Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Support your local cab driver

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


Jim Banholzer

Taxi men are among the first line of ambassadors to Sun Valley. As soon as you get off the plane, they can help cart up your luggage and swiftly whisk you to wherever your destination is. Most of these drivers are strict speed-limit adherents. Their rugged four-wheel-drive snow-chariots are highly maintained, so seldom is there ever a nut loose behind the wheel. Drivers know most every street name and nickname, often quizzing each other about new areas. They are accomplished experts at negotiating over bad roads and ice.

Cabbies run all sorts of meaningful deliveries and errands, from fresh seafood flown in for restaurants to musical instruments, for bands warming up on stage. Occasionally the Thompson Creek mine operation above Clayton needs special drilling parts transported and has a driver take them straight up. Drivers exchange movies you watch locally with theaters in Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Even fire-fighting equipment delayed by airlines is delivered pronto to hot spots.

If your car battery gets too cold on blustery days, the warm cab driver will gladly jump-start you. Those days make it interesting to listen to the urgent calls made over the scanner as not everybody has prepared for troubles that have suddenly come along with single-digit temperatures. Sometimes a call for assistance is made to help haul burstable liquids into a warmer area.

Drivers who have been around for a while are like living libraries full of rich news. They accentuate their vast knowledge of the area with a Sun Valley Guide magazine, freely distributing advice on the real deal places to eat or shop and can drop you off at the front door.

During dinner, there is a whole different lingo in "K-Town" with codes and shortcuts barked out over the air as cabs get cruising. Mealtime makes for good fare tickets but New Year's Eve is the Holy Grail of cab driving. Backup drivers come out of the woodwork begging to work a few hours to get in on the lucrative action. Lower-seniority drivers sometimes are saddled with bag deliveries. Even there, though, surprising occurrences arise. Like a passing conversation with a dignitary or movie star. Or the opportunity to gaze at the interior of some magnificent mansion for a minute. Once we loaded up a whole slew of delayed bags for tourists from the Far East. The entire shipment had tags hand labeled for "Sun Belly"!

Occasionally a rollerblader gets over-exuberant and travels the full length of the bike path—only to discover the wind is against them on his return trip and calls for help. During my brief cab career, one evening I drove some fresh-caught Alaska salmon up past Peach Creek. The couple there was kind enough to invite me in to share the fish for dinner, where tales stretched long over ales. They even allowed me a quick snooze in a bed off their tack room. I being a greenhorn freshly slicked from city gridirons kept calling it the "tackle" room.

Many locals have chosen to move here from other occupations, preferring a lower-key lifestyle to the rat race. Some cab drivers parked "in the zone" will attempt to conceal their wisdom from the public by studying the latest psychology guide to Wittgenstein hidden within a Mad magazine. Indeed, one of our own delivery people advises me that when multinational philosophy companies convene in Sun Valley, this is a brand of homespun horse sense that they most hunger for. While the intelligentsia attempts to recruit heavy thinkers from the inner sanctum of local hacks, most have become too street smart to get sucked back into the crosstown traffic of big cities where overflowing cesspools sometimes splash unwary pedestrians.

If you were to peep over a stouthearted driver's blind spot this time of year, you might discover him Googling quixotic New Year's resolutions from a Wi-Fi zone. "Invest less energy into money." "Don't rush through life." "Polish up ambassadorship skills." Any two of these would do.

Dispatchers must have incredible concentration when things get hopping. Keeping in their mind a moving map of the action as it unfolds -while trying to Stratego everybody's next step, just as two or three phone lines ring from customers desiring snappy service. Multitasking as a driver/dispatcher is an ongoing challenge.

It is hard to fathom how cab traffic controllers must operate in New York City. Around a solstice bonfire, one former driver chattered about how the Big Apple has 40,000 cabs that drive one million miles each day! No wonder Danny Devito was always so edgy, pulling out his hair when the tension ratcheted up on that old Taxi sit-com. It is nice when somebody recognizes these unsung heroes with a heartfelt holiday tip.

Therefore, when bells ring the New Year into town and you kiss your beloved, plan on a zero-stress return from your celebration. Leave the driving to the professionals and let them be the only ones clasping a Holy Grail come dawn of 2006.

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