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The bonds of work

Taxi Driver

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How a conversation between strangers can change in a taxicab is revealing,— of what I'm not always sure, but I have to be ready for it just the same. You try to hold to a certain topic with a rider, keeping it light, then suddenly you're a psychoanalyst or social commentator.

"So what's the craziest fare you ever had?"

Full-time drivers are asked this question usually three times a day. But we never really tire of answering it. It brings us around to asking ourselves why we drive a taxi at all, and to answer it before years have shot past unconsidered, like busy intersections in a blur.

So I told one rider about the recent suicidal young man I kept calm as best I could till the police arrived ("'Your passenger is suicidal,'" Nov. 26). He listened courteously, though I suspected it was not the kind of story he wanted to hear.

So I tried something else: "I've had some women that were out of control, too."

Silence. Then, out of nowhere, he said, "Have you heard about the politician that wants to have a three-day work week?"

I warmed quickly to the subject. He'd struck a rich vein of interest. I even had some numbers that I potentially could toss around.

"No, but I'd like to hear about him," I said back. "I might even get out there and vote for a change."

"Me, too!" he responded, and we were suddenly on shared ground.

"To me your life is meant to be lived," he said. "You don't work to live, you live to work."

"Well, in the United States," I followed (here come the stats), "each person works 500 hours a year more than those in the next most industrialized nation, which is Japan." (That's from the USDA Economic Research Service, an annual report I came across in the library.)

"I mean, sometimes I work 55 or 60 hours a week in this thing," I said, on a conversational roll. Besides, riders sometimes want to listen more than be heard themselves. "Just to buy gas and make my lease payment."

"That's pretty steady, right?"

"Yeah."

Now it was his turn. "I've had weeks where I've worked over a hundred hours."

"That is not right," I said. "And then they whittle away the overtime."

"They tax the shit out of it," offered the passenger, who was a highly skilled electrician. "I had to fly out to California recently, and I worked pretty much night and day while I was out there for a couple of weeks, and when I got back, the paycheck ... it was not even worth it. It was terrible. And I just started thinking, 'Why? What's the point?'"

"And the CEOs are getting these outrageous salaries and breaks," I said, now quoting the Wall Street Journal, which I read when clerks at the nicer hotels let me take a copy.

"And bonuses." It's like he'd read the same issue.

Then we found more shared ground: his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, of which I was a member briefly out of high school in Chicago. We spoke of "solidarity," which, he said to my surprise, was "huge" and getting angrier, as we arrived at his destination.

We stopped and I opened the auto door and he set one foot on the sidewalk, then turned to me and said, "Yeah, I tell my boys it's good to have a trade."

Among other things to tell them, I'm sure.

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