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.)