Columbus, Ohio USA
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Trolling through Hell
with the Meter Running
By Mick Cusimano
July/August 2012 Issue
Life seemed fine indeed in l982. As manager of a title search company, I had two woman lawyers working for me and was anticipating marriage to the girl next door. This was a successful existence in the dingy smokestack town of Buffalo. That was until the company closed down and laid us all off, and my girlfriend ran off with a married guy. The only job I could find in a depressed economy was driving taxicabs at night in downtown Buffalo – certainly professionals and normal people sometimes ride in cabs at night, but not if they can help it. Most of the passengers at night were psychos, hookers, drunks, and dangerous people. My first fare did nothing to ease my entry into this subterranean lifestyle. A cranky old lady wanted me to let her out of the cab. This would have been fine, except we were driving 50 miles an hour on the expressway. When I saw the movie Taxi Driver, I wondered how a person could get so crazy driving cabs. Someone with no perspective on life who thinks that the passengers in their taxicab represent a real cross-section of America is in very big trouble – being behind the wheel of a cab ten hours a night gives one a frightfully distorted worldview.
Next stop was a honky-tonk bar where out staggered a huge, grungy-looking, drunk biker. He immediately jumped in the front seat. Drunks always insist on sitting in the front seat with the driver. I noticed his knuckles dripping with blood. He told me that he had been thrown out of the bar for starting a fight. Well, I had my degree in sociology. Maybe this job was a blessing in disguise. I figured I would make the best of the situation and use this job as a lesson in studying society up close. Just then the guy insisted that the meter was rigged and that I was ripping him off. He howled like a wolf, grabbed hold of the meter and tried to yank it out of the dashboard. Sociology is the study of society but this was studying society a little too close. I told him that sure the cab was ripping him off, but so was the government, the bar that kicked him out, and the Harley Davidson store that sold him his overpriced leather jacket. Luckily he thought that was pretty funny and laughed. He forgot about ripping out the meter and forgot about ripping off my head. He not only didn’t complain about the $7 fare, but Frankenstein even gave me a tip, dripping with the blood from his hand.
When I got to a downtown street corner, eight women jumped into my cab all at once. The cops had run them out of the neighborhood. We pulled up to a light where a car full of nuns looked at all of the legs and miniskirts hanging out the window. “Just going to church, Sister!” I said, which was true. They all got out at Church Street to ply their trade. One woman jumped back in with a drunk gap-toothed, goofy looking guy. She said, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you play with me tonight?” He was trying to kiss her and she said, “There will be no fun tonight until the exchange of legal tender.” He asked her if she took credit cards. She replied, “No, but for $30 I will give you a revolving charge.” What a line! I thought of suggesting that she make her living on her feet as a stand-up comedian, instead of on her back. The next fare was a jumpy fellow who immediately sounded off about how great Jewish writers were. “They were so brilliant, sensitive and perceptive to the many sides of life,” he insisted. “So brilliant, sensitive and perceptive.” He’d been reading many of their books recently and could not rave enough how brilliant, sensitive, and perceptive Jewish writers could be!
Then a lady leaped in croaking like a frog about how her doctor wasn’t properly healing her foot ailments. He had done nothing for her fungal infections, oversize corns, or webbed feet. When she asked me how much the fare was I told her it was $2.00 for the ride and $1.00 for consultation fees.
Two women invited me to stop in and dance with them at the Continental, a punk rock bar. When the band came back for an encore, almost everyone cleared the dance floor. About a dozen or so guys with Mohawk haircuts, leather jackets and chains took over the floor. As the band started up, they slam-danced each other off the dance floor until the biggest, meanest-looking water buffalo remained. He got to mate with the girl with spikes in her hair and metal prongs protruding from her jacket. Water buffalo finds true love with porcupine in Johnny Rottenland. And this was a break for me: almost the normal world. My break was over, and I had to return to the really bizarre twilight world of late-night hacking.
