Few traffic grids offer more inviting or varied scenery than Colorado Springs, a place to observe a nearby world of mountain lions, beautifully rugged inclines and breathtaking sunsets looking west; or homeless restaurant managers, abused teens and unemployed executives at a downtown crosswalk or public square, looking east.
When you drive alone, all of the above may whiz by the front windows, unnoticed. Chalk it up to all sorts of factors, from preoccupation with the radio or a cell-phone call, to the curiosity-killing belief that you've seen all there is to see on these streets already.
When you ride in a taxicab, the dynamic flips. You decide where you're going, but generally don't decide how to get there. And what you lose in control, sitting in the backseat, you can only get back in trust you give to someone else — a stranger who, like an airline pilot, is temporarily responsible for life and limb.
Drivers will tell you the results are noteworthy.
A few short exchanges seem to be enough to set in motion dialogue (and behavior) that can lead anywhere, depending on the driver's mental condition and willingness, and the rider's desires and disposition.
Bad situations and misbehavior arise inevitably on both sides, and drivers who last are the ones most capable of keeping those situations from worsening as they happen. Swerving to avoid potholes, raccoons or drunken jaywalkers compares well with the reaction time needed for dodging extreme political doctrines, racial prejudices and groping backseat sensualists.
Riders' requests may run from a quiet "Do you have a Kleenex, please?" to a chirpy "Can I suck your dick?" Emotional or bodily damage are just as likely to occur as vehicular dents and jolts out of alignment — though they are not, in most cases, acknowledged or recorded.
What goes on in a taxicab, stays in the taxicab, from both the driver's and the rider's point of view. Like the "privileged" relationship between clients and their lawyers or therapists, cabdrivers are reluctant to disclose identities, not because of codified professional ethics, but out of a deep and resolute conviction that what goes around comes around, and holds fast.
So as this column appears in the weeks ahead, in the back pages of the Independent, don't look for identifiable names or gossipy tidbits indicating who said what, or what's happening to whom. Privacy will be steadfastly protected even as we present raw and disturbing confrontations, revealing glimpses into otherwise unrecognized lives, and challenges to our city's claims to stability, religious devotion and fair play.
What benefit or advantage this tragicomic curtain-raising will have for those paying rent or mortgages, building equity and fulfilling careers, schooling their children, or caring for the elderly remains to be seen. But that is part of the travel involved for everyone.
"What living and varied speech is always vibrating here," poet Walt Whitman observed long ago, sounding like a lyrical cabdriver. "What howls restrain'd by decorum!"
Heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston also weighed in on the vaunted and prized humanity that surrounds and coexists with us: "People crazy."
But are we better off looking the other way? Let's assume, like Whitman and Liston, that we're not.
Since November, just what has been learned by this driver/columnist that cannot be learned anywhere else except in a taxicab? A few things are mentionable for now, to be elaborated perhaps in future columns.
• Never did I guess or realize that drug abuse was so widespread and encompassing, until I started driving a taxicab. Calls to hospitals, rehab centers, social service and detention facilities, and private homes have resulted in disturbing recognition of this fact, and of the casual flair with which drugs are consumed, distributed and discussed by those involved. It is treated like a business, and ironically provides an appreciable type of higher education to boot: Drug dealers and their minions often possess impressive intellectual and reasoning abilities, and make for stimulating conversational exchanges with regard to business and current affairs.
• Still economically speaking, and answering a question most commonly asked of drivers, the distance between a Colorado Springs cab driver and the unfortunates crowding our homeless shelters is about arm's length. It's as if some pitiless invisible beast descends Pikes Peak every night to rend, dismember and devour anyone so naïve and unsuspecting as to believe in a middle-class version of the American Dream. Cabdrivers, as total realists, may have escaped this harrowing fate, but barely, to live another day.
• Another item: the unimaginably bad body odor of occupants from time to time, the pungent "smell of mortality" that King Lear whiffed before expiring in the Bard's greatest tragedy. When the cab door closes shut, a driver is vacuum-sealed with the active ingredients of a stranger's bodily fluids. Nothing animal, vegetable or mineral, however sulfurous or decayed, can wreak havoc with one's insides quite like the secretions of sweat, urine and anything else that can cling to an untended human body. It's shocking, and enough to stagger a goat.
Leaving things here for now, perhaps it's best to let the column begin and take shape on its own. A typical shift from, say, 9 p.m. till 7 the next morning, or longer, will include from 12 to 20 trips, with twice as many riders on board. Those are pretty good odds for at least two memorable incidents per shift, though only one will make it to this page each week. What's it going to be?