Before there were call centres, help desks, delivery bikes and Uber, before labour hire firms and all the rest started offering young people new ways of working long and hard for doubtful return, before the term ‘gig economy’ had come into being – before all that the one way to make a quick, modest dollar was to drive cabs on the night shift. It was a Sydney thing.

Back in the 1970s, my taxi-driving friend Terry, who sang and played bass in the band we had together, observed in an idle moment (of which we had plenty) that long term taxi drivers seemed to fall into two broad types. There were, he said, the cranky old bastards. They hated the young and the foreign-born, hated women, students, long hairs and dope smokers. They hated trendies and arty types, hated surfers, bikers and protesters. They hated gays and lesbians. Generally they hated the way things were and the way they were headed. They hated anyone they hadn’t known for twenty years and weren’t too fond of those they had. They had a sharp eye out for new trends, and driving cabs gave them a steady stream of up-to-date hateworthy material. I knew that type – they were everywhere and seemed to control everything.

The other type, Terry said, few in number, were the saints. Sad working-class men, accepting and solicitous no matter what wickedness or foolishness came their way. Like the bodhisattvas, those enlightened beings who choose to stay on the wheel (or in this case behind the wheel) just to do what they might to alleviate worldly suffering.

Soon enough I went through the procedure, got my licence, hoping it would fit with my patchy employment as a guitar playing layabout. My very first day on the road happened to be Anzac Day, the mid-autumn national war remembrance holiday. I presented early at the Legion Cab Base in Foveaux Street, Surry Hills, showed them my brand new licence, filled in a form, and was handed a set of car keys. My first hail was an aged gent wearing his war medals. He got in the cab, I swung the meter, and we were off. I dropped him minutes later at a pub across town, and there was someone standing right there, looking for a cab. The jobs linked up like that all day. People in and out, a dollar or two changing hands each time. A feeling of function efficiently executed, in a spirit of simple civility. At 3pm I refilled the car, put the ‘pay in’ – $20 or so – in an envelope, dropped it in the chute, and was left with a good enough wad of money. So taxi driving became a thing I did.

My first year behind the wheel was exhilarating. As with most ‘people’ jobs – teacher, cop, bouncer, nurse, barman, doctor – that first year is a blurry honeymoon. It’s all new, you don’t have time to make judgements, or dwell on upsets, because characters and events are coming at you fast. And you’re learning quickly. The people are sort of interesting, on the whole: the things they do, the shit they get up to. Things happen – maybe not to you, the driver – but you find yourself often close to dramas unfolding. No one tries to sugar coat what they do and who they are in front of the taxi driver. The next day you might relate to housemates what went down, but the incident soon sinks into background. It’s all incident. Now years later, of the thousands of trips I did, I remember the smallest few.

I soon graduated to night shift. Sydney then was a brawling, restless, anything-goes town, a young people’s town, but still run, it seemed, by overlapping cliques of middle-aged crooks, politicians, cops, property developers, talk back radio hosts, ad people, horse racing and car-sales folk, publicans, club owners and standover thugs. The city was also awash with drugs: the standby was grass, but coke was making a resurgence (the last cocaine craze had been in the 1920s, although none of us had any idea back then that it had ever been). Speed, Mandrax and amyl nitrate were driving plenty of action in the clubs which were appearing, and white powder heroin was on its way to being the primary driver of…well, everything it seemed.

A taxi shift would happen like this: you’d arrive at one of the Sydney’s big cab bases – back then the big three were Taxis Combined, Legion or Yellow Cabs – at around 2:30 in the afternoon, let the fleet manager know you were there, then hang around until a cab was ready for you. Sometimes more drivers would show up than there were taxis, but if you’d been more or less regular over the past couple of weeks, you’d get a car, a six-cylinder automatic Holden or Falcon. Regular drivers would be given the lower mileage, better running cars.

That last thirty minutes before changeover there might be fifty or sixty men milling about. The regulars, old blokes, younger casual drivers and migrants. There would be long hairs, stoners, an acid casualty or two, maybe a wild-eyed junkie. Earnest, bespectacled students. There would always be middle-aged, middle class gents who might tell you that, oh, they felt a need for a change of lifestyle, they preferred the freedom of cab driving, being your own boss and whatnot. Then someone else would tell you, yeah, bullshit. He went bad, went broke. He punted or drank or rooted away the business, the wife, the family, the house, the friends.

Hit the road at 3pm. With so many vacant cabs heading out, you couldn’t expect anything much within a kilometre of the base itself, so you would drive slowly towards the city, behind two or three other vacant cabs. You never overtake another vacant cab. It’s all constriction, obstruction, heat and noise. Maybe it would take ten minutes or more before you got a street hail.

Moving into the peak hour the city becomes a quagmire. But you learn which streets are quicker around the snarls. The best city hails take you to any of the adjacent suburbs: Paddington, Edgecliff, Potts Point, Darling Point, Elizabeth Bay, Surry Hills, Chippendale, Ultimo, Pyrmont – the crescent of inner suburbs hugging the city centre, known in taxiland as ‘The Horseshoe’. The locals there really use cabs. There are rich people who live there, but the taxi users are mostly singles: young men and women who work in bars and hotels, in city shops and offices, who spend every dollar they earn on their daily lives – getting to and from work, drinking, eating, partying.

