Friday, 8 June 2012

Taxicab Confessionals…Cabfessionals? Confesxi’s? Taxelations? Meh…Stories from Taxis.

(*Please note...I mostly wrote this on the 8th of June, and just got around to tidying it up now, so screw it...I "posted" this on the 8th of June! Sue me, calendar-police!)

I had a girls night with a few gals from the office a week or so ago, and as we were chatting about life in general, the subject of taking cabs—and the nature of creepy cab drivers—came up. Now, all these gals are quite pretty, and I’m sure get hit on all the time, and told me a few hair-raising stories about cab drivers that were clearly up to no good. And let’s face it, the sea of humanity that oozes in and out of the back seat of a cab has the ability to create a petri dish of germs and weird smells and loose hairs and lost change and back sweat and god knows what else.  As well, way up here in Iqaluit, you get in a cab and you are not, for a time, being driven by your own private driver to where ever your destination may be. No, you are being driven in a car pool that could suddenly take a left when you wanted to go right, and pick up as many other folks as the cab might hold. When you are coming home with groceries, there might be 4 other people also going home with groceries at the same time, so you wedge in your stuff, pray your ice cream doesn’t melt on the way to 3 other homes before yours (although I’m sure this is no worries in the winter…unless the bags are in the heated interior with you), and off you go.

However, all that being said, I have to register here that either I’m completely lucky when it comes to taxi rides, or just have a nature/perverseness that loves driving around with strangers and paying for the pleasure. I have had amazing cab rides. Like, amazing.

Yes, often those stereotypes of the “foreign” cab driver…basically someone who seems to be from ANYWHERE other than the city you are driving in…can be true. But why the hell would that deter me from chatting with them, sharing a witty banter or two, or feeling that it was worth it to not kill someone with my own terrible driving skills? I’ve spoken with people from all over the world and learned why they came to Canada or the States or the UK; to Vancouver, BC or Iqaluit, NU or New Orleans, LA or London, Essex. Or why people simply moved from one city in Canada/States to another.

When I was in New Orleans in 2010, I spoke to several cab drivers who had just moved back to the city after being gone since Hurricane Katrina. There was this mingling of happiness, relief and sadness in their voices when I asked, “Are you from New Orleans?” and they answered, “Well, yes I am, born and raised. But I just got home from the storm.” You could tell they were happy to be in a place of familiarity, with the food and culture and people they understood, and they were relieved that things weren’t quite as bad as they had perhaps thought, after five years. But they were sad too, as many of their friends had not returned–perhaps would not return at all–, favourite shops and restaurants were still boarded, and the tourism was still down. Another cabbie told me that he had evacuated during Katrina, but came back right away. He lived in Bernard Parish, one of the lower districts, and told me that he hoped there would be no hurricanes that year as he had used up all his “evacuation money.” Apparently a lot of people in different parts of the Gulf keep “evacuation budgets” going, in case they have to leave when a big one comes in. I asked why he lived in a place where you may need to run for your life at least once a year, and he said, as I expected he would, that the culture, people, his home, etc. meant enough to him to tough it out and that it wasn’t so bad.

Unfortunately, this turned into one of those rare weird moments where you realize you’re driving with someone who is NOT your pal, and who does not necessarily share your beliefs. II glibly commented, “Oh, I guess you really like the folks down there; your community?” and he said, “Well, I’d rather be living next to a redneck than a thug any day.”  For those wondering what the hell THAT means, it means that he was a white dude, who would rather live next door to poor, ignorant, possibly criminal other white dudes than next to poor, ignorant, possibly criminal black dudes. Yep. It was like that.

