纽约的出租车 / New York Taxis

纽约的出租车

二月去纽约的时候,我对当地狂风肆虐、冰天雪地的天气除了迅速习惯之外,似乎也别无他法。我下榻在曼哈顿中城,人行道上还散落着一堆堆积雪。幸运的是,从酒店到所有会议地点步行都只需要10到15分钟,所以我总是走路,而没有打车。

我无论去哪儿旅行,都喜欢和出租车司机聊天。他们很多都是能说会道的哲学家,很有见解和想法,这些都是从他们工作中遇到的各色人等那儿搜集来的。

纽约的出租车司机以前名声不太好,但那都是过去大多数司机还都说英文,或者至少英文说得比现在的司机更流利的时候。假如现在对纽约的出租车司机做一下母语登记,结果肯定与总部设在纽约的联合国成员国,或者是圣经中的巴别塔不相上下。

根据我有限的经验,纽约曼哈顿的出租车司机似乎以南亚、非洲、东欧和中美国家的人为主。记忆中,我没有遇到过母语是汉语、韩语或日语的出租车司机。

几年前我曾在曼哈顿中城叫过一辆出租车,问司机是否愿意载我去新泽西北部的一座城市,我要去那儿参加一个商务会议。

司机说:“可以。”。我问他是否认路,“是的。”他说。

五分钟以后,我们还没有出中城。他把车停在一家报刊亭兼便利店的门外,指着店门对我说:“你去买地图。”

我居然很不明智地同意了,而没有立即提出就地散伙。

几分钟之后,我新买的地图册已经到了司机的手上,我们朝着新泽西的方向驶去。大概二十分钟过去了,我们在新泽西北部乱得像意大利面条一样的高速公路上迷失了方向,车子不断地兜圈儿、走三角形、绕8字。我努力地和司机讲话,但结果只有咕哝声和无法辨认的只言片语。我们迷路了,而且根本无法沟通。

我看了一下表,开会迟到的风险正在逐渐逼近,情况可不太妙啊!

于是我提议找个加油站停一下车,打听一下方向。我们又转了几个圈,终于发现一家加油站,赶忙驶了进去。加油站风格老派,看上去比较破旧。

“你去问吧。”司机指着屋里上了年纪的加油站服务员说。我猜这家伙要么是屁股底下抹了胶粘在驾驶座上动不了,要么就是酷爱支使人,又也许两者兼有。

不管怎样,一想到他有限的英文水平,我觉得能由自己处理这件事,心里反倒更踏实一些。

我走进小加油站,来到收银台前,发现这里绝对不是石油巨头的品牌加油站,既没有身穿时髦工作服的小伙计,也没有24小时的便利店,整个一个玩儿穿越的老旧夫妻店。看到当地小铺在连锁巨头的排挤下依然能够顽强地生存,我还是有些欣慰的。

我朝收银台后面的老哥打了个招呼,把新买的地图册翻到新泽西那几页,希望他能明确地指出我们现在在哪儿,怎么离开,怎么才能到达目的地。在没有GPS系统之前,人们去加油站的目的之一就是要得到明确、可靠的方向指引。当然,还有卫生间的钥匙、健怡可乐、汽油,这些都是加油站提供的主要服务。

当夫妻店的掌柜用“Das vidanya”跟另一位顾客告别的时候,我觉得事情要出岔子了。他接着又说了一连串的俄语单词和词组,都超出了我几乎为零的俄语词汇范畴。于是我转去问那位上了年纪的女士——也就是夫妻店的老板娘——结果她也没法用英语进行对话。

我拿着地图一阵比手划脚,换来的却是划圈似的手势,仿佛是在模仿我们之前15分钟走过的“意大利面”似的高速,一点儿忙也帮不上。

这简直就像一部怀旧电影,很快就进入了存在主义的焦虑时刻。我现在是彻底迷了路,而且就在我的祖国、就在我不久前刚刚生活过4年的州。更有甚者,当时我住的地方离这里其实只有一个小时的车程,而这里居然就没有人会讲我的母语。

一方面,我觉得自己真是蠢到家了,就是一个“傻老外”;而另一方面,当时我周围的人显得比我更蠢,更“老外”。

幸好当时又有一个司机驶进加油站加油,他的车上挂着新泽西州的牌照*。我走过去,发现司机居然是个讲英语的家伙。呼哈!这感觉,就跟参加小型同学聚会似的!我差点儿想跟他来段儿“英语角”的对话练习,可时间实在是不等人了。

我瞄准这个可信赖的家伙,他也很愉快地给我指了路,我们上路继续朝目的地进发。终于,我如期赶上了会议,幸运的是,会上用的还是英文。

*(新泽西州的车牌上注有宣传语:“花园州”。这引起很多人的反问:“什么花园?!”因为在新泽西州靠近纽约的北部地区,高速路和铁路两侧遍布着由石化厂和工业区构成的“森林”。尽管新泽西州在很多笑话中沦为笑柄,但除了这些毫无吸引力的显眼建筑外,它确实也有很多景色优美的地方。)

New York Taxis

There was no choice but to quickly get used to the blustery, cold weather in New York during my February visit. Intermittent piles of snow still dotted the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan, where I stayed. Fortunately, all of my meetings were within 10-15 minutes’ walking distance from my hotel. As a result, I walked rather than take taxis.