With luck you can get a string of street hails to take you through those thick hours. You prefer not to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge – it’s a tangle each way – but if you do, you’ll hope for a fare back to the city. Lots of hails going to the airport, but there’ll be a great surplus of empty cabs out there at the rank. Flights leave at four or five but travellers from elsewhere don’t start arriving in numbers until 7 pm.

You might see an acquaintance, at the lights, at a city rank. How’s it going, you ask. He might tell you, rolling his eyes, of some outrageous series of events, which would to anyone else would seem perfectly reasonable – ‘and then she says, “I’m going to Earlwood”’. Which you know means twenty or thirty minutes spent in a suburban wasteland. (No taxi has ever been hailed from the street in Earlwood.)

Middle-aged shopping ladies in the Eastern suburbs or the Lower North Shore are a pain. Entitled, slow, encumbered with bags, they never tip and are quite often rude but might ask you to drive all the way down their driveway, or maybe carry the bags in. No problem in itself, but at this time of the shift it’s all about movement and continuity.

After an hour you will have settled in. You’re reading the street – you can tell by the way that a person is standing, maybe amid ten or twenty others, two hundred yards away that they’re after a cab. Maybe another taxi at the intersection has spotted them, but you know the lights will favour you, and before you’ve pulled up you’ll even have a good idea where that passenger is going. You don’t know how you know but after a few years driving you find yourself saying their destination in your mind before they do, and you’ll rarely be wrong.

At around six the jangle and sense of hindrance lifts, replaced by a feeling of smooth rapidity. The sun drops, the air cools, the roads begin to clear. That time of day the passengers are mostly regular users. You’ll get any needed directions not too early, not too late – that timing can be surprisingly well or badly done. At the finish of the fare there’ll be that simple exchange – service rendered, recompense made. One of those small but oddly sustaining classes of human interaction. Do a few jobs like that in a row and you feel a sense of flow, of right action. And once you’re there, in that mode, in that zone, things will continue to work out: people will be moved, money will be earned. If that movement and timing sustains for thirty or forty minutes there’s a momentum which passengers will feel, and it will make them, somehow, better passengers. You’re ‘running hot’.

You’ll be driving quite fast by then, but your reflexes are sharp, and you’re moving among motorists who mostly have just started their first or second short trip of the day. But you’re settled in, sensing where every car is, clocking their behaviour, speed, small accelerations and hesitations, signs of impatience or nervousness – reading an entire deportment from the quickest of glances; you know where that car – and every car within fifty or one hundred metres of you – is now, and where it will be in a few seconds time. Safe pathways are opening up through the field of moving cars around you. You sense a gap about to open, move safely into it. No craning around over your shoulder because you know where every other car is right now, from where they were a moment ago. I adopted the cabbie practice of two-footed driving – right on the accelerator, left on the brake – which gives you a little extra control, and a fraction faster pickup and braking. I still drive that way.

Image: Peter Doyle

Sydney is bounded by the ocean to the east, and is cut through by four major estuary systems. These were rugged gorges during the last ice age, covered by the rising seas of 15,000 years ago. Those drowned valleys are known as rias. Rias are dendritic – that is, they map to tree-like structures. Each of the four drowned valley systems divides upstream into many deep-water branches. Those radiating forms of trunk, branch and twig are the waterways, not the land. The land masses – hilltops, plateaux, peninsulas, escarpments and gullies – are the lumpy spaces between. In a ria-defined city, such as Sydney, roads snake unpredictably through jumbled peninsulas and promontories of varying size, following no easily knowable system.

The most affluent parts of the eastern suburbs and lower north shore are all built around harbour peninsulas, usually with a single road looping around the edge. But go out to the south west, along the Georges River, or north west to the Hawkesbury, and you get that same characteristic look and topography, with many sudden, startling tree-framed glimpses of ocean or estuarine blue water, views that so teased and captivated generations of artists like Margaret Preston, Lloyd Rees, Brett Whitely. And before them the early colonial painters, and before them Indigenous artists who carved whales and seabirds into the rocky caps of the high hills.

The flatter western expanses of Sydney are no less confused. Many of the roads overlay old Aboriginal tracks, or the informal cart and goat tracks of the early settlers. In their way, they are pathways of desire, random and wayward seeming, vernacular rather than planned, following schemas formed of habit and distractedness. There’s a lot to know, and I never met a driver, however experienced, who had any sense of the entire or even most of the sprawl.

After a couple of years I pretty much knew every street of the eastern suburbs, the inner west and the lower north, and knew which way the numbers ran in most of those streets. But the northern beaches, the far west, the Shire to the south, the Hills district in the far north west were foreign countries. Those areas all had their own small cab companies run by hardboiled locals. If you did happen to pick up a job there, you’d be as clueless as a driver on their first shift. Going the wrong way, finding yourself on the wrong peninsula, or following what looked like the main loop throughway but turned into a dead-end could waste a crucial half-hour or forty minutes, and spoil a shift.

