Saturday, October 20, 2007


Thursday had a little of everything. With the exception of customer interaction, it's a good example of a day in the life of a cabbie.

Paying the lease

One of my cab partners usually pays the weekly cab lease, but this week he's off, so it fell to me. Thursday afternoon I arrived at HQ for the first time in weeks. I normally avoid the place like the plague. The owner likes to come into the yard and inspect the cars, searching for anything wrong. It's better to stay away than be treated to an irrational outburst. I keep my car clean, inside and out, and I don't need anybody inspecting it.

I hate paying the lease partly because I have to show myself at HQ, and partly because I have to deal with Al, the guy who accepts the cash. Al is a great guy -- he's funny, well educated, has traveled the world, and I enjoy speaking with him. The problem is that he's about 300 years of age. It takes him FOREVER to count the damned money and even longer to hand write a nearly illegible receipt (the owner is a Luddite, so it's on paper). He takes the stack of bills in his left hand, then peels off the top one with his right, s-l-o-w-l-y brings it up to his nose so he can read the number, then s-l-o-w-l-y lowers it to his desk. Repeat a couple hundred times.

When I first started driving, I saw the lease payment as a good opportunity to unload my ones and fives. After watching Al count them at an average of three seconds per bill, I quickly changed to 50s and 100s just to speed up the process. Now I buy all of my groceries with 1s and 5s.

This Thursday I had collected money from my two cab partners before going to HQ, put it together with my own, and dumped it on Al's desk. I noticed my partners choose large bills, too. They're not stupid. But there were also several vouchers in the mix, which slows down Al even more. ER fares typically come with a hospital voucher, which we turn in with, and place against, the lease. We had no less than seven vouchers this time, which is probably a record. I saw Al look at the huge stack of money and paper and I knew I could kiss my afternoon goodbye. Okay, it's not quite that bad, but it's excruciating to watch a man spend a half hour counting a stack of money that I can count in 30 seconds.

Surprise inspections

While at HQ I saw Fred the mechanic, who is usually hidden away at the secret mechanic location, doing small spot repairs to several cars. He was doing headlights and mirrors and I saw a headliner ready to go into one car. Another had a wheel off. All of this is done out of doors, under San Diego's perfect, sunny sky. Fred was moving a hundred miles an hour, and looked flustered. He said the city called a couple of hours earlier and announced they would be conducting inspections the next day, including some "snap" inspections on the street. That's a first. For as long as anybody can remember, inspections occur the first week of January. I suspect a city council member got a ride with one of our dirtier drivers (maybe Catheter Cab). That would have led to a snap inspection. Fred had to prepare a lot of cars with almost no notice. Feeling bad for him, I changed a few brake light bulbs and tried to install the headliner, and failed. It's harder than it looks.

Fred asked me if my car needed anything. Since I'd been through inspections a couple of times before, he didn't need to inspect my car himself, he could just ask.

    1. Parking brake
    2. Horn
    3. Velcro on the dash, which holds the permit and a lost-and-found notice for customers, fell off
    4. Missing lug nut -- it's amazing how often lug nuts fall off of taxis

He jumped in my car and stepped on the parking brake. It's the old style foot pedal, not a pull handle in the middle like almost all other cars. I saw him grab the wheel tightly and strain, apparently with all his strength, against the pedal. Once he was satisfied, he started the car and put it in Drive, then Reverse. It didn't move. He deemed it okay. Note: it's not okay, but it'll pass inspection.

Then he grabbed a ratchet and a 1/2-inch socket and slid under the front of the car. In a moment he came out with my horn in his hand. He turned it over and a cup of water poured out. "Bad location," he said. "When it rains, water from the road gets splashed inside." I gestured to a row of crashed cabs being stored, for cannibalization, at HQ. "All the horns are gone," he said. "And I don't have time to go to Ford."

One of the crashed cars. A large truck backed into this one, breaking the
windshield and sending shattered glass onto one of our Brazilian drivers.

I suggested that I could go to my house and pull the horn from the Falcon, which I bought a few weeks ago. "Great idea," he said. I explained that he could only have it on the condition that I get it back right after the inspection. I don't want to go hornless with my civilian car. Before I could leave, he remembered he had a horn sitting in his work vehicle.

He quickly installed the horn, velcro on the dash (on the airbag cover on the passenger side), and a new lug nut.

By the time all of this was done, Al had counted the lease money. He said we were $40 over. I had to make a bunch of calls to find out why that might be. One of my cab partners, as it turns out, had rear-ended some civilian a few months ago with a loaner car (I would have known about it if it had happened with our taxi), and was paying the cab company owner $40 per week to pay off a $900 repair bill (the owner had paid off the civilian).

