Vampire Cabbie

Chapter 4


After the weekend, the day of training arrived. Having always been a paragon of punctuality, I found myself waiting in the same star chamber where my interview had taken place, ten minutes prior to the appointed hour, and was joined a few minutes later by a young woman of strong distinction in her appearance, who with her long, dark hair and eyes, swarthy complexion and sharp, angular features, reminded me of those many gypsies I had known over the centuries, sadly one in particular who I had not wanted to think about.
"Oh, hi," she said, seemingly surprised by my presence.
"Hello," I replied, finding myself staring at her, my eyes tracing the sweeping diagonal of her jaw. "Are you to be the one who trains me?"
She laughed. "No, I'm here for training too. I'm Nicole."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," I said, rising and extending a hand. She shook my hand firmly, like a man. Another place, another time and I would have kissed her hand like a true gentleman, but alas, thisis a different time and a very different place. "I am Al. Al Farkus."
"Nice to meet you." We both sat. An awkward silence filled the room, myself unsure what to say next. Round of hips and bosom, firm and strong in the arms and legs, this young woman looked enough like Anya to be her granddaughter, but that, of course, was impossible. "Seems they got a long day of training set up for us," Nicole said finally.
"Yes. Kevin informed me that Co-op Cab has the most vigorous training program of any cab company in the city."
"Yeah, he told me the same thing."
"I cannot help but wonder how much training we actually need. How difficult can it be to drive a cab?"
Nicole shook her head. "Don't know. But, you know, the times I've been in a cab, I've tried to listen to the radio, and I can't make heads or tails of it."
Shuffling footsteps drew our attention to the doorway as two young men entered the conference room and loudly plopped themselves into chairs. Resplendent as they were in torn, faded denim trousers and the tails of their flannel shirts trailing over their thighs, I reasoned that they were college students, their general slovenly appearance reminiscent of the legions of American students I have seen backpacking acrossEurope , trekking from one youth hostel to another. "Training?" one asked.
"Yeah," Nicole replied. "I'm Nicole. This is Al."
"Good afternoon," I said.
"Hey," the first said. "I'm Gino, and this is Quinn."
"¿Que pasa?" Quinn asked, obviously not actually seeking an answer.
Following the introductions, there was silence until Dale, from the Hiring Committee, appeared, cradling armfuls of materials, as dapper as before in a crisp Pierre Cardin dress shirt and charcoal gray wool slacks, a smart-looking, sleeveless, v-neck angora sweater and brown Guccis, identical to a pair I had recently owned. His ensemble must have required deep pockets, and that gave me cause for encouragement regarding my own financial prospects as a cab driver.
"Hello all," Dale began. "I'm not going to bother with introductions since I've already met all of you. And I'll assume you've gotten acquainted over the last few minutes."
Dale gently placed the materials on the table, including four black binder notebooks which he slid to each of us. "There's a training notebook here for each of you," he said. "You can keep these. Each notebook includes various fact-sheets, several of which I'll be referring to during this session. Also, you'll find aMadison map, a street directory and our company manual. These are very valuable resources, so don't lose them."
Dale congratulated us on being hired, then urged that we pay close attention in order to more easily pass probation. Indeed, certainly one would think this job would require more talent than that provided by a team of organ-grinder monkeys.
"Right from the top," Dale continued, "I want to stress that thisis a cooperative, which means this is a different kind of a work-place becausewe own it. I cannot stress how important it is for you to understand what it means to work at a worker-owned-and-operated cooperative. As a means of illustration, I'll tell you a story."
He may as well have used the wordindoctrination . Has that not been the polite word for it, in much the same way as reeducation camps was the polite term for concentration camps?
Dale seemed to drone on and on about the history of Co-op Cab, which, however, had some fascinating aspects. The yellow-painted predecessor had been the more standard sole-proprietorship. Disgruntled employees (along with, no doubt, several rabble-rousers) formed a labor union that ended up putting the company out of business. In response, the out-of-work drivers formed their own company. Thus, the serfs bought the estate, making each and every one of them lord and master. Or so they claim, but, as Orwell said, "Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others."      
As the indoctrination continued, I caught myself staring surreptitiously at Nicole, Anya's features becoming superimposed on my fellow trainee's face as the present faded from my sight.
Though I certainly had traveled a great deal during much of the early 1930s,Prague had been my home. Yes, in retrospect, considering what was happening inGermany at that time, itwould seem the height of foolishness to have stayed in the Czech capitol, but there were commodities to sell, and one tends for one reason or another to procrastinate.
Anya and I became acquainted inBudapest in 1935 while I was there conducting business. Though it had been a chance meeting during an intermission of a Chekov play, it turned out that I had actually known her family for a number of generations.
Yes, 1935 was a bad time to fall in love in that part of the world.
Dale's voice, speaking the words "patronage dividend," pulled me back to the present. In profit-making years, a patronage dividend is distributed to the membership on a proportional basis, dependent on how many hours a member worked relative to the total number of hours worked. Each member receives a certain percentage of their share of the profit, the rest going back into the co-op as equity.
Finally, Dale announced the conclusion of the first section of training and allowed us to take a ten-minute break. Gino and Quinn disappeared almost instantly, but Nicole lingered. I felt her gaze, but remained seated, opening the notebook and making a show of studying the pages held therein, feigning a sentiment that the information contained on those pages was actually important.
The notebook did contain some useful information, however, including price lists for package deliveries, various maps, as well as names and addresses of bars and hotels. After all, there was a definite purpose here, and distractions had to be kept to a minimum. For my kind, intimate relationships with humans always present problems and must be approached with a high degree of circumspection, especially when dealing with American women who are so much freer and independent than their European counterparts.
