"Deep Street" by Marc Hönninger.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
by Wyl Villaces
Since I quit my second job, I haven’t been sleeping much. Or at all. Sometimes I just lay in bed worrying. And thrashing. But mostly worrying. The kind where you repeat over and over in your head Well, there is literally nothing I can do at 3:30 in the morning, so I might as well just go to fucking sleep. But of course, that doesn’t help all that much.
To make up for the 50% cut in my income, I’ve been pedicabbing. Bike taxi. Rickshaw.
It’s ok. Better, even. I like to be outside in Chicago. I like to ride bikes. I like talking to people (when I have a reason—not like, strangers on the train or in line or at a bar). I work for 12 hours, get drunk, and come home, trying to sleep it all off 30 minutes at a time over 9 or so hours.
It’s hard to sleep after a day cabbing. The constant state of motion that you were in all day, perpetually feeling the world go by under your wheels, works its way into you head, into your brain, and when you close your eyes, your whole body feels like it’s going forward. Moving, moving, moving, leg muscles still pumping, until the whiskey slows things down, at least a little bit. The dreams are always the same. Working. But not find any rides. Wasting your time tooling around the city until you wake up. Then try to sleep again. Dream. Wake up. Welcome to your nights.
I am a newbie. Most of the other cabbies don’t like me. I don’t think. In the sea of outsiders and transients that make up the scene, I am the outcast. It might be because I represent competition, riding around in short shorts and a headband, no sleeves and no real muscle to speak of, on a cab that only fits two as opposed to the four-seaters that other cabbies have. Still, one more set of wheels on the street is one more set of wheels. Maybe I just don’t fit in, working another job—an office job at that—even though it’s part time. They smell it. The corporate structure stink. My PR, sanitized responses to their friendly(?) insults. Nice fuckin’ shorts. They make those for men? “Thank you for your feedback! No, they don’t make them for men. These are actually girls’ pants, but I like the range of motion I get in them. Also, it is 98 degrees outside and less clothes feels more comfortable. I hope this answered your question!”
I might just be an asshole. Or I’m just reading too much into it. Don’t understand the culture of people who use their bodies for a living. Either way, I haven’t made many friends.
Sometimes, usually when we’re all done for the day, the cabbies and I end up at a dirty 4 a.m. bar and all act like homies. I started saying homies recently. There is an odd hip hop influence over pedicab culture. People with speakers usually play that or EDM from their cabs, everyone speaks with that vernacular. Blunts and 40ozs are preferred. Punk rock clothing, hip hop ethos. And this mashup of culture reaches everyone who drives a cab, White, Black, Latino, Women, Men, Gay, Straight, those who don’t fit into any of those categories, all unite at the late night bar when work is done. Everyone except the Serbians.
Every summer, so I am told, the Serbians come en mass and pedicab, making illegal immigration a hot button issue amongst fanatical leftists, taking rides from local cabbies, Americans, jacking up their rates and causing fights by jumping lines and driving like assholes. Downtown, fights are always a Fuck off back to Bosnia, you fucking Croat! or a jumped queue away. But in the neighborhoods, where the locals know the events to work and the shortcuts to take and the police don’t care about the bike culture, there are no fights. Only threats. Get the fuck out of this hood, and get the fuck out of the country! Fucking Serb. And they ride off.
You can tell a Serbian by the cab they drive. There is a company that rents only to them. The same square framed, four-seater, trailer cabs. Either that, or the track suits. Or the big groups in a circle on Rush streets, making the occasional stock broker say All these lazy rickshaw drivers...while looking you in the eye. I never had any problems with Serbians. Less than with Americans, at least. One chatted with me for a while and talked a family of six into taking both of our cabs for twice what I would have charged. Goddamn Serb.
At the bar, late at night, drinking whiskey and celebrating the end of the work day, counting money and making jokes, everyone, religiously, busts out their own bad Serbian accents. Bike ride, pedicab, bike ride! with varying degrees of Slavic, Russian, Jamaican and Indian influences.
A couple asked how I got started cabbing as I took them from Navy Pier to the South Loop for half of the normal rate because it was a slow day and I needed whatever I could get. “Couldn’t find a full time job after I graduated college, so now I’m doing this.” After that it was quiet, so I started pointing out famous buildings. They gave me a 200% tip. They looked sympathetic.
My cab is small and breaks down a lot. I’m considering switching to a company with a three or four-seater cabs. I rent from a good friend of mine now. The lease is expensive, 20% of my earnings on a good day. One Thursday, I made so little that it was 100%.