So you stuck to the parts of the city you knew. There were strips of road I favoured and there were zones which I instinctively avoided. One I noticed often: to get from the city to the suburbs – Randwick, Coogee, Bronte – I preferred to swing off the main drag of Alison Road and detour around the edge of cool and sombre Centennial Park. I knew from long experience the fare was the same either route, but that the way past the park was often a fraction quicker. I could make a judgment about a passenger as to which they preferred. Some would enquire, with irritation, why are we going this way? But in others you could sense a very slight loosening, a deeper drawing of breath as we drove past the park. As though some slight blessing had been bestowed on us.

I was reading a lot of old paperback crime fiction back then: David Goodis, Day Keene, Dan J. Marlowe, Jim Thompson, Jonathan Latimer, Patricia Highsmith – all recent discoveries – as well as old favourites Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. Vicariously accompanying the protagonist around their territory – Hammett’s downtown San Francisco, Chandler’s Los Angeles, or newcomer Peter Corris’s Sydney – is one of crime fiction’s great pleasures. Reading those yarns in stolen moments between cab fares, the stop-start journeying analogy was obvious, and compelling.

Typically, the investigator’s first assignation – maybe an examination of the crime scene, or an interview with a client – produces an enigma, and a task, often of no great import. This leads to the next rendezvous, where information is received that will send the detective off again, and so on. A pattern is formed, a pathway of social and commercial connections, which mirrors, maybe in reverse, the causal chain of the sleuth’s nascent hypothesis. All the cop has to do is follow each lead to the next until the story is complete, leading him ultimately back to the perpetrator, back to the cause. Crime fiction mostly obeys the dictum said by fixer Frank Minna in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn: ‘Tell your story walking’. The walking is the telling.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Death and the Compass (1941) Detective Lönnrot discerns a pattern to a series of recent murders. With each successive death, he realises, the murderer is mapping a grand shape, which Lönnrot identifies as the Tetragrammaton of Kabbalistic practice. The periodicity – one murder a month – is obvious, and so he is easily able to intercept the murderer at the point and time at which the pattern would be complete. But there was no mystical intent, the ‘pattern’ was accidental in its early stage, and was then continued specifically to lure the hubristic detective to the place of his own murder, a simple revenge killing.

In From Hell Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell have William Gull, aided by degenerate cabbie John Netley, criss-crossing inner London to map a ‘profound and radiant design’ – a Masonic pentagram of pagan origins. Gull, with Netley as accomplice, goes on to commit the Jack the Ripper murders according to that occult shape, in pursuit of some imagined Inner London earth magic. The serial murderer following an elaborate geo-numerical shape became a cliché of mystery stories. Borges’s outing of the construct before it even really began, offered a playful advance warning about over-detecting, or more broadly about over interpreting or over-poeticising. About making altogether too much of urban geometry and its psychic shadows and doubles.

The 1990s television program Law and Order struck the right balance for me: Jerry Orbach’s world weary Lennie Briscoe doesn’t do high-end master detective type deduction, but simply performs the motions, the procedure, more or less knowing his journey will end with the perp. Sometimes the show would go from a found corpse, to lead number 1, on to leads 2 and 3 and whatever, with a street address flashed on screen between each encounter (no screen time wasted showing the detectives in the car, driving there), all played out so rapidly that they would have their perp before the opening credits had even finished.

Briscoe’s ennui – his dry relentless wisecracking – is a product of experience: he’s done these rounds many times, and will do them many more times yet. The patterns of the city correspond to patterns of human perfidy and suffering. Briscoe knows both equally well, but he’s too over it to ever bother saying as much. Who’d listen?

In Law and Order, as in the detective stories of Chandler, Hammett and the rest, the pathways are not formed by mystical geo-patterns, but there is an organic likeliness to them. When Hammett’s detective follows someone from, say, Union Square to a hotel in the San Francisco Tenderloin, it’s an eminently plausible nexus. It’s not supernatural, but neither is it random. The connection is motivated.

The axiom is this: these various spatial duties or rituals or observances, correctly enacted, will produce … something. In detective fiction, it’ll produce the culprit. In caper stories, the swag, the getaway. For a taxi driver, a flag-fall and a couple of bucks on each stretch of the night’s long meander.

Any single taxi hire might take you anywhere. But over time as tens of trips turn into hundreds and thousands, the recurring journey-shapes become plain. The two-way radio operator endlessly repeats those same sets of coordinates, job after job, that you’ve been taking picking up passengers off the street. ‘Balmain goes to the City’, ‘Balmain to Glebe, ‘City North goes to Paddo’, ‘Bondi goes to the Junction’, ‘Randwick local’, ‘Redfern local’. On and on. You may hear the operator call ‘Balmain goes to Paddington’ – yeah, they’re on opposite sides of the city but they lie roughly on the same demographic isobar. Yes, trendy Balmain folk would hang out with trendy Paddo folk. A trip from Surry Hills to Newtown: a drug score, terrace house to terrace house. No surprise there either. A de facto wealth and culture map of greater Sydney forms, and most trips, whether radio jobs or street hails will be along lines of roughly equal income and cultural complexion. But exclusive Vaucluse to rough Redfern – that’s anomalous. You take the job. It’s a factory owner going to his workshop.

