To a small-city gal like me, Manhattan’s diverse pool of taxi drivers, known worldwide for their death-wish traffic maneuvers, seem exotic and, well, a little scary. If I summon the courage to thrust my arm forcefully into oncoming traffic to hail a cab, I immediately start worrying that, best scenario, the driver will rip me off or, worst scenario, we’ll collide with a stubborn bus or an oblivious bicyclist. Once settled in the back, I wonder what is that awful music the driver is playing and what kind of kook would make a career of the linear version of the Indy 500.
On a recent trip, I was intimidated as usual by the aggressive driving, which cabbies learn in driver school, so I was told. But I did get answers to my questions from two surprisingly chatty drivers. The first, who took me into the city from LaGuardia Airport, was a cab driver/CD salesman, so I gathered, as I watched the meter. The trip to the theater district turned into a mini-course in the life of “the most famous singer in the world,” whose music, of course, was blaring. I had never heard of this Indian celebrity, who died in the 1970s, and I can’t remember her name (although she may have been the most famous singer in the world; what do I know?) But the pictures on the covers of shabby CDs the driver kept thrusting through the partition reminded me of a dark-haired, bloated, late-in-life Peggy Lee. The driver’s passion suggested he was more than a casual fan—perhaps she was his mother? Anyway, in the less than 30-minute trip I learned the late singer’s entire life story, heard excerpts from four of her CDs (answering my question about what that horrible music was) and got a medium-hard sell, which I managed to ignore. On the positive side, I found out where to go for great Indian food, got to my hotel safely and was not overcharged. All in all, a good arrival.
Over the next three days, I had at least eight cab drivers who virtually ignored me while talking in various language to whoever they talk to all day long on their cell phones. And they all got me to my destination for a fair price. My final cab driver, however—another chatty one—told a fascinating story that answered my question about who the heck would want to drive a cab and changed my opinion of taxi drivers forever.
The driver, who was in his mid to late 50s, had emigrated from Bangladesh in the mid-’70s after it separated from Pakistan (geographically, challenged, I soon realized I was confusing the world’s eighth most populous country with Biafra, also a big name in the ‘70s.) Seems he was a restless risk taker (think taxi driver) who wanted to explore the world. When he asked his rich family for money to follow his dream, his father laughed and told him to go to the movies. Mom convinced Dad to fork over the cash, however, and the man, who speaks five languages, left and returned to Bangladesh three times, after trying out the lifestyles in Germany, Iran and Moscow. Finally, in love and ready to settle down, he returned once again to Bangladesh and promised that if his father would fund one more expedition, he would go to America and stay—and he did, taking with him his bride, a gynecologist who now works as an infectious disease specialist in Manhattan. His parents never came to visit, and his three siblings and their families still live in Bangladesh.
When he first arrived in New York City, he bought a “medallion” for $150,000, which entitled him to drive his own cab. (He says a medallion now costs more like $750,000; new immigrants put down $150,000 and pay it off over time like a mortgage). He purchased a taxi but never drove it—instead he hired others to drive and went into real estate, where he thrived until real estate started to tank a decade or so ago.
For a while, he drove a limo, taking people like Tom Brokaw and Spike Lee (both very nice guys, he says) back and forth to work each day. Now he drives his cab, and says he loves it.
His son is an architect and his daughter, like her mother, is a doctor. Every summer they take a family trip with the goal of visiting every state in the USA. This summer it will be a cross-country drive to San Francisco, with a flight back to New York. They travel to other parts of the world together, as well.
Some people would call his story an “American Success Story,” but a few years ago when he took his family back to Bangladesh, his son, asked, “Dad, why did you ever leave here? Your home is like a palace. You have servants to do everything for you.” Ironically, this immigrant left a success story behind.
So why did he leave Bangladesh, or perhaps more important, why did he stay here? Chuckling, the taxi driver said, “I told my son like I once told Tom Brokaw, who asked the same question: ‘I love New York. Americans are the best people in the world. Americans really are the best people in the world.’”
I am going to remember that worldly wise naturalized citizen’s love of America as I watch Brokaw’s successor, Brian Williams, report on the unsettling violence, conflict, incivility and ignorance that increasingly plague our country. I may not be as sophisticated as my taxi driver, but I have seen and enjoyed many countries. And no matter where I have traveled, my heart leaps for joy when the plane hits the ground and I’m home. The guy just might be right!