“You can make up a name, I don’t care.”
“Just call me ‘Cabby.’ ” “Whatever.”
After negotiations at the driver’s side window, it was agreed he’d let me ride along, but no pictures. “I’m paranoid,” he explained, and I laughed, thinking he was joking. He was serious as syphilis. “How much money we talking about?” he asked.
“I don’t know, $20?”
“Okay, get in. I’ve got a lot to say.” Again, he’s not kidding.
It is 10 p.m. on Friday night. We crawl down Sixth Avenue from Hillcrest, heading downtown. We cruise slowly past some guys with clean-shaved heads to see if they might need a cab. I figure they’re more interested in a brief but meaningful relationship in Balboa Park’s shrubbery, and they ignore us.
“I’ve been driving for ten years in San Diego exclusively, and, yeah, I generally drive on Friday nights.” “You must have had some interesting experiences.” I study his face in the rear-view mirror: hair all gray, thick-lensed glasses with colorless frames. He speaks with a faint Hispanic accent.
“Interesting is not the word for it. The whole gamut: interesting, amusing, exhilarating, scary, and antagonizing. Every experience you can imagine might happen to a cab-driver happens. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to assume that every cab-driver goes through different versions of the same experience. He operates in a very circumscribed routine. Oh, you’re recording.” He looks at the little Sony with alarm. “I thought you were taking notes.”
“This is more accurate.”
He slows down his speech, chooses words more carefully, but he
still goes on to make Dennis Miller look like Marcel Marceau.
“The extreme, the most hostile, is getting robbed with weapons. It’s a matter of probability that it’s going to happen.”
He changes the subject. “Cabdrivers are very independent; they’re looking for something you don’t find in an ordinary job, like working in a factory, the office, the AM/PM. They don’t like to submit themselves to that kind of work environment. There’s no schedule, no supervisor. You don’t answer to anyone except the customer and the ordinances and regulations.”
“Do you own this cab?”
“Ah, no. So that being the fact, the nature of the cabdriver is built around that character [meaning the ramblin’ guy, Lone-Ranger factor]. One of the most difficult things is to get cabdrivers to work together. They don’t want to be bound to anybody or anything except themselves. It’s hard for them to coordinate their efforts to gain advantages for themselves in the working environment of the city. Everyone’s trying to advance themselves and their selfish interests; businessmen, city council members. Cabdrivers have no position to stand on — and it’s a very large group. There’s no identity, no leverage against all these forces in the city. They are all independent. It’s hard for them to create a singular and positive image with the public, the police, and the city council. They’re constantly losing ground because they have no voice.”
This does not seem to be an affliction of Cabby, however. When asked about unions, he pooh-poohs the idea. “Cabbies would never go for it. It would never work.” But he does seem to have some vague idea of a sort of association.
“Does any one experience over the past ten years stand out?”
“Not any one experience, but many experiences, and they all repeat themselves. Young people without much experience drinking, and can’t control it, get in the cab. On the way home they vomit. Most of the time it’s sailors, but it’s not limited to sailors. You learn to detect when it’s going to happen, and you learn to avoid it or prevent it. I tell them to get sick out the door but sometimes they refuse to admit that they’re that sick. You charge them 10, 20 dollars extra to clean up the cab.”
“Tell me about when you got robbed.”
“Once it was just outside downtown San Diego, once on the east side, once on the south side in Imperial Beach, once just north of National City. I’ve been robbed with a knife, with a gun, several times with objects I could not identify, but they felt like they were lethal or harmful in some way. You know, somebody puts a metal object to your neck that feels pointed. After they leave and run off, you don’t know what they used. It could have been a toothpick or a nail. I’ve been strong-armed from behind. A guy pinned me to the seat while another guy rummaged around the front seat for cash and whatever he could find. That happened to me in Mission Valley.
“People often get in the cab in a state of great hostility, and they are very asinine and threatening. If you challenge them, they get worse. Especially if you have three, four, five men. In some subcultures it’s a show of strength to demonstrate hostility. They’ll take advantage of a cabdriver that’s old or lightweight or looks like a wimp. It’s an instinct in them to be evil. It’s very scary. You don’t know if they’re just posturing or they’re psychos.
“They try to get you rattled so you make a mistake and maybe not charge them. They can sense if you’re new, and they’ll mess with you. They’ll get you all upset and confused, then say, ‘Do you have change for a 20?’ and then hand you another bill. And maybe it’s late at night, you’ve been working ten hours or more, you get careless, you don’t look at it.
“Some people expect you to be in a party mood. I have to tell them, ‘Excuse me, I haven’t been drinking, I’m not in a party mood. I’m not a bartender.’ They’ll start screwing around, pressing this button or that and turning on the radio. They fuck around like you wouldn’t believe. They think if they tip you a dollar that makes it all right. The people that come out of these places in the Gaslamp are pretty bad, but not as bad as people who come out of the local bars. Like in Imperial Beach.”
Cabby is from Los Angeles originally. He has been in San Diego for 12 years. To relax he handicaps horses at the track. “It’s a challenge I have taken up. You take all the data on the racing form and try to project the probable performance of a horse. It’s very scientific.”
When he says he is paranoid, he means clinically. He was diagnosed a paranoid. “Everybody’s paranoid to a certain degree, and they learn to live with it. I’m just very sensitive: perfect paranoia is perfect awareness. It can make you socially dysfunctional.” As an example, he cites an occasion when he was interviewed on local TV news after the killing of a driver. He was convinced the cameraman was looking at him “funny.” His theory was that the police like to get suspects on television so that some viewer might recognize them in connection with a crime and phone in.
“So has this made you cynical?” I ask.
“Driving a cab has made me cynical, yes. I always had a very childlike attitude toward people until I drove a cab. I came to learn that everybody has a capacity for evil. That’s a fact of nature and human beings.”