I dread to think how much money I’ve spent on cabs in Sydney over the past twelve years, but let’s get the reality of this established right up-front: I drink. Quite a lot and quite frequently. So I tend to take cabs quite frequently too. Until my internal organs pack it in I don’t plan to stop drinking, so neither do I expect the cab situation will change, irrespective of anything I might be about to say.
Sometimes though, it seriously feels like I’m taking my life in my own hands just by stepping foot inside a Sydney taxi. I mean, come on – have you seen how some of those guys drive? I know there are bad drivers everywhere, but some of Sydney’s taxi crew really embrace the old throw-away line about getting their license from a cereal box a little too enthusiastically!
I had one the other night – lovely old Italian bloke. I’m not being ageist either, he talked about driving a little Fiat around Sydney in 1960, which I reckon puts him close to 70 at least. He was probably the friendliest driver I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting in Sydney. He knew where he was going, he accepted alternative route instructions without question and he was up for a bit of a chin wag. Actually I just went totally against form – that was the most exponentially under-exaggerated thing I’ve ever said. In fact it wouldn’t have been possible for me to under-exaggerate the situation any more effectively than I just did. Seriously, this guy didn’t draw breath from the moment we stepped into the cab to the moment – what felt like hours later – that we stepped back out again. And it wasn’t just a stream of consciousness or a need to vent or vague conversation about topical matters, it was full-on look-you-in-the-eye conversation. He was so intense that he often wouldn’t pull away from the lights when they turned green. We slowed down to circa-20km/h a few times, such was his excited concentration. He told us about driving cabs, about being picked up by the cops in 1960 for a driving offense that wasn’t his own simply because he was a ‘Diego’, about being on the board of the very cab firm for which he was driving and about how a few savvy property investments in the early ’60s lead to him being loaded. Had I not already had several litres of liquid refreshment, I was tempted to ask at one point if he wanted to swap – he could jump into my seat in the back and continue the conversation with my friend Chris and I’d take over the driving, if only to increase our chances of getting to Newtown some time that night rather than the following day.
If that was the worst of it, you’d be justified in calling me on moaning about my first world problems – “took me so long to get here tonight, my taxi driver was too nice, wanted to talk too much and drove too slowly”. Not exactly the stuff that taxi horror-stories are made of. If only that was as bad as it gets.
Over the years I’ve seen some pretty ‘funny’ stuff where Sydney’s taxi drivers are concerned – some of it annoying, some of it downright scary. I’ve had more than my fair share of cabs cruise past me with their lights on and with my hand clearly extended and gesticulating – wildly or otherwise – to hail them down. I’ve seen – and on more than one occasion almost become intimately acquainted with – cabs running red lights, stop signs and pedestrian crossings. They seem to jump the gutters on street corners and bike lanes more often that the average private motorist, even though the gutters themselves haven’t moved for years and are almost always exactly where you’d expect them to be. From our vantage point on the balcony of our ‘local’ near work, I’ve lost count of the number of taxis witnessed driving the wrong way down the one way street outside – a perfectly well sign-posted one way street that cuts right up through the middle of the Sydney CBD, from the Western Distributor Off-Ramp at King St & Sussex St all the way up to Elizabeth St at Hyde Park. How can you be a taxi driver in Sydney and not know that? How is it possible to even become a taxi driver in Sydney and not have to learn the basics of where roads and places are? And should these people perhaps consider an alternative career, given they clearly can’t see their hand in front of their face, let alone One Way signs, red lights, gutters or pedestrians.
And while I’m on the topic, what about my fare reduction for having to direct the driver all the way to where I’m going? On one such occasion I was only going from our ‘local’ to Erskineville – two suburbs out from the CBD! How can you be a taxi driver in Sydney and not know how to get to a destination that’s less than six kilometres from the centre of the city? A couple of years ago I took a cab from the airport to my home at the time in Coogee – by the time we’d reached the end of the airport link road the driver was still vainly attempting to find the suburb in his Navman, but the Navman was having none of it. K – U – J – I… no, K – U – G – I… as a man of obviously African heritage, I could see where he was going with this but I wasn’t going to bother spelling it when, by this time, I’d already had to start issuing directions. Again I found myself asking the same question: how on earth is it possible to become a taxi driver in Sydney and not even know how to go 12km from the International Airport to one of the city’s best known beachside suburbs?
And what about my fare reduction in the form of danger money when the cab driver can’t even stay awake and I have to continually talk to him from the moment I get into the cab to the moment when I throw money at him and flee the vehicle in fear for my life? This actually happened to me once – though the end bit was possibly a tad less theatrical than how I just said it. But seriously, I’d been drinking for six hours. All I wanted to do was get to my home some 5.8km away and stumble into bed. First mistake: looking in the driver’s rear-view mirror and catching a glimpse of his eyes. Actually, it was his eye lids that I caught a glimpse of. I couldn’t possibly relax from that point onwards. To this day I still don’t know how the driver understood the random sounds I was forcing out of my mouth. Occasionally I think I even heard myself scolding myself for mumbling or for stumbling over words or for not enunciating clearly enough, but through it all I kept up as steady a stream of open questions as I could drunkenly manage. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I didn’t keep this guy talking, I wouldn’t keep him awake… and I really wanted to end the night wrapped in bed-clothes rather than a body bag.
At least he finally got me there in one piece and only charged me the going rate, unlike the kind chap who stopped me outside the Domestic Airport arrivals terminal about eight years ago to excitedly announce he had a mini-bus ready for me so I could skip the slightly massive queue at the taxi rank. When I told him I was heading to Newtown, he told me how much it would cost. The prospect of only spending $3 more than it ordinarily cost at the time to travel the 6km from the airport to my house three suburbs away excited me greatly. “$15?!”, I asked him incredulously. “No-no-no… fiff-tee-dollar“, came the clarification. Back to earth with a thud, I left him in no doubt of where he could insert his kind offer.
Most of them don’t even drive courteously. They push aggressively through traffic jams just to get one car-length further advanced than they would’ve otherwise been. Anyone trying to merge in front of them can go to hell. When they stop to drop off or collect a new fare, they do so in whatever location and at whatever angle the car is in when it stops moving – at bus stops, driveways, jutting out into traffic, they just don’t seem to care. Or notice. Why would they want to do anything to assist the flow of traffic on Sydney’s already heaving roads?
Despite rules and regulations to the contrary, there are still drivers who won’t let you in until they know where you’re going, then drive off at speed when your destination of choice is either too far, too close or not in a convenient direction for them.
And let’s not even get started on the way some cabs (or their drivers) smell! If it’s not the heady aroma of LPG seeping into the cabin, it’s the driver’s own lack of personal hygiene permeating every nook and cranny of the vehicle; if it’s not what they just smoked between fares, it’s what they just ate – or its after-effects. Some cabs smell truly horrendous.
In the end, it’s just frustrating. Drivers who manage to engage in conversation often tell tales of woe – fares are down; Christmas / New Year is the only time they ever make any money; the GFC hit hard and things have never recovered; they have to do back-to-back double shifts just to make ends meet. OK, so some of that’s a bit unfortunate but if things are so bad why not just give it up and do something else? Perhaps the answer to that is that they don’t have the skill set to do much else. Sorry – No Deal. Too many Sydney taxi drivers already lack the basic skills required to be a taxi driver – maybe that should be the focus before considering what else they aren’t sufficiently skilled to do?
The question has to be asked: why is it OK to have a significant chunk of the taxi industry staffed by drivers with so little grasp of the basic and necessary skills of their profession?
It wouldn’t be OK anywhere else – not in any other job, at any other level, in any other industry. So why’s it OK for taxi drivers?