Once I left my building and tried to hail a cab, I realized it was too cold to be outside without a scarf or gloves. I’ve lived here for 12 years, but my California roots are easily misled by bright sun. I was extra relieved when a cab driver waiting next to CVS waved me over to his “new-fashioned” cab. When I think of a “Taxi”, I think of massive American sedans, like Crown Victorias, their Mercury-twins and old Lincolns. Any smaller, more modern car, whether it be a Toyota Camry or a Ford Taurus feels “new”. This cab was so “new” I couldn’t even identify the model. I slid in.
“Boy, am I glad to see you. I’m cold!”
He smiled and quietly asked, “Where to?”
I told him my destination and looked at the front, passenger-side visor. For once, it was flipped downwards and the driver’s name and photograph were perfectly visible. Nine times out of ten, when I am in a cab, I notice (with great annoyance) that such crucial information is deliberately obscured by other papers or cards, paper-clipped on top of helpful details like the name of the cab operator. This name looked French.
“D’où venez-vous?”, I asked hopefully. I usually don’t have a language in common with Cabbies in D.C. besides English; in a different city to our North, whenever I splurged on a big yellow ride, I practiced everything from Punjabi to Greek .
The question was a catalyst for transformation in the front seat. The man who had cordially agreed to make a left on Park, and take Reno road to blah, blah, blah was brought to life.
“I am from Haiti!” he exulted. He did not ask me how I knew French, which filled me with childish delight. I looked like I might speak French! Zut alors! He did ask me, “How did you know?”
“Your name. Jean P____.”
“Yes! That is my name!” He sat up straighter in his seat, eyes twinkling in the rear view.
He was taking me to work, and work is all I can think of, when it comes to Haiti. Sabri Ben-Achour’s disquieting photographs of waste water stagnating on what were once tennis courts. Kojo’s voice introducing his show, not from Northwest D.C. but Port-au-Prince. I work “with” these people but I am in awe of them. When Diane Rehm passes me in a hallway, I go mute. Jean P. is gazing at me quizzically, as he waits for the light to change. I force myself back to the present.
“How long have you been driving?”, I ask. It’s an easy, logical thing to ask, right?
“Ahhh! 1989. I sent my two daughters to college, you know. To Maryland!” All is well within the cab, again.
“Do you live in Maryland?”
“Huzzah for in-state tuition. It’s how I got educated.”
“At Maryland?” He looks excited.
“No. But I have plenty of family who did. I’m from California. That’s where I was before moving here. What about you?”
He shifts in his seat, leaning towards the middle of the car, where I am.
“I left Haiti long time ago, in ’75. I went to Montreal, Canada before this.”
“Montreal! More French. Do your daughters speak it?”
“No, they were born here…what about you?”
“I was born here, but I try to speak my parents’ language…don’t get much chance to.”
He nods. “One of my daughters is in Japan, she went for one year in college. Now she works there. For the State Department.” He is beaming. The way he pronounced, “for the State Department” was so filled with joy, it was endearing. Every immigrant parent wants to say such words, with such feeling, about their offspring. That’s why they came.
On the radio, yesterday’s Inaugural festivities are mentioned. Jean P. shakes his head and smiles at Vince Gray’s name. Most cab drivers that I’ve spoken to preferred him to Fenty and I wonder if this man is any different. I ask.
“Vince Gray? This guy didn’t promise nobody nothing, I like that! Politicians tell you that they will do something and then they never do, so maybe it’s good to promise nothing.”
I ask him how he feels about “THE METER”. It looms large as an issue. It deserves all-caps.
“I don’t mind the meters at all but if you raise the meters a little bit…you know…”
“What”, I prompt.
Jean P. shakes his head and looks worried. “With the meters we lost about 33-35%. A lot of cab drivers lost their houses. I came close, almost lost mine but thank God, I still have it. It’s tough. I know three cab drivers who lost their houses, oh yes. Because the meter! We don’t make enough money to pay the bills, plus the gas is expensive and they want new cars and stuff–”
“You can’t put old cars. This is a 2006. Ford 500. It’s very roomy, you’d be surprised if you see the trunk…the trunk is very big. It is good on gas. But when it comes to maintenance, it kills you. Everything is expensive on this car. Six spark plugs? I paid $400 because they have to take the whole head out! The wiper, everything on the car, you have to go to a dealer, they have to order that part…and it’s a taxi cab, you know? You can’t wait. You have to get a part and get out on street!
“Even the transmission, you can’t even do service by yourself. Last time I had to change the oil, they had some kind of machine to suck the oil and clean it, and put it back. You now how much they charge me? $375 just to service the transmission!
“I’m telling you, that don’t leave nothing for you. But they want us to have these new cars and the fares are cheaper, too. They have to raise the fares or it cannot work. When the economy was good, we drop off a fare, pick one up…now we go hours with no new fares. It leaves us with nothing.”