People live like they drive. By this marker alone, cab drivers are complete assholes. But the sentiment doesn’t quite apply to us. Driving for money makes for a different animal. You’d change too if driving was a capital investment, if it was tied to the roof overhead and the food on your plate and the people in your life.
Before dropping out of college, I took an art class to meet art chicks. First assignment was to buy a specific sketchbook and draw freehand straight lines, 50 lines per page face, from left to right then right to left, and for 50 pages of the sketchbook, right to left then left to right, 5,000 unwavering lines like the EKG of a person dead a long time. Our second assignment was a repeat of the first so I spent sketchbook money on dollar draws and dropped that fucking class, which kept with my ultimate trajectory.
I had to drive a cab before I understood both the assignment and the path I’d taken, for despite the apparent twists and turns it always was a straight line.
And that’s the kind of asshole I’ve become: An asshole that sees the straight line in every curve.
I’m at the Coral Ridge Mall, 5 o’clock, dropping a kid off late for a shift at the bookstore. As I wheel out of northwest parking, I get flagged by a man waving desperately.
He climbs in front and hands me two 20s, telling me an address up off North Dubuque. “I got to get home before my girlfriend gets there. She left two minutes ago.”
I burp off, and we’d get going in no time except for local rush hour, which puts me last in a train of six sedans turning onto I-80. The entrance isn’t posted with a limit but the red hatchback in lead is obeying the speed traditional to exit ramps. As we rise to meet the interstate, I check the roadway for my opening. It’s congested for shitty weather and the time of day and we merge into a wolf pack at 45 mph.
A white van rips past and sedans ahead of me fall in behind the van. I check the mirrors. Both middle and left lanes are open and I sweep all the way left.
My fare leans both hands on the dash. He wears a wedding band.
“I got to beat her home.”
“We’re trying, homie.”
Getting through traffic is all about backing the right horse and as I go wide around the wolf pack, I pass every sedan that joined the road ahead of me. The right lane is stuck at the speed limit led by a wheel-gripper in a blue Fiesta and there’s a Swift truck way up in the middle lane. I’m in the left behind four SUVs and a black truck, which holds us to 70 mph, though is bound to pass the Swift. Like dogs sniffing the neighbor’s ass, each SUV rides the bumper of the one ahead, and the leader is drafting in the truck’s tailwind.
The fast white van signals in behind the blue Fiesta and leaves the middle lane wide open. I dump into it and push my speed to get past the SUVs. The lane ahead is clear for a hundred yards, occupied only by that Swift truck.
As I pass, the last SUV of the four breaks off to fall in behind me. Then we pass the third SUV and it breaks off to join us as we gain on the Swift truck, which I know is driving on an engine governed in the 60s. I’ve edged the pace to 74 and we’re bearing down fast.
The fare points at it: “We got a dead-end coming up.”
The driver of the second SUV sees his chase cars have gone and, never to be usurped, jumps into the lane ahead of me.
My move: Before he’s fully taken the lane, I snap back to the left then punch into his former slot while he’s forced to brake-test his rig lest he pile into the Swift truck.
The fare pounds on the dash: “Yeah, bro!”
Last man standing: I’ve kept my eye on the lead SUV drafting behind the black truck and I can tell the trucker doesn’t like him back there. Soon as we’ve cleared the Swift, the SUV cuts in front of it to get a jump on the truck ahead. But the trucker jumps his cab in the lane first, running his blinker as he ever so slowly creeps into place ahead of the SUV, which has disappeared in my rearview.
In fact, I’ve cleared every vehicle for the next quarter mile. The roadway curves slightly here and I keep straight as the paint runs under my wheels, so that when the paint straightens out again, I’ve ended up in the far right of the roadway, ready for my exit. I’ll be first off at Dubuque.
My fare at last falls back in his seat and says, “Slick wheelwork.”
“So what’s your play if we don’t beat her home? You going to need a ride?”
“I dunno,” he says, sitting on his fists. “Lady or tiger, we’re going to find out.”
Lady or tiger, indeed. You know the story: The king gives you the choice of two doors. Behind one is a beautiful woman you’ll win in marriage. Behind the other door is a tiger that’ll eat your guts out. And given the way this guy throws money at his problems, plus the wedding band, the girlfriend and the house on North Dubuque, I bet he’s in far deeper than the $40 given to me. And I believe whatever choice he makes next will be in keeping with his ultimate trajectory.
We come up North Dubuque, winding over the river and onto the hill before I’m directed into a driveway that pitches violent as a ravine and at the bottom of which wait two women, both veiled in crossed arms.
“Ah God,” he says, climbing out of the cab to claim his prize.
Sean Preciado Genell is author of the Vic Pasternak novel ‘All the Help You Need,’ available now at Prairie Lights. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 194.