Maze thumps the steering wheel of his green dusty Ford Contour as we wait for a fare to come out of a duplex that looks like something they would condemn in New Orleans. His taxicab smells like the sweaty back of a fat older man who has been hoeing weeds in a field all day. I say something to Maze about it.
“Mexicans,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his veiny hand. “Stunk it up before the seats even started crackin. I’d not had it a month when I noticed there was a funk to it like a fella who’s not got enough sense to wash his own ass correctly.”
Typical Maze. Can’t own up to his own cheapness, his refusal to buy air freshener or even trouble himself with scrubbing out his own taxicab. Also the fact that most of the funk is off his own body. He was out all last night drinking and smoking weed. His one night off this week.
“Here he comes,” he whispers, turning up the music so he can talk on and not be heard by the Latino who is walking down the broken stone path to the door in back.
It took me nine months to decide on Maze. He was fourth on a list of cab drivers with felony records in Durham. There were only ten. Two were white. I selected Benjamin Mika “Maze” Mazcinkski because, A, he was under thirty, B, his offense was non-violent, and, C, he had an ex-wife who would answer the phone.
His being white was a factor because all of the city’s cab drivers on my list served minority neighborhoods. I wanted a different perspective from those they served. I wanted criticism, revulsion, fear, and perhaps a quiet union that might catch readers unaware. It was a dumb notion. It was my own perspective that I wanted validated.
It didn’t hurt that his ringback tone was an old Iron Maiden song that my dad used to listen to.
Quatro. His fare from the duplex is a stubby Honduran who goes by “Quatro.”
“I have three brothers,” Quatro says. “Tres.”
Maze squints into the rearview and gnaws on the end of a straw. (The more I get to know him, the more I think my story may include flecks of racism, the bigotry of white trash in a diluted South. I dunno. It’s a hard sell because it has been done already, so many times.)
“Long as you got twenty bucks,” Maze grumbles. “That’s the onliest number which matters to me, amigo.”
Quatro takes us to a Whole Foods near the Duke University campus. His wife works in the bakery. She is responsible for the icing, trellising layered wedding cakes like an artist, says Quatro – in his own way.
“Fondant,” Maze growls as we twist through the crowded parking lot – a leafy paved space filled with animated grad students and (highly animated) suburban housewives. “Fondant is cake art,” he repeats, smirking at me and into his side mirrors. “My ex makes wedding cakes. She used to watch the shows on TV about making cupcakes and shit.”
“Good right here,” Quatro says. He pulls an old flip phone from his hoodie pocket and texts his wife. She is trotting out of a sliding side exit in seconds, her hair in a ponytail and a flapping nametag that reads “Angel.”
“Huh,” Maze frowns as Quatro lets his wife in, smiles at her, pecks her on the cheek, and looks at me as if it is my job to tell the ornery cab driver to go. “All right then,” Maze grunts. “Andale it is.”
Maze turned twenty-one behind bars, on a prison farm in the woodsy Blue Ridge Mountains where he was serving three to five for peddling prescription painkillers to college students. He has the forearm and shoulder tattoos (like cartoons), lean biceps and knotty calves, as well as the palette of an ex-con: loves carbs and leafy greens, will eat liver and onions without complaining, and considers milk a luxury and buys it only in half-gallon cartons.
“I enjoy living,” he said during the screening interviews. “I don’t mind people so much. What I can’t stand is a bunch of goddamn whining and crying about how this guy’s never had a fair shot, or this guy’s been put down by whites all his life, or this bitch has got scars from her abortions and now she thinks she looks ugly in her bikini. Fucking hypocrites and lazy people – two things I don’t tolerate well.”
I tell Maze you don’t get scars from an abortion.
“In goddamned Chatham County you do,” he snaps, clicking his zippo shut and crackling the end of his Marlboro with a mighty inhalation of menthol smoke.
His uncle, a step-uncle who is an alcoholic and dying of blood cancer, owned two taxicab licenses. For years he and his wife, Aunt CeCe, drove like maniacs to make shitloads of drug and drinking money. They ferried thousands of fares from RDU to Raleigh and Durham, until Aunt CeCe smacked into the new concrete guardrail of I-540 and decapitated herself and the bass player for a once-famous psychedelic jazz band, flipping off the overpass and into four lanes of rush-hour traffic, onto the old beltline below.
Maze got the gig left behind by his aunt and with step-Uncle Harp on the verge of succumbing to ye olde Death himself, he’s been driving two cabs – one shift right after the other – as often as he can.
“City’s logs can only track one driver per cab,” he tells me over a coffee and toast breakfast downtown one overcast Monday morning, as we sit and wait for a business meeting to end in one of the old tobacco factories. “What can they do if they catch me?”
“They can take your cabs,” I say, “is what they can do, Maze.”
He insolently whispers shit and twiddles a crust of wheat toast with his fingers.
A humid spring Friday afternoon we pick up a pair of British girls from a hotel on the south side and head north, were a Duke frat party awaits. Their eyes are saturated with the narcotic stare you see in movies about people who are on the run, digging wads of cash out of paper bags, phoning friends and family to tell them they love them right before they get gunned down by cops.
“Big party?” Maze says, holding his arm bicep-up and rubbing absently at the tattoo that runs from wrist to elbow. The chicks act like they don’t hear him. He showed me a picture of his son (with a girlfriend he never married) before he got the call for these tarts. A cute little kid, kind of has a potato nose growing, but with bright eyes and blonde bangs that will slay the ladies one day.
Maze drinks from a Wild Irish Rose pint after we drop off the tarts. He is complaining about his chest, which is tight like never before. Nerves, he says. Life never gets easier, he says.
He listens to Dick Dale and the Del-Tones as the twilight drops down comfortably, a cool yellowy blue that is fragrant with dogwoods and cherry blossoms. I ask Maze if he has ever thought about leaving Durham, turning his life around, doing something different.
“Never,” he says as we idle down the block from the bus station, everybody who gets off either sloughing their way into waiting SUVs or waltzing exhaustedly into the glimmering lobby of the Greyhound station, calling out on their cells.
I ask him to tell me about prison. My story is about those who get out of prison and where they go and what they do. Maze shakes his head.
“Nothing to tell,” he says with the beginnings of a slur. “I went in. I got let out. Now here I am driving a cab.”
His son’s name is Rocky. He lives in Battleboro with his aunt (a meth-head who rides around on the back of a motorcycle with a guy called Bones X). The mother is in prison herself now.
“When was the last time you talked with her?” I ask Maze, who is cruising us under the dark oak canopy of one-way streets near the hospital. A guy is getting discharged now that his staph infection is under control. He shrugs.
“How about Rocky?”
He stiffens, uncomfortable.
“When is this story coming out?” he asks coolly. I tell him in the fall.
We park behind an ambulance with a heavyset older EMT leaning against the tailgate, drinking coffee from a paper cup.
“Let’s just leave it here,” he says. “I’ve said enough. You can talk to somebody else if you need more.”
The guy with the infected leg comes out on crutches, a black guy with a bad afro who is cussing behind him as the glass doors slide closed.
“Hand me my gun from under the seat,” Maze instructs, turning the radio up. Iron Maiden rumbles out of the speakers and as the guy gets in he hurls his crutches against the other door and curses something about it being time to get the hell out of Durham.
Causes Sean Jackson Supports
PFLAG, Amnesty International, AA, Catholic Social Services