by Paul Perilli
“You take a job you become the job,” Wizard said in Martin Scorcese’s cult classic Taxi Driver.
I felt much like Wizard the summer I was twenty and drove a taxi for Red Cab, a Waltham, MA company owned by my older cousin, Joey. Joey was a wise-cracking, street smart, tough guy, who at the same time was incredibly generous and also ambitious. At an early age he turned an interest in cars and a job as a gas station grease monkey into a business that would grow from owning a few cabs to having a fleet of them and eventually include school buses as well as vans for people with special needs and senior citizens, making make him millions of dollars.
Of course, I made a bit less than that working for him those months, an amount that fluctuated depending on how many hours I was willing to put in. And that was a lot. I was hired to drive weekdays but if there was a no-show or someone was late or quit, and that happened often enough, I’d volunteer to stay on. I could drive long hours, 12 or 16 of them with only a few breaks: a to-go breakfast from Wilson’s Diner, a couple of takeout slices from Piece o’ Pizza, a large afternoon coffee from Tony’s Spa. I liked the money and it was there to make if I wanted it, and there were times I’d be home with my family or shooting hoop with friends thinking I could, and probably should, be on the road making some cash instead. I took the job. I became the job.
It wasn’t more than a few days after I started that my friends began calling me Hacker, as in “Hey, Hacker, you coming out with us tonight?” It was a moniker I couldn’t dissuade them from using. The identifier, I was sure, would turn off the girls we ran into at parties or bars or the beach and would doom me to a long dry summer. But, to my surprise, it actually turned out to be a good conversation starter, and I recall more than a few wide-eyed female faces exclaim, “Wow, are you really doing that?” My answer in the affirmative would lead to the usual follow-up questions. “Is it interesting?” “It can be.” “Are the people weird?” “Mostly.” “Do they give you great tips?” “Not especially.”
In truth, I picked up the whole gamut of local humanity and folks passing through Waltham for whatever reason. I transported executives to and from the technology companies out on Fourth Ave, Bear Hill Road, and Winter Street to the airport. I took bossy old ladies who gave me ten cent tips to Super Market to do their grocery shopping. An hour later I might pick them up again and for another ten cents carry half a dozen bags to their door and maybe even respond to a command issued with the authority of a drill sergeant: “Don’t just leave them there, take them inside.” I drove men to their jobs in the morning and picked up others outside bars in the evening and at night, and who, shitfaced and disoriented, might be overcome with a swell of generosity that could yield a 50 percent tip I’d have no problem pocketing. I took people of all ages to Waltham Hospital for tests or admission or to visit an ill spouse or child. Some would go into great detail about their plight, and the fear I heard resonating in their voices might depress me until my next pickup occupied the back seat and a new conversation started up. There were times, once a day maybe, when I’d turn the meter off early to keep the fare low for an elderly person I thought might be down to his or her last few dollars. In a few instances one of them might look so sad and destitute I’d open the back door and say the ride was on me and end up eating the cost myself for a few kind words in return.
My car was a Checker, one of those big, extra-roomy four door vehicles manufactured in Michigan. The model that, three years later, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle was seen driving in Taxi Driver. Not long after the movie came out I sat in an old, worn seat in Harvard Square Cinema awed at the skill and imagination of Bickle’s creator. He, Scorcese, was talking to me and I assumed lots of other buzzed-up drivers spending long, lonely nights taking strange folks to places they might not feel comfortable being in very long. To this day I still feel an unreasonable identification with Bickle (“You make the move. It’s your move.”) and wonder whatever happened to the draft of the story about a cab driver titled “Time and Distance” I’d written around then?
