By R J Furth
My earliest memory of taxi drivers is not a pleasant one. I was a university student visiting New York City for the first time, unaware of the reputation of New York cabbies, who take great pride in being opinionated, coarse and confrontational. My dad had taught me about tipping and percentages, but I didn’t know if the 15% that was standard for waiters also applied to cabbies. Besides, being young and with limited funds, I wasn’t about to drop a large sum in the driver’s palm. The bill might have been $1.70 or $1.80 (again, we’re talking 40 years) and I think I gave him $2.00. As I exited the taxi, the cabbie looked as his palm as if I’d placed a fresh turd on it.
“What the hell is this?” the driver snarled.
I mumbled something about a tip.
“This ain’t a fuckin’ tip,” he bellowed as I scurried away, imagining that all of Manhattan was glaring at the hick from Colorado who had pissed off a New York cabbie. “Hey, this ain’t a fuckin’ tip.”
The experience has stayed with me, though it has not put me off taxi drivers. In fact, as my wife Sandy will confirm, I love talking with taxi drivers. I collect them like some collect stamps or shot glasses from around the world. (My nephew.) Chicago – which I’ve visited a couple of dozen times during the past decade – is a superb place for chatting with taxi drivers. I’ve discussed the Golden Temple of Amritsar with Sikhs, debated politics and disaster relief with Pakistanis, been given geography lessons by Ghanaians and Nigerians, considered the true nature of Islam with Bangladeshis, listened to descriptions of Ethiopian cuisine with drivers from Addis Ababa, talked of the tropics and history with south Indians from Kerala. I’ve even – to my astonishment – had two drivers born and raised in Chicago, an extraordinarily rare occurrence. I’ve yet to have a single cross word with a Chicago cabbie and have never been ‘taken for a ride’ by one trying to squeeze out another buck or two.
I always keep my eyes open for writing topics, yet it never occurred to me to write about taxi drivers until a recent ride in London. Sandy and I were heading to St Pancras station to take the Eurostar to Brussels to meet cousins Rhoda and Joe. Even before we had climbed into the taxi I sense that we had a talker. Now, usually that’s not a bad thing. I like talking with cabbies. However, as he loaded the bags in the trunk, this guy was grumbling about the taxi company giving him short notice, and why not call him the night before rather than early that morning, which would have been simpler, which failed to explain why he rang our doorbell fifteen minutes early, sending us into a mini-panic. It wasn’t a promising start to the trip. He then asked where we were from and went on to praise the United States which had saved his nation – Kosovo – from those Serbian bastards, and did we own or rent our flat and where were we traveling to and what did we think of London… It was early in the morning and I wasn’t in the mood for talking (not that much talking, not personal questions), but it was a short ride and so I politely replied to his questions. Then he pulled into a side street near the station and parked.
“The station is over there,” I said, pointing out the obvious.
“Yes, but it’s better if I drop you off here.”
Better for whom? Not for Sandy and me, not with our bags, not this early in the morning. Rather than argue, I asked the price.
“How much do you usually pay?”he inquired.
London taxis do not negotiate prices. Black cabs use meters; so-called radio operated taxis (legal taxis that are not allowed to pick up passengers by chance, they must be requested by phone) have set fares based on distance. There is no haggling, no negotiations.
“What is the fare?” I asked firmly, showing my displeasure.
He finally gave me a price, which I paid. Without a tip.
Admittedly, this taxi experience was a mild annoyance. I have been spoiled in London by consistently excellent London taxi drivers who know the city and will engage in mild chatter, though they prefer to leave you in peace. Drivers of black cabs must study for four years and pass a rigorous test before they are granted a license. They possess what is called The Knowledge and there is no better taxi driver in the world. Studies have shown that the part of the brain related to memory is enlarged in those with The Knowledge. Radio operated taxis are another story. Local taxi companies are apparently not closely regulated and their service – and the quality of their drivers – varies wildly. We stopped using one company because we seemed to keep getting the same driver, a very aggressive Afghani. I liked the man at first. We talked about Afghanistan (I spent a couple of weeks there in 1976), religion and politics, and he seemed a fine fellow. Then I made the mistake of sitting in the front seat on a solo trip to Heathrow. He became quite agitated (this was during the presidency of George W) and started to rant about that criminal Bush and his war on the people of Afghanistan. That wasn’t a problem; the poking was. As he drove he started to emphasize his argument by poking my arm and leg.
“Your President Bush seems to think he can win this war, but he will never win,” poke, “because he doesn’t understand the Afghani people. Why does he keep bombing us?” Poke. “Every time he drops a bomb he makes more enemies. He will never defeat us.” Poke, poke, poke.
