I'm near the end of the line at the Luxor. Other drivers are reading newspapers or yakking outside the cabs. A plush pile carpet of cigarette butts wends its way down the drivers' side of the queue. Up on the nut a Frank Buck look-alike doorman is straightening out a thick money roll and chatting with a valet. In a few minutes the dinner hour begins and it'll be popping.
I brought a book entitled Japanese Death Poems. These are the sagely haiku of dying Buddhist monks. They are mistily and economically rendered, as is most Japanese art, with references to blossoms, fallen petals and animals signifying the mood as well as season occasioning their impending demise. My favorite so far reads 'Oh, I don't care where these autumn clouds are drifting to'. A tap of the horn behind me and I close a half dozen car lengths to the stand. 'Frank' is amiably determining the destination of a party of three and leans into the passenger side window to ask "Is it okay if some gentlemen smoke cigars in your cab? "They can smoke anything they like in my cab." "He says you can smoke anything you like in his cab." The crowd loves it.
I pick up a lot of Brits at the Luxor, one of the reasons I favor the place. We meander through the construction and wait at the light, where everyone has a good laugh over a nearby billboard hawking vasectomy reversals that are guarantied, or your money back.
The strip is clear so we go the front way into Harrah's, which is detoured into the back way over a shamefully pocked surface. I always put people at ease here, swearing they're in no danger. A left, another left, a right and we're there. All the back ways in are surrounded by barricades and bizarrely-lit rubble. I've learned the shortcuts and back ways in first hand from working girls playing cats and mice with doormen, hotel dicks, undercover johns, Metro, gaming authority spooks and ephemeral arms of Homeland Security. We have a working and social relationship. We're in cahoots. We're out all night. We dodge 'The Man'.
Slide into The Turtle Stop, a cabbie hangout across from the Rio; combination convenience store, taco joint and The Don's Pizza, 'the pizza you can't refuse'. You can get a perspective from here on the personality of the night. Some nights it seems amazingly organized and courteous. Others are like a time-compressed crash course in the nuances of human pathology. High-heeled groups of girls stream in and out. Cabbies joke and complain. The guy behind the counter so personifies a seasoned nonchalance it's as if Duane Hanson gods have installed him in a perfectly fitting milieu.
I get my weekly call from Lulu's boyfriend and it's a jump west on Flamingo, then a twelve-eighty fare far to the north where she works as a nanny. Lulu is from Mexico and helps me expand on a smattering of Spanish. A ride away from the lights with her is a yank back to near sanity. We swing into the entrance and the usual "I've got Lulu" to the female guard and the usual few upscale turns to her destination. On the way back to sensory overload I drift away to her homeland, the early eighties, delirious heat and laid back people. All the while the cabbie self, picture of competent efficiency, tools the big-block Crown Vic along, a shining maniacal moth, toward the dreadful garish glimmer.
I don't know what this stuff called time is made out of. Don't even know where it boils up and steams up from, don't even know where time rolls back to. I don't know what I, my own self, am made out of, because just about every day I find out that I'm made out of something new, like time it's own self is.
You could just take a handful of these things you call days and weeks, and things you say are months, and hold them in your hand like this, and blow them up into the air like a feather out of old Aunt Rhody's Pillow, and you'd find me out there back in Oklahoma, out on my Grandma's farm paying a visit.
The drive down Main between the Plaza and the Strat is an excursion through a littered crimescape, blighted hotels, schizophrenic theater and what's left of the famously dilapidated hacks at Western Cab strewn along the curb. Where do they all come from? Nearing the intersection of Main and the Strip there's a guy in the median with a mangled cardboard sign advertising pot for seventy-five cents. He flips it up for some cars behind me and does a mugged come-on with his big bloodshot eyes.
