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.

 

 

 

 

in fairness to men

 
There’s so much inequality. For men, I mean.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, on International Women’s Day, a few chaps harhar’d about why isn’t there an International Men’s Day??

Turns out there is one.

But the sentiment remains: the women’s version gets more attention.

And that begs a few questions. Beginning with why?

Because if you look around, you’ll soon realize it’s all about the women. And I can see how men might be feeling left out.

Even something as simple as a title… women luck out. They’ve got so many to choose from. Miss (status: available), Mrs. (status: unavailable), Ms. (status: pain in the ass feminist who refuses to say if available or not). While men only get one. Mr. (status: male).  Fine, we know they’re male, but how are we expected to know their status??

It gets worse.

Consider the TV show, ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’. Where’s the boy version? One that features spray tanned four-year old lads in speedos and fake facial hair who are encouraged to pat their butts in saucy ways while winking and blowing kisses to strangers?

The moms on the show say this gives their girls confidence and boosts their self-esteem. Hello!  Boys need self esteem too. How else to prepare our sons for teen and young adulthood when, instead of being relegated to host or judge, they should be entering  beauty pageants.

Where are the beauty pageants for men??

And what about fashion? Why do designers hate men so much? It’s almost impossible to find skin-tight clothing in the lad’s department, never mind shoes with heels high enough to flatter the calves. And what about pushing things up? Couldn’t men benefit from a little under-wire support… somewhere?

While we’re at it where is there a Victor’s Secrets?

And the media, shame on them. Always focussing on what Angela Merkel is wearing. What about what Vladimir is wearing???  Sure, he pretends he doesn’t care, but all that attention to what he does rather than how he looks must get to him at some point.

And magazines. I can’t imagine being a man walking past a magazine stand in a corner shop, drug store, grocery store, newsstand, airport, well, everywhere really… they just can’t get away from the humiliation that is the outright boycott (let’s call it what it is) of men’s pretty smiles and perky buttocks on covers. After all, they have just as much right to air-brushing and ‘visibility’ as anyone else. Damn straight they do.

Then there’s what’s in  those magazines. And, as can be expected, it’s NOT men’s issues. Which begs the question:  where are the ads and articles and 10 Top Tips featuring Mens Problems? How are men supposed to know how much is desperately wrong with their eyes, neck, ear lobes, teeth, cheekbones, jaw line, hips… well, you know, things that are messed up. How are they supposed to become perfect if they don’t have instructions???

And where are the age-defying creams for men? It’s a travesty that the entire cosmetic industry appears to give less than a rat’s ass about the condition of a man’s pores or the depth of his wrinkles.

And his hair? Is it supposed to just go grey??? Is he supposed to walk around with grey hair??

Where are the instructions?

Men are right. Women get all  the attention.

And men do all the work.

Just watch any film. They’re doing all the work. Behind the scenes as well. And look at history. Men, men, men. They did it all. Women mostly knit while the universe was carved out by the fellas. And the space program and sports (yes, women do trouble themselves to play sports and get into rockets but who cares, they don’t do it right, or something). Look at science (it’s not hard to avoid the women)… it’s mostly frazzle-haired men we know the names of. The faces on our money. Painters, playwrights, protagonists, sculptors.

Consider what’s happening in any corporation, any religion, any government, any board of directors. Look at the military, any military. Hells bells, almost any industry you can name is run by men. Essentially, the entire world is run by men. Does anyone even begin to think how exhausting this must be? Obviously not or there would be a few more ads for spas featuring our menfolk in sexy robes and towel turbans sipping cellulite busting guava juice, legs crossed (also waxed), and chatting about non-essential, stress-free issues.

That we have an International Men’s Day is good news, but in fairness to men, that shouldn’t be where we leave things, with a simple token gesture. No, let’s give men a better start in life by treating them equally right from toddlerhood. Teach boys to cry and play coy and let other people ‘go first’. And let’s lobby the cosmetic and fashion industries to take into consideration the feelings of young males and how they, too, would like to know what’s wrong with them and that they, too, would like to think about this constantly and to have goals such as pectoral implants and hair extensions and striving to have an ass that looks good in skinny jeans.

Let us encourage our sons to be the go-go dancers in music videos.

And let’s explain how winning isn’t everything, it’s how you look and that maybe, if they look really, really good, they might find the right person one day and then what will winning matter anyway…

Let us tell our sons that if they must work, they should become nurses not doctors; waiters not chefs; receptionists not lawyers.

