Endless Summer by Mac Cushing
I’M THIRTY-ONE, still have most of my looks, and the summer is endless.
I start my routine around 4 pm. First, I lay my uniform out on my bed, feed my dog, and then slip into the shower while she eats. Then I shave, put in my contacts, and brush my teeth. Brushing my teeth has become a big thing since my insurance lapsed; I have to take special care not to get a cavity because there’s no way I can afford a visit. So I floss, brush, rinse once with mouthwash and then again with fluoride. Then I put on music, sit on my bed and put my uniform on: black skinny jeans that I’ve cut down into shorts, a bright yellow shirt showing the company logo, also cut down, and a tiger print bandana tied loose around my neck.
It’s been a hot summer out this year, and probably wont get below eighty tonight. That’s not terrible, but the humidity has been sitting around 75% for over a month now, and that’s what gets you. I fill up two single liter bottles and I throw a few granola bars in a plastic grocery bag. I entertain the idea of riding my bike in to work today, and like every other day, I think better of it. I’ll be ruined by the time I finish my shift, and saving the six-mile commute worth of gas in my truck isn’t worth it yet. Maybe next week.
I check my gig bag. It’s a faded black canvas Klein tool bag from when I thought I had a career. I go through it carefully, making sure I have all my gear accounted for before I head out: taxi license, spare AA batteries, business cards with my cell phone number Sharpied on the back, and a fold of twenty dollars in fives and ones I’ll use as change or dinner. Finally, I take one last look in the mirror, check that the moneymaker is looking decent, and then I’m off.
When I get to the warehouse, the boss and one of the riders, Chad, are already there. I don’t remember the boss’ name, and I don’t want to. He’s younger than me, mid-twenties, has a scrunched face that reminds me of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and is really into the Tea Party. He keeps trying to motivate us by encouraging “competition, entrepreneurship, and the spirit of capitalism” but he comes off as a less cognizant version of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, although I’m pretty sure he’s never heard of Glengarry Glen Ross. Chad gives me a wave and asks how my ride was last night.
“Shit. I cleared maybe a hundred and twenty,” I reply.
“I don’t want to hear your bullshit. We had two riders make two-fifty last night!” the boss sneers as he walks into his office. Bullshit is right. Everyone was hurting last night, there’s no way anyone made that much.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I call after him. He walks back out of his office smiling.
“Yeah. You better up your game.” And then he’s back in his office. I look back at Chad, who just shrugs.
The warehouse is an old body shop, and half of it still houses cars. The other half houses a fleet of about twenty pedalcabs. Rickshaws. I look around them to see if any of the good ones are available, and they are. No one really comes in until six, and I’m an hour early. I grab number twenty because it has a good pedal assist motor and actual front gears, making it a legit twelve-speed. The other ones have one gear in front and five in back, which is fine, but you have to rely on the motor more often. The more you rely on the motor, the less it looks like you’re struggling; the less you look like you’re struggling, the less your rides will pay you.
I grab a fresh battery off the charger, pack my water and food under the seat of the rickshaw, and grab a flashlight and radio from another bench.
“How’d you end up last night?” I ask. Chad smiles at me. “A lady paid to take me out to dinner at The Farmhouse.”
“What? You mean-“
“No, during the ride. She gets in, has me take her to The Farmhouse, buys me dinner, and then gives me forty bucks to take her back to her hotel. I tried telling her I didn’t need any money, since she had just dropped a hundred bucks on my meal but she was adamant.” I shake my head, disbelieving. “How was it?”
“Oh it was fucking fantastic.” He laughs. “I had the ribeye.”
I think about that as I mount up and pedal out towards Lower Broadway. Foot traffic is starting to surge for the first rush of the evening. The older, more traditional crowd will be heading back to their motels, either day drunk or exhausted by the walking tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and other family friendly fare. The real money is just starting to wake up though. In the next two hours, they’ll be going to dinner, and they’ll want a ride. And if you play your cards right, they’ll want a ride after dinner. And after that. At this point in the night, anything’s possible.
Rickshawing isn’t incredibly weird or edgy outright. There’s nothing happening around Lower Broadway that really compares to Los Angeles, New York, or any truly overcrowded place, where there’s this overwhelming sense of extreme. Those are the big leagues; the places where doing wild and depraved things are surrogate for cutting yourself just to feel alive. There, because of the clamor and din of life in such a suffocating, crowded and impersonal place, it feels necessary in order to maintain one’s humanity. To rebel against the tide of flesh that threatens to drown you at any moment.
What makes the microcosm of Nashville unique is the same thing that makes New Orleans unique- something that also bridges the gap with Vegas if we’re going to be honest. These are the playgrounds for red-staters. A place where all the moral and political convictions deeply held by the good people of America’s heartland can be shed for a period of revelry and wanton lust.
