“If you absolutely need to put it in the GPS, please pull over,” I said from the back seat. “You’ll kill us if you do it while getting on the highway. Besides, I’ll guide you all the way.”
“Sorry, you’re right,” he said with a polite and embarrassed voice. “It’s just that I’m new to driving a taxi, and I feel more confident if she guides me.”
After an endless and grueling travel day, with tight meetings and rental cars and wrong on-ramps and security checks and delays and an unexplained nose bleed at the most inopportune moment, I had finally landed and was on my way home to wife and kids. Only minutes separated me from them now. I wanted to speed it up.
But I couldn’t help noticing the taxi driver. He looked Middle-Eastern, twenty-something, intelligent and curious, tastefully dressed, out of place outside the empty, dark Oakland airport terminal.
“I’ll show you the shortcut to the Berkeley hills,” I said from my back seat, talking to his rear view mirror. “It’ll come in handy for future rides.”
“Thanks. That would be nice,” he said, smiling back into the mirror.
“If you’re new to driving a taxi, what were you doing before?” I asked.
I had just finished The Grapes of Wrath on the plane, that classic about suffering and dignity in Great-Depression California. Was this–the life I saw in the rear view mirror–such a tale in the making?
“I moved here from Minnesota to take the bar exam,” he said. “But I failed. 55% failed. I was one of them.”
“Try again,” I said.
“I will,” he said. “The next one is in July. That’s why I took this job. It doesn’t pay much. But I spend so much time sitting in front of the airport that I get to study and read.”
“Can you pay your bills?”
“Not at the moment. They told me that Oakland canceled half its flights. And there are so many of us driving cabs these days. Plus, there is this cab monopoly in Oakland. You lease the car from them; they get paid no matter what. There’s nothing left over after expenses.”
The missed exit
“Shit,” I said. “I was so absorbed in our conversation that I missed the exit I was going to show you. We’re already in the port.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m turning off the meter. This was my fault. I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t touch the meter,” I said. “I said I was going to guide you. There is one other exit we can take. I should have … There! Take that exit now…”
We were already in the chevrons of the exit. He would have one split second to decide whether to swerve out. He stayed the course. We went past it.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Now I’m turning off the meter. I feel terrible. This is embarrassing. I’m not good at this job yet.”
“Looks like we’re going over the bridge to San Francisco,” I said.
Philosophy between exits
For a few moments, as the car wound down the lonely turnpike through a dark and dangerous-looking Oakland port, we sat there silent. He felt terrible and did not want to be here, neither in the big sense–driving a taxi for a living–nor in the small sense–going to the wrong city with the meter off.
In the backseat, I felt annoyance rising. I had prepared mentally to be home now, kissing my children in their sleep. It would take a lot longer now. I had a headache and chapped lips. I did not want to be here.
Then I had a clarifying thought. This might well get a lot worse. My driver was terrified with embarrassment. We had, together, already compounded one mistake with a second–although he had saved us from something far worse by not swerving. If he remained mortified and I annoyed, we were likely to make several more mistakes now.
I thought of several of the characters in my book who met with disaster in life. Often, things had first taken a turn for the barely-noticeably worse, which they had found intolerable and made much, much worse, unnecessarily worse, irreversibly worse.
“You did the right thing back there,” I said. “You kept your cool. That was good driving.”
“I still feel terrible,” he said. “I’m paying the toll.”
“Never mind the toll,” I said, pressing a bill into his hand. “I know the flat rate between Oakland and my house. I’m paying that and a tip. Now let’s concentrate on not making this worse.”
He started fiddling with his GPS. “I’d feel better if I heard her talking to us.”
“There might be a way we could cut this short,” I said. “There is this little island, Yerba Buena or Treasure Island or whatever, between Oakland and San Francisco. I’ve never got off that exit, but I’m sure we could get around to the lower deck and head back to Oakland.”
“OK, if you think so.”
Silently, we took the exit onto the island.
The foggy windshield
“Thanks for being cool about this,” he said as we turned into a dimly lit hairpin turn. There was a cop car pulling somebody over. Otherwise, everything was black and empty now.
“I’ve done far worse in new jobs in my time,” I said.
We kept going. We had no idea where we were. He was leaning forward, hyper-alert, with all his adrenalin glands open. He was scared to take his eyes off the road. I noticed that our windows were fogging up and we could barely see. Would I humiliate and stress him by saying something?
“Is that our turn?” he asked.
“No idea,” I said. “Doesn’t look like a real street.”
Now we were down by the water. Everything was empty, except for a few people having some sort of get-together. Some boys, some girls. Tacky clothes. A stretch limo. Jewelry on the men. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw that my driver was scared.
“We missed it,” he said. “I’m doing a U-turn.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
We went back. The on-ramp to Oakland was closed and barricaded.
He stopped the car. We were all alone, under the bridge. I was scared now, because I could see that he was really agitated. I decided that I had a role in this. I would calm him and give him confidence, because he had to drive me home.
“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s go back again to the water and ask. Maybe we can find the treasure on the island.”
He gave me a nervous smile in the mirror, backed up and went back to the water.
“I’ll ask one of these guys,” I said. “No, I should probably do that,” he said. “Sure,” I said. He had dignity and I liked it.
I watched him exchange a few words outside, then he jumped back in.
“We can only go to San Francisco,” he said.
“That’s where we should have gone in the first place,” I said. “My mistake for taking the exit. By the way, your windshield is fogged up.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.” He blasted the hot air onto the window and we moved off.
Finding the right turn
Soon we were back on the bridge, going to San Francisco. Away from our destination but relieved. It would take a while longer now, and I could see that he was afraid of making yet more mistakes, afraid that this night would never end.
“Let’s shut up completely and just concentrate on the road and the next turn,” I said.
Thanks? He really seemed grateful. I could see him relax. Perhaps he felt that I was taking the pressure off.
We stayed silent for a long time.
“I know the San Francisco exit like the back of my hand,” I said, “but I think you’d feel better hearing her.”
He smiled into the rear view mirror and then typed some Oakland address into his GPS from the device’s memory. That universal female voice that soothes all male drivers and never criticizes said “Prepare to exit on the right.”
Before long we were at last heading in the right direction. “You did great,” I said. “You kept your cool. There were actually about ten or twenty worse mistakes we could have made.”
“Thanks for saying that.”
“Why did you leave Minnesota?” I asked. “Is the recession even worse there?”
“I just thought there would be more opportunity here. I’m interested in immigration law and bankruptcy. I’m on file with all the temp agencies, but there are no legal jobs at all right now.”
“I can get out here,” I said in the Berkeley hills. I shoved a few bills into his hand, rolled together so that he could not count them right away. “A receipt please.”
He gave me receipt but did not fill it out.
“Good luck with the exam in July. You’ll be a good lawyer,” I said.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “So much.” He waved as I went up the hill.