I exited the taxi with little bruises, like a mango that has been poked too roughly, too many times by inquisitive shoppers. The poker was not the worst taxi driver I’ve ever encountered, nor one of the most memorable. I had a taxi driver expose himself to me in Istanbul, the only time I’ve ever been flashed. To be fair, I think he had pulled out his little wanger in an attempt to impress the Australian woman who sat next to him. She was the roommate of my friend Bruce, who was teaching in Istanbul, and we were on an outing to visit the magnificent Topkapi Palace. Istanbul has a system of taxis that work like buses, picking up and dropping off passengers along a certain route, usually a main road. When the taxi stopped to pick us up the back seat was full, so we climbed in front, with the woman in the middle. The man immediately began to animatedly talk in Turkish, seemingly thrilled with his new passengers. He showed us a picture of himself with his shirt off, gleaming with sweat, flexing his puny muscles. All of a sudden, he tugged his jacket over his lap and started to fumble with his clothes.
“Oh my god, Ron, what is he doing?” my female companion asked.
Before I could answer, the driver pulled back his jacket to reveal his stiff – and unimpressive – member. The Australian woman started to babble and demanded that we make a hasty exit, which we did the moment the taxi stopped in traffic. We didn’t bother paying. Or tipping. Another mild annoyance, and one that we could laugh about after the fact. I’ve had worst experiences.
Malaysia, one of my favorite countries, is where one of my worst taxi rides occurred. Sandy, the kids and I were returning from a long trip. (I have absolutely no memory of where.) The taxi driver at KL International Airport didn’t bother to help us put our bags in the trunk. He was a young Malay, sullen and silent like many are. (Malaysia is over 50% Malay, about 30% Chinese, 10% Indian.) The dashboard was adorned with readings from the Koran, not unusual since Malays are Muslim. Religion was never a problem for us in Malaysia. Our Malay neighbors and acquaintances knew we were Jewish (non-practicing) and didn’t care. In a country of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, religion was not a divisive issue. The man’s sullenness was not based on religion; I did not know the cause, though I have my suspicions based on the events that unfolded.
He drove poorly – not unusual for Malaysian drivers – but there were no problems until he turned down a one way street: The wrong way! Startled and concerned for our safety, I pointed out the obvious. The driver immediately turned around (while still driving) and began to shout.
“You no tell me what to do. This my country. You shut up.”
He was livid with rage. I was startled, yet even at that moment I thought I understood. Many Malays resent the success of others in their country, particularly the Chinese and foreigners who control an enormous percentage of the Malaysian economy. Although I’ve rarely felt hostility from Chinese or Indian Malaysians, there is an historical undercurrent of resentment from Malays. It was a tense journey to our house in Ampang Jaya. The driver continued to glare at me through his rearview mirror. Tired, and now on edge, I did not relish a confrontation in front of our house. We whispered to each other in the back seat, making plans for our arrival. I’ll admit that our plans may have had more to do with my anger than fear of the driver. He was small and – probably – not armed. (Guns don’t exist in Malaysia, long knives – parangs – do.) When the driver pulled up to our gate, we jumped into action. I ran behind the car in case he decided to back up with our bags still in the trunk. Jody ran for the house and let out the dogs. Alan held open the gate so the dogs would run up to the taxi. Muslims do not like dogs, considering them unclean. The plan was to intimidate the driver and keep him in the car so as to avoid any possibility of a confrontation. We removed our bags and the driver made a hasty retreat. No blood was spilled, yet the incident remains vivid.
I’ll leave you with one final, fond memory of taxi drivers, the neatest, cleanest, quietest cabbies on earth: Japanese taxi drivers. Whereas Chicago taxis often smell of fast food and the trunks are loaded with leaky oil cans and dirty rags, Japanese taxis are spotless: exterior, interior, trunk. The headrests are covered with lace doilies. Whereas many cabbies smell of cigarette smoke and sweat, Japanese cabbies are squeaky clean and wear white gloves. I’ve been in taxis in Thailand where the door handles nearly come off in my hand, taxis in India where window cranks are missing. Door handles are not required in Japanese taxis; the driver operates the door with a remote mechanism so that you don’t have to touch anything. In fact, signs in English warn you: Do not open door. The first GPS I ever saw was used by a Tokyo taxi driver, a necessity in a city of 25 million with roads that follow no discernible pattern. I’ve never had a conversation with a Japanese cabbie, never even had one who spoke any English. The driving was always smooth, never over the speed limit, free of abrupt starts or stops. Now that I think about it, Japanese taxi drivers are pretty boring. As safe and exciting as a glass of lukewarm mineral water. I like chatting with cabbies. I enjoy hearing about their histories, their families, their dreams. Maybe I should call my old London radio-operated service and see if the militant Afghani is available. We have so much to talk about, though next time I’ll sit in the back seat.