this is not a review: ‘taxi!’, by helen potrebenko

 
 
Years ago a friend of mine used to take a lot of cabs. Partly for the usual reasons of not wanting to walk in the rain late at night or because it was faster or simply more convenient and she was feeling flush and in the mood for a bit of luxury but mostly she took cabs for the conversation. She loved discovering a driver’s story or hearing their general thoughts on life; sometimes she’d have semi heated debates and sometimes she was sorry to have to leave the cab because the chat was so good, better, she said, than most exchanges one has in a typical day at work.

So I was keen to tell her about Helen Potrebenko’s Taxi!  which is billed as a novel and narrated by ‘Shannon’, a Vancouver (mostly downtown east side) cab driver in the 1970’s, but which, in fact, feels more auto-fiction than fiction. Like her protagonist Potrebenko also drove cab in Vancouver’s downtown east side in the 1970’s. The style and structure of the book parallels the episodic and fractured structure of Shannon’s driving life, more like journal-keeping and there’s nothing like a traditional arc or through line or even a premise for the story other than this is what it’s like to drive a cab, in case you’re wondering.

Which in another’s hands might be a disaster but somehow Potrebenko makes it work beautifully. Not only makes it work but you step right into that cab with her protagonist Shannon, where you do NOT want to go (I assure you Shannon’s accounts of fares will turn you off any thoughts of pursuing this as a career), but this is exactly the point… she doesn’t ask you to join her. You simply choose to. And then you choose to stay for the ride. But her? She’s just doing her job, driving, revealing a slice of life that most people haven’t the vaguest idea about (including my conversational friend) because what we learn mostly from Taxi!  is that we have no idea how privileged we are if we don’t have to do this, or any job we despise, for a living.

Incidentally, the aspect of female cab driver is a whole other discussion on not only the times, the mid-seventies when things were still only beginning to change for women and men didn’t like it, but the double demeaning role of woman/cab driver and the inner dignity it must require to listen to the crap that riders dish out, the condescending comments, presumptions and attitudes. That and rules that applied only to women drivers such as not being able to work certain hours for reasons of safety.

What I loved most about the book was how Potrebenko managed to show us a gritty view of the streets and the sadness and horror of certain lifestyles, the futility felt by so many, yet contrasting it all with extraordinary humanity, creating a portal by which we see the not so rosy truth of ourselves as a society, the bits we’d sooner turn away from or pretend don’t exist, leaving others to the reality. And this is how the reality continues. For others.

Slivers of loveliness:

“A monotony of passengers gets in and out of the cab…”

“But there were two flights of rickety steps to go up. Why do poor people always have to deal with those treacherous stairs? Is it a commandment?”

“She was a beautiful young woman of about 16. At 5 a.m. she had split with her old man and she had no money and nowhere to go. Shannon gave her $2 for breakfast… She’s an Indian. A really beautiful and healthy Indian woman. There are no jobs for her. Nobody in this democratic society would give her a job. Indian men can get longshoremen’s jobs and a few other kind of labourer’s jobs, but there aren’t any choices for women…. Months later, Shannon was driving down Hastings with a passenger in the car when a woman tried to jump in front of it… she was no longer beautiful but covered with the spit and vomit of Hastings Street and it had only taken three months.”

“There was a man lying on the sidewalk by the West Hotel and Shannon stopped to see if he was dead…. he wasn’t… [but] there wasn’t anyplace he could be taken where he would be helped.”

Potrebenko chronicles the changing face of Vancouver… the increase in drugs, suicides, porn shops, sex trade, racism, murders, unemployment.

“There are more beggars on the streets. People think colourfully ragged young men playing a guitar are romantic.”

“In the afternoon, she drove a couple… to the airport. Aging swingers… on the edge of the ruling class… These people were a different type… Mean from years of cursing each other in private… and being polite with only sarcastic overtones in public. Seething with chronic mean.”

“The man worked for The Royal Bank… He asked Shannon if she was married then told her women shouldn’t drive cabs. [He said] I treat my women employees just the same as the men. I say to them: Honey, if you work hard you can go places. Honey? [Shannon said] Do you call your men honey? You know what I mean. [he said]”

“Shannon thought the fascist philosophy was a very comfortable one. You simply cheered for the winner, who proved by virtue of winning that he should have won. No analysis, no doubts, no troubling moral questions.”

“The man told Shannon it was attitudes like hers that retarded progress and she asked him Steinbeck’s question, which is how come progress looks so much like destruction?”

Should be included in the CanLit cannon as required reading. Doesn’t matter that cab driving has changed, the life she describes for women, minorities, and others, has not.

