Friday, February 25, 2011

Taxi-ing My Patience

We've been a one-car family pretty much forever. Most of the driving is done by My Favorite Wife, who has multiple teaching and tutoring jobs that keep her constantly on the road. My own driving is mostly confined to the weekends, since during the week I'm either working out of my home office or traveling longer distances using various forms of client- or employer-funded transportation such as planes, trains and taxis, so having a second car always seemed like kind of an unnecessary luxury. Sure, it would be nice, because there are times when MFW needs to be in one place that's only accessible by car at the same time that I or one of the kids need to drive somewhere else entirely, but we've generally managed to live with that inconvenience.

At the same time, the family minivan is over ten years old now, and it's questionable how much longer it's going to last. We seem to be spending money on one costly repair after another, and I worry about MFW getting stuck on the road somewhere. So recently we bought a new car (actually the first new car I've ever owned; even with rising income I've still mostly bought late-model used cars). We still have the van, so for the first time ever we are a two-car family. Wow, what a difference! I am overwhelmed by convenience.

The best thing is this: When I travel for business, I can now drive the van to the airport or the Amtrak station and leave it parked there while I'm gone, which previously wasn't an option, because MFW needed it. But more importantly: I can drive home in my own car and don't have to take a taxi.

There are few things I dread more than the taxi ride home from Logan Airport. When I step off a flight at 10 PM on a Friday night I just want to go home. Right away. But instead I have to go stand in line at the taxi stand with a couple dozen other cranky travelers and wonder when it will be my turn. Once in the cab, I will have to explain to some guy who barely speaks English where I want to go, and remain alert throughout the trip to ensure that we actually end up there. I'm accustomed to dialogues like this one:

Me:See that street up there on the right? You need to turn onto that one.
(Ignores me as he continues the cell phone conversation that he's been carrying on in some obscure language ever since we left the airport.)


(More loudly this time) Hello?!


(Temporarily pausing his conversation): Wha?


(Speaking slowly) I want you to turn right onto the next street.


Here right? (Yanks wheel suddenly to the right, sending us careening toward the curb.)


NO! At that street that's coming up!


Turn right?


Yes! See where that car ahead of us just turned?




You need to turn there.
OK. (Continues on a trajectory that implies we will not be turning right any time this evening.)


Here! Here! Turn right HERE!


(Hits the brakes and makes a screeching right turn into the street.) OK.

The trip to the airport doesn't bother me at all, I guess because for that trip the driver knows exactly how to get there and there's not much to be explained beyond which terminal I want to go to. I really don't mind riding in taxis in general. I have had the opportunity to do it in many parts of the world. Here are a few recollections of some of those experiences.

I've had mixed experiences with New York City taxis. I periodically go there on business and take the subway where possible, since most of the places I need to go are near a station and it's comparatively convenient. Occasionally I take a taxi, though, especially when I have to travel between two points that would require me to change multiple times or walk a very long way from the last station to my final destination. I once heard Jerry Seinfeld say in one of his routines that apparently the only thing you need to get an NYC taxi license is a face, and I can vouch for that. During the day the traffic limits the speed at which you can drive through the streets of Manhattan, but at night, when the traffic dies down, the excitement starts as soon as you step into a cab.

Your Life Is In My Hands
I rarely fly into New York, since I can take Amtrak from where I live into Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. But there was a time when I worked for a big bank in Frankfurt, Germany and had to go to NYC about every two or three months. MFW worried and worried about me flying that transatlantic route, but I always told her that it was nothing to worry about; the only really dangerous part of the trip was the cab ride from JFK into the heart of the city, and I wasn't kidding about that. Most of the drivers drove like maniacs, passing other cars and weaving in and out of lanes like we were competing in the Daytona 500. Most of them were peculiar characters of one kind or another.

There was the guy who was barely tall enough to see over the dashboard but drove with his seat tilted way back, one hand on the wheel, while with the other hand he squeezed one of those spring-loaded hand exercisers through the entire ride. There was the greasy guy with the generic Eastern European accent who argued with me for fifteen minutes at my destination that there was some exorbitant "special tip" included in the price. There was the clueless guy who, when I said I needed to go to the Sheraton at the corner of 7th Ave. and 52nd St. asked, "Where's that?" (For an NYC cab driver this should be about as hard to find as his left knee.)

