The couple entering my taxi was in high spirits; a Saturday night in B-town has that effect on people. The guy was toting a bulging sausage sandwich, glistening and greasy. The thing smelled like death warmed over and stuffed into, well, a sausage. Beyond the aesthetic and olfactory objections, the real problem I had with this particular food-cart offering was its lack of structural integrity. Experience with others of its kind had taught me that no less than 10 percent of its substance would wind up on the seat and floor by the time the ingester exited the taxi.
Barring customers from eating in the vehicle sounds like an easy solution but is actually a nonstarter for a late-night cabbie like me. Folks love to chow down on the ride home, particularly when they’ve been imbibing all night; a no-eating rule would simply cost me too many fares.
As they settled into the backseat, I pulled a couple of napkins from the glove compartment and offered it to the man. “Hey, that’s so nice of you,” he said.
“Believe me, it’s not altruism,” I muttered — a far too obtuse, not to mention passive-aggressive, response when “you’re welcome” would have sufficed.
“Could you take us to 410 Farrell?” the girl asked. “It’s behind Shaw’s.”
“Sure enough,” I replied, glad for the short haul, given the sausage issues.
“Ah! Leah!” a classic ’80s tune, came on the radio, and the guy started singing along. “You would know this tune, Ralphie,” the girl said, laughing. “You’re such an ’80s guy.”
“What are you saying?” Ralphie responded with a chuckle. “I was born in 1980.”
I glanced up at the rear-view mirror to see a man who had to be in his mid-forties. “Sorry, I don’t think so,” I said. “Maybe you lost your virginity in 1980. That would be possible.”
“Actually, that’s about right,” the guy said. “Did I ever tell you that story, honey? Me and this girl I saw in high school. She was a senior and I was a junior. We spent the day on the beach. She was this great Jewish girl.”
“You mean Amy?” the girl asked.
“Yeah, Amy. I had gotten crazy sunburned. I could barely move and was woozy and everything. We returned to her house and her parents were away. Yes! And that’s where we did it — right on the living room couch. It hurt like hell with the sunburn.”
“Still, Amy made a man out of you,” I said. “Good way to start the ’80s, I’d say.”
“What about you, Tina?” Ralphie asked. “When was your first time?”
“Well, I actually was born close to 1980, thank you very much. And my first time was with Tom, my first college boyfriend. Nirvana was on the radio, I remember, and it was actually pretty good.” She paused to chuckle. “Tom was convinced that I was having my period because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe that he had popped my cherry.”
I smiled, remembering my first time. I thought I had found God. It took me years to realize that, wonderful as sex can be, God it’s not.
My next customer was a suited-up, middle-aged man who flagged me down at the Sweetwaters intersection, Church and College. “Could ya take me to the Hilton?” he asked, slurring the words.
“Absolutely,” I replied, happy for the fare, a short zip down to the waterfront. When it’s a busy night, these quick fares are ideal — more revenue per mile and per minute.
“Izzis some kinda parents’ weekend for the college?” the man asked from the backseat. “There’re so many people downtown.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “It’s just a typical Saturday night in the Queen City.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, because, because you wouldn’t think they’d schedule a parents’ weekend, like, so close to Thanksgiving.”
I didn’t like this guy’s vibe, and that’s what counts, isn’t it? People can say anything; it’s all about the feeling behind the words. I was glad I was only going to be spending four minutes with him.
I pulled up to the front of the Hilton, shifted the vehicle into park and said, “That’ll be $7.50.”
“Why zat?” he said.
“That’s the minimum fare in Burlington — $7.50.”
“Oh, I get the deal — it’s just, like, whatever you want.”
“No, it’s not ‘whatever I want.’” I pointed to the signage attached to the passenger-seat visor, the official document issued by the city when you register a taxi. “You see what that says?” I asked, pointing to the pertinent information, which was printed in at least a 50-point font. “Minimum fare $7.50.”
“All right,” he said, huffing and puffing and grumbling as he extracted his wallet and passed me a twenty. I lifted my wad from my shirt pocket, folded the twenty onto it, and turned in my seat to pass him back $12 change. He took it and looked at me. I stared right back at him. This went on for a good minute, a Mexican standoff. Finally, he said, “Don’t you owe me 50 cents?”
I’m aware that tipping is voluntary, but never has a customer asked for the 50 cents change on this minimum fare. Certainly not a businessman staying at the Hilton on Battery Street. In fact, nearly all the time they pass me another buck or two as an additional gratuity.
I didn’t even have coins on my person, so I stripped off a single and gave it to him, saying, “Just keep it.” As he jammed it into his wallet and prepared to leave, I added, “You know what? You are a delightful guy.” My voice was utterly pleasant and cheerful; that’s exactly how passive-aggressive I can be. It’s a genuine problem for me.
“Well, you are absolutely not a delightful guy!” he blared back.
My eyes fixed on his, I said calmly, “Oh, I know that. But you are totally a delightful fellow. I mean it.”
With that, he stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
And the thing is, he was right: I am definitely not a delightful guy. I was being what’s technically known as an “asshole,” and I knew it. In my defense, I would say that I’m trying to improve, to become a better person. But it’s a long haul.