April 2018

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Taxi-drivers: Historians, Scientists, Economists, Philosophers, Poets

Thursday’s cab driver from my home in Seattle’s Central District to Ballard, Seattle’s Norwegian North, was a philosopher, as so many cab drivers are. He was kind, maybe sixty years old, with a relatively lean body and the heavy accent of an Italian transplant. He must have had a language disability because his speech seemed to be from the back of his throat, low and monotone. His lips didn’t move much, and because I don’t hear well I had to listen carefully to understand what he said. He was a talker.

Though I describe him as lean, he said that when he goes back to Italy his cousins call him “Fatty.”

“America is the land of the free and the obese,” he told me, turning to face me. I laughed nervously, amused and wanting to be friendly but also wanting him to look at the traffic in front of him. “It’s not the sugar,” he said, turning briefly to glance at the traffic in front of us before turning back to me. “It’s the salt. People say they love fresh orange juice, but it’s full of salt. ‘If you want fresh juice,’ I say to them, ‘you have to squeeze it yourself.’ Don’t get it from a can. Too much salt. The ADA started in 1972 under President Nixon. It’s B.S. Now we’re even more obese. Fifty pounds more even though the ADA started because of obesity. 1972. B.S. America is obese in every way.”

He turned back to the road, and I relaxed, both because he was facing the road and I wasn’t trying to interpret his accent through his disability any more. The traffic wasn’t moving, so he turned again to face me. “Traffic,” he said. “How long have you lived in Seattle.”

“Twenty-four years. Since 1991.”

He glanced briefly at the road, the cars still not moving, and said, “Then you’ve seen changes. Me, 1993. I used to know everyone in this town. I was the only cab driver who would go to your neighborhood then. No one else would go there. Too many guns. Too many knives. But everyone knew me.”

“Today, the traffic is because of the president of China. (He then said some things that I couldn’t decipher.) The Chinese government keeps American money. When Americans spend money in China, the businessman has to give it to the Chinese government for Chinese money. The government devalues the American dollar and collects American money for, say, five years. Then they raise the value and sell it back for more money. B.S. I wonder if the president and his wife are eating in the International District. Probably not. Brought their own chef. They have money. It’s B.S. What’s the address again?”

Somehow, my economist taxi-driver knew that the traffic ahead had moved, so he looked forward and drove to the next stoplight, braked, and turned around.

The light changed, the traffic opened, and he finally turned to face front and drive, turning back from time to time to toss his words over his shoulder at me. “We will have another warm winter,” he told me. “People say it’s CO2. Al Gore. B.S. The world was made from CO2. People make CO2 when they go to the bathroom two, three times. You know what I mean. A hole in the atmosphere. B.S. The earth is warming because the core is cooling and the heat escapes and goes into our atmosphere. That’s where the CO2 comes from. Not cars. A person makes more CO2 than a car. Al Gore. B.S. What’s the address again?”

“I was on a research project in Ecuador in 1967. We learned that. I was seventeen, making $35 an hour. That was a lot of money then. B.S. America is obese in every way. The land of the free and the obese. What’s the address again?”

I love talking with taxi-drivers, though I didn’t say much to get this one going. I didn’t say much to get the guy who drove me home going either.

I had to wait a ridiculous 45 minutes for this driver, but he turned out to be worth the wait. He was friendly, and helped me and my backpack into his cab. He wore jeans and a green baseball cap, and I wondered what it would be like to have a job where I wore a baseball cap.

He apologized for being late and explained that he’d gotten the call on upper Queen Anne. Something wrong with the computer. It was a pretty day, and I didn’t have to be anywhere soon, so I didn’t mind. I was glad this driver didn’t turn around to look me in the eye when he talked to me.

We headed down the road but stopped because a workman holding a stop sign indicated we should. As a crane entered the street to work on a giant new apartment building, I said that I was amazed by how much construction there is in the city now.

He took off his green baseball cap to scratch the bald spot in the back of his head and said, “We need rent control in this city. My daughter’s rent just went up, so she bought a condo and pays about the same as she would have paid in rent. In New York, our family lived in a rent-stabilized apartment. Nice. They have rent control in New York for people whose families have been in the same place for generations, but rent stabilization is what they have now. Rent can go up 3% a year and there’s a court devoted to disputes with apartment owners. Big court. Giant. That’s fair. That’s what we need in Seattle. Nobody has rent control anymore. So do you work, or what do you do?”

“I worked in schools for 27 years,” I told him. “I loved it, but I got sick and had to leave that work. Now I’m at the University of Washington working on a Masters in Social Work.”

“Theodore Roethke taught at the University of Washington,” he told me. “He was a great teacher. Roethke said he couldn’t have been a poet without having been a teacher. He said everyone could write poetry. Great guy. You heard of him?”

“I have,” I told him. I didn’t mention that I quote Roethke’s poem, “I Wake to Sleep and Take my Waking Slow,” every morning.

“Great guy. One of his students died during a break when she was riding a horse. She lived on Beacon Hill. He wrote a poem for the funeral, “Elegy for Jane.” He read it there and gave her parents the original before he left. Nice guy. I won’t bore you with my analysis.”

I taught poetry in high schools for years and now I run a poetry club for seniors in an assisted living facility. I even have a poetry exchange at the bottom of our stairs at home. Of course I wanted to hear his analysis! I didn’t tell him about my background, but I did tell him I’d love to hear his analysis

Instead, he quoted the poem’s beginning:

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; 

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile; 

And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.

And she balanced in the delight of her thought, 

A wren, happy, tail into the wind, 

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches. 

The shade sang with her; 

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing, 

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose. 

“Good guy, Roethke,” my taxi-driver said somewhat wistfully. He pronounced the poet’s name with a hard “t” as if the “h” weren’t there, so I told him I’d always pronounced the “th.”

“No, he said it like ‘Rudke.’ He was a friend of my father’s. Great guy. He had a lot of friends. Big guy with teeny legs. He was friends with Dylan Thomas, too. They spent two days walking around New York together. Burly guys. They were not effetes. That must have been some great bullshit. Thomas always wanted Roethke to go salmon fishing in Wales, and Roethke wanted Thomas to go salmon fishing in the Northwest.

“My family reads “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” every Christmas. You heard of Dylan Thomas?”

I said I had, and he quoted from Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill.”

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

As he finished quoting, he said, “There’s more. That’s not all of it. Which house is yours?”

I asked him to circle the roundabout and leave me off at my sidewalk, easier that way with my disabilities. As he helped me out of the car, he noticed the poetry box at the bottom of our stairs and whisked around with gusto to say, almost to shout, “What’s this? A poetry box? Are you a poet?”

He had been quoting enthusiastically from two of the English language’s most-loved poets. I have published one poem (unless you count the poem in my high school’s literary magazine.)

I said, “Yes” and bid him a good day. I was already having a good day, and it was still morning.

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