The strangest driver I remember was the African guy who went shooting up the expressway from JFK toward Manhattan and then a few minutes later suddenly veered off it into the parking lot of a gas station/convenience store. As he jumped out of the car, he said something that sounded like, "I need some water for my eyes," but I wasn't sure whether that was what I had heard. A few minutes later he got back in the car with a bottle of cold water. He unscrewed the cap, put the open mouth of the bottle over one eye, and then tilted his head way back, sort of like he was trying to drink through his eyeball. He repeated the procedure with his other eye, then a few more times with each eye as I sat there dumbfounded. Finally he screwed the cap back onto the bottle and as we raced back onto the expressway he explained sort of matter-of-factly, "It helps me stay awake when I'm driving."

Living and traveling in Germany for many years, I had the opportunity to take a lot of taxis there. The only way I can think of to describe them is that they are mostly mid-sized Mercedes cars that are clean, efficient, reliable and very dull. Almost everywhere I've been, taxis are painted in bold colors, probably so you can spot them easily on the street, but German taxis are always a nondescript beige color.

Reliable, Comfortable and Dull
I had a few opportunities to take taxis during a trip to Budapest, Hungary in the early 1990's. I don't remember much about it other than that they were little boxy things, no doubt one of those licensed Fiat models that were built in Poland or maybe there in Hungary, and it took us forever to get anywhere because traffic was in a permanent state of gridlock. On top of that I think the drivers took us foreigners way out of the way to collect a higher fare, because it seemed like we took incredibly roundabout routes to get to destinations that looked more or less like a straight shot on the tourist street map I got in the hotel.

The same Fiat-derived car model was the vehicle of choice for taxi services in Barcelona, Spain, where I lived for a few months in the late 1980's. I didn't ride in them often, because I could usually take the subway to wherever I was going. So my main memory of them is just the swarms and swarms of them that seemed to be everywhere I looked. The apartment I stayed in looked out onto the Avinguda Diagonal, a wide avenue that cuts diagonally through the entire city. It seemed like no matter what time of day I would look out onto it, it was one honking mass of black and yellow.

The Horn is the Most Important Part
One of the more bizarre business trips I went on ca. 1991 took me sort of by accident to Tokyo (a long story for another time). There were a couple of things that stood out about the Tokyo taxis, at least as they existed at the time. One of the stranger things about them was the driver-controlled passenger door, which the driver opens for you as he pulls up at the curb to pick you up and then again when you reach your destination. The drivers were always very dressed up, right down to the detail of their white cotton gloves. I don't think any of them spoke English (but then neither do the ones in New York or Boston, so I'm accustomed to that) so it was helpful that for most of my stay there I was working with a colleague from the local office of the company I worked for at the time. But even he had his challenges to ensure that we got to our destination.

Apparently Tokyo has a weird address system that does not include names for streets. Each time we were going somewhere, someone at our destination would fax a map to my colleague; before we set off in our taxi, he and the driver would stand puzzling over this map for ten minutes or so until they figured out how to get there. I don't know how they got along before fax machines. I imagine that GPS systems are considered to be a must-have item for any driver there nowadays.

Hop In, Charlie-San!
My favorite place to take a taxi ride is probably London. The London cabs are big boxy things that have plenty of room for the passengers to stretch out in. The drivers have an amazing knowledge of the peculiar, randomly winding streets of the city and surroundings; I am told that they have to take an examination to prove this before receiving a taxi license. The ones I've driven with were all friendly and courteous. The driver I remember most is the one who had a large selection of the day's newspapers neatly arranged on the little shelf behind the passenger seat and urged me to take one. I can't read while driving because it makes me want to throw up all over everything, which is not something my fellow passengers enjoy, but it was a nice touch anyway.

Feels Like Empire
 If London is my favorite place to ride in a cab, my absolute least favorite place to take a taxi ride is Hoboken, New Jersey. All of the taxis I've ridden in in New Jersey are kind of strange insofar as unlike any other place I've been, they don't have meters; instead, the driver just tells you how much the fare is. I've learned that it's a good idea to ask before you start your trip rather than to wait to find out when you reach your destination. Supposedly there is some sort of government-regulated rate book that specifies the fare between any two points, but I still seem to find myself paying a slightly different fare every time I travel between the same two points in a New Jersey taxi.

