Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Where Ya Headed, Lady?

I’ve had some interesting experiences in taxicabs. A witty and puckish friend of mine from LA asked me today after reading last night’s post, “By the way, what is rain?” It sent my mind back to an incident I experienced on a business trip to the Bay area some years ago. I had flown in to Oakland, rented a car and driven to Walnut Creek. When I arrived back at the Oakland airport several hours earlier than planned, there were no seats available on earlier flights, and I was going to have to hang out in the airport for some hours. There was, however, a flight with seats available leaving from SFO. I had already turned in my car so I grabbed a cab, told the driver I was in a hurry to make a plane, and we headed down the Freeway to the airport.

All of sudden, it began to rain, hard. The cab driver turned on the windshield wipers, but all they did was make a ghastly scraping noise and smear dirty mud all over the windshield, making visibility even less that it had been.

“When is the last time you changed those wiper blades,” I asked?

“It does not rain here,” my cab driver replied, clearly inaccurately.

“Should you pull over? I asked. I am not so eager to make the plane that I am willing to risk my life.”

“No problem,” he said, and rolling down the driver’s side window, half standing up in the driver’s seat and hanging out as far as possible, he proceeded to periodically swipe ineffectually at the mess with a filthy rag he got from somewhere in the bowels of the cab, all while not slackening his 75 mph pace a whit.

Since further protests did not move him, I gave it up, sat back, closed my eyes, and left it up to the fates as to whether I would reach my destination alive.

Another time, I was going to a business meeting in Cambridge and was in a cab with my boss. We got stuck in the infamous Big Dig traffic. My boss, as was his custom, was spending the entire journey on his cell phone, a process that seemed to prove to him, and I believe also was supposed to affirm to me (See the post of the 18th and the reference to me and propinquity to large egos.) his own incredible importance. When he finally looked at the time (I had been attempting to point out we were going to be late and should call), he whipped a large bill out of his pocket and asked the cab drive to fix the problem. The driver pulled out of the line of cars and weaving dangerously in and out of holes and heavy equipment and narrowly avoiding scraping cars and the bridge raced ahead until he came to a bottleneck where we were pinned between the legitimate line of cars and the wall of the bridge (my side, of course). Using tactics seen only in a demolition derby, he cut into the line to the righteous outrage of a lot of Boston drivers. We were almost clear of the mess, when the cab was stopped by that truth-based cliché, a Boston Irish cop. He threatened the driver with a ticket, because several motorists had reported that he cut in line. The driver denied it all. The cop turned to my boss, the author of the whole affair, and said, “Sir, did you see what happened here? Did this driver cut in line, which is a criminal offense?” My boss, long on ego, but rather less so on ethics, replied that he was so sorry that he couldn’t help. He had been involved in a complex conference call and was not concentrating at all on what was happening around him. I answered, quite honestly except for an omission as to why I was in this condition, that I had had my eyes closed because I was feeling somewhat sick.

Cab drivers, as a breed, have to have chutzpah to do what they do every day, but in that department, probably there is no equal to the New York City cabbie. One morning I arrived at Penn Station on a train from Philadelphia, grabbed a cab out front and headed uptown to my first meeting. The cab smelled like smoke, but I assumed a smoker had just gotten out of it. As we proceeded, block by block, a little haze seemed to appear in the air. Suddenly, flames erupted from the ashtray in the door. I pounded on the glass partition.

“Sir, sir, the cab is on fire. You need to pull over.”

He glanced casually over his shoulder at the rising flames and said, “It’s not so big. You can put it out,” and turned back around and kept driving.

I wasn’t sure what I was madder about. His calm assumption that I would be happy to put out a stinky fire in his cab ashtray or that he wouldn’t pull over when I asked him to. I tossed him some money and jumped out at the next light, but it was too late. My hair stunk and my clothes stunk so badly that I had to go buy a new dress and get my hair washed before I could complete my round of meetings.

A New York cabdriver once drove off with my briefcase and plane ticket home (never recovered) because he was angry that I only wanted to go downtown and not to the airport. A Philadelphia cabbie asked my boyfriend, who had walked me down to the street to see me off and told him to take me to the airport, if he knew the way to get there. I almost got out right then, but he called the dispatcher to get directions, and I made it safely. Don’t they at least show them the way to the airport during training? In the days before cell phones, a girlfriend and I were taken for a ride by a cabdriver who would not let us out or take us where we were going until he ran up a large fare. I was so grateful we were together, and that we made it out OK with only the loss of the money.

But these scary or angry or dangerous cabdrivers are not the worst of the breed by far. That distinction goes to the “This is my big chance. I have a captive audience cabdriver.” Thirty minutes of “I gotta a great idea for a biziness, you should invest,” or “You’re and (sic) editor? Let me tell you about this great book I’m thinkin’ a’ writin’. Maybe you could help me get it published.” Horrors. It’s almost enough to make me give them up forever until the next time I need one.

Happy traveling.

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