Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Among the Cab Drivers

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I used to keep a list of cities with the most insane cab drivers. Rio de Janeiro held the top spot for the longest time. All I have to do is say "Rio taxi" for that bitter taste of terror to come gushing up my gullet as the cab hurtled down from Corcovado in spiral loops around moving vehicles, stationary structures, and clumps of fragile pedestrians. The only roads potentially more heaven-directed than those of Rio are to be found in Martinique, where every turn is marked by shrines to those who died there in recent hours. The strong pagan faith of Martinicans, and that of Brazilians as well, is the only thing that keeps the inhabitants from developing paralysis. Reducing faith might be a very good means of reducing driving fatalities. In Martinique I didn't take taxis. If I had, I wouldn't be here to keep the list going.

I now report to you from what has to be the new top spot: Bucharest, Romania. At first sight, the streets of Bucharest don't look as deadly as they are. Built for horse-drawn carriages in the past century, they are narrow but not impossibly so. During the frozen centuries of socialism, they served adequately because there weren't that many cars. With the coming of capitalism, cars multiplied at three times the rate of people. Bucharest today, in the third five-year plan of building capitalism, is a vast parking lot through which streak, like mercury through veins of coal, taxicabs bent on destruction. Fancy metaphor, I know, but I'm speaking from the inside. The drivers of the various certified jalopies that ply Bucharest are a garrulous lot. Like cab drivers everywhere, they have the luxury of dumping their wisdom on visitors. Every Bucharest cabbie begins the lecture with a few introductory remarks about the terrible misfortune of his country, followed by solutions that range from quasi-reasonable to grotesque. Then, as their philosophy heats up, they start cutting in ahead of cars, coming face to face with trucks, leaping ahead of ambulances, going up on sidewalks to chase flocks of terrified pedestrians, and come to abrupt halts at lights halfway through intersections. Each maneuver is accompanied by a politico-philosophical point.

I once attempted to strap on the seat belt. "What," the cabbie exclaimed contemptuously, "are you an American?" "Yes," I said, "and I don't want to die." However, I never attempted that stunt again because something in his voice infected me with heroism. I mean, who was I not to want to die like everybody else? For the rest of my stay, I defied myself and the law by riding shotgun with these knights of doom. Until my last ride. We were almost to my hotel and I congratulated myself on surviving. Prematurely, it seems. This last cabbie said, as soon as I entered the confines of his domain (which was also, I realize, his mind): "Do you know that fish-eye on TV?" I had seen it. "Yes." "Well, that fish-eye looks at you." OK. I still wasn't quite there, so I asked, "You mean it spies on you?" The man smiled mysteriously and looked at me, simultaneously driving straight into the back of the car in front of us. I braced myself against the dash, levitated briefly, and came happily back down. We were going about five miles an hour, luckily, but the taxi was smashed nonetheless.

"Never," my first editor told me, "write down things cab drivers tell you."

Right. But when they follow words with deeds you just have to.

Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).

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