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!

1 comment:

  1. "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."

    YOU JUST MADE ME LAUGH HARD FOR 20 seconds. Funniest part is I know exactly what you speak of when you write down these happenings, with such profound eloquence may I add.