All for the Sake of a Flatrate
(Warning, the language here is pretty raw)
“Boy it doesn’t feel like Friday night,” said Hal the dispatcher, looking at his call board. “No, number 37, there’s nothing going on right now. He looked at the clock.
“Oh yeah, KC1352 the Citywide time is 7:26 pm, seven twenty six PM, gentlemen. . . .ah, and ladies. Sorry Rose, sorry Maria.” Pete Doyle hung up his mike. That was that. No harm in asking. The town was dead, and here he was, was all keyed up to do a little work, and here there was nothing going on. The town was dead, the cab stand at the Lenox Hotel was dead, the sidewalks were empty. Not a soul in sight with money in their pocket and an urge to travel. For a half an hour he’d been number three, stuck behind a Checker and a Black and White. RELAX he said to himself, letting the air out of his lungs, and the starch out of his shoulder muscles. TIME TO RELAX AND SMELL THE ROSES, NUMBER 37. He got out from behind the wheel and inspected the crew. Seven cabs in line, all of them readers. Three Heralds, two Globes, a Star and a Wall Street Journal. One poor soul in a Checker was half-in and half-out of the line, wondering if he was going to commit to being here and take his chances. Pete threw him the thumbs down and he moved on downtown. No one he knew. The city was taking a vacation, floors were getting swept, the trash baskets full of printouts were getting emptied, and lights were going out. Another day, said the city, clustering its reflecting mirrors near the horizon, catching a last look at the sun setting’ behind the Belmont hills. He sat behind the wheel again and waited. Time to do nothing, pull the newspaper over your head and get some shut-eye.
“TOP CITYWIDE AROUND THE BRIGHAM?” asked the radio, “SECOND?” Pete unclipped his mike.
“BRIGHAM CITYWIDE, CITYWIDE AROUND THE RED CROSS, NINE CITYWIDE FOR THE BRIGHAM”
He hung it back up. Hal was looking to unload his blood shipment on some new driver. A two buck three block job and you had to fill out all the package paperwork. And drop in a particularly dangerous area of Huntington Avenue.
“COME ON OUT THERE. ANYONE FOR THE BRIGHAM?”
No one for the Brigham. No one for the Lenox, no one for anywhere. The airport was calling him, a greasy sausage grinder with onions and peppers in the holding area diner was calling him. About eight-thirty there would be a cluster of evening flights. He slipped the old Plymouth into drive and started to ease out. A horn blared. He looked into the mirror and it was Geno, leaning on the horn and laughing It was back into park. Pete got out and stretched, and went over.
Mr. Leather was sitting there counting his money. He was always counting his money, the son of a bitch. Loved to roll it up in big chunks and run a rubber band around it.
“So what’s new?”
He kept counting, finished up with the roll and made a note on his pad. “Nudding” he said, yawning hugely. “What you got, nudding?”
“Ooh” he said, making a face. “I’d quit, if I were you. Hey’d you see that?” he said, snapping his fingers.
“What?” Pete said, looking around.
“Oh what a bod on her. Yeah, Doyle you ought to find something profitable for yourself. Gotta hustle, Doyle, if you want to make the big bucks. The big money.”
“Ah yes” Pete said, sitting on his fender, and jouncing him a little. “Big money.”
Geno would chase jobs from anywhere in the city, had some kind of deal with the dispatcher. “One oh seven” was always picking up the juicy jobs. The latest rumor was that he had boosted the power of his radio from five to ten watts, knocking everyone else down to a garble when he bid for a job.
“The Bay is dead, my good man.” he said, “I’m going for the airport and troll for some big time work. We on for breakfast?”
“I saw sixty five today out on the street.” he said, “He’s out of the detox. Looks good.” he said, “Kinda. Let’s bring him along.”
Doyle saw Geno go off, and shook his head. Trolling at the airport? The ITOA drivers there were well-armed, and the unforgivable sin at the airport was trolling through the arrivals area looking for someone with their hand up. Cabbies who had killed an hour or more in the pool area waiting to be top and get the nod when called didn’t take kindly to losing their fare to someone who “just happened to be going by.” But that was Geno. You come from East Boston, you go trolling and take your chances.
