Notes From A Retired Cab Driver

I quit driving a cab in Chicago a couple months ago after nine years on the job. Do something 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week for that length of time and there’s no way it won’t shape your relationship with the world. I’ve spent these recent weeks recalibrating because I no longer wanted my life to be led from behind the wheel. Closing that driver’s-side door has been eye opening.

A cab driver’s life is unlike most others’. He spends hours and hours randomly looping around the city, punctuated by the lucky short spurts when he’s got a fare. Then the meter goes on and he’s operating at the passenger’s pace. Of course there are drivers who subject people to their own itinerary and rhythm, but those guys rarely last, burning out from running too hot or being asked by the city to seek alternate employment for any number of possible transgressions – from crashes to badly-thought-out scams. The alternating aimlessness and concentrated activity over the daily 12 hours or more makes for an often-chaotic personal life. You end up fitting all other chores and pleasures around time in the taxi. You pay to rent these vehicles so when they sit idle it weighs on the conscience. In a certain way it never feels like you’re truly off-duty because at any hour of day or night you can walk out to the cab and be back on the clock.

During most of my nine years, I worked from the afternoon until late into the night. The only time I saw the sunrise was at the end of my shift, just before my head hit the pillow. Now I wake a little after my girlfriend has gone out to give the dog his morning walk, typically between 7 and 8 a.m. For all those years, I was on a diametrically opposite schedule from much of the world; now I’m trying to run along with the rest of the pack. It’s novel to wake in the morning and go to sleep at night the way most other people do.In the cab I dealt with the public all the time. Dozens of small social interactions every day would pass without a second thought. Now I rarely see anyone I don’t know. Most of my hours are spent in the house and when I leave it’s usually with my girlfriend or to visit friends. A cabdriver’s city is necessarily vast and unpredictable whereas most others’ is confined to their daily routine –the commute to and from work, their neighborhood and the occasional foray to a restaurant, bar, theater or ballgame. Given the opportunity to go where and when I want for the first time in years, I’ve chosen not to go out much. What might strike most as a mundane existence is a welcome change of pace after all that time flitting about at others’ biddings.

I haven’t quit driving completely. My girlfriend has a car and enjoys having me chauffeur her around, but driving a car is nothing like driving a cab. The ecosystem of the road is made up of a variety of species: large and small, predator and prey, strong and weak. In the cab, that blacktop was my territory to fight over, whereas now it’s merely a way to get from one place to the other. I notice the attitude of others toward me is different as well. There’s a well-earned weariness to drivers who spot cabbies in their path. They almost expect to be cut off or otherwise impinged upon or inconvenienced.

Knowing that others perceive him antagonistically weighs on the cabdriver and alters his driving style. Some become over-aggressive while others lapse into stupor-like slowness. It’s all a reaction to the constant stress of the occupation. A cabdriver has to be aware and respond to everything else that happens on the roads he travels. Not taking this care may result in accidents and a loss of income.

Now when I get behind the wheel the stakes are much lower. I’m not compelled to go fast or hold grudges against other motorists as I used to as a cabbie. I laugh as cabs zip in and out of lanes, tailgate and blare their horns, passing drivers like me as if we were standing still. I’ve gone from being on the track to practically sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines, watching the racers roar by.

Better still are the times I take the Rock Island Line train downtown and look out the window at the standstill on the Dan Ryan. I used to have to sit in that gridlock daily, but now it’s someone else’s headache. It’s such a luxury to have someone else get me where I want to go for a change. Even more than whether I’m driving or being driven, it’s a pleasure to be going where I choose rather than getting others where they want to go. When you’re the traveler rather than just a transporter of others you can look forward to getting to this destination or that. A cabdriver can’t do that other than waiting for his shift to be over.

When I quit many people asked me what I’d do, what would I paint and write about? Driving was always a way to pay the bills but someplace a few thousand miles in, it began to inform my art and my thinking as well. It became a way to see the world. Despite the weight gained and the nerves frayed, I’ll always remember being a hack with a measure of gratitude. I won’t miss it though. Closing that driver’s-side door has given me my own place to go.

Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

VIDEO: Vintage Turkish Taxis


Millions of people get around Istanbul each day via dolmuş, a shared taxi. Similar to the colectivo of Latin America or the dollar vans of New York City, a dolmuş is generally a mini-bus or van that follows a fixed route for a fixed price. At the beginning of the route, the bus waits until it is full of passengers (dolmuş means stuffed in Turkish) before departing. You hand your money (theoretically a share of a private taxi’s rate, but usually 2-3 TL) up to the driver, and hop out whenever you get to your destination; there are rarely official bus stops.

The video above may look like it’s from the 1950s, but it’s actually from 1986. As recently as a few decades ago, the dolmuş vehicle of choice wasn’t the large yellow van you see today, but classic American cars from the mid-century and pre-war. Some of the vintage cars were customized with a third bench to stuff in more passengers!

Thanks to Turcopedia for the links and info.

Photo of the day – Speedy ride in Barbados

Photo of the day
Today’s Photo of the Day is called “Speedy”, taken in Bridgetown, Barbados by Flickr user EagleClaw. I can only assume he means the name to be ironic, as this is the most laid-back driver I’ve seen in awhile, and it looks to be anything but a speedy ride. Perhaps I’m too used to the mean streets of New York and Istanbul, where taxi drivers can and will mow you down if you aren’t careful when you cross the street. However, looking at this photo instantly relaxes me; even without seeing a beach or water, I’m suddenly on island time.

Have any photos of ultra-relaxed (or homicidal) taxi drivers from around the world? Add them to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Seattle taxi accident hits famous Pike Place Market pig statue

An accident this weekend involving a Seattle taxi has left the city’s iconic Rachel the Pig statue and local residents squealing in protest. Seattle’s KING-TV reports that a collision between the taxi and another driver at the famous Pike Place Market knocked the famous 550 pound statue off its base.

The statue, which serves as the Market’s unofficial mascot, was installed in 1986. “Rachel” functions as real piggy bank, collecting loose change from tourists and locals visiting the famous market. The $6,000-9,000 earned from donations each year are used to support social services programs in Seattle.

Though the statue sustained minor scratch damage in the crash, it should be repaired within the next few days. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for one of Seattle’s most famous pigs.

[Flickr photo courtesy of Loren Javier]