Thursday, October 31, 2002

Stupid Stereotypes Rule, Sadly

As I've been saying, I was once a cab driver during the eighties. I say it this way to describe it as a passing thing, like saying I once thought to visit a whorehouse but changed my mind, or I once ate a raw oyster but now I see where I went wrong.

I know, you see, that if I were still a cab driver, or just identified as the type, I would also still be subjected to the same stale dumb stereotypes. I would rather be subjected to fresh smart stereotypes.

There's the "thief" stereotype. All cab drivers are assumed to be thieves until they happen to prove themselves otherwise. Of course there is rarely an opportunity to prove yourself honest in a ten minute car ride. The best you can do is to prove yourself an ineffective thief. "Heh, heh," the rider thinks later, "he didn't cheat me that time. He must be really STUPID."

A beautiful example of the public's attitude happened to me once when I was sent to pick up a Times employee. Our company had some sort of deal with the Times to be their cab company of choice.

Usually I didn't know one Times employee from any other, but I recognized this one right away as a certain weekly columnist whose writings I had admired. Not that I could afford to buy the Times every day back then, but if I could I would always look for What's-His-Name's column. Which column always ran with a picture of him looking ten years younger, so I knew it was What's-His-Name.

So I said, "Gosh, golly, you're What's-His-Name, aren't you? You're my favorite local newspaper columnist," or words to that effect. Except that I attempted to utter his actual name. This was my first mistake. He angrily informed me that I was mispronouncing his last name, and that I should know better, for it's a very common Outer Slobovian name, and if I really cared about his writing I would know he was an Outer Slobovian-American, and if I cared about reading in general I would have learned how to pronounce all Outer Slobovian last names out of love for language. The fact that I didn't know how to pronounce Outer Slobovian last names proved in fact that I either was LYING about admiring him, or that I discriminated against Outer Slobovians.

OK he didn't say Outer Slobovia. He was descended from people from a real country with a real name that I didn't care about. He had me there. So I tried to recover by emphasizing again that I really did like his writing. At this point he said, "Don't think you're going to get a tip for flattering me, I don't tip crooks."

Then there's the "stupid" or "scatterbrain" stereotype, popularized by Christopher Lloyd on "Taxi." I generally liked that one because I would rather be stupid than immoral, but even that got old.

As I approached What's-His-Name's destination he seemed to soften and actually said something pleasant to me. He asked me what I thought of Stephen King. I said I hadn't read anything by him, as I wasn't into horror these days, as my life had enough of the personal kind. This was followed by a tirade from What's-His-Name about how ignorant all cab drivers were.

Since then, I haven't enjoyed reading What's-His-Name's column so much, although I did enjoy parts of the one he did many years ago about his trip to China and how the awful nasty Chinese didn't personally supply him with Western toilets everywhere he went. That was funny.

Speaking of stale dumb stereotypes, the Washington, D.C., area (alleged) sniper(s) sure have a lot of often negatively stereotyped people wishing HE'D been from Outer Slobovia or some other imaginary fly-away republic.

Recently there have been folks who have gone to great lengths to try to prove that homeless ex-military are rare. Real ex-military people are supposed to be too well trained and too self-reliant to ever become homeless. Finally one gets in the news and he's a damn serial killer. What a pain.

The Good News: Now everyone sees Washington State as a breeding ground for serial killers, what with this guy, Bundy, the Green River Killer and that Twin Peaks show all going to prove it. So if I go east, and I want a little space, all I'll have to do is remind folks of where I'm from. We're bad.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Everything Reveals Everything

Last issue I talked about my cab driving history. Since then I have been met with deep, penetrating questions by my readers. Questions such as, "What?" and, "So how was it?" So I have decided to keep at it a while longer.

The nice thing about cab driving is that it's just like everything else. So if you talk about it enough, eventually you've talked about everything else anyway. That's why poetry works!

Take fear for instance. Fear is a big subject these days, what with Home Security, snipers, Saddam, et al. Rather than talk about fear of Iraq I can talk about cab driving. It's all the same.

I began cab driving in fear of it. I was just quitting a job that had been making me ill, and I was looking for something completely different. That day, the newspapers were all about a cab driver who had been shot to death for the fun of it, in South Seattle off of Rainier Valley. The murderers were still at large. I read the stories and immediately thought, "That cab company will be needing a new driver," and I signed up with them that Monday.

There was training, and the next thing I knew I was set loose on the whole of Seattle to drive cab anywhere I wanted in the city, six nights a week, twelve hours a night. I was expected to work where the business was, but now a new fear set in. I found I had a powerful dread of working unfamiliar neighborhoods. I lived in the Rainier Valley dispatching area. That was the area I knew, so that's where I worked. Even though the murderers were still out there.

Isn't that just the way it always is, folks? You back away from one fear and another one is breathing down your neck right behind you. I think a grand unifying philosophical principle is involved here. Some day vinyl may be implicated, also.