Also, the mere sight of Nicole shot daggers of pain deep into the core of my being. Fortunately, she left after a few long moments.
About ten minutes later, Nicole, Gino and Quinn returned, quickly followed by Dale, who immediately placed a large piece of poster board covered with Mylar on a tripod stand at the front of the conference room.
"Procedures," he said, with a wide, vocal flourish. "There's a lot to cover, so I'll just jump right in." He brandished a large marker and pointed it at the image of the cab radios used by Co-op Cab. Much to my surprise, the system was actually computerized, the simple pressing of buttons telling the dispatcher a driver's approximate location and whether said driver is empty, on the way to pick up a call, in service or on break.
"Much of what follows will be covered by your on-the-road trainers," Dale continued, "but redundancy is good." He touched the image of one of the buttons on the cab radio with the marker, and again I saw Anya's face.
She had moved toPrague , and together we lived in a charming garret in the theater district. We both had been following events inGermany with great interest and had decided to leave, but various obstacles delayed our departure. The sale of a 16th-century Russian icon failed to come to fruition, the buyer having been waylaid at the border. Traveling money was desperately needed, so we waited for another buyer, who did in fact arrive inPrague in time to make the sale, but the transfer of his funds was bundled up in too much red tape.
German tanks crossed the Czech border. Soldiers patrolling the streets made it unsafe to leave our garret, but our exodus could be delayed no longer, for the Germans had already commenced house-to-house searches for Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables.
Our survival was punctuated by the ticks of the clock on the wall of our garret where we spent our last night together, holding each other close, hearing coarse German shouts as the hours slowly passed before my agents would come for us.
We had managed to book passage aboard a train, but would not depart until the next afternoon. Before daybreak, Anya would have to seal me inside a crate within which I would have to travel, at least until nightfall. Yes, again, the first rays of morning sun are deadly, and when the sun rises, even when safely sequestered, I become virtually catatonic.
I shall never forget the sight of Anya peering into the crate before she nailed the lid shut. She smiled bravely, leaned down and kissed me, her lips like rose petals. I wanted to pull her into the crate with me to hold her, keep her safe, but one of us had to remain on the outside to make sure we both safely boarded the train. When she closed the lid, I caught one last glimpse of her, the brave smile cracking at the last moment, revealing what I already knew, that she was frightened, which, to tell the truth, was no different from what I was feeling.
The word "bid" broke through my musing. Dale's pointer touched the button to the far left on the bottom row of buttons, the top row containing eight compass designations for the eight geographic zones in which the city was divided.
"This is the most important button on your radio," Dale said. "Your bid button is the one that makes you money."
As Dale related, the bid button holds the exalted place at the far left of the radio, closest to the driver's hand, not buried in the middle of the row of buttons like those designating the statuses of empty, acknowledged, destination or 10-7, which means on break.
When the bid button is pressed, the number marking one's cab on the dispatcher's computer screen lights up, signaling a driver's desire to be considered for one of the available calls "on the board." Dale said calls are given to the closest cab, that is unless the dispatcher determines there is need to shift the entire fleet in the direction of where there happens to be a glut of calls.
A lengthy dissertation followed concerning how to bid, when to bid, why to bid. How, when and why to bid with packages. How to use the question buttons and the difference between a "HiQ" and "LowQ." Dale even discussed the simple matter of how to handle the cab radio, certainly an exercise in the obvious; I had had quite a bit of radio experience during World War II working with the French Underground. Indeed, perhaps organ-grinder monkeys might actually be able to do this job, that is, if they were allowed to drive.
It all seemed rather simple, actually, and after Dale concluded his highly repetitive explanation, the expressions worn on the faces of the other trainees seemed to relax, as if they were relieved that a new topic would be broached. Like the others, I found it a Herculean task to maintain my attention, even possessing a mental discipline superior to these children.
Dale placed a new piece of posterboard on the tripod. "This is a waybill," he said. "Waybill being the standard industry term for the piece of paperwork cabbies use to keep track of what they do during a shift."
I rolled my eyes. Or did my eyes begin to roll up into my skull. Before I knew it, I was once again staring at Nicole.
Fists pounding on wood broke through my slumber. I heard a crash and Anya's agitated voice. Then, she screamed.
I could not even lift my arms.
I lay paralyzed, only able to listen to Anya's screams, to the sound of a body loudly striking the floor and walls, the sound of tearing fabric, of smashed furniture.
By the time I could lift my arms and break open the crate, the garret was silent. Anya lay on the floor on the other side of the garret, her clothes tattered rags, her body a mess of bruises and abrasions, her lovely flesh ripped and torn asunder, her throat cut.
Bending down to close her lifeless eyes, my gaze shifted back toward the crate from which I had just risen. On the floor, next to the crate was her white lace tablecloth, a bouquet of roses, the shattered remains of a vase and a puddle of water, quickly spreading across the polished oak floor.
She had disguised the crate as a dining table, just to be especially sure the Germans would not inspect the contents for booty, covering the crate with an heirloom passed from mother to eldest daughter for two dozen generations.
No conscious thoughts directed my actions for the next several hours. Suddenly, I was no longer in the garret, having rematerialized in front of a quartet of German soldiers.
Then, I was kneeling on a soldier's chest, ripping open his shirt, tearing flesh all the way down to bone, cracking open his sternum and sinking my fangs directly into his heart as his fellow soldiers watched in horrified paralysis.
I have no way of knowing how many German soldiers died that night, but accounts of my exploits were published in newspapers as far away as England, where the citizenry reading the more plebeian newspapers were entertained by accounts of "The Prague Mangler."
Suddenly, I realized Nicole was staring at me. Or rather, she was staring at me staring at her. I quickly averted my gaze.
