It happened in a heartbeat. A man darted out of the alley, yanked open the door, and threw himself into my back seat. I had no business cruising behind Denver’s Larimer Square so close to the rail yards at three in the morning, but there I was, biding my time behind a red light, smoking a Marlboro Light with my arm dangling out the window of Yellow Cab number 730, a ’70s checker auto shaped like a friendly joke and built like a tank.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I huffed smoke in an attempt to mask his boozy funk, listened to my ticking turn signal, and considered myself lucky for getting a fare. I hadn’t heard anything from dispatch for an hour or so, and most of the other drivers had already hauled their bar drunks home and were headed to the airport for the red-eye flights. As the newest, youngest—and as far as I knew—only woman on the graveyard shift, I was low man on the totem pole with plenty to learn.
It was obvious to the other drivers that I hadn’t been in Denver long, so I’d told them I’d left home at seventeen and been everywhere, hoping it would make me seem tough, but I could tell they were keeping an eye on me in a big brother kind of way. Not having had a big brother, this was a new one on me.
“Always check your trunk for a spare, and a jack,” one advised. “Take your tire iron up front and keep it under your seat. Just in case.” Another reminded me about the switch underneath the dashboard I could use to disable a headlight so the cops would pull me over. Just in case I found myself in trouble with a bad fare. But they didn’t go so far as to share tips for scoring fares, except to warn me that the senior drivers did not welcome newbies on the elite taxi stands outside the posh clubs.
Back then, in 1975, the airport was first come first serve. After putting a quarter in a slot to get in, we lined up at the curb and leaned against our thick yellow doors, trading stories while we waited. “May all your lights be green!” we’d yell at each other before driving away.
I regarded my fare’s stale, unruly hair and decaying jacket through the rearview mirror. It was a dark moon night, but you wouldn’t know it from the peachy glow of the streetlights. It had rained a little and smelled of wet cement, oily asphalt, and cigarette butts. A woman who’s lived in this town too long told me she loves the way it smells after a rain. I didn’t tell her I thought it stunk or that I prefer the after-rain smell of pines and prairies.
And then the guy in my back seat surprised me by reaching over and wrapping his fingers loosely around my throat. “I’m going to kill you,” he said, with a slurry little burp.
“Aw, you’re just drunk,” I said. “Where can I take you?”
He gave me his address, leaned back, and closed his eyes. At twenty-one, I was either too dumb to be afraid or wise enough to know the futility of fear. What I did know was this: nearly all animals will relax and go with the flow if you convince them you’re in charge, a truth I had absorbed from working with dogs, cats, parakeets, horses, and my five little brothers.
We made our way across Denver, a sleepy cow town vibrating with fuzzy, dead-of-night energy—he filling the cab with his sour mash breath, me in my black-billed yellow cap savoring the irony of my new job. I was adrift, and yet here I was in the business of taking people home.
I parked outside the address and nudged my fare onto the sidewalk. The man mumbled something about money being inside the apartment and fished around for a key. He shrugged helplessly, and I responded by digging through his pockets while he leaned against me for support. We got the door open, walked down the steps, and he shuffled towards a stained grey mattress.
“Hey,” I said, “You owe me two dollars and seventy-five cents.”
“I’m not paying you,” he said from the other room. I looked around for something of value, hoping for something smaller than the portable television sitting atop his dresser. Fiddling with the rabbit ears, I said, “Well then, I’ll have to take your TV.”
“You can’t do that!” he hollered, and when it looked like he might just make it to his feet, I took my hands off his sole asset and made tracks for the door. I had pressed my luck as far as it was going to go.
Back beneath the blinking stars, I got into the car and placed my cap on the seat. I considered locking the doors. I took a right on Broadway and saw an unblinking string of green lights stretching ahead like an airport runway. I reached for the dashboard mic. “Seven and a half checking in.” Maybe dispatch would have a bone to throw my way, someone sober, with money. It never hurts to dream.