Trent Dalton spends a wild night behind the wheel of cab 466
This will end for me in the empty carpark of a brothel at dawn. I feel this, sense this, in my knuckles, sure as that storm cloud looming over the city carries 12 hours of hard rain, sure as the boys with me on changeover at Yellow Cabs headquarters at inner-city Woolloongabba know the future of federal politics.
"Will we continue to lick Green arse?" ponders the man with the grey stubble and the belly threatening to burst the buttons of his uniform. We answer our own questions here: "Yes, we bloody will."
Eight cabbies at the table. Eight thousand opinions. We fill in our yellow shift cards. Start of-shift meter totals. End-of-shift meter totals."Gillard? Good negotiator. Shit f..king politician." "Rudd? Good politician. Shit f..king negotiator."
Kilometre totals. Fuel costs. Insurance details. Men hustling the fleet coordinator for a spare car. Some won't jag a drive tonight. I'm the quiet new guy standing by the wall scared of being strangled by a pickup.
"You okay?" asks Robbie. Robindeep Pannu has been driving for three years. He's learned to say "mate" without a hint of an Indian accent. "Bit nervous." Heard too many stories in driver training. Listened too hard to my trainer "Yoda" when he spoke about what to do when someone's got a knife in your ribs; about how to avoid being stabbed with a blood-filled syringe; and the most effective way to clean excrement from a car seat.
It took three months for me to get here: transport department applications for a licence, an English assessment and an exhaustive five-day, driver training course with Yellow Cabs. I wanted to experience what it was really like to be a taxi driver, to find the humanity behind the wheel.
I figure Robbie has some tips on how a first time driver might survive a 12-hour Friday night cab shift. He looks at the sky, black and dreadful. "Don't drive," he laughs. Then he pulls me close. Seriously," he says. "Don't trust anyone. Don't trust a suit. Don't trust a tie. If you get a job to Logan, ask for the fare upfront. Don't let 'em drink in your car. It'll mean a $2000 fine for you, or maybe they'll just crack a bottle over your head."
The fleet coordinator, Andrew, taps me on the shoulder. "Your car's here," he says. Thunder echoes over Woolloongabba. Robbie shakes my hand. "Be safe," he says. I smile. He doesn't.
Eagle Street, 8pm. Three young men and woman from Townsville, 18 or 19 maybe, soaring on drink. "Alfred Street, the Valley," the girl says, taking shotgun. The boys have huge shoulders made for wrangling bulls. They wrestle in the back seat.
"You're actually my first fare." "No way!" the middle man screams. "Tag that shit! Tag that shit!" I have no idea what this means. The girl laughs. "You don't know what a Facebook tag is?" she asks. Hey, lady, I just drive cabs. One of the men leans over from the back seat and snatches my iPhone from the car's central console. "Where the f..k is your App Store, dude? You really have to sort your phone out." The young man downloads the Facebook app.
"What's your name?" he asks. "Trent Dalton." "Trent f..kin' big dog Dalton!" he screams, prompting his friends to inexplicably howl like dogs. I struggle to concentrate on a rain-hammered road. Amid their howls, a man in a white Commodore in front of me pulls an abrupt and dangerous U-turn on Brunswick Street.
"Beep that caaaaaaaant!" one of the boys screams in my ear. Don't mind if I do. I slam on the horn for a satisfying two Mississippi seconds, inspiring victorious fist pumps from my passengers. Drop off at an apartment block in Alfred St. Ten dollar fare. I slip the money into a coin box I've fashioned from a takeaway chicken chow mein container.
"Can I just ask something?" the girl says. "Why the hell are you driving taxis?" I hope to have an answer to that by morning. Query says I have a job in Cathedral Place, also in the Valley. Query is my computer. Query is base sending me messages. Query is God.
"Pick up: Hose". When I arrive, there is no "Hose". Just in case, I decide to wait 14 minutes for "Hose". Time is money. The more time you spend driving solo, the less time you spend making money. Two Englishmen exit the Cathedral Place apartments. Neither is called Hose. They want to go to the Story Bridge Hotel. Flag goes down on the meter. Left into Ann St. These guys look British Army, crew cuts, muscles, combat chat. The ginger-haired man coughs three times. "F..king bronchitis," he says. "I live 30 years in freezing cold London and I get f..king bronchitis in Australia."
