Editor’s Note: The following series, “Cabby’s Corner in SLO Town,” which includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin.
Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.
I’m sitting on a bench in the shade at the San Luis Obispo airport as the blast furnace of Santa Ana winds tries to set an October record of 105 degrees at noon. A few passengers moving in and out pause to observe my cab as it continues to run in gasps and wheezes, and move on; then glance at me in my brown polyester slacks and yellow polyester shirt soaked through with sweat so that I resemble some soggy creature that slithered out of a swamp.
They take in my crooked aviator sunglasses that sag to the side since I broke the stem jarring the side of my head against the door earlier when I was befogged from a Friday night of drinking to escape the heat, and quickly move on in embarrassment.
The Ford LTD I drive has no AC or tinted windows and the vinyl seats sizzle and turn the interior into a sauna. I’m waiting for a fare from LA on a plane that just landed and now here he is in brown alligator loafers, powder-blue cotton slacks, pink cotton shirt sans tie, ecru linen sport coat and pink tinted shades, sandy hair cut just right with a little left over at the neck, a tanned pastel prince toting Val Pack, overnight bag and computer case, regal as he looks around and spots me standing to nod at him.
He scrutinizes me, then the cab as I take his bag and Val Pack and lead him to the heavy-breathing cab, open the back door for him and stuff his gear in the trunk and settle behind the wheel and turn on the meter.
“God, it’s hot,” he sighs, already miserable.
“One hundred and five, sir, and no AC. Sorry. Not my fault. You’re going to the Embassy Suites, right?”
“Right. Thank you.” He leans forward, concerned. “Why doesn’t this cab have AC? All the cabs down south have AC.”
“Because the corporate sadists who run this shoestring subsidiary don’t give a damn about us.” I drive out of the airport onto a main artery. “They even made us join their union, which has no benefits except if I get killed in an accident driving these unsafe clunkers they’ll send my mother a hundred bucks for burial.
You see, they own school buses and a transportation empire second to none in this country, but we must pay some kind of Mickey Mouse union dues so the execs can have a little slush fund when they hold their drunken conventions in Vegas so they can buy hookers when they’re not on the golf course.”
He falls back, sighs. “Wow. You’re one angry employee, aren’t you, Mr…?”
“Franklin. Very angry employee.”
“Uh, Mr. Franklin, why,” he asks, pointing, “do you have that big swatch of duct tape covering your ignition?”
“To guard against turning it off.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Franklin, but I’m a little lost here…”
“Our mechanic has been waiting for a part for over a week now. If we turn the engine off, it won’t start again. There’s only one other cab out there, and it barely runs. This cab has been running continuously for over a week. The engine has over 200,000 miles, so it could blow at any time. We’re like the Pony Express—one gets off the horse, another jumps on, until the poor horse dies of heat stroke.”
Glancing in my rearview mirror, the pastel prince is already lathered in sweat, mopping his face with a monogrammed hanky. “Good God,” he croaks, and sits silently for the remainder of the ride, until I pull into the Embassy Suites.
I jump out to open his door and then place his baggage on the ground. He requests a receipt for tax purposes, which I expertly fill out. The ride is eleven bucks and he tips me $4 and when I thank him like a grateful peon he hands me his business card, the reading of which stuns me.
“Mr. Franklin, I work for the corporation that employs you,” he says. “I’m here to check on a few irregularities, and I promise I will look into the complaints you have registered. Thank you for a very enlightening ride.”
I watch the pastel prince enter the coral-colored hotel and think: the prick could’ve tipped me a sawbuck for morale purposes and ego fulfillment.
I’m sent immediately back to the airport for two women visiting the minimum and medium security prison on the outskirts of town on Highway 1. These exhausted looking elephantine women, in muumuus, fanning themselves, faces flushed, await me on the shaded bench.
I skid to a stop and jump out to take their luggage while they squeeze into the back seat, an obvious mother and daughter. I stash their suitcases and start out as the ladies fan themselves and ask why there’s no AC.
After I explain the situation, they ask if can I return to the prison after visiting hours and take them to their motel, and I tell them yes, and they fan and sweat silently until I drop them off at the minimum security prison and they tip me twenty cents on a $14.80 fare.
I stay busy in the teeming Saturday afternoon home-maintenance traffic and return at 3:30 to fetch the two muumuu-wearing women at the minimum security prison. They sit on a bench, peaked and lifeless, just able to lift their massive bulk when I skid to a stop. After they’re stuffed in and settled, fanning their sweat-glazed inflamed faces, I start down the single lane road leading to the highway. These ladies are staying at a motel across the street from the Greyhound depot.
My dispatcher calls and asks if my passengers would mind if I pick up another woman at the medium security prison on the other side of the grounds. I ask them and they nod.
I swerve around and approach the other prison, where a stream of visitors head for the parking lot of glinting chrome. A mammoth woman, dwarfing in size the two in my back seat, in a muumuu, carrying a Bible and transparent plastic purse with single bills and coins, wearing shades and clogs, waddles around my cab and gets into the seat beside me. She is sweat-glazed and panting.
