Friday, May 10, 2002

Calling out Cabbies
Whenever I'm in a taxi, I have the tendency to engage the driver in a conversation for the duration of the ride. I'm not sure how it happens, and I'm not sure if this is something I actively pursue or encourage, but it happens a lot. All the time, in fact. And most of the time, talking to taxi drivers is fascinating. I've had two conversations with cabbies in the past week that I think are worth sharing.

The first conversation happened Wednesday night. I'd gotten back from San Diego at 6:30 that morning and headed straight to the office, thinking I'd work a while and then head home midday. I'd totally forgotten an online event I was scheduled to facilitate, so I ended up staying until 5:45 p.m. Then I called a cab so I didn't have to lug my suitcase home on the T. I'm not sure what prompted the driver, but for some reason he told me, "If you lead an unplanned life, you have to deal with the consequences." That's what got us talking. Turned out that the driver used to have a gambling problem -- frequent trips to Foxwoods and scratch tickets every day. Said he'd probably wasted away $200,000 over the course of his gambling career. "If only I had that money today," he said. A friend of his had once lost $47,000 over the course of three days. ("You could live for a couple of years on that money," I said.) He started to question his gambling habit -- his addiction ("That's exactly what it is," he said. "An addiction.") -- when his 13-year-old son asked him for a computer and he couldn't afford it. So he stopped gambling. Started taking classes to learn how he could improve his credit rating. Started driving a taxi to earn more money on the side. It's been three years since he stopped gambling. He's still driving the cab.

The second conversation took place last night when I caught a last-minute ride to Alex's house for dinner. Mike, my driver, was a talkative one. We kept driving past buildings he'd never seen before -- "When did they put that there?" -- as well as construction sites. Weird. Mike's been driving a taxi since the '60s -- in Somerville since the '70s. His wife is in the hospital with a urinary tract infection her doctors "should have caught the last time she was in the hospital," but she's scheduled to be released early next week. She goes to the hospital a lot and seems to have a lot of medical problems. "Some of the doctors think that she's one of those people who likes being taken care of in the hospital," Mike said. "Give me a break. She's in a wheelchair!" Because her primary care physician isn't always readily available, sometimes she doesn't receive timely care because the other doctors and medical care professionals doubt she's really ill, thinking she's a hypochondriac.

Then we started talking about books for some reason. "You know what radio show I'd want to be on when I publish my book?" Mike asked me. I didn't. "Forget Oprah. It's the Art Bell show. If you work during the day you probably don't listen to it because it's on at night, but that's the show." I'm not sure whether Mike is really working on a book, but he did say that he's working on a unified theory about everything, "which I'm constantly adapting," he said. Anyway, Mike says that the Art Bell show is the show to go on because book sales skyrocket after authors appear on it. Two examples:

  • A paranoid woman ("She was a total nut case.") who moves every two months so people can't track her down -- and stores her book in friends' garages -- appeared on the show. Her book hit No. 800 on the sales rankings.
  • A former private investigator who penned a tome on how to drop out of society ("He used to track people down for the FBI, so he wrote a book about what he did in reverse.") also appeared on the show. Then, according to Mike, his book hit No. 1 on the New York Times' best-seller list.

    I have no idea whether that is true, but it got me thinking about books written by and about taxi drivers. There's Risa Mickenberg and Joanne Dugan's "Taxi Driver Wisdom." There's David Bradford's "Drive by Shootings: Photographs by a New York Taxi Driver." Ansara Ali's "Sacred Adventures of a Taxi Driver." C.E. Patterson's "Memoirs of a Taxi Driver." Mike even told me that a driver for Town Taxi in Boston has written a book about little-known history in the area. "Tourists kept asking him questions, and he was frustrated that he didn't know all the answers," Mike said. "So he started to do research and realized that a lot of the history he'd learned and stories he'd heard wasn't correct. Like Paul Revere's ride. Didn't happen."

    What I want to know is whether that Town Taxi driver sells the book out of the back of his cab. He'd certainly have a captive audience.
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