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.