Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Graduations and 'Our Nation's Future'

We usually hear 'our nation's future' as a phrase denoting students either at graduations or by kindly faced teachers whose unions are in the middle of contract negotiations. Even as a cabbie though, I like the phrase. There's some truth to it, and it's more upbeat than the piratical, "abandon all hope, ye who enter here", many feel at the threshold of a campus.

In Boston our population of 590,000 swells by as much as an additional 250,000 when college and university students are counted, making them a vital aspect of our city's scene. Cabbies are required to take into account the student calender, as much for the rush of graduations through May, as well as for altering neighborhoods worth cruising afterward - as certain streets go from carnival to staid and stately in as little as twelve hours.

This month has seen days when our streets have become filled with middle aged couples in Buicks and Volvos, beaming beatific expressions undimmed no matter how lost or confused they may be, feeling they've done what they could to give their kids a chance in this world, and knowing they'll no longer be sending some tens of thousands of dollars per year to a city with such insane roadways.

And after an hour or so of driving our streets, there are those parents who drop $30 for overnight parking and spend just as much on cabs, as we usher the two generations around town for celebratory dinners. We just as often take graduates with their out of state peers on their "the last time we'll do _____" bittersweet journeys. Cumulatively, it's a nice scene to witness.

After Labor Day, 'our nation's future' will return, and the spring of our city's social season will commence with the onset of fall. 'Our nation's future' will be sometimes a little maddening, sometimes a little reminiscent of our own former selves, and will sometimes open our eyes to things we've forgotten how to see.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

John Porell's Arm

Last Sunday I took a call dispatched from the cab's computer: "25 Northern Ave." It wasn't an address in the traditional sense of being a building with a number, but in the world of cab these things occur and you head to the general area where the address 'would' be, while keeping your eyes peeled. On my way up Sleeper St. toward the 'old' Northern Ave., a young man whose body was strapped with a multitude of electronic gadgets peered into my window: "25 Northern Ave.?"

I nodded and replied, "Hop in."

For the better part of the night the steel girders of the 'old' Northern Avenue Bridge had been illumined in Klieg lights and abutted by trucks filled with electronics with cables running up the wooden planks of the pedestrian way for what appeared to be a night of movie making.

The fellow with the electronics came around and entered the passenger front seat, explaining the cab wasn't for him, but one of the actors. He then began talking into what seemed to be thin air, announcing our route and telling security to clear a path for a cab at trailer number five.

The scene I drove into- a lot filled with trailers, dozens of cars and trucks, and people with equipment running in every direction, was radically different from the scene I'd return to a few fares and hour and a half later when trying to return a lost communications battery pack.

I try to return lost items directly to their owners- people often throw me a few dollars for my trouble, and there's the peace of mind in knowing object and owner are reunited. Frequently, I don't find lost articles until 4:30 AM, when I'm wrapping up for the night. Then it's a trip to Boston Police Headquarters Hackney Division where a bleary-eyed sergeant fills out a form identifying the property, cab number, and time, and places the item into a large card board box along with hundreds of other articles comprising that day's 'lost and found'. I usually leave with a receipt for the property and sense of doubt that owner and item will ever reconnect.

The last of six trailers was pulling out of the lot when I returned, and a mere five members from the crew remained, sharing last minute stories on the day's events alongside their own running vehicles. I held up the Motorola battery device, whereupon one fellow's face lit in instant recognition as he leapt toward me to retrieve it. They ended up pulling out of the lot directly behind me, and I was struck by how differently the vacant area appeared now, as opposed to ninety minutes ago when I'd pulled into the organised mayhem with the security to pick up the actor.

At that time, the fellow strapped with his electronics jumped from my cab still seeming to speak into thin air: "Actor John!"

A tall fellow standing off to my left raised his hand and hollered back, "John here!" We exchanged nods and he entered the cab, giving me his address in Jamaica Plain.

He made a quick point of identifying himself as 'an actor with a day job', explaining he was no longer a kid and had responsibilities, but tried when possible to land those jobs that filmed locally. He went on to tell me he'd spent the better part of that day's shoot lying in an awkward position in a squad car for a television pilot called "Boston's Finest", which they hoped would be picked up by ABC as a regular police drama series. "If it becomes a regular series filmed in Boston, and I can balance it with my job," he shrugged, "who knows".