“Greyhound,” she rasps, and opens her Bible.
I am about to pull away when I hear a desperate, shrill female voice cry out: “Cabbie! Cabbie! Wait! I’m going to Greyhound too!”
I turn to spot yet another obese Bible-toting woman heading my way in the usual muumuu, shades and clogs; only this one’s immensity is what one sees at a carnival freak show. She moves in struggling lurches, her chin sagging down to her enormous breasts. Gasping for air, sweating, she sizes up the situation in the cab and commences to open the rear door and squeeze herself into the back seat. There are yelps of terror.
The two ladies back there are squished together against the door, the older one’s eyes popping from her face, pleading with me, helpless, frantic. “No, no, no…” she wails. “For the love of God, please don’t let her in!”
I jump out of my cab, stand by my door. “You!” I point to the human Jello mold wedged into the back seat, unable to close the door. “Move to the front!” Now I bend down into my window and address the shotgun occupier. “You! Take the backseat. Switch. We need a switch here, ladies.”
Unhappy with my commands, yet docile, they do as ordered. Shotgun takes a while to unglue herself from the sticky front seat and watches the carnival woman tortuously extricate herself from the backseat. The switch, in slow motion, is complete. In the back, they are so crammed together they cannot fan, a morose crew. The cab is sinking into the melting, blazing asphalt. I get in, adding another 185 pounds.
A pillow-like arm nudges up against me. I wonder seriously if the LTD can survive this mash of humanity, for the shocks are already sprung from maniacal cabbies bouncing balls-out over speed bumps and ruts.
Out on the highway, there is a hill to ascend. Cars slow up behind us as we chug slowly, straining, groaning, losing power. Amazingly, for the first time all day, there is no comment about the lack of AC, though shotgun woman has a comment.
“This thing’s a real pig. What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s been running nonstop for a week, because if I turn it off, it won’t start again. That’s why there’s a big gob of duct tape over the ignition. Until the part that’ll make the ignition work again comes in, this beast will continue to run. And slowly but surely it is losing power and dying, and could die any minute now and strand us in this Sahara Desert with no immediate rescue cabs available.”
“Hummmph,” is her response, and she opens her bible.
We manage to make the hill and begin coasting down. My aviator glasses fall off my face and land in the cavernous lap of the carnival woman, and she picks them up with her pudgy hand and hands them to me without looking, and I toss them on the dash and ask her where she’s from.
“Porterville,” she says.
“What’s Porterville like?”
I nod. “You like Porterville?”
“I used to, ‘til the Mongs came.”
“Boat people. The Mongs trap cats and cook ‘em. They’re no good. They ruined my neighborhood.”
“We got the Veet’meez in Fresno,” says the former shotgun woman, from the back. “They ain’t no better than them Mongs. Fresno use ta be a good place ta live ‘til the Mexicans and Veet’meez took over.”
“The Mongs’d sooner kill a person and cook ‘em like they would a cat or dog,” my front seat companion tells her. “They don’t believe in God.”
“The Veet’meez don’t either. I wish they’d go back to where they belong.”
We enter San Luis Obispo’s main artery and move sluggishly through town. The ladies have gone quiet. The two women from LA look as though they’ll either cry, scream or jump out of the cab.
“So whattaya do for fun in Porterville?” I ask my seat companion.
“There ain’t nothin’ to do in Porterville,” she replies, and reopens her Bible at the marker.
“Do they have any McDonald’s?”
“Three? In a small town like that?”
“I said they got three!” she snaps; obviously weary of my inquisition, sighing mountainously, slapping shut her Bible.
I let the subject drop and head toward Greyhound. The poor things have a long, stifling hot bus ride, and the Central Valley’s an even hotter cauldron.
I have visions of the Porterville and Fresno behemoth women stewing in a gigantic pot in some remote jungle with a village of scrawny Mongs dancing around them, whooping and hopping while wielding spears, faces and bodies smeared with war paint as they anticipate a bacchanalian feast that will keep them going for at least a week, until they return to their usual shenanigans of growing food and trapping animals.
I watch my meter. The usual fare to Greyhound from the prisons is around $11. I could charge the Valley women separately at $11 a piece and another $11 for the two in the back, like most greed-stricken cabbies, but I decide to give them a break. I’ll charge the whole crew $11. But I try and slow down and push it to around $11.40, to see if they’ll give me a 60 cent tip.
When I pull into the station, the meter reads $11.60. Just before we arrive, I explain to the ladies the good deal I’m giving them. They grunt. I am surprised at how quickly they remove themselves from the cab. The four stand together divvying up singles, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pay me with exact change.
I remove the baggage for the two LA ladies and place it on the ground. The older one asks if I wouldn’t mind driving them and their baggage across the street to their motel. It is about a 50-yard trek. I fold my arms and tell them it’ll be five bucks for that service. They yelp as if stabbed. The mother offers two bucks. I get in my cab and drive off.