One Water is a book about Alaska through the lens of a young drifter seeking meaning in this world and discovering it in the Alaskan backcountry and in the stories of some of the people who take a ride in his taxicab.
Rob Mccue takes us on a journey through the Alaska Wilderness to the streets of its second largest city in a quest to better understand whatever in the heck is actually going on in this world. The book is not merely a narrative of his adventures but also contains descriptions of the geological, biological, and climactic circumstances that have shaped this great land. The book is also a coming of age story tracing the course of a hedonistic young drifter slowly accepting his transformation to adulthood (or close to it, anyway) and his role as a member of a family.
A Night on the Town
Interior Alaska in winter is a dark ocean, and we live miles beneath the surface. The cold resents our presence, our warmth an impediment to its equilibrium. It’s nothing personal, just a fact of our planet’s orientation to its host star: the axis around which the Earth rotates is tilted slightly relative to the orbit it traces around the sun, probably knocked out of whack by a meteor impact way back, before history. Due to this perfect imperfection the north is angled away from the warmth and light for months each year.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for these circumstances. If it were otherwise, the hordes from the Lower 48 would’ve swarmed here long ago and obliterated this place with the same urban sprawl that’s chewed through the natural world to the south. The cold here in January freezes your flesh in seconds, and during the few summer weeks mosquitoes rise from the swamps by the trillions and our streets are littered with the sucked dry bodies of their victims. All in all, these inconveniences are boons.
Another good thing about winter is that it generates its own economy, sustaining us when we begin to second-guess our memories of summer. Mechanics, septic steamers, snowplow operators, tow truck drivers, furnace repairmen, woodcutters, drug dealers, cab drivers—we’re in it together up here, consuming food, booze, sex, money, diesel, sharing our mutual desperation until the sun returns.
I’ve driven a cab here in Fairbanks for twenty years. When the cold comes, people’s cars quit working. They lose their will to walk. They need to leave the house before they hurt someone, or get hurt. They call me.
My wife, Michele, is a high school teacher, English and yoga. We first met some twenty years ago on a ferry traveling down the Inside Passage. It was December, cold and wind wracked. I was with a buddy, but Michele was alone. We slept in sleeping bags under heat lamps on the solarium, the glassed-in rear deck of the boat. The walkways around the ship were coated in slick ice, and we bucked into a strong headwind. We found that if you released the handrail near the bow of the boat, the wind would sweep you over the icy walkways to the stern in just a few seconds. We found that a buzz heightened the sensation.
My buddy was a guitar-playing, bear-biologist woman-wooer. Michele turned him down. She thought he carried his instrument as though he were displaying his penis. I never made my move, but on the last day of the trip she came and kissed me. She was waitressing on the Kenai Peninsula, just north of Homer. I was in school in Fairbanks, preparing to flunk out of college for the fifth time. We swapped phone numbers.
In the springtime I went to visit her under the pretense of watching Mount Spurr erupt, visible from the trailer she was living in. But before I left Fairbanks, I got together with another woman. I’ve never stepped out on a partner; despite my many flaws I’ve managed to hold onto that. Michele and I couldn’t be together then, is what I mean—which was messed up too. She was lonely, and it probably would have done us both some good. She eventually quit the restaurant and went to work for Fish and Game, counting salmon returns on an island in Prince William Sound. Eventually she came north and enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but she never contacted me, and by the time we ran into each other again she was with another guy who she eventually married—and divorced.
We’d been leading separate adult lives until a few years ago—well, adult might be stretching it for me. She’d gotten her degree and a teaching certificate and a job at a local high school where she works to this day. Everywhere we go, people aged sixteen to thirty, smile and approach us and say, “Hello, Ms. Robinson.” Her former students. A lot of people recognize me too, the cab driver, but usually they’re not sure from where so they just stare a question at me to see if I respond. But regardless, there are a hundred thousand people in this town and six hundred thousand in this state, and we’re part of that, part of something. And our son, Cord, he’s almost three, he’s a part of it now too.