Repeat trips start to form links, webs. Those lines become engraved in the driver’s psyche. The patterns they form seem to inhere independently of one’s own experience – the deeper matrix was there before you became aware of it. It’s like some kind of morphic resonance – that fancied phenomenon by which habits and practices form systems, which inherit memories from other, prior systems. The more things happen one particular way, the more readily they will happen that way in the future. The more you make use of this or that particular road, or that shortcut, or that little known back way, the greater its utility, the easier, and in some way the more satisfying it becomes to you. The hitherto secret Sydney that reveals itself is patterned by events repeated to the point that they have become like archetypes. Social connections, synapses, fungal hyphae, electronic circuitry, overlain on jumbled landforms. For the first year or so it is often baffling; the city seems determined to thwart you. But driving again and again through, over, around those thousands of mundane dips and twists, curves and detours, affinities build. It’s as though you’ve worn your own personal furrows in the macadam. Like the athlete doing the reps, swimming the laps, the musician doing the scales – something comes from the unremarkable, much repeated engagement. The more conscious you become of this or that place or zone, the more it has yet to reveal to you. The mystery doesn’t lessen with familiarity. It deepens.

In those mad serial killer stories, the geo-patterning is typically in service of some deluded quest for mystical aggrandisement. In the more humble procedurals the peripatetic shape-making is the product of land form, urban layout and the twisty lines by which loot, drugs, information are transmitted, and by which people approach, stalk, rendezvous, flee or depart forever. Much as I came to hate the job, my time driving cabs permanently changed how I thought and felt about Sydney. Later cycling and walking the city, and then researching and writing about it would further deepen that receptivity, but taxi driving gave me my first sense of how the city was held together by webs and circuitry, and how the quantum unit is the single link – that trip from Balmain to Paddington, like that walk from Union Square to the Tenderloin. When I published my first novel, in the 1990s, an ex-taxi driver friend said the way it zigzagged through Sydney reminded him of a taxi shift.

Even on the busiest of nights, things go quiet at 8:30. By then people have mostly been delivered to their pubs, clubs, theatres, restaurants and dinner parties. No matter how good the run has been, it will almost certainly wind down now. The two-way radio will have gone quiet. The operator is calling just one or two jobs a minute, with silences in between. This leaves space for banter and cross talk. ‘They’re taking photos on Moore Park Road,’ says someone. (A police radar trap.) ‘There’s an M9 on St James rank’ (a troublesome drunk). The telegraphic cross talk between cars is never acknowledged by the operator. Much of it consists of simple exchanges: want to stop for a coffee? Yeah, see you in ten. There are blatant drug transactions: want me to pick you up something at Newtown? Yeah, get me a fifty. There’ll be a steady litany of vague denunciations – of the job, the city, life itself: ‘This is bullshit!’ or the cover-all existential, ‘fuck this.’

The racist slurs are unceasing. A driver with a foreign accent is given a job. An old Aussie voice chimes in telling him to go back to where he came from, or go back to driving a camel. It got so that the word ‘camel’ was treated like any heavy swearword, and would get the utterer, were he identified, banished from the network. I remember once hearing that tired bitter insult about going back to camel driving muttered for the umpteenth time. The driver who had just won the job couldn’t respond to the anonymous heckler. But this time another foreign accent came in, loud and clear: ‘No! I will not go back to drive the camel because I am fucking your wife!’ At that the racist epithets shut down, for a good while.

You should have made the pay-in and petrol money by the beginning of the eight thirty lull, so from there on it’s money in your pocket. You stop for a meal, or drop in on someone: you’ve been roaming all over town, and will often find yourself near one or another friend’s place. Or you might pop in to a pub to catch a band’s first set. Careful, though: your money is yet to be made; lingering too long over the break, getting caught at home in front of the telly, chatting a little too long at a friend’s could see the shift go down the gurgler.

There’s a late rush from 11 till midnight. It’s your last chance to make money, but it’s over fast and your run is easily derailed. A drunk, even a friendly one (friendly can be worse) wastes time. A complainer who thinks you’re going the ‘long way’, or the wrong way, can also tear it. Suddenly you find yourself slouching down Broadway behind a string of vacant cabs. No connections, no patterns revealing themselves. You’re in Godot-ville.

That’s when having an edge helps. For the first year, the radio despatch was a hostile game, played to mysterious rules, via cryptic exchanges between cars and the radio operators. Most of it I couldn’t even hear, and what I could hear, I couldn’t understand. Old time drivers had nicknames for places, known to them and to the operators, but less known among casual and newcomer drivers. The ‘Mecca Lights’, ‘the Blinking Light’, ‘the Top Dog’, (or ‘the Doggie’), ‘the Garden Suburb’, ‘the Dream Home’, ‘the Roundabout’, ‘the Steam’, ‘the Fountain’, ‘the Equator’ were all precise positions one heard called. It was like a David Ireland novel.

