DOWN AROUND the tractors and vans littering downtown Washington, cab number 55 of the Capitol Cab Association felt its way, trying like some rat in a maze to avoid the dead ends. It poked its way down one street and then hit a barrier and then another street where a busful of cops blocked the road and finally number 55 turned and went the other way, driven by a man with the CB handle of Bow-Wow who was, I have to tell you, a major disappointment.
Bow-Wow was going to be my vehicle for denouncing the farmers and those who had made the farmers' demonstration such a nightmare. Here was a man who drove for a living, who was probably somewhere around the bottom of the economic ladder and who would not, you just had to figure, look kindly upon people who were messing up the streets in the name of higher food prices. This made some sense to everyone but Bow-Wow. Bow-Wow just loved farmers.
"I had farmers in my cab last year," he yelled over the noise of the radio. "They get just 3 cents from a loaf of bread while the man who puts the wrapper around it gets 15 cents. The small farmer is going to get put out of business and then we gonna have to import all our food from foreign countries. Like oil. I been overseas where they have to import the food. A steak the size of a silver dollar cost $19.
"For years I lived on a farm. My aunt had a farm. It was 18 miles north of Columbia, South Carolina. We had to give it up. My aunt, she couldn't make no money. The Agriculture Department came and told her she couldn't plant no cotton and then they said no corn. We had cotton there. We had an acre of sweet potatoes. We had a garden for vegetables, greens. We had an acre of peanuts. Yep."
He smacked his lips as if he could taste something and then, for a while, he said no more.
The cab wove through the tractors. On the mall, flags of the various states were flying, banners streaming in the wind, signs with messages for President Carter. This was the part of the mall where the Vietnam vets had come to protest the war, a place where I met a vet with one arm who took me to the amputee ward of Walter Reed. He was, I think, a farmer, too.
In the back seat of the cab, the indignation started to ooze from me. There was something wrong with all this, something ridiculous about governments waiving the rules so tractors that normally are banned from the highway were allowed on and traffic was brought to a standstill. This is what is done for farmers because, deep down, we all believe in farmers. Everytime I talk to a farmer, I think I should apologize for how I make a living.
Down on Pennsylvania Avenue, Bow-Wow spotted a brother cab and reached for his CB mike. "Bow-Wow to T.J.," he said. Something came crackling back in response. "Hey, T.J. How about those tractors?" Another crackle. "Remind me of the time we took one of those things that had only one wheel in the front and turned it over. We were kids, T.J. We just turned the thing over." A laugh came back. "Having fun, T.J.?" "That's T.J.," Bow-Wow explained. "He was a farmer, too. I don't know what state. Arkansas?"
"You want to go back to the farm?" I asked.
"You get used to the big city," he said. "The bright lights and the pretty ladies. The farm, it was exciting. On Saturday, you went to town and on Sunday you certainly went to church. You didn't get scared when you went out in the street and you didn't hear about nobody raping their friend's wife. You didn't worry when your kids went out to play. They're out of sight 20 minutes here and you get scared.
"I would like to move back to the country now, but I don't think I could make a living. Certain parts of the South, they still have racial problems. Maybe I could go back. I'll tell you, here they got dope and marijuana. I tell you, it's a real problem, the kids. You worry all the time about the kids."
We were parked now, the cab idling in the cold. Bow-Wow reached for his wallet and took out a picture. He's got three kids, two girls and a boy, and showed me a picture of his 13-year-old son whose birthday happens to be today.
"Jeez, I ain't got him a present," he said with alarm.
The picture was in color and it showed a handsome, bright-looking kid. He used to get nothing but A's for marks, Bow-Wow said, but now it's down to D's and F's. He doesn't know what's got to the boy, what's changed, but he fears that maybe it has to do with the streets -- with the city.
He would like to take his son back to the farm, but he won't because even a cab driver knows you can't make a living running a family farm any more. All you can do is sit in traffic and watch as a way of life parades before you.
Honk for the family farm.