And please, let us for once and for all stop assuming that only men should do all the work.

Let us allow them fulltime child care, to assume the role of homemaker and caregiver to the elderly; baker for fundraisers, cafeteria monitor at Susie’s school, anything that will give them more time to just chill at home. To get their nails done.

Surely, this is the least of what they deserve.

Damn straight.

You go, boy!

501px-Maes_Portrait_of_a_man_in_a_wig

this is not a review: one hour in paris, by karyn l. freedman

 

Academic approaches to writing are never my favourite way to tell a story, but in the case of Karyn L. Freedman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, it works. Indeed, she may be exactly the right person to have written this-book-that-needed-to-be-written. While it surely must have been tempting to veer too much in one direction or the other, in One Hour in Paris. Freedman has managed, for the most part, to balance facts and eye-opening statistics with what feels like heart on her sleeve honesty about the extreme emotions following a brutal event.

The book is about rape.

OneHourInParisCoverFinalBut that’s merely the grit, the sand in the shell that gets things going. The pearl that emerges is a story about trauma and how it can be experienced in as many ways as there are people experiencing it. Freedman’s analytical take on the subject works insofar as presenting a case for PTSD through her rape experience and showing us how society’s focus on the rape, or indeed any ‘incident of violence’, instead of the resulting trauma, diminishes the understanding of violence, undermines the victim and slows or even prevents healing.

In other words, we don’t tend to take these things seriously enough. Especially the lingering and messy aftermath of trauma. We give it an acronym, attach it vaguely to returning soldiers or first responders in newsworthy events. We sincerely hope they ‘get over it’, ‘get better’. But acronyms and hope don’t help. Trauma is hard enough to understand for those who are living with its effects without having to deal with the assumptions and judgements of those who have not experienced it, or who may have experienced it differently.

I’m not sure I would have been able to write that last paragraph before reading Freedman’s book. The way she explains the clinical aspects of trauma has given me a deeper and more practical understanding, not a more emotional one, and for that I’m grateful.

Freedman was raped in Paris on August 1st, 1990. The date is repeated throughout the book, to a degree that becomes slightly irritating, until one realizes that’s the point. She can no longer approach August 1st without remembering what happened. The date is embedded in her memory. She doesn’t need reminding. But reminders are there. Every year. And so by virtue of this repetition she shares with us the ‘irritation’ of not being able to forget something she can’t bear to think about.

She writes about the rape, what happened after, emotionally, professionally, how her father was instrumental in helping her case in ways that many other victims would never experience. For instance, the French government flew her back to Paris (from Winnipeg) at their expense in order to proceed with the case… a case which ultimately saw her compensated financially. While the benefit of such privilege tends to suggest that her trauma has been ‘resolved’, what it actually does is ask the question: what about the women that are raped and/or abused every day, citizens and visitors alike, for whom nothing is ever done, many of whom don’t even know who to tell or how to be heard or believed, much less be compensated and see the perpetrator sent to prison. It’s easy to start thinking that for women who receive this kind of privilege, it’s done. But Freedman is quick to point out that it’s not done. She knows she’s privileged, that this is not how it is for everyone. But all that is almost beside the point. The money, while substantial, is a token, the incarceration is merely fair. None of it is closure.

What’s needed is understanding, by society, a change in how we discuss issues of sexual violence against women, and how we understand the very real effects of trauma on the body, mind and spirit.

“… the sense of responsibility held by many rape survivors is at least partly driven by a dominant worldview regarding personal safety and harm. Although this picture is slowly changing, historically, at least in the West, girls have been taught from a young age that the world is basically a safe place and that so long as you are sufficiently careful and intelligent, you can protect yourself from any serious harm.

“Underscoring this narrative is the fact that in our entertainment-saturated media culture, the everday-ness of sexual violence against women is overlooked in favour of sensationalized stories of extreme violence. And because rape is typically experienced in private… the clear evidence of its pervasiveness is obscured from our collective vision….

“So how does the rape survivor reconcile this dominant worldview with what has happened to her? After all, it cannot be true both that the world is a safe place and that you were raped, unless, of course, the rape was your fault.” 
 
**

Any quibbles with the book are insignificant to the larger message.

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One Hour in Paris is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!