Scams, Scanners, Taxis, and the Cosmic Cabbie

The Cosmic Cabbie

It was back in the early 90’s and I had just recently returned to Santa Cruz after living 6 years in Japan. So much had changed during my years abroad that it was as if I had returned home, only to find myself still traveling, still adrift in a strange country. One night while visiting a friend near the Seabright area, I stepped out on the porch of the house and saw a Yellow Cab slowly rolling down the street. Under the weird blue glow from the streetlight, it looked like a brightly colored shark trolling through murky waters. It was one of those quiet, mysterious moments that catch your attention and stick in your memory. I couldn’t see the person driving and I remember distinctly wondering where they were going so late at night and who they looking for. In the still underwater gloom, I could hear the tires slowly and steadily crunching gravel as it cruised on past my friend’s house, turned the corner, and was gone.

And here is my downfall… As the sound of the wheels faded into the night, I wondered, what would it be like to drive a cab? To be inside that yellow darkened archetype. To roll down a nighttime maze of stories and streets and never know what the next call, the next intersection, the next adventure might be.

I thought maybe I’d do it for the summer while I readjusted to living in America again, kind of a way of reintroducing myself to the flow of the city, but it was like everything else. The more you pay attention, the more interesting things get. Each story, each night becomes like a series of pearls strung on a string and each one draws you on to the next, and before I knew it, I had been driving a cab for 5 years.

There were so many stories. It seemed as if at least one extraordinary thing happened every night. As if there would be at least one memorable meeting, or one interesting story, and if you paid attention, one little life lesson. I remember one night after I had been driving for several years; I picked up a very attractive and well-dressed woman and drove her out to Eastcliff. When I came around to open the door for her and settle the tab, she stopped for a moment, and then came up very close to me and took my face in her hands, and then she gave me a long lingering kiss and pressed herself lightly against me like a breeze against a tree.

Then she whispered. “You were kind to me once. I was so upset, and you were kind to me.”

Whatever it was, I didn’t have a clue. I picked up a lot of upset, unhappy, lost people. I tried to be nice to all of them… and then; she walked off down an alley into the darkness.

One night, I picked up a strange and smelly gentleman. He was small and had long white wispy hair mixed with patches of bald skin. He was extremely pale as if had been kept in a dungeon for many years and his clothes were literally in tatters. He seemed terrified and was clutching a small bundle of cloth tightly to his chest, and as I said, he was smelly. It was that long unwashed smell of homelessness and corrupt feet.

Carrying baby Jesus across the river

As I rolled down my window to get a breath of fresh air, he said, “Driver? They have cabbies in the other dimension.” Without missing a beat, I said, “Of course they do.” And then I handed him my business card, which said, Cosmic Cabbie Protect Us; on one side and Knows all, Sees all, Says nothing; on the other side. Then I said, “I’m The Cosmic Cabbie, I go over there all the time!” “You do?” he said in an amazed voice.

“Of course I do!” I replied, but then realizing I might be talking myself into a problem, I said, But I can only take you there, I can’t bring you back… I have a one-way license. Some of the other drivers have two-way licenses. They can take you there, and they can bring you back.” Then I paused for effect and said in an ominous tone, “However… There are extras that don’t show up on the meter… You know what I mean?”
He sat for a moment and thought about it and then he nodded his head vigorously and said, “Never take a cab to the other dimension!” and I said, “Right!”

There are so many stories and I’ll come back to some them later, but the amazing thing to me was that often the stories would play out over several days and sometimes even several years. I’d get one part of the story one night and then the next night I’d run into something that would tie it all up into a complete little story. It’s one of the reasons I kept driving for so long. I’d come back to the lot at the end of the evening so excited and wound up by all the stories and characters that I could hardly contain myself. One of the other drivers, I think his name was Paul, would come back to the lot, just furious about how awful his night had been. He looked for all the world like a vampire, with cadaverous shadows around his eyes and a long beaklike nose. He would unfold his lanky 6’7” frame out of his beat up old cab and rage about the jerks, assholes, and bums that he had had to pick up that night.

One night he looked at me with a curious expression and he said, “You like this don’t you?” It seemed he got into some kind of fight with a customer every single night. I’d hear him yelling over the scanner to call the police and there would be sounds of a struggle coming through the speaker. I told him I loved it. That it was like a series of Little Rascal stories every night and sometimes I had so much fun I could hardly bear it. He looked thoughtful and then said, “I can respect that.”

