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.