When I was still a young thing, no more than in my 24th trimester, those rare occasions the family afforded a taxi it would be one of those hulking monsters we now only see in crime or superhero films. Those were the days I rode about Gotham in those huge taxis known as Checker Cabs. These had ample room for 1-10 people (it seemed) and I remember sitting on these folding seats that were like barstools facing backwards and holding on the straps to keep from falling off when the monster lurched about a corner and swerved to miss crowds of junkies and prostitutes, or whatever was around the city splayed about the streets in the Bad Olde Days. I’m sure these machines were unsafe at any speed, and indeed we did zoom throughout the streets and alleys of Old New York when we were not stuck in traffic sweltering in the unconditioned.
A taxi was a real treat. Expensive, so I hoofed it rather than hail. When I traveled overseas, I finally could afford those luxuries, such as they were on foreign shores. I was somewhere outside of Godknowswhere in Eastern Gloombovia. The locals seemed to be traveling outside of town in order to pick berries or potatoes or something in buckets. The old taxi van was loaded to beyond full. I was sort of wedged between two or three elderly babushkas and perhaps sitting on the lap of a third. Perhaps I cannot really remember where I was or where I was going since I could not see outside, but the berries in the bucket in my face seemed worth the trip. I also understood why car accidents in these countries claimed 20-30 lives. We managed to pick up more and more people along the day. The crowd would grumble and chuckle at the same time. It was a mix of resignation at the cold hardships of life and collective mirth at the absurdity of former SOVIET society. That was perhaps my first experience with what I learned in Mexico as a Colectivo.
The Colectivo was explained to me at a youth hostel by a German. It was more than splitting a drunken ride back from the nightclub back. It was this taxi that was not a private taxi, but would stop along the way to pick up and drop off other people. You may be sitting next to anyone. The idea that there was private and collective taxis was baffling to me; a native son raised on capitalism and the freedoms of private space. I have since then had quite a few memorable experiences in Colectivo. When it was a car, it would be one of those boxy 1970s Toyotas with a roof rack piled high with who-knows-what. Typically it was a van of some vintage and in deplorable condition. This was not the same as the pickup trucks one could flag down which were not taxis but usually farmers on the way to or from town. In Central and South America at the time, one could (and perhaps may still) flag down any Campesino of Finca owner driving to/from town in order to catch a ride.
The back of the trucks was always full to capacity. On the way up to some hot springs or a mountain top or who knows where I was hanging on the back bumper, the truck so close to the road I was able to step on and off the truck as it struggled up the cliff. I think this was in Honduras, but I cannot think as to where I was going other than perhaps that Finca where I rode horses with the girlfriend who later did a stint in rehab or maybe it was with that German carpenter with the face tattoo when he and I refused to pay a few pesos for entrance to a park and instead sneaked in a back way through a howler monkey and mosquito-infested jungle to then crap out at the last minute when we saw how many tourists were cavorting at the waterfall. In those days, when you needed to get out of the truck, you yelled up to the driver, others help with the yelling, and then when you – your family and those huge bags of turnips you had – were off the truck, you paid a few pesos using money pieces, banged twice on the back letting the driver know it was safe to go and off it went struggling down the dirt and cow slurry passageway. Taxis were more a social experience and more often than not, part of the informal economy.
Taxis in the United States of America are a varied sort. Long gone the age of the grand taxi, the Checker Cab. Outside of Gotham taxis are an even more deplorable affair. My Jeep was towed once up at Smith College, and I needed to get to the impound. What picked up my girlfriend and I was a rattling contraption with an equally disheveled driver. The driver complained about the condition of the car as her shift had just started and the last driver had not filled any of the fluids. I was more worried about the strange clunks the wheels made or the screeching brakes. I will never forget (and it is strange what one remembers) being on the train to Montreal and somewhere – maybe Fort Ann – the gathering by the station of several cars that looked ready to fall apart and this one driver, a huge guy of epic proportions, just hanging half in and half out of the car in the freezing winter snow.
Taxis in Long Island have always been an adventure. Assembled at any rail junction are companies that seem to employ only the most ardent examples of Long Island life. These individuals typically launch into politics, society, or rants about the Mets. Portland is a city of taxi drivers. I had uneventful rides each time by a person perhaps with more degrees than I and who certainly was a better read. Tampa was always in a tricked out minivan, and it would always be a lively discussion with the driver. The same with Washington DC except not the tricked out minivan. Then, I downloaded an app on my phone called Uber (American English for Unbezahlte Arbeit)
that allows me to call up a taxi at any time and just about anywhere.In Gotham, these would be what we used to call radio cabs or gypsy cabs. Long typically black Town Cars or the like with vaguely well-dressed men who may also drive for mobsters when they aren’t hauling Yuppies out to the Ikea in Red Hook. Outside of Gotham, however, these taxis were run by individuals often not associated with any company but closer to those folks one used to flag down in Russia or other departments of the Americas.
To this, Uber has added a feature called “Pool.” When I was a young traveler, I used to think that visiting the Third World/Developing Nations was like visiting the past of the United States. Now I see that I was visiting our future. It is like old times when I get into an Uberpool ™. I get to meet and interact with all manner of people and this time I (generally) speak the language.
There was Walter, a kid fresh in from Chicago. We were going from LaGuardia airport to our respective homes and along the way had a riotous conversation about night clubs and strip joints. One I shared with a foul mouthed DC Powercouple who spoke un-highly of Mr. Trump for the ride much to the shouting enjoyment of the driver. Others have been a number of funny stories the sort one use to have to go to youth hostels to hear – money issues, drug adventures, throw up black out stories, police involvement… A whole adventure in the skin trade. The circle of life comes full and here we are catching up to the experiences I had in the far Eastern Europe and South and Central America. People sell their miles in their cars, ‘share’ their things to make a living, and everyone is now a taxi. I have since the feature was launched shared many an Uberpool, and each one an adventure. Maybe this new Third World/Developing World phase of the country isn’t that bad after all.