I met up with Radio Cab driver Enrique--a sturdy, exuberant fellow with a loud, easy laugh, and wooden pegs in his ears--on a Saturday night at 12:30 am. It was raining buckets, and I could feel a sickness settling over my throat and sinuses like slick tar. I wanted to go home and curl up on the couch with a cup of herbal tea and a book, but instead, I climbed into Enrique's front seat and rode around with him for the next four hours.

The lifestyle of a cabbie on the nightshift can be a monotonous thing, especially with the current economy. People don't have money; people don't go out to bars and restaurants; people don't get drunk and need rides home after the buses stop running. When no one needs a ride there are two things the cab driver can do: park on the side of the road or drive up and down the empty streets, a wraith in the night. "Sometimes you'll be waiting for an hour for a call to come in," Enrique told me.

Accompanying the potential for extreme boredom is the potential for extreme financial loss. Enrique--a relative newcomer to the cab game (six months)--is a "lease driver," which means he rents his cab each night from an owner, who then pays the Radio Cab company a percentage of the cut at the end of the week. "It's a cool idea," said Enrique. "It kind of gives it a co-op feeling." Only problem is, Enrique must pay 85 smackers just to use a cab each night, plus gas, which usually amounts to around 30 dollars. In the end, Enrique has to make 115 dollars to break even for the night. Then he can start making his rent money.

The hazards of being bored and losing money don't seem to phase Enrique. "I'm doing okay," he said, as we got on I-5 and headed south--a maneuver that surprised me. I had been expecting us to head straight for the heart for the city, downtown and beyond, where the bars would be kicking and the drunks would be stumbling.

As we merged onto Capital Highway, heading towards Beaverton, Enrique explained: "I like working in Southwest because a lot of people are afraid of it. You're going off the map and it doesn't really make sense, you know? A lot of cabbies drive around downtown trying to scoop people; it's like trolling. Trolling for fares. I just hang out in the suburbs and wait for some obscure order, in some weird place and then go out to it. Kind of like delving." He was silent for a minute, then burst into laughter. "Getting lost is fun, too."

Those familiar with Portland's Southwest suburbs should consider themselves lucky; they are a rare breed. Enrique spent months navigating them, getting lost again and again, but suppressing the instinct to just head back to the city in favor of a stronger instinct that said good things were waiting on the suburban horizon if only he would just stick it out. Now he knows the back roads pretty well (the night I rode with him he only got lost once, on a trek to Tualatin; that fearsome hellhole of stripmalls and turn lanes, where each parking lot is a maze of epic proportions) and it quickly became clear, even to me, that the many nights spent awkwardly learning this knowledge are now paying dividends.

In Beaverton, we picked up a middle-aged, well-dressed, utterly sloshed woman from a rowdy bar featuring a country-western band. She tried to buy Enrique a drink before letting herself be taken to the cab, then flirted with him rampantly the entire way home. This was the second time Enrique had been hit on in the twenty minutes I'd been in the cab. The first had been over his cell phone, when one of his "personals" (a customer who has Enrique's direct line and calls him first whenever they need a cab; Enrique has over fifteen of them. He "works it," as they say) ordered him to program the ring for her incoming call to "vibrate." A few miles later we arrived at the woman's street, where she proceeded to give Enrique a ten-dollar-bill to pay for a four-dollar fare before wobbling into the night without asking for change. "Drunk tax," Enrique said, and drove on to the next stop a few miles up the road: the Happy Fortune.

The Happy Fortune did not live up to its name. Almost entirely empty on a Saturday night, it featured oppressive neon lighting and ugly, fake wood panels. Its clientele consisted of approximately six or seven men sitting at the counter, spewing an alarming amount of cigarette smoke into the air. Enrique yelled "Radio Cab!" and a wiry, cross-eyed drunk staggered off his stool and towards us. I don't like judging a book by a cover, but he didn't seem very nice, and I stayed very quiet on the way home as he sluggishly mumbled about the bitch behind the bar who had cut him off.

"I was just rolling... having a good time and shit," he said. "I'm not ripped; I'm not even fucking ripped."

