Men are strange. They don’t like to ask for help, and they don’t often offer it. Men are expected to figure it out for themselves. In prison, in the military, and here in the taxi line, no one teaches you anything. You attempt to follow the man ahead of you, and when you make a mistake, someone yells at you. Each rule is learned only through infraction; you know that there is a rule only when you have broken it -- and you may well misunderstand the shouting and take away the wrong lesson, only to make the mistake again. And when a man asks another to help, that other will not give it automatically, What help is given will be consciously decided, measured deliberately, and always with some temerity if not misgiving.
[I should make it clear that when I speak of men in general, I refer only to American men of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What I say may also apply to American men of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the influence and experience I gleaned from my father, who himself was passing on those things that he had received from his father and his grandfather before him. I can say nothing of the men of France or of Uzbekistan, or even of Canadians and Mexicans.]
Men carry about with them a prehistoric sense of scarcity and a fear that anything given to another man is something taken away from him. He fears the possibility that he will find himself unable to provide for himself and for those dependent on him. Thus all other men become competitors, if not for the immediate needs of food and shelter, or for the most fecund and arousing women, then for the positions within any group that carry the power to allocate benefits among the members of that group.
You often see men walking with studied non-chalance, an attitude that looks more like the sad bravado of pretended pride, like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp brushing off his coat, straightening his shoulders, and walking away from a disastrous failure with a jaunty step, whirling his cane, his chin held high. So it is with Cabbies.
My first impression of the taxi line at the airport was dreamlike. It was like one of those “exam dreams” – you know, the ones in which you find yourself taking a final exam, but you somehow never attended a single class and did not even read the textbook. My first day in the airport line was like finding myself participating in a Byzantine ritual with a Disneyesque twist.
You begin the process by going to an office in the airport where you register and receive a “smart card” that will allow you to enter the section of the parking structure in which the taxi line forms. Having taken your place in line, you sit in your car while more than a hundred taxis pack themselves in around you. You can see the car directly ahead of you and the first three or so rows of cars to your left and right. Now and then you glimpse movement in the distance, a string of automobiles rolling quickly along a winding path and flashing with sunlight as they pass out of the parking structure and disappear. As you sit, many of the drivers around you get out of their cars and walk around, greeting one another, smoking, haranguing one another in a dozen languages, none of which can you identify. These are not western European languages but ones that come, most likely, from the vast interior spaces of the Eurasian continent, which stretches from the Balkans to Siberia, from the North Sea to Mongolia, or from Africa. You start to wonder what the hell is going on.
Suddenly you hear engines starting. Drivers begin to make their way back to their cars, sauntering with a swagger that says “Yes I know that I have to get back to my car, but I want to make it clear that I am my own man; I do not scurry like a fearful mouse.” You do see some drivers, however, who are running frantically to reach their cabs before the cab ahead of them moves out and all the cabbies behind are stuck and honking and yelling in protest at being delayed.
Then you notice that, two rows over, the line is pulling out, and when the car ahead of you finally moves, you do the one thing that you know you are supposed to do: you follow it, driving along a tortuous path through the parking structure, a path that winds back on itself senselessly over and over again before finally breaking into the sunlight. You are now in the open space in the center of the donut-shaped parking structure. Here again the cabs are parked in a series of rows.
Again you park behind the same cab as before and sit and wait while other drivers begin to mill about or recline their seats to nap and wait. You are reminded of the lines at Disneyland lines that lead only to waiting areas that had been hidden from view and to more lines of which you had no idea before.
Eventually you find yourself rolling into the last waiting area. Here you hold up to the machine beside the empty toll booth the “smart card” onto which you have loaded money for your $4.00 fees. Once the gate has deducted $4.00 from your card, you move on to what turns out to be the last line. When you finally move again, you pass an attendant who either waves you on out into the road that circles from one domestic terminal to the next or stops you and hands you a ticket to go to the international terminal. If you are assigned to the international terminal, you have one last chance to make a big mistake. No one has told you that to get to that terminal you have to pass around all the domestic terminals, leave the airport, and then catch a ramp that circles back and drops you at the international terminal. If you miss that little unmarked ramp, you find yourself back on U.S. Highway 101 and have to begin the whole process over again.
At no point in the process does anyone explain anything to you. You just follow the guy ahead of you and hope for the best. On the day I registered for and got my smart card, I tried to use it to open the gate to exit the airport The clerk who had handled my registration and shown me the instructional video had told me that I could use the card for that purpose. But the card didn’t work. I had to back out from the gate, to the annoyance of the two or three cabs that had lined up behind me while I was trying to get the card to work. I had to leave my cab to one side, its flashers flashing, to trot back to the main lot trying to find someone who could tell me what to do, and then to trot all the way back to the office in the terminal basement where the same clerk/receptionist informed me that of course it didn’t work because I hadn’t gone to one of the machines in the parking lot that would take my cash or debit card and add money to the smart card. I then had to retrace my trotting steps, find the machines, add the money, trot to my cab, around which an river of cabs was now swirling as it flowed through the gates.
