Pat Rossiter is contemplating taxi-driver etiquette. It would be permissible, he thinks, to yell, "Hey, pal, your iambic pentameter stinks," over the radio. Something truly vulgar, however, would not be. And should a cabdriver ever attempt to interrupt a live, on-the-air poetry recitation--well, that would be a "capital offense."
These are just some of the judgment calls that Rossiter, as a communications supervisor for Yellow Cab, must make. And it's not always easy, he says.
"I don't know if I could quantify exactly, but some of the cabdrivers are more erudite than others," he explains. "There's Ph.D.s and MBAs and BMFs and Lord knows what else. Some of the guys are surreal intellectuals. Some are of the `Where to, Mac?' category."
Diverse a bunch as they are, he says, they all remember the night that Denver cab poetry was born.
It was about four months ago. Dispatcher John Wafer was working the all-night shift. "I know it's tough for the guys to stay awake," Wafer explains. "At night, there are maybe thirty, forty guys out there. There's banter. As a dispatcher, you feel a little like a comedian feels on stage."
This particular night, however, instead of a quip, Wafer chose poet William Stafford. "I figured, I'm a Stafford fan, and he's dead, so..."
Out onto the airwaves went the line:
"There is a dream going on while I am awake...
"I thought that was pretty appropriate," Wafer says. In the nights that followed, he recited Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," several from the Emily Dickinson oeuvre, a smattering of Galway Kinnell and Marianne Moore, and finally a little something by himself--a eulogy for a fallen hack entitled "Paul Harries/Cabbie...Par Excellence":
...he didn't seem to be in it for the money,
It was the juice of cabbing we all get entranced with:
The intimacy of strangers
The action, the streets, the motion.
The broken needing one more chance at Arapahoe House
The wounded needing a verbal touch.
A sharing of words as well as a ride.
At first, response was slow. A few cabbies came in to pay their respects. A few radioed in requests from passengers to have certain poems repeated. Thursday nights became unofficial poetry nights, and often, as the midnight shift began, drivers would call in to find out when, exactly, the poem would be read.
"I enjoy it," says a driver named Lloyd. "It sort of breaks up the night. Some of it's good and some of it's not so good, but hell, everyone has his own taste in poetry." Lloyd's favorite, so far, is "that one about the woman--"
"Oh yeah," Wafer recalls, "I got that one out of a ten-year-old Atlantic. Every driver has had that experience, but it's not discussed--picking up a woman and taking her home from her lover, and making her feel safe."
The poem, by Linda Mizejewski, begins:
Taxicab drivers are certain rescue
They come like fathers, who fetch their girls...
"I get requests for that one a lot," Wafer says.
Then, a month ago, a less literary request appeared.
In a memo entitled "Re: Asinine poetry," a driver known only as No. 1917 addressed some angry words to supervisor Rossiter. His memo, verbatim, reads:
"John Wafer continues to recite poetry over the radio every time he dispatchs. Please have him stop. It tie's up radio. If he continues I will start tieing up the radio in a vulgar way?"
Cabbies detest the practice of tying up the radio, or "miking," in which a driver will hold down his talk button to keep everyone else off the air. No. 1917 reportedly miked Wafer at least once but wouldn't discuss that or his memo with Westword. "He respectfully declined to speak with you," Rossiter says. "Only it wasn't so respectful, to be blunt. Your request has reduced him to a quivering mass."
Not that Rossiter took No. 1917's protest lightly. He handled it instantly, thus:
The verses end as of tonight
For as a poet,
John's no delight.
But if you mike him
one more time,
You're out the door
and down the line.
Percy Bysshe Rossiter
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He sent a copy to Wafer, with this scribbled note: "John--please refrain from casting pearls before swine on the radio."
What happened next was nothing. Wafer continued to recite poetry, including a rare gem by Karol Wojtyla (the Pope) entitled "The Armaments Factory Worker." "It was perfect for anyone who ever worked at Rocky Flats," Wafer explains. "I had to."
"A little chatter really doesn't hurt," Rossiter decided. "Especially at night. If John were interfering with anyone's safety, it would be different." Both Wafer and Rossiter insist that this is not the case. Not only does the poesy occur only during slow times, and in the middle of the night, but also only when a supervisor is listening in, so that if a distress call were to come in, someone would hear it. "Besides," says Rossiter, "when I said John's no delight as a poet, it was just poetic license. Really, he's pretty good."
He ought to be. Currently in his last months as a master's candidate in English at the University of Colorado at Denver, Wafer is presenting a scholarly paper at a university in Nashville even as you read this. He teaches several undergraduate writing courses at UCD and will leave Colorado this fall to obtain his Ph.D. He came to Denver in the late Sixties as part of the campaign to stop the B-1 bomber, and stayed to run a construction company. Laid low by cancer in the early Eighties, he took to cab driving and degree-earning. Both hooked him.
"Taxi work is exhausting and isolating, but drivers are wonderful," he says. "A lot of them work weekends so they can read all week. A lot of them are anarchists."
Working among anarchists brought Wafer's activist instincts back to the surface. "I thought, I can go over the air as a poetry missionary," he recalls. "Poetry's not for the elite. People object to it only because they're not used to it. And I thought, so what.