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Scenes from a taxi

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I'm only seeing one, Flickr image by mugleyI'm not a supporter of the view that cab drivers are sources of homespun wisdom and arcane knowledge about issues of the day. My own experience of them over many years does not bear this out.

The cabbies I encountered in The Big Apple, for example, where the stereotype surely was born, were aggressive (towards other cabs, road users in general, pedestrians, tourists, the world) or sullen — except for one who talked in shouted announcements, as if we were travelling in a tractor and he had to overcome the engine noise.

His message, bellowed over his shoulder, was that pretty well the entire rest of the human race were fuckin' lowlifes, but he differed from his lugubrious colleagues in that he had one, much-repeated piece of good news.

Many times, he told me, he had picked up in his cab the writer, Kurt Vonnegut. The truth was, he said during perhaps his sixth or seventh reference to this famous passenger, that he — the cabbie — had actually given Vonnegut the idea for his novel, Slaughterhouse Five, and provided him with much of the story.

The slightest suggestion on my part of a failure to swallow this outlandish claim would, I could see clearly, enrol me among the lowlifes. So, what the hell, I just nodded and went through a revolting charade of being massively impressed until I could pay my fare and escape his mobile shrine to contemporary American literature.

I briefly considered yelling at him, from a safe distance, 'When Dresden was bombed, you weren't even thought of, you fuckin' lowlife liar, so how could you give Vonnegut his plot?' but anyway I didn't, partly because, well, that's not me, and partly because he would have driven straight up on to the sidewalk and crashed me through the steamy window of the bagel joint we just happened to be alongside at the time. This was New York, after all.

Australian cabbies are in general an amiable, diverse lot. They are not given to philosophy, though I encountered one spectacular exception who, once I was settled and we were on our way, said, 'If God is perfect and free from defect then he must exist because not existing would be a defect. Whaddya reckon?'

And when it comes to politics, their attitude is one of generalised complaint in the ironic Australian manner — or, even more attractive, in the blunt multiculturally Australian manner. As one cabbie put it to me recently, 'I am in kebs from ten years and what am I thinkink? Bastard government for me done nothink, that's what.'

These days, there's another echelon of cabbies — those who consider it unnecessary to know even a few words of English. A friend of ours, who had been working in India, staggered off the plane at Adelaide after 30 hours of flights and transfers, climbed gratefully into a cab only to discover the driver — an Indian — spoke no English whatsoever. Our friend directed him to the destination using his rudimentary Hindi.

Me, I lack the professional cabby's imperturbability.

'You're going to miss your plane,' I told my passenger, as I inched towards Departures through roadworks the other day. She betrayed no anxiety.

'The airlines will make allowances,' she said.

'If we hadn't stopped to do all that shopping, we might have just avoided —'

'It'll be all right,' she said.

How would the real cabbies — the ones who were trying to ferry passengers — handle this, I thought. Drawing on my experience of many hours alongside the hackney jockeys, I said, 'If God is perfect and free from defect then he must exist because not existing would be a defect. Wouldn't you say so?'

She looked at me quizzically.

'These roadworks have been here all day,' she said with cabby-like imperturbability. 'We would have been delayed even if I hadn't shopped.'

Japanese tourists began to descend from a vast, motionless bus immediately in front of us and I was about to point out that they'd decided to walk, as if that triumphantly proved some point I was making, when I realised they'd all got out to photograph the roadworks.

Their sudden appearance, however, caused a break in the crawling traffic and I adroitly nipped into the adjoining lane which took us slowly but smoothly to Departures. Just like that.

'It's the bastard government,' I said to my passenger as I hefted her luggage. 'From them you get bloody nothink.'

She looked at me. 'Are you all right?' she said. 'You're impossible when you get anxious.' As if I were Walter Mitty or some similar weirdo.

Somehow, despite years of tutoring by hundreds of cabbies, I couldn't establish, as they do, that easy, superior, don't-contradict-me-mate driver-passenger relationship.

But I suppose it's more problematic when you're married to the passenger.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the Road. His most recent book is Manning Clark: A Life.


Topic tags: brian matthews, cabbies, cab, taxi drivers, new york city, yellow cabs



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Existing comments

Every now and then Brian drops a gem on the morning coffee table. Thanks for this one.

The story reminds me of a recently retired, and very talkative, friend of mine who was a barber through the day and part time cabbie at night. Now there's a double whammy for homespun.

Kim Miller | 18 December 2008  

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