Why Would a Person Drive a Taxi?

In San Francisco, on the West coast of America in the state of California, there is a group of individuals called taxi drivers. For a very small fee they will be with you in their vehicle. They will transport you wherever you wish to go. They will talk, they will listen, they will even carry your baggage. Most of these people are writers, poets, old hippies, recovering substance abusers, out of work musicians or recent immigrants to this wonderful land. Dreamers one and all; the best and often the brightest fruit left unpicked upon the societal tree, turning to sugar and threatening to rot and stain the ground.

The urban taxi driver makes more life and death decisions than a $150,000 per year airline pilot, and yet the driver flies alone and gets paid little more than the allowable minimum. He receives no raises, no retirement, no medical coverage nor even any workman’s compensation and he is treated by public and private citizen alike as a felon on parole. The taxi driver is, at one and the same time, victim and potential threat. He is often abused, verbally and sometimes physically, by passengers, fellow drivers, the police, and passing strangers in the grip of a bad day. He receives no ego strokes behind the wheel. Any satisfaction from the job he receives has to be generated from within. He is, in the truest sense, an urban bracero; a fisher of men on mean streets wearing a coat of many cars.

Back, during the Golden Age of taxi driving, (between 1975 and 1988) I drove a taxi cab on the night shift in San Francisco. That is over 3,000 ten hour shifts behind the wheel. All, I might add, without being wrecked or robbed. During my years behind the wheel, the taxi cab became my office. I sat in there for eight to ten hours per night. I had conversations (sometimes quite intimate) with strangers while the backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful cities slid by outside. These strangers would then bid me goodbye and place money in my hand.

I think that possibly driving is what Americans do best. Here are these terribly vulnerable creatures with complex nervous systems, so prone to fears, insecurities and phobias hurtling themselves about seemingly helter-skelter encased in 3500 pounds of steel and plastic. Constantly scanning with their eyes, making intricate hand-foot-eye decisions that result in life endangering moves executed…AT SPEED! People do this every day in varying configurations, some requiring the cooperation of hundreds of vehicles. And yet people are so casual, so offhanded about this highly complex skill that they give it not a second thought. They even let their KIDS do it armed with cell phones!

Watching traffic from a high place is like watching a flight of birds harvesting a freshly plowed field. I wonder, do they all have access to one common super brain? Or is there perhaps one bird-brain directing all the rest. There is obviously more going on here than we have words for today. It appears that we are perhaps growing in ways which we are unaware. Possibly we are being trained in this seemingly off-handed way for future tasks as yet not even imagined; all the while we continue to confuse the medium with the message. We rush about year after year thinking that it is the job, the position, the acquisition of stuff that is all important, when in actuality that is mere fluff; mental doodling with which to distract the ego while the really important work is the driving, and acquiring the skill and focus to do it really well.

Driving a TAXI WEST END, I often found that after about six hours in the driver’s seat a strange phenomena would begin to occur. It was as if I was sitting at home perfectly still, and a holographic projection of The City was flowing around me. No sense of movement, totally centered, no sense of motion or even thought. The closest most people ever come to this clear zone, is when they are about to become involved in an accident. At such times that moment of clarity is often reported–just before the crash.

Emotionally, taxi driving is neutral. It isn’t oppressive like I imagine working in a factory or a bank might be and it isn’t so thrilling that one would want to devote their free time and energy to it. It is–as the Buddhists would say–a left handed sort of a job. It allowed me to support myself and yet really didn’t interfere with my life. It left me–free. It left me enough time and energy to pursue the real interests in my life. With energy and curiosity and persistence, I found it was quite possible to develop an entire bouquet of–other interests.

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