¡Usted, Ladrón! (You, Thief!)

At the time, I was in graduate school at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A full-time student with a stringent class schedule, replete with research papers, class presentations, and volume reading, I took up cab driving as my means of support.  Getting my MBA was my priority.  Any job that did not involve a boss breathing down my neck or interfere with my academic schedule qualified as a great one. Hacking my way through the streets and expressways of the Windy City fit exquisitely that job profile, while providing me altogether with a rich experience. 

           A cab is a cosmopolitan place, where the rich and famous cross paths with ordinary mortals; where decent and well-meaning passengers trade places with obnoxious and pretentious parvenus.  Some passengers would care to engage in conversation with you, inquiring about your background, while others would harbor an aristocratic air, looking down on you as if you were unworthy of attention, invisible at the bottom of the social barrel, and referring to you in the derogatory term of “cabby.”  Some would, out of heart-felt concern, ask about your goals and be pleasantly surprised that you were pursuing graduate studies.  Others would chastise you for being late for some important meeting, because you did not drive fast enough.  Some would arrogantly display their symbols of success; boastfully refer to the hefty bonuses they stood to get for successful due diligence work on recent mergers and acquisitions.  Others with modest means would keep their eyes riveted on the fare meter, each incremental ticking of which felt like a dagger into their stomach—in one instance, a passenger deemed the pressure too intense and asked to be dropped off one block before destination.  Some would, from some myth portraying cab driving as a lucrative business, inquire about your profit margin only to realize that, as a rookie, you could barely break-even—as you have not developed the acumen conferred by years of experience, nor cultivated special relationships with dispatchers, which would guarantee problem-free cabs.  Others came on board with the deep-seated preconception that cab drivers were crooks who tampered with meters, and let that point across bluntly.  Obviously, they did not realize that it was more beneficial for the cab driver to drop off a passenger as quickly as possible, that the few bucks he would be gaining were outweighed by his opportunity cost.  Most riders understood that tipping was an important part of the business; some did it wholeheartedly, others grudgingly.  One guy I took to destination to a “forbidden” part of the city was so grateful that he offered me apologetically, in lieu of a tip, a weed cigarette.  In one other instance, I blew a chance for a hefty tip because I was unable to accede to a customer’s special request.  That executive from Texas, who was in Chicago for a convention, made his wish known unequivocally:  “I want to see hookers.”  He was quite incredulous, a bit upset when I confessed my ignorance—feigned, in his view–of their whereabouts. Suffice to say that passengers were from all walks of life. 

                    Drivers as well came from all walks of life, ranging from the veteran, who had not held another job since his discharge from military service, to the part-timer who saw in the profession a means to supplement his income; to the displaced industrial worker whose job was phased out and who was looking for a second lifeline; to the immigrant doctor preparing for his “matching” exam–which would allow him entry into a residency program; to the immigrant lawyer who gave up all personal ambitions and, instead, dedicated himself to
sending his kids to Ivy League schools. Some intended cab driving to be a transitional occupation between jobs, but ended up taking it up full-time. Others took it up to complete their schoolwork.  One such individual was so enamored with the freedom he enjoyed that he did not return to corporate America, three years after receiving his Master’s.   He particularly
relished the ability to monitor his investment portfolio on a full-time basis.  I met him in the line-up at the O’Hare cab pool, in the midst of my required reading for an evening class, awaiting the famous “Front Row!” calls from the dispatcher to pick up fares from incoming flights. 
 Work habits among drivers varied widely.  One career driver boasted about working on an “executive” schedule.  Judging by the high-pitch tone of his voice, if he were talking out of view behind a curtain, one would think of a six-foot two, two-hundred-plus pound man. None of that!  He barely stood five feet and weighed no more than one hundred thirty pounds—the tiny kind with big presence and strong convictions! “Executives go home at five, so do I.”   According to him, before eight a.m. and after five p.m. pickups were fraught with trouble.  He backed its claim with “true” stories.   Always dapper, clad oft-times in a leather blazer, he only leased his cab for twelve hours—half a day.  As a rookie, I knew I had to toil through late nights to make ends meet, so a twelve-hour lease would
not work.  Yet, to pay homage to the skinny veteran’s acumen, I would acknowledge that anything bad that ever happened to me did after five p.m.  First day on the job, doing my last pickup, I was rear-ended by another cab that coveted the same fare.  What an omen!  A friend in the business recommended an accident lawyer who secured me a sum just shy of one thousand bucks.

