Wednesday night is a slow hell. Downtown chokes with dozens of unneeded cabs, each company representing like a corner gang squaring against the other cliques.
Unable to find standing anywhere, I realize each of these little operations, like pebbles in the crow’s pitcher, has squeezed us out. I feel like a foreigner in my own town.
I bring my complaint to Captain Jerry and we bitch it out in the shack when another taxi peels into the parking yard. I can tell it’s Billy Kinross by the way he drives. He struts in the office and shakes Jerry’s paw and gives me a two-lump hug. “What’re we all talking about?”
“Fucking gypsies,” I reply.
“The gypsy cabs. The fuckers sipping cash out of your wallet. Ten years ago there were 40 cabs on the road. Today it’s over a 130.”
Billy replies, “Y’all should’ve slashed some tires when they first showed.”
“It didn’t work for Mohamet,” says Jerry.
“The prick that drives UniCab #15,” I jump in. “He sugared four of our tanks and a bunch at every outfit except UniCab.”
“How you know it was him?”
“Wayne Linder saw him getting on two cars at Capital, and I saw him come out of our yard throwing empty sugar boxes into the road right the fuck in front of me.”
“Nobody kicked his ass?” asks Billy. “I might’ve knifed a guy for that. That’s livelihood he’s taking from us all.”
“Amen,” Jerry and I say in chorus.
The phone rings twice and Jerry takes the calls. Me and Billy step outside to smoke. Billy asks me, “You know where this dude stay?”
“Sure I do.”
He points at the Gerber tool on my belt. “That thing got a knife?”
“Sure it does.”
“Then I think we ought to go over there and find his cab. I think we ought to find his cab and stab out his tires.”
“We’re at work, Billy.”
Billy yells into the office to ask the old man if we’re clear to handle an extracurricular mission.
“Ain’t a damn thing going,” Jerry hollers back. “Don’t do nothing I wouldn’t do.”
This isn’t a job for a company car, so we sneak my Toyota out of the yard. Its unibody frame had been eaten through by the acid of a battery blown up long ago, and the axle is the only thing holding the wheel to the car now. I wrestle the steering to keep straight as the front end lumps along in frequency to the vehicle’s speed, which makes it feel like I’m driving a drunken horse.
Ten minutes later we’re lumping across the west side boulevard, turning off into a complex of two-story buildings. They stand along a flowing drive running up the hillcrest and back down in a loop. The university built these for athletes but the students quit renting when it opened to Section 8. We wheel around the loop until I see the purple and cream UniCab parked in the rows like an ice cream cone among the regular cars.
Billy asks: “You sure that’s his taxi?”
“It’s marked #15 on the rear like I said.”
“Then douse them headlights and pull up. Give me that knife, too.”
I hand him the tool off my belt. Billy snaps it open and bends out the blade.
My lousy brakes whistle and I blush: wrong vehicle for any covert operation, and I remark needlessly that the brakes need fixed.
“This bitch needs junked,” replies Billy. Now he’s sharpening his eyes on me. “Maybe you want to do this thing, bubba. Since you hadn’t taken the chance before.”
I look at Billy holding my knife and consider the dare he’s slipped in like a pork rider on a farm bill. Then my hand slides the ’Yota to “P.”
“Give me the knife back.”
I open the door and fall out, quick to throw the door closed. Coming around the rear of my car, I give a look-see.
Crouching at the rear of UniCab #15, I stab the passenger side tire and twist out my tool, letting air rush over my hand. It feels cool and smells like rubber. Then I creep forward and stab the front tire. I twist my tool out and let its air rush over my hand, too.
Billy has gotten behind the wheel of the ’Yota and eases off the brakes, grinding ahead to meet me on the other side of the van.
I’m coming around the front when I see the driver. Now he’s coming out of the cab pissed off and yelling. “What you do on my taxi?”
I scramble to the ’Yota and jump in the rear hollering at Billy.
“Drive drive drive!”
The ’Yota hasn’t any spunk yet Billy gets us out of the lot fast, popping on headlights as we bang over the curb, wobbling dangerous and barely making the curve of the road.
“Shimmy-she-wobble, you feel that? Junk this bitch.”
Looking out the back window, I see the dude chasing across the parking lot light. My heart thumps like a drum, and I fold my knife before I stab myself with it.
“Fucking Christ of God,” I say to Billy as I straddle the seats to climb up front. “I was getting down on that driver tire when he popped out.”
Billy wheels hard through a wide turn back onto the west side boulevard, bearing south. And that’s the last I see of the dude. He’d chased us all the way to the big road.
“So,” says Billy. “That was the pirate that sugared our tanks.”
“Hell no,” I tell him. “That was some Turkish dude. Right taxi, wrong guy.”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. But Billy laughs like hell. And he disagrees that we got the wrong guy.
“Lie down with dogs,” he says, “you get up with fleas.”
Vic Pasternak has been driving a taxi in Illinois City, Ohio, for over a decade, ruining his chances for a solid career and shortening his lifespan. He enjoys fishing, preying, chainsawing and long walks alone.