Dale explained how to take the beginning readings from the taxi meter and showed where on the waybill to record that information. It seemed he realized he was droning on a bit, that perhaps all this information was obvious; a certain sarcastic tone was apparent in his voice as he explained trips and units, the former being the number of times the meter is turned on, the latter being the number of additional "clicks" recorded through mileage and time not-in-motion.
He then walked us through a mythical shift and showed us how to balance our waybills at shift's end. Oddly, though his tone was sarcastic, his countenance seemed to attach a high degree of importance to the general topic of paperwork. Perhaps, it was the "bean-counter" aspect of his being which caused him to do this.
Mercifully, Dale concluded his presentation and allowed us to take another ten-minute break. When we returned, he turned off the lights and showed a defensive driving film.
"This covers the basics," Dale said. "We have an in-house defensive driving course that you will all be required to complete before passing probation. It's about eight hours over a two day period."
My fellow trainees groaned loudly. I heard myself groan. Dale smiled, making a show of shaking his head sadly. "Now, we do want you all to drive safely." More sarcasm in tone, but obviously not intention. "Remember, an accident can and will ruin your day."
When the training session ended, I departed as quickly as possible, but upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, my sensitive ears heard Nicole speak to the quickly emptied room, to no one in particular, thinking no one could hear her: "Where'd he disappear to so quickly?"
Three nights later, I sat waiting for my on-the-road trainer, in what they call "the driver's room," a cozy chamber full of chipped formica tables with a pair of adding machines on each and dented steel chairs in the vicinity of each table. The walls, once white, were a dingy gray. A stack of lockers stood against one wall, on top of which was an amazing collection of coffee cups, glasses, silverware and seat cushions. A small refrigerator and microwave oven were stacked in a corner next to a coffeemaker. Newspapers were strewn everywhere.
A pair of drivers, both heavy-set, sat at a table, balancing their waybills. They ignored me as I sat, idly thumbing through my training notebook, my trainer late. Finally, a tall, gangly fellow walked in whom I recognized; it was Kern from the Hiring Committee.
"The Count!" he exclaimed. "The Count. I get to train the Count. Hey, Bob, John, you gotta meet this guy. He's the Count."
They turned and stared at me, disinterest quite visible in their eyes. "Why do you call him 'the Count,' Kern?" one asked as he folded his waybill and slipped it inside aManila envelope along with charge slips, call slips and cash.
There are no shadows. Vampires must hide in plain sight.
"Why do you think they call me the Count?" I replied, speaking in my best Bela Lugosi voice, staring at the driver with faux menace. Kern laughed loudly.
"Yeah, when we asked him the movie star question, this guy answered, Frank Langella. What'd you say, Count, that he brought 'unprecedented sensitive sensuality' to the role of Dracula? The committee got a good laugh outta that."
Wonderful. Still a mere trainee, and I already had a diminutive variation of my name. However, despite the vulgarity, it seemed in my best interest to let them have their amusement.
"That so?" John or Bob asked.
"That is correct," I said. "Actually, my name is Al. Al Farkus."
"I'm Bob, this is John." I shook hands with both.
"Whatever Kern tells you," John said, "do the opposite. If you want to know how to do things right, just ask me."
"Don't listen to them, Count," Kern said with a smile. He brushed his long, thinning hair out of his eyes. "Get trained by me, you're learning from the best."
Bob and John howled with laughter. "You so good, Kern, why you still driving nights?" Bob asked, heavy sarcasm in his voice.
"I make money at night," Kern replied. "Don't need to get spoon-fed to make my money, not like you day-jerks."
"You make your money competing with rookies," John said. "You wouldn't make dick on days, competing with real cabbies."
A few more barbs were passed back and forth, then Kern finally decided to commence my training.
"I've already punched in," Kern began, "for both of us." He swept his long arms in a slow circle. "This is the driver's room. Our home. But this isn't like inTaxi, the TV show. You shouldn't be spending much time here. Drivers who spend too much time in this room aren't making money. You make money only one way, being in your cab, ready to take a call."
Kern gave me a short tour of the driver's room, pointing out the bulletin boards. One bore announcements of committee meetings and meeting minutes, another displayed general information about the cooperative, as well as a lurid photograph of a crumpled cab with the heading, "Accidents will ruin your day."
"This is Democracy Wall," Kern said, pointing to a third bulletin board full of typed and hand-written letters. "You got a beef with anyone or anything, feel free to put it here."
I attempted to read one of the missives, something about drivers who leave their cabs unattended by the gas pump, blocking access for anyone wishing to refuel their vehicle. The author seemed rather miffed though it was hard to tell, the childish scrawl barely legible.
Kern pulled me by the arm and dragged me toward a steel cabinet. "In here's all the different forms you'll need. Waybills, charge slips, leave of absence request forms, vehicle maintenance request forms." He made a big show of taking a deep breath. "And accident report forms. But you won't ever be needing to fill one of those out, right?"
Kern seemed to await a response to what surely was a rhetorical question. "Right," I said finally.
"Okay," Kern said. He strode toward the dispatch office, explaining that when reporting for work, you get a cab from either the dispatcher or one of the phone answerers, unless they are not yet giving out cabs. Then, you are put on the waiting list.
A dispatcher sat in front of a glowing green monitor. He stared intently at the half-dozen slips of paper that lay on the table before him, head cradled in his hands. "Nothing works," he said. I was unsure whether he was talking to a driver or to himself.
I followed Kern around to the other side of the table where the phone answerer sat drumming her fingers on the tabletop next to the phone. "Ready for a sled?" the wispy young woman asked.
"A sled for two," Kern replied. "Nothing too nice. Got a trainee tonight." He turned toward me. "Rookie drivers usually don't get to drive the nice cabs. But, hey, all cabs are good cabs. Yellow's my favorite color."
