Sunday, November 06, 2005

Time Lapse

There was a bad spot on the Orange, and I had almost forgotten about it until I pulled an old maroon sweater out of a bag (that was supposed to go to Deseret Industries, the Mormon equivalent of the Salvation Army) yesterday when I realized it was going to snow. Rummaging for something warm that I wouldn't mind getting orange and black frosting all over (I was going to construct Halloween gingerbread houses with Mr. Goodwrench's eight- and eleven-year-old daughters), I pulled it out by one sleeve and stared. It's a well-made knit cotton sweater, a men's style with generous cuffs and a thick crewneck, several sizes too big for me; I can still tuck all of myself into it, long limbs and short torso, with my head sticking out like a turtle's. I used to do this while dispatching taxis in the small gray hours before the 6:00 a.m. airport rush from the Coronado Cays, and thus the sweater now represents six of the strangest months I have ever known in my life. Five nights a week for that half-year, I sat dispatching nightly in the tiny, horrific office behind the cab lot on the main drag of the otherwise theatrically flawless "island village," the office where thieves had once used a tire iron to bludgeon the owner's brother to death. Judy said that C, the owner, insisted the company be open for business that day, after having scrubbed most of the blood up herself. (That afternoon, my father, proprietor of the rival cab company on the island, found the unlucky driver who discovered the body when he came in to begin his shift in the morning. He was crying on the bar at the Butcher Shop in Chula Vista, drunk as a sailor, unhinged and wretched.)

There was a lot of gossip among the drivers and dispatchers about C: how she refused to show her father, who founded the company, the books; how he worked the night shift and often slept in his car to avoid going home to her mother; how she was sleeping with one of the livery drivers, a chubby Pole nobody else could stand, in his company van; how she methodically went through the trash in the office, and the dumpster out back, every twenty-four hours. This last bit I knew was true; she frequently stashed shopping bags full of junk in the locked broom closet
, and she knew things about the way I spent my shift that she could only have discovered by sifting through the garbage. Often Judy would stay and gossip when her shift ended and mine began, hoping a certain slim, handsome Latino driver would stop by. Mostly after the bars closed there were no calls until shortly before dawn, and no drivers would intrude until the livery chauffers at five. Emilio (who was utterly devoted to Dad before my parents left San Diego) and his brother Rufino would periodically call from their cellphones to check on me, instead of using the radio (which would make the other drivers suspicious that they were angling for the better fares), and on really dead nights Emilio would bring me coffee or juice and muffins and tell me stories about his childhood in Mexico. (Sometimes on Sunday afternoons I would go with him to play handball in the courts under the Coronado Bridge, in Barrio Logan's Chicano Park. It was a strange place for a white girl to be, but I was never treated badly. I would have been if Emilio's wife had gotten hold of me, despite the fact that it would have been unjustified. Truth be told, I could have laid the ferocious little woman out if I saw her coming, but her nails could have done me some serious damage if she managed to sneak up on me.) I would work the San Diego Union Tribune crossword puzzles and harass the midnight radio hosts, one of whom I got to be very good friends with on account of the fact that we both loved WWII fighter jets and Mark Twain. In the morning a thin black woman whose name I can't recall would come in to relieve me; she had huge teeth and wore leopard-print spandex, and she worked the graveyard shift at the Greyhound bus station in downtown San Diego. She always had a Band-Aid stuck to her forehead and I was never brave enough to ask her why. She carried her belongings in a duffel bag and moved nonchalantly from one "friend's" home to the next. Most of the staff were equally unambitious and exploitive, living by methods I couldn't comprehend. (Seven years later I still can't.)

I have often wondered if I didn't just dream those strange nights and all the tragic characters that filled them. Looking back, I can't remember a single soul whose future held any promise, except maybe Jim, a livery driver, who had registered the website url and was optimistically expecting a check from CNN any day. I get chills when I remember the stained plywood walls and the homemade map board on which I moved pegs labeled with the drivers' numbers from the Glorietta Bay Inn to the North Island Naval Base to the bridge that led to I-5, and all around that deceptive island. Some nights something would rattle the bars on the windows facing the alley and I would call the cops; I had standing orders (from the police deparment) to alert them to anything the least bit unusual on the property. Apparently there wasn't much to do on the night shift for them, either.

I didn't stay at the cab company long; it was just a filler until another job opened up for me, something lined up by the placement officer at my college. But I puzzle over those nights, and consider them my only real experience with the sadder, darker side of life. I called them on a whim when Dad died, thinking that if I could get Emilio's cellphone number, which I lost long ago, I could ask him to tell Doc and Paul (who has since died) and Red, who called Dad "Skinny Bill." (Skinny he was not; Bill he was.) I was shocked to hear Judy's voice still on the line (I shouldn't have been). Emilio was shocked to hear about Dad. And I was shocked to hear that Doc had suffered a heart attack at the door of the Hotel Del Coronado the same day Dad died, and lived to tell the tale. It was surreal to talk to Emilio, and even moreso to explain to Judy why that "adorable little" Oscar is no longer part of my life. I was not shocked to hear that the slim, handsome Latino driver had not yet become part of hers, and not at all surprised to hear that she still expects him to someday. (I wonder what Rufino would think if he knew.) That was what I liked about Judy: her glass was always half full. I suppose that she and Emilio were the best parts of that strange, brief job. Those two, and the early-morning muffins, and the crossword puzzles.


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