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.





this is not a review: ‘missing sarah’, by maggie de vries

In Missing Sarah,  Maggie de Vries recalls the life, disappearance and death of her sister Sarah de Vries, whose murder was confirmed when her DNA was eventually found on a psychopath’s farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.


Published in  2003, the book won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness, the VanCity Book Prize, and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award.

I’ve wondered about Missing Sarah every time I’ve heard about another missing woman, but only recently read it… after chatting with a friend about books that need to be discussed more often.


Sarah de Vries disappeared from a Vancouver street in 1998. She was a young mother, an artist, a keeper of journals, a poet. She was kind, loving and funny, honourable and dignified. She had gorgeous wild hair and a big smile and in the last house she lived, in the scruffiest part of town, where junkies often stayed, there was a small, thriving garden planted beside the front door.

This image has stayed with me, this need to nurture, this need for beauty.

“The tragedy is that she never seemed to be able to turn that love and caring toward herself or accept from others in a way that would allow her to change her life as she always wished she could.”


She had two brothers, a sister, loving parents. A regular family. The family were white. Sarah was black. She’d been adopted as a toddler. She loved them deeply but on some level didn’t feel she fit in. When she discovered Vancouver’s downtown scene, something clicked for her. These were people who also didn’t fit in and together they made a different sort of family, dysfunctional and real as any other.


In her journal Sarah writes about the idea of home… “… but it’s too late. You’re already on your way and you don’t want to hear the words “I told you so”.”

Through letters, drawings, journal entries and conversations with people in Sarah’s life and the various relationships each had with her, Maggie de Vries comes to know her sister in a way she never managed while Sarah was alive.


She feels guilt over this, and it breaks my heart. Because how could she have known her any better? When Sarah was alive, things were chaotic. Not only with the drama of Sarah’s life—the constant coming and going, the worry over her safety, her health, her children—but the way it played havoc with her parents, whose marriage eventually broke down, which in turn caused further stress on family dynamics and individuals.

It’s in the writing, from this distance, that de Vries begins to realize there was never an opportunity to ‘get to know each other’, that everyone was simply getting through things in their own way.

This is the way of families. We only think we know them.

We barely know ourselves.

I was struck with the bravery of de Vries’ writing. How she said that it’s easy to believe that drugs are the problem rather than what’s going on at home.

“Kids are not only responding to tempting bait on the outside, they are driven by some deep discontent on the inside.”
She adds that getting rid of the ‘bad people’ out there won’t solve the problem, that it’s not enough to arrest the creeps and murderers.

“More ‘bad people’ will appear in their place; and, as long as we do not solve our problems at home, our children will continue to leave.”

Now there’s a hard truth. It would have been so much easier to blame anyone else. But de Vries doesn’t play the sympathy card, or even the shock value card. She’s writing this book, she says, “…to make it real for myself, to gather all that has passed in the last four years and pin it to the page.”  In the process she shares her road to understanding as she realizes that to effect change, we have to look at what we’re doing in our homes before we point fingers to the problems in society.

It’s beautiful, honest and bare-naked writing.


It’s about Sarah but it’s also about so many others, women, who found themselves working on the streets to survive.

They are individual stories and yet share a common bond.

Like life.

Your story, mine. Different and the same. The point, it seems, is to know this.

It’s about being human.


And it’s the kind of book you can read again and again and, like getting to know someone, you learn a new thing each time. And your eyes are opened and this world that you know nothing about suddenly becomes part of the world you live in, not the separate place you pictured. And you might be surprised to know the people in it bleed and laugh and love and *need* the way people do.


It’s a book to read and discuss as long as there are women disappearing from streets and dying in hotel rooms after ‘rough sex’ and perpetrators of ‘rough sex’ are being allowed to live their lives as if nothing happened.


Not everyone has a sister who will write books about them.

Sarah de Vries did.