This is a six part New Mandala series. Readers are warned that some of the content in this series is graphic and there is occasional coarse language. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 were published in recent weeks.
After Jason’s death I left the workshop and managed to get a proper engineering job as the production supervisor for an engineering company in the suburb of Bankstown in western Sydney.
The company built Cartesian Robots mainlyfor the palletizing operations of large-scale manufacturers in Australia. Here in Australia every item produced is packed in bulk and placed on wooden or plastic pallets to be transported from the factories to the warehouses and then to the supermarkets or the retail shops. Palletized goods are perfect for handling by forklifts.
The job was interesting but the pay of $30,ooo a year was not that good. That might be the reason I got the job. Aussie graduate engineers wouldn’t accept such low pay. And since I needed to save money for the substantial deposit for a house I started driving taxis around Sydney on the weekends.
One of the Lebanese servicemen back in the workshop also worked as a night cabbie and he showed me the way to get a cab authority from the New South Wales Ministry of Transport. I had to attend a taxi school and take a test for using the Sydney Street Directory and another driving test in a hired cab.
For an old jungle soldier like me reading the street directory of the large concrete jungle called Sydney was just too easy. I do not even need a compass and there was no need to interpret the contours and major landmarks are all over the place. And the cabbies earn raw hard cash every shift they work.
So within two years from landing on Sydney shores I managed to save a $10,000 deposit for a $120,000 house and got myself a three-bedroom, brick-veneer home in the affordable suburb of Campbelltown about 50 km south west of Sydney. Now the serious problem I had was with the heavy mortgage of over $100,000 from the NSW government sponsored Home Fund. Since we were recent migrants, we didn’t have a long history of regular savings. So all the banks refused to lend us and the Home Fund with its fixed interest rate of 17.5% and short loan term of only 13 years was the only option for us.
But the ballooning monthly interest payments of nearly $2,000 became a major pressure on me and I ended up driving cabs more just to pay the bills for our growing family. Driving more night shifts also meant I was taking more risks of physical danger as night taxi driving was the most dangerous job in Sydney back then. It probably still is. At least 5 Sydney cabbies are killed every year and the taxi drivers are the only profession in Australia with such an impressive record: 100% of them are the victims of crime. Most cabbies are also the migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds and many become the victims of vicious race-hate attacks.
I wasn’t that concerned about my safety as I had seen worse violence back home in the jungles of Burma but I still carried a sharpened and blackened carbine bayonet under my seat. Sometimes drunken men in my cab asked me if I was scared driving cabs at night, I replied to them that if they knew what I did back home they should be scared of me instead. Once I made a mistake of telling a priest, who’d been with the Karen refugees on the Thai border, I was an ex-soldier in the Burmese army and he asked me to stop the cab and got out. The violent reputation of the brutal Burmese army was well known even before the more recent Rambo movie.
I thought I was brave and quite scary until one night when I picked up a group of Lebanese thugs from Darling Harbour late one night.
It was a busy Saturday night. After dropping a fare at Pyrmont I hit the waterfront at Darling Harbour expecting many people from the harbour cruises waiting for cabs. I was right and as I was easing my white cab near the crowd a young Middle Eastern looking man ran up and opened the rear cab door.
“Keep going mate, we’re picking 3 more”.
So I went and picked up three more young men down the road. I wasn’t happy at all as in Sydney these guys are widely feared. Cabs don’t normally stop for them. According to the criminal profiling of attacks against cabbies in Sydney a group of three or more young men of Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander descent are the typical offenders.
Two jumped into the back and one got in beside me. There I saw the Glock in his belt as he was trying to ease himself into the seat. A shiver went up my spine but I tried to hide my fear. Like the gun-shy dogs from a war-ravaged Kachin village, a gun could trigger the deep-seated fear in a man well used to the dangerous power of a gun.
But he noticed it. But he ignored it with his tense face. “Long trip, mate, first to Belmore then Lakemba, then Punchbowl. I’m coming back to city too. Is it okay?” He asked and I said “yes” and headed for the Parramatta Road. The three behind me started speaking in Arabic or whatever their tongue was. The gunman beside me just sat there, silent.
“Where the fuck are you heading cabbie? Why are we on this fucking Parramatta Road? We should be on Canterbury”, the guy directly behind me busted out. “Are you going long way? We kill people ripping us off”. He even fisted the back of my seat.
I’m heading for Crystal Street just down there, then we’ll be on New Canterbury, I tried to calm him down. “Is he going the right way Michael?” He asked the guy at the front and Michael said, “he’s cool, just shut up Jamal”.
“Hey cabbie, you know we are from Hezbollah, are you scared now”, drunk Jamal wouldn’t shut up. “Hisbola, what’s that?”, I played dumb even though I knew of Hezbollah and the Lebanese civil war. “Shut up Jamal”, Michael yelled out loud and what Jamal did was a shock. He was angry for reason unknown but he took it out on me the innocent cabbie.
He wound down the window, yanked out the headrest of my seat and threw it out. He was big and strong and he did it so fast I didn’t noticed the headrest was gone. Only later I realised what just happened and I immediately knew I was in mortal danger now.
First I was thinking of pressing the alarm button under the dashboard by my right knee. The alarm is directly connected to the network control room via radio and once it is activated the operator will immediately called the nearest cops with the exact location of the cab. But with four Lebanese gunmen in my cab I hesitated to press the button remembering what happened to an old Aussie woman cabbie just a month or two before.
She was just sitting idle at the cab rank in a major suburb on the northern beaches when a visibly agitated man hopped in and sat directly behind her and told her to just drive as he would direct her turn by turn. She started the engine. Then she saw the man took a handgun out of his briefcase. A large police station was just a block away on the same road and she drove up there straight away and turned into and rammed the thick glass door of the police station.
The mad man fired a single round through her seat. The bullet went through the seat and her thin body and lodged in the steering wheel as the cops rushed out of their joint. Cops got the killer but she lost her life and that case taught the Sydney cabbies not to panic with a gunman in your cab. It could cost your life.
Now I had not one but four gunmen in my cab and I was not that eager to see a cop car with sirens screaming and lights flashing. If there were a gun battle I would be the very first one to get shot. Then the cool Michael started talking. Many of his Lebanese fellows drive cabs here in Sydney and he obviously knew exactly where the alarm button was.
But it seemed he really wanted to defuse the situation before it got totally out of control. He definitely had used his gun before but killing a cabbie for no reason was not his idea of doing a profitable business, I guessed.
“Did you see the gun”, he asked. I said “yes” and told him it was not a problem for me as back home I was in the army. “Where is home?” Burma. “Wow, you were in Burmese army, cool mate. Killed any one before”, he asked. I said “yes”. “How?” All sorts, shoot, stab, bash. “How many?” Too many, I don’t even remember. At the beginning I marked by notching my rifle-butt. It made a mess so I stopped counting. I exaggerated my body count.
Who were you fighting? The minority tribes. Why? They are Christians and we are Buddhist.
Believe it or not that conversation turned the dangerous situation around and I suddenly became their chum. Back at taxi school they taught us how to relate to difficult passengers. The idea is to find common ground between you and the passengers and the rapport will follow, I still remember. And now I’d just found the common ground between me and the Lebanese gunmen.
All three, including Jamal, at the back started yakking about their harrowing experiences back home in Beirut and how they slaughtered Christian Phalangists and Gemayel’s dogs and all that shit. I was really relieved. Michael too, I guessed. I could sense it in his now relaxed face. But then I felt bad for him being a Christian working with those bloodthirsty three as I noticed the small cross dangling from his neck.
We dropped Ahmed first at Belmore, then Ibrahim at Lakemba, and finally Jamal at Punchbowl, all former blue collar white suburbs now mostly populated by Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Before he got out now-sobered Jamal even apologised to me.
So I daringly asked. “You three are obviously Muslims and Mr. Michael here is a Christian. Aren’t you guys killing each other back home?” “Not here, we are united here, one Lebanese nation against Skips and Pigs. Michael here is our brain, we are his muscles”, Jamal answered, and Michael shushed him again.
I brought Michael back to the city and he got out at a famous nightclub in Potts Point next to Kings Cross. On our way back we even managed to find the spot where Jamal threw out the headrest and picked it up from the median strip. The fare was almost $80 but he gave me a $100 note and said “no change mate”.
I thought that was the last of him and his gang for me. There were more than 4,000 cabs and almost 50,000 cabbies in Sydney and to meet a same fare again was almost impossible, especially for a weekend driver like me. I was wrong as I got him again in my cab just a couple of months later.
That day I was driving what we called a Semi. Instead of a standard 12 hours, 3 to 3 shift I was doing 24 hours 3 am Sunday to 3 am Monday: the Monday was a public holiday and our factory was closed.
The time was about 7 in the morning and I was dropping a sobbing middle-aged mother at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst next to Kings Cross. Her teenage son had overdosed on heroin the night before at the Cross and he was now in St. Vincent’s Hospital.
As soon as she got out I saw a familiar face. It was Michael coming through the doorway. He swiftly got into my cab at the front. I greeted him by name, and he said “Oh, you again”. “You still remember me”, he said. “How can I forget you and your gang?”, I joked.
He needed to go home to Rose Bay to sleep but wanted to stop at a night club on Oxford Street. He said bloody Jamal got stabbed last night atKing’s Cross and was fucking dying in the hospital and he needed to find the other two and was hoping they were at the club. He had no gun on him though. What he had on him shocked me later.
I drove him to the seedy club on Oxford Street and stopped right in front. Unlike others in that gay area that gay club opened till the middle of Sunday and still there was a line of gays and dykes trying to get in. Michael got out but he leaned back in again and pulled out a fat roll of green one hundred dollar notes from his jacket inside pocket and dropped it casually into the cup holders just behind the gear shifter.