"Yeah, Kern," the woman said in a perfunctory tone, rolling her eyes, "and all calls are good calls."
"Al," Kern said, "this is Sharon, phone answererand dispatcher extraordinaire.Sharon , this is Al. The Count."
"Why do you call him the Count?"
We repeated the previously played game - Kern's game, but it seemed the height of rudeness to not play it as well. Besides, would a nickname not make me seem more "human" in the eyes of my fellow workers?
He plucked a key from the desk. "Sixty-six. You're going to like this one."
"Better not take that one,"Sharon protested. "Frank Nelson is working tonight, and he's got a real jones for that sled. Don't know why, it's a real piece of shit."
Kern rolled his eyes, dropped the key on the desk and picked up one in its place. "Seventy," he said.
Sharonnodded and rapidly punched the keyboard in front of her. "Seventy," she said, "another good cab for a trainee. Okay, you guys are logged and ready to go."
"Thank you," I said, then followed Kern into the parking lot as he went in search of our cab. "Always a problem, working later night shifts. Makes it hard to find your cab in the dark."
Harder for mere mortals, I thought, having already spotted the cab in the back corner of the lot. "Over there," I said, pointing toward the cab. Kern grunted with consternation.
He folded his tall frame behind the steering wheel and moved the bench seat nearly all the way back - he was a good head taller than me, and to think I was once considered tall - then immediately started the cab and turned on the heat. "This time of year, you gotta get the heat cranked right away. Cab's colder than shit when you first get in." He shivered. "We'll be using my waybill, officially that is, but I want you to keep track on your own, as if this was really your shift."
Kern showed me how to take beginning readings from the digital counter on the meter which kept a permanent record of total trips and units. The mileage reading came from the car's odometer.
"First thing you should do," Kern said, as we drove to the petrol pump, "is inspect the outside of your cab." We parked at the pump, and I followed Kern as he walked around the cab. "She's in good shape. No fresh dings or dents left by someone else for us to be blamed for."
There were plenty of imperfections on the body of this behemoth. "How can you tell if a dent is fresh?"
Kern chuckled. "Fresh dents don't got rust on 'em." He pointed at the petrol pump. "Now, this is our refueling, inspection and cleaning station. There's mirrors to check your lights. It's well lit here, so you can inspect your cab. We got wiper fluid, which you wanna make sure you got plenty of this time of year. Also, we got solvents for special cleaning in case someone pukes, pisses or shits in your cab."
"Charming," I said, suddenly thinking about the cab's rear-view mirror and trying to quickly conjure a contingency plan. My passengers would be able to look at the mirror and not see their driver!
"Now, we're ready to rock and roll," Kern said, after we had checked our supply of charge slips in the glove compartment, made sure headlights, tail lights, brake lights, backing lights, hazard lights and all turn signals were operational, washed the windows and filled the windshield wiper fluid reservoir.
"Remember, don't leave the lot without bidding on a call, unless there's nothing to bid on."
"How can I tell?"
"Listen to the radio."
I cocked my ear, but there was nothing but silence. "We are clearly bored," the dispatcher finally said, the transmission clear, but crackling, a loud squawk nearly bursting my eardrums when he closed the channel.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"Clearly bored. That's slang for a clear board, meaning there's no calls. Let's roll. Put on your seat belt."
I complied, and Kern drove out of the parking lot, turned a corner, then turned onto a large thoroughfare with three lanes on each side, separated by a large median.A street sign read "East Washington Avenue." Ahead, at the summit of a gentle rise, the Capitol glowed brightly. It was a lovely and majestic sight.
"Not much going on," Kern said. "Let's go check out some med-labs. Chances are you won't be doing many deliveries driving late nights, but most of the nighttime deliveries are lab deliveries."
Kern maintained a steady speed as he climbedEast Washington , weaving around the occasionally car. He began to explain the process of bidding for calls. "All of your radio transmissions must be concise," he said. "We use a lotta slang. Check the slang glossary in your manual. For instance, when bidding, you don't have to sayEast Washington Avenue orWest Washington Avenue . You can just say, 'the Ave.'"
"How will the dispatcher know if it is East orWest Washington ?"
"They'll know by your cross street. For instance, that street we just passed, Patterson? We'd call that, 'Pat and the Ave.' Same thing with some of these other streets. West and East Johnson is John.East Gorham is Egor."
Kern caught me shaking my head. "Don't worry," he said. "You'll pick it up before too long. The key is eliminating unnecessary words. You don't have to say 'street' or 'road' or 'avenue.' The name of the street will be enough. And you don't have to say 'going to.' 'To' is enough by itself."
We circled the Capitol and turned ontoWest Washington . Kern pointed a couple blocks ahead. "The first med lab on our tour. The Meth. That's theMethodistHospital ." Kern reached down and pressed the 10-7 button. The dispatcher quickly responded, and my trainer explained that we were commencing a tour of medical laboratories.
After he showed me theMethodistHospital laboratory and pharmacy, we were almost out the door on our way back to the cab when a security guard came running toward us, a plastic bag in his hand. "Got one for you," he said with a smile.
Kern flashed a toothy grin, accepting the bag which held a vial containing yellow liquid, along with a pink piece of paper. He explained that the piece of paper was a voucher that should be stapled to a completed charge slip and handed in with the waybill at the end of the shift.
"Cool!" Kern exclaimed once back inside the cab. He pointed at a flashing red light illuminating the lower right corner of the radio. "See that? The dispatcher's been looking for us. Most likely because he wanted to assign us to pick up this package. But we're one step ahead of him. Now, when you return to your cab after being out of it, always check to see if that light is flashing. If it is, it means the dispatcher hit your call button, and you should immediately hit your HiQ button." I reached down and punched the HiQ button. Kern smiled at my initiative and lifted the microphone from its cradle.
