I know it’s a big cliché to take stock and rank the results of your stock-taking at the end of the year, but I can’t help it.
This year’s Taxi Gourmet top 10 is going to be a little different from last year’s, though. For one thing, the list is shorter.
Plus, seeing as I’ve already gathered my Top 5 cabbie-recommended restaurants for Buenos Aires and New York (so far), I thought it might be fun to flip through my mental archives and see which taxi adventures stood out as a whole.
In other words, 2009’s compilation is about the journey rather than the destination.
Here, in random order, are the taxi adventures I remember most from the past 12 months, for reasons I’m about to explain. If you’re a pessimist, you might want to stop reading now:
Last Taxi in Buenos Aires: Yes, this was my final taxi adventure in Argentina before transplanting Taxi Gourmet to New York, but beyond the gravity of the occasion, Julio Verón was the reason the ride left such a lingering impression. Yes, Julio is the typically gracious Buenos Aires taxista, but he also taught me just how much driving a cab can hone your instincts and transform the way you relate to people. His story of how he escaped what could have been a tragic run-in with a pair of armed and dangerous passengers (and earned a generous tip in the process) offered proof of his hard-earned street sensitivity.
Diamond in the Bronx: Godfred Opuka, the Ghanaian cabbie who delivered me to an amazing meal at Papaye in the Bronx, was the first cabbie I met in New York who wrestled with the American Dream until it yielded to his will. After five years behind the wheel and countless 18-20 hour shifts, he reached a goal that few taxi drivers here ever achieve: he’s the proud owner of a New York City Yellow Cab medallion (there are 47,000 licensed cabbies in New York – but only 13,000 medallions). “New York is the best city,” he told me, “They give opportunity to anyone who deserves it. No matter where you’re from…But you have to work hard.”
Lady Cab Driver: Mabel was the first and only female cab driver I ever rode with in Buenos Aires, but that isn’t why she’s burned on my brain. After 15 blocks in her back seat, my co-adventurer and I discovered a tender-hearted survivor beneath her tough, androgynous surface. The veteran taxista is hopelessly devoted to her 2-year-old great-granddaughter and the two teenage granddaughters she’s raising, but the loss of her daughter in 2004 remains an open wound. Once we reached her favorite restaurant, Mabel parked her cab, led us into Spiagge di Napoli, greeted the owner and made sure that he’d take good care of us. We were charmed long before the first bite.
Souvlaki and a Second Strike of Lightning: Before I moved to the Big Apple, I didn’t even dare to hope that a New York cabbie would give me a free ride, but that’s exactly what happened when I climbed into José Pego’s cab on 31st St. in Astoria. When I asked him to take me to his favorite restaurant, he drove about five blocks, stopped in front of Opa! Souvlaki, and refused to take my money: “You have to know when what you have is enough. When you keep acquiring more and more things, you forget what you had in the first place. It gets pushed into a corner. You know when you have what you need.” Did I mention that the souvlaki was delicious?
Walter Rides Again: Imagine this – you’ve just finished a 12-hour cab driving shift in Buenos Aires, and you get a flat on your way home. While you’re dealing with your busted tire on the side of the road in the suburbs, four (apparently high) delinquents stop and shoot you four times for no apparent reason. You survive. After 40 days in the hospital and weeks at home in bed, the wound in your esophagus is still healing, and all you can eat is boiled chicken, rice, and broth. Defying your demons, you return to your taxi. Your first night back behind the wheel, you pick up three Americans and an Argentine who want you to take them to your favorite restaurant.
Two Strikes and a Haitian Feast: New York cabbie Leslie Destine led my co-adventurer and me to an unremarkable meal at a Haitian diner in Hell’s Kitchen where he can no longer eat because of his high blood pressure. But two things emerged during our adventure with him that are still fresh in my mind. The first was the fact that he insisted he could never return to Haiti. After 40 years in Brooklyn, he said he’d “have nothing to say to people” if he went back and told us that “New York is the best place to live. You can find everything here. Day or night, you’ll find it.” The other thing I remember about Leslie is his dedication to his marriage. This January, he’s going to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary and take the “beautiful wife I will never leave until I die” to Paris.
Constance Marie and The Door to Jamaica: Supercabbie Iris Javed whipped me into a state of awe with her fierce tales of working as female cab driver, but it was Constance and her purple fedora that made me believe that I could be a taxi driver myself. Connie’s generosity and her sense of fun were totally infectious as she went down a list of all the places where she loves to eat in New York and bragged about the mean potato salad she makes herself. For her, driving a cab isn’t just a way to support herself as she works her way through school – it’s also preparing her for ER nursing and giving her a vehicle to demonstrate the kindness that comes so naturally.