Springs residents don't hesitate to use children in ploys to evade fare payment. Drivers can never be sure about this, or prove it, but shortages of cash by riders with children, or outright refusals to pay with a child on board, happen often enough to raise suspicions. One driver even suspects that one 5-year-old has been "borrowed" from a friend or neighbor to play the sidekick.
My most recent experience in this arena unfolds as follows.
"We're just goin' down the street to the convenience store, the one down there on Templeton Gap," my rider instructs. "For cigarettes."
About 30, he's descended a flight of dilapidated wooden stairs, a 3- or 4-year-old boy in hand, on a cold but sunny winter morning. The boy looks neat in his hooded winter jacket and mittens; his scruffy, unshaven parent fastens him into the passenger seat. The boy's feet, in white-laced red sneakers, just pass the seat edge and shoot straight out in front of him like a toy doll's. He rests his hands in his lap.
"How're ya doin' today? Busy?" the adult rider asks. Frankly, I'm wary; trouble often starts with the simplest conversational openings like this.
"Ah, it's been kinda slow this morning," I admit. "But it should pick up a little."
We ride for a few blocks, adult seeming to ignore child to focus on keeping up our conversation. The boy sits quietly, as if on orders.
"Damn shame about the Broncos," the customer says with a sigh. "Manning can't do it all alone. Why they make him run so much when he's such a good passer, I can't figger." Having a ready opinion on the Broncos in exchange is always a good idea for a driver, so I reply with something sympathetic, and the dialogue continues.
The trip moves along nicely enough, over familiar streets lined with trees, the housefronts uncluttered except for an occasional bicycle or standing broom. The sidewalks are icy and glitter a bit in the sun.
"Turn left here," my rider suddenly injects, the Bronco part of our conversation apparently over. The store's right there, but we park a short distance away, not in the lot. He opens the passenger door with a yank and, to my amazement, says he's leaving the boy alone with me.
Now I'm a babysitter, which is fine for the moment, but I wonder at the wisdom of such a choice on his part. The next thing I know the man is gone, his shambling gait advancing confidently to the store. The child lets out a sharp squeal of fear.
I turn to face the boy, thinking of what other drivers in the fleet might do in this situation, and try talking to him in a low, gentle voice. To my surprise, it seems to work and he calms down, putting his fingers in his mouth and kicking his feet.
Soon, the Broncos analyst returns with chips and other items in a plastic shopping bag and takes his seat.
"Can I smoke in here?" he asks, tapping the package down on the front seat back. My answer, of course, is no, citing regulations against smoking and fines all around.
"Take me back," is his only reply, like General MacArthur.
Turning the corner at El Paso, after a wordless time, he says, "Stop here. I only have six dollars to pay you. We'll walk the rest of the way." The temperature outside is around 12 degrees.
"You heard me."
It's out before I realize I'm saying it: "You have enough money for cigarettes, but not to pay the driver?"
"Yeah, that's too bad, isn't it? Let us out."
Cutting short an adult's ride over a fare issue is one thing, but turning a faultless child into a pedestrian, too, is something else. No driver I've met has cast out such riders when they're with children — we grudgingly complete the trip.
In two minutes, we arrive at the house with the dilapidated stairs. He places six dollars on the seat — half of what the fare should have been — then yanks even harder on the door, and removes the boy.
Wind rushes in the open door, tossing the bills onto the floor for me to gather. And with that they're gone, leaving behind no word of thanks, only a sad and puzzling emptiness.