His taller blond-haired friend talks about a dear friend who is in the process of divorce. He details the many things wrong with the relationship in question - incompatibility, stress and the wife's belief that oral sex does not necessarily have to be reciprocal. The blond haired man then updates his friend on a brief affair he's been having with a woman who firmly believes in sexual reciprocity. "She's wearing me out," he says. I'm not here. I don't exist. I'm the invisible man. "To be honest, I'm loath to call her. She's coming on a little bit too strong."
It's a $12.30 fare. I offer to make it $12 flat but the Englishmen insist on paying me $20. Never say a bad word about the British. Beatles. Tea. Kind to cabbies.
Rain buckets down. The city shimmers. Blinding lights of the heaving metropolis. People on corners smoking. A man staggers out of the Exchange Hotel and vomits on the pavement, brown gunk splashing back on his shoes and his tight black jeans.
Five cabs on a rank. Keep going till you see three cabs at a rank. Two cabs at a rank. One cab at a rank. Bingo. Two university students rush out in front of my car on Albert St. They're wearing white sheets fashioned into Roman togas. There's a mass university toga party in the Botanic Gardens on Alice St. Hundreds of students now run through the city like asylum escapees. They bang my bonnet with their hands, tongues out like Maori warriors.
This city is an animal. It's a werewolf morphing in the night. Rain and neon quicken its pulse, feed its lust for bodies and blood.
I'm hungry. Need a burger. Want grease. Want sugar for some reason. Want coffee to keep me alive. George Harrison sings on the radio. Here Comes the Sun. George was stabbed in his home. A disturbed man entered his house one night in 1999. He sat atop George in his bedroom and stabbed him repeatedly. George just chanted at the man as he was being stabbed. George simply prepared for his death. He had no alert button to press.
Scan the faces on the Albert St cab rank. Banker. Lawyer. Hairdresser. Student. Accountant. Murderer. Tuckshop lady. Porn film star. Skydiving instructor. Skull collector. All paying customers. A man in a Ramones shirt carrying a bottle of Bundaberg Rum wants a lift to Spring Hill. "You're not an Indian?" he says, puzzled. Drop off at Wickham Terrace. Take a hail fare. Businessman in a blue-collared shirt. "I need to go to Kenmore," he says, slipping into the front passenger seat. "You've just won the lottery." Settle down, Gordon Gekko. It's a $33 fare. I'll hold that call to the real-estate agent in Noosa. Gordon immediately notices my lack of subcontinental genetic traits. "I'm not racist," he says, before saying something racist about Indian cab drivers.
He suggests I should do more with my life. Chase my dreams and such. He asks me what my life's ambition is. My life's ambition is to own a home with no mortgage and be a father of two teenage girls who don't take drugs. My dream is to fly a kite through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan but, I suggest, if we cabbies all chased our dreams, Gordon Gekko would have to walk home from Friday night drinks.
I explain the joys of driving cabs. Freedom of the open road, meeting fascinating people. The glorious exchange of ideas and coins; the inspiring transference of wisdom and electronic funds. "How long have you been driving for?" Gekko asks. After such a vivid defence of the trade I can't say I've been driving since 3pm - a total of six hours. I revert to a useful fallback measure adopted by pressured Queensland cabbies across generations: unashamedly lying one's arse off. I start rehashing things Yoda told me in training: "Cops don't leave us alone, mate"; "It's not unusual to be breath-tested seven times in the one night, mate"; "Bloody good on petrol these hybrid cars, mate"; "You gotta watch diabetes, mate. If the Whoppers don't kill you the Big Macs will."
At his house, Gekko hands me his credit card. The EFTPOS swiper asks me for my driver number, which I can't recall. In a desperate search of my wallet for my driver number Gekko's credit card is mixed up within my wallet cards. Having retrieved my driver number I realise I no longer have his credit card among my other cards because, as we both soon discover, it has slipped far down the gap between my crotch and the increasingly moist driver's seat, a slot no passenger wants their credit card to swipe. I hand him a receipt. He exits, baffled by the flurry of events. When he closes the door I realise the receipt I gave him from the EFTPOS machine was merely a small introductory paper saying the EFTPOS machine is ready for use. I never actually swiped his card. I briefly consider a career in buses.
