Thursday, September 01, 2005
TWO CABBIES IN NEW ORLEANS
When my husband and I visited New Orleans last October, we met two cab drivers. One black, one white, both educated philosophical types (something like the cop I wrote about in my fender bender post). Both had a lot more to offer the fortunate traveler who hopped in the back of their respective taxis than a ride.
We met Chris the first day we arrived, and he told us that if we promised to use him every day of our stay, he would give us a special rate. That first night when he dropped us off at our destination, he waved away the money my husband tried to give him.
"Don't worry about that," he said. "We can settle up at the end of the week."
"But how do you know you'll ever see us again?" my husband asked.
Chris just chuckled. "After all the years I been doing this, I know."
"Don't you want my card at least? My room number?" My husband asked. Being from the north, we were immediately suspicious. This guy was saying he trusted us? What was the catch?
"Won't be necessary," Chris said, still chuckling as he climbed back in his cab. "See you tomorrow now."
And of course, we did. Over the course of the week, we rode with Chris every day, and every day the ride took us deeper into a genuine friendship with the man behind the wheel. We talked about our philosophies of family and work; even ventured into the potential minefields of faith and politics. Every subject seemed to expand our common ground. By the end of the week, the discussions had turned passionate as all three of us expressed open concern about the direction our country was heading. It turned out he had a master's degree in social work, but hadn't worked in his field in ten years when the funds were drastically cut.
"It's okay though. I got my cab, and my little house, and a good family. Even got a little savings in the bank. Every morning I wake up, I wake up thankful."
But when we drove past the neighborhood just beyond Louis Armstrong Park, Chris's expression changed. "There's a whole generation out there that's dying. People talk about the drugs and the guns, and yeah, those things are bad. But the real problem here is people got no hope. Can't live without hope." His sorrow was palpable.
When we told him it was our anniversary one night and that we'd made a reservation at a restaurant in the Quarter, Chris pulled the car to the side of the road.
"The Quarter's got some real fine restaurants and you can go there if you want, but a wedding anniversary, now that's something special. How about I drive you to the place where my wife and I have celebrated every anniversary for the last twenty years? Check out where the local people eat--and they won't empty your wallet either." That night, we enjoyed one of the finest meal I've ever had in memorable surroundings with great music leaping in the background.
But one night when the trolley we were riding broke down, we were unable to reach Chris. That's when we met the second cabbie, a man with a horselike face, and a low, morose voice that droned on like talk radio. When we pointed out the beauty of the architecture, he laughed caustically.
"Those buildings may look nice on the outside, but they're all rotting to the foundations. And it's not just the buildings. The whole city's on the verge of collapse. Economical. Structural. And moral." As he made his list, his voice boomed like an old testament prophet
My husband and I cast furtive glances at each other while the pessimist in the front seat expounded on the corruption of public officials, the school system, the state of Louisiana, and just about everything else.
We made polite murmurings, but were grateful to escape his tirade at the end of our ride.
The last day of our visit Chris drove us by his house, a modest but impeccably maintained bungalow, and introduced us to his wife. We'd heard so much about her over the course of the week that we already felt as if he knew her. As we drove to the airport, he kept negotiating the price for his services downward, while we figured a way to add the difference to his tip.
Just before he left, he scrawled his address and cell phone number on a piece of paper. "You keep in touch, okay?" he said. Then he hugged both of us and disappeared.
Of course, we've been thinking a lot about Chris in recent days. Even though there's no phone service in the city, my husband took out the crumpled piece of paper on which he'd written his phone number. But as we watched neighborhoods that looked distressingly like Chris's fill up with water, we knew it was futile.
And of course, we've been thinking of the other cabbie, too, and how he seemed to sink lower and lower in the driver's seat as he delivered one stinging indictment after the other against the powers that be and the fate of the city that he, in his own way, loved as much as Chris did.
Maybe we should all spend more time listening to cab drivers.