When my freelance work flowed freely enough for me to stop driving cabs on weekends, I always felt that it was a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later, I knew I would be forced back into driving the people of Sydney around their busy city. Even as the years flew past, a family was started and work remained consistent, the driver’s wheel beckoned. And so, nearly twenty years after my last taxi shift, that time has finally arrived. But a revolution has since occurred: Uber. Knowing that my freelance work was finally reaching the stage of not being steady enough, I took comfort from the fact that Uber would be the preferable option to cabs. And after my first five shifts, I can confirm this. But before I rave about the many positive differences, here are a few similarities. One thing I always enjoyed about cab driving was conversing with a random range of strangers. This is also very much the case with Ubering – probably even more so as the situation seems more relaxed. Of course, passengers don’t always want to chat, no matter who’s driving them – and that’s cool. In fact, when they talk among themselves or on their phone, I enjoy being a fly on the wheel – getting a glimpse into foreign lives. Then there’s the late nights – having to drive drunks as well as dodge drunks walking on the road. But possibly the biggest similarity is that driving requires concentration and doing so for hours at a time is exhausting. Right – the differences. No uniform (though I decided I would wear a collared shirt – at least on weekdays). No having to fumble with cash at the end of each fare (though one of the few advantages of taxi driving is that you can get tips and you immediately have cash in your pocket – Uber pays weekly). No expensive cab rental (I am currently renting a Commodore but for a mere $25 a day). No fixed shifts (this is a BIG one – Uber allows the flexibility of driving whenever you want). GPS guidance (this now exists in cabs as well but is a HUGE improvement from the days when I would be fumbling with a street directory trying to find a pick up address). Listening to my music (from my phone – with the exception of when three drunk Indian dudes had Bollywood Dance music blaring from the speakers at one in the morning). You can’t pick up passengers hailing you from the street (this takes some getting used to, as my instinct is still to slow down when I see someone waiting by the side of the road). But here’s maybe the most significant difference: when I last drove cabs, I’d come home to my empty bachelor pad. Now, no matter how late, I’m greeted by an enthusiastic Cavoodle while my wife and son sleep soundly in their beds.
I go to pick up my cab from the depot but am told that it is undergoing its annual safety check. I’m annoyed – it’s a Friday night shift and there is money to be made. But what can I do but wait. Eventually I’m told it’s all good to go and negotiate a lesser rental fee. Driving cabs has proven to be a good back up income when my freelance work ebbs. To drive on a Friday night is a rare privilege and I aim to make the most of it. I hit the city in time for the post work exodus. I am soon traveling to suburbs near and far. People are usually in a good mood on Friday evenings – the working week behind them. It’s not long before they gradually grow drunker, often downing drinks on empty stomachs. By midnight it can get messy. It’s never fun to clean puke out of the back of a cab. But so far my night has been vomit free. I can feel fatigue starting to take hold but am determined to make it to three o’clock. I am driving through the middle of the city when a large swaying figure lifts up an arm. I slow down. My ‘Spidey Senses’ tingle, telling me that something’s not right. But I ignore this instinctual warning and pull over. A huge man folds himself into the seat next to me. The reek of alcohol is strong – as is the man. He seems to be some sort of Islander and is hard to understand. Eventually I work out that he wants to go to Pyrmont but the exact location remains a mystery. Pyrmont is not the urbane collection of high rises it will become but still an under used dockland deemed for development. These are also the days before GPS tracking of cabs, when jobs are not allocated by a computer screen but by a voice via a radio console. If a driver is in danger, the procedure is to use his foot to activate a button that sends a distress signal to the radio operator. A hidden microphone in the cab then allows the driver to reveal his location. He can no longer hear his radio – a sign that the operator is now listening to what is happening in the cab, hoping that the driver is able to reveal his whereabouts. Once known, the operator then calls out a ‘M13’ over the radio. All nearby cab drivers are expected to make their way to the driver in distress and help him out. So the theory goes. It’s as I’m directed to an under lit and unfamiliar area of Pyrmont that I start to think that my own ‘M13’ situation may be fast approaching. As I’m unsure of my exact location – this is a worry. Even more so when the drunk Islander tells me to drive over a set of raised railway tracks. I’m uneasy but give it a go. The front tyres get across but the cab then lurches to a stop. It is suspended on the tracks. I try the accelerator but go nowhere. “Sorry mate. Can’t go any further. You’ll have to get out here.” This does not go down well. “NO! Never say never!” He begins to manically wave his fists in front of him. All he needs to do is turn in my direction and he will be hitting me – hard. My foot searches for the secret button on the floor, finds it and presses. Nothing. The radio operator continues to casually call out jobs. The ‘M13’ emergency button is not working – failing in a cab that had its safety inspection only hours earlier. The mad man stops his fist flaying. “If you won’t do it – I will.” He then opens his door and stumbles out. His mission: to come around to my side, throw me out and attempt to drive my suspended cab over several sets of raised railway tracks. I shift into reverse, pray to whoever is listening and hit the accelerator. The cab lurches backwards, over the tracks. I continue reversing, the open passenger door swinging. When I’m far enough away, I stop, close the door and lock everything I can. I watch as the angry Islander negotiates his way through the maze of tracks. I turn the cab around, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping. When I am calm enough to do so, I pick up my radio microphone. “Car 197 to base.” “Yes 197 – what can I do for you this evening.” “I just had a M13 situation with an aggressive passenger.” “Why didn’t you activate your button?” “I did. It didn’t work.” “Oh. You’ll need to get that checked.” “It was – this afternoon. Had it’s annual inspection.” “Really? Are you alright 197?” “Shaken but ok.” “Good. Maybe take a break and get yourself… a coffee.” We both know he doesn’t mean coffee. But he can hardly recommend that I get a drink over a radio being listened to in hundreds of cabs.” “Ok – thanks base. 197 out.” There are still more than two hours left before the end of the shift. But not for me. I flick on the ‘No Vacancy’ light and head back to the depot. Though my future holds many more taxi shifts, this will be my last one on a Friday night.