Yesterday, that is the 24th, my first ride, from Leichhardt to Willoughby, was a fellow who served in Somalia in 1993. He was, I think, a career soldier who’d subsequently retired and gone into real estate. He yelled at me in a cheery fashion all the way across the bridge, mostly about the police who shot and then beat up a couple of Aboriginal teenagers in the Cross on Saturday night. At one point, from where I do not know, he produced his service medals and showed them to me. I was there for six weeks, he said. Captain of a company. What were we doing there? I have no idea. No fucking idea.
Today my first ride, also picked up in Leichhardt, is a couple of girls all dressed up and going to Dick’s Hotel in Balmain. When we get there we find hundreds of people queued up behind temporary metal barriers that stretch along both sides of the street, waiting to get in. It doesn’t seem to me that the hotel could actually handle that amount of bodies and I wonder if they are throwing some out (Time’s up!) to make room for more. I guess they’re playing two-up . . . there’s people wanting to go back to the city but I can’t be bothered bunting my way back through the traffic to get to them so I scuttle through the back streets of Rozelle back to Victoria Rd, on the way passing several other jammed-to-the-gills pubs.
That’s what I do for the next couple of hours or so, take people out to pubs – in the city, in Paddington, in the east. It’s oddly dispiriting, I’d imagined long rides to Homer Street in Earlwood talking to old diggers about time past . . . course there aren’t really any old diggers left from the world wars, only survivors of the scrappy, seemingly perpetual, conflicts that have succeeded them. About 6 pm a statuesque young blonde woman climbs into the cab and asks to be taken to Scruffy Murphy’s. This is a six dollar ride, the first of many . . . when we get there, as she’s paying, and another cab goes screaming away empty, a security guard comes over to talk to me. Will you take her? he asks, indicated a woman in a blue uniform sitting on a curbstone with her feet in the gutter. She’s got someone with her . . . the last taxi I hailed took off.
Well, I can see why, she’s obviously really drunk and that bothers me, mainly because of drunk people’s propensity to vomit . . . I’ve never yet had someone sick inside the cab and I don’t want to break my record. On the other hand, she’s going to have to get home somehow. Where’s she going? I ask. Newtown, he says. You seem to be a really nice person, says the blonde (we’ve been doing the biz while this is going on) and that piece of judicious flattery seals it.
Her fellow, also in a blue uniform, also drunk, heaves her into the back seat, gets in on the other side and cradles her in his arms, crooning endearments, as I start down George Street. She looks pretty bad, perhaps unconscious, but doesn’t have that green-white pallor that usually signals imminent up-chucking; however, she’s been drinking spirits, she might have alcoholic poisoning. I keep talking to the bloke, he responds to my every expression of concern with a jaunty, almost aggressive: she’ll be right. It’s her first Anzac Day he adds, mysteriously, at one point. I detest these kind of rides, they’re so stressful and it takes an age to crawl up King Street and into Enmore Road but finally we’re there.
As soon as I pull over, with an alacrity I wouldn’t have thought possible, she opens the car door and starts climbing out; he restrains her briefly while he pays (no tip), scrambles out himself. No sooner is she on the pavement, however, than she starts to sag again and he has to grab her to hold her up; as I do a U-turn and pull away I see them swaying there, just a couple of kids, only nineteen . . . like a live version of Munch’s Death & the Maiden. When I get my next ride, in the city, the girl in the back says: There’s these hats here . . . her boyfriend, who’s army (why do people in the military always yell?), takes over, if there’s names in the hats he’ll return them. Air force, he says, they’re air force. But there’s no names, only small, sad, unopened bottles of water, one in each hat, and he loses interest . . . I inherit the hats.
It’s not a good shift, neither busy nor otherwise enjoyable, it’s cold and windy and the city looks desolate with stray rubbish blowing down the empty streets. Comatose bodies slumped on pavements, ambulances, police, sirens – it’s like a war zone. Lost property notices keep coming over the radio and I wonder how so many could have lost their medals? Along with their hats, their marbles and their pride I guess. When I refuse to take two ratty looking youths out to Campbelltown, one of them won’t accept it and I have to drive off with my door gaping open while he hurls abuse, and some object, after me . . . but that turns out to be the right decision because I get on a roll, City to Freshwater, Freshwater to Cromer Heights, the Spit to Annandale and that makes my night. I do meet an Iraqi cab driver, a Shia, a lovely guy, who tells me his people are very quiet and very strong and then smiles so brilliantly it lights up the grimy atmos. Just before ten I’m at the head of the Park Street rank, needing another thirty bucks before I can go home, when two dishevelled kids, one smoking, come up. The smoker opens the front door but it’s the other one who gets in. Will you take my friend to Cremorne? Smoker says. He’s got money . . .
This kid looks like he might be autistic; then I realise he’s just very drunk. Perhaps asleep . . . no. As we’re turning from Macquarie Street onto the Cahill Expressway he suddenly winds the window all the way down. I say, if you want to be sick, I’ll pull over. I am not going to be sick, he says, very carefully. One hundred percent not! And so, all the way over the bridge, he leans his head so far out the window I think that he might lose it to a passing car, and vomits. There’s something disturbing about the expert way the young learn to be sick, their professionalism, their pride in their technique . . . this kid’s full of gratitude when I hand him a tissue and, seconds later, I see him with his head out again but this time facing into the wind with such a look of supernal glee on his face that I almost envy him. When we get there he pays with a card and tells me, definitively, that there isn’t a spot of ‘boot’ (think that’s the word he used) on the car. Course he’s wrong about that too but I don’t look until I’m back at the base.
On my way there, just past Missenden Road, I see two small dark figures almost obscured by the road sign they’re standing next to and pull over. Two Asian women. They hug and one gets in the back. Going to Ashbury. Perfect, that’ll cover my gas for the night. She is very sweet as she tells me about her trip to Canberra by coach that day. I like the beautiful landscape, she says. Canberra very cold, and no people. Only the birdies. We go to War Memorial, Art Gallery, Parliament. I think she’s probably Vietnamese, she looks a bit like Thuy Le, a (murdered) student of mine from another life. Or not. I don’t ask . . .
Somehow, having met her, I’m able, with equanimity, without disgust, to wash away the salivary vomit that has set like a kind of varnish over the paintwork of the back door of the cab. Then I go home and try on the hats: that bloke must have been a pin head, his sits on my mane of hair like a clown’s cap; but the other one, the woman’s, with the turned-up brim . . . should fit Maggie a treat. She’ll be stoked. When she left the army wouldn’t let her keep hers.
(The image is David Curno’s entry into this year’s Gallipoli Art Prize, the one he brought across from NZ on the plane. David writes: The full name is, ‘am island, am sea, am father, farm and friend’, taken from an allen curnow poem called, ‘Time’. Its less about the parallels between sport and war and more about the feeedoms we’re able to enjoy thru past sacrifices.)