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.

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.

Eight rules for renting a car in a foreign country

Renting a car can be a great way to see a foreign country. Having your own wheels allows you the freedom to take your time, to stop for long lunches in the countryside, to turn down that little lane that looks interesting, and to go where public transportation won’t take you. But, renting a car comes with its own set of challenges and dangers. Here are eight road rules to remember when renting a car on your travels.

If you can’t drive a manual, now is not the time to learn.

Outside of the US, many, if not most, cars have manual transmissions. Finding an automatic rental can be difficult, and the cost will be significantly higher. You may be tempted to save money by taking the manual and if you’re fairly comfortable driving one, that’s fine. But if you’ve never driven one before, took a crash course just before your trip, or haven’t had to step on a clutch in over a decade, get the automatic. You’ll be concentrating hard enough on trying to figure out where to go, decipher all the crazy foreign road sides, and possibly drive on the “wrong” side of the road, that you really don’t want to add learning how to shift into the mix. And if you screw up the car’s transmission while you try to learn how to drive a manual, you could be held liable for the damage.



Always spring for the insurance.
$10-$20 a day for insurance can add up, and it’s easy to figure that, hey, nothing will go wrong, so why not skimp a little on the full coverage. Don’t do it (unless your credit card offers some coverage). On the off chance that something does happen, even if it isn’t your fault, you’ll be kicking yourself when you are stuck with a hefty bill. In some countries it is common to be offered an additional coverage on your tires and windshield. If you’ll be driving on gravel roads, definitely take this option. It’s usually just a few bucks more over the course of your rental and well worth the cost.

Let your hosts know when to expect you.
When you head out for the day with your car, always let your hosts know where you expect to go and when you’ll most likely be back. If you are going from place to place, let the proprietors of your next accommodation know when you’ll be arriving and what route you will be taking. If you do get horribly lost or get stranded along the road, at least you’ll know that one person has noticed that you’ve gone missing and they will have somewhat of an idea of where to start looking for you.

Make sure you have a spare.
In the US, it’s easier to get help if you get a flat tire. Chances are you’ve got your cell phone on you and you may even be a AAA member, making it easy to arrange a tow. At the very least, you can call the rental company and ask for assistance. If you are traveling in another country without a cell, getting help is a bit more difficult. Always check to make sure your rental car has a spare tire, and before you set out on your trip, make sure you know how to change it.

Don’t forget a map.
If you’ve got the cash and the option is available, get the GPS, but also bring a hard copy map with you as well. As we’ve seen, sometimes there’s no substitute for an actual old-fashioned paper map. If GPS isn’t an option, don’t rely on vague directions, be sure to pick up a comprehensive map in case you decide to wander a bit or in the event that the directions you were given turn out to be less than accurate.

Know the rules of the road.
Stop at stop signs, don’t speed, watch out for children and livestock. These are rules we know and which tend to be consistent across continents. Other rules of the road are more localized and often unwritten. Not following them may not get you a ticket, but they may not earn you any friends along the way either. Always research the road culture in a place you will be driving and learn customs that are followed there. For instance, when I was driving in South Africa, I was glad my friends had told me that on two-lane roads I should move over to the far left so that faster drivers could pass me. Had I not known, I probably would have made some other drivers very angry as they tried to pass me while I drove in the middle of my lane.

Don’t make yourself a target.
If you are driving from place to place, you’ll be traveling with your luggage and you may have a GPS unit mounted on your window or a map spread across the backseat. All of this screams “I’m a tourist, come pillage the car!” Always put your luggage in the trunk and stow the GPS and maps in the glovebox. Lock your doors when you aren’t in the car and don’t give anyone a reason to break in.

Read the fine print.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your rental company’s rules. Some don’t allow rentals with debit cards, and a few countries require than the driver have not just a driver’s license from their home country, but an international driving permit as well. If you’re told something different in person than what you’ve read, be sure to ask for clarification. A couple I talked to in South Africa thought they needed to sign a special form to take their rental out of the country, but the rental agent said it wasn’t necessary. When they hit a cow and totaled the car in Botswana, they were told that because they didn’t sign the form before crossing the border, they could be liable for the cost of the car – about $7000US! Always read the fine print and know the rental rules.