In comparison to LA or New York, the vices these people chase are vanilla. Once in a while someone in a suit will flag you down to baldly ask for coke, but for the most part, these people want to drink in the shadow of the Ryman Auditorium. They want to go to strip clubs. They want to sing karaoke.
Karaoke has become a competitive sport, with hopefuls arriving daily with the dream of being discovered while doing renditions of Gretchen Wilson and Kenny Chesney. These pilgrims journey to the Mecca of George Strait and Florida Georgia Line to wander up and down three blocks of carefully constructed facades selling them the same ideas as the diluted country music that siren sang them here in the first place. The dichotomy of it all. They are encouraged to raise hell, to close the bar, to take care of business if someone gives them shit. But at the same time, they are pious, chivalrous, holding their God and their woman on a pedestal as though that makes up for the carousing they place ahead of those otherwise dignified baubles.
They arrive to the party with an unrealistic expectation of what the party is, and how they should preform at it.
But when they reach the neon playground of Broadway, nothing else matters. On Broadway, everyone is a big shot, a big spender, the reason for the party, not just an attendee to. They show petulant disregard for anyone but themselves as they barrel through bar crawls and pedal tavern tours. Drunk on Coors Light and the idea that their simple act of existing deserves not only attention, but also celebration and adoration. If partying on Lower Broadway were an award, it would be a “Participant” ribbon.
This mentality works out great for the Rickshaw business, and Nashville in general. There’s something in that mentality that pairs well with revisionist antebellum ideals that include sitting feet away from someone who is physically toiling on your dime. This is the second year in a row we’ve beaten Las Vegas as the country’s number one Bachelorette destination.
The night progresses and there are advances, but none miraculous. Three of us are parked on the corner of 4th and Broadway, waiting for fares and making small talk. There’s Rick, a musician who pedals on the side, and Jill, who’s fully down the rabbit hole. I chew on a granola bar, eyes scanning the crowd, seeing if anyone will make eye contact. If they make eye contact, you can engage, you can get in. Minutes pass and no one bites, so I ask Jill how bad it is to be a woman doing this.
“It gets gross sometimes,” she volunteers. “The comments are going to happen. That’s just how this industry is. If a guy says something really foul I’ll tell him to get off, but if you ignore most of it they’ll pay you more.”
“What kind of stuff do they ask you?” I push.
“Well, asking if I’ll do stuff for money,” she starts, rolling her eyes over the lack of creativity. “And I don’t go for that.” She pauses. “Actually, there was one time it was really hard to say no. I had five thousand dollars in my hand. The guy wanted me to come up to his room, and he promised me we didn’t have to do anything.” The barest hint of a smile begins to grow, “He said he just wanted someone to watch The Lion King with.”
Rick speaks up after Jill. He talks about a fare that got in his cab and a block towards the hotel offers him a hundred bucks to go up to his room.
“Sorry, I’m not into that,” Richard says to the guy, adding to me later that if he were to do that, it would have to be for more than he would make in a single night. After the refusal, Rick says the guy gets quiet, and after two more blocks just hops off and runs into the night.
It’s no secret that women do better than men in this. The idea of a pedal cab is a decent novelty, but if you’re drunk and want to go home, there’s a fleet of Ubers, Lyfts, and actual taxis to take you further, faster, and with rain and cold protection. What keeps us in business is the novelty. There are people who like the idea of a leisurely tour of Broadway or a nice ride to their hotel under the stars. But when it’s only a few minutes from midnight and the party is just getting started, everything seems to be on the table. The girls riding know this, and some hedge their bets for tips with wardrobe choices. It’s nothing any more scandalous than yoga pants, but in that game, a tip of two hundred dollars or more becomes inevitability. I do the same thing with the shorts I wear, but I know I’ll probably never break over a hundred in a single tip for showing my gams. That’s just how this industry goes. A trio of women gets in the back of my cab.
“Ready to go for a ride?” I ask, and they cheer as I start down the street.
“Oh look at his legs!” one of the ladies exclaims. As we get further along, they quiet down, their conversation muffled, conspiratorial. I pretend like I can’t hear them.
“Oh, no. No. Don’t!” one of them breathlessly giggles. A hand grabs hold of my ass. It’s there, squeezes, and then pulls away. The trio erupts in shrieks of laughter.
“Oh my god!” one cries out. “Oh my! I’m sorry! I couldn’t help it!” another says. I think of all the times in my other life I made points about sexual harassment, gender equality, and all manner of progressive policy.
“You paid for the ride, might as well get your money’s worth.”
When they get out, they tip me five dollars each. The one who grabbed me, who could easily be my mother, hands me her business card.
“You’re cute. Give me a call when you get off. I run my own office in Lincoln.” I look down at the card. She’s a realtor from Nebraska.
