Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Page from a Cabdriver's Diary

It had to happen sooner or later. Every taxicab operator in the world probably has this experience at least once. I had it last night.

No, I wasn't robbed. I have been assaulted while driving a cab, but so far I have yet to feel the cold blue steel of a 9mm Glock stuck in my ear, followed by a growl of "Gimme your money."

Maybe that's next. Bring it on. I mean, if the guy doesn't blow my brains out, it'll be a good story. And if he does, I won't have to pay the rent next month. A real win-win.

But last night, shortly after midnight, I got a dispatch call to a north side bar here in Chula Vista called On The Rocks. It's a hip-hop spot in which, at 12:30 a.m. of a Sunday morning, you can drink beer while enjoying the mellifluous tones of Eminem or L.L. Cool J shouting that he's gonna fuck yo' bitch and take yo' ride. A real classy joint. I pick up customers there all the time, but wouldn't be caught dead (no pun intended) going there for anything else.

Anyway, when I got out of my cab and went into On The Rocks looking for my customer, I walked right into the middle of a bar fight. As the rap music blasted away, some guys were swinging and shoving and shouting at each other in front of the door. The bouncer, a burly guy with a beard, was trying to break it up. Burly or not, he was having only limited success.

I walked past the melee and went over to the bar. I had to shout and wave my arms to get the bartender's attention; she was enjoying the fight. "Red Cab?" I yelled over the music. "Somebody call Red Cab?"

"I don't know nothin' about no fuckin' cab," she yelled back. Like I said, a classy joint.

Squeezing my way back through the combatants, I returned to my cab and got on the radio. "I'm at On The Rocks," I said. "But there's a bar fight going on and I can't find my customer," I said. "The bartender said she didn't know anything about anyone calling a cab. She was kind of rude."

"Well, she had something else on her mind," the dispatcher said. "I'll bell you back on stand four."

"Check," I replied. ("We always have to say "check," like we're doing Sam Spade. It's company policy.)

Unwilling to leave without at least trying to pick up a fare, (after all this is money we're talking about), I lingered for a few moments in front of the bar. The bouncer had finally managed to eject the two Snoop Dog wannabes who had apparently started the fight. They were shouting back at him. It wasn't fair, they protested, that the other side in the fight wasn't being ejected as well.

"I'm kickin' 'em out now, bro, I'm kickin' 'em out now," he commisserated, making hand gestures to indicate that all was under control.

"You want me to call the cops?" I asked him.

"No thanks," he said.

I drove away. I decided to go on back to my room and call it a night.

On my way back down Broadway I chanced upon some cops in the middle of hassling somebody. The cops were out in force last night, running DUI checkpoints, pulling people over, breaking up fights. Just another quiet Saturday night here in the old South Bay. At Broadway and Davidson, the location of Wild Wooley's, a bar frequently even more un-mellow than On The Rocks, (there was a stabbing there in March) two units, lights flashing, were doing something to somebody. I pulled over just as a motorcycle cop pulled up to join in the fun.

I walked over to the motorcycle cop. "They just had a bar fight at On The Rocks," I told him. "It may be over now, but there was still some chirping going on when I drove away. You might want to go by and make sure it is over."

"Okay, I'll tell dispatch," the cop said.

I got back in my cab and continued south on Broadway, heading for the barn, as it were. But then my radio crackled to life again. "145, your customer came out of On The Rocks. He's standing out front." (145 is my cab number.)

"Okay, I'll go back." I popped a u-turn in the middle of Broadway and went back to On The Rocks. (12:45 a.m. is just about the only time you can get away with making a u-turn on Broadway. In daylight it's one of Chula Vista's busiest streets.)

Back at On The Rocks, two police units had arrived and the usual "he said she said" was underway. No business of mine. My business was "Brian," my own personal drunk, whom I had picked up there before. Surprise: Brian wasn't alone. He had two buddies with him. All three of them were as plowed as a cornfield, and, although they were happy-drunk, not mean-drunk, their adrenaline was pumping like a gusher in view of what had just happened inside the bar.

They climbed into my cab, all three of them shouting, laughing, cursing, insulting each other. Insulting me. I went along with it. Drunken boys will be drunken boys.

"Where do you guys want to go?" I asked.

"The Silver Dollar," Brian said. "You know where that is?"

"Buddy, I grew up around the corner from the Silver Dollar," I replied, swinging out of the parking lot. I wasn't lying. I grew up on Madrona Street, literally right around the corner from the 300 block of Third Avenue, where the Silver Dollar is. (And also Dock's, but that bar deserves its own blog posting -- I got drunk there with my oldest friend on the night before my wedding in 2005.)