But winning a radio job meant an extra surcharge on the flag fall, and usually gave you better customers. It was a commonplace of taxi driving that just as one small bit of bad luck might spoil the run, so a small win will get you out of the doldrums, reconnect you with the grid. You might be cruising hopelessly back from, say, Bondi towards Taylor Square or Kings Cross, hoping for a street hail. Up on Oxford Street there’ll be a convoy of vacant cruisers. A radio job is called: someone in Paddington is going to Mosman, across the Harbour Bridge.

On smaller networks, the operator would name the pickup street, but on the very large Taxis Combined network they’d announce only the suburb. The operator would take the first three drivers of vacant cabs to chime in with their location – ‘5007 at Moore Park and Oxford’, ‘365 at Barrack Motors’, ‘3175 at the Five Ways’ and so on, and then assess who was closest to the pickup point. Odds would favour the driver who called in at Five Ways, the intersection at the heart of tightly spaced Paddington. The other two are on the edges. But that car may not be anywhere near the Five Ways – he may be a suburb or two away. He might have figured he could win the job and sneak quickly to the pickup without being seen by any other cab. He would have hoped that right at that moment there was no one actually at Five Ways who could out him as being not there. Radio adepts did that all the time – it’s cheating, and a bust might get you put off the radio for an hour or two. But if you knew the ropes you’d get away with it. The practice was sometimes called ‘throwing your voice’ or ‘stretching the cab’. A skilled cheat would wait until the operator had taken the first two bids then call in third with a location – maybe wildly fictitious – that would trump the two already called. I heard of owners illegally hotting up their radios so they could always be heard over any cacophony of voices. Late in my driving life, in the 1980s, Taxis Combined brought in a system whereby all mics were muted by default. You bid for a job by pushing a little rectangular button fitted on the dash, which sent out your car number to show up on the operator’s console. The operator then would activate your mic from his end. It was a leveller in that many more drivers felt emboldened to bid on a radio job. But then someone showed me how if you pressed your button three times in quick succession, your number would blast over the others. That small edge substantially boosted my take for a year. Eventually everyone learned the trick.

The worst thing was to win a job then not make it there in time. Someone might’ve hopped into your car before you had a chance to turn off the vacant light, or you weren’t vacant at all when you called, but were dropping off near the pickup, but then the passenger changed their mind and decided to go on to the city, and now the Paddington customer has rung back asking where their cab is, after you claimed to be vacant just a hundred yards away fifteen minutes ago – well, it’s a bad look. The operator’s enquiry, ‘where exactly are you, drive’?’ will drip scorn. Do that even once and there’s every chance the operator will stop hearing you, will give you the ‘wooden ear’. And do it a couple of times, you’ll be regarded as an idiot and made generally unwelcome on the radio network.

But say you won that Paddington job, and all went well. Say the passenger turned out to be pleasant enough, a regular cab user (an ‘M10’ in the parlance) and was travelling on an account. You’re back in the realm of swift exchange. That nice passenger will quite probably just hand you the blank account docket, let you fill in the amount, knowing you’ll add a tip, but that it won’t be outrageous, because you know not to make a welter of it.

You drop her off feeling slightly buoyed. You’re moving, and free of the downtown death march. You will have switched radio channels to the one covering north of the harbour, and where taxis are thinner on the ground. You might find you win the one radio job called, which takes you back over the bridge.

Very late at night, there’s no one much on the street. Shift workers, nurses, cops, firemen, telephonists are all snookered away. Cutthroats, brigands, dopers and drunkards are mostly asleep, or watching late night TV. The sex workers, bouncers, bar staff hang on till almost last, then they too pack it in. But taxis are still out there cruising. That radio network is down to a single channel. The dog watch operator might allow a bit of chat now. There’s a car broken down on Wakehurst Parkway. An alarm has gone off outside a shop in Bondi. Two cop cars and an ambulance have pulled up outside a house in Botany Road. A water main is leaking somewhere up Turramurra way. A driver radios in from a petrol station in Five Dock, requesting a cab to take him home to Rozelle. The operator calls it as a job, bids him goodnight.

At these times it feels like the taxi drivers and the radio network are the only conscious entities in the whole city, hearing every cough and sneeze, noting every small disturbance, the collective settling into quietude. If you get free of the city death crawl, you may be the only working cab in some great tract of sleeping Sydney. There’s a feeling of continual motion – patrolling – and in some way, of guardianship. The cowboy on the range, the sleeping herd. The night nurse, the hospital ward.

People were more abrasive then, scornful of the mug. I remember, not with pleasure, my contempt for out of towners. There were few international tourists then in Sydney, and with a bit of shabby luck you could get stuck at the airport rank with people unused to catching taxis, say elderly interstate or country folk or New Zealanders on holiday. Now here they were in Sin City, convinced that you and everyone was out to scalp them. They’d never tip, would waste time getting in and out of the cab.