The line at the Strat looks long and idle so I opt for Circus Circus behind two Hendersons and a Yellow. I go in to use the bathroom, Hear the sledges with the bells-Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells! How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, In the icy air of night! While the stars that oversprinkle All the heavens, seem to twinkle With a crystalline delight. When I get back there's a sizable looking black guy in a Lexus at the turnaround who spends about three minutes burning a hole through me before gliding away. I'm wondering what gives, if he's incensed at someone who looks like me or if he's a company supervisor, T A (Nevada Taxi Authority) or another variant of twisted miscreant sizing me up for the kill. Gives you the heebie jeebies. Soon I'm loaded for Mandalay Bay and a ride south on Industrial with a bright and amiable kid from Scituate, Massachusetts. Industrial Boulevard; home to an ever growing plethora of gentlemen's clubs, adult arcades and escort services. You get a hundred bucks for 'stripper' referrals and most of the clubs pay twenty a scalp most of the time.
While training for this gig doesn't include ride-along stuff as one might logically expect, it does place an emphasis on safety procedures. We got to see some dead drivers in a slide show, which should be enough to give one pause to reconsider. We were advised to not pick up 'flags', there being no camera surveillance away from the stands. We're not supposed to drop behind apartment complexes, even with female passengers, as it could be a setup. One example got strangled with his radio cable behind Smith and Wollensky's, listed as a personal beef, which may have exempted him from the odds but didn't make him any less dead. We have codes to alert the dispatchers to a bad ride and also a tiny green emergency light on top which is there, in theory, to attract help from other drivers or the cops.
Rookies are sent out on a Saturday night and left to fend for themselves. I was so nervous the first night I didn't dare to pick anyone up. I tooled aimlessly around for a few hours and then dragged myself back to the barn. Luckily, a supervisor bucked me up and advised me to follow the cheater lights (amber rear window passenger lights that are on when unloaded) in order to grok how to get in and load without offending protocol. For weeks I didn't know where anything was and would either bug the doorman for directions or stop just off the stand to wade through several maps and a phone book. I thought JetBlue was a nightclub.
For the first few months drivers are on the extra board, which allows them to sample from a wide array of beleaguered vehicles, each one outfitted with its own unique and disturbing characteristics. Each shift is twelve hours long, two or three hours past the point where visual distortion becomes a factor. It's a good idea to get out of the car and stretch once in a while.
Most of the drivers are okay people. The ones to take issue with are the long haulers and the bigots. Long haulers spirit people through the tunnel out of the 'port for a lengthy detour along the freeway, thereby tacking immense amounts of money onto the book. Every other time I take a load to McCarren they ask why my fare is half what they paid to get to their hotel. 'Haulers give the rest of the drivers an undeserved rep. Also, their 'scores' bump up the averages (posted daily in the drivers' room) to where honest people can't compete. If you don't hover closely around the daily averages you don't stay. T A claims to crack down on these guys during their token sting operations, but they don't. 'Thing is, they don't have to nab them in the act. It's all there on the trip sheets. As for the bigots, they can usually be ignored or avoided. Most of the drivers are fellow mystic gypsy mavericks, living out a mutually imposed exile from the sanctioned hallucination.
In Chuang Tzu's view, the man who has freed himself from conventional standards of judgment can no longer be made to suffer, for he refuses to recognize poverty as any less desirable than affluence, to recognize death as any less desirable than life. He does not in any literal sense withdraw and hide from the world. To do so would show that he still passed judgment upon the world. He remains within society but refrains from acting out of the motives that lead ordinary men to struggle for wealth, fame, success, or safety. He maintains a state that Chuang Tzu refers to as wu-wei, or inaction, meaning by this term not a forced quietude, but a course of action that is not founded upon any purposeful motives of gain or striving. In such a state, all human actions become as spontaneous and mindless as those of the natural world. Man becomes one with Nature, or Heaven, as Chuang Tzu calls it, and merges himself with Tao, or the Way, the underlying unity that embraces man, Nature, and all that is in the universe.
Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings
Getting to the end of these death poems and a moderately moving kind of night, a night like no night has been. The Venetian was where I was when the slowdown hit and it's where I am right now. That early morning punch-drunken grog is settling in. 'Tell you what, the horticulture here is quite lush, as is the architecture. There's a tight left u-turn up ahead where a struggle so oft' ensues between those coming in and those dropping from the back. The Ace just ahead is catching some shuteye.
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