Or how about back in St. John’s, during my first few months there after moving across country in 2003 (check the beginning of this blog for 2003 hilarity!), and the cabbie who drove me home from my first big grocery shop. He asked what I was making for dinner, and I said, in my best Canadian-Ukrainian voice (which sounds exactly like my Canadian-German voice, and my regular Canadian voice, but totally unlike my fake Swedish-accent voice or my creepy Nazi spy voice), “Perogies!” He said, “Ah, good old Ukrainian perogies! Sounds delicious!” I respond (still pretty regular sounding as I was not relaxed enough to pull out my ‘Vee half vays of making you talk, Herr Mann!'), “Oh, do you like them?” He answers, “Oh yeah, I love all kinds of different ethnic foods…just not the cooks, if you know what I mean.” starting to get a weird, twitchy sensation in my left eye, “Oh?” “Yeah,” he continues, “It’s why I moved here from Toronto. Too much multiculturalism, there.”

Ooooh boy. First of all, though St. John’s was, indeed, one of the whiter cities I’ve lived in, it was not lacking multiculturalism, or ethnic foods, or different religions, languages and creeds. So one point lost there, sirrah. And yeah, like, a billion for the rest of it.

Thankfully for me, these moments are few and far between. Though I was asked almost every time I got in a cab in St. John’s, “Where are you from?” because of the non-Newfoundland sounds coming out of my mouth—for ten straight years—I still had some of my best experiences with drivers there. I chatted everyone up, and many cabbies got to know me over the years and would ask about my schooling, or what the “folklorist” was up to now, or would tell me stories of St. John’s history, ghost stories, stories about their wives, husbands, grandchildren, or why they moved to Canada. One super snowy day, when it took almost an hour to get from my house on Prescott Street to the university (normally a 10-15 minute drive), I got an intense amount of deep, dark and shady secrets about the Folklore Department from a woman who was married to a scandalous, now-dead, professor. For those of you in the know, you know who I’m talking about. The rest of you, Mind your own business!

Back to New Orleans, I had a hilarious cabbie ask me what I was up to in the Big Easy, and when I told him I was there studying “belief tourism” and all the mainstream/non-mainstream/supernatural belief stuff going on in the tourism industry there, he gave me his home phone number and told me he’d tell me all about his night driving for 15 years. Of course, I promptly lost the number, and a fantastic potential source for my thesis, but I’m hoping to get him again this trip! I can hope!

He did tell me a great story about the days when tours could take place at anytime, day or night, mostly anywhere, in New Orleans. Nowadays, tours have to be completed by 11:30pm, can only have a certain number of people on each tour, etc.  But back in the day, an infamous tour guide (who several people spoke about, but no one would tell me his name!) who was a huge man, always dressed in super-goth style, with full crazy eyes and long black duster, even in the scorching tropical weather, would take tours out past midnight in the French Quarter. He regaled his victims with stories of werewolves, vampires, and ghosties, and would often howl at the moon. This particular cab driver was driving nights one summer, and during a clear and cloudless 2am in the morning, with a massive full moon overhead, he saw the giant guide and his wide-eyed gaggle of tourists trailing him. As they were crossing St. Charles and almost at the meridian (where the street cars run), the cab driver slowed down and sent a super loud and rather realistic “HAROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” out the window. As the tourists grasped each other, looking wildly around, the guide, without missing a beat, stopped on the meridian, looked up at the moon and sent an even MORE realistic howl out into the night! The cab driver was gutting himself as he said, “Lord, girl, I tell you. More than one of those poor fools shit their pants that night, I promise you that!”

Another cabbie in the Crescent City told me he was back from workers’ compensation leave because a woman in his cab had been drunk, made a rather overt pass at him, and when he pointed at her and said, “Put your shirt back on miss” she bit his hand hard enough to break the skin!!!! Talk about your werewolves in New Orleans! We did have a good laugh about it though, and he said, “That’s women for you! You get your head bit off if you ask to see their tits, and your hand bitten off if you ask them to cover them! No. Pleasing. A. Woman.” Oh cab drivers, and your earthy ways....

When I was living in New Westminster, in British Columbia, there were a lot of the movie-stereotyped Pakistani and Indian drivers. Again, though, I always took the same company, and drivers got to know me, and we would end up chatting away the whole trip. There was even a time or two when I didn’t have to pay, especially when I worked nights and took cabs more frequently. Free rides equal the best rides. I had one guy who used to shout at me out the windows of the cab as I was walking around the town, "Hey, Nice to see you young lady!!!" or would slow down, even with other fares in the car, and say, "You need a ride in a bit? I can meet say the place!" Ha ha! I think the fact that I always tip a bit helps my cause.

On my recent trip to Ottawa, on the way to Iqaluit, I took a cab downtown from my lovely airport hotel to meet a friend living in the city for dinner (it was hard to part with the scintillating view of the dirt field, but one must make sacrifices for friends). When I got to our meeting spot, she said she was panicking, thinking I didn’t have enough money to pay the driver, because I was just sitting there, car idling, talking to the guy. Then she remembered it was me, and I kind of can’t stop talking…to anyone. And yes, me and the cab driver were having one of the BEST cab conversations ever! I was telling him about how I had never travelled until I was 33 (again, read the start of this blog…seriously, it’s amazing!), and then I went for it, and now I’ve been to England for a short trip, and to New Orleans, and I’m heading to the Arctic, for god’s sake! He got super excited, and said that he was literally planning on quitting his cab job that month, and wanted to travel, but was…wait for it…33(!) and had never travelled! Well, we had a great time, and he kept freaking me out by turning around to get a better look at this pudgy woman telling him to go for it! He actually got really emotional, and said that it was fate that put me there, and he felt so much more confident, and I said (in complete and total honesty), “Honey, if I can do it…trust me…ANYONE can do it!”

Kind of like the day I found out I can handle almost being accosted by a bleeding and raving lunatic when I was unceremoniously shoved OUT of a cab one late night back in Vancouver. One of my rare bad-cab experiences, we pulled up in front of my apartment building at 3am, after a long night shift. I was living alone for the first time after my separation, and still pretty new at it. As I was paying the driver, we saw a tall, thin and pale man, covered in blood, holding some sort of wound on his head with his blood-covered hands, come staggering out of some bushes. I was half-in, and half-out of the back cab door on the driver’s side, and the cabbie spun around, grabbed me by the collar, hauled me OUT of the cab, slammed the back door shut and PEELED OFF INTO THE NIGHT!! The fucker left me alone, a 5’4” woman, with a raving lunatic coming at me full bore! Cab drivers everywhere, take heed, that one I’ll never forget...
I handled the situation like a pro, though, surprising even myself as I used my angry-authoritative-woman voice, and told the man to STOP RIGHT THERE or I was going to scream fire AND rape like a mad-thing. He stopped, and I then, in the same super deep and authoritative (though I was scared as shit) voice told him to get on the ground and I would get him help! I literally bullied this dude, who was by now starting to lose his adrenalin, and was younger than I thought and no doubt caught up in a bad drug deal, to get on the grass in front of my building and went and called an ambulance and the cops. I then came back with hair dye gloves and a bowl of water and a cloth and told him to sit on his hands while I helped him clean up and waited for the emergency guys to come. (Interesting side note: while I was yelling and clomping around like a bull in the quiet street, not ONE person came to help or even checked to see what was happening. Huzzah big cities…*sigh* I both love you and shake my head at you in dispair.)

In the back of cabs I’ve learned odd tidbits of knowledge (which must always be taken with salt) on the place I am currently being driven in, about the myriad of places my drivers have hailed from (get it! Hailed…hail a cab!! Ha! Oooh, never mind….), about human nature, and hell, I’ve learned a lot about my own nature, too.

I’ve also learned to never, never, never stick your hands down the back of the seat, or pick up something that looked interesting from the floor. “Vee half vays of giving you hepatitis, Fraulein. Oooh yessss….vee half vays…”