You know who I love talking to? Taxi drivers.
The popular perception of taxi drivers is so far removed from my experiences with them that I wonder if I've just been lucky or if I approach cab rides differently to a lot of other people. I don't take cabs that often but when I do I always like to have a chat to the driver. I've always felt that it's far more enjoyable to have an unpredictable conversation with a cabbie than it is to sit awkwardly, looking out the window and pretending that this other person isn't there. They may be taking us where we need to go but they are not our servants. Almost all of the drivers I've spoken to over the years have had interesting things to say.
Let's be totally honest: being a cab driver would be a shit occupation. The hours are long and involve late nights and early mornings. You pick up drunk morons and entitled business people. It can be dangerous to your personal safety. Cheap passengers bail on fares. God help you if someone vomits (or worse). Even the idea of driving around a city for twelve hours at a time doesn't sound like much fun to me. According to these recent articles, wages for taxi drivers are significantly below the national full-time average and the conditions are even worse. All in all, it's a really rough deal.
When I first get into a cab (almost always into the front seat), I always say hello and ask the driver how their shift has been. It's just common courtesy. I'll ask whether it has been a busy shift and when they finish up, particularly if it's late at night or early in the morning. These are completely mundane questions but asking them does a couple of things. Firstly, it shows you are cogent and prepared to talk politely with them, and it can lead to something else to talk about for the rest of the journey. Often I end up feeling like Andrew Denton, politely pressing a person on their thoughts, feelings and opinions. I'd like to share some of my most memorable cab stories as best as I can. These people have given me some stories worth telling and for that I'm grateful.
Around 2009 I was in Sydney for a soccer match and discovered that cabs seemed to be much better value there than at home, so my friends and I often ended up using them instead of public transport for some journeys. After being involved in pre-match festivities, we flagged down a driver to take us from the pub to the stadium and were picked up by a Muslim man, probably in his mid thirties. I can remember disappearing into a really deep conversation about his struggles as a taxi driver. He was up on assault charges after he responded to a group of passengers that tried to mug him by calling his cousin for support and confronting them. Pretty serious stuff. He maintained that he did what was necessary to protect himself at the time. Hearing this story now might make you question his character but he came across as polite, firm and articulate. At no point did we feel concerned about what he was telling us, in fact I can remember thinking that it was ultimately quite a sad story. Like I said before, being a cabbie can be so dangerous and in those moments few of us know what our instincts will have us do. I have no idea was the outcome of the charges were but the whole thing sounded like a horribly messy situation for the bloke and I felt for him.
A few months I landed in Canberra for work and headed over to the taxi rank. I ended up sitting with another man in his mid-thirties. He had arrived from India in recent months and was driving cabs in the afternoon and at night to provide for his family. Diuring the day he was studying at TAFE in order to bring his electrician's qualifications from India up to Australian standards. I suppose on some level it is fair that these sorts of qualifications need to be standardised to ensure that the work done is safe but I thought that two years of almost full-time study was going to make things really hard for this guy. I asked whether he liked being an electrician and how different the things he was learning here were from the work he was doing over in India. He said that he loved it and that virtually everything he was learning was the same as home. I wondered then how many perfectly competent people were doing more menial jobs here because their skills weren't recognised and what impact that might be having on Australia's economy and on these people's financial and psychological wellbeing. I remember feeling like there had to be a better way for the whole process to work but also that I had no idea how to balance the competing factors in play. He was a genuinely great guy.
A few weeks ago I grabbed a cab from Swanston Street home after a night out in the city and ended up in a cab driven by a man with a distinct Russian accent, maybe early fifties. When I asked whereabouts in Russia he was from, he replied with gusto.
I told him that I was interested in Russia after studying a bit of the history at high school and university. I asked about how he felt about Putin and the state of democracy there. It turned out that he was quite the fan of the President. He said that most Russian people didn't care about democracy as much as they cared about strength. He followed up with a few pointed statements about Western democracy. He argued that blue-collar people were not allowed to govern in the West, and he used Pauline Hanson as an example of a normal person who generated her own popular political momentum and was punished for this with jail time. It was all broadly conspiratorial but it certainly was an interesting insight into the way he saw understood our democracy. Just as I got out of the cab he gave me a piece of memorable advice that has stuck with me ever since. 'Don't believe in democracy, believe in yourself, like I am.' I disagreed with him on much of his politics but I thought that pretty profound. Thinking about his now it makes sense that a man in a country that transitioned from late Soviet socialism to crony capitalism, he would come to rely on his ability to support himself rather than any institution.
I like talking to taxi drivers. Even if you just ask them politely how they are going, it makes the ride a much more enjoyable experience. I've found that they are interesting, polite people who would rather chat that sit awkwardly while you play with your phone. Every person is worth listening to. Everyone has stories and opinions that you can learn from. These fleeting moments can easily be memorable ones. Next time you flag down a cab, express your solidarity with another human being and say hello.