- Erik JP Drobey
Everynight Driver and the Cobalt Blues
The sky is crying.
Can’t you see the tears rolling down the street?
As Stevie Ray Vaughan’s opening lines and guitar wailed from the restaurant’s speakers, my mind played faint echoes of something else, something I haven’t actually heard in over twenty years.
Number 22, echoed a memory. Jimmy Dunn’s. Ask for George.
On a recent rainy morning, my colleagues were in the mood for the blues (suitable for the times, no?), and as we prepared for takeout service, that song brought me back to my college-going days--or nights, to be precise. Raindrops rolled down the restaurant’s windows, and I remembered.
The sky was crying that night, too, as it often does in Eureka, California. Little raindrops crowding the windshield rendered the intersection of F and Sixth a gritty, pointillist streetscape. Reluctantly, I lowered the volume of Vaughan’s guitar and picked up the CB.
“22 copy. On my way.”
Number 22 was my cab-driving handle.
While an undergrad at Humboldt State University, I drove the graveyard shift for Yellow Cab of Eureka (since closed). My typical schedule: Thursday through Saturday, 7:00pm to 5:00am.
I don’t listen to the blues very often, though I appreciate the genre, and I’m always glad to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan* (his rendition of “Little Wing” on the posthumously-released The Sky is Crying album has to rank among the very best electric-blues-guitar performances of all time). And whenever I hear the blues in general, I’m reminded of my taxi nights.
You see, every Friday shift, I’d tune the dial to the local public radio station for their all-blues programming. Blues and cab-driving accompany each other harmoniously; on Friday nights, something just felt right about cranking up the volume on John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” with the windows rolled down, rolling down G Street, sipping terrible gas-station coffee, puffing on a mini Partagas cigar (between fares). And passengers liked the tunes as well.
My still-vivid memories of those cabbie nights have more to do with the people I met than the yellow tools of the trade; nevertheless, I do, on occasion, reminisce about the cabs themselves. I also think fondly of some of my travels between fares, which, because Yellow Cab of Eureka was the only taxi company for miles, could dispatch me well beyond the greater Humboldt Bay region. There was the time, on my way back from far-flung Garberville, when I strained to listen to a 1994 Sharks-Red Wings playoff game on the radio. As I drove that redwood-lined stretch of 101, the feed phased maddeningly between hockey play-by-play and “God rock,” but I did manage to catch Dan Rusanowsky’s call of Jamie Baker’s stunning series-winning goal. I whooped out the window like a sasquatch to an otherwise quiet and indifferent forest.
On that occasion, I was driving my favorite cab of the fleet, a mid-80s Ford LTD Crown Victoria Wagon. Appointed in brown-ish vinyl and lots of hard plastic, that rear-wheel-drive station wagon floated from fare to fare with little complaint (save for the power-steering motor, which whined every time I turned the wheel at low speeds). The dash was flat and expansive and, therefore, a perfect surface on which to rest my never-less-than-half-full “Humboldt State Lumberjacks” travel mug with a conical base and tacky rubber bottom.** With a bouncy front bench, functioning AM-FM radio, and roomy interior, the Crown Vic was a comfortable enough place to be through my ten-hour shifts.
My second-favorite cab on the lot was also a Ford: an Aerostar equipped with a manual transmission. I put that van through its paces one evening when six large men on their way to a bachelor party climbed their way in.
“Hey, little dude,” the gentleman in the front-passenger seat said (I was, in fact, a comparative Lilliputian. I couldn’t see anything in the rearview mirror beyond the shoulders Tetrising the back seats). “Show us what this hot-rod can do!”
“Uh, I don’t think--”
“Aw, come on,” Middle Shoulders insisted. “We’re cops. You ain’t gonna get in trouble.”
“We’ll tip good,” the cop to my right assured with a smile.
So I took them for a high-rev spin through the streets of Eureka. Aerostars of that era were rear-wheel drive, and I coaxed the back end out a few times, much to the officers’ delight. At their destination, the cops settled the fare to exact change and climbed out. With a chuckle, Captain Front Seat said, “Here ya go, kid,” then placed my tip through the open window onto the dash. It was--ahem--a small “mountain oyster.”
Now, I received some interesting tips as a cabbie, including an avocado tree, but a lamb's testicle? Come on.
I, foolish little dude that I was, grabbed the unpleasantly-slick morsel and tossed it back at him. “Sir, I think you need this more than I do,” and before he could muster a reply, I peeled away in the party van.
As a cabbie, I learned a lot about human behavior (in various states of inebriety), but I also developed some helpful skills as a driver. Among the ones which serve me well to this day:
The habit of looking--and thinking--far ahead. Even in a relatively sleepy town, I had to navigate Eureka streets and surrounding highways like an oracle divining the near future. After near-misses within my first few weeks on the job that involved other drivers cutting me off, stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, and taking left turns at inopportune times, I sharpened my ability to recognize potential crashes well before they could occur. I learned to predict drivers’ and pedestrians’ intentions by reading body language, recognizing subtle turns of tires, and always thinking a few seconds ahead. I suspect the experiences I had with passengers in my cab helped me predict behavior, too.
In part because of this awareness, I haven’t--knock on faux-wood paneling--been involved in a major crash while behind the wheel, despite some close calls.
An ability to evade hazards. Speaking of close calls, I navigated my way out of several on the job. Whether impaired drivers lurched their trucks into my lane, or people hailed for a ride by jumping directly into my cab’s path, or unexpected violent hailstorms covered the city streets with frozen ball bearings, I learned how to steer clear of hazards. I unfortunately also had to evade dangerous passengers, the most dangerous of whom, in a strung-out, homicidal, spontaneous rage, attacked me from the back seat and ripped my CB radio out of the dash when I tried calling for help. We were miles from anyone on a narrow two-lane road, and as soon as my assailant leapt out of the cab to run around the car and pull me from the driver’s seat, I punched it and somehow performed a perfect bootleg turn before racing back to the station (though not before he punched out the rear passenger window). I had never attempted that maneuver before, so I suppose all those episodes of Knight Rider taught me something valuable, after all.
