Metering Out Wisdom

"Taxi Driver Wisdom." By Risa Mickenberg. Photography by Joanne Dugan. Design by Brian Lee Hughes. Chronicle Books.

Published June 3, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

it's difficult to figure out just
where taxi drivers acquired a reputation for wisdom.
As one who made his living as a hack for seven years (and that's not
counting the time I drove a cab -- ka-boom), I can confidently attest that
taxi drivers, as a class, rank extremely low on the Lao-Tse Scale.
Somewhere there may exist a phalanx of Checker-driving louts aflame with
priceless insights, but it ain't in this city, pally.
In fact, when I summon remembrance of hack conversations past, what
comes to mind is not so much the biting aphorism as the bovine grunt.
"Pretty slow out there tonight" just about exhausted the dialectical skills
of most of my fellow drivers. And conversations that started (as they
invariably did) with "The asshole stiffed me!" or "I met this incredible
chick last night" rarely proved enlightening or, in the latter case,
True, the job did provide occasional flashes of Zen-like insight. I
recall one memorable hoodtop colloquy on the crucial epistemological
question of "Have you ever been so stoned that you..." (to be printed in
next month's Social Text) in which one driver said, "Have you ever been so
stoned that you're driving around empty, and the dispatcher calls out an
intersection right near you, and you don't check in because you THINK you
have a fare?" -- a parable that illuminated the human condition in a
blinding flash. But such transcendent moments were lamentably rare.
The myth of the all-knowing cabbie may have started with those
sentimental movies from the '30s and '40s, where tough, pizza-faced hacks
with Joisey accents were always offering up homespun wisdom out of the
corners of their cigar-chomping mouths. But what Hollywood giveth,
Hollywood can taketh away, and Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" should have
killed the idea of the Higher Hack off once and for all.
For those who have forgotten, soon-to-be-Mohawked protagonist Travis
Bickle (Robert De Niro) in an agitated state possibly attributable to his
habit of pouring Jim Beam on his Cheerios, approaches another driver,
called "The Wizard" because of his supposed great wisdom, for spiritual
counsel. The Wizard (Peter Boyle) proceeds to deliver a long,
incomprehensible harangue, concluding with something like, "The way I look
at it, when a man does a job, a man becomes that job." After a
pause, De Niro looks at Boyle with his usual shy, semi-psychotic expression
and says, "You know, that's probably the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
To which the irritated Boyle replies, "Hey, whaddya expect? I'm a taxi
But if taxi drivers are not especially wise, they probably offer just as
good advice as most psychiatrists (who are not especially wise either, and
have a much higher drop charge). Like the barber who doubles as a political
analyst and the marriage-counseling bartender, taxi drivers hold down the
working man's end of the advice spectrum. They serve as an unshaven Greek
chorus, an erratically-braking source of Anonymous Truth. Strangers share
intimacies with hacks for the same reason they do with priests or shrinks:
there is something comforting about not knowing anything about the person
you're talking to except that he could use a trim above the ears.
And confronted with the thousand weird and funny stories, the cosmic and
mundane questions asked by complete strangers, it's not surprising that
taxi drivers fall into their role as Everyman Buddha: for the duration of a
five-minute ride (the length of a good song, a smoke, a long kiss) they are
given dispensation to say things more intimate, audacious and, yes,
sometimes wise, than most of us do in our daily lives. It's one of the
profession's few perks.
"Taxi Wisdom," Risa Mickenberg's illustrated book of quotations drawn
from actual conversations with New York City taxi drivers, is an
eye-opening little chapbook of mobile aphorisms. Some of the "profundity"
here derives strictly from weird malapropisms of the
"we-are-two-wild-and-crazy-guys" school, where something gets lost in the
translation from the original Albanian: "Bike messengers -- they search for
death," for example, has that unmistakable Dan Akroyd ring. Other aphorisms
are less than deep: "I see more of what is going on around me because I am
not concerned with finding a parking place" will not cause Nietzsche to
lose any of his eternally-recurring sleep, and "The traffic -- it slows, it
speeds up again for no reason sometimes" poses no immediate threat to Kant.
But others are truly thought-provoking. Take the Heraclitean observation
"The things you love are as stupid as the things you hate and are easily
Or "As soon as you meet someone, you know the reasons why you will leave
them." Or "When you think you have lost something, it is usually still with
My favorites, however, are the statements that are simply so weird that
they cannot be deciphered. What are we to make, for example, of "Marriage
is for when you (sic) life is not so good"? Or "You say you are happy, you
are lying"? Or my absolute personal favorite, "People look so much better
Who knows? Who cares? For five clams, even a halfassed Satori is a deal, Mac. Now gedoutaheah.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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