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John the Dispatcher



Published February 9, 2011 at 8:29 a.m.

“It might be just what you’re looking for, brother — a hatchback, automatic, and it does have AC.”

On a wintry afternoon, I was driving my taxi through the Old North End while speaking on my cellphone. My kid brother is an appliance repairman, and he was in the market for a new business vehicle. Earlier that day, on a used-car lot on Prim Road, I had checked out a car that might work for him.

“Yeah, the price was in your ballpark and —”

“What the hell! Are you crazy? You almost ran down my kids, asshole!”

Hitting the brakes, I turned my head to see a man screaming at me from the curb. It was the corner of Intervale and Archibald, and, apparently, I had eased through the stop sign before his family fully made it across the street. As I had been engrossed in the conversation with my brother, he might have had a point.

I lowered the passenger window as he approached my taxi to berate me further. I preempted him.

“Hey, I’m sorry, man.”

He appeared taken aback, but was having none of my apology. In fact, it seemed like the mea culpa had thrown gas on his fire.

“How can you even be driving a cab?” he laid into me, now eye to eye. “You shouldn’t have a license, you jerk.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” I repeated myself. “I really am.”

“What’s your cab company?” he demanded, glancing down at the slush-obscured logo on the taxi door. “In fact, gimme a business card.”

Oh, yes, I thought. Dude just handed me a nifty way out of this embroilment.

“You’re not going to call my boss, are you?” I asked plaintively.

“That’s exactly what I’m gonna do. Now give me a card.”

Summoning my best method acting, I passed him one of my cards through the window, a study in grievous despair.

“And what’s the number of this cab?” he asked, now firmly in control and pushing the interrogation.

“It’s cab number 3,” I whimpered. I might have been close to actual tears. De Niro has nothing on me, baby.

My prosecutor stared at me through slit eyes, nodding malevolently. He was sure he had me by the balls, and was loving every minute of it.

I left the scene of the crime and continued one block along Archibald Street until I reached the traffic light at the North Winooski intersection. The call came in right on schedule.

“Taxi service,” I answered my cellphone. “How can I help ya?”

A word about my choice of vocal styling. I worked for taxi fleets back in the day, and the distinct timbre of the dispatchers is forever fixed in my memory: a growly combination of mountains of Marlboros and don’t-even-think-about-fucking-with-me attitude. That belligerent stance never wavered, whether they were dealing with the customers or the drivers. Taxi dispatchers are notoriously underpaid and overworked; their sole job perk is the total freedom to be their sunny selves.

“Who’s this?” the caller asked. Yup, it was the dude.

“This is John the dispatcher,” I croaked. (Why John? you may ask. Perhaps I was thinking of John the Baptist.) “What can I do ya?”

“Well, one of your drivers nearly wiped out my entire family. He was charging through a stop sign.”

I let out a disgusted grunt (merely for the atmospherics) and asked, “Where exactly did this happen?”

“It was on the corner of Intervale and Archibald. He said he was in cab number 3.”

“Cab number 3 — is that right? This isn’t the first problem we’ve had with this fuckin’ character. I’m firing him right now.”

“R-really?” he asked. “You’re going to, like, fire him?”

He actually sounded a bit guilty, which I admit I found delicious. John the dispatcher’s immediate and draconian response to his complaint was perhaps more than he bargained for. The man had underestimated just how seriously we take customer service in this company.

“You bet we are. The guy is history. Dead meat, man. Thanks for calling.”

Hanging up, I didn’t feel all that proud of myself. Yes, I had finessed a potentially messy situation, but deceit is not my preferred modus operandi. At least it’s all over, I thought. I could take comfort in that.

Later that night, back at home, I took a taxi call. “Taxi service,” I said. “This is Jernigan.”

“Hey, I was calling to see if you were hiring,” said the caller.

Holy shit, I thought, recognizing the voice. It’s the guy! He must have suspected something was fishy.

“No, no,” I said, suppressing my panic as I switched voices. “This is John the dispatcher.”

“It is?” the man asked. “I thought you said it was Jernigan.”

“No,” I replied, “it’s John the dispatcher. We’re not hiring. We did fire a guy today, though.” Now I was tap dancing and not even making a whole lot of sense. If we had just let somebody go, wouldn’t that create a job opening?

“Oh, you fired somebody today? What was he fired for?”

“Well, that’s not important.” Like a lousy actor misplacing his accent in the middle of a scene, I was losing track of John the dispatcher and had begun to channel some unholy and utterly unconvincing spawn of John-plus-Jernigan. “The thing is — we’re not hiring, OK?”

“Sure, OK,” he replied, and we hung up. Had he smoked me out? Or was he really looking for a job? I was so freaked out I couldn’t think straight.

Now, 24 hours later, I’m still jumping every time the phone rings, on hyper-alert for the next shoe to drop. If he does call again, I don’t know whether to triple-down as John the dispatcher or to simply come clean as Jernigan the imbecile.

“What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” True that.