The last thing required to get my car through inspections was easy: remove a small, handwritten note taped to the dash. It says "Don't use overdrive. Drive gently." shortly after we got the car, maybe a month ago, we discovered the transmission was going out. Rather than getting the tranny repaired or replaced, we got that note. Since I don't want the city to know the car has a bad transmission, I decided the note had to go.

Gambling debt

When I was getting ready to leave, I noticed Fred was gone. Then I heard some yelling. Serious, angry yelling. Fred was out past the gate, on the street, getting yelled at by some guy I had never seen before. The tongue lashing was so severe I thought Fred was going to get killed. Fred is short and skinny, and would probably lose a fight. I started walking towards them, thinking of offering backup. I'm not much of a fighter, but Fred and I together could take him, if it came down to that.

Before I got there, Fred turned from the guy and walked past me. I caught up to him and asked what the hell that was about.

Fred: I owe him $200 and he wants it.

Me: Does it have anything to do with your trips to the casinos? (I know him well enough to ask.)

Fred: Yeah. And he knows I get paid today. He can't wait two hours for his fucking money.

With reservations I pulled my wad out and gave him $200 in 20s. "I'll pay you back tomorrow," Fred told me. I'm sure he's good for it. I also think it's kind of funny that I paid somebody's gambling debt. I should have offered the guy on the street $150 to buy the debt. Anyway, there would be no violence at HQ that day.

Drunk bicycler

A few hours later, I'm in our zone sitting at a cab stand. I'm parked, along with two other cabbies. We were standing on the sidewalk beside my car, talking. As a sort of tangent, Carey asked me if I'd driven the guy in the old condo buildings yet. I had. He's in his 90s and only recently moved into our zone. He uses cabs for the four-block journey to a restaurant for dinner, on occasion. I've already been listening to the radio to learn the pattern, if there is one, so I can avoid the cab stand by his condo around the time he leaves or comes back.

Carey: Marzetti's not even cold yet and we've got another.

Me: Yeah, but at least this guy isn't an asshole.

Carey: And he tips.

While we were talking, we all turned to see what was making an odd noise in the street. A guy was riding a bike with a fully laden shopping cart in tow -- pulled with his hand. The cart's wheels were making an awful racket on the pavement.

As he went by my car, we heard a scraping noise. I ran around to the driver's side and saw the mirror was broken off and hanging by the wires (it's electronically adjustible and heated). "Hey!" I yelled. The guy looked over his shoulder but didn't stop. I jumped in my car, cursing, and gave chase. He pulled into a hotel entrance about 100 yards in front of where he hit me, and I followed him in. I came up behind him and honked. He finally stopped. I got out pointed to the mirror and said he would be paying for it.

I saw right away he was drunk, and the cart was full of cases of Budweiser. He immediately apologized and said he thought the mirror had simply folded. That's reasonable, as it did look folded, rather than broken. "Well," I said, "it's broken, and if you don't pay I'm calling the cops." He begged me not to, and also said he was broke after buying all the beer. He held up a case of Bud. "I can give you this," he said. "I hate Bud," I said.

I called the company owner and explained the situation.

Me: I have a question for you.

Him: Does it involve Fred and $200? (How the hell did he find out about that?)

Me: No, actually, I've had an ... incident ... and I don't really know what to do.

I explained the situation, expecting him to get angry because the car wouldn't pass tomorrow's inspection, and Fred was surely gone for the night. He asked several questions, aimed at determining our liability. When I told him I wasn't driving the car, or even in it, and that the guy wasn't injured, he said: "Tell the guy he's getting a gift. I have enough problems right now; I don't need another one. I'll have Fred install a new mirror in the morning before the inspections. Don't worry about it." I asked if he was interested in a case of Budweiser, and he hung up. Maybe he doesn't like Bud, either.

Update: Friday morning. I worked straight through until 7 a.m., when Fred would be back at HQ, and brought him the cab so he could replace the mirror. Fred came up to me and asked if he could pay $100 of the money he owes me now, and $100 next week. Sure, I said. He turned his back to the windows of the office and pulled out five 20s and handed them to me. "If the owner asks," he said, "tell him I gave you $200." Then he drove me home in my cab, dropped me off, and brought the car back to HQ. When I woke up for my Friday night shift, the car was in my driveway.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that this is the strangest (and most entertaining) job I've ever had.

1 comment:

matt said...

You should have bought the debt heh