But then, if you happened to take them to one of the hotels around Kings Cross and drove along Darlinghurst Road, there standing in the near dark with their backs to the stone walls of the old Darlinghurst Jail would be maybe fifty or sixty teenaged boys sex working, while milling around them would be retinues of punters, dope dealers and hangers on, people idling in cars…then you’d suddenly see the city through the eyes of the appalled visitors.

Sydney in the 1980s was that way. Illegal gambling joints, brothels (not yet legalised) and ‘Live Shows’ operated openly. Gangsters and a bunch of outrageously crooked cops virtually ran the nightlife. Blokes named Barry, driving Holden Commodores were selling smack and speed. Maybe the air of flip knowingness was part pre-emptive performance: I get it, I get how things work around here.

The routine cheating on radio jobs, and the stories one heard about the lengths some drivers went to make a dishonest buck (like say, secreting away smaller items of baggage during an airport pickup, hoping they’d be overlooked at drop-off, or even in one case, having the meter souped-up, to be activated only with first time visitors from the International Airport), all were declarations to the self and one’s associates of detachment, a statement that one routinely went placidly amid the noise and haste. Why, I wonder now, was being, or seeming to be ahead of everyone else so important to me and to my friends back then?

But we – the under-30 drivers – were mostly adrift in our lives, and usually a step behind the old lifers. A small incident that still makes me wince a little. Approaching the taxi rank outside the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Double Bay. It’s a hundred yards up ahead, my side of the road. No other taxis there. Another cab, though, is opposite the rank, waiting for traffic to pass so he can make a U-turn. He should have precedence, as he has already been there a few seconds. I pretend not to see him and slip into point on the rank – pole position, you might say. He does his turn and pulls up behind me. A car door slams and a second later there’s a voice at my window. An old bloke holding out a few coins in his hand. In the kindest, weariest of voices, ‘Mate, if you’re going that bad, here, better take a few bob…’ I stammer out an apology, and offer to peel off, let him have point. But he’s already halfway back to his car, dismissing me with a wave.

With so many down-at-heel artists, authors, musicians, scholars, actors, filmmakers, poets, dreamers, wasters, stoners and the like pushing cabs, ideas for the taxi artwork were plentiful. The taxi novel, song, album, comic, film… As I remember, actual taxi drivers were not that jazzed at Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, at least not as an evocation of what driving cabs was like. Travis Bickle’s ruminative gloom missed the feeling of speed and motion, of urban mastery. For my part I made a start on a taxi graphic novel, but never got further than a single splash page, a gallery of lowlifes hanging out at the base, getting ready for the night shift.

I had by then returned to drawing in pen and ink, a pursuit of my childhood. As well as the trusty pulp novel, I would take a pocket-sized sketchbook and a rapidograph pen with me on a shift. Stuck on a rank, no action? Not a problem, start sketching. It got so I’d resent a fare getting in, interrupting my scribble. I drew by night and by day. Anyone who has ever done still life or plein air drawing, however ineptly, knows how the sustained looking can open the doors of visual perception. For me back then the drawing alerted me in new ways to the built city, the place I’d lived my whole life. Suddenly I was noticing old lettering, business names, crumbling architectural features, cinematic rainsoaked alleys and lonely street lights. Rusty awnings and strange shops which opened only rarely if at all, and which sometimes bore signage from early in the century.

My last couple of years on the road – by then I was driving a private cab, owned by a neighbour in Glebe – was a strange time: driving, sure, but drawing and reading whenever I could. The jaundiced, over-it taxi driver, occasionally enlivened still by a fortuitous run, sometimes captured by a never-really-seen-before decaying deco facade, or a business sign on a third floor window, or a creek, or a particular house, or an electricity substation, or the shadow of a winter jacaranda tree on a brick wall, or a twilight over railway tracks, or the rotting industrial bleakness of Alexandria and Zetland in the predawn light. It was depressing – I was depressed, I suppose – but it was epiphanic, revelatory as well. I don’t want to overstate it, but many times it felt like a hidden city had been suddenly, plainly revealed. Sydney’s beach suburbs – now among the most expensive residential real estate in the world – are often drab, deserted, hunkered down, wintry grey. But to my eye – having grown up in beachside Maroubra – they were also filled with infinitely complex plays of light and reflection. It felt like I’d never really looked till then. Now I was really seeing the city. I formed the idea – a fantasy – of writing a crime novel some time, illustrated with my drawings. Maybe a taxi-driver PI?

More than a few passengers, I came to realise, were seeing things much the way I was, were attuned to layers of event and happenstance: not just arty types either, but shift workers on their way home, suburban locals, certain old folk. Sometimes a very casual remark – such-and-such business used to be on that corner, so-and-so used to own that pub, this long-gone event happened in that place – would be enough to start some happy conversation about that enduring, older core city. I think now it’s a basically historical sensitivity, a minority thing but not uncommon. A curiosity about obscured shapes and deeper structures; a feel for the ways that time unwinds, or assembles itself, the way it leaves residues, the ways affect accretes in some spots, how unrelated like-events might recur at certain sites, for good or ill, and how each new occurrence adds a tiny weight, or a thickening of force at that place. It’s as much about bricks and timber as it is earth and flora, and as much about culture as it is nature, and as much about individuals as it is social, because these forces articulate in people, and constrain and liberate them. Maybe I mean plain old memory.