A businesslike approach to driving. I'm not a road-rager, and I think driving professionally played a factor in my reasonably calm on-the-road comportment (I do have my moments, of course). If you’ve ever taken a ride in a cab or Uber or rideshare van with a driver who yelled and gesticulated at other drivers (or, worse, vehicularly threatened them), you probably didn’t have a great experience (or tip well). Driving like a Vulcan, then, was simply good business. Though I get frustrated behind the wheel like everyone else, I (usually) drive with a level of emotional detachment vis-à-vis my fellow drivers which I attribute to my time as a cabbie.***
Smooth inputs. I was always surprised to hear passengers compliment my driving (I heard my share of complaints, too). When people specified what they appreciated,**** several remarked on how they hardly noticed when I was bringing my cab to a complete stop (and yes, I was actually stopping). Smooth driving endeared me to passengers, which, in turn, improved my chances at earning a good tip (that was the hope, anyway). Moreover, smooth driving was important while carrying passengers who crossed over to the “I don’t feel so good” stage of intoxication.
The value of being fully present in the moment. OK, I’m no Zen master, and such states of mindfulness were as fleeting back then as they are now. Still, because I needed to pay constant attention not only to the road but to the people in my cab, I developed a keen, multi-directional, multi-sensory awareness of my surroundings. In any given moment, I could be scanning the road, listening to life stories of passengers, smelling the air for possible rain, and mentally mapping the next three already-dispatched fares--all while "sessing" the general mood reverberating through the coastal city (to borrow a term from NK Jemison's excellent Broken Earth series). And, whether by correlation or coincidence, that kind of hyper-awareness and mindful "flow" overlapped at times.
Most of the time, I experienced cab driving as just a repetitive, and at times depressing, job. But, on occasion, I did experience that flow. Polaroid-memories of these moments remain: hearing stories from born-and-raised Eureka men about a haunted house they used to visit as kids that--no joke--turned out to be the house I was living in; having a deep, moving conversation with someone I’d otherwise never have met; enjoying a peaceful drive along an ocean silvered by a full moon.
And rarely, very rarely, I experienced something truly enlightening.
“One more, 22: Bayshore Mall, back lot.” My last call of a busy and difficult shift (during which I had to throw out a belligerently-drunk passenger--and eat the $14.75 fare).
"Copy.” The mall was an odd location to pick someone up at 5:05am on a Saturday, but whatever. When I pulled around the Ross, four men, each laden with several huge shopping bags, awaited me.
With some difficulty, we stuffed the wagon’s impressive rear cargo space with the bags, which were chock-full of stuffed animals, clothes, electronics, snacks, and other gifts intended for friends and family back home (I inferred my passengers were sailors from abroad--possibly the Philippines, which imported wood chips and pulp from the local lumber mills). What these guys had been up to since 8:00 or whenever the mall closed I have no idea, but they appeared sober and in good spirits (if ready to turn in).
“Longshore,” the man in the front seat requested, by which he meant the big shipping dock a few miles away, just over two short bridges off the mainland.
“You all comfortable back there?” I asked the rear-seat passengers as I merged onto an empty Broadway Street.
“Yes!” the sailor on the rear passenger side replied, and the other three smiled and nodded.
“How was your night in lovely Eureka?” I inquired.
“Yes!” came the reply. I smiled and nodded. No shared language? No problem; we didn’t have to talk. I turned on the radio and drove toward their destination. “All night” blues had signed off hours before, so I tuned to classic rock: not my favorite music but a safe bet with just about any passenger from anyplace.
When I turned onto Fifth Street, the wistful piano introducing John Lennon’s “Imagine” played through the speakers.
Then, pitch-perfect, the sailor in the middle sang along. Not loudly, but clearly, expertly, soulfully. Without looking at each other, his companions chimed in, singing the words they knew and humming the rest.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
I started singing, too. We sang louder. Badum-bum, I drummed on the steering wheel, joyfully aware we were playing out something sappy--and not giving a damn.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you will join us
And the world will live as one.
After the last lines faded, I turned the volume down. We grinned at each other. Turns out we had a shared, sonorous language after all. To this day, I feel a kinship with those sailors.
On my way back to the lot, as I crested the second bridge, I slowed the wagon and gazed at the redwood-covered hills on the horizon shadowboxed by the first glimpses of dawn: a sliver of yellow, a brushstroke of orange, and, above, a cobalt sky.
* Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan also reminds me of (school) day trips to the ski slopes with my friend Tiyen, in whose Datsun 280Z we'd drive to and from Sugar Bowl with our gear and a portable CD player. But that’s another story.
** Over time, I grew so aware of under which conditions the mug would lose grip and slide across the dash that I’d instinctively, and without looking, reach out with my right hand while turning the wheel with my left to prevent that all-important coffee vessel from dropping to the floor.
*** This section may read as if I drive without any emotion whatsoever, which is not the case. I love driving; it's the red-faced vituperative anger that doesn't often consume me when I'm behind the wheel.
****One gentleman from Naples appreciated the calm-yet-aggressive manner with which I navigated unusually-heavy traffic. “Finally, someone in this country who really knows how to drive,” he exclaimed. Compliment?
Photo credit and special thanks to David Giulianetti. Given the current shelter-in-place mandate where I live, I wasn't able to venture out in order to take photos of taxis. David captured these images from his sons' toy-car collection for me.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.