man out watering his lawn.

 "It figures," says Pa, "I wanted to take BART, but then they went on strike.  So I figured I'd just take a cab, and now the cab's broken down.  Some birthday party...

 I tried to hold my tongue.  His heart was bleeding about his daughter's birthday party, and meanwhile I was looking at having spent 5 hours shuttling the elderly to church, and a distinct possibility of having to then go to the bank and withdraw some of my whiskey money just to pay the Indians for the use of this piece of shit car.

 I figured it wouldn't do anyone any good though, if I was to get into it and try to explain to Pa there that I could give a shit about his daughter's birthday.

 It took another minute of pulling at the hood releaser lever, and uselessly fondling the ignition, before I gave up and admitted I was fucked.

 "Hello, cab 70... I'm dead in the water, you're gonna have to send another cab.  And a tow truck."

 "Are you sure you're not just out of gas?  'Cause, if I send you a tow truck, and you're just out of gas, then they're gonna charge you the 30 bucks for the tow..."

 I took a deep breath. I suddenly realized I didn't give a shit about what the little girlies had to overhear... "No, according to my calculations, I shouldn't be out of gas... but it's hard to say since the fucking gas gauge doesn't work! but, figuring 10 miles to the gallon, which I give the company the benefit of the doubt of maintaining cars that at least get that... I shouldn't be out of fucking gas!" I growled.

 "Well, that may be giving them too much credit... have you checked the oil and water and all that?"

 "No, I can't get the motherfucking hood to pop!"

 "Ok, hold on seven oh."

 I waited, as Pa went ahead and let the girls out to sort of walk around a bit, stretch their cramped legs, and to get them away from my cigarette smoke too, probably.

 "Uhh, ok, there's another cab on the way to get your fares.  He'll be there in 5 minutes."

 "Swell, what about a tow truck?" I asked.

 "Well, I just talked to a mechanic, and they say they know that car.  It had some front end damage, and now, to pop the hood, you've got to have someone pull back on the lever, while someone else gives the hood a tap."

 I just had to laugh. "And how the hell am I supposed to pull that off?"

 "Well, you could, maybe, ask one of your fares..."

And I'd thought that maybe I'd moved up from flower delivery and kitty litter changing, up to something a little more 'professionally' run.

So I asked Pa if he could yank my lever while I slapped my hood.  We had time to give it a couple of goes, and then his cab showed up.

 "Hey, good luck, eh."

 I just nodded, and lit another cigarette.

 "So, no dice on the hood thing... what about my tow truck?" I asked the dispatch again.

 "Uhh, you know, I really hate to send a truck and have it cost you $30.  Are you absolutely sure it's not out of gas?"

 "At this point," I admitted, "I'm not certain of anything..."

 "Well, is there a gas station somewhere, where you could maybe buy some gas or something?"

 I hated to admit it, but the dispatcher was making sense.  Reluctantly, I went hiking.

 The gas station guy didn't lend out gas cans, he sold them.  So I bought a can, and I bought some gas, and, just because I was in such a bad mood, I had another cigarette as I carried the gas can back 3/4 of a mile to the car.

 It still wouldn't start.

 "Mother fucker..."

 Now, I was pissed.
I couldn't pop the hood, but I could pop the trunk.
Inside, I found a tire iron.
I pulled the lever to pop the hood three times. I jerked as hard as I could. And then, I used the hub cap popper side of the tire iron... and I pried at that mother fucking hood. At first I tried to use a little finesse, then I tried just to keep from fucking up the paint job too much. Finally, I just threw my weight on the fucker.
On the third try, I jacked that fucker open.

 The oil was alright.
The radiator was empty. Bone fucking dry.
I just had to laugh.

 "Ok, look. I've put in some gas.  The car still won't start.  I pried the fucking hood open with the tire iron... and there ain't a fucking drop of water in the radiator.  Not a fucking drop!  Now, where's my tow truck?!"

 "Uhh, cab seven oh... didn't you check the fluids this morning?"

 Now I wanted to scream.

 "It's my first fucking day." I answered. "I didn't realize I was being charged for the use of complete piles of shit!  I dealt with a car that had no gas gauge, I guess it just distracted me from intuitively realizing that I'd get a car with no water either..."

 "So, the car still won't start?"
"No. I want a fucking tow truck."

It took nearly an hour for the tow truck to finally show up.  Dude strapped it up, and we rode on back to East Oakland to the lot.
He didn't care that I smoked.

 When I got back, Dude in the cage made me write up a report on what was wrong with the car.
I handed it to him, and he read it briefly.
"So, you want another car?" he asked.

Maybe I should've just said no.
Or, maybe I should've told him to go fuck himself.
 "Sure," I said, "what the fuck??..."

 & I'm still saying it.  Every day I go in, I say it again.
"What the fuck?......"

  The Old Waybills

 there's No Place Like Home...

You gotta be shitting me Alex