Pete backed his cab in, and turned off the engine. He got “The Tropic of Cancer” out of the glove compaifinent and opened it up to a random place. Surfing with Miller through the back alleys of Paris. He looked at his watch. 8:02 PM. Oh for a flat-rate. Something like Framingham or Worcester, easy out, easy back. A leisurely joint to a far off corner of the world, a secluded suburban driveway with a dog barking and a worried husband raising the shade to see if that was his wife arriving, #37 opening the door, a happy customer handing a fresh new twenty and a nice new ten and saying keep the change driver, thank you very much.
No, nothing ahead for #37 tonight except a slow death at the Mass. General stand, he thought gloomily.
* * *
It was 8:05 pm, and there was the usual dice game going on down in Raymoor Park on the fringe of Bromley-Heath under the glare of the Mayor’s new crime-fighting floods. Johnny P. was acting up a storm, shilling for Lonnie and Calvin who were philosophically dealing with Johnny Pq winning streak, and soon the crowd got big and all the numbers being covered with little piles of wartom ones and piles of loose change. Johnny P. was hot, and soon he would be cold as ice.
“Hey Cal old buddy, tell you what I’m going to do… Oh man is this terrific!” He laughed, counting his money snapping out each single. “This is easy money. Do you know I don’t make seventeen dollars a day at that so-called job of mine? Well Cal, I’ll give you a break, old buddy, I’ll double my bet on old number three, but no more, man. I don’t want to put you out of business.”
Louann’s face looked oddly swollen and bluish under the lights. She paced among the bystanders, a tall good-looking woman puffing on a cigarette. She could manage a tight smile now and then for some of the hi’s and howarya’s, but she couldn’t talk much tonight, couldn’t deal with the bastards anymore.
“Hi there baby” said this kid in a plaid shirt and sunglasses. “How’s things?”
She gave him a frosty smile that disappeared off her face almost as soon as it appeared.
“They suck” she said, and walked away, only to come back and push her way through the crowd. Lonnie was counting some of the receipts, sitting on a milk crate.
“Hey Lonnie, give me your tool, man. I need it.” Lorraine said.
“Take it” he said, briefly glancing back at her. She reached under his shirt at the small of his back and got his knife, a battered black switchblade, and dropped it in her purse.
“Hey look babe,” he said, “Don’t start anything heavy willya? I got too much to do here to bail you out again.”
“Don’t worry about me” she said, and took off walking toward Huntington Ave, walking tough, ignoring the usual by-play.
* * *
“And what do you do?” said his girlfriend’s ex-sister-in-law in her Wellesley mansion, cutting her roast beef and looking at him with kindly interest. Pete Doyle looked up from his roast beef and looked her in the eye and said that he was a cab driver.
“Oh” she said, digesting the news, wondering where to file it, how to respond. “How interesting,” she said, finally putting her forkful of roast beef in her mouth.
And he looked around the table and couldn’t find a set of eyes anywhere, everyone chewing or gagging, Susan helpless with the rest of them.
_ “I’m just joking” said Doyle, grinning. Sometimes I do wish I was a simple cab driver, to be honest with you. I’m at Beth Israel, in Pediatrics.”
And then he laughed, a laugh he never expected to come out, and stabbed his slab of roast beef au jus with his fork.
“Oh” the lady said, and smiled, and everyone smiled, and his woman swallowed her carrots and made a face at him, and everyone started talking again, and Pete couldn’t really tell whether they believed him or not, but all he could tell was that they were all very relieved and happy to be over that difficult patch and onto to solid ground again, free to talk about the weather and therapy and what was happening with John and his new wife.
Pete had another beer, reached out for Susan’s hand and she held onto it as he talked wittily about his caseload and the crunch in Medicaid reimbursements.