10pm, dinner at Kenmore McDonald's. I walk through the restaurant's sliding doors, passing two male Gen Ys in polo shirts, pastel-coloured shorts and loafers. They see me standing at the counter in my fresh Yellow Cabs uniform. They openly laugh at me. One of the young men points a finger at me and says loudly to his friend: "There's a job for you!" I stare at them with a sad smile, hoping they'll see the fragile heart breaking beneath the Yellow Cabs badge. They simply chuckle, stuffing their faces with French fries.
The immediate and open lack of respect is as beguiling as it is belittling. Earlier this afternoon, I had my cab briefly parked in the visitors' carpark at The Courier-Mail office in Bowen Hills. Someone who worked in the office had mistaken me for a cab driver waiting for a fare. It was pouring rain. As the man opened the passenger door I quickly explained that I was merely briefly dropping into the office and not, as he thought, picking up passengers. The man turned on the spot, walked away not saying a word, leaving the passenger door open in slamming rain.
I order a Big Mac and a Coke the size of Wivenhoe Dam. On the Western Freeway, my bladder progresses from W2 to W3. I understand now why Yoda wants to publish a book for cabbies listing all of the presentable 24-hour public toilet spots in South-East Queensland.
10.49pm, an alert runs across the Query screen. "Danger, danger, St Barnabas Place, Red Hill, please stand by for confirmation." Query job from Fig Tree Pocket to Fortitude Valley. As torrential rain batters my windscreen I nearly die three times driving down three separate flooded and blacked out Fig Tree Pocket streets in order to pick up a young 18-year-old named Angus. As Angus strolls to my car, I hope he's going to tell me that my efforts were well worth it because he is on a vital quest to reach his dying mother or his stranded pet goat, Kiddy, or he's off to the RBH to donate an organ to his best friend. "Electric Playground," he sighs. I'm picturing a Jimi Hendrix album cover."What's that?" I ask. He laughs like I must be joking. It turns out to be a club in the Valley.
Job from Valley to Novotel Hotel, City. Client looks like a senior member of an outlaw motorcycle gang. Hands me $20 for a $10 fare. Novotel back to Valley. Valley back to City. Hail fare from a rank outside the Grand Central bar on Ann St. A man and a woman, mid-forties, work colleagues. The man takes shotgun. His drunk head wobbles like a dashboard Elvis. The woman rolls into the backseat the way one might access a sleeping bag. She sits up when she sees the colour of my skin. "Wooohoo, an Aussie!" she screams.
The man wants to go to Stones Corner. She wants to go to Capalaba. On the Riverside Expressway the man pats his pockets urgently. "Shit, I forgot me key!" he says. "Aww, f..k it, drop me home anyway." At Stones Corner, the woman in the back looks like she's close to passing out. A woman falling asleep in a cab spells disaster for a driver. He must not lay a finger on the sleeping passenger. He must notify base, pull up at a public space, exit the car, stand in front of the car as he waits for a witness to oversee the waking of the passenger. All this adds up to time lost and money wasted.
"Mate, she'll pass out," the man says. "Then you can take her for a drive and slug her however much you want." The woman sits bolt upright. "Like f..k he will," she says. "I know Jim. Do you know Jim?" I don't know Jim. "He's a cabbie. He's a big black c..t. He'd f..k you up."
We pull up outside the man's house. The woman leans over the central console. "What are you gonna do for me?" she slurs. "What do you want me to do?" her friend asks. "Not you," she says. "Cabbie!" I turn my face towards hers. Her breath has a delightful scent of rum, cigarettes and stomach acids. "Cabbie!" she sprays. I feel a tiny ball of her saliva land in the corner of my left eye socket. "What are you gonna do for me?" "What would you like me to do?" "I need drinks. I need smokes."
She directs me to the BWS drive-through liquor barn outside the Camp Hill Hotel. On the way, she tells me she is a single mother of three kids. She has, like me, a five-year-old daughter. "She's a princess," she says. "But sometimes you'd just like to smash the c..t."
