Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fairbanks Taxi - three installments.

Fairbanks Taxi

Cab drivers are a tough bunch to pin down. Sure, they're hustlers, but that has more to do with getting by than getting rich. There's something about driving through ice fog with a multitude of strangers - most of them altered by drink, drugs or madness - for twelve hours a night that reveals portions of one's character. But I was just starting out - a Cheechako, a rookie - and a good bit closer to innocent than I am now. The winter to come would prove the cure for all three conditions. My fellow drivers - gypsies, pirates, comedians, outlaws, predators, ladies and gentlemen - would be my spiritual guides through seven darker circles of cold.

The Good: Wild Bill

The dispatcher on the radio my first night went by the name of Wild Bill. He was a great big bearded old-time Alaskan, probably in his mid-60s, still sharp eyed, quick witted and strong as an ox. A former navy man and merchant marine, he wore a captain's cap all the time, just like the Skipper on Gilligan's Island. Wild Bill, (there's one in every crowd, right?) - they all said he'd earned his moniker the hard way working boats, bars, The Pipeline, prospecting, trap lines, card playing - he was tough and able and pretty damn good at just about everything he tried his hand at - except marriage. It was my good fortune that Wild Bill was also a natural and patient teacher, even though that wasn't part of his job description, frequently sending me to an alternate radio frequency to walk me through a call, explain complicated driving directions and warn me of impending trouble. I learned the city and surrounding geography by driving it and, in exchange for a slightly discounted fare, asking my customers for directions to their destinations, but I started to develop my feel for the place by listening to Wild Bill.

The Good: Fargo, Tim and Nancy

I remember these three as a single entity because they had the look of a crew of middle-aged grifters. Fargo was their leader, a tall and stern transplanted Okie, about six foot three, who looked a lot like a mean Abraham Lincoln or Gregory Peck. Tim was the sidekick by stature - a five foot three chain-smoking, hard drinking, ready-with-a-laugh gambler who painted houses in the summer if he felt like it. You might be fooled into thinking Nancy, with her Anjelica Huston looks, was just the garnish on the plate. She was probably twenty five years older than me and sexy in a cool, silently intimidating sort of way - guys got quiet when she came around. These three were the top shelf among night drivers - celebrities - and I was a little star struck right away.

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