WHEN IT LOOKED LIKE CAT POWER MIGHT BARF IN THE FRONT SEAT OF MY CAB last Saturday night, I had no idea I was on the verge of being vomited on by a rock star. At that point, she was just another anonymous downtown drunk to me. And a slightly annoying one, at that.
I’ve got an unusually high tolerance – even an appreciation, at times – for the late night drunks that pass through my taxi. Maybe it’s because I’ve been the giddy/chatty/horny/annoying drunk in a cab more than once myself.
But Ms. Power challenged my patience from the get-go by lingering next to the cab outside The Ginger Man long after I’d pulled over to pick up the cluster of ladies in a crowd of overzealous cab seekers. Instead of hopping in the cab like her friends so we could pull away from the chaos, Miss Thing opted to standby smoking a cigarette. Chatting outside in the unseasonably warm night with a faceless stranger, while her two girlfriends sat in the backseat waiting for her to join us.
A good 6, 7 minutes passed. The bars had just closed. The drunks were stumbling, fumbling, clamoring for cabs. Sitting here waiting for this chick to get in the taxi was costing me money.
I finally turned to the ladies in black sitting in the backseat.
“Could you tell your friend I’ve gotta get going? I’ve got people waiting for me.”
“Ma’am, you can’t smoke in here,” I said to the blank-faced woman who’d finally climbed in next to me in the front seat. “It’s a no smoking cab. Sorry.”
She took a deep breath, drunkenly tossed her cigarette out the window and slurred, “Sorry.”
As we rolled up Lavaca, dodging drunks on our way to the Omni, one of the girls in the backseat noticed the drumsticks wedged between my driver’s seat and a couple copies of Barstool Poetry.
“Do you play drums?”
“No, not really,” I said, catching a glimpse of her chestnut acoustic Dylan ‘do and thick black-rimmed glasses in the rearview mirror. “I play my steering wheel and dashboard, mostly. It’s a good way to work off my traffic angst. Keeps me from flipping people off and riding my horn.”
Before I began keeping drumsticks in my cab, my drumming rhythm wasn’t worth a damn. But all those hours playing along to my CD mixes at red lights has definitely improved my game. Plus, the sticks serve a few other functions. They’re great for pointing at things and delivering a well-timed rim shot after a corny joke. They’re handy when the situation calls for knocking on wood. And the drumsticks can be intimidating potential weapons when dealing with drunk fools who jump on my cab like this guy.
And sometimes it’s just great to have a set of drumsticks nearby when a drummer gets in the cab. Like Saturday night.
“Do YOU play drums?” I asked the girl with the chunky black glasses.
“We both play drums!” shot back the two smart hipster chicks in black sitting behind me.
“Excellent!” I said, reaching down to grab my drumsticks before handing them towards the backseat to anyone who’d take them.
One of the ladies – not sure which one – took the sticks and began thumping out a beat against the back of my seat. I’m always excited when a real musician gets in my cab, especially a drummer who can actually flash a bit of their musical gift right here while I’m driving them from point A to point B.
But Saturday night’s backseat drum riff didn’t last long. The ladies in the back noticed their friend wasn’t doing so well in the front seat.
“You okay, sweetie?” asked the voice from behind us.
I looked at the woman sitting next to me. Her torso was bobbing and weaving ever so slightly. Her cropped platinum hair and jeans made her look butch. Her half-mast eyes made her look hammered. Still, she waved us off like she was swatting a summer mosquito.
“I’m good, I’m good,” she slurred.
“You sure?” the other voice from the back asked sweetly.
When their friend up front shook her head, it looked more like a wobble. She proved just how fucked up she was by fumbling with the passenger door with her right hand, impatiently slapping at the buttons like a toddler.
I recognized the move. It was the move of a drunk on the cusp of an upchuck.
The previous night one of my customers was curious about the frequency of moments like this. “You must get people puking in here every weekend, right?”
“Dude, if I had people puking in my cab every weekend, I would not be your cab driver right now.”
Puking customers are one of the hazards of the cabbie trade. Especially in a town like Austin. The combination of 6th Street bars and thousands of college kids – not to mention the occasional tourist and overindulgent adult – make backseat barfing an inevitability.
Drive a cab at night and it’s bound to happen.