A couple of years ago I was working in Hoboken and usually staying in a small hotel in Secaucus, NJ, which is as unpleasant a place as the name suggests, but it turned out to be the place with the quickest commute between hotel and office. To get home in the evening I started out by walking a block or so to the taxi stand that was next to the train station. The trip to my hotel from there would cost anywhere from $30 to $45. The drivers at the high end of this range were not impressed when told that I had made the same trip 24 hours earlier for $10 less. They just referred me to "the rate book", a mysterious artifact that I imagine to be guarded by an army of ninja warriors in a secret location because as far as I can tell nobody has ever actually seen it.

But apart from the fact that I was getting reimbursed, I was happy to pay whatever it cost because at this taxi stand, which was pretty much the only place in the area where you could easily find a taxi, you don't choose a taxi, it chooses you. You line up at the taxi stand and a cab slowly cruises down the line; the driver points at each potential passenger, who names his or her destination and the driver either motions for that person to jump in, or else just points to the next person in line. It's not just your destination that matters, it also matters whether your destination is compatible with that of the other passengers. I say "other passengers" because in all likelihood you will be one of three or four total strangers crammed in next to each other, each of whom is going to a different place and each of whom will pay a separate fare. Since my destination was usually the furthest from the station, I always got to sit in the cab while everyone else was getting dropped off somewhere else.

You Are Not Worthy
Eventually I got to know my way around and found a cheaper and more convenient ride with a company from Secaucus that would take me to the office in the morning and then come pick me up in the evening. It had the reassuring name of "Goodfellas Taxi".

Sunday, February 13, 2011

One More from the Throat

I picture the inside of my brain as looking a lot like my grandmother's basement did when I was a kid: there's some useful stuff in there, but it's also a kind of last stop for all kinds of weird odds and ends accumulated over many decades, and nobody really knows when or how most of that stuff got there or what it might be good for. When I was recently poking through Grandma's basement (metaphorically speaking, that is) I stumbled across the box labeled "Tuvan throat singing" and felt compelled to see what I could find on YouTube on this subject, and in fact found quite a bit of material there. A lot of what I found was clips of performances by a group called Huun Huur Tu.

But let's back up for a moment. Tuva is a small republic in southern Siberia that borders Mongolia. Part of the Tuvans' cultural heritage is a musical technique called throat singing, by which the singer produces multiple overtones simultaneously over a basis that is a sort of guttural drone. It's hard to describe; you need to hear it for yourself.

Fast-forward to one day last week, when I was browsing through the entertainment section of the morning paper. That's about the only section of the daily paper that I read on a regular basis, since much of what's in the regular news I've already heard on NPR or read online by the time I see it in the paper. I saw that Huun Huur Tu was going to be performing in Cambridge, MA, which is not far from where I live. One of my two new year's resolutions is to listen to more music (I'll tell you more on that topic some other time), so I thought it would be nice to leave the kids home and go see their concert with My Favorite Wife, i.e., just the two of us, since we just don't get out together as often as we should. Our kids are now at an age where they aren't all that interested in being dragged along with their parents everywhere anyway; the mere suggestion of a family outing now mostly results in an extended session of eye-rolling or worse.

I was pretty sure this was something that MFW would enjoy, but just as sure that if I told her we were going to see a Tuvan throat singing group, she would most likely assume I was dragging her to see some ridiculous stunt that was going to be amusing for about the first two minutes and then mostly just annoying after that, and the answer would be "no" right off. I seem to have a reputation around the house as having a sort of offbeat taste in music, and my judgment is often disregarded when selecting musical entertainment. So I just told her we were going to hear a style of music that she has probably never heard of but that she would like a lot. She was pretty skeptical, but agreed to go along.

Both kids were aware that we were going to a concert, but I didn't tell them what it was either because I didn't want the surprise spoiled. My daughter asked me, "Is this some really indie band?" Well, yes, I guess you could call it that.

