Monday, October 26, 2009

Taxionomy: A Passenger's Guide to Cabbies of the World

I don't pretend to be an expert on taxi drivers. I admit to you, my fellow passenger, that I have no idea what makes the cabby tick. I can't imagine how he spends his off hours or whether he feels absurd when it's time for him to get out of his cab and into his car to drive home. Like most far-flung fields of human study - quantum mechanics and what have you - the taxi driver eludes the common man as well as the so-called experts, who demonstrate at best a well-articulated befuddlement when it comes to their pet subject.

There is nothing on the Newtonian scale so puzzling as the cabby. Like the electron, the cabby wheels about in an exhaust plume of probability: it is impossible to know his exact location and his future destination simultaneously. Perhaps the taxi driver remains a riddle even to himself. But because cabbies, unlike Higgs bosons and neutrinos and antimatter, are a real and active force in our day to day lives, and because I have a layman's understanding of taxi drivers from various unpleasant corners of the globe, I will offer this brief and elementary introduction to cabbies of the world: their customs, their caprices, and their cunning.

Let me begin by narrowing our scope. This essay will concern itself solely with taxi drivers outside the United States of America. First of all, the only American taxi I can remember taking was from New York's Kennedy Airport to a Holiday Inn in nearby Jamaica. My senses were not at their sharpest and my only recollection of the experience is of leaving the cab much lighter than when I'd entered it. Secondly - and I know this only from hearsay, literature, and my own a priori speculations - American cab drivers, because they can trace their roots to everywhere on earth and beyond, share almost nothing in common. These men may once have piloted Fiats, Volkswagens, alpacas, or rickshaws in their native lands, may once have driven under the umbrella of whatever Geneva Convention governs international cab driving, but they are Americans now: their morals have long since burned up in U.S. Customs like so much space dust.

It is something of a mystery, then, that cabbies elsewhere in the world, even in nations whose embassies have been closed to one another for decades, abide by the same unspoken code of conduct. For this reason - though I do not profess to understand it - cabbies of the world, to some degree, can be measured and understood. Taking an American cab, on the other hand, is a game of Russian or Jamaican or Armenian roulette. An analysis of the American cabby would be as fruitless as an analysis of The American, who, if we consider the human antipodes of Shaquille O'Neal and Woody Allen, cannot be said to exist in anything but the most rarified metaphysical sense.

In the American cab - or so I am given to understand - the driver is the agitator and the passenger is his agitatee. As a passenger, you can do nothing to improve your standing with the American cabby. Most of the time, he will talk and you, despite yourself, will listen. He will usually offend you in some indirect (but lowbrow) way, and you will be unable to defend yourself either verbally - good luck getting a word in - or physically, as the backseat ear-slap is among the weakest assaults known to man. The American cabby deals you the damnation card from the instant the fare meter lights up and you can only dig yourself into deeper and deeper layers of perdition by opening your mouth. No tip, however generous, can pull you out of the hole the American cabby, by default, has placed you in.

But in the non-American cab, the ball (to coin a sports metaphor) is in your court. You are the guest and so you are the agitator. The cabby, as host, is the agitatee. He is your friend to lose. In the non-American cab, you are granted a very finite number of friend points the moment you get in the car, and will add to or subtract from them according to your behavior.

The first thing you will notice about the non-American cabby is that he is silent. This is not from a lack of things to say. Bear in mind: this man has transported tens of thousands of people hither and thither, most of them drunk and many of them vagrant. He has stories, grievances, and wisdom to share, as any traveler does. But he is waiting for you to make the first move.

Speaking of first moves, it seems I have gotten ahead of myself, for the first question any conscientious passenger must ask himself is: front seat or back? Which seat best facilitates a healthy driver/passenger relationship?

The front seat, I feel, must make the non-American cabby uncomfortable. It is literally too forward. It gives the appearance that the two of you are going somewhere together - which, in a relativistic sense, you are - but understand that, after you've arrived wherever it is you're going, you will never see your cabby again. Let's try and not get too attached. To make the separation less painful, I always sit in the back.

Which is not to say you should keep yourself distant and aloof. Though he may not look directly at you, the cabby has at least three mirrors at his disposal. The cab is his domain and he sees all that goes on within it. Make eye contact with your cabby not by staring at the side of his head, but by looking directly into the rear view mirror. This sounds elementary, but I rode foreign cabs for two years before I was stunned one evening to notice a pair of sad, jaundiced eyes in the mirror, studying my every backseat fidget. From that day on, I have maintained eye contact with my cabbies and it has yielded positive results in terms of rapport and chivalry. Eye contact lets the cabby know: here sits no greenhorn, here is a man who has ridden in a taxi before.