Luckily, there are a few things I’ve learned to do that can minimize the frequency of the inevitable. Like avoiding the sloppy souls who look like they’re seconds away from losing their lunch. Be on the lookout for dried barf chunks on shirts and dresses. We don’t need those smells and stains tonight.
I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I eventually got burned. But my instincts kept me puke-free for more than a year when I first started this job.
Then I got hit twice in one night. Back when I drove late, great Cab 48. The one with the rubber floor instead of carpet. Which meant I could hose down the disgusting dreck from the backseat and get back on the road to pickup Travis Heights Bonnie at 3am – only to get blasted less than an hour later by an Eastside hipster too hammered to ride his thrift store bike from one of the dives on Webberville.
I’ve found that the threat of getting hit with a $100 cleanup fee is a pretty good deterrent in getting our lovable Austin drunks to refrain from ralphing in my cab. I always give anyone that looks even REMOTELY close to puking a speech that sounds something like this:
“Before we go anywhere I have to tell you something. Now, I’m not saying that you’re gonna be throwing up in my cab. But if you DO barf in my cab or ON my cab, you’re gonna have to pay me $100. That’s the law. And it’s the dirtiest, most unwelcome $100 I’ll ever make. I don’t want your $100. So let’s work together on this so it doesn’t happen.”
It’s usually about this time that the person in the backseat assures me – and RE-assures me – that they’re good, it’s not gonna happen, don’t worry, I’m fine . . .
And I’ve seen “Don’t worry, I’m fine” turn into “Oh, shit, that fool puked in my backseat” more than half a dozen times in my 2 1/2 year cabbie career.
But I never even had a chance to get to the $100 Cleanup Fee Story with the feline rockstar in the front seat.
“Are you gonna throw up?” I ask my co-pilot with urgency. “Because if you are, let me pull over so you can open the door and do it on the street.”
I’m trying to pull over now, but it’s bumper to bumper. The streets are crowded with hundreds of drunks trying to get a cab. The random chick sitting next to me is having no luck opening the door. Luckily, I’ve now come to a stop. And I’m reaching across this drunk stranger, trying to get the door open.
But the door sticks, which has been happening ever since I got the cab back from the fill-in driver who took my ride when I was in California for the holidays. I’m getting frustrated. I’m reaching across to the passenger door. Damn thing isn’t opening. And this chick looks like she might be puking on my arm any second now.
Suddenly, amid the chaos out our window, a happy fan appears in the passenger window. Through the glass I can hear him telling his friend in a crescendo of fandomonium.
“That girl looks like…oh my god! I was at your show tonight at the Moody! You were great! We love you!”
The entire time he’s saying this, I’m still trying to get the damn door open. Finally, I motion for the Cat freak outside to help me out.
“Open the door! Pull it! It sticks!”
Finally, the two of us work as a team to get the door open. At last, this Cat is free to spill her bile and genius on the streets of Austin. Instead, she stumbles out of my cab – with the aid of her new #1 fan, who’s in the midst of a story he’ll be re-telling for a long time.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl in the black glasses says, patting my shoulder as she hands me a tenspot.
“Sorry about that,” I tell her. “I was stopping so she could puke. I wasn’t kicking you guys out.”
And like that they are gone. As I’m about to pull away, the other Cat friend turns back and asks, “Did she tip you?”
“She tipped me a buck. Don’t worry about it.”
She shoves a bouquet of 3 $1 dollar bills in my hand.
“Sorry. Have a great night.”
As she takes off towards her friends, I realize I still have no idea who the woman sitting next to me was.
“Hey! So who’s your friend.”
By the time I turn to head up Brazos, I glance to my left and see the 3 girlfriends heading north towards the Omni. The drunk rock star in the middle. Arms around her 2 friends who’ll no doubt be delivering her to safety.
Wish it could’ve been me.
Puke or no puke.
A quick shout out to everyone who showed up and participated in last weekend’s Barstool Poetry Book Party #2 at Violet Crown Social Club. We’ll be posting more on how things went in the near future. But until then, click this link to check out 13 of the more memorable barstool poems from last Friday night. Details to come regarding this month’s Barstool Poetry Book Party #3.
(Today’s entry written while listening to Cat Power’s latest album, Sun.)
Previously: Confessions of an Austin Cabbie: Chapter 1