I NEED to pick up an order from my Avon lady," the young girl says as she gets in my cab. It is 1 a.m. "I'm not sure of her address, but I know it's right around here."
I take her to a dark corner in a so-so part of Baltimore. A number of male teen-agers are lounging in the area. The girl hands me a $20 bill. "Wait for me, please," she says. "I'll be right back."
Apparently, her Avon lady is one of the teen-agers on the corner, because that's where she heads. The teen-ager takes a bill from her -- I can't see the denomination in the dark -- and disappears up a nearby alley. He's back in less than a minute. I drive her to a bar on Broadway.
Drug users rarely admit what they're doing. There's almost always a story I'm expected to believe. "I have to go give my mom some money" is a standard line. Mom usually looks to be about 15 and is usually male. "Got to check on my old lady" is another common tale.
At this point, if a priest wearing a collar and vestments got in my cab in some neighborhoods at night and told me he was going to visit a sick parishioner, I'd assume he was making a drug buy. This hasn't happened yet, but I suppose it will sooner or later. One passenger claimed he was a rabbinical student going to get material he needed "for research." I watched him buy his research. It was white powder in tiny glassine envelopes.
Once in a while, someone tells me the truth. Three young men called for a cab at a local motel. I answered the call. When they got in, one said, "Yo, we're from out of town and we want to buy some crack. You know anyone who's got some close?" I didn't. "Then take us to the nearest projects. Find a dumpster. There's always somebody got something next to a dumpster in a projects."
I collected a $10 deposit and drove them to the nearest project. Sure enough, a kid was sitting by the dumpster, and the deal was made in a couple of minutes. I didn't mind watching yet another drug deal. As long as I get the fare, it's not my problem.
This attitude may seem callous. When I started driving a cab, I made call after call to police drug hotlines. It didn't do any good. I passed by the same corners, week after week, and saw the same dealers. Once in a while, there would be a series of busts and a few stories in the news. I'd see the same faces within a week -- on new corners. And sometimes I'd see new faces on the same old corners. Either way, it made no difference. The drugs were still being bought and sold, no matter how many calls I made. Finally, I gave up. It seemed to be the only sensible course.
I still draw lines. For instance, when one young lady hauled out her crack pipe -- a Jack Daniels miniature bottle topped with a hand-formed aluminum foil bowl -- I wouldn't let her light it in the cab. "Don't worry," she said. "The cops don't care. Everybody does it. You can have a couple of hits for yourself if you want."
I thanked her for the offer and told her I was allergic to cocaine. It makes me woozy, so I can't drive safely, I said. "Oh," she said. "I'm sorry. I don't want you to drive dangerous," and she put the pipe back in her purse.
There are times and places where every single person trying to hail a cab is buying, selling or using drugs. If you ask if they think what they're doing is wrong, they look at you funny and say, "Everyone does it." And, in their social circle, this is probably true. I've been offered cocaine, heroin and marijuana in lieu of cash for cab fares, and I've had passengers act surprised when I refuse the offer.
But the worst part is the endless string of transparent lies. I'm not stupid. I can see through them. But the people who tell the drug lies don't seem to realize that they're not fooling me, or anyone else. If this isn't proof that taking drugs makes you stupid, I don't know what is.
Robin Miller writes from Baltimore.