As it turned out, MFW almost didn't go along because my son decided that day would be a good one for coming down with the flu. Here we can observe a certain divergence of parenting styles. When one of the kids gets sick, especially now that they are teenagers, I tend to follow the standard procedure of recommending plenty of rest and maybe some chicken soup unless the symptoms are something really extraordinary; MFW, on the other hand, generally assumes that any illness is terminal until proven otherwise. She thinks I take these things way too lightly, but I have been sent by MFW to the ER with one of the kids one time too many at 2 AM, only to have the doctor appear after hours of waiting to tell me that it was some really mundane bug, as I had more or less already assumed. So initially she announced that I would have to find someone else to take her ticket while she stayed home to comfort the suffering. I called up a few friends. One was genuinely interested but had a prior commitment; another was out of town. As for the rest, I explained what sort of concert I was proposing to attend and then there was silence on the other end of the phone, followed by a declination. Fortunately, as it turned out, Filius sustained a miraculous recovery after I administered the miracle drug Tylenol and a glass of water, and MFW then decided she would go along after all.

The remaining challenge was that MFW had another commitment she had to take care of before we left for the concert, meaning we would leave about an hour before the scheduled start of the show. It takes about half an hour to get to Cambridge from our house, so that wouldn't be a big deal if we were going anywhere but Cambridge. The problem is that the part of Cambridge we were going to, near the Harvard campus, is a crazy maze of one-way streets where finding a parking space is a pretty hit-or-miss affair. I absolutely dread driving there, especially for something like a concert that is going to start at a certain time whether I am there or not. You might find a spot in a few minutes or you might cruise around a half hour or more, by which time you will not only still be looking for a free space, but will also be hopelessly lost. The fact that the recent snowstorms have left enormous piles of snow everywhere and limited parking possibilities even further just added to my parking anxiety. But to my great surprise and relief the parking gods were gracious unto us, and we managed to get to the concert venue in plenty of time.

All I can tell you is that it was really worth the trouble. If you ever get a chance to see these guys, by all means do. They were amazingly accomplished musicians who put on a great show. So I will leave you now with a couple of samples of what I had the pleasure to experience live.

Huun Huur Tu: Chiraa-Khoor

Huun Huur Tu: Orphan's Lament

Friday, February 11, 2011

Psychic Friends Beware

I've been too busy lately to while away my time online. Poor blog, I'm so sorry to neglect you, but it turns out that once in a while I need to actually do some work in order to get paid. It's an understanding I have with my employer. What free time I have outside of work is mostly devoted to clearing away the seemingly endless snow that has hit the Northeast this winter.

But since the weekend is here I thought I should finally take a break to let you know that witchcraft is now an officially recognized profession in Romania. The new law that regulates this went into effect on January 1 of this year. The downside to this is that under the law, witches are now obligated to declare their earnings as practitioners of the profession and pay income taxes on their earnings, as well as to make contributions to the national health insurance and pension programs.

Apparently witches are not happy about this new taxation. Their attempt to combat it with magic appears to have failed so far, though, so maybe more conventional methods are called for. Why don't they start a Romanian version of the Tea Party? I would think that their former colleague Christine O'Donnell might be able to give them a few tips.

She turned me into a newt!
But that's not the end of it. If another new law currently being debated before parliament passes, Romanian witches will face fines or imprisonment if their predictions fail to come true. That actually seems like a reasonable idea to me. Given the challenges inherent in trying to outlaw stupidity, why not at least establish a standard of legal accountability for metaphysical malpractice?

Predictably, Romania's witches are less than enthusiastic about the proposed new law. Queen Witch Bratara Buzea (I'll bet you didn't even know there was such an office) says that it is the cards that should be blamed, not the witch operating them, if their predictions fail. Interesting logic; I'll have to try that. The next time one of my consulting projects threatens to run over budget, I will just tell the client that it is all my pencil's fault. "Here," I will say, handing it over with the most solemn look on my face that I can muster, "please punish it."

[Editor's note: This is the part of the writing process where My Favorite Wife usually walks over to my desk to see what I'm giggling about and then walks away, rolling her eyes, after realizing that I'm just sitting here laughing at my own jokes.]