I enjoy talking with taxi drivers wherever I travel. Many of them are great conversationalists-cum-philosophers, full of insights and perspectives from the wide variety of people they encounter in their work.

New York taxi drivers used to have a bit of a bad reputation, but that was in an earlier era, when most of them spoke English. Or at least spoke English more fluently than the present group. If there were a register of native languages of the current crop of New York taxi drivers, it would read like the membership of the New York-headquartered United Nations. Or the biblical Tower of Babel.

In my limited experience it seems that the greatest number of Manhattan-based New York taxi drivers hail from South Asian, African, Eastern European or Central American countries. I don’t recall ever meeting one whose native language was Chinese, Korean, or Japanese.

Some years back I flagged a taxi in midtown Manhattan, and asked the driver if he was willing to take me to a city in northern New Jersey, where I had a business meeting.

He said “Yes”. I asked if he knew the way. “Yes”.

Five minutes later, still in midtown, he stopped outside a newsstand-cum-convenience store and pointed towards the door: “You buy map.”

Unwisely, I agreed, rather than doing the smart thing, which would have been proposing a divorce right then and there.

A few minutes later, with my newly acquired map book now in his hands, we drove off in the direction of New Jersey. Some twenty minutes later, we were hopelessly lost in a spaghetti bowl of northern New Jersey highways, driving in circles, triangles, and figure eights. My efforts at conversation with the driver resulted only in grunts and indecipherable phrases. We were lost, and without a common language.

Watching the clock, the risk of being very late for my business meeting was looming large. This was not a good situation.

I suggested that we pull off the highway, find a gas station, and ask directions. After a few more loop-de-loops, we did that, and pulled into the first gas station we found. It was small, somewhat run-down, and old-fashioned looking.

“You ask” said the driver, pointing to the elderly gas station attendants inside the building. This guy either had a layer of super glue between his butt and the front seat, or he enjoyed giving orders, or both.

Anyway, given the limited state of his English skills, I felt more comfortable taking matters into my own hands.

As I walked into the small gas station and up to the cashier’s desk, this clearly was not one of those “big oil” branded stations with young people in snappy-looking uniforms and a 24-hour convenience store attached. It was a blast-from-the-past, Mom and Pop gas station. It was kind of nice to see a small local operation still surviving, despite overpowering competition from the giant chains.

I approached the elderly chap (“Pop”) behind the cash register with my newly acquired map book open to the northern New Jersey section, expecting a clear explanation of where we were, how to get out of there, and back on track to our destination. That’s one thing which we used to rely on gas stations for, in the pre-GPS era: clear and reliable driving directions. This, plus keys to the bathroom, Diet Coke, and gas were the key deliverables.

I sensed something might be amiss when Pop said “Das vidanya” to one customer leaving the place, followed by a string of other Russian words and phrases, all of which went way past my near-zero Russian vocabulary. I turned to ask the elderly lady — the Mom in the “Mom and Pop” equation — who was equally non-conversant in English.

I tried hand signals in concert with the map, which resulted in circular hand motions resembling the highway spaghetti we’d been wallowing in for the past 15 minutes. No help whatsoever.

This was like a bad film, quickly escalating into one of those existential angst moments. Here I was, totally lost, in my home country, in a State where I lived for 4 years not that long ago, my residence then being only about an hour’s drive from this spot, and nobody speaks my language.

On the one hand, I was feeling very dumb, as in “dumb foreigner”; on the other, those around me at that moment appeared to be even dumber and more foreign than me.

Fortunately, just then another driver pulled into the station and up to the gas pump. His car had New Jersey license plates*. I walked over and discovered the driver was a fellow native speaker of English. Hurrah! It felt like a mini school reunion. I almost felt like having a brief “English Corner” moment, but the clock was ticking.

I zeroed in on this unsuspecting fellow, who happily gave me directions to our destination, and we were off. I made it on time to my meeting after all, which was fortunately conducted in English.

*(New Jersey license plates proclaim the state’s slogan: “The Garden State”. This has prompted many observers to ask “What garden?!” since a forest of petrochemical facilities and industrial sprawl lines the freeways and railways in the northern part of the state near New York. Despite being the butt of many jokes, New Jersey actually has a lot of beautiful places in addition to these more obvious, less attractive ones.)


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