She buys a single can of Bundaberg Rum and Cola and a packet of Winfield cigarettes at the drive-through counter. She decides on her return to the cab to sit in the front passenger seat where my Refidex is resting. "Get your f..kin' pretend Refidex out of me f..kin' arse," she says. Give me strength, Yoda. "Now," she says. "You're going to let me drink, aren't you?" "Absolutely not," I demand. "I could lose my ... " Crack. Her can is open and she's taking a long swig. She giggles as she tears the plastic wrapping off her cigarettes. "And you're gonna let me smoke aren't you?" she says. I feel like I've picked up Bea Smith from Prisoner. "Absolutely out of the question," I say. "You gotta get out." "Huh?" she says. "Get out." "Aww, f..k," she whines. "It's pissin' rain." I direct her to an awning attached to the BWS. I'll wait while she has her smoke.
Under the awning, she realises she doesn't have lighter. She hands me $2.50. "Get me a lighter will ya?" she slurs. I walk around the corner to the drive-through and purchase a lighter. By the time I return to the awning the woman is smoking a cigarette and whispering into the ear of a stocky bald man with tattoos and a straw-coloured handlebar moustache who has exited the Camp Hill Hotel sports bar. The man is holding a six-pack of beer.
"Go on," the woman whispers. The man walks over to the front left wheel of my taxi and unbuckles his belt. He unzips his fly, about to urinate on my taxi. "Hey, mate," I plead nervously, rushing to the car, defending the cab's dignity with my palms out. "What the hell are you doing?" The man looks into my eyes, smiles, and gives three slow and deeply disturbing laughs. "Ha ... ha ... ha," he says. He zips up and walks away into the night, without a drop, mercifully, being spilled. Oh, the humanity.
A taxi pulls up beside my car. It's Robbie. He was driving past and saw my situation. He came to see if I was okay. I'm deeply touched by the gesture. "Never let her do this," he says, watching my passenger swaying under the awning. "I know, I know," I say. I'm a sucker for single-parent Capalaba bogans. "Is your meter running?" Robbie asks. "No," I say. Robbie shakes his head. "Never do this," he says, mortified. He's got a pickup to get to. "But are you okay from here?" he says. "Yeah, I'll be fine."
Robbie pulls away onto Old Cleveland Road, giving two winks of his rooftop spotlight in farewell. Cheers Robbie. "Now," the woman says. "We gotta go through the drive-through." "We just went through the drive-through," I spit. "Yeah," the woman says, tipping her can upside down. "But I drank that one." Aaahhhhh!
It's midnight now. Darkness and rain on the road to Capalaba. Not a car or a light in sight. The woman turns to me. "What would you do if I went ballistic right now?" she asks. "I'd plead to your humanity and hope you wouldn't go ballistic at me for no apparent reason." "But what if I went right off at you right now when you're all the way out here?"
I tell her I'd press the emergency button and there'd be a cavalry of six cabs and a police car here in seconds. She'd be immediately surrounded by an army of cabbies, some of whom know karate. "Bullshit," she says. "I could do anything I want to you. You'd be f..ked. There wouldn't be a f..kin' thing you could do out here." I watch her slip her right hand slowly into her handbag. My fingers slowly reach for the emergency button. "This is my street," she says, mercifully. Her right hand pulls her credit card from her bag. There will be no taxi-driver slayings in Capalaba tonight.
Her 12-year-old son is waiting for his mum to come home. I can see him watching television in the living room. "He likes to be the big man," the woman says. "He probably feels he has to be." "Yeah," the woman says. She shakes her head. "He's a good boy sometimes." The woman has tears in her eyes. She tells me how much she loves her boy, how much she's trying to be a better mum for him. She thanks me for the ride, thanks me for not booting her out on the street.
"Can I give you a hug?" she asks. We share an awkward embrace in the front seat. Her liquored-up lips plant a kiss on my right cheek. She mumbles something incomprehensible in my ear. Then she's gone. Her son lets her inside, grips her shoulder so she doesn't fall over.