And that brings me to the scanner. One of the down sides of driving a taxi is that you are tethered to the cab like a baby to its mother. The radio is your umbilical cord that feeds you and you simply cannot separate from it. You can have hours of down time where there is not a single call and then, just as you step into the restroom of a crummy service station, you will miss the best call of the night. You can’t go into a restaurant, you can’t run into the grocery store and pick up a bag of chips, so what I did was, I got myself a scanner.

With the scanner, I set it for both the dispatch and the other drivers and I could hear both sides of the conversations. That way, I could go into a store and if I got dispatched to a call, I could run back out to the cab and catch it before it got resent to a different driver. As a bonus, I could also hear the other drivers, often a driver sees a fare standing by the road while he’s taking someone else in his cab and he calls that in to dispatch. I’d hear, “There’s a fare standing in front of the Blue Lagoon.” and before dispatch could get the call out, I’d whip around the corner and snag the call.

One night, one of the other drivers calls dispatch and tells her that he wants to go out to Watsonville to pick up some cocaine and she tells him she’ll give him a fare out in that direction if he gets some for her. I don’t know what made me angrier, the drug deal, or the fact that the dispatching wasn’t fair. The driver was a nasty sort anyway. He drove an older Cadillac that had been painted yellow and always bragged about how much money he made each night. After hearing that dispatch conversation I stopped doubting him, just realized that most of his money wasn’t coming from cab rides. Sometime later he was caught in a “Random” traffic stop and searched… I always wondered who turned him in. I did confront the dispatcher who responded, “Who cares? I hate this job anyway!”

Back in 93, cell phones were just barely entering the market and cordless landline phones were a pretty hot item. The technology was fairly new and they hadn’t started to scramble the signals yet. That meant that as I rumbled through town in my rundown handicab (I was the only wheelchair accessible cab in the city) while listening to my trusty scanner, I would travel from cordless phone conversation to cordless phone conversation.

First off… the things people call each other on the imagined privacy of their phones would nearly turn your stomach! Pookums, and Baby-poo, Swee-swee, and Niggle baby, roll off people’s tongues with not an ounce of shame. Butter babe, and Sweetie pooh bear are just the beginning… and then there are the arguments that stem from not wanting to hang up. The guy says, “Bye bye snuggle wuggems” and the girl says, “don’t forget to stop at the market on the way back.” He says, “Okay, I won’t forget poopsie whoopsie.” She says, “Your mother called today.” He says, “ Okay, love you juney bug, got to run.” She says, “I think there’s something wrong with the car and your mother’s driving me crazy.” He says… Gotta go babe.”

She says, “You don’t love me anymore.” I start screaming at the scanner, “Shut up already! Hang up the phone!” I mean, I can hear what’s going on… He wants to get on the road to get home, but she’s not done yet. She doesn’t want the conversation to end. It’s like she’s looking for something intangible, some declaration of love that will satiate her so she can hang up, but that doesn’t really happen over the phone. I suppose that’s why rich guys buy diamond bracelets for their wives; it’s an effort to satiate them long enough to get them to hang up the phone.

Then there are the married guys who talk to their girl friends in hushed tones while standing out on the street. Once when I pulled up at a house to pick up a fare, I saw a guy sitting out on the front porch of the house next door talking on his cordless phone while a party crashed along inside, I reached up and hit the scan button on my scanner and blip, the guy came right up on the speaker. “Heavy breathing… Baby, baby, I want to do it you so bad.” And then her saying in a scared voice, “Why do you keep calling me? Please leave me alone!” This was before the days of caller ID.

So I roll down the window and yell, “Hey Asshole! Stop making obscene phone calls!” right in front of the neighbors as they walk towards the cab. The guy looks like I smacked him right in the nose and tries to hide the phone behind his back.

Those stories go and and on, but the story I want to tell here mostly happened at the Saint George Hotel where I had an apartment overlooking the Santa Cruz Pacific Mall. When I wasn’t driving around in the cab using the scanner, I kept it next to my desk in its charger and every once in a while, I would reach over and turn it on, just to see what people in the building were talking about. There was a guy downstairs who would call his girlfriend everyday and they would masturbate together over the phone while watching The Montel Williams show… In between the moans and groans they would make comments on the show’s guests.

