Monday, 17 February 2014

The kindness of strangers.

"You make a pretty good living as a cabbie, no?"
"It puts food on my table and pays my bills. But I wouldn't call it living; I call it surviving."

This entry is not about awful people. Let me make that clear. A friend of mine who didn't bother to read the blog beyond the titles of the entries told me that nobody would read it unless there were some positive stories in here too. While I thought he was being a conceited dick who apparently has never been on the internet before (after all, nothing draws traffic like schadenfreude and nudity), I will concede to his point. I do meet good people too. Sometimes I end up doing good things for them, and sometimes (rarely) they do good things for me. Tonight, I want to talk about one of those meetings which happened last week.

It was a slow night. Murderously slow. This is february, the month where nobody in the business of serving drunken people in any way makes any money. People stay indoors and wait for the sun to return. And this particular night was a wednesday, smack in the middle of the poorest week in the poorest month. The only reason I didn't return the cab was that a pocketful of change is still better than no change at all.

I was parked, as so many nights before, by the 7/11 down at Iron Square. this is a good place. From it, you can reach most anywhere in town within ten minutes, and lots of people tend to walk by, many of them eager for a cab. Not so tonight, however.

Then there was a tap on my window and there was a girl. Dark skin, curly hair, and very kind eyes. I rolled down the window.

"Hi! How much will you take for a fixed rate to Yardstone, Mount Agnes then to Erikshome?"
The fact that I didn't tell her to stuff it is a testament to how slow the evening was. You already know my stance on fixed rates. Add to the fact that Yardstone (and all the other places) is way out of town, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a part of town I want to avoid at most costs. 

"How many are you?"
"Oh, me and my friends," she said, motioning over to a bunch of guys over by the 7/11. Immediately, a bunch of red lights went off inside me. They were all in their late teens / early twenties, they were all dressed straight out of a Tupac video, and they were all black.

"Hold on, Crabby. You've gone on a long rant about bigotry and racism before. Surely you, who are so high and mighty, wouldn't stoop so low as to judge these boys on the colour of their skin, or the cut of their clothes?"

Well, that's the thing. I never said it was rational. This was my inner bigot going into defense mode. While I can rationally say that people should be judged by the content of their character, there is a part of me that will judge them on more cruder ground, whether I like it or not. This is not me defending myself. It is a disgusting part of my personality, and whenever it rears its ugly head, I give it the Smackdown of Rational Values, but the fact remains:

Bunch of young, thuggish guys, who want a fixed rate to one of the rougher neighbourhoods in town. This is how almost every mugging story a cabby will ever tell starts. I even have one of my own I'll share some day. At the risk of sounding like I'm backpedalling, it is less about race and more about socio-economics. I daresay that had it been a bunch of white guys with all the other attributes intact, I would still have hesitated. Less racism, more classcism. But yeah, its still disgusting bigotry.

All right. Let's hope you're still with me.

"Based on what the meter most likely would show, I'd say that would be about 450 sek. And I'd want cash up front."

"That's not a problem," she said and pointed to an indie accross the street. "But that guy said he'd take us for 375."

"Unless the indies somehow magically decided to lower their rates, I'd say he'd put that money in his own pocket. He'd be driving without the meter, taking far more money for himself than the trip is worth. I'll give you a fixed rate and I'll type it into the meter, taking no more than what I legally deserve."

"But your car is so much bigger than his, and we're four people. We'd rather ride with you. How about four hundred?"

As I said, it was a very slow night.

"Agreed. But I want payment up front."

"Done!" she said and got her friends. They came over, and climbed into the car, smelling of sweat and weed. I typed in the rate into the meter and off we went.

These are the precautions I took:
I set the emergency number on speed dial.
I let my hand hover close to the alarm button.
I decided to humanize myself in their eyes. After all, its more difficult to rob someone if you consider them people.

How fucking paranoid am I, eh? Not to mention prejudiced. But this is what this job does to you. It expands your view of humanity, while at the same time making your jaded and paranoid. This was all standard survival techniques that you do when your gut is telling you to keep an eye out.

So. How did I humanize myself? I noticed that one of them was about to play some music on his phone. I told him: "I have an FM broadcaster here. We could connect your phone to it so we can hear your music through the speakers."

"That would be awesome, man!"

So he handed me my phone, and I connected it. It was Rick Ross.