I loved that moment in Repo Man when Harry Dean Stanton, sitting in a car with acolyte Emilio Estevez, does a line of speed on the dash, then looks through the windscreen. ‘Look at those assholes over there,’ he says. ‘Ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.’ Like everyone who has ever driven a taxi, I related.

In those days taxis did most of the urgent document, parcel or pathology deliveries. I came to far prefer inert objects. Or tired shift workers – the women who did data entry for the big banks, or took phone bets for the TAB, or classified ads for the Sydney Morning Herald – all were sent home by cab at night. No involvement, probably no conversation. They were near to being inert objects anyway. That was OK – one of the great satisfactions of the city is exchange without involvement. You don’t remember yesterday’s bus driver, nor they you. Being in a city is about not getting held up, not getting stuck, about avoiding sticky, caught-up-ness. Keep moving. But keep it civil, because conflict is another way of getting bogged down.

a drawing in black crayon on light brown paper of the tops of tall city buildings.
Image: Peter Doyle

I had become so choosy about who I would stop for, it was affecting earnings. You’re wearing a flannelette shirt? Forget it. You’re carrying a shopping bag? Are you kidding? There are three of you? No way. You’re not drunk but I can see by the way the headlights are picking up the flush on your face that you’ve had a few. Nope.

One night late in my driving career a bloke jumped in the front seat when I was stopped at the Taylor Square lights. He was wired. I wouldn’t have stopped for him had he hailed me, but he was in the car now. Just drive, anywhere, away from here, right now, he said. I did. A little way down the road he seemed to relax a little, looked over his shoulder, looked at me and asked – I can’t recall the exact words, but the general gist was, was I cool? Was I OK with smoking dope and such things? He was short, very thin, hipster-spivvy, dressed in a sports jacket. Māori guy. I shrugged, said something non-committal, but vaguely affirmative at which he leaned back, sighed, rubbed a hand across his face, and said half to himself, ‘Thank God. Maybe it’s going to be alright.’ He turned to me, ‘I’ve come over here to do a deal, you know? But you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through, brother,’ he said. ‘I’ve been fucked up and double-crossed. Had a gun pulled on me. Bad shit back there just now, where you picked me up. I’ve been taking Mandrax and I haven’t slept for five nights and now it’s like I’m tripping, you know?’ Then he said quietly, soberly, that he thought I was OK, that I’d been sent by God to help him finish this deal, whether I realised it or not. So where to? I asked. ‘There’s a guy at Seaforth. It’s my last chance.’

This was the tail end of Drugs 1.0 in Sydney. Dealing was losing its peer-to-peer, folk culture, idealistic underground ambience, becoming something that the big end of town and psychopath gangsters looked after. We didn’t know that then, but in retrospect, we were at a long, drawn-out turning point. My passenger was of the old school, in which anyone who smoked dope was a comrade.

He rolled a hash joint as we drove toward the bridge. I passed on it. That was OK, he understood, he said. He’d give me something later. On the drive over the bridge he told me how he had come over from New Zealand with a quantity of hash to sell but nothing had gone right. There had been betrayal, there were people after him, and he was running scared. There was a girlfriend and a couple of kids back in Auckland waiting. He had to push on through. Get it done, get home.

Seaforth is a wealthy post-war northern suburb, one of those high rugged promontories overlooking Middle Harbour. We stopped just short of there at the Spit Bridge, he got out, made a call from a public phone. Came back excited, with an address. I found the place. A 1960s dream home with sweeping water views. He asked me if I was OK to wait. I said sure. I was involved now and wanted to see how things turned out.

I waited a long time it seemed. Eventually he came back out, calmly got in the car, slumped back in the passenger seat, and said, ‘It’s done.’ He turned to me, shook my hand, thanked me. He’d known I was right, knew God was looking after him, he said. I drove him back to Bondi. I’d long since paused the meter, but he gave me a more than fair recompense, and a generous cube of hash to go with. I told friends about it the next day, and have thought about it since. For all his trippy palaver, I think the guy was for real.

What I said above about that feeling of guardianship, of babysitting the late night city? Sometimes that didn’t work out. Driving down deserted York Street well after 1 a.m., a warm summer weeknight, I was flagged down by a very spooked older taxi driver. ‘Look, look, over here,’ he said. I got out, followed him over to a late model cream Datsun stopped at the lights on the cross street, its motor running. There was a young man behind the wheel, his head back, mouth open. Unconscious? Dead? OD’d? It looked a newspaper photo of a mob hit. ‘What do we do?’ asked the other driver. I reached through the open window, gave the guy a shake. Hey mate. Mate! But nothing. ‘Maybe it’s the motor,’ said the other driver, I guess thinking the bloke had been asphyxiated. ‘Turn it off!’ he said. Yeah, turn it off, I thought. I reached in and turned the key in the ignition. The motor stopped. The car started rolling backwards. It was an automatic, now effectively in neutral, accelerating backwards down steeply sloping Erskine Street, with its three intersections, three sets of lights between us and the bottom of the hill. Within a second or two the car was moving faster than I could run. Then it began to fishtail crazily in ever wider arcs, until it swung around ninety degrees, mounted the kerb and rammed backwards into the wall of a new office block. A huge crash. The car stopped. I was nearly there. The young driver was awake now. He looked around – what could he possibly have made of what he saw? He started his car, took off, turned right, down the hill, and was gone.