Time and distance. Those were the two settings on the old meters with the iron flag that was dropped at the start of each new fare: set to distance it ticked off the ten or so cents for each eighth mile traveled; set to time it ticked off a similar amount for each minute that went by as you were stalled in traffic or waiting for your fare to run an errand. Setting the meter to time and distance while the taxi was moving was illegal, though unscrupulous drivers might take advantage of unsuspecting riders. I admit I did it often as I could, though never to someone I was sure was on a fixed income or that I knew or knew of. I did have a penchant to stiff demanding out-of-town businessmen I assumed were on company expense accounts and in a hurry to get to the commuter rail station or back to their hotel up along Route 128 or in downtown Boston. I did it to others whom I decided deserved it or I just didn’t like. Only a few times did someone mention they knew I was overcharging them. Only once did someone call the office to report me to Chuck, the dispatcher.
Presumably because I was the owner’s cousin, a cousin he liked and favored, you would think that might have guaranteed me one or two extra better paying fares a day. Nah uh. Not while Chuck was taking the calls and doling them out.
A grouchy ex high school offensive lineman, Chuck had worked for Joey for years, maybe even from the start, and no way he was going to give the summer help, not even Joey’s blood relative, special treatment. Not when there were men riding the streets with families to support (and at that time all of Red Cab’s drivers were men). Not when Big Mike, a feared and uncommunicative man who’d been driving a taxi since he was old enough to have a license, might be out there waiting for his number to be called.
Big Mike was on the streets twelve hours a day six days a week. I don’t know what kind of life he had outside of that, and it’s likely I never let my imagination wander too deeply into it, but his stature at Red Cab was such that he wasn’t afraid to key the mic and snap something at Chuck if he felt he was getting slighted in the distribution of good-paying fares. Big Mike always looked like he was getting slighted and that made him a little scary to be around. I don’t think I had a single conversation with him. In fact, I don’t think we ever exchanged any words at all, not even hellos at the garage where we picked up and dropped off our cabs.
The taxi business attracted a lot of those types, loners, social misfits, those in transition from job to job or place to place or life to life, people like me who needed some quick money, or those others who, for whatever reasons, thought spending a good chunk of the day alone in a car and sitting in stalled traffic and waiting for lights to change would be an all right job. (“All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go,” was how Bickle put it.) While the seeming freedom of being your own boss and making your own hours, as many or few as you wanted, of hearing the meter click and imagining a steady flow of greenbacks coming your way, might be seductive, its reality was anything but freedom and riches. The constant hustle to make decent cash, the meager tips, whiney people and empty, frustrating downtime, wasn’t for everyone. Joey had a core group of steady drivers, but otherwise the turnover rate was quite high, and he was constantly looking for people he thought might stay with him a while.
84 was my handle, the number Chuck used to communicate with me over the two-way radio, as in “84 there’s a pickup waiting on the corner of Crescent and Moody.” Everyone had a number (Big Mike’s was 1) but Chuck never used it to address them as he did me when I was in the office or on those occasions I went out with them for beers and some pool playing. It was as if I didn’t have a first or last name or that we’d entered a time when the use of birth names was unnecessary. Truth was, I think he was intimidated by a college kid. Sports and women were the two dominant topics among the drivers, and ones I wasn’t averse to delving into great detail about, but books, academic knowledge, those were for the Brandesians, as we townies referred to the Brandeis University students who lived up on the hill on South Street and had long hair and went to protests and who also, we were certain, screwed each other like bunnies on amphetamines. Chuck knew I read books during those dead zones in the mid-mornings and mid-afternoons when business was slow. I’d locate a shady spot to park my Checker and take out the volume I’d brought along, and when Chuck was in a joking mood, or a frustrated one, and there were plenty more of those, he might tell me to put it down and head to such and such a number on Upland Road or Weston Street or over to the main entrance of Polaroid: “I hate to interrupt study period 84, but you need to get right on that.” I’d finish the paragraph I was on and key the mic and repeat the address for him. In the office at end of one day I remember Chuck looking at the big, thick book in my hand and wondering just why the fuck would I (I as 84) want to read something that was titled Cancer Ward?
I still don’t think it’s an unreasonable question.
Paul Perilli's writing has appeared in The European, Baltimore Magazine, New Observations Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and others. "Hacker" is from a group of non-fiction pieces titled Tracking Back.