Back in my home country, I could have been a doctor. I came to America to pursue a better way of life, a dream. But I discovered that there are lots of other people in America trying to be doctors too, and my degree from back home wasn’t worth so much compared to theirs.
So now I drive a taxi, like so many other immigrants. I don’t resent it even, I’ve been doing it for almost 5 years now. It’s not so bad, really. If I’d come over here with a family to feed I’m sure it would be a struggle, but it’s just me. I don’t have the nicest apartment, but it’s much better than any place I’d ever have back home, and at least I don’t have to worry about being awoken by the terrifying sound of jets screaming overhead, or bombs being dropped on me.
I’ve found that when you’re a cabbie for a while you start to get the same sorts of questions over and over again from customers – well, the sober ones anyway. Busy night? How long have you been driving a cab for? What’s the largest fare you’ve ever had? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?
I get that last one a lot. As a taxi driver you get to see a cross-section of life afforded to few others in this world. You see it all, unfiltered, unedited, unflinching; life, with all its dark corners, and all the sordid vignettes that play out so many thousand times a night unnoticed. I’ve witnessed so many cross-sections of humanity and most of the time they act like I’m not even there.
But the craziest thing I’ve ever seen? The worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my line of work? Well, when the customers ask me about that, I always lie. I always tell them the story about that group of drunk college kids I made the mistake of picking up on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012. They’d stolen a keg from the bar and one of them, a frat boy type, was naked, and threw in up in the backseat.
Why would I lie? Because in order to be a good driver you have to make the customer feel at home. You have to have a good relationship with them, no matter how short their ride is, make them feel comfortable and safe. And if I told any of my customers the real story about the strangest thing I ever witnessed, they wouldn’t feel that way, because it terrified me more than anything else I’ve ever experienced in my life.
I’ve never told anyone else before, so you’ll be the only one. But first I need to tell you about dispatch, and a little bit about what it’s like to be a cabbie – because the strangest thing that I ever experienced as a driver wasn’t something I saw in my cab, but something I heard over the radio.
Dispatch calls out the names and addresses what gets called in, and we on the radio, if we don’t have a fare, answer back to accept, depending on who’s nearby. Of course, sometimes you have a fare picked up off the street, so the car accepting what’s called out by dispatch isn’t necessarily the closest one. And some of the other cabbies were lazy, and would lie about having fares, or say they weren’t nearby when really they were. Some of those assholes would even call out the wrong car number or steal other guys fares, knowing they’d never get caught.
You see, it’s a strange thing to work with people you never actually meet face to face. I mean sure, I come in to work every day and pick up my car, and make sure it’s clean and in good order before I head out, so I’ve met some of the other drivers. Tommy from Nigeria. Hank, the retired guy that used to own the pub down the street. But the majority of the other voices I hear on the radio are nameless, anonymous, coming out of the silence with only a number to identify them.
I’ve never met the dispatchers either, but I’ve gotten to recognize them by the sound of their voices and the way they operate. Michael has a low voice, gravelly and rough, so the other drivers are always asking him to repeat himself. He talks more than he should, too, and jokes around a lot.
I like Navid better. He’s got some kind of accent, I’m not sure what exactly, but his voice is higher and melodious, and he’s all business. When Navid is on dispatch, the company is a well-oiled machine, churning through fares like one of those money-counting machines the tellers use at the bank.
When Navid was on dispatch, the sound coming out over the radio was a mesmerizing symphony: him succinctly calling out the fares, the other drivers taking them, and the chirping and warbling of the radio in between as dispatch and drivers squeezed and released the buttons on their handsets.
“Jennifer, 11 37th Street outside The Green Orb Room.”
“Yup. Car 3134.”
“Thank you. Mrs. Hutchinson on 324 Sycamore. She’ll need help her with her wheelchair.”
“Got it. 1554.”
“Thank you. Avinder at 1919 Wallace Drive.”
“Thank you. Mr. & Mrs. Brindley outside the Metropolitan Opera House…”
And on and on it went. It made me happy, and was so much better than working with the other dispatchers, some of who would get caught up in mindless chatter, or even argue with the bad drivers. That always bothered me.
The terrifying thing I ever experienced happened that one night in 2013, the last night Navid ever worked. I was on the late shift, 6-6, and it was probably around 3 AM. I was coming back from a fare I’d taken out to the airport, so I had the long drive on the highway all the way back to downtown, with nothing but the warbling of the radio and Navid conducting the Symphony of the Dispatcher keeping me company. But the melodious tones of Navid’s cheery voice and the chirps and squawks of the radio quickly turned into a dark drama, one that I knew to be real.
“Two cars to Key Lofts at 517 Albion for Melvin and his friends.”
“3814. On my way.”
“Thank you. Someone else?”
“5 minutes, this is 4582.”
And then another voice came over the radio, one I’d heard about ten minutes ago, accepting a fare on the outside of town.
“Hello dispatch, this is 4317. I’m out at this house in the Gables, but it doesn’t look like there’s anyone here.”
“4317, please try the number. Dr. Johnson at 451 Oak Street to the airport.”
“Dispatch, I’ve tried the number no one’s answering. Think I’ve got the wrong one, could you say again?”
Navid said the number. “Michelle at 837 University.”
“Got it. 4518.”
“Thank you. Mr. Brindley at…”
“Hello dispatch, I’ve tried the number, there’s still no one there. Could…”
“Cut the chatter please, 4317. Mr. Brindley at 13 Northampton Crescent.”
“Car 1325. Yup.”
“I’m going to leave, dispatch there’s nobody here. I think they flagged one.”
“Negative, 4317. Please check the door. Arnold at 9987 15th Street at the Velvet Palace.”
“Copy. This is 3624.”
“Dispatch, the front door’s open, something doesn’t seem quite right here. Should we call the police?”
“Negative, 4317, cut the chatter and check the door, I have other cabs to dispatch. Tehmina at Eastsider’s Pub at 582 Monarch Road.”
“1147. Got it.”
“Thank you. David at…”
“Dispatch, there’s something behind the door. It’s too dark inside, I can’t see but…”
“Cut the chatter, 4317!” Navid was getting annoyed, I’d never heard him raise his voice before. “David at 935 Slater.”
“1321. Got it.”
“Oh my god, it’s a man, he’s covered in… no it’s huge… it’s…”
“Holy shit, it’s coming! Oh my god, no! Please! I…”
“4317? Hello, do you copy?”
“Hello, 4317? Do you copy….?”