The other taxi driver and I stood in the middle of Erskine Street, looked at each other, then slunk back to our cabs and fucked off without another word.

No matter how crappy the week might have been, Friday night was the chance to make it up. Maybe a million people go for a drink after work, or on a date, or to a club or pub or music venue, or leave or arrive on a plane. For whatever reason they have left the car at home. There’ll be street hails and radio jobs. Dozens of people on every major taxi rank. And it’s Friday, so the mood is mostly happy and tolerant. Drivers were allowed to multiple hire from certain busy ranks: take two or even three parties to the same general vicinity, and each party pays a full fare, although you’ll always discount them a little. You may get close to double or triple what was a good fare to start with – like say the Airport to Chatswood, or Killara.

One such night – there was work everywhere, Sydney was going off – I pulled up at the Airport rank. A hundred people or more there. A young woman with a tiny baby and just a couple of bags was at the front. She was from Adelaide. Wanted to go to Coogee, she said. Not a great airport fare. I call out to the people at the rank, hoping for a double up – anyone for Coogee? Bronte? Randwick? Anyone? There wasn’t. But that was OK. It was still the busiest night in months, and there would be street work at Coogee.

That year the Taxi Council and the taxi companies were making a big media push with a ‘Taxi Driver of the Year’ competition. It was a sop to the talk back radio bullies, for whom complaints about cabbies were a regular go-to. We were given stacks of nomination forms and reminded repeatedly by radio operators to hand them out to happy travellers. At the end there’d be heart-warming anecdotes, tales of honesty and grace under pressure, of steadfastness and gentle tolerance which would, it was hoped, counter the chronic bad press. And a thousand bucks for the winner.

On the way to Coogee the young mother told me that her boyfriend was to have met her at the airport. She didn’t know what had delayed him. Now we were headed to an address she had, a shared flat at Coogee. She nervously mentioned at that point that she hadn’t expected to have to take a cab, but it should be OK because the boyfriend would pay the fare. My heart sank. She was penniless.

Sure enough the flat was in darkness, and no one in the building seemed to know anything. The woman, who might have been in her teens, was crying. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she said. I didn’t know either.

Back then ‘crisis accommodation’ wasn’t really a thing. People slept rough, or buddied up to someone, or…I don’t know what. I knew of Elsie Women’s Refuge in Glebe – in fact, I lived in the same street. Elsie had started as a squat, an initiative of activists, but after a few years had attracted government money. There was no sign out front, nor did they advertise the street address – too many showdowns with abusive men. But I knew it well, so I suggested to the girl that maybe I could take her there.

She was still crying, but asked me again, what was this place? It’s a kind of co-op, I said, organised by women. For women and children, victims of domestic violence. Until they get themselves sorted. Even through the tears, she was doubtful. I drove there. We pulled up outside the Victorian cottage in Derwent Street. She peered in at the dark house. You want me to go and knock at the door? I asked. A slow OK.

It took a while but eventually a voice from inside asked what I wanted. I explained as best I could. The door opened a crack. Sorry, we’re full, the woman said, looking over my shoulder at the cab double parked out front. But where can she go? I asked. Try Butler Lodge. What? But the door was already closed. It’s in the book, came the last from inside.

I drove to the phone booth outside Glebe Post Office. There was a directory there – miracle – but the B pages had been ripped out.

I stood there in the filthy booth. It smelled of piss, the walls were covered with obscene and nonsensical graffiti. I was at a loss. Then my eyes stopped on lettering very neatly, very clearly etched into the paint, right there at eye level: Butler Lodge. And a phone number. It felt like a hand had reached down to me. The timing was so precise, like dialogue. I rang the number. It answered quickly. I started to tell the sorry tale. The voice interrupted. ‘Yes, bring her round.’ She gave me the address – it was just a block away in Bridge Road. We pulled up outside a large brick terrace house, a light on the porch.

The woman’s mood and demeanour changed completely. An old-fashioned charitable institution. Yes, this would do. Again, I knocked on the door. A matronly instrument of Christian charity opened up, smiling. Yes, she said, bring her in. I went back, got the bags, followed mother and baby up the path. She scarcely looked back.

No one offered to pay me, nor was I asked to give an address to which a payment might be sent later. But I was as relieved and grateful as the girl was. It was going to be OK. Food would be offered, a cup of tea made. There would be fussing over the baby. There would be solace.

I got back in the car, saw the Driver of the Year nomination forms on the front seat. I drove away, filled up, put the pay-in under the owner’s front door and went home.

a drawing in black ink on paper; a dark panorama showing houses on a hill with some internal lights on, against a dark cloudy background.
Image: Peter Doyle.