I’m writing this on my birthday. I’m turning 18 for the fourth time. I’ve come to realize that added 18s are bigger deals than added 10s, by a lot. For example, between birth and my first 18th birthday, I saw a huge difference. Between birth and 10, not so much.
Between 18 and 36, I finished two degrees at two universities, got married, taught for five years before quitting, became a cab driver, got divorced and spent 17 months homeless altogether.
Another 18 years later, I had quit driving, been homeless two more times, taken up painting, got involved with Real Change, got hired, started writing here, dropped painting and got through the Nisqually earthquake and 9/11.
The last 18 years, I discovered I had asthma all along and got arthritis. I’ve had diseases I never knew existed, including one my doctors couldn’t name. But it went away, so who cares, right?
In the panorama of my life so far, my least favorite part was time spent being a Seattle cab driver. The only talent for cab driving I demonstrated those five years was for talking. I had a terrible time figuring out how to get a lot of fares. When I did get passengers, I often talked my way to excellent tips.
I was sent to pick up a guy in the North End. It was an $8 trip. I was homeless at the time and miserable. But we had an upbeat conversation. When we got to his house, he said he usually hated riding in cabs because the drivers were usually so morose. He enjoyed being driven by someone cheerful for a change. He gave me a total of $20 — a $12 tip.
There was a clear moral to that. Always fake being happy. Fake happiness pays.
Another important lesson I learned was that hardly any of the other cab drivers remembered their trips. Now, part of that was surely because they had three times as many trips as I did and were too busy counting all their money to focus on the details. But I couldn’t believe that was the whole reason. It seemed as though they just didn’t pay attention to all that went on.
I began to think that I had something valuable there. OK, I made less money. But I had a better life. I’d work 10 hours and have 10 hours of memories of it, and the others would work 10 hours in a fog. That couldn’t be good for their mental health.
There was a story in The Washington Post today about Queen Elizabeth II opening the royal Buckingham Palace gardens this summer for the first time to ordinary, uninvited people. For a small fee, anyone can picnic there. The idea being, the pandemic has been just awful this year, let’s give people something nice to remember about 2021.
Well, that is, something nice for those who do remember it. Apparently there are people in the world who typically can’t remember what they’ve been doing the last 10 hours, no matter what weirdness was going on around them.
One time, I was parked near a Burger King, and a man ran out, jumped into the cab holding a pen knife, and shouted “Drive!”
I was not at all impressed by the pen knife. I had a tire iron at my left hand that was way more impressive. I said, “Drive where?”
He said, “It doesn’t matter! Just drive!!”
I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of noise. I said, “We aren’t going anywhere until you give me a destination.” Just then, we were boxed in, surrounded by 11 police cruisers.
That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I’d get back to the lot around 3 a.m., at the end of my shift, and I could remember being boxed in by 11 cruisers. My fellow cab drivers couldn’t, any of them, ever remember being boxed in by 11 cop cars with a man in the front seat holding a pathetic pen knife.
I just couldn’t believe I was the only one of us that sort of thing happened to. One hundred drivers in the fleet, for a total of 1,000 hours every night, and no one else could remember ever being surrounded by 11 cop cars, with or without a pen knife involved.
What a shame.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the July 14-20, 2021 issue.