Embarrassed, feeling the way I did so often as a little boy: shamed, shy, and wishing I could hide. I was talking to myself, silently, trying to refine an explanation for my mistake that would be quick, clear, and forceful so that I could regain my pride by justifying myself to – to whom? – to some other driver or drivers? The conversation I was endlessly rehearsing was never going to happen. No one would even notice or remember me or my stranded, flashing, humbled, and impotent little taxi cab, lying to the side of the river of traffic, trying to regain its strength. The ridiculousness of the line ritual, the serpentine paths, the institutionalized confusion, leaving each driver ignorant of the overall endeavor and forcing each to rely on following in the footsteps of the man ahead of him: all of this is nuts -- and very male.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man will not ask directions. A man who does so humbles himself not in a virtuous Christian way but in the shameful way of humiliation. Thus the seemingly instantaneous universal acceptance of GPS technology in automobiles and in mobile phones, for, oddly enough, the information given by these devices seems to belong privately to the person using it. He acquires the information he needs without turning to his fellow man and asking for it. He needn’t feel ashamed because no one – or at least no other man, physically present – is involved even as an observer.
As a result, the man trusts his GPS device implicitly. I remember hearing a news report on NPR when GPS devices were first made available to the general population. A German driver had driven his Mercedes off the end of an unfinished bridge because he had followed the instruction given by his GPS navigator rather than attending to the road on which he was travelling. (I think of him whenever I see the passersby on the sidewalk in my neighborhood staring at the screens in front of them instead of looking around at the world through which they move, the world which we share.)
Since I cannot imagine that anyone would design a process as confused as the taxi line, I try to understand it by regarding each stage in reverse order, like an archeologist relating the artifacts found at different levels in a dig. I assume that the line must have taken shape over a number of years through a process of solving various problems as they arose out of conflicts between men arguing over who had what place in line. I would guess that these conflicts were adjudicated by one or more other drivers who established various rules and procedures by a general consensus. he line is like something constructed by a vanished tribe, a Stonehenge or a Machu Pichu, whose true nature and significance can only be guessed at.
I have heard that there was once a Taxi Driver’s Union, and everything about the airport line looks, feels, and even sounds like a union operation. The sounds I refer to above are specifically the voices of the men who run the line. Whoever they officially work for now, their accents are pure Teamsters – part Jersey, part Chicago, all brash, forceful, and decisive. I noticed this when I first went to register for the smart card. The only instruction I was given, the only information about the line and its operation I ever formally received, was a video that the clerk/receptionist put on in a conference room and told me to watch.
The video is a remarkable artifact. The camera is trained on the man who obviously runs the line. He is clearly the authority, the “big boss”. He looks and sounds like a union boss from the Javitts Center or the Meadowlands. His mouth seems to shape words by rolling around them without ever really closing down on them, so that they sound blurred and malleable. In front of him are ranged the tops and backs of the heads of a couple dozen men: this is clearly a recording of a talk given to the drivers years ago. The big boss has memorized the text and delivers it with a ritualized oratorical style. For example, after making one of his main points, he stops and says loudly, each word dropped individually in front of the group assembled before him, “Do -- you -- understand – me,” which phrase is uttered without the rising intonation usually indicative of the interrogative voice. You understand that he is not asking a question: his phrase is a euphemism for “You better remember this or you assholes are gonna get whacked upside the head.”
The talk explains how the smart cards electronically accomplish various functions previously performed by human cashiers and fee collectors. You start to realize that the ritual of the line that now exists is haunted by the ghosts of jobs lost to “smart card” automation. The big boss does still oversee dozens of employees who stand at various stations along the line, herding drivers along with shouts or incomprehensible hand signals. (Each apparently improvises these hand signals without any correlation to the signals given by his fellow line monitors) And you understand why you have to pay $4.00 each time you get into the airport line when the boss says “You pay me the $4.00 because you want me to run a fair line.”
Sitting in line that first night, I wondered whether any of the drivers around me knew the history or even remembered personally the union and the way it worked. I wondered whether it had been part of the Teamsters and had disappeared during the federal persecution of that organization the way people disappeared in Chile under the military dictatorship we put in place after assassinating the duely elected Marxist President Allende on September 11, 1974.
What a sad defeat for us all the loss of unions has been. How grievous the wrongs done to working people by the union-busting power elite. All of them, from FDR and the Kennedys to Reagan and the Bushes, bear the blame. None of them has been a friend to you and me.
I walked among the young on Valencia Street the other night and smiled to myself at all the memories of my own youth, especially my years in New York, that they evoked. I felt myself slough off the resentment that I have so often felt at their (to me) atrocious manners and their (I think) undeserved wealth. Instead I found myself wishing them well, wishing them the joy of their youth, of their messy emotions and their anxious labors, and of their flesh. I too was once young and doubtless appalled my elders in many ways.
Seeing them charge ahead ignorant of the history that hems them in on every side, seeing them let fall by the wayside the standards of reason, of morality, of social propriety, and of politics without which they cannot understand themselves or their lives clearly, I cannot judge or reprimand them. The world is now theirs, and I leave it to them gladly. They may very well run it better than I or any of my generation could do or have done. And in any case, what they do will happen to them and their heirs, not to me. I only hope that they might forgive me and my –their – forbears.
When I was young, I thought it horrible, and horribly unjust, that people have to die. Now I only think that I do not want to be here in 50 years. I do not want to suffer their future. I will sit a while longer on the hillside, so to speak, at the single window of my tiny room in this SRO Hotel, looking down on the Promised Land, on a future that I will not inhabit, watching the young scurry through the cities and the fields, through the mountains and the plains, living their lives in their time.