I was recently ranked up at the Tower of London, one of the most famous sights within the City.
Dating back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest, the Tower is one of those locations in London that is saturated in history. As such, it is a main draw for tourists and, because of this, the Tower of London cab rank is one of my favorites. The customers are nearly always visitors from abroad, and they often want to go onto another London attraction.
For example, a wonderful customer I once picked up here was an ambassador at the Indian High Commission, who had invited some of his family over from New Delhi. Being his day off, he was taking the time to show the group around London, and he was quick to point out and celebrate the merits of London's famous Black Taxis!
One of the most joyful aspects of the job is meeting tourists; having a friendly chat with them, giving them mini-tours and learning about the history and culture from the places they themselves are from.
The Tower of London cab rank is often full to capacity and, as such, you can sometimes find yourself waiting there for quite a while. Cabbies take this time to pop to the cafe opposite the rank, nip to the nearby toilet, and to climb out of the driving seat for a chat and a much needed leg-stretch. You also have to look smart when ranked at the Tower of London- you're always guaranteed to end up in a couple of visitor's snapshots!
Well, the other day I finally found myself at the front of the queue. As I anticipated the next job, a group of three came towards me, appearing to be an elderly couple and their middle aged daughter. As they approached, the elderly gentleman, who was dressed in a long, beige coat and hat of the same colour, gave a slight wave of the hand, indicating that he wanted to hire me.
My windows were down, but they walked straight past without greeting me, or stopping to tell me where they wished to go. When parked up on a rank with the engine off, I prefer it when people tell me their destination before they get in, but I'm not offended if they choose not to.
The doors clicked as I released the lock, and the group climbed in, huffing and puffing. Once they were seated, I said "hello" to them, but received no response. The two women sat on the main, rear seat, whilst the husband/father sat on the flip down seat situated behind me. Here they perched, quietly muttering amongst themselves. There were cabs waiting behind me, so I thought it was about time I took the initiative.
"Hello" I repeated, "where would you like to go today, folks?"
The beige-coated gentleman peered at me through the perspex divide, his heavy breath rasping through the intercom.
"We want the, ahh.... the Noon Inn" (*Please note, I've made this hotel up; I never use real names!)
It was a chain hotel, with many locations in London.
"Which Noon Inn is it, Sir?"
The gentleman looked slightly flustered, with the 'I thought London Cabbies knew every location" look crinkled on his face.
"Well, it's the.. ahh..."
"Waterloo" piped up his wife; "the Noon Inn, Waterloo."
The gentleman paused, turned to his wife and, with rather blatant fury, barked:
"WIlL YOU SHUT UP?!"
So loud was the fellow's outburst, that it made the intercom speakers rattle, and a smothering atmosphere suddenly dropped over the cab like a shroud.
"The Noon Inn, Waterloo" the gentleman growled, repeating his wife's words.
Doing my best to combat the "you could cut the air with a knife" sentiment, I smiled and said that I knew that particular hotel, and it was no problem.
After a few minutes, the group were once again quietly talking amongst each other. Nor the wife or daughter had mentioned their husband's/father's outburst; their decision to gloss over it suggesting that it was something they were accustomed to. In a fruitless attempt to clear the air further, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and asked whereabouts they were from. Upon doing so, the wife frowned.
"What'd he ask?"
"He asked where we were from."
"What's he wanna' know that for?"
"Texas" replied the daughter, who seemed a little more tranquil.
(Before I go on, I must insist that Americans are often some of the loveliest people I meet in my job. Nearly 100% of the time, they are decent, cheerful, extremely friendly people with a passion for London which I find infectious. The group whom I describe here stuck in my mind because they were grumpy Americans.... an extremely rare thing indeed!)
My Grandfather is actually American, linked to the UK thanks to his long career spent in the United States Airforce. I often mention this fact when meeting friends from the States.
"Texas? Fantastic... My Grandpa's American too- he's from Vermont."
The group look unimpressed.
No further comment.
The group continue to chat amongst themselves, and I hear whispered gripes about my failure to immediately recognise the location of their chain hotel (which sports some 40 locations London-wide).
"D'ya remember that taxi-cab we took that time in New York?" asks the wife.
"Yeah... yeah, I do" responds the husband in his gruff tone. "You went to give the guy a tip... and I took it out of your hand."
The daughter's eyes slip back and forth as she listens to her parents' thrifty tale.
"That's right; you did... we used that money to go to a movie-theatre. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we saw, wasn't it?"
"Did you have enough money for popcorn too?" asks the daughter. Her query is a serious, non-ironic one.
Sadly, her parents cannot remember whether or not they had enough change to purchase a sweet, maize snack.
After a fairly brief journey, we arrive at the requested hotel without any problems. Despite the hostile nature of my passengers, I decide to remain polite and gentlemanly. After applying the handbrake, I quickly get out of the cab and open the passenger door. The women climb out and walk towards the hotel lobby; a process which they manage to complete without looking at me.
I sit back in the driver's seat and pick up my change float. The husband pays me and I hand the remaining coins over. As he clutches them and counts them in his palm, he turns his beige-coated back to me and shuffles away without a further word.
I put the cab in gear and spin the steering wheel, hoping that my next passengers will be a little more civil!