He worked down the street at a local shop and whenever I would buy something there I would have these visions of him and his girlfriend, who I never actually saw.

I know it was a terrible thing to do, but I am always curious about people and the temptation just too much. One of the worst conversations I stumbled into was this big brute of a guy who lived just down the hallway from me. It didn’t take long to figure out who he was because he would get into arguments with his girlfriend and would yell so loud that I could hear him in the hallways. He would be talking to her and then would get another call on call waiting. He would put his girlfriend on hold and then start badmouthing her to the new caller.

“Yeah, that dumb bitch Marlene, she just don’t get it! I can’t frigging stand her.” And then he would switch back to the first call and say, “That was Francis. That stupid c**t don’t know when it’s over!” He seemed to have several on-going relationships that he played off each other, and over time I began to hate him.

He also talked to friends of his about a series of ongoing scams. He would order CDs from those CD houses where you get 5 free CDs and then they sign you up for a CD every month that you have to either pay for or return. Then he’d take the CDs down to the used book store (Logos) and resell them for half of their market price. When his friend asked him about the monthly deliveries, he just laughed and said he used other people’s names, girlfriends, his mother, he didn’t care.

Then one day he called a friend of his and said to him, “I’ve been getting these dividend checks for the guy who used to live in this room, usually only 10 or 20 bucks, I just tear them up and throw them away, ha ha, ha, but this time, it’s some kind of balloon payment and it’s for $14,000. How can I cash it?”

So his friend tells him that there are these check-cashing places over in San Jose that will give him 50 cents on the dollar, no questions asked. He gets all excited and starts making plans to get this check disposed of. Then his friend asks what the guys name is who was supposed to get the check, and my neighbor tells him. So sitting there at my desk, I pull out a phone book and start looking (we still used telephone books in those days) and sure enough, there he is. So I call him. Right there with the scanner call still going, I call him and I say… Hi, you don’t know me, but are you waiting for a big dividend check to come?” and he gets all excited and says that yes, he’s waiting for a check and he’s getting really worried because it’s late and who am I…

I tell him I want to remain anonymous, but that the guy who lives in the apartment he used to live in has the check and is trying to cash it. Turns out, he still lives in the building, just on a different floor, which is why the checks are still going to his old apartment. So without telling him who I am, we start making plans. I call the Post Office and the building manager and tell them everything I know. The Post Office opens a fraud case against my neighbor and the building manager starts the process of having him kicked out of the building.

I wish I could say that he ended up going to jail, but when Officers showed up at his door, he claimed he was planning on returning the check and no one could really prove any different. He did however get kicked out of the building, which pleased me to no end. I hated seeing him in the hallway with his Neanderthal eyebrows and his thick pimple covered neck.

I got tired of hearing people’s private calls and lost interest in using the scanner for non-work related entertainment. Then, one night a year or so later as I was cruising the streets, I picked up a nice looking young man over near the Gault School and was driving him downtown. He was well dressed and sat quietly in the back seat for quite awhile before he finally said,” Do you still listen to your scanner?”

I had a momentary panic and then said, “Only when I’m working… Why?” and he said, “You saved me a whole lot of money once.” Then he went on to tell me that he was the guy who lived downstairs with the lost check. I asked him how he knew it was me and he told me the building manager had told him, but had sworn him to secrecy. He told me he had always wanted to say something and had been waiting for a chance to ride in my cab.

He gave me a big tip that night, but more important, he gave me the rest of the story, which was what it was really all about, driving cab, being the Cosmic Cabbie, cruising the nights like a big yellow shark, rescuing people, collecting stories.

Cosmic Cabbie handing out Condoms

6 Responses to “Scams, Scanners, Taxis, and the Cosmic Cabbie”
  1. Annie Scott says:

    Hi Elija, Annie here (Cowell) ~ David Stanford put me onto your blog. The last time I saw you was in the Morrissey Ave Safeway quite by accident. It was a long time ago, and I think you told me you were moving to Portland. May I share your blog with a friend from a writing workshop who has written down a lot of his NYC cabdriver stories?

  2. Matthew Madden-Smith says:

    In the end stories are all we have. I love to collect stories if it’s my own, or other people’s. They are precious wonderful things that allow us to learn, laugh, or form some kind of emotional bond with the situation. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about my prom.

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