Conversations with cab drivers

Americans have a thing about taxis. Who doesn’t know the song Big Yellow Taxi? or the Harry Chapin song? or the movie Taxi Driver? (OK, I admit I haven’t seen it.)

But if you’re studying Victorian England, taxicabs have a much longer history, going back to all those characters who drove cabs through the foggy streets of London, ferrying criminals and Members of Parliament (and some who were both), sitting on top of the hansom in the rain, water dripping from their tophats. Cab is, after all, short for cabriolet.

Today’s London taxi drivers are know for the black cabs, aka hackney cabs, a stalwart breed of transport determined to make its way among the private cars, limos, minicabs, and now Ubers.

Despite that scary episode of Sherlock, this trip I took more taxis than usual. I had budgeted for that — less Guinness, more taxis, as if fewer glasses of high-caloric stout would make it ok to do less walking. I use the standard pair of excuses: Heavy Luggage, and Woman Alone at Night. Plus the new one: Too Old for This.

So I talked to more taxi drivers than usual. In the old days, the drivers would talk to you immediately. Now, with the heavy plastic window in between, the fact that the passenger seat is far to the back means that it’s more difficult to hear each other. You really have to try. I also suspect that more passengers spend the trip looking at their phone (or talking into it – I understand these things do make calls). I have to talk first, and of course I want to, because I want to hear their stories.

I learned last trip that a guaranteed conversation starter is to ask about Uber. I was in a cab going around the London Central Mosque near Regents Park. The driver had asked if it was OK to take that route, I assume because I was American or something. I said of course — I’d love to see it. But on the way we were held up by an accident, and according to the driver, the body under the tarp (it’s awful to think about this) was probably a cyclist hit by a car. He said that’s happened more and more since Uber came. The Uber drivers don’t haveĀ The Knowledge (the exams all black cab drivers must take), they get confused, they don’t pay attention, they hit people.

Since that experience, Uber was first banned, then allowed back but regulated, so I ask drivers about their view (I only take black cabs in London, on principle).

One driver said that Uber was such a problem he was going to take classes and retrain for another job. He claimed that they had pretty much pushed out the black cabs with their cheaper pricing, that it wasn’t profitable anymore. But the next cab driver told me he was doing just fine, that Uber had its own problems and people want quality, not just a low price. They want drivers with The Knowledge. When I asked about the Gett app I’d used to call for a cab (he had a Gett sticker on the window) he told me that some of these services take too big a cut and aren’t good for the drivers. He told me about better apps like TaxiApp, which was created by the drivers themselves, and handed me a flyer.

I had a female driver with the lovely south Asian accent who talked with me about her children and how they’re learning to drive. She told me she couldn’t tell where I was from since I sounded half English, half American (I try to keep my California accent, but it’s hard to do). In another cab the driver was playing classical music, and I asked him to turn it up.

I had two drivers who sounded like they were Londoners. One conversed with me about the 80s music he liked. He told me his grandmother was in Brian May’s classroom at school when May was a maths teacher. One day the teacher announced he was going off to join a band called “Queen”, and wouldn’t be their teacher anymore.

The other Londoner turned out to be from East Germany (when that term was used) and told me how he’d come to America only once, to drive a friend’s car from Florida to California. He spent the night in jail in Texas when he was pulled over, a foreigner driving a car that wasn’t his. While the police tried to get it straightened out by contacting his friend, they ordered a “pizza pie”. What came was not what he would call pie — he tried it and decided it wasn’t food and that he didn’t like America.

Despite both the presumed British reserve and the impoliteness of talking about politics, religion, or sex, I’ve never had a cab driver who wasn’t happy to talk about politics. I’ve mentioned that just after the Brexit results came in, I asked my Durham cab driver whether he was a happy or unhappy voter that morning. He was “over the moon”, convinced that the NHS would be saved by money coming back from Europe. This trip, one driver asked me if I was a Trump supporter. Just as I was about to launch into the series of apologies I use on such occasions, he said, “I think he’s great. Really shakes things up!” I had to agree that yes, he does do that.

As for The Knowledge (one driver told me it took him almost four years to pass the exams), I have extraordinary respect for it. But I have to tell you — I’ve never been in a cab where I didn’t have to give directions, and I have often been driven past the address. What black cab drivers know, though, is the streets. They know every stoplight, the flow of traffic, where the pedestrians are, what route is best at what time of day.

My favorite hackney driver this trip asked me why I was in England, and when I told him he asked me intelligent questions about my research. When I asked how long he’d been a driver, and he said 15 years, I asked if he liked his job. He said yes, because he gets to drive so many different kinds of people. Movie stars, government officials, prostitutes, and academics like me. He learns something from everyone he drives, and has gotten himself a real education. A university in a cab. Can’t argue with that.



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