But back to the fear. The thing we all do in cases like this is ask, "Where are the police? We need police to catch these murderous thugs." All right, I'll tell you where the police were. They were all over Rainier Valley doing their drug busting and breaking up domestic violence, all the stuff you see them doing on Cops.

And guess what the police do when they are breaking up a fight in a family and they need to get one of the parties out of the area? Do you think they haul them out in a patrol car? No way. They put them in cabs and ORDER the cab drivers to take them somewhere, and don't pay the drivers.

One day I was ordered to take a teenage girl who had been beaten by her father to Harborview Hospital. Trouble is, she and her sister who came along didn't want to go to the hospital.

Well, I shouldn't commit kidnapping just because the Seattle Police order me to. The girls wanted to go to a 7-11, so that's where we went.

Wouldn't you know it? The father drove up in his Caddy right after we got there, and the sisters proceeded to fight over which one of them would have the honor of shooting him in the face with a pistol they were carrying.

After one of them waved the gun in the father's face and after a passing gang (I'm not kidding) intervened and took away the gun, the police showed up and lined everyone up against the wall but me. I was the only witness willing to cooperate. Without me the police couldn't prove anything.

I was all set to witness the whole thing when the officer put the girl who had brandished the gun back in the cab sitting right next to me, in the front seat, and she pretended her finger was a gun and stuck it in my ribs. Or I thought she was pretending. But I couldn't be sure so I started to get out of the cab, to get a little away from her, when the same officer karate kicked the door on me. In that one blinding instant I learned always to fear the police.

Suddenly I couldn't remember seeing anything. There's poetry at you again.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Don't Flip me No U-235

Well, now I'm distracted again. Saturday I was trucking right along, doing what I usually do, namely contemplate the meaninglessness of existence. That is, I was thinking how I was OK with the meaninglessness of existence as long as it (the existence) continued unabated and without any serious dips in quality. And then CNN reports that 34.6 pounds of possibly weapons-grade uranium was found in a Turkish taxi.

34.6 pounds of U-235 here, 34.6 pounds of U-235 there, & pretty soon, holy crap, WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE.

As many of you know I have a naturally distractible constitution. I take pills for it and nice doctors help me find ways to cope with irrational anxieties and fears BUT THIS ISN'T ONE OF THE IRRATIONAL ONES.

So I am coping away anyhow, ha, ha, thinking about taxi driving. There's nothing like a cab story to make me think of my own old cab driving days.

I drove for one of Seattle's big taxi companies back in the eighties when cab driving in Seattle sucked. I don't like to say the name of the cab company 'cause they still might have hard feelings about it all, but their cabs were green.

In those days I was even crazier than I am now and the dispatchers knew it so they didn't bother me too much. They let me sleep in my cab all I wanted and gave most of the good business to the one or two sane drivers. But sometimes the dispatchers would wake me up, if they had something that really seemed urgent, because they knew that I was kind of geeky and that on account of that they could trust me to find most any address.

So one day when I was up in North Seattle I was told over the radio to go to Stevens hospital in Edmonds and "get the package." Even though I'd never been to Stevens, the dispatcher was sure that I could find it. It was wonderful to inspire such confidence and I drove out there glowing with pride for being so useful.

I wondered what it would be this time. Once it had been a cornea. I had wondered what the recipient would say if he/she knew that the cab driver that brought it to the hospital was a homeless man who couldn't, himself, afford cab fare. Sometimes I carried blood samples for AIDS testing. Once it was a mystery organ in an ice chest. The most important package I ever hauled was a heart monitor that I drove 100 miles to where it was needed for a child's surgery.

I loved the hospital package runs. Not only was I performing a valuable and possibly life-saving service, but also vouchers paid for the trips in advance and the passengers never started an argument.

Well, the package at Stevens turned out to be a bag of excrement bound for the Swedish Hospital pharmacy.

Now, I had enough sense to ask the people sending it what the Swedish Hospital needed with a bag of excrement. I mean, couldn't they provide their own, etc. But I was firmly told that the Swedish Hospital pharmacy would know what to do with it, and not to worry myself about it. So I shut up and took the bag and my voucher and headed south.

I made good time, so I was fairly happy when I set the bag on the counter at Swedish and announced, "package from Stevens." Then the pharmacist opened the package, looked in, and shouted at me, "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SH*T??!!

Damn my hide. I told him, "That, the hell, is exactly what that is." Then I tried to settle him by telling him, not to worry, it was paid for.

Speaking of not worrying – of course any geek could tell you instantly that there was no way that could have been 34.6 pounds of U-235 in that Turkish cab, or the stuff would've been too hot to handle. Literally.

Now I wonder, why did they say it might have been bound for Iraq, when all the signs were it was going to Syria? It was found near the Syrian border. You don't have to go through Syria to get to Iraq from Turkey.

You'd think someone out there WANTS us to worry, wouldn't you?