Cab driving was quite an experience. I saw up close the noble as well as the infamous side of human nature.  I got cheated by fare beaters, who scampered through back alleys after I dropped them off. On the other hand, a lawyer from New York stood up for me against a police commander, who deemed my shaking my head after a stop derogatory.  The most unforgettable experience occurred a couple of weeks before my graduation on a Christmas’ Eve, one of the coldest days in Chicago’s history.  The forecast called for a record-breaking low of minus 260 F and a high of no more than minus 110.  Usually, cold days had a potential for big payoffs.  I figured that day would live up to that expectation, if only I could
manage to find a vehicle in good condition to lease.  Apparently, none was available from the pool.  Undaunted, I settled for one of the few that were parked in a remote corner of the garage.  I soon realized why it was left in that corner:  to get that old rag to pick up speed, I had to push on the gas pedal down to the floor and gradually release it.  I had issues with the cab throughout the day; but I rationalized that, as long as my fares consisted of trips within city limits, I could safely call it a day by 5 p.m.  However, at 4:30 a fare to the west suburbs put me in a dilemma.  It meant trekking the old cab along the Eisenhower Expressway at the rate of heavy pumping on the gas pedal.  I pondered whether it was worth the hernia I feared I would wind up with from the pumping and the risk of being stranded in some unfamiliar territory miles away from home.  Yet tempted by the opportunity of a $35 fare and closing business with a bang, I took the gamble.

       The way out was relatively uneventful.  I made the drop-off, pocketed $40 bucks, and circled back onto the main road with a plan to go straight home.  All of a sudden, my headlights and dashboard lights went out.  The accelerator was unresponsive.  The heater was off.  It was clear:  The old cab collapsed on me… some sixty miles away from home… and at the worst possible time.  Darkness had already set in.  Traffic was reduced to a handful of cars sporadically dashing by.  The temperature was inexorably sinking to its predicted low.  The car continued to advance, but was gradually losing speed.    I reckoned, rather I hoped that, Chicagoland being flat, I should be able to roll on and reach a place where I could place a phone call to the cab company; that is, as long as I did not come across a stop sign or a red light.   However, surely enough, about a quarter of mile away, a green traffic light stood like a gatekeeper.  I pressed on the gas pedal once more, to no avail. I would have to brake soon, unless by miracle the green light ahead froze in time.  Alas!  I watched in despair the green light turn to yellow, then to red.  I had to brake.  The car stopped.  No power! No heat! A deserted boulevard! No help in site!  The barometer from a nearby bank read minus 180, but the whizzing wind made it feel twice as cold.  My feet and hands were already numb and heavy from the cold.  Unable to budge, I watched the lights turn back to green.  I was besieged by macabre thoughts about my wife and my young kids waiting through the night and worrying.  They were still asleep when I left earlier that day.  If only I had a chance to hug them before I left…  What a terrible death to die!   I visualized the headlines:  “Cabby Frozen to Death on Route…”   I thought about my obituary, about what it would say…  So close to graduation.  Only days away from the promise of a better life. No, I was determined to hold on.   For my boys and my wife.  I thought about the skinny veteran with strong convictions.  He was right:  I had no business being out there past five.  The blistering cold was marching on, permeating all the tissues of my body.  A lone pick-up truck stopped at the red light.  A young man in the passenger seat rolled down his window.

“Need a boost?” he shouted.

I could only nod.

“Give us five to ten minutes.
We’re dropping off our mom at work at the hospital.  We’ll get back,” he went on.

 Sure, I thought, two white boys coming to a black cabby’s rescue!  I was doomed.  The ten minutes seemed interminable.  No car headed in my direction.  I knew it!  Yet I was holding onto that straw of a chance, scrutinizing the westbound traffic.  Suddenly a couple of headlights emerged from the darkness.  They had to be from the pickup truck; but my hope vanished when they crossed the intersection and proceeded.  I was resigned to my fate, as I could feel no part of my body. Soon a pickup truck stopped parallel to my cab.  Two young men came out.  They flashed a smile I found reassuring.

“Pop the hood open!” one shouted.