I need a coffee. Pull into McDonald's at Kangaroo Point where a young man in tight red jeans with a Big Mac burger meal slips uninvited into the front seat. Not older than 20. He doesn't waste time with greetings. He doesn't waste time with eye contact. He simply barks his command:
"Central Station, last train, 1am, GO!" After five minutes of silence the young man says something. He talks the quick staccato of Woody Allen. "Where do you stand?" he says. "Red Rooster chips, KFC chips, McDonald's chips?" I do have a stance on this. "A fresh Red Rooster chip beats a fresh KFC chip, but an old KFC chip beats an old Red Rooster chip by virtue of seasoning. McDonald's chips are crap 24-7." "Cool!" the young man says, punching the roof with his fists. "Wow. You're so engaging! You're so engaging!" He's talking psychobabble like Oprah now. "Most of you guys are just dark," he says. "Blood from stone, man. But I'm a steak man, right? And there's no chip better than a chip with gravy." "Amen, brother."
The car pulls up at Central Station at 12.44am. "Oh no, this is a shame," he says. "This has been good. Has this been good? I really enjoyed this." He asks for my name and number. "Cool," he says, exiting the car, nearly placing his head in front of the bumper of a passing Subaru. He leans in through the window: "You can, like, be my driver." Yes, and I can wipe your Gen Y backside while I polish your Converse sneakers. "Cool! Okay, done! Cool. See you, man."
Join the snaking rank at Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley. This city is an animal. It stalks its kill at night. A musclebound man in an undersized T-shirt aggressively hauls his near catatonic girlfriend up into the Valley Mall, a vicelike grip on her arm. Big men leer at nervous women in skimpy clothes outside $5 lapdance joints like the Cabaret Club. I'm sorry Mr Darwin, we didn't survive anything. We're all just one stiff Jäger Bomb away from the paleolithic.
2am, Caxton Street to Indooroopilly. "I've got $22, please just get me home to Indro," a thirtysomething man begs. He lost his girlfriend tonight. She went home with another man. There were words. He would have punched the guy's lights out had his broken heart not paralysed his muscles. "There's a million beautiful women in this city," he says. "And I could count on my fingers the ones with good hearts."
Job to Petrie Terrace. Job to North Quay. Job to Kedron. Pleasant Spanish tourists. Maudlin goths. Excitable 21-year-old engineering students. The city turns. The meter runs. Soon it's 3.45am. Too much time behind the wheel; too much caffeine and bad food making me lose my mind.
After 30 minutes waiting in the Brunswick St rank I find myself staring at passersby and talking to myself in the deranged voice of a disgruntled IRA member: "What's wit' all the leopard print? What's wit' all the pushin' and shovin' and carryin' on? Ain't you ever heard of a t'ing called manners?" Why am I still here?
Two knocks on the backseat window. A man from western Queensland slips into the car. "Take me to a decent knock shop," he says. "The one on Abbotsford Road." Right away, sir. He's been getting $50 lap dances at the Cabaret Club. He figures he might as well spend another $150 for the whole allexpenses-paid round-the-world trip.
The rear carpark of the Purely Blue boutique brothel in Bowen Hills is empty. "I don't think it's open," I say to the man. He laughs. "Oh, it's open," he says confidently, patting my shoulder and handing me a $20 note for an $8 fare. "Keep the change." The side door to the brothel opens. The man disappears inside.
This city is an animal. It bares its teeth in the pre-dawn. It shows its claws. It prowls and growls. It eats its young and sleeps on a full stomach.
Long night. feel like a shower. I want to go to bed. But why am I still here? Because somewhere between Capalaba and Kedron I became the animal. I became the hunter. Something inside me wants to keep driving. Just one more. It's the eternal chant of the cabbie. Just one more. The next fare will be the jackpot. You never know what comes next. Just one more.
Car 466 heading back into the city. What else have you got for me, Brisbane? Give me your drunks and your big-eyed speed freaks and your luckless gamblers. Give me your lovelorn singles and your urine running down your pants leg; your wine-stained blue and white-striped button-up shirts, your snivelling adulterers, your inflated egos, your ill-informed opinions, your subtle racism, your spite, your insanity, your rage and your money. Spit in my face, dribble in my seat, urinate on my wheels, vomit on my floors.
I'll still get you home.
By Trent Dalton The above article was published in the QWeekend magazine April 7-8, 2012.