I was rolling into the end of a hectic project. It was the day before our final proposal and I still had a lot of work to do.
We ate lunch and dinner at our desks and worked till about 10pm. I stumbled out of the office, walked about fifteen minutes looking for a taxi. I finally found a cab, flagged it down and got in.
I was staying at a hotel for the project and I would be flying back home after the presentation the next day.
I sat in the taxi making mental notes – wake up early tomorrow, pack, go back to work, finish the proposal, send for review, make corrections, get signatures and approval, rush out of work to airport and fly home.
There was a toll booth between office and the hotel. Normally, the taxi driver either asks the passenger to pay the toll when they get to the booth, or adds it into the fare at the end. This driver didn’t say anything at the toll plaza so I assumed he would add the toll into the fare at the end.
When we got to the hotel, the taxi driver gave me the bill, and it was a lot more than I expected. I asked how he came to that amount, he showed me that he had factored in a higher amount to bring me there, and he had added in the toll gate fees twice.
He said, since he was bringing me to a place where he wouldn’t be able to pick up another passenger, he had to charge me for the total cost to get himself back home. I could live with the higher amount, but did he have to charge me for the toll going back too? Like I had woken him out of his house and inconvenienced him with my petty taxi requests.
The price wasn’t a big deal, transportation was being paid for by the office, but the whole thing upset me.
I started to argue with him.
“Can’t you just pick someone else up?”
“What if I show you a place where you will find people pick up?”
“If you’re going back, how do I know you will take the toll road? I know it is nice and convenient, but if you were driving back at night with no traffic and paying your own money, you would probably take the free road.”
He shot down all my suggestions.
He was a big guy with a rough beard. Not tall, but fat and settled in comfortably like he would have trouble getting out of the cab.
He dismissed all my points with a backward wave of his hand, I was wasting his time.
Finally, I gave up, gave him the money and went up to my room.
Three hours later, I was still awake, sitting in bed and thinking, “Why would the taxi driver assume he could take advantage of me? Is there something written on my face that lets people know that I won’t fight back?”
I should have said something. I should have thrown the amount I thought he deserved at him and stormed out of the taxi. He could have struggled out of the cab, chased me down and then what?
I couldn’t sleep at all that night.
In another two hours, I was out of bed. I got dressed and headed downstairs. The hotel attendant called a cab to take me to the office. As I got into the taxi, I asked the driver, “When you drop me, will you also charge me the amount it costs you to come back here?”
He scoffed, laughed a dry laugh, and said, “Why would anyone do that? That’s ridiculous.”
I knew it.
It was ridiculous. I had been swindled by the fat bearded taxi driver.
I fumed all the way to work.
I got to the office too early to eat breakfast and I skipped lunch to finish the proposal. My meetings went terribly and I blamed the bearded driver for the lack of sleep. By evening when I submitted the proposal, I think of him sitting in his driver’s seat throne doing that dismissive back wave of his hand at all my effort.
I run of work to catch a taxi to the airport and as I run downstairs, I think about what an interesting coincidence it would be if I get Fat Beard’s taxi again. Will I turn him down and give him the finger? Will I get into his cab and underpay him when we to the airport?
But I don’t get Fat Beard. A different taxi driver pulls up, I get in and we make it to the airport just in time for my flight. It is a short flight, an hour long hop. I am exhausted and I barely close my eyes before we are landing.
I get home and I fall asleep in my work clothes.
I wake up the next morning, my phone has five missed calls. I was supposed to meet a contractor and I overslept. I head out to meet the contractor and when we are done, I realise how weak I feel and how badly my stomach hurts.
I remember that I haven’t eaten in about two days.
I pull into the first place I see that serves food. It is a franchise fast food restaurant. I am waiting in line with everyone else to place my order. I am looking up at the pictures of food and trying to make up my mind on what I want, besides one of everything.
There are four stages of hunger. There is slight hunger, which you feel at regular meal times. You know what you like, you can afford to be picky about what you’re going to eat. If they only have rice, and you don’t like rice, you turn it down and wait and eat something else later.
After slight hunger is major hunger. At major hunger, you are no longer picky about what you get to eat. That rice you turned down is now looking fine. Once you squirt some stew or ketchup on it to mask the taste, you won’t remember why you didn’t like it in the first place, all you’ll taste is win as the food is metabolised into energy in your body.
Past major hunger is starvation. Starvation is a strange place because you’ve come full circle back to being picky about food. At starvation, you’ll get nauseous at the mere smell of the wrong thing. You can’t just eat anything at starvation, instead, you have to wean yourself off starvation by eating small portions of the right food. You have to slowly step yourself back down to major hunger, and then you can proceed to eating normally.
Beyond starvation is madness.
I was past the hungers and bordering on psychosis. I was aware only of two things, the fact that I had to eat soon to continue to function and my anger at Fat Beard. Fat Beard had become some type of phantom arch-nemesis in my mind, the suppressor of the downtrodden, the reason why I didn’t sleep or eat. If you don’t stand up for yourself, Fat Beard will be right there to snatch away what belongs to you.
The line moves, I shuffle forward, closer to ordering my food.
By the time it is my turn, I have decided that I want a flatbread chicken sandwich, which is just two pieces of flat toasted bread with a slice of chicken and some cheese in between. Nothing else will sate my hunger at this point except that particular sandwich.
But I don’t want the cheese.
All I want is toasted bread and chicken to step myself down to some major hunger.
My eyes are bloodshot, hands trembling, I ask the cashier for a flatbread chicken sandwich without cheese. He looks at me, stares down at the screen for a long while, squints, punches some buttons, looks back up at me and says, “Sorry, we can’t do that.”
Yes you can. It is my money, my sandwich. Remove the cheese and give it to me.
He explains that the sandwich is pre-packaged, and all he does when I place my order is take the pre-made sandwich and put it in the industrial toaster. The toaster will warm the sandwich, brown the bread, and melt the cheese all over chicken. He says, once it does that, it will become impossible to extract the cheese from the sandwich.
As he explains all this to me, I am staring at him with empty eyes and my mouth open. My tongue flicks over my cracked lips, and flies are starting to buzz around me. (Stage four of hunger comes with flies.)
I tell him to give me the sandwich without warming it. I will remove the cheese myself while it is still cold and solid so that it doesn’t melt onto the chicken. And after that, I can take it home to warm it myself or, if he wants, I can give it back to him to toast it for me.
He smiles, shakes his head that he can’t do that, waving me away as he says no.
I notice the back wave.
My face twitches.
I’ve seen that hand gesture before. Fat Beard. That gesture that means my opinion doesn’t matter.
I start to yell at him. I demand to see the manager.
The manager comes out of the back room and I give him a piece of my fragmented mind.
When I am done shouting at him, he still doesn’t bend. It is company policy, he says, they can’t give uncooked food to the customers. Either they warm it before giving it to me or I leave empty-handed.
The little vestige of sanity I have is telling me to back down. But we all know I am way past the point where I can just settle for another sandwich and sit quietly at a booth to eat it. All the customers are staring.
This is not going well.
Ten minutes later, I am pacing in a corner of the restaurant. I am on the phone, in the middle of an angry call to the franchise’s head office. The manager is standing next to me, waiting, he is holding the company booklet that contains the list of numbers to call in an emergency while a policeman watches me from the door.
What is wrong with me?
Loosely connected events and a final straw triggering a disproportionate response in a hungry people? Seen.