Monday, December 21, 2009

Rednecks in a Cab

[ This is a repost from my old MySpace blog. It was originally posted December 30, 2005. ]


Back in the summer, when Helen and I made a quick trip from L.A. to Erie, we were almost screwed over by the cab company we called. We'd made a simple request -- that a cab pick us up at our apartment at a certain time -- and then waited outside. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes late. We called back. We waited some more. No cab. Eventually, purely by chance, a neighbor up the block was being dropped off by a cab. I walked over and asked the cabbie if he was allowed to take an unassigned fare. (You don't usually hail cabs in L.A.) In whichever accent, he said it would be no problem.

When it came time to fly to Erie this Christmas, I wanted to avoid that situation. I told Helen to call ANY cab company except the one that had screwed us over a few months ago. Right on time -- or maybe even a few minutes early -- the driver called up to our apartment and told us he was outside waiting.

This driver's accent was easy to determine. He was clearly Jamaican. And, just in case there was any doubt, he started playing some reggae once we were under way.

I was perfectly happy to listen to the reggae. I have a personal history of appreciating other people's music when I'm in their car. Like when Paul used to cart me around Pittsburgh; I'd be exposed to music I otherwise never would have heard. Riding in someone else's car has always been an opportunity for me to learn something new in the world of music.

After only one song ended, the cabbie ejected the disc and slipped it into one of those sun visor CD holders. The visor-holder was ridiculously overstuffed. The man had at least ten discs per slot. The fabric was stretched and hung loose. And the odd thing was, most of the discs seemed to be completely blank -- no labels, no markings of any kind. How could he tell them apart?

After stashing the disc we had been listening to, the driver slid an unmarked disc out of the middle of one of the stacks hanging over his dash. The first song began to play, and the driver proceeded to bob his head, grooving along with the music.

The song played and played. I waited for the lyrics to kick in; this song had a long introduction. Not as if I expected to understand the lyrics. You know how reggae songs are: a potpouris of numerous languages that have worked their influence on Jamaican culture. A few words here and there are English, and the rest are anyone's guess. Regardless, this song refused to gratify my expectations for lyrics. It was an instrumental.

The next song began, and it was the same thing. Only, this time, about halfway into the song, the driver started talking. I craned my head over the back of the front seat. Was the driver talking to us, perhaps asking for a prefered route or clarification on directions? He had spoken loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be understood. I tried to make eye contact with him through the rearview mirror. He did not return the favor. Apparently, he hadn't been talking to me.

The next song came up. The driver started talking again. Except that he wasn't talking, was he? He was singing. Whatever these songs were -- his own original music? reggae karaoke? -- he was well-rehearsed and didn't miss a beat. As the song continued, he got louder and louder. By the end, all inhibitions were lost. He was singing loud and clear. He didn't care that Helen and I were in the car; he was singing these songs. There was something I admired about that. I know that if I were a cab driver, I'd probably sing songs between fares, not while someone was there to hear me. Perhaps it's a confidence issue. This man was not lacking it.

Helen and I glanced occassionally at each other and cracked sideways grins. We remained completely silent, completely still. It was his cab, not ours. If he wanted to sing, so be it. I prepared something amusing to say to Helen once we got out of the cab: "I'll bet you didn't know it was going to be a ride AND a free show."

As the songs continued, the singing got more confident and more intense. Our driver was completely into the music. There was no holding back. He began turning his head to the opposite corner of the car, as if there were some little audience looking up at him from underneath the glove compartment. They were going wild for him. He sang directly to them, gestured toward them, preached to them, waved his arms at them.

More songs were sung. More English words became recognizable. During one particular song, the word "rednecks" was flung around quite a bit. I think I also heard "George Bush" mentioned in this song. "Redneck" is not the most offensive word in the lexicon, so what did I care? I certainly wasn't going to tell this guy I'd prefer he didn't say that.

Another song. The tone was starting to change. This was definitely an angry song. The incomprehensible lyrics sounded confrontational. The English lyrics confirmed it. It was starting to get a little scary in that cab.

He sang an angry song. But apparently he was unsatisfied with his performance, because he skipped back to the beginning of the track. This time, he was definitely putting his all into it. He was pissed. He was enraged. He was ready to do something about it.


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How long WAS this trip to the airport, anyway? It's usually just fifteen to thirty minutes over there. Unfortunately, we were catching the tail end of rush hour traffic. The driver had picked the most awful route, first getting onto the 405 (which was at a stand-still), then taking Sepulveda which is the "secret" alternative to the 405... except it's not a secret because every asshole in this city knows about it. What was I going to do, tell him he was doing his job poorly? I just had to accept the fact that this was going to take a while. And avoid looking him in the eye. Do NOT look him in the eye!

Finally, we arrived at the airport. And not a moment too soon: our driver's performance was reaching its climax. The crowd underneath the dashboard had obviously worked him up. His energy was high. He was convulsing, barely able to keep himself in his seat. As we pulled to our gate, the song was coming to an end. Loudly and madly, our driver was shouting over the music: "The white man makes up false allegations to keep the black man down. Fuck the white man!"

The audience was crazy, cheering, clapping, whistling, jumping up and down. Beautiful Rastafarian women were throwing themselves onto the stage. The music stopped. It was time to really drive the message home: "FUCK THE WHITE MAN! FUCK THE WHITE MAN!!!"

I looked at Helen, my eyes wide, and nodded towards her door. "We're here," I was implying. "Time to get THE FUCK out of this cab."

The airport, though not terribly crowded, was occupied with plenty of witnesses. Relief. We would probably live through this experience.


The cab driver calmly walked around to the back of his car. The trunk was popped. He withdrew our bags and walked them patiently to the curb. It did not show on his face, but I knew what he was thinking deep inside. "Here I am, doing the white man's bidding again." Perhaps he was also thinking, "But not for much longer."

I looked at the meter, rounded up, and did not ask for change. I wished him happy holidays. And then I made sure he was leaving, so that I could begin enjoying my own holidays.

[ Merry Christmas, everyone! ]

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