About two inches thick, I figured the fat roll of cash must be nearly $50,000 by the look of it. “Don’t go away, keep your eyes on the dough, I’ll be back in a sec”, he instructed and then turned around and walked past the door bitch and two giant Islander bouncers as if he knew them well and disappeared behind the black silk curtains.
I locked the doors, sat back, and tried to watch the pedestrian traffic on the kerb but I couldn’t as the fat roll of green cash beside was distracting me. I had never seen so much money so close in my life and I could not believe that this guy trusted me with his money. Maybe this wasn’t too much money for him. If I had this much money now I could pay off most of the debt on my little house and I wouldn’t need to work this hard no more. I daydreamed and then suddenly the shit hit the fan.
A bus load of blue overall clad cops just appeared out of nowhere and most rushed into the club and some started clearing the club entrance. A major police raid on the notorious joint was in progress with sniffer dogs and the drug squad, and all sorts of other cops. A large copper came over and banged my window. “Move on cabbie, move on”, he ordered. “I’m waiting for a passenger, he hasn’t paid me fare yet”, I answered. “I don’t care, police operation in progress, move on or I will book you”. He threatened me with ticket and I had no choice but to drive off.
I was in the shit now and I didn’t know what to do. I drove around the block and came back but the cops were still there and I had to go round again. Maybe I should just go home and disappear with the cash; a thought came into my mind. Nope he would find me and kill me. No way he could, if I stop driving cabs. The bad thought kept on coming back but I decided I just had to find him and return his cash.
Finally after more than two hours and on my 6th or 7th time round I saw Michael standing on the kerb not far from the club waiting for me. I pulled over and unlocked the door. He hopped in and immediately said, “where the fuck you been, I’ve been waiting for hours”. Jesus, I’ve been driving around with your fucking roll of cash for the whole bloody day. He took the roll back though.
He then laughed and said, “you’ve saved my life mate, if the pigs caught me with this roll in the club I’ll do five years in big house. They frisked me like hell inside, fuckwits. The dirty German Shepherds sniffing me all over, fucking dogs”.
I had to drive him to his flat in Rose Bay. I’ve never seen that much money before, on the way I tried to start a conversation as I was curious. “All from drugs mate, you know heroin, come from your country, Golden Triangle”. He was so open I was surprised. How did you get it here? “Easy we get it from Singapore”. Do you have to go get heroin from Singapore? “Not really, I have mules, sexy blonde variety”. He was quite talkative for some reason.
“I have connections there and my girls take the money there and bring back bricks of pure heroin. Double UOGlobe brand 100% pure heroin from the Golden Triangle of Burma, so pure the junkies here die if they inject it uncut”.
He was quite open and friendly, so I told him about what I saw back home in the army and how easy it was to buy that brand of pure shit in our neighbourhood. He seemed very interested. “If I have a direct connection in Burma I will make more money, fucking Chinese are asking more and more for their shit”, he remarked.
He directed me to an expensive-looking water front apartment block and got out after giving me 5 notes from his $100 roll. He then leaned back in and said that “we could do business mate, if you’re interested”. Not really, I don’t do illegal things. My answer really upset him. He got back in and gave me a long lecture about why his criminal acts were justified.
“Do you drive a cab all the time?” Not really. I have a day job. “So you work weekdays and weekends”. Sort of. “Why, heavy mortgage and young family?” Yes. “What’s the interest rate? “17.5%. “Fucking Jesus and Mary!”
“You see that’s what’s so wrong with you people. You work your arse off so that you can pay high interest to the banks hoping you will one day own that little house of your in some shitty western suburb. My dad did it too. My uncles did it too. You all do. There is a name for people like you in the bad old days. A slave, a serf, chained to the landlord, or to a bank nowadays.
Houses are so expensive because of fucking banks and the fucking government. Do you know why? Dearer the houses people like you have to borrow more and pay more interest and banks make more shit load of money. And the fucking government keeps on raising interest rates. They will squeeze you dry and force you to work 24 hours a day 7 days a week for most of your fucking adult life for that fucking little house.
I borrow no money from no fucking banks. I run my own life. Laws are made by the governments for the banks and the rich to keep us as slaves. Not for me. I am free and I am strong. No society will tell me what I can and what I can’t do. I do what I want. Especially not this fucking Anglo society!”
How about all the overdoses and broken families and the miserable lives because of your heroin?
“Fuck them. They are weak and in this concrete jungle the strong survive and the weaklings get eaten. The law of the jungle. That’s the only law I obey. The survival of the strongest.
Okay, I don’t want to keep you any longer. If you’re not interested that’s fine. But if you are, here is the card for my bar. Just call me or visit me one day if you change your mind. I could use someone like you.”
He chucked his card onto the dashboard, got out and disappeared behind the steel gate. The card basically advertised a seedy bar on the Kellet Lane in King’s Cross. His talk made me think of what was happening in my life here in Sydney though. I was then truly sick of working two jobs, day and night, and seriously thinking of looking for a job with higher pay.
But for better or worse a couple of months later a large engineering company bought our company out and changed my life forever.