Jun. 4th, 2010

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Just past advesperation and the airport zones were showing about a bazillion cabs booked in, so there was no point in driving out to the airport to wait a long time for a passenger. Canberra isn't a big place with a busy airport, and there's maybe one plane every half an hour, the taxis move up twenty places and then everyone waits for the next plane to land. Airport cabbies tend to get out and talk with other cabbies a lot between arrivals.

Evenings are like that. Most of the afternoon rush is from the big offices and hotels to the airport, and once out there cabbies tend to stick around and have a chat with their mates when they see the work in town drying up.

I'd just taken a short fare from Woden to a nearby suburb, and as the hospital zone was showing only one cab logged in, with a half dozen jobs in the past hour, I parked in the taxi rank at the entrance. If I didn't get a radio call from the surrounding residences, I might get a patient or a doctor fed up with the chronic lack of hospital parking.

Instead, nothing happened for half an hour and I checked my emails on the laptop. People would come out the hospital entrance and head towards me and then walk past to one of the other buildings, so I was always looking up and being disappointed.

Finally, the door opened and a man got in, sitting down beside me and growling.

Yeah. Growling, and if it wasn't growling, it was snarling, his face contorted into a mask of anger. Honestly, I almost opened my own door to run away in panic.

However, I listened carefully, hoping to get some useful information out of the grunts and snorts.

I'm good that way. People tell me where to go, I take them there, and then they give me money. It's a pleasant system, and it helps reduce stress at traffic lights and in traffic jams. I glance down at the meter, happily ticking away, and life is sunny.

No instructions were forthcoming. The man gave up, dug around in his pocket and fished out a torn piece of paper with a name printed on it.

I read the name. He looked hopeful. "Is that you?" I asked.

He nodded and pointed off down the road, with a hand that was shrunken and deformed into a claw.

"You can show me where to go?"

He nodded and gestured again.

I indicated, pulled away from the rank, turned on the meter and headed off into the winter dark.

I was pretty nervous, to be honest. Most passengers are very good, and most of my work is what you might call mind-numbingly repetitive. It's the fares that are a bit out of the ordinary that bother me, because I've got to work out how to handle things on the fly, and if I make a mistake, it's a vicious circle.

I once had a tourist with limited English, and when I drove him late at night to the Formule 1 motel out on the highway, taking the back road past the television studios and the bushland and the kangaroos, he ceased believing me when I mistakenly told him it was very close a couple of times, and he demanded I stop and let him out. He paid off and must have walked a long way back to civilisation, but I couldn't have taken him the last two hundred metres to the (invisible from the road) motel, because he had clearly ceased to trust me and was on the verge of taking action against the obviously mad cabbie.

My bloke tonight couldn't talk, he looked (and sounded) angry, and I had no idea where I was driving him. I was hoping for a short fare, to tell the truth. A house in one of the nearby streets, maybe.

Instead, he directed me out onto the main road and we sped up to match the traffic. He was pretty good at giving good indications of directions, and which lane I should be in, so I relaxed a bit. I've often said that language is not a problem with cabbies, as you can always tell the driver where to go with four hand signals. Go. Left. Right. Stop.

And heaven knows that there are often language barriers with cabbies. Immigrants arrive and get a cab licence because it's an easy job, and they learn English on the go. If the passenger doesn't know where to go, like because you've just picked up a tourist at the airport, why you simply hand them the street directory and they will tell you. And if there are any mistakes, hey, the meter's running.

My passenger directed me off the main road, through the suburb of Curtin and north. I kept glancing at him as we approached each intersection, but he wanted me to drive on.

The last houses disappeared and then we were on the Cotter Road and soon on Lady Denman Drive, past horse paddocks, bushland, the zoo and the dam. Not quite your howling wilderness, but neither was it a busy road. I started wondering about someone printing a name on a bit of paper and luring an innocent cabbie out into a deserted layby.

Through a tricky intersection and on through Gridloch Interchange, heading for Belconnen. He seemed happy as we poured up Bindubi Street, tapping his hand in time with Chet Baker, the soft jazz soothing the savage breast.

We stopt at lights near the shops, and he gave some instructions, drawing a diagram with his finger on the console. Right and left and right. Right.

That took us to the hospital. Calvary Hospital instead of Canberra Hospital. My son bashes dixies at Calvary, and it's a pleasant place, surrounded by bushland.

We were met at the main entrance. A man who seemed very pleased to see my passenger, who positively bounded out like a puppy and skipped away with him.

Um. Thirty three dollars on the meter. The man had muttered something about getting a Cabcharge, but here I was, sitting empty, passenger door open. Waiting.

Waiting.

Ten minutes and the man came back with a card, paying the fare.

"I'll bet he has a lot of trouble with other cabbies!" I said.

"Yeah. He's really a sweet guy. Thanks for your trouble."

And it was no trouble, really. Sure, a bit of anxiety here and there, but once I stept into his shoes and saw cabdrivers through his eyes and imagined some of the worries he'd have with them, it was no trouble at all. No wonder he was tense and nervous to begin with. I'll bet that he'd been taken for a drunk or a lunatic any number of times, and when he couldn't explain, it would be even worse.

That's one of the delights of the job. The regular fares are pleasant enough, and the money's nice, and a couple of times a shift I'll have a good old chat with a passenger, but you never know who is going to jump into the passenger seat and tell you where to go. Every shift is the same, but different.

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Skyring

September 2010

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