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GO YELLOW (1 Viewer)

The Backward OX

WF Veterans
New Year’s Eve, 1980

Two years earlier I’d been driving someone else’s cab.

And now, the year Genghis Khan had Moscow on top of the hit parade for eight weeks straight . . . I’m the owner of three taxis. I’ve ten drivers on call who keep the cabs on the road twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out, three hundred and sixty five days a year. The full-time drivers work anywhere from ten to fourteen hour shifts, four, five or even six days a week. Two or three drive a “double” and work ‘round the clock, mostly on Sundays or Mondays. One, a public servant in his regular job, drives a cab only on Saturday day shift and comes to work on a push-bike. A few are old hands, while several have only recently obtained their hire-driver’s licences and are still feeling their way.

At four p.m. the three cabs had left on what is traditionally the busiest night of the year. Later, after a light meal, I’d been planning to settle down to work on my accounts. But I’d paused as I opened a ledger, gazing out through the picture window into the gathering darkness . . .

I thought back to my own beginnings in the cab game. It had been another city, but even so, some things never change.

The entire concept of driving a cab had been slightly unnerving, with my level of income depending entirely on my own efforts. Learning my way around a city of four million, street by street; remembering the locations of public buildings, clubs, places of interest, transport termini, and so on; becoming skilled in the correct use of the two-way radio; acquiring some (slightly illegal) touting craft.

There were perks of course. Multiple-hiring from commuter stations during peak hours, when cramming four or five separate fares into the car, all going in the same general direction, meant anything up to $50 or $60 for twenty to thirty minutes work. And remember, that was late-seventies values. Another was working on Christmas Day, which was good for virtually doubling the meter by way of tips. Then there was the camaraderie that developed between some cabbies and some police; it meant a blind eye was often turned to traffic breaches.

My story is really about meters. The old-fashioned mechanical meters were reliable enough, but I’d come into the game on the cusp of electronic meters that brought with them many teething problems. In particular, they were a fair bastard in hot weather, giving readings that were either way under or way over what should have been the correct amount.

Consequently it wasn’t altogether surprising when, some three hours into my shift one summer night, after the meter had started playing up once more, that I said “Stuff it!” and drove back to the cab-owner’s home, intending to toss it in for the remainder of the shift.

Randall, the owner, had obviously heard me arrive and was out on the driveway almost as soon as I pulled up.

“I can’t drive this any more tonight. The meter’s rat-shit again.”

“Well, there’s nothing I can do at this time of night . . . the meter shop closed at five. Look, the cab’s not going to earn either of us any money sitting on the driveway all night . . . why don’t you just go back out anyway?”

“But . . .”

“Just listen for a minute. Here’s some thoughts . . . one, you’ve been driving for a while now . . . you’ll have some idea of what fares are. Two, you can always call base on the two-way for a quote. And three, there’s the passengers . . . if they’re regulars, they’ll know the fare better than anyone. Why don’t you give it a try?”

“Ok . . . s’pose I could.”

“Good man. See you tomorrow.”

So off I went. It was just as Randall had predicted. Who needs a meter anyway? I’d tried using it once or twice then simply switched it off and flew by the seat of my pants. I finished my shift more than satisfied with my takings, and felt better inside into the bargain.

. . . Better get on with these accounts, I thought.

I have a good system. Randall had shown me the basics and I’d adapted it to my own idiosyncrasies. I just have to remember to maintain a semblance of balance between takings and expenses. No point in understating my income and then keeping my expenses at their true level. Tax assessors aren’t stupid. Any dissimilarity compared to the industry average would stand out like dog’s balls. The fiddle is perfectly straightforward. If I decide to understate my takings by, say, twenty percent, then I simply don’t record twenty percent of my expenses.

A sound intruded. To the experienced, there’s something distinctive about the diff whine of a Falcon cab; they have a tired growl to them, and I knew without looking that a cab was in the street.

I had little faith that it was simply a coincidence – that it had nothing to do with me – and I wasn’t really surprised when a couple of seconds later I heard the cab pull into the driveway.

Bugger. Better get downstairs, see what’s wrong.

It was Car 366, with Bob D. behind the wheel. Huffing and puffing, as I knew he was wont to do when irritable and peevish.

“What’s up, then?”

“It’s the meter. It’s gone off completely. I’ve switched it on and off, I’ve banged it, I’ve checked the fuse. Nothing. It’s just dead. I went around to the meter mechanic’s but they’re all closed up. I’ll have to pack it in for the night and go home.”

“‘Well, ok . . . but listen, neither of us are going to earn much from the cab just sitting here all night. Here’s an idea . . .”, and with this, I gave Bob almost the same spiel that Randall’d given me years earlier.

“ . . . you’ve been driving for a while now . . . you’ll have a bit of an idea of the fare from A to B. And you can always call base for a quote. And then there’s the passengers . . . remember, it’s New Year’s Eve; most of your fares will be in a party mood. They’ll pay anything. You’ll make a mint without a meter.”

Bob brightened somewhat. “Yeah, why not? I reckon I can do that.”

“Good man. See you in the morning then.”

I’d awoken at about four thirty. All three cabs were still out. Not surprising really, considering all the revellers who’d even at this late hour be finding their way home. But they should be here by six o’clock, as that was normal starting time for the day drivers.

By five thirty, two of the cabs had turned up, but not three-double-six. Within fifteen minutes the three day drivers had arrived, and as usual there was some light-hearted banter and comparing of notes generally. I told Leif, the driver waiting for 366, that he’d have to work without a meter for about two hours, then go to the technician’s for repairs. I’d rung them the previous night, made special arrangements for someone to come in on the holiday.

Ten to six. I’d given the two cabs a quick clean of all the glass, and back seats, floors and boots had been checked for money and personal items, and they were ready to leave again.

Bob finally arrived.

He literally flung his door open, jamming his right foot against it to stop it bouncing back on him, and the most obvious feature that struck everyone was the grin, like a wave breaking over the edge of a bucket, that bisected his face.

“You were right! I’ve made a mint!”
When I asked, it turned out his take was by far the highest of the three.

Some of the other drivers, already knowing he’d worked through the night sans meter, looked extremely thoughtful on hearing this news.

Some things never change.
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