Not too long ago, I stumbled out of a taxi in Shanghai after one of the more harrowing cab rides I’ve ever experienced. The cab had taken me careening from the airport to Nanjing Road, in the middle of town, and when my foot touched the pavement I nearly wept with joy. The cabbie (who of course spoke no English) had driven like a Formula One driver on coke, making sharp turns to change lanes, cutting off cars, trucks, buses, and even police vehicles with a kind of maniacal nonchalance that was somehow even more unnerving than if he had been chuckling and wiping imagined cobwebs from his face. Furthermore, while he attached his seat belt once we got onto the highway, I did not have the benefit of a seat belt. It’s amazing how naked and vulnerable you can feel in the back of a speeding car without a seat belt.
I’m sure that many readers are wondering why I didn’t ask him to slow down. Despite his lack of English and my lack of Chinese, it undoubtedly would have been possible to make myself understood. The answer, of course, is that I’m a man, and the vast majority of men are cowards when it comes to this kind of thing. That’s why we never ask for directions. A woman wouldn’t have hesitated, but, then, women are far more courageous than are we (which is a good thing, because, having been present at two births, I have come to realize that if women were not braver than men they would never agree to give birth and we’d all be extinct by now). In the end, I resorted to my ultimate line of defense in the back of taxis: I closed my eyes.
It was only later that I realized that I’ve amassed a fair number of harrowing taxi stories, what with all this traveling, and that they were probably worth a dispatch.
I had come back for a visit with my wife and a couple of friends, and we had gotten into a taxi at JFK to head into Manhattan. The driver was a sullen man who tried to turn on the meter when we got in the cab (which he should not have done, since there’s a fixed fare from JFK to Manhattan) and then decided to drive as closely as possible to whatever car had the misfortune of being in front of him. On the Long Island Expressway, one of those cars decided to stop short and he skidded to within a couple of inches of it. You could tell he wasn’t actually from New York, because he didn’t swear at his windshield but instead mumbled something to himself as the smell of burning rubber invaded the cab. We sat in the back and swore in French, making comments about his poor judgment and his mother’s career as a prostitute (a French insult). This was one of the few times I actually did ask a cabbie to slow down, to which he grunted but didn’t change his driving. It was only once we arrived that he turned around and complained about his lack of a tip—in perfect French.
I used to live to the northwest of Paris, and whenever I arrived at the airport I would either ask my habitual cab driver to come and pick me up or I would just take a cab from the queue. In the latter cases, I would sometimes cause some grumbling, since I lived pretty far outside Paris (at least in the estimation of Parisian cab drivers), but it was slightly less expensive. Once, a cab driver asked me to get into the front seat, since his dog was in the back seat. Of course, I should have just waited for the next cab, as this is highly unusual and unusual in the case of cab drivers often means psychotic, but I have sometimes suffered from periodic bursts of bad judgment. Anyway, I got in and the cabbie started driving off, at a reasonable pace, while talking to one of the plastic apostles on the dashboard. Though I had explained where we were going before entering his temple to the odd, he apparently hadn’t really grasped the distance involved, and as we drove along he became increasingly agitated, so that by the time we had gone about half the distance he was actually yelling at the apostles about how it was totally unreasonable for him to be going all the way out here and how the phone numbers didn’t even start with a zero-one out here (which wasn’t true) and how it would take him forever to get back to Paris and how bad the weather was. All this yelling caused the dog to begin howling. I instructed the driver to stop at an intermediate point, at which I got out and called my habitual driver, who, happily, was free and who came and collected me, explaining that this was exactly why I should always ask him to come and pick me up at the airport.
I was returning to Paris on a Friday night after a few days in Istanbul, and it was only at the airport that I realized that I had forgotten my passport at my hotel in Beşiktaş. I had an hour to get to the hotel, pick up my passport, and return to the airport, which should be impossible if one constrains oneself to the habitual laws of physics. However, mine was the last plane out, and as much as I love Istanbul I didn’t want to stay for that particular weekend. I therefore found a cab and explained in a mix of English and German (which sometimes works well in Istanbul) that if the cabbie could actually manage this I’d give him an extra 5 million lire. (Note: The lira has since been devalued, but even back then this was not quite as impressive as it sounds, since there were coins for 250,000 lire, but it was still a good tip.) The driver set off like Han Solo, zipping between cars, driving on the shoulder (and even on the grass), his hand on the horn the whole way, TIE fighters shooting laser beams past our wings. As we flew back from the hotel (through even heavier traffic), I gave up and tapped him on the shoulder, explaining that I’d give him the extra 5 million anyway, but that he should slow down since I really did enjoy my life and would like it to go on a bit more, but by then this had become a challenge for him, and to give up would have been some kind of affront to his manhood. (One does not affront the manhood of a Turk lightly.) I made it to the airport with time to spare and a persistent heart murmur.