“The Pros of a Matchstick”—Installment II – 28 April 2014
This is the second installment of “Pros” that I’m sharing with you.
Saturday, 11:35 a.m.
Two blocks south of the station stood a crumbling brick garage, three stories high and swallowed up by the taller buildings around it. From the street the only clue to its existence was its driveway, the bottom of which opened between a locksmiths and a dry-cleaners. Behind them it widened into a lot in front of the garage’s ancient bay doors, seafoam green with COLMINETTI’S TAXI painted in white-outlined red lettering across both of them. Dispatcher-slash-owner Dennis Colminetti managed a fleet of ten cabs, half of them out running twelve-hour shifts at any given time. Four of the five drivers getting off shift had returned and been cut loose; their cabs waited to be moved into the garage. The fifth cabbie, as usual, was late. Linwood removed the raincoat hood and shook the water from his stringy blonde hair like a sheepdog as he walked through the open bay doors.
The interior resembled a small airplane hangar; shelf after shelf of motor oil and spare parts and tools and tiny American flags and other things lined the walls, sharing space with outdated centerfold calendars and Knicks posters and windows too high up to see out of. Light fixtures and ceiling fans hung low from the steel beams holding up the roof. Five gleaming cabs took up most of the space on the floor and four drivers stood around them, smoking and talking amongst themselves while they waited to be dispatched. They loudly greeted Linwood as he entered, who answered with a sharp jerk of the head.
“Yo, Linwood. Gettin’ wet out there, huh?” The cabbie chuckled at him with the butt of a cigarette in his lips, waiting for the comeback that was sure to follow.
He sat leaning back in a chair, his long legs stretched out in front of his taxi, number 2R42. He sported a pair of black-framed eyeglasses over his brown eyes, too small for his long face but somehow not unsuited for it. His shoulder-length jet black hair was pulled back in a ponytail that always hung from the back of a ratty Islanders cap. He wore a brown corduroy jacket, his hands shoved deep in its pockets to protect them from the rainy chill pervading the garage. His faded jeans had a tear in the left knee, and he wore a pair of old khaki-colored oil-smudged workboots. With the easy-going air of a bohemian cowboy he spoke as if every syllable mattered, in a voice that was slow and deliberate, and deeply-pitched. He was about the same age as Linwood but stood several inches taller.
Jamieson. After six months Linwood still wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name.
“Not as wet as your mother was this mornin’. Thank her for me, will ya?” The three other cabbies in the garage hooted and laughed.
“Take it easy, huh, Linwood? Ya know, a guy might not take so kindly to you talkin’ ’bout his mother an’ what not.”
“I’d talk about your pops if that’d make ya feel better. When’s the last time you heard from him?” The cabbies hooted again, and this brought Jamieson to his feet. He spat out the cigarette butt and stalked over to Linwood, then put an arm around his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. “Who the hell does this kid think he is? It’s almost like we’re family, am I right or am I right?”
“An Irish cabbie and a smartmouthed young buck. The resemblance is almost perfect,” said Reginald Placer, another of the drivers. Everybody sent up another round of laughter.
Linwood slapped Reggie on the shoulder. “See you round back in five?” he said to Jamieson, who gave him a nod. He went over to cab number 3C28 and opened the door, tossing the raincoat and backpack inside. He put on a Rangers hoodie lying on the front seat, two sizes too big, and stuck something in the pocket before slamming the door shut.
He had only been a cabbie for six months, but in that short time Linwood had come to understand what it really meant to drive a cab. It was more than just a car; when it was out of sorts he couldn’t make money, so he had to learn quickly what to do to keep it shipshape. Jamieson and the other cabbies taught him lots of things he didn’t already know, and he read manuals and textbooks like mad to fill in the blanks. Short of total engine reconstruction Linwood could correct any minor internal problem with his cab, and a few major ones besides.
Linwood walked around the cab, slowly running his hands across the hood, the doors, the vacancy lamp on the roof, the bumblebee-colored livery—all to the untrained eye no different from the other thirty-two thousand that ran across the city day and night. None of his fares ever noticed the half-dozen cigarette burns on the back seat; or the tiny crack an impressively drunk fare put in the Plexiglas when she punched the barrier with a ring she wore; or the scent of the linseed oil he rubbed on the leather seats after every shift; or the warp in his rear license plate, the result of a fender bender his first day on the job. Linwood did not know the entire ownership history of this particular taxicab but since he began at Colminetti’s it belonged to him and he alone, and he loved his cab with an intensity reserved for small children or pets or elderly parents, none of which he had.
Dennis Colminetti sat at his desk, speaking into the radio and filling out paperwork. He held up a huge hand for silence. Linwood pulled out a cigarette, a Marlboro menthol, and offered Dennis one. He raked a strike-anywhere match across the desk after drawing one from a tiny rectangular silver case full of them. The smell of sulfur and the hiss of the match head briefly filled the small office as he lit both cigarettes.
“Callin’ cab 2A49, four-nine. Dump da fuckin’ fare an’ get back here. Shift’s ova.”
“I’m ten blocks out now, boss. Headed in now.” The cabbie’s voice and his loud sniffling crackled through the radio’s speaker. Dennis dropped the receiver to the desk in disgust and took a drag from the cigarette. “Fuckin’ Rick. If he didn’t have dose goddamn kids he’d’a been gone years ago. Snorts up half’a his paycheck anyway… Jesus, Linwood. You an’ dese fuckin’ menthols. What is it, you turnin’ yo or somethin’?”
“I heard that boss,” Reggie called out from in the garage. “I think you makin’ this an unfit workplace for all us yos.”
“Blow it out ya ass an’ call da Mayor’s office, see if he’ll listen to ya,” Dennis called back. Reggie laughed and Linwood smiled. “Now,” said Dennis, turning his attention to Linwood and leaning back in his ancient, creaky office chair. His balding scalp reflected the light from the bare bulb overhead and his huge belly rose above the desk like a small mountain of rayon. “Convince me why for I should letcha out on a cabbie-killer.”
Linwood put his lit cigarette in the ashtray, placed his hands on the desk. “I’m a newbie, boss,” he began. “I’ve only been on the job for six months. But you know I can do this, so let me do it. Why do you think I took this job, boss? To pay the bills? I could be flippin’ burgers or foldin’ shirts for that. I do it ’cause not every Joe Douchebag could do it. I do it ’cause it’s tough. I do it ’cause it’s scary sometimes. And last time I checked, I wasn’t some pussy in a crewneck.” That drew a chortle from Dennis.
Linwood stood up straight and picked up the cigarette again, and took a drag. “Every other cabbie workin’ for ya’s done it at least three times. Besides, if you don’t let me the other guys are gonna think I’m soft. You don’t want that on your conscience, do ya?”
Dennis pretended to think it over with a laugh. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a small, worn, brown pleather notebook. “Yeah, all right.” He gave the fare log to Linwood. Dennis then rose heavily from the chair and leaned in close across the desk, made sure Linwood heard what he was about to say. “Look, I know ya. You liketa smoke pot an’ talk about pussy all day long, but I know you’re a good driva too, so I letcha be. That bein’ said, no amount’a coffee an’ cigarettes’re gonna keep ya awake fuh long if ya don’t keep your fuckin’ eyes peeled, Linwood. You hafta stay sharp’ta stay safe out dere, get it? It’ll be a good test, see how much balls an’ guts ya got. If anythin’ else you’ll get some interestin’ stories out of it. An’ thanks for da cig.” Dennis waved Linwood out of his office.