I thought going uphill with my bike was tiring.
I thought I knew Gent like the palm of my hand.
I thought I had pretty strong legs.
I was wrong.
For 10 days, Gent is swept up and down into a spiral of booze, music and booze. The "Gentse Feesten" are at full speed and roughly in the middle are about 10 people, on yellow four-wheel bikes, bringing pregnant ladies to the alcohol and drunks away from it. 200 kilo’s and more on a single bike, and two legs to drag that shit over the bridge.
I took 10 days off from work to join in on the fun, tipped by a friend. It feels very strange: 8 hours of work per day without the need of climbing gear, scaff hammer, or even my leatherman. Some change and a pen, and you’re off.
Nevertheless, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever had it this difficult to keep up. My upper legs aren’t even remotely as trained as the "regulars", leading to often quite embarrassing situations. When the day is over, I am fucking knackered. My ass is sore all the time, and I’m spending fortunes on food. I tend to eat like a horse whenever I’m gaining muscle somewhere. My ass is no exception.
Still, it’s a wonderful job, and a nice change from hammering steel all summer. I get to keep 60% of wages, plus tips. We’re 5 days in and I have €210 in cash lying around to be deposited or stolen, though some of that could have been mine to begin with. Hell, this "voluntary" job makes more than my real one on some days- a lot more.
As always, I quickly grew a small-time obsession with those "tricks of the trade", trying to figure them out asap and then cursing others for not having done so yet. Get shorter trips, mention that you’re a "volunteer", use tram rails to avoid bumps unless they’re wet.
I’m glad it’s over now, because some things did grow old very fast. On a neat little list, in ascending order of importance, here’s the do’s and don’t’s of the bystander/passenger and the driver!
– Be nice. Please. 8 hours of pulling up to 200 kilo’s and more is hard. We don’t need your shit on top of it. Know that we have the right to make you get out, and the techniques to get you out should that prove a problem.
– Tip! We’re volunteers! Yes we get a percentage, but it sure as hell isn’t paying the bills, tips are! Whether it is "keep the change" or "here’s an extra five", it shows appreciation and makes us forever grateful and most happy to pick you up next time around.
– Move. Please sit still, you’re busting our knees every time you shift your weight.
– Pity us. Don’t make us stop 200 metres short of your home because you feel sorry for us, or keep repeating that we are mad to do this for this kind of money. We do this because we enjoy it. We are proud to take you home, much more than some street corner where you don’t even need to be.
– Pull us over just to start stammering drunkenly to us. Just because we drive a yellow bike doesn’t make us interested.
– Okay, Jokes: No we don’t go to Antwerp. No there’s no crop back there. No we won’t let you drive. Thank you sir, but no I don’t think I’ll join the Tour de France.
– DO NOT. Shout "TAXI" for no reason other than your personal amusement. You have No Clue how terribly annoying that is, and it causes us to ignore customers who do mean it. Personally I am sorry for the blunt reactions this has provoked, but please. It’s fucking, horribly frustrating.
– Be nice. Customers aren’t paying for your arrogance or bad mood. They’re having a good time and just want to go someplace. Explain things kindly. Talk. There’s a tip in it!
– "Must you hit all the bumps?" Avoid them. The easiest are tram rails, your wheels fit on them and are broad enough not to sink in. Slow down when you hit a curb.
– Avoid cobblestones. Gent is bleeding full of them and they’ll drive you mad. Not the cobblestones themselves, but the poor quality of the road that’s been there since the middle fucking ages.
– Drive recklessly. Taxi bikes are made to be light and they do break. In half, on one occasion. With customers in the back, be extra careful, they don’t see your maneuvers coming. Wouldn’t be the first time if someone would "exit the vehicle". There’s children back there. Families. Think.
– OMG the festival zone. KNOW where it is. The Gentse Feesten are se full of cops, you would swear you’re in prison. It’s a gathering of the most incompetent, arrogant and frustrated bunch of policemen you have ever seen. They will fine you. They will pull you over for driving where you’re allowed to. They will pull you over to tell you you’re allowed to drive there. We’ve seen it all.
There’s plenty more of this, but a lot of it I simply don’t agree with. Everyone has limits to where they will go, I don’t- not really, anyway. Some don’t write down certain trips so they can cash in, I don’t. Some drive slowly because we charge by the minute, I don’t. I am convinced that all these "principles" are for selfish reasons only. This allows me to go home with a good feeling (about myself, but I’ve been told we do everything for selfish reasons), and in some cases rather proud of myself. This is a non-profit organization plagued by its own participants, and I want no hand in that.
We all have limits, but in some cases I will gladly cross them. I won’t take two men outside of Gent because I’ll come back broken, but I did take an old lady who had missed her last bus, home, two towns away. I charge like everyone else but when two girls came running after me asking me to take them home because they had to cross an un-illuminated parking lot and "there were scary people there", I didn’t accept a penny. I can’t risk that they will refrain from doing so next time because of the money. I risk a fat fine when going into the festival zone but when a girl nearby cut her foot open on a shard of glass, I took her to first-aid. Fuck those cops anyway.
Mind you, this was all in one day. Yes, I did go home feeling rather great about myself. But I do every day, simply because I brought dozens of people home safely again. I think I’m going to miss this job.