Last Saturday evening marked my first shift as a taxi driver since early August 1998. In the event I was covering for Crazy Uncle John, who had asked me if I’d pick up a license for doing so earlier in the year to help out when he wanted a night off. It’s not something I thought I’d ever go back to, but with the amount of debt I’ve amassed in the past year it seemed like a good way of earning some extra cash.
It was quite an alien feeling getting in the diesel with my change box again, but within an hour of starting I’d done just two hires and those eleven years dissolved with the once familiar feeling that it was going to be a long, arduous night behind the wheel. Fortunately it would pick up later on, and the nine or so hours in the car went by quite quickly with the highs and lows that come with driving those mean streets.
Helensburgh isn’t exactly a sprawling town, but it has its fair share of quirky little streets and avenues that are tucked away off the roads most travelled. What local knowledge I had back in the day had faded with time, so I was fortunate that technology had bridged the gap since then. With Google Maps on my mobile phone helping to point me in the right direction when the controller’s instruction had me lost, I made it to nearly all the pick-up points without too much fuss.
Normally a 6pm ’til late as you dare shift consists mostly of local hires, with the “base hire” being a rare diamond in the rough. However, as timing would have it, the nearby naval base was playing host for the weekend to a sizeable fleet of submarines, ships, and a massive aircraft carrier.
With the respective crews out on the town enjoying their free time before heading out for exercizes again on Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of runs to and from the base to go around on this particular night. I’d done three runs up there with one hire back into town after I’d dropped by 9pm. That’s over £50 in real money and really helped bolster the takings after a shakey start.
As a base hire is a good earner (although when it’s busy you can make as much back in town, doing more hires, covering less miles and getting more tips) some drivers will get a base run and then wait up there for ages in the hope of getting a run back in. I headed back into town immediately after my first couple of trips, because there are people heading out locally at that time of night and there was quite a queue of cars sitting up there. The time I did wait it took 25 minutes before some customers showed up, so it can be a hit and miss to sit there and hope. I was rusty, but I think I played it about right.
Talking of being rusty, I had a booking to collect round in Cove at 10pm that I nearly made myself late for, due to misjudging how long it would take to do some local runs. After racing round the back roads to get there in the nick of time, it turned out the guy was pretty laid back. He had a giant cello/bass thing that was a bit of a struggle to get in the car, but I was back in the town by just after half ten to drop him at the station.
It was shortly after that when I had my first bad luck of the night. I picked up some guy who was going to the Vale of Leven. He said he had £18 in cash on him, and when I checked with the controller he said that it should cost around about that. I figured that since the base and local traffic had calmed down at this point that it was worth running him over there.
When we got to the house the guy handed me £8 in coins, then said “I’ll just get the ten pounds”. He opened the door, to get out his wallet I thought, but then he sprinted off between the houses and disappeared off into the estate. That was me £10 down in an instant and another sign of rustiness – always get the money up front when going out of town.
Back in the day I’d probably have lost the plot and chased him. I used to come home from a day at college, gulp down a couple of cans of Red Bull and be on-edge for the rest of the night, so I was quick to lose my temper if I was being blocked by another driver on the rank, or if I couldn’t find an address, for example.
Don’t get me wrong – I felt like chasing him down. He was drunk and I think I could have caught him, but I was quick enough to reach the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the effort. Leaving the car in a dodgy estate to chase some cheap bastard just didn’t seem like a good idea. It was better to let it go and head back into town where I could work on recouping the loss.
As soon as I checked back into town on the radio I was given a hire at the Royal Northern Yacht Club. I knew right away that it would be a function of some sort and I’d probably be ferrying a bunch of drunken toffs – either the younger variety who’d be loud, arrogant, and on their way into town, or the older variety who would be loud, arrogant, and screw around saying goodbye to all their toff friends before directing me to their large house at the end of their lengthy driveway.
It turned out to be the latter type of toff in two separate runs, including a lot of mucking around going up and down their aforementioned lengthy driveway. Still, after not being cynical enough to get the money up front from a drunk low-life, I’ll still give them the benefit of the doubt and take the sincerity behind the 30 pence tip at face value. After all, the guy was probably on so much each year that he figured the small change would make all the difference to a lowly taxi driver.
It’s not without a sense of irony that one of my next hires was a working class guy who lived around the corner from my family on the council estate where I grew up. I didn’t remember him at first, but he recognised me straight away and gave me an exceptionally generous £3.50 tip. This generosity could explain, of course, why he now lives around the corner from me again some 30 years later in a marginally better part of town, and not in a large house with a lengthy driveway. But hey – at least he knows how to tip.
The night wound down after that with another lengthy trip to Cove, taking two enthusiastic girls of 20 and 21 home. All the way there the girl in the back seat loudly went on and on about two guys – one who was interested in her, called Ross, and one she was interested in, called Justin. Apparently neither of the guys in question were taking the respective hint, although for as loud as she was I didn’t think subtlety would be her strongest suit.
With them dropped off I made my way wearily back into Helensburgh to see a fairly good rendition of a ghost town. The streets were empty and there were no other taxis to be seen, so I I had decided to call it a night just before I saw a young bloke shivering by a street corner.
He saw me at the same time and gave a half-hearted wave as if he didn’t expect me to stop. Beingt grateful that I had done, he asked me where I’d been that night and if I was working late. When I told him I’d just dropped off a pair of nice, but loud young girls round in Cove, he asked “Would that be Fiona and Katie?
“Yes it would.” I told him. “Lovely girls, but Fiona was really loud – going on all the way there about these two guys – one she likes and one she doesn’t.”
“Which one did she not like?” He asked with a with a hint of mischief.
“That would be telling.” I said, “But what the heck – Ross wasn’t flavour of the month, but Justin was a big hit with Fiona.”
“That’s really interesting to know.” Said my passenger.
“Why?” I asked, “Which one are you?”
“Justin!” He said with a big smile.
We both laughed about the coincidence as I drove him up the hill, and the insider info gained me a good tip from Justin. It turned out he lived at the end of my street, too, so no doubt I’ll bump into him again and find out how things develop with Fiona.
After that I did one more hire and called it a night. I thought I’d done quite good money despite the runner, but Crazy Uncle John would be the judge of that and it turned out he was delighted with his cut when I saw him. He had been expecting me to have a hard night due to being out of practice, but he said I’d made a good bit more than he normally would on a Saturday night, which was great.
In the end it wasn’t as tough a night as I’d imagined, either. I’m not sure if I’ll do it again too regularly – maybe once or twice a month would be all I’d want to do, as working six days a week would take their toll.
Over the time since I last did it I forgot the upside of being a taxi driver, in that you get to meet lots of people and sometimes have interesting conversations into the bargain. Be it the old couple who were my first hire – whose bags I carried to their back door for them – or Justin and Fiona, you get to flit into the lives of people for a brief few minutes and if you can make a difference besides dropping them at their destination, then so much the better.