 

*Note: above-mentioned friend did not love the idea of the book as I described it. Too unpleasant, too raw, she said (I’m paraphrasing). But this is the experience of the cab driver, a character you say you admire. Doesn’t matter, she said, I don’t want to read about it. I respect her honesty and I suspect she’s not alone (this book remains relatively unknown after all) though it seems a lost opportunity to add a rich layer to her cabbie admiration. Of course she may yet change her mind. Will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

wordless wednesday (with words about what i wonder)(so, maybe more accurately ‘wondering wednesday’)

The wondering being what’s the background to someone writing this on the inside of a bathroom cubicle at an art gallery. Have they been inspired by the artwork, collectively or by a single piece, to be themselves, to know that’s enough? The other thing I wonder is would the reason behind the possible ‘why’ be different depending on location. A club or bar, an office, a school…

Just wondering, as you do in art gallery loos.

 

p.s. the cubicle colour has not been altered;  the yellow, however, is magic.

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

thinking in ink

 
Idle thoughts this morning, outside, pen in hand, and I almost don’t want to write at all because of all this green green beauty everywhere but I’ll write what I hear instead. Cardinal in the distance and a closer trilling (robins??), also some cooing and squawking. Much birdsong in any case and I think of Rachel Carson’s book and I don’t want to read it, don’t want to interrupt (ah, crow!) the beauty of this green fantasy, with reality, which of course is the whole problem with everything, the reason we fill our houses and cars and streets with garbage, our waterways, whole oceans and landfills and the landfills of other countries. And we believe this is evolution. We are experts at not interrupting our fantasy with reality.

Evolution (synonyms):

  • change
  • expansion
  • growth
  • progression
  • transformation
  • flowering
  • increase
  • maturation
  • unfolding
  • evolvement
  • natural process

So I sit outside this morning after the rain overnight  and the still dripping trees, cosy and dry under a patio umbrella and I listen as I write. Cars in the distance, a train. The sound of the still dripping. Earlier I walked barefoot in a puddle on the cement and now a sow bug meanders (wrong word) near my tea mug (un-related).

Sow bug:

Prefers damp or humid areas and darker areas too. Also know as woodlouse.

There are 756,211 shades of green in the yard. At least. Two morning glory vines please me in how their slender tendrils are already grasping for something to climb. (Distant cardinal, crow again…) Rumour has it the cardinal’s song (in the morning anyway) is a call to its mate to say I’m here, I’m fine! A pair have made a nest in the burning bush for the second year.

Crow:

Proportionally, the brains of some crows are bigger than ours.

Yesterday I planted a garden for the butterflies and put up a sign: Fleuriste Papillon… It may, I’m thinking, be helpful for butterflies travelling from other places (though aren’t they all?). Of course I realize now that Spanish would probably have been MORE helpful but I was recently in Montreal and saw the papillons in the botanical gardens, which seemed a sad though beautiful thing, though the space was large and light and filled with tropical flowers and trees and nectars. I spoke with someone there and askedif it was indeed a slightly sad thing and she said no, no, not at all, that the butterflies were born into it and knew nothing else and that they had everything there they needed, that most had a lifespan of only days to a few months. Butterflies are a much more complex thing than I realized and the number of varieties, shapes and sizes, was mind-boggling. Overall, an excellent learning space for humans. And they did seem happy enough but who can ever be sure?. Later we passed a number of fleuriste shops and it occurred to me that my two favourite words in French are fleuriste and papillon. And so the sign… though possibly more practical for incoming insects… could not be in Spanish.

Papillon in Spanish:

Mariposa.

et voila.

 
 
 

the joy of stopping

 

Following my instinct I stop at a playground early, early, in the morning with the sun up only an hour, still inching above the treeline. I surprise myself as I stand in mountain pose a moment and feel the warmth of it.

I do not go on the monkey bars because I do warrior I and II instead.

And I do not go on the slidey thing but use the vertical posts either side of it for balance in king dancer pose.

I do a version of sun salutation and the breathing is exceptional.

And before I know it…

…I’ve been there long enough for the sky to turn blue blue blue.

And then I climb up the ladder and slide into the day.

 

 

 

to cut or not to cut… no longer a question

 
 

I remember thinking how ridiculous my mother was

when she said she preferred

looking at flowers in the garden

rather than in the house.

She only ever cut a few at a time, usually things that needed pruning anyway or had been snapped off.

Why not cut a bouquet, I said.

Why not leave them outside for the birds and bees to enjoy, she said.

And I laughed.

Silly woman, I thought. You’re missing the whole point of a garden.

I was young.

Birds and bees weren’t a thing anyone talked about then.

I get her now.

She’d laugh if she knew.

p.s. Anyone with voracious tulip-decapitating squirrels is exempt from above sentiments and wise to cut the biggest bouquets their house will hold.