My frozen hand could not cooperate.   It felt like an inert mass with no grip.  Sensing my problem, he opened my door and pulled the hood cable himself, while the other brother brought out a jump start cable and attached it to the cab battery poles.  They signaled me to crank.  For the life of me, I could not feel my hand, let alone turn the key.   The younger brother jumped in, moved me to the side, handed me his gloves, and tried to crank.  Nothing happened!  He paused for a few moments, blew in his cupped hands:

          “Let’s give it a bit more time” he reassured me.  As a way to allay my despair, he tried to engage in small talk, asked me about the cab business.  I was so cold that my speech slurred into incoherence. It took three tries for the engine to start.  I could see the relief in the faces of my two young Samaritans.  Overwhelmed by gratitude, I was ready to pay them whatever they would charge.  Surprisingly, they refused to take any money.  Upon my insistence, so as not to hurt my feelings, they only took $5.  On top of that, they gave this salutary advice:

“Don’t stop along the way.  Don’t turn the engine off and wait a while before turning on the heat!”  Thereupon I bade farewell to the two angels who saved my life and brought me back to my family. 

 On my long way home, I thought about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s perceptive remark about human nature being fundamentally good.  I related the brothers’ action to the bravery
of those white
firefighters who, at their own peril, fended off the raging flames of a burning building to save the life of a trapped black kid.  Likewise, I equated their noble sentiment to the magnanimity of that slave, who jumped into the river to save his master’s drowning son, while his back was still dripping blood from a recent whipping.  People such as these are made of the finest cells of the human specimen. 

 My experience had not always been that dreadful.  Once, I had a hearty laugh out of a fare.  That day, I picked up a woman in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown.

¿Habla Español?”  She inquired.

Un poquito.”  (A little), I responded. 

Her destination was City Hall.

, Señora, ¿Cómo no?” (Sure, Ma’am), I proceeded, braggingly.

 She was visiting from Chile and had to run an errand to City Hall.  I picked her up at the corner of Wabash and Roosevelt.  For those who don’t know downtown Chicago (Chicago Loop), one entrance to City Hall is on Clark Street; Wabash is three blocks east of Clark, with State and Dearborn Streets running in between.  From what I recall, State Street at that time was closed to traffic, except for CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses.  The most direct way was to go westward from where I was; however, it was not the quickest way due to some road construction.  I figured the best route was to go further east on Roosevelt, north on Michigan, west on Randolph and south on Clark.  Apparently, she knew where City Hall was and could not fathom the detour.  Now picture yours truly , trying to explain in broken Spanish my convoluted scenario to this incredulous passenger. 

“No es lejos de alli!” (It’s not far from here), she insisted.  I assured her that I took the most efficient route, given the flow of traffic and the better green light sequence.  Sitting on the edge of her seat, peeking at the meter, she definitely thought I was trying to defraud her.  When we arrived at destination, the meter read some $3.50.  She thrust the money into my palm, exited the cab, walked up to the passenger window and blurted out:

¡Usted, Ladrón!” (You, thief!)

¡Yo Ladrón!”  (Me thief!)  I retorted, stupefied.

¡Si, si, si, Usted, Ladrón!”  She stressed, with disdain and indignation.

 Thereupon she assuredly walked away with an attitude bordering on insolence.  Incensed, I tried to reach for a Spanish curse to counter her affront before she disappeared from view.  None came readily to me, but I was determined not let her get away with a sense of victory.  In my desperation, the only word that came to mind was “Maricón”.  Oh, No!
One side of my brain pleaded with me not to violate the Taxi Commission’s code of ethics.  The other side was equally forceful about not getting the effrontery go unpunished.  The sight of her derrière, bouncing left and right as lasciviously as tauntingly, was unbearably offensive, and won over my naughty side.

¡Usted, Maricón!” I lashed out at the top of my lungs, confident I had the last word. 

 Oops!  Upon hearing it, she made a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn, walked back toward me, shaking her head from shoulder to shoulder.  That time, her indignation gave way to a wry smile.  Obviously, she sensed her victory and came for the coup de grace.  When she reached the passenger door, she bent down in full view, her face still harboring the sly
smile and glowing with cockiness, wagged her index finger, then pointed it at my chest.

         ¡No, no, no!  Usted, Maricón!”  She punctuated it with a wink and walked away more assuredly than ever, savoring her triumph.

 I was speechless.  Impressed with her guts, I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

 By the way, “Maricón” is a pejorative word, exclusively used for men in the Hispanic culture.  It is slang for “Sissy.”


Copyright 2008 Etzer Cantave


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