March 10, 2013

Taxi-Driver Wisdom

It took me 49 hours to get from Ottawa to Berlin, largely thanks to one airline’s inability to be an airline. A conversation with said airline might proceed thus:

Own planes?
Rented space at airports?
Got customers?
Got any idea how put those pieces together in a workable system?
Er, well…
Trained your staff?
They don’t go by train…

(Yes, Air Canada, it’s you).

But the vagaries of travel do give one time to think, as well as ample opportunity to hear the wisdom of taxi drivers, whose lives tend to operate only between airport and city, even if once or twice they have made terrible and unforgiving journeys of their own. In fact it is the likelihood that your taxi driver is an immigrant of some kind that gives him – it is usually a him – his wisdom, for in many cases it means he has suffered. All the tedious miles ferrying us from pillar to post have given him sufficient time to reflect on the causes of that suffering, and the inordinate number of bigots he has met in the back of his cab have given him cause to reflect on the length of the roots of the evil that has been done to him. You may not always agree with your taxi driver, but should he wish to talk I suggest you listen. It is rarely dull.

One of my many couriers during the chronic pain of my latest Odyssey is a Moroccan Arab. He used to work for the East German embassy in Rabat. He liked Germans. Organised minds. Efficient workers. But everyone had a problem with flags back then and, come to think of it, the biggest problem with the world now is people with flags. Whether it’s Russians putting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, Canadians waving flags on the ridiculously partisan Canadian coverage of the Olympics (who would want to miss another valiant third place finish?), or the Americans sticking flags everywhere and especially where they’re not wanted, the world’s problems basically boil down to flags. From the DRC and Rwanda to China and Taiwan, to Argentina and the UK, the flag – and the nationalism it stands for – is the fundamental barrier to us all getting along. For our problems are common, and we are all enslaved to the interests of a few who esteem themselves superior.

At the eye of the storm are the greetings-card manufacturers who have managed to sell Father’s Day to an all too compliant Western culture. Humanity should begin with family, not be in thrall to corporations who tell it when to love. He doesn’t need a day picked out at random for his son to say ‘Happy Father’s Day’, any more than he needs a government to tell him to love, protect and nurture his son. These relations existed before governments, before capital, and before flags. He put his son through college. It’s what dads do. His son bought him his taxi last week. It’s what sons do.

The ties that bind are such that no adversity of circumstance ought to bring them down. A stupid woman once told him how she left her husband for a younger man. He asked if she loved her husband. She said she used to. This concept did not fly with our man, who could not grasp the notion of a love that passes. I’m sure the woman had an unpleasant ride, but our taxi driver’s grip on the truth, full of innocence and naiveté and yet, paradoxically, tainted by experience, has a compelling quality of frankness, simplicity, purity.

I’m sorry to leave my chauffeur when we arrive at the airport. I know I’m not going to have any company for another day. But I am reassured that the shortness of the average taxi ride, and the high volume of stranded frequent flyers, means that the wisdom of the taxi driver, such as it is, will be dispensed hundreds of times in a week. Some passengers might emerge from the back of the cab feeling that the number of tips they have received en route surely merit the large one they are about to give in return.


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