When people talk about River City, the famous blue-lit skyline is probably the first thing that comes to their mind. I had to admit, even after seeing it every day, it still looked stunning through my windshield as I idled in line at the airport with the dozen other losers hoping for a fare.
I hardly noticed the constant vibration of the engine except when I looked in the shaky rearview mirror. There were two tigers headed towards the cab queue, so I made sure to hang my arm out the window so they could see my stripes. It seemed silly to me, but folks often seem to trust others of the same species. Prejudice didn't favor me, though, and they walked on by. Now, I can't tell you why people pick or pass on a cab unless, of course, it's just plain dirty or the driver gives off bad vibes. If it was me, I'd just grab the first one in line every time. People don't do that, though. They'll pass by half a dozen perfectly good rides until they find one that they feel is the 'right' one. How they think they can tell a good driver from a bad one on a whim, I have no idea, but them's the digs as they say.
Still, I did my part to make sure my car was presentable. Little things like wiping down the dashboard and windows could go a long way for a picky fare, and it should go without saying that I cleaned up any litter left in the backseat, which happened far too often. What was good for the cab was good for me, too. I did my best to keep my fur looking neat; taking care of the occasional out of place fluff with my built in comb of a tongue when nobody was looking.
My ears swiveled at the sound of the back door opening. The dip and sway that the cab made as the fare got in the back told me it was a big fellow; a glance in the mirror confirmed it. The big bear tipped his fedora at me and I nodded back politely. I liked bears; they always made good small talk and usually tipped just as well.
As soon as he opened his mouth it was clear he was from the east coast. "Grand Flaherty Hotel."
"You got it, Mister," I said as I started the meter and pulled onto the road. Nice place, the Grand Flaherty, certainly not the kind of bunk space someone like me could ever hope to afford. Not a bad drive for the first job of the night -- would take us right downtown and past all the best nightlife joints. Every now and again I'd pick some tourist up from the airport who'd just ask for a little tour of the city and I'd go the same route.
Traffic was still thick that time of night, but it slowly faded with the sun. By the time I dropped the bear off, it'd be smooth sailing. Night shift was where I wanted to be; never could sleep on a normal schedule anyway. Sure, you got the drunks and the pimps and every other unsavory character at night, but you got some peace and quiet too. You also got good fares who left better tips since people seemed more relaxed at night and not in such a goddamned hurry like they were during the day.
Now I know that I just said bears always made good small talk but this guy was as quiet as a sinner in a sermon. The bear was using what little light was left in the day to look over some papers he'd taken out of his briefcase.
"Change of plans, can you stop by McCarty's Bar on Broadview?" He didn't take his eyes off those papers as he spoke.
"Sure thing, it's on the other side of town, though." Not only that, it was in a part of town that was the opposite of the ritzy hotel I'd originally set off for. Hard to see what a finely dressed man on his way to the nicest hotel in town wanted with thatkinda place.
The bear looked up from behind his reading material. "That's okay."
Good enough for me. If this guy had money to burn driving all over town then I was happy to part him from some of it. As soon as there was an opening in the traffic I made a U-turn away from the bright lights of downtown and towards the seedier enclaves. This is probably where I comment using some pseudo-philosophical type terms about how every city has its bright lights and upbeat tones, but beneath all those neon signs are dark shadows and desperate times. Don't get me wrong, that's no lie, it's just that there's a little more to it than that.
You see, there are those dark corners of the dance floor that people inside under the lights don't want to look at: places that everyone knows are there but for the most part can be ignored. Every once in a while those shadows creep out of the darkness and drag one of the willfully ignorant away, but it's never enough to stop the music.
Then there's people like me, which is where I was originally going with this. Fellas who straddle those lines and unspoken barriers all day and night -- in plain sight of all, yet completely invisible. It took a certain kind of Joe to traverse between the heights and bowels of the city so willy-nilly. You have to see and say the right things with the right people and keep your mouth shut and eyes forward when the wrong folks were in back.
Basically, a big part of staying invisible is being able to read people and that's why the fellow in the back of my taxi started to make me uncomfortable. I couldn't get anything from him. I mean zilch; this bear's eyes never poked out from under the brim of his hat to look around. Hell, he barely even had a smell to him. Who gets out of an airplane not stinking like half a dozen critters and cigarette smoke? This was definitely a situation where keeping my trap shut was advised, but what kinda person takes their own advice? A smart one, that's who.
So I went ahead and asked, "Whatcha in town for, Mister?"