1% of the time, a rare 1 out of every 100, you get an interesting cab driver, in a situation where you can both enjoy each other’s company.
Last night was a mini reunion somewhat for JocoCruiseCrazy performers. Molly Lewis, Mike Phirman, John Roderick, myself, and of course Jonathan Coulton (and his new band, The New Groove Emergency) converged on The Triple Door in downtown Seattle. After a rousing show by Molly and Mike and Jonathan and the band, we enjoyed a long evening together tellin’ stories and being geeks and such. Around three in the morning, the party broke up, we all promised to converge again at PAX East, and I caught a cab ride all the way back to Duvall, roughly a 40 minute ride from downtown.
I hate cabs. 99% of the time you’re trapped in a car that smells like the worst parts of the human body and a driver who is most interested in making terrible chatter talk or spending the entire drive talking on their cell phone while treating you to what might be best described as “The worst last ride you will ever take”
The night was dry, but it was windy and very cold standing outside the restaurant saying goodbyes. As much as I didn’t want the night out with my friends to end, I was eager to get home just due to the length of the ride.
I’d asked the reception at the restaurant to call me a cab, and as we we stood out there, there was a nice Prius cab parked immediately, and a traditional one drove up beside it. One was obviously an opportunistic driver looking just for any fare that needed a ride, the Prius driver motioned me impatiently toward his car. I walked toward the newish looking car at the exact moment the older car pulled up and the driver called out “Stephen?"
I don’t know why I hopped into the cab that pulled up last minute and called my name. It was an ancient cab, the driver looked young. But I felt some tug of fairness that this was the cab I called for, and the driver had been dispatched. The other guy had been hanging out to get a fare. Nothing wrong with that, but instinct somehow clicked. I hopped in the older cab, made my final waves goodbye, and settled in for the trip. The cabby asked me where to, and I clearly stated up front we’d be driving a long way out to the sticks, but that I would tip well. With a heavily accented lilt to his speech he asked if he could get gas first if he turned off the meter, I was his last fare of the night.
I said sure, rolling my eyes a bit thinking, sure you had to pick this cab. The driver’s accent caught me for a moment however. Most of the cabbies in Seattle are Indian or Asian. I thought for a moment and was able to place his accent as somewhere in Africa, probably north given his physical look. He politely drove to the nearest station, turned off the meter, and proceeded to fill up the cab while I sat in the back and checked mail and twitter. After a brief amount of time, just enough for him to make sure he had the gas to and from, instead of filling the tank, he hopped back into the car and pulled away.
“How was your night?” he asked.
I thought about being so lucky to get to spend the past 6 or so hours with people I really was so inspired by. I smiled looking out the window and said “It was good. It was really good.” I suddenly realized we’d pulled away without his starting the meter again. “Hey be sure you start the meter,” I said.
The driver looked into the rear view at me and said “Oh that’s not a problem.” He started the meter, a good 5 dollars less than it should be. We merged onto the highway and he piped up, “not too much to drink though?” It was both a jibe and an inquiry.
I smiled, "No a couple of beers, I’m not going to throw up in your car.”
He laughed in that accent again, “It’s been a good night for me then as well.”
“Ok I give up, where are you from?” I asked.
“Ethiopia!” he stated proudly.
“Oh my god,” I said, “you people have the best food.” I’d been introduced to Ethiopian food at a fantastic home style restaurant in Seattle near Capital Hill. Rochelle and I spent an entire night gorging ourselves on Ethiopian beer and cuisine, family-style with a table full of strangers and friends from the region.
He laughed, “We’re not known here for our food.”
I explained that I’d been introduced by some locals to north African cuisine. “What is that amazing bread you have with your meals?”
The cabby laughed again, “injera. yes?”
“Yes,” I said, “Injera.” I remembered the amazing sourdough taste of the flat and rubbery bread. We used it to pick up highly spiced scraps of meat and vegetables. It was a fantastic time out with friends that greatly reminded me of the night I had just shared.
Outside the window, Lake Washington drifted by as we crossed the 520 bridge in near isolation due to the hour.
“I’ve not ever driven anyone who likes our food.” the driver said while I was stuck in a minor wormhole of an amazing cultural exposure. I laughed a bit.
“No honestly,” he said, “you people still think we have no food in our country,” again that musical laugh came as he trailed off.
“Well,” I said, “American’s aren’t really known for following up on current events.” I chuckled to myself thinking that was a clever snarky observation.
“Yes, you people simply believe forever anything your TV once said.”
That statement, spoken with honesty not judgment, caught me off guard. For while a generalization, if you combine the Internet with that point, it’s essentially accurate. He continued, explaining that he recently had a fare that asked him where he was from and when he noted he was from Ethiopia, they asked him how he learned to drive, since there were no cars there. He said in a kind of innocent bewilderment, “No cars? In Ethiopia? That is like saying there are not cars in Arizona!”
I sat in the back of this person’s car and I, instinctively, wanted to dispute his statement. But I thought of my own battles against those who wanted to play a rousing battle of “Someone is *wrong*, on the *internet*” Here’s a guy who knew the facts, and was simply expressing exaperation with someone who didn’t really know practically anything but was willing to weigh in anyway. No cars in Ethiopia. I wondered if there was a nation anywhere on the Earth that had absolutely no cars.
“How long have you been in America,” I asked.
“Your English is outstanding,” I said honestly, “I had to work out where I thought you were from.”
“Oh,” he said, “We’re taught English in Ethiopia in our normal schooling. A side effect from when the British withdrew. They taught us the words, but not the language.”
“I took French in my schooling, it was the same thing. Words not the language.”
“In five years I learned to survive just the other day,” the cabby said.
Hillsides rich in trees passed by, suburbs of Seattle I knew well on my way home each day in my commute.
We’d left the main highway and the driver needed my help to guide us out to my house. I looked outside the window as long drifts of blank lightless farmland went by, and I thought about what he had said.
“So, I love your bread,” I began, and I caught his glance back at me in the cab’s rear view mirror, “What do you like about here?”
I wish I could tell you I had an agenda about that question, and that is why I am writing this. I wish that his answer somehow made some wise political observation, an insight that cuts through our culture’s need to war between two parties or viewpoints. He gave me an answer. I nodded. It was a good answer. He said he liked meeting new people in his cab.
We drove up the long road to my house. My cab driver was young. Probably 25. He crawled the taxi up the long stretch and said out loud in the pitch black street, lit only by the individual houses, “This is peaceful. This is a quiet place like my home”
It was. I took him at his word that it is. The car drew up to the curb. I reached out and he handed me a credit slip. I didn’t ask his name. I didn’t know more about him than the half hour we’d talked. I said, “Let’s shake hands.”
He turned back and grinned. It was the best smile I think I would see in a year. He held out his hand and we shook. I tipped him generously, but shook his hand again as I handed him the credit card slip.
“I’m glad I’m your last fare,” I said, “have a safe night, and I hope you get home soon.”
Again he smiled, white teeth against black skin, and he said “My thanks, my thanks to you.”
I hear a lot of phrases, and I think of a lot myself. But I like that one particularly. “My Thanks, my thanks to you.”
In that moment I discovered my message I wanted to deliver at PAX East. But that’s next month.