He’s upended my perspective on this world. He’s how I take measure of myself, who I was, where I’ve been, who I am now. He’s the reason for understanding the stories I’ve lived, the stories around me every day, so that from here on at least, I’m aware of trying to be the guy Michele saw something in a long time ago.
Driving a cab is essentially gambling, but it’s a good enough bet and doesn’t involve staring at a computer screen, working on a utility crew outside in the winter, or smelling like stale french fry grease. I don’t show up at a certain time and leave at a certain time and get paid for the time in between. Instead, when I show up, I owe the owner of the company ninety bucks for the twelve-hour lease. When I’m done with the car, I’ll put around fifty bucks in the gas tank. I keep the balance, if any, and go home. Nobody much cares if I show up in the first place. Most of my fellow drivers would prefer I do something other than take food out of the mouths of their children.
There are usually enough drivers to keep the owner rich and pay the dispatchers, insurers, managers, and mechanics. There are usually even enough to get the customers picked up in a somewhat timely manner. In fact, there are often more drivers than good fares on a given night, and we battle each other like dogs for the scraps that cover our expenses.
The company doesn’t really care how an individual driver makes his money. We get to do it how we want, as long as we pay the lease and don’t get caught by the police doing anything illegal. Some choose to make their living by providing transportation to the people who call the company for a ride. Some like to sit around the airport or cater to personal calls. Others might choose to sell drugs, arrange for prostitutes, or steal trips from other drivers.
However one decides to approach the job, it starts with the dispatcher, usually an underpaid over-caffeinated guy with enough attitude to take the shit from drivers, management, and customers and throw it right back. He spends his eight hours seated at a desk equipped with five phone lines, a two-way radio, a clipboard full of trip logs, and an upright steel board, sixteen inches tall and thirty inches wide.
The board displays a grid of three rows by seven columns. Each column represents a different zone in the city. Cabs in the top row are red and are available for a trip; cabs in the middle row are green and have customers; cabs in the bottom row are picking up. They don’t get a color. The drivers are represented by numbered magnetic buttons stuck to the board, each button corresponding to a particular cab.
You radio the dispatcher telling him where you’re going, or where you’re clear, or when you change zones, and he moves your button around the board as you try to pick up the most trips and win the big money. We’re little free-willed markers on the board game of Fairbanks.
It’s 4:30 when I show up. The sun’s been down more than an hour, early January, forty-five degrees below zero. The yard is layered in ice fog churned from the rumbling V-8 motors of the cabs waiting for night drivers. The warm water vapor from a car’s exhaust is cooled nearly three hundred degrees within ten seconds of leaving the tailpipe. The super cold air is too dense to absorb any of the vapor, so it turns into tiny hovering ice crystals. Add in the warm water discharged from the power plant; the emissions of all the woodstoves, furnaces, and boilers; and the exhalations of every living thing and our town is swaddled in a toxic gauze.
From negative forty on down, the taxis are left running to avoid the risk of freeze-up and lost revenue. Can’t see fifty feet.
I walk into the smoke-filmed walls of the dispatch office that smells of stale cigarettes, fresh cigarettes, coffee, old dog, and microwave. Smurf is dispatching, talking on the phone. All lines are lit up. There are thirty-eight buttons on the board.
“I can’t send ya a cab if you won’t give me the apartment number. So last chance, what’s the number? Ten or less, belookin’,” he slams down the phone, picks it right back up. “Eagle and Yellow! . . . Which door ya at? . . . What’s your name? . . . Okay, Randy, I’ll send one.” Slams down the phone, picks it back up, “Eagle Yellow Cab! . . . Is who workin’? . . . No, he went home already, ya need a cab?” Slams down the phone, picks it back up. “Eagle Yellow! . . . At the parking lot door? . . . Five minutes.” He slams down the phone, hits the foot pedal microphone key while writing in his personal hieroglyphics on the trip log. “Eagle 17!” he says.
