Sunday 28 November 2010

"Gordon, Don't Be Such A Dickhead" (Taxi Survey)

Yet again, the Taxi Survey rolleth around. This time around, happily, I was not involved in organising it.

I say happily because, whilst responsibility gives me a strange feeling of being worthwhile, it is also a large source of stress. Having forty-odd (not forty odd – well, hopefully not…) people standing out in the cold on the busy streets of Newcastle at night counting taxis inevitably has health and safety considerations (not least where on earth you go to pee).

The Taxi Survey, for the uninitiated, is a survey run by many local authorities in varying forms. The intention is to measure the supply and demand of “black cab” taxis in the city at the busiest times of a typical week. (NB this are the “hackney carriage” types of taxi which are allowed to pick up on the street, not private hire cabs, which can’t.)

You do this by having people with clipboards stand out on the street at the city centre’s taxi ranks between 10.30pm to 4am on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and count both the taxis and the people waiting for them, and how long both groups wait. Data geeks (like me) then feed this data into the computer to measure the supply and demand. To get the data, however, there’s no getting away from standing on the street, counting the taxis.

In previous years, I have been in the “Roving Car” which travels between the different taxi ranks to check that everyone is alright, has enough forms, knows what they’re doing, decides when the rank is so quiet that people can go home, etc. This is a fairly hefty responsibility, since you’re on call to sort out any problems both on the night and for the entire afternoon and evening before it, when you have to sort out replacements for people who drop out with flu / arthritis / sick dogs. Fortunately, I had my driver and wingman, Bob, for company. We got along very well, circling the city like a municipal version of Starsky and Hutch, occasionally pausing in a late-night cafĂ© to drink bad coffee and discuss the meaing of life, the Glastonbury Festival, and Bob’s tattoos.

This year, running the survey has passed from my team to the other research team, so I was a grunt this year, just standing out on the street counting the taxis. Or sitting in my (work) partner P’s very large SUV, watching from there. P turned out to be a fellow scuba diver, so we had much to talk about as we sat on the side of the Haymarket Bus Station, watching the scanty supply of taxis hang around in the vain hope of a fare.

P told me an amusing story, as we watched the drunks stagger about. He was not a big drinker, and this apparently dated back to a time when, as a young man, he had been out drinking with his friends in the town, and been found by the police wandering down Grainger Street wearing a traffic cone on his head and singing “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”. The policeman who found him took him to the station, put him in a cell with a bucket and some water, and left the door unlocked. The following morning, he came back in and said: “Right, consider that your warning. Do that again and the door will be locked and you’ll be up in front of the beak the next morning”.

P heeded this advice and did not get heavily drunk again. Later on in life, he became a fireman. Those of you who know the layout of Newcastle’s city centre will know that the old fire station and police station are next to each other on Pilgrim Street. P was based at Pilgrim Street, and they once received a call from the police station over the road. A female arrestee had smuggled some cigarettes and matches into her cell (I’ll leave it to your imaginations how, gentle readers) and either accidentally or deliberately set fire to her mattress.

Apparently it was the shortest response time in the station’s history, as they simply ran the hose from one building to the other to put the fire out. P did get some funny looks, though, as he looked around at the fire and reminsced “Ah yes, this used to be my cell….”

Since Prudhoe Place taxi rank closes at 12.30, we were redeployed each night to go and relieve people who had been standing on their feet in the cold for several hours. This meant, of course, that we were standing in the cold instead. Fortunately, I normally dress for the Taxi Survey as if I'm about to climb Ben Nevis in the middle of winter. Thickly armoured against the cold (including the hiking boots which I originally bought four years ago for the second time I did the Taxi Survey - I've been living in Newcastle longer than I think), we stood out on Collingwood Street and in the bus stop near the Gate, watching the drunks stagger about and listening to the busker stood near the Gate taxi rank.

Some of our fellow counters weren't fans of the busker, but I rather admired her. It takes a certain stamina to stand out on the street from 11pm-3am singing Katy Perry and Bruno Mars songs without a break (I did at one point wonder if she was wearing an adult nappy), not to mention a high tolerance for singing drunks joining in on the chorus.

Collingwood Street was somewhat calmer, and certainly had fewer people in fancy dress, but it did seem to have a higher proportion of the very heavily drunk. I'm probably getting boring and old, but I really don't quite understand how people can get themselves so drunk they actually fall asleep in doorways in Newcastle in the rain. Anything could happen to them, from muggers to people wanting to play human Buckaroo. Though I did at one point see a man lying there for 15 minutes joined by two other men, who had apparently never seen him before, who woke him, propped him up, and spent half an hour persuading him to get a taxi home, which I thought very noble of them since they weren't wearing coats and it was chucking it down. Apparently humanity is not completely dead in Newcastle.

As for the title of this post, it comes from our observations on the Bigg Market last Thursday. Being sat in a parked car pretty much makes you invisible. I hummed the opening lines of “National Express” by the Divine Comedy, as we watched the young lads and lasses carrying on. One young woman yelled loudly to a nearby male “I don’t know if I know you or not!”. Shortly afterwards, the two of them knew each other much better, at least well enough for him to spend time checking if her bum was where he expected it to be. Another young woman and her partner engaged in a lengthy argument about who was going home with home, resulting in her uttering the quote which begins this post.

Funnily enough, it didn’t put me off drinking.

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