I showed up to my first day as a rickshaw runner wearing soccer shorts and a ratty T-shirt tinted with the mud and blood of my high school rugby career. Alex, the manager, looked me up and down frankly.
“What the fuck are you wearing? Do you want to make any money?”
I came back the next day in low-rise short shorts, cherry red, and a white strappy tank top that left half my sports bra exposed. Now, I was ready to run.
I’d met the rickshaw boys the summer before. I worked in the fast food stand on the corner, sweating over the deep fryer in my company-issued apron and ball cap. They parked their rickshaws across the way, at the mouth of a pedestrian alley in the tourist-filled heart of historic downtown Ottawa. They came by a few times a day to refill their water bottles, flirt and beg for free slushies. We both stayed on our feet until bar close—I fed the drunks and they hauled them home—and once I got my fake ID I started joining them on their Monday nights out, the only night of the week that they took off work.
I don’t remember which of them first suggested that I join them as a runner, but a year later, in my first summer out of high school, I did.
The job was simple. I paid $25 per day to rent my rickshaw; I solicited passersby for rides, and set my own prices; I got paid in cash, and everything I earned after the rent was paid was mine to keep. Generally, we charged a dollar a minute or a dollar a block, whichever came first.
All summer, I ran. I pulled tourists up the slow length of Parliament Hill and I ran them back down again. I gave guided tours of the Byward Market, and I ferried drunks to their parked cars after they’d staggered out after last call. Sometimes passengers talked me into drag-racing against other runners; sometimes I babysat children in my ‘shaw, jogging in slow circles around the block, while their parents snuck in a glass of wine on a patio nearby. Once, I took a pair of gawking high school boys to the nearest street-corner prostitute, then took them back home again when they were too terrified of her to leave my rickshaw.
It was the most nakedly transactional gig I have ever worked. All day, we talked about money—openly, incessantly. How much did you charge for that run? How much did they tip? What’s your total on the day so far?
“How are you doing?” was the ubiquitous question we tossed at one another when we lounged between rides or passed each other on the streets. It meant, always, “How much have you earned today?”
It was also a job in which sex and sex appeal often seemed to be an inextricable part of the transaction. I spent one long, mortifying ride walking slowly, as instructed, while my passenger talked on his cell phone to a pal about how I looked from behind. Once, a wine-soaked older woman asked one of the guys how much it’d cost her to touch his ass. He charged her five bucks a squeeze.
I was the only female rickshaw runner that summer, and I knew the guys were a pack of dogs. I had watched them, the summer before. They charmed girls to their faces and talked shit behind their backs; whether on the tourist-thronged corner or at the bar, they had their game perfected.
Alex and his assistant manager, Sam, liked to work the mother-and-tween-daughter combo during busy Saturday and Sunday afternoons. “Discounts for sisters,” they’d holler, and the daughters would blush and roll their eyes and the mothers would titter into their shopping bags. Carving out my own demographic, on night shifts I’d started offering “rides for a dollar a minute” in a smoky voice far beyond my age or experience.
But by joining them, I’d become off-limits to their hunt—I entered a strange, protective bubble, with twenty-plus crude, crass big brothers watching over me. They’d delegate someone to shadow me when I went on long rides late at night. They’d bring me to the bar and buy me drinks but never lay a hand on me. I was privy to every comment—appreciative or cruel—that was made about every female that walked by. Never mind that I’d kissed a handful of them the summer before; I was one of them, now.
One night, three of us took a group of customers up into Sandy Hill, a neighborhood just outside of downtown that housed an odd mixture of students, crackheads, and the very wealthy. Streets veered from tony to derelict in a matter of blocks, and I was glad that I wasn’t alone on this ride. We’d dropped off our charges, gotten paid, and were headed back to the heart of things when Kevin told me his theory.