“Eagle 17,” a surly nasal male voice croons back.
“Get Tanana Chiefs at the parking lot door!” Smurf replies, depressing and releasing the foot pedal in rhythm, moves seventeen’s button.
“Check,” says Eagle 17.
“Yellow 72,” answers a guarded female voice.
“Take it south, get the Rescue Mission for Duano.”
“Yellow 72 check.”
“Eagle 46 . . . Eagle 46!”
“You called me, 46!” yells Smurf.
“Oh, um, I’m green to um (squawk) . . . Fred Meyers.”
“Oh, um, geez, which one!”
“Oh, um, in the west.”
“Oh, um, golly, why don’t you get Tristan at the B door?” bellows Smurf. “Eagle 46!”
“Um, Eagle 46.”
“Listen to your radio and get Tristan at the B door when you clear.”
“Uh, Eagle 46, check?”
“Now who’s next?”
A wall of static erupts from the radio as several drivers key their microphones at the same time. Smurf stretches back and sighs, lights a Marlboro.
I throw five dollars on the trip log in front of him. Part gratuity, part protection money.
He turns to me. He has a big drinker’s nose, a thinning mane of golden hair, and a wolfish Irish grin. I’ve watched him battle his personal demons for close to twenty years now. A trail of broken bottles, used hypodermics, meth memories stretching behind him, out of sight. Now, all that’s left are the medications, the battered liver, the clogged arteries. The doctors told him he can have a new liver if he stays clean for a year. I hope he makes it. The man’s got the love in his heart, and that’s all that matters to me.
“What d’you want?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I thought I’d try drivin’ a little taxi cab.”
“I don’t know. You think you can handle it?”
“I’m not sure. I heard it requires great mental agility.”
“Fuckin’ A right.”
“But they let you do it?”
“’Cause I’m fun to watch. What are you drivin’?”
“I’ll take twenty-nine.”
“Go get the Fred Meyer liquor for Regina.”
“You still here? . . . Eagle Yellow! . . . That was number twenty-eight? All right, right away.” Slams down the phone. “Yellow 100 get Wedgewood M like your mama 28.” Slides one hundred’s button from the top row to the bottom row in the north column.
A voice with a Tajikistan accent says check.
“Okay, drivers, red cars only, one at a time please.” I close the door as another wave of static breaks from the radio.
I feel like a pinball that Smurf has shot into the night. Like some intricacies of spin, velocity, and position have cast me to the inevitable.
Town sneaks up on you in the ice fog. Stoplights and other cars appear out of nothing, and then they’re gone. Ghost lights. A hundred years ago the roads were just trails from the river, through the spruce, to the cabins of the pioneers and prostitutes. In 1938 residents approved a measure to pave the roads. It had been a hot-button issue for many years. Incoming pilots had been able to identify the dust cloud of Fairbanks from eighty miles away.
It takes five minutes to get to Fred Meyer. When I enter the parking lot, I catch a glimpse of an old Athabaskan man in a Carhartt suit with the hood up. He holds a sign with big military surplus mittens. The sign says, “homeles veitnam vet plese help.” No sooner than I see him he’s gone in the fog and steaming train of headlights.
At the liquor door Regina comes striding out pushing a loaded cart with three kids under ten behind her, respectful. I pop the trunk of the Ford Crown Victoria and help load her bags.
As we leave the lot she sees the man with the sign. “Jesus Christ, is that Uncle Melvin, kids? Could you stop for a second?”
“Uncle, is that you? Jesus Christ, what you doin’? It’s too cold to be stannin’ around like that.”
A big beauty of a broken-tooth smile breaks across the old man’s weathered face like sunrise. He steps toward the cab and raises his hand.
“Uncle, get in the car with us, huh, we got moose stew at home. You can stay there.”
The old man seems hesitant.
“We got beer there too, c’mon and get in with us.” The smile gets bigger, and he climbs in. Cars behind us start to honk.
I take them to a house in the Hamilton Acres subdivision, a middle-class neighborhood north of the river. They give me $8 for a $6.20 meter. I thank the lady and help get the groceries to the door.
Back in the car I call on the radio, “Eagle 29.”
After a pause the dispatcher comes back, “Eagle 29.”
I say, “Red North, Glacier Street.”
“You’re six North.”
Yikes. This means I’ll get the sixth call out of this zone. I decide to move, gun the car sideways on the ice back up Farewell, catch the yellow light on the Steese Expressway, and make a left. I have the mike in my hand and call as I go through the intersection. The dispatcher calls back, and I tell him I’m red City as I cross the bridge over the Chena River.
“Get Smith Apartments, number nine.”
A young Athabaskan man is outside the drab building. This place has an unfavorable reputation, a home for low-income tenants and their no-income friends. When I get a call here, I go in with the doors locked, ready to check for money, which is kind of an awkward thing to do. But this guy’s holding some, and I unlock the doors.
He gets in, mid-thirties, weathered, smelling of vodka. The rigidity pickled out of his bones, a rumpled ten in his hands.
“Twenty-First and Gillam, I guess.”
“Time to quit drinkin’, I guess. Just gotta get someplace where I can rest.”
After a couple minutes he says, “You ever feel alone?”
“What you do?”
“I try and remember it doesn’t last forever. Like the good times, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess. . . . Hey I’ll pay you extra, can you turn this song up?” It’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Sure,” I say twisting the knob to the right until the bass is vibrating my solar plexus. “How’s that?”
“That’s good. Gotta like the Chili’s, huh?”
“Yeah.” I remember when the song came out. How cool it all was. Now hearing it on classic rock radio, I smile.
My passenger says, “Hey, can you just go around the block a little bit? I’ll pay
“Sure.” We’re both singing when we go around the corner. “When I find my peace of mind . . .”
“Hey, is it okay if I have a shot?”
“If no cops see you, then I don’t care.”
“Okay, all right.” He pulls a half-full fifth of Rich and Rare from deep within his coat and takes a long pull. A few minutes later we’re back in the parking lot, $8.60 on the meter. He hands me $10 and tells me to keep it. “Wanted Dead or Alive” comes on the radio. “Oh, man, I love this song. I lost my uncle listenin’ to this song.”
“Can you hang out till this song’s over?”
But I’ve already called Smurf, and he’s sending me to the Twenty-Third Laundry, where I pick up a large African American woman with dozens of thin and perfectly twined braids falling to the middle of her back. There are four children under the age of ten skating around her like water bugs on the ice. “Montrel, quit torturin’ your sister and get the rest of these kids in the car. And you better all have your seatbelts on by the time I get in there, or you will know my pain.” The kids become very serious and do as they are told. I get out and help her load mesh bags containing more than a hundred pounds of freshly laundered clothes. The warm clothes steam into the cold. I take them three blocks. The woman gives me $3 for the $2.20 meter, and I put the laundry by her door.
This brings me to $22, around 15 percent of my expenses, an hour into this. I call in and Smurf puts me one South. I tell myself to remain calm, go and park by the Dollar Store, try to flag. Listen to the radio. There are two City and three North. Ten minutes. Smurf sends a couple cars from the west into the University zone. He chews out a driver for stealing a trip that he had dispatched to a different driver. Says, “Listen to your radio, seventeen. If it happens again, you can gas it up and get it in here. You won’t get another trip outta me.” Fifteen minutes. Sometimes I feel like a shark, like if I quit moving for too long I’ll die. Eighteen minutes. Smurf sends a City car to the Westmark Hotel, sends me to 1227 Twenty-Third Avenue.
Excerpt from One Water, copyright © 2018 by Rob McCue
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