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Taxiing to the Light

Often when I tell people about these taxi quests, they’re surprised that I would surrender my food fate to a stranger.

“Isn’t that a little dangerous? Don’t you ever worry about being driven in circles? Or robbed? Or worse?”

Nope.

After taxi adventures in three countries and counting, cabbies continue to surprise me with their graciousness as they guide me to their favorite places. Although sometimes it’s difficult to communicate the idea that I don’t want to go to touristy restaurants, these guys simply refuse to cheat me, despite the fact that my foreignness makes me an easy target.

No, I’m not arguing that all taxi drivers are angels – especially in light of a recent assault on a British woman in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood. But so far my experience on these culinary escapades has shown me that cabbies more than reciprocate the trust I instill in them. Sensing my confidence in their judgment, they respond in kind. Every time.

If my experience doesn’t convince you that cool things that can transpire in a taxi, then maybe this story by Malaysian cab driver Tang Tuck Hoong will:

I arrived at the address where someone had requested a taxi. I honked but no one came out. I honked again, nothing. So I walked to the door and knocked.

‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, and then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated’.

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy’, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’

‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly. ‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice’.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued. ‘The doctor says I don’t live very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now.’

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

‘You have to make a living,’ she answered.

‘There are other passengers,’ I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said.

‘Thank you.’

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?

What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

Photo Credit: Charles Rathbone: http://www.taxi-library.org/taxi-photo.htm

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