(originally published in Bootleg magazine, August 2007)
I’m a taxi driver here in Wilmington. I was up at 5:20 a.m. to work the taxi dispatch phone which made me severely regret taking in live jazz and mojitos the night before. In a small taxi company, the drivers generally take turns dispatching to each other. I was making coffee, cleaning, doing personal maintenance. Oh, Monday, Monday.
I did a couple of calls, nothing special, then, as whenever I work a day shift, I went to my favorite breakfast spot downtown. The food is good and seeing the same waitress, Captain Prettyface, always does wonders for my temperament. After the meal I was off to the airport.
A uniform is necessary at the airport. A driver has to wear slacks or khaki shorts and a collared shirt. There’s also a line. Cab drivers have to wait in turn, and if you’re not in the proper attire the other hacks call the airport cops on you. Then the airport cops kick you out for a day. On my first day I wasn’t wearing a collared shirt. The second day, I was wearing a collared shirt but my khaki shorts were cut-offs.
Day three I arrive at the airport in cut-offs and a Guns n’ Roses t-shirt, get out of the cab and say hi to a couple of guys making sure everyone in line can see me as I walk towards the terminal. I enter the bathroom and change into brand new clothes only to come out just in time for the airport cop to see me. He throws up his hands and gives the guy who called him out a dirty look. The cop walks by me without a word and I laugh my way back to the taxi.
After a while, I’m “on point” as they say, and a guy waves to me. He’s about 25, well-dressed and ethnic, with light, coffee-colored skin. He is Indian and speaks in a way that words sound strung together.
“Take me to a fo-wah stah hotel in the downtown please. And thenifyouwill, drive me around all day.”
He’s in town to inspect a crane and from a wealthy family of industrialists who own a conglomerate that tries to fill some of the holes in the Indian economy as it moves towards self-perpetuating industrialization.
There are only two fo-wah stah (four star) hotels in downtown that I know of, the Hilton and The Wilmingtonian. We try both. No dice, but he finds a room at The Greystone.
“I’m fahmished. Could you take me somewheah to eat?”
So I take him to the same place I ate breakfast. Another thing drivers do is try to throw business to people they know.
Finger, who works the grill, says, “Dude, WTF? You were just in here…a-and why are you wearing different clothes?”
So I explain it to him, well actually a group of people, as Finger, Captain Prettyface, B, and another girl are hanging around the back.
I keep my fare company for the rest of his meal and we spend the rest of the day driving around, tending to his affairs. He wants me to meet up with him at night to show him around.
At ten, we meet downtown for a bite. The conversation is wide-ranging but with one central theme: he thinks in dollars and cents. Or rupees, anyway. Just like a musician who pulls beats out of the myriad rhythms of daily life, or a comedian who reads the paper while the back of his mind is scanning for jokes, a true businessman is always looking for an angle to turn a profit.
“One time, my fathah and I thought it would be a fun way to make a quick buck by having the WWF(E?) wrestlers come to Delhi for a promotion. So we fly in fifteen or twenty of these guys, Itellyoushawn, they’re hu-yooge. Massive people. Anyway, it’s up to me to take care of them while they ah in town. Gihls, whatevah. This one guy, he says, ‘I want some gihls.’ I say, ‘What kind? Spanish, Italian, whatevah you want.’ So he says, ‘Oooll kinds. A different gihl morning, noon and night.’ So I make it happen and then, before he leaves, he falls in love with one of the gihls! Wants to bring her home with him! I say, ‘You cannot be in love! You’ve spent three hours with her!’ Id-yat, this one. I cannot remembah his name…”
I’m staying sober. I am, after all, working, and still have to gas off the van and put it away for the night. My fare is drinking black label and coke, enjoying his Mahlboro Me-dyums.
“My friend, he es…an ahms dealah. He goes to the fo-mah sov-yet states and puhchases…howdoyousay, boo-lets. Kalishnikovs, whatevah. He just bought some planes and helicoptas.”
“I’ve read that you can’t even move in Russia without the mob’s permission.”
“Yes, it’s very true for example…wun time, he decided to have…a conference of sohts in his vi-la in the south of France. There were only thirty-two of us, with one hundred security around the perimetah. And this one Rushin mobstah, he…itellyou, he just gave me this look.”
His face was still struggling with it, “a-and he whispahs something, in his budygahd’s eah…I almost shat myself. People like this, they actually exist.”
Around midnight, after walking for a while, I take him back to the hotel. I gas off the van and get a ride back downtown to meet with some friends. It’s 1 a.m., and except for a short nap I’ve been working since 5:30 a.m.
I walk home, lonely but for the sounds of the birds singing and the whoosh of the cars going over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. I hear an ambulance off in the distance.