CARTAGENA, Colombia–I think it was the English writer Alan Bennett who said that for him taxis were not the black boxes he found in London, but the “yellow projectiles” that hurtle through intersections in New York.
Taxis tell you a lot about a country, and more about the social status of the taxi-driving class. In France taxis are clean, small and entrepreneurial. Taxi drivers in France do not think they are at the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Alas, American taxis tell us that the drivers would rather be doing something else. The cars are dirty, seats are broken, and the drivers are often mannerless immigrants with no sense of service.
It was not always like this.
When New York taxis were driven by the Jewish working class, men who read Dorothy Schiff’s The New York Post and lived in the Bronx, you got a serving of philosophy, or at least humor, with each ride. Similarly in Washington, D.C., taxis were spotless and driven by older African-American men who appeared to love their work, knew the geography of the city and took pride in it.
At last, Washington taxis have meters. But because the hack bureau of the city government has no teeth, the taxis are as dirty as ever, the drivers talk incessantly on cell phones in the languages of Africa and the Middle East and treat their passengers as inconvenient necessities.
Things are not much better in other American cities.
In Atlanta, I was taken all the way around the beltway to reach an address near the airport. The driver did not know the way, would not listen to me and refused to call his dispatcher for guidance.
In Houston, I had an experience nearly as bad when the driver, newly arrived from Nigeria, took me about 25 miles out of my way because he could not understand what I was saying to him.
Taxis in Los Angeles are more fun. Here the driver is more likely to turn to you and say, “I am not actually a taxi driver. I am in the movie business.” In the City of Angels, I have been offered two scripts and a demonstration tape by drivers who thought I could advance their careers. When I asked friends in L.A. why I had been singled out for this treatment, they replied, “You wore a suit. Only film financiers wear them here. And you were probably staying at The Beverly Hills Hotel.” I was.
In Chicago, a driver waved a bunch of bills at me and said, “We have the best police money can buy.”
In the Third World, taxi drivers offer services beyond transportation. In Singapore, I arrived to give a speech just before a monsoon broke. I was greeted at the airport by a lovely, young ethnic Chinese woman who asked if I was Mr. King. I said I was. She said, “I have a car waiting for you” and escorted me to a Rolls Royce. I thought things were looking up.
As we headed out of the airport, she began to tell me about the program for the following day. She said there would be a tour of the port, an inspection of crane technology, and meetings with maritime officials. When I pointed out that I was in Singapore to give a speech on energy, not port operation and technology, she started screaming at the driver, “Wrong Mr. King. Wrong Mr. King.” Just as the monsoon broke, and rain came down in a way that you do not see outside Asia, she tossed me and my bag out of the Rolls. Taxis evaporated.
Then there appeared at my side a man I called Mr. Fixit. Journalists learn the value of shady entrepreneurs in tight situations. “I have taxi,” he declared, grabbing my bag. I asked if it had a meter and light on the top, knowing the answer. “No, my taxi discreet,” he said.
There was not much choice, so we negotiated a fee and off we went in quite a nice car that he had parked illegally at the curb.
“I am looking after you in Singapore,” announced Mr. Fixit. “We go see snake charmer, crocodile wrestling and transvestite show. And at night, I bring you different girls, every kind of ethnic.”
Then, quite suddenly, he took his hands off the wheel and put them around his throat. Turning to me, he said, “But no drugs. When government start hanging people, I stop drugs.”
In Rio de Janiero, in the 1960s and 1970s, the standard taxi cab was a VW Bug, with the front passenger seat removed. It worked surprisingly well, but only for two passengers.
The Soviets did not understand economic value, and neither did the puppet governments in their satellites. The Poles are justifiably proud of their strong horses. And in the last days of the Soviet Union, they used horses to plow fields. But in one village, I was astounded to see a large agricultural tractor towing a small cart marked “taxi.”
Of course, taxis in London are part of the pride of the place. Fact and mythology get a bit mixed up about the cabs, and Londoners like it that way. In law, it is said, a London cab must carry a bale of hay for the horse and it is legal for a man to urinate on the right rear wheel.
London cabs are always evolving. Every few years, the city holds a new cab design competition. It is said that the only two essential design criteria are that the cab’s roof must be high enough for a man to wear a top hat and the cab must be able to turn almost entirely on its own length. The cabs are not always built by automobile companies, and there is fierce competition for new innovations.
Which brings me to yellow projectiles and the cabs of Cartagena. They are not so much yellow projectiles as yellow darts, buzzing around in a way that reminds me of yellow jackets. These cabs are clean and made by various manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Renault. No car so small would have the temerity to offer itself as a taxi in America. But the price of gas here is a factor. The price at the pump in Cartagena hovers at $4 per gallon.
As the price of oil increases in America, look for the downsizing of all vehicles, and cabs in particular. But I fear that we will get the downsizing without the cleanliness and courtesy of the cabs in Cartagena.