"Seventy," the dispatcher said.
"Right here," Kern replied. "If it's about the package to GML, we already got it."
"Ten-four," the dispatcher replied.
"But hey," Kern said, "we got a trainee here. How 'bout you nuke us again?"
"My pleasure," the dispatcher replied. A few seconds later, a loud series of beeps filled the cab.
"Thanks," Kern told the dispatcher. He replaced the microphone. "Dispatchers will also use the call button to get your attention if you're not paying attention to the radio when they're looking for you. You don't want them to have to nuke you during rush hour. They get pissed if you do that too often, and if you get that kind of bad rep, the dispatchers might not see your bid light as quickly as more attentive drivers. But hey, don't lose any sleep over it. A co-op is willing to work with people. Hell, I remember back at Yellow Cab, if you didn't answer up right after a dispatcher called your number, they'd pass right over you."
I put on my seatbelt and watched as Kern did the same. Instead of moving toward our destination, he turned on the interior light. "Before we leave, we need to figure out the rate for this delivery so we can fill out a charge slip. Gotta keep up with that paperwork. So, gimme a rate from here to GML."
I shook my head.
Kern snorted loudly, then explained how to calculate a rate from the delivery-zone map. His tone was patient, but he seemed to bristle slightly when I was unable to find GML on the map. Once he explained that there was a list of accounts, including addresses and the zones where they reside, it was easy to determine the proper rate. I retrieved a charge slip from the glove compartment and began filling it out. "How did you know it was going to the General Medical Lab?"
"This delivery always goes to GML. Besides, that's what it says on the voucher. Of course when you're assigned the call, the dispatcher will give you all that information, but if you need to filter out some information, you can feel free to not hear the destination 'cuz ninty-nine times out of a hundred, it'll be on the package. It's the origin that's important."
I completed the charge slip and handed it to Kern for inspection. He nodded thoughtfully, then crossed the name Farkus from the top of the charge slip and replaced it with his own.
"Already thinking like you're the one in charge here," Kern said. "I like that." Finally, he shifted into gear, and we were on our way.
It was good that we went to GML because it seemed doubtful I could have found the lab on my own. At night, one has to park in a garage across the street and cross an enclosed sky-walk to get to the lab.
After departing GML, Kern took me to a half-dozen other laboratories, concluding with the Red Cross where I was once again the butt of one his half-witted attempts at humor.
"I saved the best for last, Count," he said, as we drove past the sign with the large red cross. "We deliver a lot of blood, but remember, they don't like it when drivers deliver boxes full of empty packets."
You may laugh at the irony of this, but be assured that underneath my feigned laughter lay no thoughts of how nice it would be to enter a blood bank with impunity. Did I not have a job to do? Was I not doing this for money? Kern had mentioned that sometimes we deliver food to customers. Certainly, if a human driver could complete such a delivery without eating the food, why would I not be able to deliver a box of blood without ingesting the contents of those nice little packages? Besides, chilled blood is as gauche to me as chilled red wine is to a human connoisseur.
"Time to learn how to make money," Kern said, after we left the Red Cross. He had me punch the empty button. As he had said, we were now "10-8," ready to take calls.
"Hear that?"
"I am sorry. Apparently, I missed that last transmission."
"Okay, just listen."
A moment later, I heard the dispatcher's voice crackle over the radio: "Odana andGrand Canyon ."
"Ever use a radio before?" Kern asked, as he lifted the microphone from its cradle. I nodded. "Great." He punched the bid button and handed me the microphone. "Remember, you need to know what you're going to say before you say it. And we're in cab seventy. I'll make it easy for you." He promptly pulled the cab over to the side of the road.
The dispatcher called our number before I could read the street signs before us. I opened the channel and paused a moment before finally stating our location.
"Seventy," the dispatcher replied immediately, "the Radisson. Comes up."
I looked at Kern. "What is our assignment?"
"Seventy," the dispatcher said, "did you copy?"
"I got it," Kern said. "Just say ten-four."
And so I did, excited that we had finally gotten a call. But where was the Radisson? I knew it was a hotel, but the location and how to get there was a mystery.
"Update the radio," Kern said. "And you didn't have to say 'at the intersection ofBlackhawk Road andUniversity Avenue .' Just Blackhawk and U."
I pressed the acknowledge button, then paused and consulted the radio zone map, but it was all gibberish. I hastily flipped through the training manual, found the listing of hotels, acquired the address of the Radisson, then matched it with the city map, again consulted the radio zone map and finally pressed the northwest button.
"How do we get to the Radisson?" Kern asked once I had finished shuffling through my papers. He snorted as I reopened the map.
"It's atGrand Canyon and Odana," I said after quick study. "We can get there fromMineral Point Road ."
"How do we get toMineral Point Road ?"
"That is a good question, Kern."
"Well, check this out. Cab driver's shortcut." He took a sharp right and drove like a madman down a stretch of particularly bumpy road and past a cemetery. "This isFranklin .Franklin runs unabated from University toSpeedway .Speedway turns into Mineral Point. Pretty cool, huh? No stop signs. No lights. A key to cab driving. Gotta keep moving. Remember, moving wheels mean big deals."
Big deals for whom? Was he not getting his usual commission plus an extra hourly wage for training? I felt pushed and was not completely certain it was all for my benefit. But I had successfully turned words into money. By the false bliss of heaven, Icould do this. If someone like Kern could do it, if all these children I had seen around the cab company could do it, certainly I could as well.
Shortly, we arrived at the hotel. As we pulled up to the front entrance, Kern continued his dissertation.
"It's what I call 'the fine art of loading calls.' It changes depending on time of day, whether the pick-up is a house, an apartment, a hotel, a bar or a restaurant. It's always easiest when they're right out there waiting, but you can never count on that."
