‘‘When you have guests in your car, they become family!’’- an Indian taxi driver in London, Ont.
Taxi drivers are intriguing human beings. They sometimes have complex life stories, whether they became taxi drivers after fleeing a war-torn country or did so because they dropped out of school. Most of the time, they are very good at reading people. It is not surprising considering that what they do day in and day out is picking people up and talking (or listening) to them.
My fascination with taxi drivers began in childhood. I grew up in Montreal, and with a mother that didn’t drive and a father who didn’t have a car, we took taxis between and to places from time to time. My parents also used to put me in taxis when it was time to ship me back to the other parent with all of my stuff.
For the month of January, I was lucky to have the opportunity to intern at CBC in my hometown. With that came the privilege of getting taxi coupons to go between places for reporting or other journalistic purposes. Usually, the drive was not very long- CBC is downtown, so most of the city is a short cab drive away.
That was until I was sent to St. Leonard to record streeters for a radio show. Streeters are when a journalist ask people for their opinion on any given topic. I had to ask people in the area what they thought about the fact that legendary hockey goaltender Martin Brodeur was retiring. I was going to that specific location because Brodeur is from St. Leonard and has an arena named after him there.
St. Leonard is a borough of Montreal that used to be its own city. It is a predominantly Italian borough, but that is quickly changing. It is situated in the North-East corner of the island of Montreal and is hard to get to by public transit (no metro goes there). That being said, I knew that getting there (and back) was going to be the longest part of my mission.
I called the cab inside of the CBC building and stepped into the sunshine. My taxi was already waiting for me. I got in and gave the driver the address. Of course, he didn’t know where it was. Thank God they have GPS these days.
My Bengali driver spoke in broken French to me. We talked a lot about what we did, what we thought and banalities about Montreal or the January weather. It was a long ride, so much that it was the maximum allowed for a taxi coupon (35$). As I was paying, he wanted to tell me something. But he couldn’t find the words in French.
-I’ll just tell you in English, OK?
-Keep doing what you’re doing. You are a great person. Keep working hard, and you will be famous one day.
-Thank you so much!
This small Bengali man had seen a glimpse of my personality during the taxi ride and we shared a positive connection. His kind words gave me the courage to embark on my real mission: asking people for their opinion.
I went to the arena and found awesome hockey moms (who also happen to be figure skating moms looking at their daughters ice-skating through the window). I approached them, and one of them said:
-I don’t want to be filmed!
-I don’t carry a camera with me. It’s for radio!
I always love to see how the public can misunderstand the media.
I interviewed a couple of people, but it was a tough chase. Most people who were hanging around the arena were underage, so I couldn’t interview them. Many people didn’t know who Brodeur was, and some didn’t want to be bothered. I was so desperate that I went to the pharmacy to buy a snack and even asked people inside for their opinion. I even tried to interview the guy working there, and he said he would, but he didn’t speak English. Tough luck.
I called another cab to get out of the faraway borough, thinking that I had been saved by the hockey moms. As I was stepping outside, I ran into two Italian gentlemen carrying boxes. Perfect. The grey-haired one spoke to me. He used to play hockey with Martin Brodeur’s brother. He was opinionated and memorable, and he made my streeters just that much better.
Content with my few good sound bites, I was waiting for the taxi. I was going in and out of the pharmacy’s hall for a good ten minutes and I was about to call back the cab company when I saw one. The driver pulled over awkwardly, almost getting in another car’s way.
I climbed inside.
-I called a taxi from your company like 10, 15 minutes ago!
-But it’s me!
-It’s you! Ah!
-What’s your name?
Lou was a chubby black male in his late twenties. He was a true comic and a friendly type. He was already high-fiving me as I got into his car.
-I was in the neighborhood and asked people what they thought about the fact that Martin Brodeur was retiring. Surprisingly, not everybody knew who he was.
-They don’t know Martin Brodeur is! C’est chien! *
We drove on the outskirts of the city, down Pie-IX and West on Notre-Dame. It was around five, the golden hour in late January. It was calming to be driven around and to look at the no man’s land around the city while the sun was beaming its last rays. An orange colour was overtaking buildings and streets, softening the industrial landscape.
We covered a wide array of topics. We talked about facial tattoos and the people we’ve met with them on- what they say, why they have them. The conversation became very philosophical as we talked about the fact that modern-day lifestyle is not adapted to human needs.
As two anxious people, we talked about well-being and then showed each other breathing exercises. We almost got into an accident on René-Lévesque Blvd as I was showing him a breathing technique I learned in yoga class.
Lou was like the cool, older version of elementary school friends I had years ago. He was easy to get along with, and his sense of humour, openness and familiarity made me feel like I’ve known him for years. That, and the fact that we are both quintessential Montrealers. Lou dropped me right in front of the building’s entrance, giving me a last high-five.
Taxi drivers like these easily turn a grey day into a bright human experience. These two drivers made my interviewing adventure in St.Leonard so much better. It was like having friends for the ride.
*It loosely translates as ”it’s mean” but realistically it means ‘‘it’s dog!”
Lili Monette is a multidisciplinary entertainer and writer, and the Associate Editor of Blonde. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre & Development from Concordia University and is currently a student in the Master of Arts in Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario.
Photo: Peter Lindbergh for Vogue UK, September 1992.