Do not buckle your safety belt. Non-American cab drivers view this as an ominous portent and an insult to boot. You don't begin a romp on the high seas by stuffing your ears full of wax and strapping yourself to the mast, or at least I don't. Buckling up doesn't bode well for the trip and it implies a lack of faith in the cabby, that you think him fallible when - aged 75 and a 63-year veteran of the Chinese road - he clearly is not. The clicking of the safety belt is as the ticking of the deathwatch to the cabby's ear. If he hears you buckling up, which he will, he is infinitely more likely to drive the vehicle into a gorge, killing you but not him.

Cabbies are a finicky lot when it comes to seatbelts, but there is much that doesn't faze them. Language, for one. Tell the cabby where you're headed in English, Tagalog, or 12th Century Plattdeutsch. It doesn't matter. He understands you just the same. Of course, this is not to say that all languages are equal. German - links! rechts! geradeaus! - will get you there minutes before you departed, whereas if you use Spanish - mañana, mañana, mañana - you will not reach your destination until the next Big Bang.

Cabbies sometimes make mistakes: they are not yet automatons. If you tell the cabby "Tesco," he will 99.999999% of the time get you to Tesco. But if you take a million cab rides, your cabby will one day drop you off in the middle of an alkali flat. Do not tell the cabby he has made a mistake. Perhaps he has not made a mistake at all; perhaps he knows something you do not. Slowly get out of the cab and walk out into whatever strange landscape you are confronted with. If there is a shack, a toolshed, a porta-potty, or some sort of closed structure within view, enter it and shut the door behind you. Remain there until you are sure the cabby has pulled away. If there are no manmade structures nearby, continue to walk off into the distance until you are a mere speck on the horizon - from the cabby's vantage point, not yours. Do whatever it takes to convince the cabby that he has successfully and punctually brought to where you were supposed to go. Otherwise, you will probably hurt his feelings.

If you become violently ill in transit, indicate to the cabby that you would like to blow chunks out the window. Again, language is not an issue. When you have received his blessing and he has toggled the child safety lock feature, commence blowing chunks out the window. But it is crucial that you first receive his blessing. While the cabby is no prude and certainly will not blanch at the sight of bodily fluids or the scattering to the four winds thereof, he is deeply bothered by unpermitted violations of the boundaries of his vehicle. He does not appreciate it when people touch his cab or when other vehicles collide with it. Nor is he comfortable with you throwing things (the contents of your stomach) out of the cab without his prior consent.

He is similarly irked when you play with the windows or smoke in the backseat without his permission. I prefer not to imagine what he might do if you fiddled with the mirrors, changed the radio station, or opened the glovebox. Though he does not technically own it, remember that the cab is a direct extension of the cabby's nervous system. He senses all that you do and all that you are about to do. He can read all of your thoughts. In a very real sense, you are a parasite upon his body and, if agitated, he can expel you from his cab as quickly and as violently as your stomach just expelled that last shot of Jager.

Sometimes your cabby will be wearing medals. These were awarded him either by the taxi corporation or by the Alfred Nobel Foundation. You should commend him for his decorations, because he probably received them for meritorious behavior in the line of duty and not for, I don't know, killing scores of pedestrians or something.

A non sequitur: many years ago, I rode in the back of a Chinese trishaw whose pilot - a man with black hair, a neck, and rather indistinct features because he was facing the other way - had mounted between the handlebars of his bicycle a small wooden box. On that box, in a whimsical old-timey font, were the words "MYSTERY BOX," underscored by not one but four italicized question marks. When I asked, in English, about the contents of the Mystery Box, the cabby pretended not to understand, though he had been carrying on just fine a moment before. My translator asked him once in Mandarin and again in whatever the local dialect was, but it seemed the cabby had forgotten how to communicate altogether. Meanwhile, I couldn't be sure, but the longer we rode, the more the Mystery Box seemed to take on a dull red glow. I felt fine that evening, but the next day I all of a sudden succumbed to brain fever, an ailment I would recover from only gradually and painfully, though there remains a sharp, high-pitched ringing in my ears whenever I encounter an excessively punctuated sentence.

Anyway, cabbies: how 'bout em????

1 comment:

joe f said...

only a genius could write a 2,000 word essay on cab drivers