The Perimeter Man

Ran into Mr. Frank today. He’s living in room 10 at 371 Columbus. He enjoys it and is the world’s best exponent of small is good and less is best. He owns nothing but some clothes and a small am/fm radio. He drives a cab about six months per year and doesn’t drink, smoke, or carouse with the ladies. He eats one small meal per every other day and smokes an occasional joint. He doesn’t read, inhabit bars, or go to movies. His major diversion is walking. He covers twenty miles or so per day and spends his winter months in Florida. He does not socialize or frequent crowded places and yet he seems happy and into “something.” He is, in short, a new member (possibly a charter member) of a group I call The Perimeter Men. This is what they are called in Alaska. In San Francisco they aren’t referred to at all. I think this might be a new breed.

He is not an artist, but he certainly has an artist’s sensitivity. He belongs to no organizations and follows no guru or religion. Though educated, he will have gone beyond linear thought and forsakes the written word as a consciousness inhibitor. Thus, being neither a reader nor a writer, we to fail to recognize him in our midst because he is not an attention grabber. He is apt to be overlooked. And yet if we, each and every one, look around amongst our friends and acquaintances, we will see him. Often as not he is not a close friend but more often the long time acquaintance who impresses us from time to time with his ability to sustain himself both economically as well as intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally on nothing. He is a person of past excess; one of those who should have self-destructed or become famous or both, but instead, has done neither. By definition, he is over thirty, and his game seldom reaches any refined form until around age forty. At this moment he seems out of place in our materialistic culture of cults, conformity, and fame and gain games, preferring to remain anonymous. But make no mistake; he is here in numbers, especially in this town.

I suspect he has a viable purpose even he is probably not conscious of, but one of these days, when the human swarm turns away from the false light of material progress they will find a comforting glow upon the darkened horizon and it will be the fire light of these Perimeter Men, these Zen Cowboys, these intellectual Mountain Men who have apparently accomplished the miraculous, for they have succeeded in progressing from idealistic youth through to the wisdom of maturity without ever having been forced to live out their lives on the side road of adulthood.

* * *

Frank was one of the older drivers that I knew. He was in his late fifties when this interview was conducted and had had an entire other life before he ever discovered Taxi World. Frank was one of the more advanced practitioners of the discipline of Motor Zen.

JANN: Talk a little bit about the leisure principal. The concept of rewarding people with time rather than money.

FRANK: It is a better reward as it turns out. But it is hard to get there. It is hard to get to the point where you can really understand that time is as good—better—a payment as money. And the time can be every bit as fulfilling as what you did to earn the money—maybe more. This is assuming that you had a fulfilling job to begin with. Which of course, most people don’t. The problem with those who work all their lives and retire, is to fill the ‘idle’ time. They are totally outer-directed and completely identify with the job. To be ‘random’ to get up when you want to and to go where and when you want to…is a ballet dance. There is an art to being what most people would call…lazy.

J: I think this will become more and more prevalent in the future. And these ‘leisure people,’ for lack of a better term, will have to be taught and inspired to enjoy their ‘time,’ their sudden interior track, by experienced players such as our own selves.

F: I don’t know. I don’t think society will ever come around to the point where it will reward people with free time instead of money.

J: I think this will come to pass. It only seems poetically correct that the ‘Slave Master’ will eventually be forced to return the slave’s freedom, perhaps an hour at a time.

F: Oh, the work week may get less. They may have people split jobs. Employment habits may change, but the free time will still be ‘assigned time’, consuming, taking care of business. The only way to get any FREE TIME is to drop through the bottom of the barrel. The first step is to learn to give and take ‘no’ for an answer. Once I learned to say ‘no’ with the same enthusiasm I had previously used to say yes…you have to learn to say ‘no’ as gently and sincerely and gracefully as you say yes. What you say ‘no’ to is eventually that question that ‘they’ wanted a ‘yes’ for. Then you’ll find that you have all the time and the leisure in the world. In order to gain true freedom you have to be willing to risk being utterly irresponsible. You have to be willing to become a ‘loner.’ Society seems to be pushing in just the opposite direction. Society and the people seem to want to be terminally ‘busy.’ Everyone wants a phone in the car. No one wants any free-time. The assumption here is that free-time is wasted time, time better spent getting stuff and getting ahead.

