About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood.
--W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts
The Taxi Driver
"Hey man, you wanna buy this gun?" says the yellowy-eyed Latino man in the back seat who has introduced himself as Hank. "For $80 it's yours, mister. A Glock compact .45, ya won't go wrong."
He lifts the weapon toward the front seat so the driver and I can see it, its shiny and strangely optimistic image recurring in rhythm with the streetlights passing overhead.
I shake my head.
"C'mon, you should take it before I get it to somebody else," he croaks in a dry and caustic voice that suggests ill-spent time in meth euphoria. "C'mon, man."
Hank had flagged us as we headed west on Van Buren, just east of 32nd Street. He said he wanted to be dropped at 17th Drive where he's "got some shit waitin'."
The driver, Joe, doesn't seem to mind that there is a gun floating around in his car; at least if he does, it doesn't show. Perhaps he knows something I don't, some kind of unwritten cabbie rule that states you are safe when not driving alone. (Joe isn't his real name--he'd be given the boot if his cab company knew he let me ride with him.)
At Fifth Avenue and Van Buren I begin to wonder if Hank will ditch the sales pitch and shoot us instead, giving him free rein to all we have on us.
"Man, you ain't gonna get it this good," the gun salesman whines. Joe rolls his eyes.
We round the corner at 17th Place, and Hank instructs us to stop at a low bluish apartment building just past Van Buren. We roll to a stop, and for a moment I wait for the blast, the quick flash of a bullet, and then my eyeballs with brains in tow speeding toward the windshield.
The shot never comes.
Instead Hank puts the gun away, pays Joe and climbs out. I watch him move toward the cheerless dwelling. We drive out of there, and I wonder if delving into the downtrodden Phoenix night as an active participant really holds as much promise as I thought.
"What the hell was that all about," I ask Joe as we move to our next pick-up at the Jungle topless bar downtown, "Is it always like this?"
"Really, if I thought that guy was trouble I never would have stopped," Joe says confidently, his strange, blue, birdlike tattoo faded and slumped across the wattled skin of his biceps, half covered by his shirt sleeve.
Cab drivers are not without their harrowing stories, and Joe shares one about a time he picked up a guy who robbed him for the 60 bucks he was carrying; the guy also stabbed him. "I wound up in the hospital," Joe says.
Joe's face is lined with pure late-night resignation--the kind reserved for those who have lived through hell--like he knows he is past the point of fresh opportunity. Like his driving a cab in and around downtown Phoenix in the wee hours makes perfect sense, as if there were nothing else in life for him.
At the Jungle I wait in the taxi as Joe goes in. The interior of Joe's cab has a distinct mammalian odor, and the comforting warmth of a living room.
A minute later Joe returns with a gray-haired man in a suit. Once we get moving, the man's head bobs around in the back seat. He slurs his directions home, mouthing something to do with Camelback and Seventh Street. Joe finds the place and helps the guy to his door.
Joe is a big man, so getting in and out of the cab isn't the easiest task. When he makes it back behind the wheel he says, "That was worth it, that guy tipped me 11 bucks."
"Are the drunks the ones keeping you afloat?" I ask.
He nods and answers, "Because of the DUI laws in Arizona, I make my rent on time. I ain't complainin'."
Joe tells me stories of getting free peep-show entertainment, and the occasional blowjob, from dancers and whores who catch rides in his taxi. Once, a couple got in and fucked in the back seat while he drove around the city, observing the schtup through the rearview.
"It was like they wanted me to watch, that was their whole game. We drove around like that for an hour, they just wanted me to drive. When it was over, I took them to a bar, and they paid me the fare."
On duty, he regularly gets offered coke, speed, heroin, pot and "every drug on the planet." He adds that he never accepts.