In life, there are three great unanswered questions.
- What happens after we die?
- Why do we suffer?
- Do you have to be insane to drive a taxi or does operating a taxi drive you insane?
Questions one and two have frustrated greater minds than mine, so let's have a go at number three...
Admit it. It's hard to imagine a more unpleasant job than driving a taxi. Your daily commute isn't something you do on your way to work. It IS your work. All those awful people you pass? Well, when you drive a cab you not only have to pick up those horrible people, you must take them wherever they want to go, regardless of how rude they are or how much they smell.
Driving a cab is currently considered so odious by the intelligentsia that they liken it to a humiliating form of punishment. When assailing the demanding certification requirements required of new Canadians, what do they say? "The system is so bad that doctors and lawyers are forced to drive taxis!"
What a horrific fate! Oh, those poor little doctors having to sit in heated cars and drive around cities and never once getting a chance to stick a needle in someone or make someone wait four and half hours to get a prescription filled. Shame!
Each city has its own unique brand of cabbie. In Vancouver, it's impossible to hail one. They're too cool and laid back. In Montreal, they appear to speak French. In Victoria, they're like Vancouver but more alienated. In Ottawa, they all listen to April Wine. Toronto cabbies think they're better than everyone else. Calgary drivers all chew beef jerky. In Halifax they are paid not in money but in Pogues songs. Regardless which city you're looking at, however, all systems adhere to the three "uns" of taxi driving: undertrained drivers, unsafe cars and unnecessarily high fares.
This unholy triumvirate is exacerbated by our taxi licensing systems. In the 1960s things were simpler. There were two kinds of taxi licenses:
2) Extremely Reckless.
Today's regulations, however, are mind-boggling and Byzantine and amount to little more than indentured servitude circa 1770 sweetened with aspartame. In Regina only 125 taxis may operate at any one time (36 extra during the winter). Why 125? Who knows. Maybe Tommy Douglas's ghost decreed it should be so. Regina cabbies who don't own a taxi license must rent one from a "magnate" at a fee of $1000 per month.
In Toronto there are "standard" plates (which the city no longer issues). These cost up to $250,000 and allow the driver to lease out his vehicle and sell it after he retires. Second tier "ambassador" plates restrict the holder to driving only. One cabbie has filed a human rights complaint saying the practice is discriminatory. Personally, I find the terminology confusing. Why ambassador plates? The term ambassador conjures the picture of a rich duplicitous Jeremy Irons-type guy living in a foreign country and lying to everyone there on behalf of rich guys back in his home country. This does not describe the experience delivered by most cab drivers - "fear-friendly" plates or "anxiety-approved" plates would be more appropriate.
Laws, traffic signals, they're all part of some hallucination. A turn signal is to a taxi driver what garlic is to a vampire. In fact, the only way a taxi driver can lose his license is if he uses his turn signal or fails to make 18 hair-raising U-turns in a single day.
In jolly old London cab drivers must "do the knowledge" and learn the city's streets. Not so here. Ask a cabbie to take you to the airport and there is a pretty decent chance the he will have no idea where it is. That's like taking on a job as a baker and being unfamiliar with the workings of an oven. It would be nice to believe that GPS systems will alleviate the problem, but all they have done is get us very specifically lost. You know, you ask to go to a Merton Street and the driver types the name in the GPS and in 20 minutes you arrive at Merton Avenue, 30 kilometres from where you need to be.
So, when you get in a cab, you're riding behind a guy who is likely working an average of 70 hours a week. Sleep is something he sees on television. The road has broken down his capacity for fear and natural response. The cabbie's life is so bad that, if he could, Charles Dickens would come back from the dead just to write about them. As a result, today's taxi drivers are like Jedi warriors: they hear and speak to disembodied voices, rely on a mysterious power to guide them and are comfortable steering their vessels with their eyes closed.