J: I think this tendency is starting to cause serious problems, though. People are starting to bounce off the wall. I think women in particular are beginning to have a mass nervous breakdown. They cannot say no…except to men. So they are finding themselves with the job, the kids, the beauty responsibility, and on and on while men are being forced to the sideline. I see this in the cab when I pick up female attorneys. They are catching on real quick that they now have the money and the status and the power, but they have absolutely no free time.

F: But aside from that your life is naturally filled with friends and phone calls. All the everyday ordinary stuff. I call it Reality Shit. The thing I learned in the cab is that we are ball-bearings in a barrel and the secret is in learning how not to bump into things. There are a lot of people who feel that cab drivers and that whole group of worker heroes doing these things perceived by society as less than O.K., are actually practicing a high art. You know doctors were originally barbers and then, because they were good with their hands, they came in and they did these things and now they are exalted. Well the cab driver world, the bohemian world, day for night, in and out, dealing quickly with people and time and space and movement: it is a teaching device. It takes a person with a strong central core, a high loner-in-training if you will, to turn away from the herd and go off to do something that society says is ‘beneath you,’ whoever you are! The expectation is that you are supposed to be self-destructive. You (any ‘you’) cannot be trusted to function on your own. But there is a strength lesson here to be learned. The people in the back seat, the fares, don’t realize this of course. To them you just come with the car. You are an appendage. I had a couple pile out of one of those downtown restaurants one night, between Kearny and Montgomery, and the lady came out first and I reached across the back and opened the door for her and she got in and immediately started to berate me for not having gotten out of the cab and opened the door for her. The dance had begun. I mean, she could have gotten in and said, ‘My what a balmy night tonight.’ But she got in and said what she said, and I took my time and looked back at her and I said, ‘Lady, if I got out of the cab every time somebody stumbled out of a bar, I wouldn’t have the energy to drive. The only way for me to drive the cab safely for ten hours at a time is to conserve my energy in small ways, like reaching over the seat to open the door instead of getting out and walking around to open the door and then walking back around to the driver’s side and opening my door and climbing in and getting situated behind the wheel again.’ At this point her husband gets in. Well, he’s in a good mood and he only hears the last little part of this exchange, I couldn’t tell just what he was thinking but she sort of wilted a little and falls silent the whole trip. So we go some small distance and she is silent and he’s humming and then we stop and she gets out and he gets out, no one has said a word and the fare is $2.50 and he gives me a $5 tip. Now on some cosmic level I think he gave me that tip for getting him home safely and not talking or ripping him off and maybe for changing his wife’s level of vibration.

J: Did you ever get the feeling, after about three or four hours behind the wheel you sort of get into a Zen centeredness, where the driving become like downhill skiing or flying extremely low to the ground? You’re not really driving this tractor anymore you have become TRON-MAN!

F: And you can break that rhythm by stopping and having a coffee. That’s what I got from cab driving. I did, in fact, become poetically, the driver. With my whole consciousness. And I had been a cooperate executive. I was supposed to retire on $100,000 per year and here I was driving a cab living in a very small residential hotel. It is an invisible reality. If you put on your dark glasses you can see it. It is a very real world to live in. To me driving was fun. It was like a sport. I needed the money but the approach was very low key. It was not like a cooperate career. It could be and it often was…fun. As a cab driver I was like a permanent POV. The driver becomes nothing. The person in the rear seat becomes something, gets to the restaurant or the airport and continues on his important mission, but the driver just is…a moving, discerning POV. He is moving through the medium but he has no message. I am very basic, I perceive reality as it has just occurred, rather than as I would like it to. I don’t anticipate. I just experience. Cab driving is so intent there; it is like staying in that moment.

J: That moment is a specific zone of centeredness. Once you operate within that zone you are ‘free’ in a very peculiar way. You have succeeded in getting out of your own way. You are beyond distraction for the duration. You are moving chaos into the clear zone.

F: Yes. It is the Clear Zone. You are moving within the eye of the storm and you know that if you falter, get distracted or move out of the moment, you will fall into chaos again. Back out into the Terrible Wind.