Except there they were, waiting right in the lobby. I immediately pressed the destination button.
"Very good," Kern said with a laugh. "Of course, these guys, for once being ready to go when we got here, they're not making my job easier."
The two men, quickly chilled by the night air, practically sprinted to the cab.
"Howdy," Kern said. "Where to tonight?"
"State Street," one said.
Kern shifted into gear, maneuvered out of the parking lot and turned on the meter. "Which end of State?" he asked. "Down by the campus?At Lake Street ?"
"Just get us close to the bars."
"No problem," Kern replied. "Oh, by the way, we're training tonight."       The men grunted, then began speaking among themselves. I consulted the radio zone map again. I could findState Street and was pretty sure it was in the downtown zone, but wanting to be absolutely sure, I consulted the city map. Kern shook his head.
"We're moving, so we should be listening to the radio closely," he rebuked. "Now, we're a ways from the downtown, so we shouldn't bid until we get much closer because there'll be plenty of cabs already in that neck of the woods that'll beat us on pretty much anything. If, on the other hand, we were goingfrom the downtownto the Radisson, I would say bid on anything west."
"What if I hear an intersection called, but I am uncertain where it is?"
"When in doubt, bid. The dispatcher might make fun of you over the air, but fuck 'em. And remember, if you get a call every time you hit the bid button, you're not bidding enough."
It was becoming clear that Kern was quite the mercenary fellow, but who better to learn from?
"Are you paying attention to our route?" Kern asked.
"I am trying." Mineral Point had becomeSpeedway , curving around that lovely cemetery before turning intoRegent Street at a queer five-way intersection where three different streets converged. "From here we would take Regent all the way to Park? Where we dropped off that specimen at GML?"
"Not bad," Kern replied, "but it'd be better to take Regent to Monroe, cut over by the stadium, then turn north onto Randall and east onto Johnson. Going downtown to deep west is pretty easy. Just three basic routes. Regent toSpeedway to the Point.Monroe to Odana. Or straight out University, though you might want to take the Old Middleton cut-off. Remind me to show you that one."
My head spun with the names of all these streets. Fortunately, Kern quieted as the dispatcher called a cluster of intersections, some of which I actually did recognize as downtown and campus. Extensive mnemonicswould be necessary.
"Would now be a good time to bid?" I asked. We were much closer to the destination. Kern handed me the microphone. "State andLake ," I said aloud to no one in particular, just an exercise, then I pressed the bid button and watched for street signs. Momentarily, the dispatcher took our perfectly executed bid.
"Seventy," the dispatcher said a moment later, "get the Six-oh-two for Peggy."
I acknowledged the call and held my peace until we dropped off our passengers. The fare was nine dollars. They smiled and handed Kern a ten and two ones, then wished me luck.
"Where's our next call?" Kern asked.
I had written it on a piece of scratch paper. "The six-oh-two," I parroted, "whatever that is. Wherever that is."
"It's a bar, the Six-oh-two Club at six-oh-two University Avenue, also known as 'The House of Sparkling Glasses.' Great place. Year after year gets voted best dive bar, but that's a lotta bullshit. Just 'cuz it's not all glitzy and full of students, they think it's a hole, but it's the most intellectual bar in town."
My kind of place, I thought. "And where is it?"
"Frances and U, right at the corner."
I promptly searched my city map for that intersection. Kern sighed loudly. I knew what he was thinking, but if it was necessary to look up every point of origin and every destination, so be it.
"The fine art of loading calls, part two," he said. "When you pull up to a bar or restaurant, give it about a minute, just to see if they're watching. If not, we go inside and dig the person out."
A minute passed, and I followed Kern inside. The small bar was crowded and dark, made darker by the forest green walls. Bordello-red upholstery on the chairs, stools and booths glowed luridly in the dim light. Dust coated artwork covered the walls, giving the place a definite Bohemian feel to it. Kern edged his way through the crowd. The bartender seemed to know him.
"Hey, Kern," the bartender said, brandishing a glass goblet. "Schooner?"
"Nah, I'm working. Unfortunately. Somebody call for a cab?"
"Yeah." He turned to his right toward a woman who was quietly smoking a cigarette. "Peggy! Cab's here."
The woman turned toward Kern. "I'm right outside," Kern said, then he turned and fought his way back through the crowd toward the cab.
"The fine art of loading calls, part two, sub A," Kern resumed once back in the cab. "Some drivers go into a bar and start yelling at the top of their lungs. You can do that if you want. I think it looks bad. Also, some drivers will stand over the passenger until they leave, then escort them to the cab. Again, you can do that if you want, but I'd just as soon do it this way so the person doesn't feel so rushed. You probably get a better tip this way."
Shortly, the woman emerged, and we took her to her near-southside home, offFish Hatchery Road , just past where it splits fromPark Street . Once at the destination, he took the woman's money and made change. The dispatcher recited a few intersections, and I heard the name "Fish." Fish Hatchery? I hit the bid button, and by the time Peggy had left the cab, we had another call.
"Very good, Al," Kern said. I had not thought he was paying any attention to what I was doing. "Now, do you know whereMartin Street is?"
"No, but I can find it quickly on the map."
Kern shook his head. "Forget about that for now. You seem to have the radio down pretty good. I think it's time for you to drive."
"Drive? Now?"
"Sure, why not? I can see you know how to handle the radio. I can also see you don't know where anything is, but there's nothing I can do about that. Now, I wanna see you behind the wheel."
"Whatever you think best." The moment of truth had arrived; something had to be done about that infernal rear-view mirror. I dallied for a short moment, snapping on my seatbelt, moving up the bench seat, which caused Kern to groan and surely wish for vehicles with bucket seats.