* * *
The trouble was he had always wanted to be part of the masses. Anonymous. Invisible to the naked eyes. Just a pair of headlights on the dark city streets. Citywide driver #37. He always wanted to be normal, part of the swarm. Not great, not odd, not smart, not stupid. “Oh yes” would say Pete’s boss, “Number #37. A good reliable man.” Well-functioning, reliable, no accidents or incidents, someone who took good care of his cab, handed in a good solid way-bill each night, stayed out of trouble, and was pleasant to the customers. He always wanted to be someone else, in other words. Someone who was a little better at the fundamentals. In the old days, his wife had acted as a missing part of #37’s brain, which made him grateful and angry at the same time.
“So what are you going to do and why are you doing it, and why are you doing it that way, and don’t you think that is really stupid?” she would say, and sigh, and he would sigh and get a little angry and depressed and he would stop whatever he was doing and would really try to do a little rudimentary thinking under duress. Planning ahead. Preparing, making choices, being hardheaded and evenhanded and unemotional and practical.
But now his wife was his ex-wife and she had given up on him and gone on to better things, was living on the upper east side of New York a block off Riverside Drive, and #37 had to make do with the circuits he did have, and a list of fundamental questions he had memorized, hints for the hard of hearing.
“So what’s happening?” #37 would say to himself after messing up a radio call, or running a red light while he was lost in some dense fog of his own making. “What’s going on, what are you doing right now, where are you going and what’s the hurry, anyway?”
Warnings, pep talks, a familiarization to reintroduce overeducated undertrained #37, who was thinking of quitting and getting some kind of normal job. Something nine to five with decent money where drifting aimlessly wasn’t the name of the game.
* * *
“8:15 PM CITYWIDE TIME. ANYONE AROUND THE BRIGHAM?” said the radio, speaking for the first time in about ten minutes.
Why not, thought Pete. He had given up on the Lenox and was cruising down by the Boston Common. The stand at the Ritz was full-up, the streets empty. The Brigham job might be something decent. Now and then about this time there was a Roslindale nurse calling in to go home. Anything is better than this. He picked up the mike.
“Roger, number #37″ said Hal the dispatcher, “Pick up a package at the Red Cross at 229 Huntington Ave and go over to Peter Bent Brigham. P.O. 2456, ok?”
“2456” he said . .
“When you’re done, call in. I’ll have something else for you, I think.”
“Roger.” Pete laughed at nothing at all, dialed the hard left onto Charles, and floored it coming through the Garden-Common gate, doing his customary maneuvering for a good left lane position with a yellow Dodge Dart and an old Caddie, taking the Beacon Street turn a good couple of car lengths ahead of everyone else. It was time to get uptown and waste more of his time, going around in circles.
* * *
The Brigham E. R. was chaotic, and it was about ten minutes before he could find a nurse who would sign for the A-negative blood in its refrigerated container. What the story was behind the blood he would never know. When he came out, fragments of high-flying cirrus were burning themselves out and going dark in the western skies. High up a jet and its contrail caught the last rays of sun.
He leaned against the cab, looking around. It was peaceful out here. He got behind the wheel and just had his hand on the mike to call in when someone said something. He had forgotten to lock the cab and there was someone in the back seat. A black woman in her thirties.
“Grove Hall” the woman said. “Do you know where that is?”
#37 knew where it was. His mouth was dry, he was perspiring. He picked up the mike.
“I have a fare. Grove Hall.”
“Everybody off the air” said the dispatcher. “37?” “#37,,
“#37, have them give you a street address.”
“34 Alpine Street” said the woman, leaning forward and opening his
little window in the partition. He caught her perfume for the first time. “Why?”
“We need to know” said #37.
“Yeah sure,” she said sourly and slid back in her seat. “You gonna take me or not? I’m in a hurry.”
“34 Alpine Street, Grove Hall.”
“Time of arrival?”
“Approximately fifteen minutes”
“OK number #37, keep your radio on, let us know when you drop, and when you clear.”
The protocol for calls into high crime areas since last fall was to notify the police, who would supposedly shadow the cab while it was dropping. Most drivers thought it wasn’t working. Dead ends off of Grove Hall and Bromley Heath were the worst, where even the company said no, too many Citywide cabs mouse-trapped there.
