After graduate school I hung around another year and drove a cab for Iowa City Yellow Cab. The cab was a boat, a Chevrolet Caprice wagon. I could have put a mattress in the back and lived in it. I didn’t hate the job. I’d sit in the Kroger parking lot and read. If the dispatcher radioed and I liked the sound of the call, I took it. If I didn’t, I went on reading. My indifference didn’t make me popular with Ovid Demanaris. I once asked him, over the radio, whether he’d ever read Ovid, and he said he didn’t answer personal questions. “He’s got some real smutty stuff,” I said. No answer, dead air. I didn’t have to drive a cab. I was broke, and the only money I had was the play money left over from my student loans. Now, I can’t pay them off with real money. Still, I wasn’t a cabdriver. I was a grad student, pretending. I’d sit in the parking lot and read. Occasionally, I’d drive somewhere, pick somebody up, and drive them someplace else.
In front of the Deadwood one late night, 2:30 a.m., February, I earned a few chops picking up four blitzed undergrads. When one of them puked in the back of the cab, I hit the brakes and ordered them all the fuck out.
“But it’s fucking freezing, man. It’s fucking Iowa.”
That made me feel like a cabbie. And I used to take calls out to an encampment along the river west of town. People there didn’t live in tents or refrigerator boxes but in full-on shacks constructed of scrap wood and sometimes even a few bricks—it was a small, functioning village. Nearly impossible to find. It wasn’t on any map. You had to bumble along a series of rutty dirt roads south, then head north again, before you could go west close to the river. It may have been a derelict property, or maybe it was a kind of no-man’s-land in a flood zone. Ovid would put out a general call. “Anybody want to pick up an ancient freak out by the river?” If nobody took it, he’d cue his mic and say, “Ornery? How about getting off your pampered ass?” The freaks weren’t that ancient, maybe in their mid-fifties, but most of them had lived many years outdoors—in Iowa. Their faces were perpetually red from frostbite. In winter, the tall bare trees hid nothing and blocked no wind. I’d trek out there and stop in the center of that scattering of hunkered shelters and wait to see who jumped into the cab. More often than not it was a grocery run. Once, a woman who called herself
Birdy squeezed my forearm—Birdy always sat beside me in the front—and invited me to shop with her at the Kroger. Nobody had requested my presence in a long time. I remember she bought a single loaf of bread, a tub of cottage cheese, and some chocolate. The fare must have been double the cost of the food.
One night a guy having a bad trip started bouncing on the seat so hard his head bashed the roof of the cab. His girlfriend was passed out next to him, but every time he bounced she’d wake up and shout, “What? What? What?” She had a pretty, snub nose and was wearing sweatpants. Neither of them could tell me where they wanted to go. So, for what felt like hours, I circled block after block, mooning over the girl in her sweats, until the guy came down enough for me to drop them at the bus station. Mostly though I sat in the Kroger parking lot and watched the shoppers push their carts out of the swinging doors and listened to the sound of those wobbly wheels struggling across the potholed pavement—and went back to reading.
Another night, just as I was about to leave for my shift, Len called from Chicago. He’d been calling a lot that winter. He liked hearing stories about the cab. He thought now that I was becoming hard-boiled, I’d have something to write about aside from being a lonely horndog.
“How many horndog stories can one person write?”
“Lots,” I said.
But that night Len wanted to talk in person.
“You’re four hours away. It’s snowing like all get-out. I don’t have a car. And I have to work.”
“You got a cab,” Len said.
He’d been my boss at a summer camp. He was one of those people who pop up randomly and change everything, and you can’t imagine any story of your life, lame as it might be, told without them. How to express the significance of the place and of Len in particular without sounding ridiculous? Len was one of the first people to notice something, anything, in me. It was only a summer camp in Wisconsin. My job was to entertain rich kids from the suburbs while their parents went on vacation. But for Len, after so many years working in psychiatric wards (good training for any administrator, he’d say), camp had become a kind of gracious calling. Part hippie, part drill sergeant, his mission was to instill in us that rich kids or not, these noxious little fuckers were, at their core, human. If by the end of the summer we could make them a little more so, we’d have accomplished something. “Because don’t forget these world inheritors will go forth into the universe and become CEOs and heart surgeons and white-collar criminals. Imagine, my kittens, if they were a tad more decent, a smidgen more compassionate. Imagine!” Len would stand before us during staff meetings in the push shack and exhort, his protruding stomach lording atop his skinny legs. I think of his wild, shoulder-length hair and his big white teeth. All camps have their characters, and our leading man was Len. There was something of the werewolf about him, and even when he said something completely banal, like, “We work hard so we can play hard,” I’d think, Yes, that’s it, that’s the key, why hadn’t I thought of that? “Seize the day,” Len would say. “Set yourself up for success, gentlemen.” He’d raise his monstrously thick eyebrows. And the whole time he’d be sucking on one of the cigars he kept in a constantly replenished stash (along with the bourbon) in the bottom drawer of a desk strewn with the junk of summer—flippers, softballs, Frisbees, confiscated candy, confiscated porn, spent cans of Off!, bags of charcoal . . . Smoking was forbidden, except behind the rec hall, but Len’s loyalty to camp was so strong that even when he was breaking the rules, and he spent his days breaking camp’s rules, it had become his way of respecting—loving—the institution for instituting the rules in the first place.
On our days off Len would take me and a few other carless counselors to gamble at the casino in Black River. I learned from Len that losing money could not only be a full day’s entertainment but was also honorable in itself. The least you can do for a Chippewa, Len would say, is hand over a lousy twenty-five bucks, no? What’d they give us, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Illinois? Canada? I stole my own cab and drove across I-80 through a blizzard.
Len must have been HIV positive for years before he finally became so frail he had to be hospitalized. He never told me this, I put it together later. When he called, Len always made it a point to say he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was probably technically true. Because camp was always on his mind. It wouldn’t have done to employ a man with aids (no distinction would have been made at that time between being HIV positive and having the disease itself), not at a boys’ camp in Wisconsin in the mid-’90s, no matter how much of a beloved character of an assistant director he was. “If I only had Hodgkin’s, whoever this asshole is. It’s not having Hodgkin’s that’s really fucking things up.” But it no longer mattered, at least as far as camp was concerned. He was done. He’d never get back up north. The summer before the winter I drove the cab to Chicago was the first Len had missed in eighteen years. He called me to relive past summers. Not the specifics, because all summers were the same. That was the point of camp. You didn’t go up to camp because anything new ever happened. You went to camp because history repeated itself. The lake will always be too frigid in June to put the docks in the water. But how are you going to put the docks in if you don’t get in the lake? And always some joker will show up in a wet suit and get howled right off the beach. The camp dog, not the dead one, the new one, will always bite a nurse from Sweden. A stoned JC from Kansas City will always, always, hit a tree in front of Saul Q.’s, and Saul Q. will, every time, run out of his cabin in his tighty-whities and squeal about how the drug culture’s ruining camp. Totally ruining it! And there will always be a kid whose name nobody remembers who drowned off the point years ago, before anybody’s time. Pulled down by a mysterious current having something, who knows what, to do with the camp’s shady past as an illegal logging operation.