There are definitely answers only the cab driver can give us. – Stephan Sirard
Conversations with local cab drivers remain one of the highlights of my solitary business travel life. Sometimes what starts out as polite conversation, ends up providing a new perspective, or, in days before cell phones, informative news after a long flight.
In Ottawa the week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, a dark skinned cabbie with an accent that I couldn’t place, incredulously wondered “How is it that Donald Trump will be your next President? Do you Americans not understand how important you are to peace in the entire world? This is not just about you, you know.” His continued banter pulled me out of my post meeting reverie as I realized I had no good answer for him. “I get that you may not like Hillary. Your country is a symbol of freedom and equality to all peoples. How can Americans elect such a bad character?” My passionate cabbie clearly did not see Donald Trump as walking to an American beat of freedom and equality. I sheepishly replied. “I don’t know the man, but there are more people in the US Government than the President. The values that you admire about my country are still there. Its these values that make it possible for any US born citizen to become President.” I inhaled deeply, and just above a whisper, I murmured, “I chose to believe that when all is said and done, our fundamental values and high regard for human rights and freedom will prevail.”
This recent conversation created a series of flashbacks from different cab conversations over the decades.
Politics is a frequent topic of conversations among cabbies. One of my favorite places to engage in unique conversations was in Cairo in the 1980s. Cairo’s city traffic is unlike anywhere else. To personalize their private vehicles, drivers attached what looked like the latest multi-colored disco lighting to rear view mirrors, widows or break lights. Between the flashing lights, horns, smog and dark Mercedes cabs weaving in and out, each ride was an adventure.
I travelled to Cairo many times in the 80s and really enjoyed my conversations with the friendly Egyptian cabbies who, at the time. were almost effusive in their love of Americans. Every driver had his favorite tourist attraction and asked you to take a note of it as he gushed, “You must see this before you leave my country.” On one occasion, I was traveling with a colleague on his first visit to the region. He was as intrigued by the colorful traffic as I was. At a standstill in one of many traffic jams, an older diesel bus spewed black smoke over the Mercedes’ wind shield. “Oh my, God, would you look at that!” my colleague laughed. The round faced cabby looked over his shoulder at us and joined in. “Yes, we love America. These buses were a gift to us from your President Jimmy Carter to help us with our traffic problems.”
Chatty cabbies seem to like to connect with where you are from. Sometimes, they will try to relate to the area where you live.
In Paris 1979, on one of my earliest business trips, I was excited to be able to expense a cab ride from the airport at Roissy to the 8th arrondissement. Both the hotel location and the expense of a cab, were unfamiliar spending habits in my former left bank student days just a few years earlier. Cab comfort meant that I didn’t have to schlep my luggage on the metro. It also offered me the opportunity to practice my French. I headed to the taxi queue at arrivals and mentally rehearsed my opening remarks to the driver. After he noted my directions, he complimented my French. (I suppose he thought this would increase his tip:-)
After learning that I hailed from Pennsylvania, he expressed concern. In all my travels, this was a first. “Quoi?” (what?) I exclaimed with a slight smile to my tone, expecting the punch line to the joke. “Do you live near Harrisburg?” he asked. “About two hours away by car?” I responded still puzzled. In all my previous travels to France, I normally had to paint a sketch of where Pennsylvania was relative to New York City on the US map. This guy was really well informed. “Mon Dieu, Ecoutez!!!” he exclaimed as he turned the volume up on this radio. “Il y a une Crise Nucléaire!” he cried. “Crise nucléaire?” I let the words tumble through my head as I tried to think of another translation besides the obvious. “BOOM!” he finally shouted, as his hands leapt from the steering wheel explosively. He got my attention and understanding. He was telling me about the nuclear event at Three Mile Island. My sister was a radio news reporter at WKBO in Harrisburg. Later, I learned her station broke the Three Mile Island story and she was picked up on the AP wire. I quickly phoned home to find out she was shaken, but ok and was planning to remain in Harrisburg to cover the emerging details. For at least a year after that ride, if I met people from PA on my travels they asked me if I knew Michele Le Fever. “She’s my sister.” I beamed.
Not all of my cab rides have been pleasant experiences. I remember one particular hairy ride in the former Yugoslavia right after the wall came down. After several flight delays, I finally landed in Belgrade around 10:30 pm. The grayish airport was dimly lit and not busy. No one appeared to speak English. It was a time before cell phones and I did not see a pay phone in the airport. There was no taxi queue…only some Eastern European men standing at arrivals holding hand written “TAXI” signs. My spidey senses were warning me away from this option. But, my efforts to communicate with other non-English speaking people at the airport were not yielding other viable options. So, I took a deep breath and walked up to the least scary guy holding a sign and handed him a slip of paper with my hotel’s address. He nodded, grunted and signaled for me to follow him. At the cab, he took my suitcase and threw it into the trunk of his nondescript Lada. He tossed it on top of some grimy tools and dirty ropes which caused my tummy to summersault. As we drove away from the lights of the airport and a very dark road enveloped the cab, the deafening silence caused my over active imagination to flip into full catastrophe mode. “What if he’s not heading to the hotel, how will I know? If I don’t show up at the hotel, how long before someone misses me?” My mental soliloquy went on for about 15 minutes till I remembered my Catholic upbringing. I decided to call in all the prayers to Mary that I hadn’t recited in years. Soon the city lights of Belgrade, although not as bright as other European cities, appeared on the horizon. I thanked Mary for delivering me safely.
I decided then and there that I preferred talkative cabbies to grunting ones because the conversations with myself were certainly not as pleasant! I’ve not yet engaged Uber or Lyft drivers. I wonder how they compare to cabbies?