Steamboat Springs It was Friday night, the last weekend of ski season and Steamboat was turning off one fuse box switch at a time.
I was in the front seat of an Alpine Taxi van watching driver Stephen Baldridge clench and unclench his jaw. The white from the streetlights rolled across his face as the road pulled past.
From my seat, Baldridge cuts an intense figure with his shaved head and quiet, focused demeanor. He is the Kwai Chang Caine/David Carradine kung fu philosopher.
He never speaks out of turn. He chooses his words carefully. He listens.
"I have a lot of stories from driving night taxi," he says, "but I try to throw most of them out the window at the end of a shift."
Taxi drivers and bartenders are the all-seeing guards of the late night. There is a lot for them to forget.
We pull up to the door of a restaurant where a group of fleece-vest-and-dress-shoe conference attendees are waiting for a ride back to their hotel.
One guy leans his head into the front seat. He smells like aftershave and Red Bull. "You must be busy, we've been waiting for 45 minutes."
Baldridge just nods.
Twelve calls have come into the taxi dispatch office all at once. Managers were called in off their couches to drive.
The riders start making fun of the music in the CD player. Then they make fun of the people they met at the conference.
Then they make fun of the ski industry and ski clubs and turtlenecks.
"We're a little cynical if you can't tell," the Red Bull guy says.
"That's OK. I am, too," Baldridge says.
The radio cracks on. There is a four pack, a six pack and a ten pack waiting to be picked up downtown, dispatch says.
"Copy." Baldridge quickly explains his 20 and his 89 over the radio as we drop off the conference peeps. I can hear them making fun of each other in the doorway of the hotel as Baldridge turns the van toward downtown.
He passes another taxi and gives them a quick index and pinky finger steering wheel wave.
Note: I firmly believe that the key to any driving job, to any well-rounded life in fact, is the development of a good road wave.
Personally, I use the three-fingers-on-top-of-the-steering-wheel wave.
I ask to see Baldridge's wave again. He steers with his wrist as he waves.
"That's original," I say.
He gets a call for a one pack. "A live one," dispatch says.
A girl needs a ride home, but she's too drunk to tell the bartender where she lives.
"I get a lot of these," he says. "I just have to learn how to interact with them at that time."
By the time we get to the bar, the girl is gone.
"I see people at their best and at their worst," Baldridge says. "A lot of people yell at me as if I am part of their problem. More often, alcohol has a negative effect on people.
"I see a lot of humanity in this job."
In this life, you want three people to like you. Your hair stylist, your bartender and your taxi driver. Because so many people pass through their lives in unconnected soundbites, they become a measure of how important you are in the bigger picture.
To be successful, they must think you are cool.
It is well after midnight when Baldridge pulls back onto Lincoln Avenue from a run out to Colorado Highway 131. His jaw has relaxed and his cheek dimples when he smiles. He moved to Steamboat from Southern California in his early 20s.
"I was really green when I got here," he says. Now 27, he has spent his formative years in this town, many of them driving a cab. "Maybe I should be working toward some career goal, but whose to say that I'm not, here in this taxi."