J: Yes. And what I am struck by is how there is no ego connection. In every other job I can think of in order to get to ‘the Clear Zone,’ you have to do good. You have to get the touchdown or sell the product or seal the deal. The ego is always patted and stroked. There seems to be a reason why you should feel as you do. But in the cab there is nothing to gain and hence no reason for the ego to feel special so that when you manage to fall into the clear zone, there you are. Without a reason to hang your ego on. It is a rare thing I think.

F: The cab driver is intra-dimensional. He has his heel in the past and his toe in the future. He lives in a moving present that never stops. That’s what I mean by cab driving being athletic like a sport. The state that a transcendent cab driver moves in is a very pure state. When in it I would not want to change it for the world.

J: Driving a cab and being an educated white boy driving a cab reminds me of Buddhists in the saffron robes and begging bowls in Southeast Asia. Although there is no theological reference or image in our society, somehow the people still pick up the spiritual smell. The fares assume that if you are bright, that they are in some way sharing space with a monk or an ascetic. They know you are not in it for the money and if you are bright and articulate they assume that you could do something else. So there is this slight (very slight) begrudging respect. I have had a few cases where the fare will come right out with it and say that they envy me. Usually this is on the way late at night to the airport and we have been talking in the dark. Something about talking to a stranger in the dark when you are moving fast. Something liberating about it.

F: But you’ve got to remember that everyone, absolutely everyone is undercover. Image is everything. When most people climb into the rear of a cab there is an assumption that the driver knows what he is doing and that he is in control of the vehicle. He may not be in control of his life, but the passenger does not usually doubt his control of the vehicle. Within a block and a half a lot happens. The vibes can change. For better or worse, as far as the passenger and I are concerned. For me, one of the best things that can happen, is that they go right on doing what they are doing without interrupting for even a moment. I am not an artist and I wish to remain anonymous above all things. I have a friend who is a caterer and she is an artist and she puts so much work and art into her craft and I tell her, ‘Look, in the end they’re just going to eat it.’ You see, I came out of seventeen years in Corporate World. It’s long, it’s tomorrow, and every day starts with part of yesterday. It’s like having a lover and you wake up every morning with yesterday’s heartache. I love the cab! They’re gone in five or ten minutes! Every moment is here and now and there is no yesterday and certainly no tomorrow. It is like a newspaper: every moment is an historic present. It just keeps going on and the beauty of it is that you can step off, step out and away, and ‘live’ and return and still be right in the moment. You haven’t lost a thing.

J: Talk to me about synchronicity.

F: I see everything that way. I have a mentality that sees chaos as very orderly. All the random occurrences of the cab, even the worst ones, are part of the grand ballet. I am very nonjudgmental. Somewhere along the line the notion of ugly just left me. There is no good and bad. Opposites are similar. Everything is relative. Reality is invisible. It is hard to tell ‘what is,’ from what you see. At least without your dark glasses on. I stay out of trouble in taxi-world. I cruise and I listen to good music. I am not full of angst and I don’t worry. I am very low volume. That’s my approach to life. I’ve had the high volume (whatever that means) and the low volume is like sweet little tastes. Straight across the board. I like weak drinks, watered down. Light food in small portions. Three cigarettes a day. And no wife! That’s part of the secret.

J: You sound like a true master of living. What Maslow would call ‘the wise child.’ Innocent, but deep and of this earth. You are different from me. I am as I have always been. For better or worse. You, on the other hand, have ‘become something other than you were.’ You’ve made a ninety-degree turn; you’ve had a conversion of sorts.

F: Yes, that’s what I’ve done. That’s why I say opposites are similar. I got to be twenty-five, an only child born of upwardly mobile parents. I joined the Marine Corps, came back, got married, had kids, became a corporate executive. At forty I left that. Divorced, gave it all away. Or rather, had it taken away. Ended up driving cab and suddenly…there were girls and countless beautiful stress-free hours of being alone. The bohemian life. All the things that I hadn’t done. I had been an adult for twenty-five years and now I was…something else. When I was a kid there was a war, there was no rock and roll, no TV, no sex, no drugs, no idea really of a personal ‘I.’ There were merely allotted adult roles and responsibility. I took a big bite and after seventeen years I found out that it just did not work, at least for me. Historically it was not a time for the individual. It was a time of tradition and of groups moving in lock-step, be they military or corporate. So I dropped it all, went bankrupt, didn’t pay what I owed, became an outlaw. I quit eating, dropped forty pounds. I quit drinking.