I'm no fan of rap. I'm the kind of person who will find one or two songs, or maybe an entire album enjoyable, but the genre as a whole does nothing for me. But I started some smalltalk with the guy next to me, because the music was actually pretty good. We chatted a bit about rap, and how it went from being gritty stories about life on the street to hedonistic bullshit about bitches and bling. I don't think I've ever been whiter.

Still, the mood was light and I began to relax. Then we reached Erikshome, and the girl got off. Next stop was Mount Agnes. Once she left, my hackles rose again. Females tend to have a soothing effect on any bunch of customers and with her gone, I was prepared for things to get a bit harsher. but no, things stayed calm. At Mount Agnes, two other guys got off, leaving two thugs sitting behind me.

I listened to their conversation, on the alert for anything that might indicate that they were about to jump me (there's a precedent for this, which I will talk about later). Still, things remained cool. One of them, a huge gangsta dude, mentioned something about taking a class, but his voice was low so I couldn't hear it.

Reaching Yardstone, the next guy got off.
"All right, just drive to where I tell you," said Gangsta Dude.
Great, I thought. This is it. This is where he takes me to some backwoods road and steals my shit. but... Fuck, what do I have to lose? My phone is in my hidden pocket: he has  no reason to believe that the smartphone on display isn't my own. I've barely made any money tonight, so if he wants todays earnings, he can have them. Let's hope he'll let me keep my driver's license and my debit card. That shit is hard to replace.

It didn't help that this guy was huge, and out of the lot looked the most dangerous. I decided to carefully try the humanisation tactic again.

"I heard you say something about classes. What are you studying?"

"Oh," he said. "Just some community college courses. I want to fix my grade point average so I can apply at the University. Psychology, math, that kind of shit."

"Oh really? I've been thinking about doing that myself. I applied for a degree in teaching last year, but was denied. I figure if I take a few individual courses, I'll be in the system and that'll fix my chances."

"Yeah, man, it's a good idea. With an education, you get far more options."

"Here's the thing, I already have a degree," I said. "A bachelor of arts in Creative Writing and Journalism. But I got it abroad, so it doesn't count when I apply for an education here."

"You're shitting me? What are you doing driving a cab?"

"Long story. Let's just say I burned myself out and needed a job where I didn't have to use my brain."

We arrived at the address. "Look man," he said. "I'd like to keep talking to you. Got time for a smoke?"

Rule one of cab safety: When in doubt, NEVER leave the car.

My inner Klansman  was screaming in fear. But the rational, tolerant, TOLERABLE part of me relished the opportunity.

So we stepped out  of the cab and he gave me a cigarette.

"Look, man," he said. "If you're already smart from the get-go, then for fucks sake, don't end up in the same crap as me."
"And what crap is that?"
"Spending your days studying so you can get to square one. Go take the standardized college test instead."
"I've thought about it, but I've kept putting it off..."
"Don't. Stop doing that. Seriously. The last date for you to apply for the test is like... tomorrow. So once you're done for the night, go home, get some sleep, and apply. Otherwise, you'll still be driving this fucking car a year from now."

".... you're right."

"Fuck yes, I'm right," he grabbed me  by the shoulder. "I've been making good money as a telemarketer, but that's not life. I can't spend my life tricking old ladies into buying shit they don't need. And you, who already have a brain, can't spend your life behind that wheel. So I want you to promise me. Go home, apply for that test, and get your ass in school. If I'm better than this, then sure as fuck you are.."

I stared at him. i felt like a total ass. While I hadn't let my prejudices get the better of me, I had given them far more listening room than they ever deserve. Here was a man who was sick of his current life and had decided to get out of it, make the effort no matter how shitty his starting point was. And here I was, "smart from the get-go", putting off making that very effort, spending my nights  making money and losing life.

"I won't even sleep on it," I said. "You got yourself a deal."

"You better. Because the next time I see you, you better not be driving this car."

It was as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders.

"What's your name?"
"I'm Crabby. Thank you, John. I've been putting this off for way too long. This is exactly what I needed to hear."

I gave him my number, telling him that if he ever needed a cab between wednesdays and saturdays, I was his man. We parted ways, I signed off, went home and applied for the test.

So yeah. That's the story.

If there is a moral to the story, it is this: The world is full of bigotted assholes. And  sometimes that asshole is you. As I've said before, you can't control the way you  feel, but you can control how you act on it. And I decided, against every instinct I had, to give this guy a chance, and he ended up giving me the right push toward getting out of this business.

So, John, thanks a million. Even if I never see you again, let it be known that you made me feel like you believed in me. And that is worth far more than any fixed rate.

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