Kevin was a tall, muscular blond, a couple years older than most of the guys which made him probably five years older than me. He explained, as our small pack jogged back down the dark, quiet streets, that he believed it would be impossible to rob a rickshaw runner. “We work too hard for our money,” he told me. “We would fight tooth and nail if anyone tried to take our cash.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I figured if someone pointed a knife at me and asked for my day’s take I’d hand it over pretty quick. It was stashed in an old fanny pack strapped to the front bar of my ‘shaw, a day’s labor in grimy bills and handfuls of change, swinging in front of my chest as I ran.
Kevin leaned close, slowing his pace to make his point. “You would fight,” he told me seriously, “to the death.”
Kevin wasn’t the only runner who was, I dunno, maybe a little crazy. They were an odd collection of men: a few high school students, or recent graduates like me, in varying states of skinny pimpled awkwardness, and a core group of college guys like Alex and Sam, varsity athletes mostly, with fully matured men’s bodies and the confidence and easy gift of gab to clean up in a sales job like this one. Then there were a handful of older guys, semi-transient types in their late 20s and 30s, tattooed men with mysterious pasts, men I knew only by nicknames like “Stitch” and “Crunch.”
We were graduate students and high school drop-outs, parents and children, geeks and jocks, rich kids and poor, but for all our differences—and the fact that we were competing with each other every night for fares—we were a strange, tightly knit, belligerently unified little family.
We ran around downtown Ottawa like we owned the place. We battled with the buskers over sidewalk real estate. We strutted and preened, and lounged curbside in our rickshaws, practicing our pick-up lines and heckling passersby when they didn’t take us up on our offers. Late at night, we were absorbed into a strange, after-hours world: cops and hookers and addicts and bouncers and us, the rickshaw runners.
When I came home after my first year of college, I renewed my rickshaw license at city hall and went back to work. But this summer I had landed an office job, too, and I spent less and less time lounging in my ‘shaw on a downtown corner with the guys.
One of my last nights as a rickshaw runner was July 1, Canada Day, when downtown Ottawa swelled with thousands of maple-leafed partiers and the streets were closed to all motorized vehicle traffic. The rickshaw runners always made a killing on Canada Day.
The guys would work from 10 a.m. through to 3 or 4 a.m. the next morning, competing to see how many of them would clear a grand in take-home cash, but I didn’t have the stamina for the full gauntlet. I sat out the baking hot afternoon and rolled in for the evening shift, and spent much of the night ferrying drunks across the long bridge from Ottawa to its Quebecois sister city, Gatineau, on the other side of the river. I charged $20 each way and ran back and forth, back and forth, until the crowds dwindled and I turned my rickshaw back towards the narrow maze of downtown.
I was walking down a dark, empty street hemmed in by tall parking garages when I saw a man leaning down to speak to someone sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car. He, the man outside the car, was holding something. I blinked and squinted—was the man on the sidewalk pointing a gun at the man in the car? It sure looked like it. I kept walking and stared harder, and the man with the gun—I was pretty sure by now it was a gun—looked up and across the street at me.
I snapped my head forward and tried to keep a steady pace, my empty rickshaw rolling easily behind me. My skin itched all over. The block was endless; I imagined the man watching my progress the entire way.
I went around the first corner I reached and started running. My day’s take, upwards of $600, swung and bounced in front of me. I ran hard until I found a cop, two or three blocks later, and explained, panting, that I thought I had seen a man being held at gunpoint back on Clarence St. The cop radioed for backup and moved out in the direction I’d come from, and I headed for the bright lights and busy streets where I knew I’d find the others.
When I put my rickshaw away that night, and headed to the 24-hour diner with the guys to count our cash and swap boasts over greasy breakfasts, I knew I’d lost my taste for the job. I had loved the bragging and the brotherhood, that sense of being a part of a larger swaggering something. I had enjoyed being privy to that late-night world. But there had always been an ugly underbelly to the job, too. Suddenly, I wanted back into the sunlight.
I still wasn’t sure if I believed Kevin’s theory, that I would fight to the death for my hard-earned dollars, but I knew I didn’t plan on finding out.
Eva Holland is a freelance writer based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Her work was recently listed as a notable selection in The Best American Essays 2013 and The Best American Sports Writing 2013.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons