The truth about driving people around London for very little reward / 3
If women are travelling alone, Ferguson says, it’s a good idea to hop out and open the door for them: not only to be polite but to ensure they sit in the back, thus avoiding any potential for unpleasantness.
Many women fear minicabs because they’ve heard stories, often true, about attacks by drivers. But this is highly unlikely with licensed operators, Ferguson asserts, because they keep their drivers’ details on file.
So I begin. Just finding the pick-up can be hellish.
One evening, in the dark and the rain, I ring a bell at the side of a mansion block and say I’m looking for number 19. Over the intercom, a male voice says: “What’s the number on my gate?”
I tell him I can’t see one.
“Well go and have another look.” Peering closely, I find it says number two. “Well you haven’t found it, then. Goodbye.”
A woman to whom I rush one afternoon is similarly abrupt: “But it’s not half-past!” she shrieks. “You’re too early!” (Nobody at HQ thought to tell me when I was due.)
In a complex of offices behind Fleet Road, I walk into a reception area but nobody is there, so I turn to leave. From behind me, a voice says: ”’Scuse me..?” I turn to see a man standing with his hands on his hips. I say, “I’m looking for… ”
He interrupts, presumably having noticed my badge and registered that I’m nobody important: “You think you can just wander around..?”
“A lot of passengers forget cab drivers are normal people”
Ferguson warned me about that.
And Lawrence Green, a fellow driver, gives me a pamphlet promoting a pressure group, the Greater London Private Hire Drivers Association, which suggests that members of the public consider a minicab driver to be “a second-rate citizen, a no-hoper, a ‘dole scrounger’, an ‘illegal immigrant’ or just plain stupid”.
My passengers, if they have such preconceptions, conceal them.
But one elderly woman says I look more like a student than a taxi driver – “Are you a student?” – and a young man asks if I’m new to the firm.
Is it so obvious? “No, but most people who pick me up are Asian. Or Croat.”
In a 12-hour shift you see an awful lot of people on the street, including a surprising number you recognise: a hairdresser shopping with her mother, or the guy who runs your local cinema.
You feel immersed in the population – but also insulated from it in your deodorised bubble.
The result is a surprising feeling of loneliness, which is worsened when people get inside the car and act as if you don’t exist. Such as the teenager I collect from her hairdresser, who phones a friend on the way to Cricklewood and says:
“Yeah, I’m in a cab… Yeah, I’m on my own”
I fully understand, now, why many drivers need only the slightest pretext to talk your head off.
One afternoon, I call in from East Acton in west London and find that Mike has been replaced by Trixy.
She asks where I am and how long it will take me to get to St John’s Wood. I guess 15 to 20 minutes, so she gives me an address and says, “Hurry up…!”