He guided us, with one stop at a convenience store for more beer, past the far outreaches of Tigard, and into the heart of Sherwood, where we deposited him next to a plain, blue duplex at the end of a gravel road. His fare: $23. He handed Enrique 25 bucks and said good night. It had taken Enrique a half hour to get the guy home, which means he was making 50 dollars an hour for a gentle, relaxing, virtually traffic-free drive through the Oregon Sticks.

On the next ride, Enrique picked up a group of drunken Canadians at a bar in Tualatin called the Wichita Pub. Fifteen minutes later he had them home in Wilsonville. Total cost: $21.50. The Canuck leader handed him 25 and said good night.

"Canadian tax," Enrique said, laughing.

The suburbs of almost any metropolis are designed for driving. Wider, better maintained roads, no bike lanes and little to no public transportation equate to a place where a twenty-minute drive is as common as a twenty-minute bike ride downtown. These twenty-minute open-road excursions, the ones that the suburbanites take for granted, is how Enrique butters his bread. One night he took a family of six whose car had broken down to Kelso, Washington. It cost him about eight dollars gas. He made one hundred dollars for the trip.

The suburbs are Enrique's calling. They're lucrative and peaceful, yet vast and lonely. Every evening at around five o'clock, Enrique procures his vehicle in Northwest Portland, hits the freeway, and heads for the back roads. He then drives straight through the night, in and out of strip malls and cul de sacs, for 12 hours, finally heading home again at five AM.

"I spend 75 percent of my waking hours after the sun has gone down," he told me. "It's weird. I don't really experience the night like I used to. These nights used to be cherished. Now I feel like I'm running through it, missing it. I feel like it's a hermitage."

At this point it was around 2:30 in the morning, and Enrique's cell phone was ringing off the hook from bar close-outs yearning for a ride. Endlessly cheerful and upbeat, he answered each call with a "Bueno!?" proceeding to laugh and joke with the caller even when there was no way in Hell we were ever going to get to them. In fact, only one of the seemingly dozens of personal calls Enrique received was actually picked up by Enrique. This was the final call he received before I exited the cab, and it was a group of friends who he used to work with. The other personals had to be gently denied because we were busy winding through Portland's outback and wouldn't even be heading back into town for another half-hour.

"What's really cool about this job," Enrique said, "is that it's like surfing chaos; being in the right place at the right time to pick up some order. There's no way you can predict that. It's not just about making money either; it's about exposing yourself to these yahoos sometimes. It's interesting, throwing yourself out in this huge whirlwind of a lot of drunk people and freaks... you never know what's going to happen. I take comfort in that."

At this point we were following a call to Lake Oswego, 20 minutes away. It was right at the height of the bar rush, and if the call was canceled or if the ride request was really short, Enrique would make no money and not be able to get back into town fast enough to catch the rest of the peak money-making hour. Just as we arrived at the cookie-cutter apartment complex address, the call was canceled. Enrique was frustrated. On the way back into the city he claimed he had an inkling he should have taken a different call and expressed regret that his instinct isn't honed yet. I didn't say anything--but I thought differently. I thought that after six months or so of working this job, Enrique's instincts were probably just fine.

I decided as the night turned to morning and drew to a close that Enrique took the Lake Oswego fare because of the risks it posed, the journey it involved. With 60 to 70 hours spent in a cab every week, he's not a work-a-holic, but a drive-a-holic. For him, it's not the destination that's important, but the ride, and if he misses out and loses a fare or two, at least he saw something new.

As four am approached, Enrique chattered excitedly about Burning Man and how he had recently gotten his band banned from the Roseland for smashing a real pig's head onstage in protest of the war. Right in the middle of his story, I realized I had developed an exhilarating new respect for the cabbie profession. Enrique had been working for nearly 11 hours and still had another hour to go, and yet seemed as energetic as ever. Something about this job fed him passionately, kept him charged like a proton, and I was starting to understand what it was. In only a few hours I had seen parts of Portland I had never seen before and probably will never see again; I had watched Enrique get hit on by three women and one man; and I had felt the thrill of the hunt, the joy in tracking a customer deep into the the underbrush of Portland, and nailing a good fare for your efforts. I had always imagined driving a cab would be interesting; I had no idea it could be so romantic. JUSTIN SANDERS