As we rounded Atlantic Ave. before entering 93, he identified another fellow exiting a car at that moment at the Intercontinental Hotel as one of the pilot's stars. He mentioned his name, as well as others from the day's cast, and other series they had starred in, forcing me to confess to having killed my television years ago, leaving most shows and celebrities unknown to me. He laughed with the reply, "Hey- I do a lot of local theatre and an occasional movie too. Did you see "Shutter Island"?"

"You were in that?"

"Yeah," he said, "In part."

He told me he'd been with director Martin Scorsese for about fourty five minutes the day of his shoot. In his part, he was behind bars uttering a string of stuttering threats as Leonardo DiCaprio approached down a hall, then jutted his arm out toward DiCaprio's throat as he passed.

"Scorsese told me I nailed it," he said.

"That's great!"

"Well, yeah," he replied wistfully. "It might have meant a little bit more if he hadn't cut my lines. I'm billed as the 'Wild-Eyed Man', but all you see in the film is my arm. All of my friends have told me they saw my name on the credits but missed me in the movie. I have to send them to the clip from the film's trailer, give them the exact second to hit the pause button, and explain,'You see the arm? That's it.'"

We laughed, then shared memories of scenes from various films until arriving at his home. Once there, I asked if he'd mind telling me his full name.

"John Porell," he answered.

I warned him, if he caught his big break and became a regular on a series, my future passengers would have to listen to me blather on about how, "I knew him back when..."

He returned the kind of smile you make when you bite the inside of your lip, hearing words you want so much to be true, you'd never dare say them yourself. Whether this becomes his break is anyone's guess. But one thing his smile told me, his hopes and dreams weren't in the rummage of any 'lost and found'- they were right with him as he bounded the steps to his home.

(Some of the bits of John Porell that Scorsese doesn't want you to see.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


When the sun comes out, the temperatures rise, and a new crop of "statues" appear in our squares, it's a sure sign spring has begun.

Spring can be more than a season. In some ways it's a phase of our lives, or our working careers. It can be a time when we're more open to all that is around us, and a time when our heart is in every moment. For just such an account, click on this link, and be prepared for one remarkable ride.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Knowing" Fear

There's a phenomenon cab drivers come across on a regular, if sporadic, basis: the passenger who "knows" he's getting screwed. They come in all colors, shapes, and sizes- young, old, men, women, drunk, sober, and so on. It seems I sometimes go for months without these encounters, then, suddenly, there it is- three or four times a night, three or four days in a row- everyone "knows". I've wondered over the years if the television has just shown a movie with some scene of a thieving cabbie in it, or if it's some phase of the moon or tides.

Diverse as these passengers may be, the one thing they do have in common is that they have no idea where they are. They have no idea where they are and they know it, and yet they still profess to "know" they're getting screwed.

In fairness, Boston's street layout is not typical and does take getting used to. If someone whipped a fist full of tacky spaghetti against a wall and told you it looked like a map of Boston's streets, they'd be just about right. This city of peninsulas was developed before the automobile, and its myriad weaving of one-way roads is testament to practical communication from an earlier time.

So to a degree, Boston lends itself to an 'I don't know where I am' ambience. Though 'I don't know where I am , but I "know" you're ripping me off,' is a matter beyond just roadways, and takes on different forms and degrees.

Among the easiest to deal with are the 'I just moved to new part of town; you're ripping me off' types. In these instances we're usually taking people home from work. The ride seems to be going along finely in an uneventful way, until there's a sudden declaration from the back seat: "I'm not paying more than $8.00 for this cab ride!" You might think this is a simple statement of the obvious- the meter reads $5.75, we're three or four blocks from their home, and they're not going to pay more than $8.00-- okay. But that's not what it is, it's a declaration of war against the theiving cabbie. I could put a quick end to it by asking, "You just move here?", but then I'd sound like a real prince. Instead I turn it into a game, repeating the amount, and getting the passenger to repeat the amount they're not going to pay more than, as many times as possible until we're at their door.

"You're not paying more than $8.00?"

"No I'm not! It only cost me $8.00 when I came home yesterday!"

"You're telling me a cab driver took you from ______ to your house for $8.00?"

"That's right $8.00!"



I try to keep my voice loud, a little over the top, but devoid of anger. Often, after a few reiterations of the amount, they begin to sense I may be pulling their chain. Curiosity strikes, and they begin looking out the windows. With a final turn, or half block more, they'll issue the groan of surrender usually with a laugh as they find themselves at eye level with their mailbox and $7.00 on the meter.

They'll hand me the $8.00 they weren't going to pay more than, which they'd prepared halfway through the trip, and more often than not roll their eyes at themselves with another laugh, and fish out another couple of bucks from their pocket at the last second- which, of course, is more than $8.00.

At the level of troublesome is the 'I REALLY don't know where I am when I'm this drunk, but I "know" you're totally screwing me' type. Now, it's not that they don't "know" you're totally screwing them when they're sober, they do, it's just when they're sober they tend to limit their outrage over being screwed in comments to each other with little more than contemptuous glances of suspicion toward the driver. On these more sober occasions they may test their suspicions by announcing "knowingly": "You ARE going to be making a u-turn aren't you?" while they're destination lies two miles straight ahead. I direct them to the GPS unit located across from the back seat in every Boston cab, and explain it will display a blue line from the point they got into the cab to where we are at this moment, and that they can look forward to see the location of their destination. They rarely use it, but they do become more quiet. But quiet isn't a quality for the drunken 'I "know" you're totally screwing me' portion of their night, and by that time they suspect GPS is just another trick anyway, so it's not often worth bothering.

In one recent case, I had a group heading a good number of towns away and I had to cross through the city for a couple of miles before picking up the highway. At various lights one passenger or another would utter "left" or "right", not actually requesting the turn, but suggesting they knew it should be made, thus 'proving' to me they knew their way around, so I better not screw them (God help the poor driver who's new or from another country who might take such directions seriously). I continued along as if not hearing, and on those occasions when a turn suggestion became shrill or voiced by more than one, I pointed straight ahead with my finger and nodded forward. Soon enough we were on the main highway and things proceeded fairly pleasantly, until I took the necessary split from one highway to another. Shortly one began screaming that I'd already driven past their town, while another in a panic declared we were on the wrong highway.

I took a breath and intervened harshly with a few words that were enough to snap them out of it. From that point on, I noted with military simplicity the highway signs we were passing until we got to their exit. Other than the landmark which they'd given me as their destination when entering the cab, I was fairly ignorant of their town's streets and had to make sure they knew what they were doing at this point, or break out the maps. In these cases a driver doesn't want passengers to tell him they know, as they're apt to say they know as part of their defense against being ripped off: it has to be demonstrated. I began the demonstration process when one spoke up saying, "We're on the same page." I was relieved to hear this in this expression, as it implied a genuine understanding.

We were shortly at their destination, they covered a hefty fare with tip, and we wished each other good night. I proceeded to make a u-turn in front of them, and when passing by on my way back I heard one say to another, "God! I can't believe what assholes we are." I may have been meant to hear it as way of apology, but in hearing it I was glad to be reminded that, in many cases, despite the behavior cabbies sometimes endure, people aren't really deliberately or intending to be assholes, it's just, sadly, a condition that can develop as people attempt to deal with what they mistakenly perceive to be their situation.

Another of the 'I don't know where I am, but I "know" you're out to screw me' falls under the rubric of harmless but disheartening. These cases are generally couples who approach the cab, asking in near theatrical innocence how far a given destination is. I've found it's best to answer simply with a price- one number, no dialogue. When I deal with them this way, they're most likely to have a real and pleasant conversation with each other along the way, and arrive at their destination in a relaxed state. If I give them an actual distance, or they don't distinguish themselves by resorting to the "how far?" until midway through the trip, the following type of fare develops:
They will titter and laugh at everything, while finding nothing funny. You, thieving cabbie that you are, are meant to feel 'these folk are just so darned nice, just this once I'll curb my thieving tendencies'. They will announce with gusto the name of the one building in town they recognize and nearly pronounce its name correctly. You, the reaving hack, are meant to understand, they've been around, and if further proof is needed, they'll ask what street they're on and act like it means something to them. Once at their destination, the tittering stops as though someone hit the kill switch on a tape deck, they pay the fare with a modest gratuity, and walk away as quickly as possible, leaving you to wonder what waitstaff or clerk will enjoy their bonhomie next.

A closely related, if more well heeled, group of 'I "know" your out to screw me' sometimes stay at the four and five star hotels. These places are often half condos where we have regular passengers who, probably because they Do know where they are, don't think we're out to screw them. But the hotel side sometimes has nearly the same group as the 'disheartening' mentioned above, only with a fear factor commensurate in size to their holdings.

On one occasion I pulled over for the flag of the doorman on the Boston Harbor Hotel. He motioned for a couple that had been waiting to enter the cab. The husband began a few hesitant steps toward me while his wife remained a few paces safely back. The gentleman eyed both me and the cab warely, then halted beside the doorman for consultation as he raised one hand to shield his lips from my view. This hotel often uses private cars for their guests with drivers collared in ties, lapels on their jackets and name tags pinned to their pockets. And in as much as I was not only a thief and lip reader, but dressed in casual working attire, I understood the fellow's concern and determined he should wait for that private car, as neither one of us deserved the company of the other. While the doorman continued his entreaties in an effort to lure this poor couple into my cab, I cut my wheels toward the street and quietly drove away.

Finally, there's the 'I don't know where I am, but I "know" you're out to screw me' alpha dog guys in the corporate pack. They usually travel four at a time and still wear their cheek fracturing rings from their days in college football. Their words are few, but always doubting in tone, and followed by a grunt. The top alpha sits with the driver in the front.
"Why are you going this way?- grunt"
Then the three in the back each take their turn for a grunt. It seems like a re-make of Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks as governor demanding a "harrumph!" from every member of his staff. They're actually best as a group with their grunting harrumphs to each other for reassurance. When one is suddenly on his own, the lone wolf, he can become entirely unhinged.

I was at the Ritz Carlton stand when a doorman told me a guest from a business conference followed by a party there had inadvertently been left off their room list. He handed me a voucher to take the fellow to the DoubleTree Hotel on Soldiers Field Road at the Ritz's expense. The fellow came out, we said our hello's, and began our journey, soon making a straight line down Storrow Drive. I could tell he'd been drinking a bit, but he seemed fine. I assumed, given the late hour, my quiet passenger was probably half drifting off to sleep, and I was enjoying the relative calm of the ride along the river.

The calm suddenly shattered when he grabbed the sides of the open partition in the cab and screamed, nearly like a woman, in a way I've never heard before or since: "WHERE ARE YOU TAKING ME!!!" His eyes were completely bugged out, and I stared right back into them, glancing away only for one second to check his hands for weapons. I left my eyes on him while watching the reflective stripes of the lanes in my peripheral vision as we travelled 50 mph up the street. My facial expression was simply: 'You have GOT to be kidding.' I didn't bother with words considering I had graduated from thief to mass murderer, and since we were flanked by a river on one side and park lands on the other with no particular landmarks to reference, I didn't expect the words of a killer to mean much anyway.

After about thirty seconds he began breathing again and sat back in his seat while still staring at me. I was able to return my primary focus to the road while watching him from the periphery. After another minute, the top of the seventeen floor hotel came into view.

"You see that building?" I said while pointing to it.


"That's your hotel."

His bug-eyed expression ended, and we made the various turns to the hotel's entrance in silence. After he got out of the cab he said, "I'm sorry about..." then stopped. Without looking at him I offered a perfunctory "sure", and drove away.

Passengers who "know" aren't the majority of our fares-- if they were, I'd find another line of work. Still, there are times when they become a substantial minority. I can say there's irrational fear behind it, and that it permeates all social strata. While I've given it a lot of thought, I'm not sure from where it really comes. I am sure I'd love to see the day when it passes.


This poor woman's car caught the green green field of a small emerald isle in its headlights and just had to mount it... and it's not even a Rover!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Diners Club

Look through a cab's windshield long enough, and you're bound to notice change. As the years and miles pass like an ever diminishing scene from the rear-view, it's not always clear from where the sense of change emanates: the observer or observed.

Though among the observed, as Boston inches its way toward becoming a more generic US city, are a dwindling number of old money families making their presence felt in our streets (while posers remain common enough).

I used to drive for the original Town Taxi, known for its low rates to drivers and odometers in excess of 300,000 miles - at a time when inspections were even more lax than today. We were by no means the largest of Boston's fleets, but we did have a lock on the old brahmin accounts whose families still largely resided on Beacon Hill.

It became a regular ritual for me to ferret through the hill's warren of streets collecting my fares one at a time for what I affectionately came to think of as 'the diners club'. While an occasional husband or visiting nephew might be snared into going along, it was most often a night out for the older ladies.

There was protocol to be followed. After retrieving the initial fare, I would be given the name and address for the next: "Mrs._______ at ______", and so on. 'Drivuh' was to open doors and assist with the disentanglement of garments stuck on to any disintegrating shards of door panel. Windows were to be kept up, excepting my own, 'just a little', as the preservation of coiffure was paramount. This in turn led to the cab's cabin filling with the exhaust of a barely attached muffler and the blue smoke of burnt oil wafting in from the rusted out holes on the floor. As we shocklessly bounced from one address to another, the first one in would often look longingly at her closed window, but never succumb to the temptation of actually opening it.