"I hate short trainees," he said as his knees pressed against the glove compartment, bending him into the fetal position. "Okay, for now, I just want you to drive. I'll tell you exactly where to go, and I'll handle the radio. I want you to concentrate on nothing but driving."
Momentary panic thundered into my being. Kern would not allow me to stall much longer, but then I noticed a small lever at the base of the mirror. Pulling the lever forward caused the mirror to tilt upward, giving me a view of the cab's ceiling, yet the back window was visible.
"Anti-glare position," Kern said.
"Ah, excellent," I replied, shifting into gear and feeling the car drift forward. I turned right, coasted toward Fish Hatchery and when there was absolutely no traffic coming from either direction, gingerly pressed the accelerator. The vehicle responded, but not with the aplomb of my beloved Bentley and certainly not anything like my last Jaguar. It struck me as inconceivable that anyone could lose control of one of these relatively tame creatures.
"Martin's coming up on our right in about a half mile," Kern said, "right before the Starvin' Marvin's. That's a convenience store, locally owned by the Marvin family. They make great sandwiches, a nice thing to know if you get hungry."
The brightly lit convenience store glowed in the distance, but it seemed unlikely I would buy sandwiches there. At the appropriate street sign, I flipped the right directional indicator, slowed, braked and made the turn. Kern nodded his head after each small action.
"Here's the fun part," Kern said. "Finding an address on a dark street. How's your night vision?"
"Not bad," I said, proud to have drifted into the vernacular and doubly proud when I found the address with greater ease than Kern would have expected. He grunted, then grudgingly complimented me as we watched, only to see no one emerge from the apartment building.
"The fine art of loading calls, part three. If it's daytime and you pull up in front of a house, if you don't see somebody coming out right away, you might blow your horn. You can do that at a small apartment building, too. But we don't honk after dark. So, we hit the HiQ button, and when the dispatcher answers, we ask for a phone call. Also, it's a good idea to say the address to double-check that you're at the right place."
I reached for the HiQ button, but Kern stopped me.
"Wait at least a minute before asking for the phone call. If the person comes out right after you ask for the phone call, make sure you tell the dispatcher."
"Another HiQ?"
"No, just break right in."
A minute passed, and I requested the phone call. The passenger emerged shortly thereafter. His destination wasBaird Street . I reached for the street directory, but Kern stopped me.
"I'll show you the way," he said. "For now, I just want to see you drive."
This was just as well. Kern's labyrinthine path toward the destination was far from readily apparent on the map, a classic demonstration that part of what makesMadison a complicated place to drive is the dearth of streets meeting at right angles.
"That will be two dollars and fifty cents," I said at the end of the ride. The passenger tried to hand me some bills, but Kern intercepted them.
"We're training," Kern said. "I'm the bag man."
The man smiled. "Keep the change, but make sure he gets the tip."
"No problem," Kern said. After the passenger left, my trainer pointed at the street sign that stood before us. "I want you to look up this street in your street directory."
Kern wore a knowing smile when I turned to him, perplexed after finding the street in the directory. "I don't know any of these streets that are used as points of reference."
"I didn't think you would. The street directory is useful because it's quicker than reading your map, but it doesn't do you any good if you don't know the referenced streets. The map gives you a clearer picture, but it's cumbersome and doesn't really tell you the best routes. What might look like a real good shortcut may not be."
"May I assume that there is no replacement for knowing the city like the proverbial back of one's hand."
Kern nodded. "Feel free to ask your passengers for help if you don't know where something is. Generally, they'll be perfectly happy to give you directions. Hell, it's in their best interest. If someone's gonna be a jerk about it, fuck 'em. To keep from looking like too much of a moron, you can say something like, 'do you have a favorite route?' That usually works pretty well. But also, play up that you're new. That works pretty well for sympathy tips. Besides, no matter how well you know the city, always remember that you do have to go the way the passenger wants. After all, the customer is always right."
"I have heard that saying before."
"Well don't forget it, Count. The customer is always right, that is, unless they're a raving psychotic."
That last remark gave me pause. Raving psychotic? Just how psychotic might a raving psychotic be?
Finally, I shifted into gear and eased forward, retracing our previous steps and moving north toward the downtown. Kern pointed out a strip of bars alongPark Street , saying we get many calls from those establishments. He pointed to his right as we passed the intersection ofWest Washington and Park, saying it's called "the five points" in cab slang. We reached Park and Regent, which brought an earlier association that was somehow helpful in painting an internal geometry; Regent also crossesWest Washington . This whole area is one big triangle.
"We call this Spaghetti Corners," Kern said. "Before urban renewal, this was a Italian neighborhood, Sicilian mostly, but the city tore it all down. Prejudice mainly. Hell, contrary to the movies, most Sicilians are not actually in the Mafia. The 'Tenderloin' may not have been the prettiest place in the world, but itwas a real, honest-to-God ethnic neighborhood."
"Where did these people go?" Hulking medical buildings loomed on either side, shrouding in long shadows the apparent remaining businesses, Josie's Restaurant and Fraboni's Deli.
"The suburbs. Wherever they could afford. Supposedly, during that particular urban renewal period, the Italians were paid considerably less for their homes than their Northern European counterparts. Anyway, that's just a littleMadison history from someone who's lived here his whole life. So, what should we do now?"
The radio was silent. I would have thought that with the cold weather, there would be more people calling for cabs. "I do not know."
"Finding a cab stand wouldn't be a bad, but I have a better idea. Can you find your way to the airport?"
"I think I know where that is. Shall we go there?"
"Ahead, warp factor seven, Mister Sulu." Kern laughed. "Y'know, there's an amazing mental process that goes on when you get assigned a call. It's kind of like having a littleStarship Enterprise inside your head."