J: You don’t regret anything? You don’t miss the life you had?

F: I don’t regret the life or leaving it. I don’t regret anything. I have no notion of being a member of some deposed aristocracy, which is how a lot of cab drivers view their lives. You see, instead of a linear present or even a spiral existence, which I could have had like my parents or a normal fellow once divorced, I was blasted out of my life into ‘the present.’ I drive a cab for four months and travel and live for eight. I have no possessions. No houses, furniture, clothes, toys…nothing that won’t fit in my travel bag.

J: You make it sound very romantic.

F: My life is very romantic. That’s a good word. I’ve found that, in life, if you are going from place to place, there is no in-between. I live in ‘The Ride,’ I am not concerned with where I’ve been or where I’m going. It’s all process. My mother, at one point asked me, ‘Did you have a breakdown?’ and I said, ‘Well, no, but I guess I certainly did have a break.’ You might say like a skydiver, at age forty, I simply left the plane and on the way down, on the way to earth, I found that I had a talent for knitting so that instead of falling, I’m…floating now. And whenever I look up I see the beautiful chute, which is, after all, my life’s experience. And that’s where my ego hangs—from the bottom of that life experience chute.

J: My personal metaphor is a catapult. I see it not so much a leaving the plane but being stuck and unhappy and then suddenly, I am catapulted past all reference points, into a new zone of experience. The very things that seemingly held me back and made me feel stuck are now the very reasons for my ‘advanced’ position. My very freedom is based on having been stuck in the past. And then I learned that the reason for the block, is also the reason for the breakthrough.

F: I agree, basically, but behind that idea of groups we are all individuals and behind every individual is a full-blown opera.

J: You don’t think that nowadays people are falling from ‘individuality’ into ‘group.’ Sometimes I think that many people today don’t even have a life they can call their own. They are audience. The closest they come to life is watching a really good Phil or Oprah show. They eat at specified times and in-between there is TV and a meaningless, dull job. They pay rent in order to have a place to wait until it is time to return to work. No relationships, no real joy! No sudden realizations, no spirit and seemingly no growth. Just repetition, generation after generation. The present media people are like the royalty of old and the great grey mass. The audience is like the common folk of the ancient days. Very little difference. The poverty and the pain is exactly the same.

F: Another way of saying it is that some people are doing their art and a lot of people are taking time off…sitting it out as audience. So who is really the reckless spendthrift, the movie star who spends a million dollars on a ring or the person who spends an hour each and every day watching a The Days of Our Lives? In a sense the poorer person is actually the richest because he or she gets to spend time, which even the rich person doesn’t really have. Opposites are similar. I think I perceive things from the roving momentary point of view of ‘older,’ which is not to say ‘wiser.’ Older means that there is just a little more spread here. There’s a lot more to do in life than what there’s out there to do. There are real worlds like a cab driver confronting brake failure on New Year’s Eve. I remember, the brakes went out, metal to metal at 2 A.M. on New Year’s Eve! Well, I had two hours of the highest time I’ve had in my entire life coping with driving around San Francisco on New Years Eve with no breaks! I drove for almost two hours with metal to metal, essentially no brakes. I won the prize that night! I had no anger and I never got cornered. There is a freedom in really knowing that it is all that. It is all process. There are no mistakes. When I drive it is pure sensuality. I don’t reflect. It is seeing and hearing and pulling and pushing and intuiting. I don’t talk and I don’t think. I succeed at driving by doing no thing else. I succeed at living by doing no thing else. ‘I am that I am,’ and no thing else. Attention, concentration and focus. It is nay-saying the myriad distractions. It is not as easy as it may sound. In this society there is an obvious advance to MORE! To simply say no is no small thing. I guess what I am saying is that I am a minimalist. Less is more. Keep it (what ever it is) in single digits (and cherish each one). Less is better if you want less. If more is better you will always be unsatisfied because more is never enough. So, it makes sense to want less.

J: You are a Perimeter Man.

F: Yes. That’s good. I didn’t go down—I went out. Out to the edge. Far out. Not in. Not down. Just out toward the edge; the perimeter. But my ‘outness’ is a process and not a state. I am very selfish. I give my attention and save myself. I have discovered how to do this thing. This is my experiment. This is my secret.

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