Sunday, October 9, 2011

WHY I SORT OF HATE TAXI DRIVERS (OR WHY I'D RATHER WALK THAN TAKE A CAB)


I have a complicated history with cars.

From the day I received my operator's driver's license (my 16th birthday) to the day I sold my first and only automobile (a white 1980 Toyota Tercel), I hated to drive. It probably had something to do with my being stopped by the police in the middle of the night my first 24 hours on the road solo for driving without my lights on. To this day, I'm convinced I was sleepdriving because I was wearing my pajamas, and I couldn't remember getting out of bed, grabbing my wallet and getting into the car. And who knows where I was going?! (I told the cop I was on a late-night-snack run.)

The next day, daunted but determined, I got back on the road. I loved the independence that driving gave me (no more taking the bus to and from school, or waiting for dad to pick me up from the library or, um, wherever), but it came with so many rules and responsibilities as well as the potential for disaster. During my six years on the road full-time, I had three relatively minor fender benders, none of which, thankfully, put anyone in a neck brace or, much worse, in a pine box.

The last of those accidents was a hit and run in Charlotte, North Carolina, a few days before I gave up my car. Someone slammed me into the middle of an intersection and sped off. It was pretty late at night, and there was no oncoming traffic, so I was unhurt. I thanked my lucky star, which must have been shining particularly brightly that night, that I'd be getting rid of the car and moving to New York City in just a few days.

When I arrived in New York City, I was relieved to be rid of the threat of everything that could go wrong when you're driving a car. In Manhattan, almost everyone gets around by subway, bus and taxi. I was so glad to be living in a city where having a car was not only unnecessary but in many ways a liability. (Parking garages are not cheap!) Some of my friends in NYC didn't even know how to drive, and they were getting through life just fine.

But these days, my glee over not having to drive myself from point A to point B, and not having to worry about designated drivers, comes and goes. It's been six years since I've gotten behind the wheel, and frankly, sometimes I sort of miss it, if for no other reason than that it's no fun always being at the mercy of strangers for transportation, always putting your life in the hands of others -- pilots, boat captains, subway operators, bus drivers and, most of all, taxi drivers.

I hate taxi drivers.

I know, harsh, right? Maybe "hate" is too strong a word.

I strongly dislike taxi drivers.

However you spin it, the bottom line is this: Taxi drivers are not my favorite people when they are on the clock. And apologies in advance to any of them who happen to be reading this. I'm referring to the ones who've messed with me or tried to rip me off. My sweeping generalization has a dramatic ring, and it's based on very ugly truth.

My contempt goes beyond being hurt when they refuse to stop for me, or take me to where I want to go, for some arbitrary reason that may or may not involve race. It started in 1996 when I was visiting Hungary, Budapest. I'd been warned in advance by Frommer's that sometimes taxi drivers there rig the meters so that the cost of trips are calculated at twice, or thrice, the normal speed. I tried to avoid them, but late one night, stranded in the pouring rain, I had no other choice.

I flagged one down, stepped inside and kept my eyes peeled on the meter. Of course, it was moving upward at the speed of sound while we were driving at a snail's pace. After a mile or two, I asked the driver what was going on. "Is something wrong with the meter? Why is it going faster than normally?

No answer. Rinse. Repeat. Still, no answer.

"Please, sir, stop this taxi now. I want to get out."

He took me all the way to my final destination as I protested in the back seat. Maybe he couldn't understand me and figured that I was singing along (badly) to the music. I can't remember what the final bill was, but it was huge. I told him how much I was going pay him and handed him the smallest possible bill where not getting any change back wouldn't make much of a difference.

He began to yell at me in Hungarian, which, of course, I couldn't understand, while I argued back in English. I started to exit the taxi. That's when he grabbed my hand. I glared at him and said as slowly and sternly as I could, "Let go of me right now, or you will be very sorry."

He either understood my words, my tone or the threatening look in my eye, because he let go of me immediately.

And thus began my hate -- er, strong dislike -- of taxi drivers. To be completely honest, aside from the ones who refused to pick me up, my anti-cabbie sentiment was fairly low in New York City. I even had one who returned my wallet after I left it in his taxi. At his request, I paid him $20 to drop it off at my apartment, but that's the least I could do for his trouble of driving all the way from Brooklyn on his day off (or so he said it was).

Once, a taxi driver in Buenos Aires called me and told me that he'd found my backpack, which had been stolen, in the middle of the road, apparently with my cell phone number written somewhere inside. He would return it, but it was going to cost me. "Okay, I'll give you 50 pesos," I said, pleadingly.

"Only 50? You can't do any better than that?

"One hundred?"

"Three hundred."

I figured that since the only thing of real value in there was my passport, which I could replace for the same money with my dignity intact, I told him to go to hell. And thus began my hatred of taxi drivers in BA.

Yes, hatred.

Sometimes they'd try to make small talk with me, but I'd usually be curt enough in my responses to let them know that I'd rather be left alone. Once when I dared to tell one driver a better route to my apartment, he threw me out of his taxi during a torrential downpour. It wasn't the first time I'd been shown the exit for daring to question their sense of direction.

In Bangkok, they're not much better. The drivers in BA always complained about taking anything bigger than a 20-peso bill, but aside from a few who tried to charge me a flat fee for going from point A to B -- an Argentine friend of mine once called me his "hero" for refusing, en espaƱol, to be taken in by that ploy -- they would either tell me upfront that they didn't have change, or try to stop at a store that did.

In Bangkok, anything goes. Taxis here are dirt cheap, so it almost doesn't even matter, but it's the thought that counts. And when I give you 100 baht ($3.30) for a 60-baht ride ($2), I expect to receive 40 baht in change. But I rarely do. The other day, I took a tuk-tuk for what I was told would be a 60-baht ride ($2). When we arrived at where I was going, he insisted that he'd said 80 baht. I was hot and frustrated and feeling particularly bitchy. Thankfully, I had the correct change.

He wouldn't accept it.

"Here, take it. You aren't getting any more."

Nothing.

This continued for three rounds before I threw the money in his lap and stormed out.

Next time, I promised myself, come rain, sleet, snow, hell or high water, I'll be sure to walk.

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