Last night, I went to see a gig. But this is a post about a black cab ride.
I’d ridden up to Camden on my bike, taking the long way via the canal, as I usually do. When I picked up my bike to come home again, around eleven o’clock, I hadn’t gone far before realising I had a puncture.
Immediately, I felt furious. First with the bike. Then with myself, for not bringing my tools, a pump and a spare tube, as I usually do. Then with public transport, as I realised that no bus driver would let me board with a bike, and that the nearest usable station for getting home was unreachable before the last train. Then, just for good measure, I felt furious with the drunk people, being sick on the towpath and getting in the way as I stomped off down the canal again, making mental calculations of how long it was going to take me to get home.
I mulled over some alternatives: phone a friend in Haggerston and see if he was in (but to what end?); lock the bike somewhere and come back for it tomorrow (disruptive to existing plans); take the bike on the night bus (a non-starter); hail a taxi (not with the bike, and too expensive).
Nope: I’d walk. About two to two and a half hours, I reckoned. In a similar situation once, I managed to walk five hours from one side of Berlin – a completely unfamiliar city – to the other, without using a map or asking for directions. I found my hotel by dead reckoning, memory of two landmarks I’d seen from a coach the day before, and instinct; and my walking across the city was fuelled by irritation alone. I didn’t come to any harm, save a night’s sleep lost. Compared to that, walking halfway across London is easy. I know the route, I thought. I just need the energy, I thought. Home by 3am, at the earliest. Stomp, stomp, stomp.
I get like this sometimes. Anger is my default reaction to immediate adversity, especially when I’m tired. Anger, and an obstinate feeling that I will bloody well get myself out of this mess, and don’t want anyone else’s help. I’d like to say this is a reaction to my being alone in life at the moment, to pass it off as a kind of useful self-sufficient resilience. But I think it’s been there for longer than that – since childhood, in fact. My mum’s favourite book to read me when I was a little boy was Angry Arthur, and when I used to get cross, she would call me Angry Arthur – which usually served to make me even angrier, because it made me feel like my feelings of anger were some kind of joke or story.
I don’t like asking for help, and I do like to feel that I can cope. A flatmate once told me he sometimes found my anger a bit scary. His comment has stayed with me, because the thought of being scary is unpalatable. I’ve come to think of anger as a potent but poisonous source of energy, almost radioactive in its potential: powerful, and harmful. The power is appealing, and makes me strong. The harm comes because anger makes me things I don’t want to be: unkind, aggressive, unpredictable, scary. And when it subsides, I am spent and hollow. This happened earlier this week, which was an unusually frustrating one at work – computers failing, workloads exploding. Thoughts of helplessness drove me to rage, then sadness, and eventually apathy.
So as I stomped down the towpath, wheeling the stricken bike ahead of me, I turned my anger outward towards the drunk people who were in the way, and inward towards myself. Stomp, stomp, stomp. As I got towards the Kingsland Road, I thought about the route, and realised that walking down to London Bridge would be quicker than going along the canal to Limehouse, down the Isle of Dogs, and under the Thames in the Greenwich foot tunnel. So I went up the ramp, and started walking on the street. My knee, which had been giving me gyp since Friday, was getting sore again. This was going to be painful. More stupid drunk people. Stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. Three of the stupid drunk people got out of a taxi. Something made me walk up to the window, and say to the driver that I was tired, my knee hurt, and my tyre was flat, and could he take me and my bike to Deptford?
The driver killed the engine, got out of the cab, helped cram me and my bike in the back, and then we drove off. He apologised for the smell of booze and cigarettes in the taxi, but said there was no point getting into an argument with those three blokes. He said they’d climbed into the cab in the middle of the Euston Road, in the traffic, already smoking, and he didn’t want to start telling them off, so he’d just asked them to open the windows. Besides, you could make a good living driving a cab if you put in the hours, and he didn’t think it was right to turn fares down – in a way, he was providing a public service, as he saw it. He had only passed the Knowledge last year, and some of the more experienced drivers would be picky about drunk people, picky about people who lived in Penge, picky about this, that and the other – it was disgraceful, and if it had ever happened to me, he could only apologise on behalf of cabbies everywhere. He’d learned through the plumbing and heating trade that the only thing you could really do was get on with your job as best you could, and not judge people, who were always under their own pressures, and fighting their own battles.
Besides, what really mattered in life? He didn’t know about me, but for him it was making sure his boy was alright at school, taking his dog out for an hour and a half every morning ‘religiously’, and getting to the gym as often as he could. That’s why he moved to Essex, he said. It was nearer Epping Forest (great for the dog), a grammar school (44th best in the country – great for the boy). Where he lived, he could leave the back door and windows open when he was out of the house, he said. That way, if anyone broke in, the dog could get out safely. He wasn’t worried about the stuff in the house, that’s what you get insurance for. But that dog, it brought so much love into the family – that’s worth millions. And isn’t it strange how everyone gets so stressed and angry all the time, not looking after themselves, bouncing from this to that until they fell over? Because you know, getting on with your job and not judging people, that takes energy, and you need to protect yourself so you’ve got that energy to spare. The best thing he’d found lately was a slow juicer. It crushed the fruit or veg instead of centrifuging them. He used carrot and beetroot. Made him feel great. And looking after himself was life’s rhythm, kept him centred, able to be what he wanted to be. Oh – was this one here my street, or was it the next left? He couldn’t remember.
I wasn’t angry any more. This would have been worth the fare and a tip even if the taxi hadn’t moved at all. Better than that, I was home by 1am – and the driver’s wisdom and consolation were free, which is to say, priceless.