Contrary to popular belief, I don’t live in my taxi. Indeed, three nights of seven I’m released from the pound to go downtown where I, too, can be fleeced of cash and risk arrest for public intox, fighting and/or blowing six pitchers in the gutter.
This week, however, I received a testy email from Skip, my editor at LV, because I’ve blown my deadline. So first night off I grab a six-pack of tall boys and go to the taxi shack for extracurricular research.
In an industrial site outside of town there is a hot little box of an office minded by a guy whose hollering can be heard from out in the lot. Inside, a phone rings unanswered. But the dispatcher already has two phones pressed to either side of his head, this as drivers pile on the radio, and now his cell-phone is bleating. It sounds like the alarm of imminent disaster. Juggling this like he’s got Kali’s arms, he kills the timer, slaps the key of his desk mic, barks over the radio: “Go #312, go #240, coming out for #118, punching for #993, who else checked?”
The phone rings, he answers this as another phone takes to ringing, everything seeming to happen at once. He reminds me, in a way, of the unseen lady DJ from The Warriors. But he’s definitely not as cool. In fact, he’s volcanically hot. Let’s call him The Hand.
“Look,” he says to the phone, “these things aren’t helicopters. And you keep calling me back like it’s a trick to speed up the taxi.”
He is steamed, puffing cheeks and stamping feet like he’s going to stroke out, slamming the phone in its cradle, hollering, “D-equals-RT, can’t they get that?”
The Hand has barely noticed me, save for his reminder about no smoking in the office. He has six drivers, needs eight. Facing him on the desk is a slotted board where call tickets are organized. Every driver is running and the slots are stacked with follow-up tickets. Unassigned calls are arranged on the desk in a manner cryptic as a tarot spread.
“Can you drive, or do you need a ride someplace too?”
I wag a tall boy at him: “I came for your tranquil vibes.”
The Hand also reminds me, in a way, of the Spanish Inquisition. Like he’d enjoy pouring molten lead into sinners.
Phone rings. He answers, takes the call, the radio chirps, another phone is ringing. The Hand says to his caller, “I know you are downtown but where?…No, we can’t drive into the mall…Yes—you must walk to an exit.”
Now a voice hisses over the radio: “#118 is still not finding anybody.”
Ringing off, The Hand slaps the mic key, “#118, I told you she’s coming out, she’s a good deal, be patient,” takes his hand off the mic. “Fuck me, this shit’s crazy tonight.”
Truth is this shit is crazy every night. And if you’ve ever called for a taxi anywhere in the world you’ve suffered talking to one of these neurotic hyenas. He is the shift manager, the answerer of all phones, inquiries, kudos, wrong numbers, complaints. He routes drivers and controls radio traffic and decides when to pull the plug on weekend nights.
It is an invisible job and here’s how it works: Whenever you call for a taxi, dispatch will take your call, posing to you the same three challenge questions:
• Where are you?
• Where are you going?
• How many passengers?
These are neither trick questions nor riddles, and “Home” is an incorrect response. All calls are handled “first-called, first-served,” and when your order is up, dispatch will assign your call to a driver. That’s when I drive to your house and request a “punch” over the radio. This means I want you notified that your cab is outside. Once you’re aboard, I tell dispatch, “Rolling, #202,” and drive you to wherever you want. After I get paid and you get out, I check the radio again, “Clear, #202,” meaning I’ve done the job and am ready for another call. Back in the taxi shack, dispatch adds my number to the bottom of rotation. Simple as that. A monkey could do it. Just like driving a taxi.
I’m four cans into my sixer when I make my move.
“I’m interviewing you for my next bit.”
“The fuck you are—what about?”
“About you and this fiery little box. Any words for the enquiring public?”
The phone is ringing and The Hand ignores it.
“In terms of suggestions, I mean. Things that you’d want potential fares to keep in mind?”
“Maagh,” he blinks his eyes and shrugs. “Tell them I’m sorry if I sound so prickly. Tell them that it’s not them, not usually, but that it’s just what the job sounds like.”
I guffaw on prickly, flushing half my beer through my nose. The Hand, meanwhile, answers the phone, but the caller is gone.
“Tell them it’s like herding cats,” he says, soldiering on. “Tell them it’s like counting spaghetti while it’s still boiling in the pot. Tell them it’s like—”
“#118 is finally rolling.”
Now two phone lines start burning at once and we’re cut off as I ask, “You can get paid for counting spaghetti?”
The Hand has pounced on the phones and a third line is ringing. I’m getting a headache just standing in here, so I make a sneak for the door.
But The Hand calls me back.
“I mean it,” he says. “I’m sorry for being a dick earlier,” throwing a thumb to his shoulder like this was a scene from another room, “That kumbaya bullshit. That was rude. You should come back when it’s not so crazy.”
I tip my last tall boy overhead and thank him for at least that he’s keeping score.
Vic Pasternak lives in a riverside shack where he works on cars, repairs chainsaws and builds clocks.