Taking a ride from Hubbard Street to Division for $30. Three skinny, drunk, blonde girls in my cab that should only seat two. One keeps telling every guy that we pass that she is Down to fuck. Her friends keep saying that she is married. She says that she doesn’t care. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring. She keeps slapping my ass. I ask her to stop, say “Please,” say “I don’t like it when strangers touch me.” She introduces herself, says we’re not strangers anymore, and slaps it some more. We hit a stop light and I stand up, turn around, looking her in the eye as I say “Please stop or I will kick you out here.” She says Ok. They don’t tip, and she slaps my ass on her way out.
A kid is in my cab with his dad. They are from Michigan, but they will be moving here soon. How do I get to do this when I’m older? the kid asks me as we’re leave the Sears Tower, his eyes wide and the thought of getting paid to ride bikes enticing him. “Get a degree in Creative Writing,” I say back. The dad just laughs. When I get home that night, I pull my degree down off its place on my bookshelf and wonder.
I write when I have down time.
My journal is stashed under the bench seat of the cab. One of the stories that I wrote while I was out is getting published. The other hundred are wallowing in the pages. Some are stained with chain oil and illegible.
Jason, the friend I rent from, and I ride together the whole day. We take breaks together. We eat and drink and get exercise and make money and have conversations with drunks and get hit on by attractive women and make fun of club goers together. We talk politics and social norms and whisper to girls who are too drunk that the dude who keeps walking with them isn’t worth it and they should say No now, and sometimes they listen and sometimes they jump in the cab and say Take me home and we say “That’s a good choice.”
Most of my other friends have moved off to the coasts to pursue their dreams of Hollywood or law school.
Two married women and their friend invite three of us to their hotel room, one in each of our cabs. The woman in mine is not thrilled about this and says I have two kids. Please don’t kill us. I don’t respond right away. I weigh 130 pounds, am 5’9” and violence makes me nauseous. She adds, You won’t. But don’t let the other two. I’m insulted and not. She quickly realizes that we’re harmless as soon as she sees how excited we are for the Goldfish crackers and juice boxes they offer us. I try not to sit on their beds because I am sweaty and gross. The mom, the only one with kids, keeps offering me food and water and Gatorade and candy and all of the things they brought with them on their road trip. The other married woman flirts with Jason and the bearded cabbie I just met, laughing just a little too loud. The single woman and I have a discussion on gender identity and body dysmorphia and the viability of universal health care and she says I never would have thought you would be interested in this, and I feel the Goldfish crackers churn in my stomach. We leave with bottles of water, snacks, and $20 each for the ride over. We asked for none of it.
I am in the best shape of my life.
I’m deferring my student loans. I tell people this as an aside while I give them a ride sometimes. When they don’t want Chicago history, to talk about themselves or restaurant sug gestions, I’ll tell them about myself. They always ask the exact same questions. I give the same answers.
“I was born here.”
“Went to college for writing.”
“I’ve been out here for about four months.”
“It’s better than a gym membership.”
“I have student loan debt that doesn’t pay itself off.”
I try to get sympathy tips.
Three dudes in my cab. They collectively weigh close to 600 pounds. This is their own guess, and I am inclined to agree. If I stop moving forward, I might never get going again. Momentum is key. Constantly moving. They are hammered and the loudest is cheering me on the whole way. A three block ride to their hotel that feels like three miles. YEAH, WYL! YEAH! YOU’RE DOING AWESOME, BUDDY! YOU’RE DOING GREAT! DON’T STOP! YOU’RE DOING GREAT!
When they get out, there are high fives all around. I tell them they can pay whatever they want, that the ride was too short for me to charge anything substantial. They hand me way too much money. You did awesome. Keep going man.
When it started getting cold, I stopped cabbing. I picked up two more jobs. Sometimes, when the next pay check is a week too far away, I think about calling up Jason and asking if he’s got a cab open. I know he does. He rents from someone else now, a three-seater trike that doesn’t have holes in the leather seats. We haven’t talked or seen each other since the leaves changed. He is out working almost every day because in the winter, the good nights are bad and the bad nights are shit.
I think about being one of the hold outs, wearing wool socks and thermals and sweating through them and trying to get drunk Bulls and Hawks fans to real cab stands for five bucks at a time. I think about trying to stop on icy Chicago streets and feeling the icy wind off the lake and the possibility of not making any money. And when that all passes, as I’m sitting at my desk alone, bored but with a steady paycheck, I think about the gamble and the excitement in living moment to moment on the seat of a cab. About the comfort in the unknown. About pushing forward. I think about my future and my life and the difference between what I need to do to stay alive and what to do to feel alive.
And sometimes I don’t know which is which.
Wyl Villacres is a writer from Chicago. His work has been featured in Friend. Follow. Text., Whiskey Paper, 2nd Story, etc. You should visit him at WylVillacres.net and on the Twitter machine: @wyllinois.