It almost never occurs to me to take a taxi. I avoid them in Santa Fe for obvious reasons (What? We have cabs here?), though even in large urban environments, I have to be reminded of the taxi option. But at a recent convention in a large coastal city, I hopped in a cab with a colleague to cut across town with a little speed and convenience. My colleague turned out to be the kind of guy who can't resist chatting up taxi drivers. And he turned out to be the kind of guy taxi drivers can't resist.
"How's business?" my friend asked.
Business sucks, the driver told us. There are no tourists and no jobs and no economic recovery and nobody is going out on the town for entertainment and so no one is hailing cabs.
This was bitterness I had to take with a grain of salt, as the driver explained that computers now do the work of 200 men and we have become soft and lazy in the modern world. His example was to remind us that, in days gone by, one had to rotate the dial of the telephone with one's finger in order to initiate contact with someone.
"Now," he explained, "You just tell your iPhone to call your ex-wife and it does it for you." To demonstrate, he did so and then quickly fumbled to hang up. This did not exactly seem like a computer doing the work of 200 men, especially when Google is actively working on a computer that could replace taxi drivers specifically. But the driver seemed to need to make his point in relation to his disdain for the expensive technology that he himself owned, despite business sucking.
Why, just earlier that night, he told us, he'd been using his iPad to communicate with friends back home in Jordan, where people understand what's important and what's illusory. Maybe he was already using his iPad to drive his taxi, which I kind of hoped, since he was now turned around almost fully in order to better lecture us.
Americans don't understand the difference between real work and the illusion of monetary value, he told us. Right now, he explained, some guy is trying to save money, so he's sitting at home watching TV instead of going out to dinner and a movie. Because of that guy, the waiter and the busboy and the cook aren't making any money, the restaurant supplier isn't making any money, the theater workers and the movie industry aren't making any money, and he—the taxi driver with an Apple fetish—is not making any money. This one guy is screwing up the whole economy and, on Monday, this guy is going to wonder why he's lost his job when it's his own damn fault, the driver told us, before delivering the final piece of his argument: "And there are lots of 'one guys' all over America!"
I didn't point out that, if there are lots of them, it's not really "one guy," mostly because that would have been a diversion from the fundamental truth the taxi driver experiences on the ground level. By and large, we choose to have a screwed-up economy and we choose to have a successful economy—it's almost entirely faith-based.
This was to be expected, the driver told us, in a country so perpetually confused as to be incapable of understanding its own actions on the world stage. In an echo of a sentiment I've heard a lot lately, he asked us how it is that Americans can maintain a singular pride in their own revolutionary history while living in abject fear of revolution in places like Tunisia and Egypt? How can we celebrate freedom and support dictators?
The answer, of course, is that we don't celebrate freedom; we celebrate money. But we celebrate money for a lucky few at the very top of the heap, while we labor tirelessly at the bottom, imagining the great wealth of America somehow finding its way to a journalist or a cab driver.
Which made the advice of the evening's second cab driver, originally from Gabon, between one and four cocktails later, especially poignant.
Business is fine, he told us. It goes up and down. The important thing is not to work yourself to death in pursuit of a life you'll never have if you work yourself to death.
My colleague, an inveterate workaholic, sat chastised in the back of the cab. "I know," he said softly, "I know."
The driver from Gabon explained that Russians have a saying: "Hours walk, days run, years fly."
When he dropped us off at our hotel, he turned to face us directly and gave us a kind of freaky, Gabonian evil eye: “One day, you will think of me,” he said. “You will remember my words and you will wish you had paid them better attention.”
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