It turned out that we had the makings of a lively debate there in the cab even if these guys hadn't been drunk. The four of us had attended three different Chula Vista area high schools. Brian went to Hilltop; the second guy, whose name I didn't catch, went to Bonita Vista. The guy sitting right behind me shouted that he was "Chula Vista High, Class of '73!"

"Really?" I shouted over the shouting. "I'M Chula Vista High, Class of '73! What the hell's your name?" I had to yell my question three times before he heard me over his buddies' yelling.

"Jeff McKissack," he shouted back.

"Jeff McKissack! I remember you!"

I did, too. In fact I remembered three other things about Jeff besides the fact that we had walked across the same lawn in matching blue caps and gowns to collect our diplomas on the same June afternoon in 1973. Unless I'm misremembering, (and my memory is pretty good), Jeff and I were in the same gym class during our senior year.

The other two things I remembered about him were, first, that he had one of coolest cars on campus: a beautiful, yellow 1957 Chevy Bel Air. I mean a car right out of American Graffiti.

The second thing was that Jeff McKissack, at age 18, was the first person I ever heard use the expression, "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one."

We got to the Silver Dollar, everyone still shouting away. "Hilltop!" Brian yelled. "We used to kick your asses all the time!"

"Hilltop, feh," I replied. "Your whole football team was nothing but a bunch of friggin' ballerinas."

"You tell him, Kelley!" Jeff yelled, offering me his fist for that knuckle-on-knuckle buddy-tap.

They were all out of the cab now, but I had a hard time getting them to shut the damn doors and go into the bar so I could go home. They invited me to "Take a 20-minute break and come have a drink with us," but I declined. I really did want to go home.

But I handed Jeff my business card. "Call me when you're sober," I said. "And don't LOSE that!" I really would like to have a cup of coffee with this guy. I haven't seen him in 37 years.

I headed once again for home, but a guy flagged me down on Third Avenue. He wanted a ride home. I picked him up. What the heck, another quick six or seven bucks before the final bell.

On the way to his house up off of I Street (where my mother lived as a little girl, by the way) I told him what had just happened.

"Isn't it incredible?" he said. "What a small world."

"Well, I don't know," I said. "It seems like a lot of people I went to school with are still hanging around here. I've come and gone, myself. And come and gone. I was in the foreign service for 13 years. I've lived all over the place. But there are people I went to high school with who never drifted very far from this town."

"Different strokes for different folks," he said as I dropped him off and he paid me. "You have a good night."

"Well, mine's over," I said. "But you have a good night too."

I finally got back to my room. But I was too pumped up to sleep. Liquor might have helped, but for one thing I'm on the water wagon these days and for another, even if I wanted a stiff one, it was now getting close to two a.m. and here in California there's a state law that the stores can't sell liquor between 2 and 6 in the morning. I went back out and drove to Walgreen's instead for some over-the-counter sleeping pills.

Back home again, while I waited for the pills to take hold, I called a former girlfriend of mine who lives in Moscow. Her name is Nadya. I had no hesitation about calling her because there's an 11-hour difference between San Diego and Moscow. When it's three a.m. here, it's two O'clock tomorrow afternoon there. I had a phone card in my wallet which made calling Moscow very cheap; Nadya and I talked for an hour and I think it cost about three dollars off the card.

I told her what had happened. "Incredible," she said. Nadya is an English teacher in Moscow. "Incredible," with the "r" slightly rolling off her Russian tongue, is one of her favorite words.

Lights out finally came at four a.m.

Now, I'm sure that Jeff no longer has that '57 Chevy. But I sure would like to see what he's driving now. And get caught up on 37 years' worth of all that life, love, catastrophe, joy and sorrow that pile up to where, when you see someone you haven't spoken to in that long, you find yourself uncovering an entire hidden life about which you knew nothing. When last I saw Jeff, he was a boy with sleek shoulder-length hair, the way so many boys wore their hair in the early seventies. Now he's a middle-aged guy with a crew cut.

Yes, I would like to have a cup of coffee with Jeff. I hope he doesn't lose that card, because as drunked-up as he was last night, I have little doubt but that, come this morning, he probably remembered nothing of On The Rocks, a bar fight, old high school rivalries revisited at the top of our lungs, or me. Hell, he probably didn't even remember having been in a cab.

People tell me I should write a book about my experiences as a cab driver, both here and on the east coast. I may do it, because I have a title that I know will make it a hit. Given the number of drunks I ferry around on Friday and Saturday nights, I'm thinking of calling the book Lord of The Barflies.

And now I think I'll saddle up and go see if the Sunday hangover crowd needs any rides home from church.