Once everyone was in, the conversation would become hushed and begun in earnest. I would often see a bejewelled hand rise from the backseat to prop up a sagging felt liner from the ceiling in an effort to retain eye contact with fellow conversants. The scandals discussed would range from a silver service a friend had used earlier that week, to who was 'seeing' who.

Any sudden shudder from the motor, stallout, or backfire would animate the dowager expressions into those of anticipatory school girls, wondering whether, near as it was, they'd arrive at their destination in the same vehicle their trip had begun.
The combined assets of these passengers could be measured in the hundreds of millions, while the menus they'd soon be viewing would include dinners and wines with values in excess of the value of the car in which they were driven. It was all of a piece for their night out -- they loved it.

They were never really a lucrative part of my nights, with the time consumed entering and exiting, the nearness of destinations, and their precision at tipping EXACTLY 15%, but they were among the most colorful and uncomplaining and always left me with a smile.

Sometime in the future I'll try to describe the flip side of this old monied coin- that strange cul-de-sac in the Boston bred gene pool called a Somerset.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Long Way Home

Many Boston cab runs involve taking fares to the airport. After dropping, a cabbie is left with three basic options: join the ranks of two to three hundred cabs already waiting in the pool, knowing a typical fare is just enough to cover the expense of the one to one and a half hours of down time- rendering the airport a good place for a nap or visit with friends; quickly return to the city via a tunnel beneath Boston Harbor, incurring a toll of $5.75 for the privilege- a pricey option for any but blow off the doors bar closing type moments of business; or take the long way home through East Boston, Chelsea, and Everett in a five mile loop that re-enters the city proper near the North Station.

This trek requires passage on Beacham St. through the Murray Industrial Park, fuel depots, and the grounds of the Boston Generating Power Plant. While Beacham St. has the distinction of being the worst paved roadway in the commonwealth, according to the Boston Globe earlier this year, a serpentine sluice both on and off its pavement can allow for navigation at twenty mph, and afford cabbies a reprieve from the steel and glass, and red brick and granite venues where our livings are made. Last night's transversal seemed a little smoother still, as nature offered a break in the cloud cover with its Valentine's Day view at twilight.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Every Picture Tells a Story

A few nights ago I recieved a call to collect a passenger at an emergency room with the instructions to go inside for the voucher.

I approached the desk and was told the patient wasn't yet ready, but to wait by the APS entrance. The emergency room, its halls and acronyms have been in a remodelling state of flux now for years.

"APS?" I asked.

"Acute Psychiatric Services," I was told, "right down the hall."

I found the door and waited. Ten minutes and several passing "May I help you?"s later, the doctor and patient emerged.

The doctor was one of those very slight ladies with the quick nervous movements of a sparrow.

She began passing by, voucher in hand, when I informed her I was the driver.

"Great!" she chirped, her eyes darting between me and the passenger. "I think everyone's ready now. I think everything will be fine."

I took the voucher.

"Just in case," she added, "I've included his aunt's phone number on the voucher, so if you have any problems on the way, you can just call her."

The word "problems" seemed to animate my passenger, as he began swaying his upper body back and forth while clapping his hands behind his back.

"Problems! Problems!" he repeated, "Ain't going to be no problems!"

We proceeded to the main exit and entered the turnstyle doors when their rotation locked. I looked behind me to see my passenger had entered the same opening in the door with me, and, as space was tight, the rear of the door was striking his heels, causing it to stop.

"I'm with ya! I'm with ya!" he told me.

In small two inch increments we made our way to the outdoors.

He was taken home, and there were no problems.

During a lull later that night, it occured to me a photo of the door and its adjacent plaque, would, if captioned correctly, symbolize a great deal and offer some humor and truth.

I went inside, took the shot, and was about to exit. Security intervened. In the midst of three armed agents, the shot of the door had to be deleted from the camera. One agent took information from my ID, then told me a restraining order would be placed against my being on the property.

I told him, I didn't expect it would be an issue, as he would not see me or my cab again.

He paused, said he would not proceed with the order, that if I were to take another picture there I would be arrested, but that I could continue to retrieve their passengers ---too kind.

Is it just me, or have our priorities become a bit skewed?

Anyway, imagine if you will, a photo of a door with a plaque reading 'Acute Psychiatric Services' at its side, and the following caption beneath:

"You drive a cab in Boston, and this is where you end up."