So, it was a twenty-year-old television show to which he was referring. I have watched the show on occasion and found it mildly entertaining, though it seems astounding that these humans are so fascinated with outer space, where none of them will ever go, while there are so many mysteries on this planet that they take for granted every day of their lives.
"You get a call, and it's like there's a little Captain Kirk who orders a little Mister Chekov to plot a course. Then, once the course is plotted and laid in, a little Mister Sulu takes you where you want to go."
"Fascinating," I replied. Kern laughed at that. He seemed well at ease, hopefully due to my performance. It did occur to me that Kern might have the power to say he did not think I would be suitable for the task of driving a cab. My radio acumen was satisfactory, and my driving was more than satisfactory. Obviously, my knowledge of the city was limited, but had I not passed their geographic test? How much would they expect?
"I'll say one thing," Kern said, practically reading my mind. "You drive well. Don't think I haven't been watching. Of course, some trainees I'm almost scared to watch, but you drive very sanely. You use your turn signals. You seem comfortable behind the wheel, and you're never in too much of a hurry. That's good. Very good."
"I have been driving quite a long time."
"Too bad you've been driving inMadison only a short time."
"You are concerned?"
"Yeah. If you knew the city, I'd have to say you'd make a great cab driver, but you don't, and it worries me. We'll talk about that later. For now, just get us to the airport in one piece."
"Aye aye, Captain."
At the airport, Kern pointed out a circular area which he said was the taxi-loading area. There are six parking spaces there, he said, and only six cabs are allowed in the stand. Additional cabs must sit in the adjacent overflow area or risk getting ticketed by airport security.
"They love writing us cabbies tickets," he said. "It's bullshit. They need us, but they treat us like shit. You know, the guy who runs the airport was one time actually quoted as saying that cabs at the airport are like fleas on a dog."
The ready stand was full, and a few cabs sat in the overflow area, but there appeared to be no one inside waiting for baggage. I wondered if we would stay and speculated what value the cooperative would garner from paying Kern an hourly wage just so the two of us could sit at the airport, but my trainer had altruism on his mind.
"Slow time," Kern said. "Let's head back uptown. I'm not much of a trainer if I let us just sit here and shoot the shit for an hour waiting to load."
We left the airport and ran about a half-dozen calls before Kern announced that our training session was complete. His announcement felt abrupt. Had he decided my training was adequate? Or had he felt that no amount of training could make up for a total lack of geographic knowledge? As we drove back to the office, I glanced furtively at his face, trying to read an expression that was totally enigmatic.
Kern showed me how to refuel the cab and take the ending readings. We parked the vehicle and gathered up all our belongings, then returned the cab key to the dispatcher, who, in turn, removed the calls slips from the appropriate hook on the large peg-board next to him, stapled the stack together and handed it to Kern.
Kern sat me down in front of an electronic adding machine and walked me through the process of balancing a waybill at shift's end. He counted his money and handed me a five-dollar note - my share of the tips. After we completed the paperwork, he seemed impressed, then plucked an evaluation form from his rucksack and began filling it out, explaining each point as I watched.
"Driving, I'll give you a five." Categories were each judged on a numeric scale from one to five, five being the best. "Radio skills, another five. You were shaky at first, but got it down pretty good. Paperwork, a definite five, but when you're anally retentive, paperwork comes pretty easy. Customer relations, another five. ThatOld World charm should work pretty well, especially with the women." He winked at me.
The last category was "knowledge of the city." I held my breath as Kern wrote a two on the form. At the bottom, a line read, "should this trainee be hired?" Kern paused, tapping his pen back and forth between the box that said "yes" and the one that said "no."
"Your knowledge of the city is not good, not good at all, and I am very concerned about that, Al. Now, there is something you have to understand. Just because the Hiring Committee decided to hire you, that doesn't guarantee you've got a job here. All new drivers are on probation when they start. They have to pass probation before they become members of the cooperative. As of right now, you don't have any of the rights a member has. You could get fired tomorrow and have no right to appeal."
I held my peace, held my breath, waiting for Kern to complete what the Americans would call his pregnant pause.
"Also, I want you to know, as a trainer, I can recommend that we not hire somebody. Management is free to ignore me if they want, but the few times I've said, 'don't hire this person,' theyhave listened to me."
Another pregnant pause. What was Kern implying? I wished he would just say whatever it was he wanted to say. How typical of these commoners. They crave power, and when they finally get it, all they can think of is how to use it against their betters.
"With seasoning, I see absolutely no reason why you can't eventually become one hell of a cabbie. You're smart, you do everything else well. Your knowledge of the city will come in time. I am therefore recommending that we hire you. And, considering that you've mastered everything else, and that you're simply going to have to get to know the city on your own, I'm concluding your training, as of now."
"That is wonderful!" I grabbed Kern's hand and shook it vigorously. "When may I start?"
"You'll have to talk to Kevin about a schedule. Give him a call tomorrow. He'll set you up. Just remember, take it slow. No one's gonna expect too much from you right away. As long as you don't crack up any cabs."
"I will remember that."
"Also remember, wewill be watching you, Al. Granted, I'm telling you to take it slow. I'm telling you we never expect too much from rookies right at the beginning, but do not forget, you are on probation, which means you can be terminated at any time. It also means that if you're not cutting the mustard, your probation may be extended past the standard guidelines."
"I understand." My tone quickly shifted from enthusiastic to solemn.
"Bottom line, everybody's gotta pull their weight. We have the interests of the entire membership to keep in mind. You're allowed to work through problems, to make mistakes, but only up to a point. We need drivers who make money. We don't need drivers who cost us money just to have them on the road. Capiche?"
I nodded soberly. "Yes. I understand." Quite fully.