He wondered how he would react to his first gun, wondered if he would give them everything or go nuts like mild-mannered #39 did, blasting down Blue Hill at ninety miles an hour with the helpless gunman in the back seat , going from accelerator to brake to hard left to hard right, bouncing him around between the partition and rear window until he began screaming for mercy, heading finally for the police station at Grove Hall until he lost it at the corner of Seaver and smashed into a fire plug. He got a two week suspension.
He rested his hand lightly on the meter lever. He didn’t want to go. He slammed it down hard. $2.10 and ticking. He was going.
“107″ said the dispatcher, “Find a phone and call me, Geno.”
There was a fair amount of chatter on the radio as he was driving. Now that he was out in the twilight zone off of Seaver, traversing these vast burnt-out bombed out areas in South Roxbury, the town was waking up. All the businessmen were now shaved and showered and coming down in the elevator, out to dinner at the Four Seasons or some little place on Newbury street. Calls in the North End and Beacon Street, a nice job from Copley to Framingham.
“Hey” said the lady in the back seat, opening up her window again, “What are we going this way for? Take this next left will you?”
He took the next left, into a dark canyon. And the next right, like she told him to, through a wasteland of empty lots. A stop sign. There was a man standing on the corner, and then he moved suddenly. The cab was just moving off when the back door opened and slammed shut. #37 hit the brakes and flipped on the dome lights.
The man was bearded, in his thirties. He blinked and threw up his hand to block the glare.
“Shut the damned light off!” the woman yelled.
#37 shut the light off.
“What’s going on?” he said.
There was silence. #37 could hear the raspy sound of his own breathing. By the dim light of the streetlight he could just barely make out the names on the street sign overhead. “Waverley Street” ran crosswise. He was on Sumner Avenue. He locked both of his doors and picked up the mike.
“37” he said, his voice shaking a little. “Code nine”
“Just a minute” said the dispatcher. “Everyone off the air. Was there a code nine out there?”
“What’s that code nine bullshit?” said the woman.
“Easy, Lorraine, easy” said the man, half out of breath. “I’m Burton Johnson, driver. You’re a little apprehensive, aren’t you?” said the man. He had a deep resonant, cultured voice, “Did she tell you she was picking me up here?”
“No” said #37. “You are a surprise. I’d like you to leave my cab, please”
“My apologies” he said, and laughed quietly. “Oh my, Louann, you really take the cake. Driver go ahead” he said, “My apologies for upsetting you. We’re going over to the Red Top on Alpine Street. We’ve got a little business there. It’s only three blocks up to Blue Hill and then a couple blocks north. We’ll pay you something a little extra for the trouble.”
“OK, #37 cab, come in”
#37 thought about the situation.
“Expect drop at Alpine in five minutes.”
“Everything all right, #37?”
He took a deep breath, left a little squirk of rubber behind and drove. Waverley was potholed and turned into cobblestones. Weed choked lots and old railroad tracks, great old warehouses and lofts in the darkness. It dead-ended on Blue Hill Avenue, empty as the plains of Mars, blazing in sodium yellow. He looked to the left and the right and then in the mirror and saw the woman counting some money, and the guy looking at something with a penlight. On the corner two blocks up the lipstick red swizzle-stick jittered in the blue martini glass over the front of the Red Top Lounge. Quite a few people were hanging around in front. There was no police car in sight, but there was a yellow hood sticking out of the darkness on a side street on the opposite side of Blue Hill. The marker lights were on, the headlights off. A Citywide cab. “#53″ The sound blasted in his ears, and he hit his volume button fast. #53 was close.
“Picking up on that #9”.
He pulled out and headed north. The second car that passed was another Citywide cab. In a flash of light he saw it was Geno, looking grim. He glanced in the rear view mirror and saw Geno blow a cloud of rubber, cutting through a hole in the divider and coming up behind him. His passengers were looking back too. The cab on the side street rolled out as he passed. #37 slowed down to let them catch up.
His passengers were whispering. “Driver, there won’t be any trouble, will there?” the man asked, at the partition, again.
He looked in the rear view mirror and there were four headlights there. He felt around under the seat and found the pipe where it was supposed to be.
“No” said #37, “There won’t be any trouble.”