The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxicab as: An automobile that carries passengers for a fare, usually calculated by a taximeter. One would assume that the proprietor of such a vehicle would view their job as a relatively mundane obligation to get their passengers from point A to point B. A less scrupulous profit maximizing individual may take a circuitous route while running the meter, or quote an exorbitant fixed rate to less fortunate foreign or naïve customer. However, like so much of the mundane in Israel, the taxicab driver is distinct element of national culture and mentality. The cabbie is not merely a transporter of people but a distinct persona, intent on entertaining, engaging and enthusing their oft reserved transportees.
Some may view their job as historical educator, providing colorful accounts of Israel’s rich heritage and wars past. During a late night cab ride on the streets of Jerusalem I was enraptured by the war stories of a weathered veteran who shared tales of his days in captivity, his love for Israel and his family’s longstanding commitment to the Holy Land. My fellow passengers and I outwardly cringed as he told of the scars on his back from the daily whippings he received from his captors. Others may view their seat behind the wheel as an authoritative position on all things political. The downfall of Olmert seemed to be a topic of cabbie prowess; the period of Israel’s former Prime Minister’s investigation guaranteed all taxi rides be accompanied by a charged rant on the corruption of money, politics and society as a whole.
Then there are those who view themselves as musical educators. One late night ride had me seated beside a Greek music aficionado. He assured me that no music is as beautiful or as expressive as that sung in Greek. Apparently the Hashmonites had it wrong after all. Others will blast techno or pop standards at levels one would never expect possible in such a small vehicle, simulating a seated club like experience, and if the passenger is lucky, head bopping and steering wheel banging will be performed at stoplights. Some drivers may not limit their passengers’ musical exposure to the recorded variety; a friend tells of a cabbie that spent the entire ride discussing his band in which he was both singer and guitar player. Upon reaching their destination, said driver got out of the taxi, removed his guitar from the trunk and began a complimentary serenade.
Seeing as Israel is a Jewish state, many cab drivers will speak freely about their religious beliefs. Opinions range from agnostic to proselytizing, regardless of Kippa or level of observance. One late Thursday night in Tel Aviv I was presented with a small booklet on faith and God by my driver. He encouraged me to pray and commune with the Holy One. My driver was wheezing, extremely obese and seemed to have severe sleep apnea. He would doze mildly at every stoplight. I distinctly remember conversing quite explicitly with the Eternal One; my safe arrival home was most certainly thanks to holy intervention. My sister tells a similar tale of cab driver induced prayer; she was running late to school and hailed a cab. The devout driver pulled up, barely averting his gaze from the book of Psalms perched upon the wheel. He continued to pray fervently throughout the ride; perhaps he viewed his silent entreaties as a divine insurance policy. My sister claims it was the scariest taxi ride she has ever taken.
Then there are the drivers that make you long for the partition found in most Yellow Cabs. The drivers who will unleash their marital problems, their medical history and their financial frustrations. The drivers who will chat you up, convinced that there is nothing more attractive than a man with a taxicab and a potbelly. The drivers whose commentary is so politically incorrect that you are afraid you too will be eternally damned to defamation purgatory.
And of course you have the drivers who claim their meter is broken or if the meter is running will insist that their clearly roundabout route is the fastest, most direct way to arrive at the destination you are already ten minutes late to. Or the ones who argue that your backpack is in fact extra baggage for which you should be charged.
But regardless of lax scruples, eccentricities, incessant chatter and farfetched opinions Israeli cabbies can be counted on to provide their passengers with a memorable journey and a story to tell. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Image credit: Elizur Reuveni