Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fiction, Sort Of

Lin took a drag on his cigarette as he watched the American exit the main terminal. Even from 30 meters away he could tell he was an American; he might as well have planted a flag on the top of his head. The clothing, the walk. The girth was usually a dead give-away, but this one didn’t have the usual gut hanging over his belt. Maybe he was on that low-carb diet that was the rage in America.

Lin quickly put out his cigarette. Some Americans were rabid anti-smokers, so he didn’t allow his American fares see him smoke, and he definitely never lit up in the car, no matter whom he was driving.

The American got close enough for Lin to see the jet lag hanging on him like a physical weight. From the looks of him he was in his early 30s. He didn’t have the gray hair and entourage of an executive, nor the tennis shoes and awkwardness of an engineer. This was clue number one.

“May I take your bag, sir?” Lin asked in slightly accented English. The American gave him his suitcase but kept a death grip on his computer bag. Like it wouldn’t be safe in the trunk? Typical. Lin opened the back door and allowed his charge to get inside. He started the large Mercedes engine and sped away from the airport.

“Did you have a nice flight?” The Americans were sometimes chatty. The Japanese on the other hand, would never stoop to talk to a driver. Especially a Taiwanese one.

“Yes, thank-you,” was the reply from the back seat.

“Is this your first time to Taiwan?” He also found that engaging an American in conversation usually ended up in a tip, even though tipping wasn’t practiced on this side of the world.

“Oh, no. I have been here many, many times.” A veteran. No tip from this fare. And another clue. Lin merged onto the freeway for the 45 minute drive to the hotel and turned on some quiet music. From his mirror he could see the American looking out the window. This one wasn’t sleeping, so he might as well talk some more.

“Will you be in the country long?”

“Through Saturday.” This was clue number three.

“If you have some free time, the building next door to your hotel is currently the tallest building in the world. They have an observation deck that has a great view.”

“Really? That will definitely be something to do when I have time to kill.”

When Lin asked his father-in-law to borrow money to buy the big black Mercedes, he at first got ridiculed. “What makes you think you can make money driving gweilos around? Are you such a good driver?”

“What I am is a good study of people. That is why I will be successful.” He also spoke pretty good English, a pathway to success on this island, but he wasn’t going to bring that one up. His father-in-law was a little old fashioned and still pissed off about being chased off the Mainland. In the end, though, he loaned him the money.

So he learned how to spot his fares, how to treat them, what to say, what pitfalls to avoid. The Americans were the most obvious to spot, the easiest to ply. The Europeans were fewer in number, but easy to identify in their non-matching clothing and vaguely effeminate mannerisms. The Japanese? They acted as if they still owned the island.

He spent the next half hour chatting with the American, making him feel comfortable. Once he was getting close to the hotel, he started his up-sale that would also yield the final clue: “Will you be needing a driver during your stay?”

“Actually, I will need one tomorrow and probably later in the week. You available?”

The American didn’t ask the price, allowing Lin to put together the complete picture: an American salesman on an expense account, the best fares to have. “Yes, sir. I’ll give you my card and make arrangements with the hotel concierge when we arrive. For your convenience, the charge can be added to your hotel bill.” What Lin didn’t mention is that the charge was at a much higher rate than what the American could get by finding a driver on his own. And the American wouldn’t care.


And all it took was a few innocuous questions and observations to make tomorrow’s revenue double what he usually made. His father-in-law had no clue.

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