In 1975, Helen Potrebenko’s novel, Taxi! was published by Lazarus Press in Vancouver. There are very few small publishers around any more.
Anyway, her book was about a woman named Shannon, who was a working-class white women “pushing hack” in Vancouver in the early 1970s. She hated her job. The cab owners were horrible to work for, the customers were almost always men, (because women couldn’t often afford to take a cab anywhere), and, because women cabbies were unusual, they often thought she was a prostitute, as well.
she had a few answers to that: “Pig,” usually prefaced her comments, “women can’t be bought like cattle.” or, (to a young man who told her he was “sure hard up for a woman”–“there’s lots of hookers on Davie and Seymour,” she finally told him, “I am a cab driver.” Throughout that vignette, Potrebenko referred to the young man as a pervert.
“perverts are sensitive,” she wrote.
Most of the cabbies, she said, were young men on their way up, old men on their way out, older women left over from the war, or younger women who needed any kind of job. Also, immigrants from Africa or India or Eastern Europe or…nearly anywhere but America. “Americans don’t drive cabs.”
Last night, i had occasion to take a cab to go meet my dear friend (and former lover) and her sister, in town for just the night. that whole thing deserves a post of its very own. i might get to it. So anyhow, i took the opportunity to ask the drivers what they thought of their work. I described some of the book that i’ve read so far, and asked what they thought; “have things changed much?”
They both, young South Asian men, told me that White people don’t drive cabs. They didn’t talk about women drivers. I don’t imagine there are many women driving cabs now. I kinda think less than there were when Helen Potrebenko wrote her (somewhat autobiographical–hey! that’s a pun!) novel. I think women are more in danger now than they were thirty-five years ago. I think that’s at least partly because no one talks (or acts) about Women’s Liberation the way they did then. Then, according to the book, anyhow, Women’s Liberation was capitalized. And a lot of the men who got into Shannon’s cab had at least heard about it, and whatever their understanding or opinion really was, they wanted to at least be seen to be in agreement with it.
But still–“he [Frank, an owner from whom Shannon was trying to get a steady gig] leaned across the counter, ugliness and violence on his face, and from previous experience, Shannon knew this was the sexual look for men.”
Men don’t have to put up with this kind of thing during a job interview.
Back to my contemporary cabbies. They both said, with almost the exact words, like they learned it from the taxi drivers’ manual, “it’s good, you can set your own hours, you can take time off whenever you want, you can drive as much or as little as you like”. But both of them drove between 9 and 15 hours a day, at least five days a week, but mostly six. Sometimes seven. No benefits. No sick days.
“How’s your back? driving all day like this?” I asked the first one.
“It’s okay. I work out, I go to the gym. No back problems for me yet.”
“Yet” he said. He was young. They both were. They both said the traffic was getting worse, just as Shannon said about the traffic in the early ’70s.
Sometimes passengers treated them bad, sometimes the passengers were even dangerous, both of the drivers said. And both of them said, “It’s okay. You make it good or bad, it’s what you make it.” Both of them, again, used nearly the same words, as if they had memorized them from a manual.
The beautiful thing about Taxi!, well, one of the beautiful things, is that it’s about a working-class woman doing a working-class job. It’s not a romantic version. Shannon thinks a lot, and drinks too much sometimes, and has fights with the two people who live upstairs from her, Evelyn and Bradley. She tries to not smoke around their baby.
The book is set in a time when people smoked inside. Remember those days? I do. I remember a time when I was volunteering for a suicide/distress phone line. We were all gathered in a classroom in the University, learning a bit about the history of The Samaritans, and basic phone things. People were smoking. I had just got out of the hospital, I think. I think I’d had pneumonia. Anyhow, i raised my hand and asked if people could maybe not smoke in the room, ’cause i was having trouble breathing.
The Samaritans woman, a kind of blowzy brunette, with a gravelly voice and red lipstick, looked a bit startled and said, “oh, no, I don’t think we can do that. How be you just listen from out the doorway then.” Someone else suggested they only smoke in one-half of the room.
Anyhow. that was when i wasn’t smoking. But i started again two or three years after that. Always liked smoking, I did. Kind of i prefer breathing, though.
okay. I’ve gone off writing about taxi drivers. I’m going back to the novel. It’s really good. Shannon’s my new crusty hero. then i get to go to work at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre this afternoon. hope that’ll go alright. it’ll be weird to be there and not see Phillipa.