I hit another fare in ten minutes. The woman gets in, but doesn’t bite when I try to make small talk. Engaging the fares, at least for me, is the real angle to making money. You lowball by about two or three dollars to get them in the cab, and then try to talk them up into a six or seven-dollar tip. Make it a really personal experience. If it’s a couple, recommend restaurants. If it’s a guy, throw out a few juicy anecdotes about the strip. If it’s a lady, local history and a few flirty questions about them. Quote something like 16 bucks, and that way they’ll give you a twenty because it’s less bills to deal with. Chip away with rides like that and you’ve got a few hundred bucks before last call.
But two questions in and I know I’m not getting anything out of her. I lean into the ride and try to get it over as quickly as possible. From behind me, the sound of a cell phone camera taking a picture clicks. Then another. They could be selfies, but then the flash goes off and there’s no mistaking it. I continue riding, and she continues taking pictures of me. It’s objectification in its truest sense; I might as well be part of the landscape. The last lingering threat of my former life gnaws at the back of my neck. You could have at least turned the sound off. But it’s not personal. The services we offer here are myriad. When she gets off, there is no tip.
A half hour later, I stop in at a bar in Printer’s Alley. It’s become my home base while on shift because the barmaid gives me water when I need it and when the heat really gets bad in July she lets me stay in the dingy basement watering hole, soaking in the air conditioning like a cold bath.
Our conversation punctuates the silence inside the already empty bar. I tell her I used to work in film, and she tells me she’s a photographer wanting to break into video. I tell her I could try to find her some work if she wants.
“You haven’t seen any of my photography, why would you hire me?” she asks.
“I’ve seen enough, and I don’t know enough still photogs to call if I get a job needing that.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know me and you’re going to give me work, I could be a serial killer. Why are you doing this?” She sounds more agitated that she looks.
“Cause you’ve been good to me since I started riding. You dance with the ones who brought ya.” I smile at her, but she doesn’t get the metaphor. She looks at me for a moment, processing.
“Yeah, but I could be a serial killer.” She walks to the end of the bar and puts some glasses away. I sit in silence and drink my beer, watching a soccer game that’s muted on the tv behind the bar. She walks back, eyes narrowed. “I guess my real question is: would you call me even if it wasn’t for work?” I blink, hard.
“I mean you could call me too, my number’s right there.”
“Yeah, but will you call me?”
“Yeah. You want to get a drink?” Her shoulders slump. I give her a minute to realize I’m not asking for another, but inviting her out later. Her eyes brighten.
I smile at her again. “I’m free Saturday.” This time she smiles back.
“How about you call me.” I won’t though. I’m just a tourist. If I start fucking the locals, I may never come back. I don’t shit where I sleep.
Before the night is over, one of the other riders flips his bike and is fired. The boss’ grin is a grotesque mask as he reminds us how fast he’ll throw us away if we break his rules. The ousted, injured rider hooks his disabled cab to another and gets in the back, still dazed from the crash, and we watch them disappear into the night. No one says anything, but we’re all thinking it: two less riders out, more money for us. The boss gives us one last grimace.
“I don’t think I have to remind you, don’t be a dumbass on my bikes.” He gets on his road bike, and soon he too is gone. Rick spits on the ground after him.
“Fuck you too, Trevor.”
It’s late, almost time to call it. If this were Friday or Saturday, there would be more people out, but it’s not and I’m scraping the barrel. I cross the Demonbreun Street Bridge and head towards Broadway. I’m hunting at this point, anticipating the ebb and flow of the human tide through instinct. My tires are the only sound on the street. A street usually clogged with traffic. I see myself in the reflection of a window, and then I’m gone. I dimly think that’s for the best. Not to look at what I’ve become. To realize how the more you do it, the more you want to do it. When you’re not pedaling you’re sleeping and eating and fucking and doing other jobs, but while you think that is your real life, this growing worm of obsession festers inside you, and you can’t wait to get back out and stalk the night, to make rate, to earn points. It slithers and grows and feeds on you, turning you into something different, a debased, scuttling thing feeding on the periphery of a neon oasis.
You start playing bro country on your rig to attract customers, and then you can’t get into your groove unless you have it. You add lights, and flair and anything you think will lure one of them out of the herd. I never go out unless I’m wearing my tiger bandana. You smile and flirt and talk and pedal and promise you can give them what they want, and they always want a party. I’m thirty-one, still have most of my looks, and the summer is endless. I yell over to a group of women, asking if they want a ride; my voice is innocuous but my eyes are predatory and wild. I’m thirty-one, still have most of my looks, and the summer is endless. It’s primal, and feral, and eating everything that once defined me. I’m thirty-one, still have most of my looks, and the summer is endless. I used to have a career, but then I found pedal cabbing.
I’m thirty-one, still have most of my looks, and the summer is endless.
Catch more tall tales in SN8: Nightmoon – available on Amazon!