No time for taxis

TRAVEL. Meet new people. That's what taxicab drivers do. Sound exciting? It is, but not for the reasons you might think. First, 12 hours behind the wheel of a cab grows old pretty fast. Then there is the possibility of getting robbed. But the worst possible thing that can happen is to get desperately lost. For me that was common fare, but then I drove in Boston. The street pattern in Boston is a notorious mess. Many of the streets began in the colonial days as twisted horse and cow paths. When cars came along, the city simply paved over the paths, thus establishing the chaotic traffic flows for which the city is famous.

As the city grew, and the number of streets increased, the city fathers didn't bother with new names; the ones they had were so nice they used them over again. To add to the confusion they changed the names of some streets at seemingly random points. Together with the equally random one-way streets, it's enough to drive the rookie cabby crazy.

One night, a man with a checkered shirt flagged me down near the State House, and his family of five piled in. ``The Marriott,'' he said in a Texas accent.

Tourists from Texas, I surmised. They could have walked to the hotel in 20 minutes, if they knew that it was only a mile away. Surely, they were visiting Boston for the first time.

To the Boston cabby, red lights and stop signs are only warning signals. No cops and he hits the gas. This quaint style of driving, however, seemed new to my Southern customers. They stopped talking and their faces tensed.

This made me tense. And when I made a wrong turn my tension tightened. Getting lost was a nightmare that always sat in the back of my mind. I didn't want to make my dispatcher angry, and I sure didn't want to upset my customers and see my tips disappear.

But there is another problem to getting lost. Do you slice a few bucks off a runaway meter and sometimes take a loss? Most cabdrivers are not willing to do this, and some take round-about routes intentionally.

I always tried to drive directly to my destination, but when I didn't, I asked for the fare staring on the meter. It was simply a matter of economics.

As I drove to the Marriott, past nightmares surfaced. The Marriott is in the financial district - the most vexing entanglement of streets I've ever encountered. Once I spent almost 25 minutes there trying to find an address only a few blocks away. And in my desperation I backed into a parking meter and hit a car bumper. Someday I'll find 82 Devonshire Street - driving the right way on a one-way street.

I headed in the general direction of the hotel, but somehow ended up in Chinatown. Minutes later I was back in the financial district. ``Didn't we already pass that building?'' the wife of the family asked innocently. ``I'm not sure,'' I replied. The father kept glancing out the window and then at his wife and children in the back seat. The Texans were worried.

As was I. Every click of the meter made me more nervous. Usually, when my customers didn't know directions to their destination, and I got lost, I admitted my ignorance and sought help. For directions I often relied on pedestrians and other cabbies.

But with the Texans I concealed my ignorance. When I picked them up at the State House I had acted as if I knew where I was going: and I wanted to retain my image as the slick Boston cabby.

That image started crumbling as the fearsome 20-cent clicks advanced. I hoped for the Marriott to suddenly loom in front of me.

At last I found the hotel. When the cab stopped, the back doors immediately flew open to sighs of relief. The father examined the meter, reached for his wallet, and reluctantly paid me the $13.20 fare.

Later that month, the company put me on a ``permanent leave of absence.'' Clearly, I was not meant to be a cabdriver. When walking around in this cow-path city I sometimes think of those Texans. If I see them again, they'll be $13.20 richer.

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