Friday, February 27, 2009


I may have very few gifts, but one of my unlikely personal attributes is the ability to attract or find the most eccentric, vocal, manic and downright worrying taxi drivers around. Faced with an entire street full of cabs, and selecting one at random, I would find myself sitting with a man (and it is invariably a man) who has an addiction to speed, an axe to grind, and hopefully not an axe to use.

Alighting from the train at Union Station DC, the taxi system is well organized. Quite simple for people like me. You stand in line, and take the next cab that comes to the rank. So there is no selection process. Yet why do I feel that, like the magician who forces me to take the card he wishes, that there is more than serendipity at work here?

I’m a fairly relaxed passenger, but this silent and somewhat sullen driver took me by surprise. Hitting 80 mph through one of the longer underpasses leading out of the city I glanced to my left (yes, I was in the front seat where the G-forces are surely stronger) and noticed that this man was opening the window with his left hand, tuning the radio with his right hand, and steering with his knees. To add to my (unfounded?) concerns, my feet could feel the heavy vibrations of both a shaky tie-bar and a wheel bearing that was playing a different tune to all the others. I involuntarily pushed down with my feet in a moment of passenger stress, and then decided that this was a bad idea. Any more pressure and they would go straight through the thin and rusting metal into the, no … it doesn’t really bear thinking about. There was nothing to be done except enjoy the feeling of weightlessness, and notice that the driver had on his dashboard a small crucifix, an icon of the Blessed Virgin, a voodoo skull and a prayer card to a saint that I did not recognize. Now that’s comprehensive drivers’ insurance.

The following morning’s taxi journey from Alexandria back into DC convinced me that there really is a flashing neon sign above my head that reads, “Talk to him! He really does like it!” Before we had turned out of King Street the hot-button topics of politics and national economics had begun, naturally with a scathing criticism of Barack Obama and the corporate bail-out. I was worried less by his views and more by the fact that he spent most of the time looking at me when talking. A thirty second respite as we moved into slow traffic on the freeway. Then the seductive beauty and pleasures of Cuban cigars, and what did I think? Ah, at last my opinion was being sought, but as I can’t stand cigars I felt unable to contribute. There wasn’t time anyway as he launched into the story of how he was shot in the leg while driving on Madison, but gave his assailant, the passenger, a bloody nose. It was a sense of relief and release that we pulled up outside the Cannon House Building.

Add to this catalog the next day’s driver who couldn’t take us because one of his rear doors was falling off; the one who was too obese to wear a seatbelt, which meant that a loud and shrill warning beep went off every thirty seconds; and finally the Greek driver who skillfully threaded his way through the Manhattan streets extolling the virtues of olive oil. Finally a subject I was interested in, but the journey was too short to enjoy the detail. Sipping a glass of Stella Artois in Docks, waiting for the Hampton Jitney, I really couldn’t wait to get home and behind the wheel of my own car once more.

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