Several weeks on this job and you would instinctively size a person up the instant they got in the cab. Before they even spoke, I could tell if they were drunk, dangerous, crazy, or cheap. One guy got in and had Mr. Cheapskate written all over him like a neon light. He took short wheezing breaths. It probably irked him to no end to have to give carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere for free. Sure enough, he ragged and squawked when I told him I didn’t have a nickel to give him back for his $6.95 fare.
One person I picked up struck me as unusual. He was sort of tall and wore a corduroy jacket. Was he a drug dealer? An anvil salesman? A professor? He had no anvils with him, so that narrowed it down. For some reason I sensed that this was no ordinary passenger. He had me stop at a pharmacy where he bought a huge bag of drugs. It was for no party, he assured me. He told me that he had just recovered from a rare nerve disorder. I usually never discuss my personal life with passengers, but for some reason I told him I had just gotten a rejection notice in the mail. He told me he also was a writer but had never gotten a rejection notice in his life. I figured this fellow was pulling my leg. I asked him how that could be and if he had any books published. He indicated that his first novel was published right away, entitled Catch-22. Suddenly I remembered reading an article by Joseph Heller about his long illness due to a nerve disease. I remembered the nervous little guy recently raving about brilliant Jewish authors. Had he been a prophet? I asked him what he was doing in Buffalo, the armpit of the East. Most people only stop in Buffalo if they are lost or their car breaks down in a snowstorm. Evidently a friend had promised to take Joseph out to dinner if he was ever nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He was in town to collect on that bet. I asked him if it was a great life being a successful author. Not so, according to him. In fact he insisted that it was terrible being a celebrity. It insulated him from experiencing the real world. He said I was lucky driving cabs with all the stories at my fingertips and would give anything to trade places with me. Being no fool, I offered him the keys to the cab.
During the first few weeks of driving I had very little money. I ate almost nothing for over a week. After the first few days it didn’t bother me. In fact it was kind of liberating not being a slave to your stomach. I was driving 10 hours a night and sort of in an alternative world. One night I noticed something strange happening. Suddenly women and girls were paying a lot of attention to me everywhere I went. It was as if half-starving unlocked some magnetic pull. I would drive up to a corner and women would look at me and often smile. In one parking lot a woman was waving at me and saying hello and trying to get out of her car to approach me. Her friends in the car grabbed her and dragged her back in. “Don’t talk to strangers. What’s the matter with you?” they would say. This went on for a week or so when I wasn’t eating. It culminated at Buffalo’s football stadium where I went with some friends to see The Who concert. I wandered around to get some pictures. Some girl grabbed me and started kissing me. She offered me a sip of her wine and asked me to walk with her to get closer to the band. She then suddenly passed out. She was really out, so I tucked her away in a corner of the football field so she wouldn’t get stepped on. Someone asked me why I was leaving my wife. Of course I didn’t know her, but she seemed to be sleeping soundly. Just then I ran into my long-lost cousin Tim. Last I heard he was obsessed with Beethoven, but here he was at a Who concert. It was a fun night.
Unfortunately I had to go back to work the next night. Things got worse as time went by. Three drivers from our company were robbed at gunpoint in one week. I needed some relief from all the psychos and drunks. One night a sailor got into my cab from a visiting ship. Finally, I thought, a clean-cut, respectable serviceman in uniform. What a relief, a man of character, dedicated to duty, and honor and country.
He got in and glared at me. He said that he was once overcharged in Chicago and was itching to kill a cabdriver. That seemed extreme to me, after all, I had never even been to Chicago, not that logic had anything to do with this job. That was the point. Logic had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this job. That was why I was beginning to think that being late-night ferryman for the deranged was taxing my own sanity meter. Pretty soon my cab would need an interior upholstered in rubber. When a job in real estate became available in Rochester, I jumped on it like a businessman chasing the last cab to the airport. It was time to get off the midnight streets of Buffalo before becoming part of the pavement.
Mick Cusimano lives in Boston, Mass. He is a cartoonist, graphic designer, filmmaker and Professor of Surrealism. His cartoons regularly appear in the Gazette. The essay was first published on his Web site.
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