Friday, February 19, 2010

Still the Only White Cabdriver in Chicago

Posted By on 02.19.10 at 10:33 AM

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It's been the recurring leitmotif of my cab driving career. The thing that gets brought up over and over again. I wrote about it here three years ago in fact. They just can't get over it. "Dude, you're the first white cabdriver I've ever had!" they say. I usually congratulate them on their good fortune. The irony is often lost on them.

Two bruisers get in. They're headed to see the Hawks at the United Center and are a couple hours into their pregame preparations to judge by the volume of their conversation. "You're white," the more perceptive one informs me.

I let it hang in the air, a strategy that gives the less brazen a chance to backtrack; not my newfound brother, who proceeds in a crude Hindi accent to show the ethnicity of his usual chauffeurs. His pal is greatly amused and gives some sort of African accent a go. At the stadium, they pause before paying to make sure I know that there's a few bucks extra there to honor the pale shade of my skin.

Sometimes the subject is broached with more subtlety. "It's so great to have an American driver," she says. I ask what it is that thrills her so about this and she can't really put her finger on it. She assures me that she's no racist, then says that it's that I speak English that she likes. I tell her it's not my first language and she's floored. Now it's suddenly fascinating to find out where people are from. There's wows, oohs, and aahs . She wears that appreciative smile that says she's learned something. Would she bother if I was wearing a turban and a full beard? A dashiki and corn-rows? Draw your own conclusion . . .

My melanin-deprived brethren aren't the only offenders, do not fear. A black guy tells me that I'm not like most cabbies, "You know what I mean, man . . . "

No, I don't, I answer. Why miss an opportunity to play dumb? An Indian student tells me that most drivers are Indian or Pakistani and it shocks and confounds him to see me, "Why are you doing this?" he asks. There are endless variations but the gist is that I'm not what they expect and it messes with their minds.

A cabdriver's probably held in lower esteem than a dog catcher by most, and it's easier to condescend to one if he has a thick accent, wears foreign garb, or can in any other way be thought of as lesser than oneself. This isn't a sociological experiment to me, so it's just sad to know that some things never change. Driving a cab is a first step for immigrants in this country. The education most gained in their home countries is of no value here so they do what they have to to put a roof over their heads. In that way I'm no different. Though my family came over when I was just a kid, in many ways I still haven't got here and getting paid for what's important to me is but a pipe dream. This is not to advocate for some colorblind, class-free utopia; having been born in one of those I have no wish to return. Only a simple hope that new arrivals could be treated with a little more respect in a country founded by castoffs and mutts.

As much as it warms my heart to be thanked for being white, mastering English, and being an American, perhaps it's time to take it to its next level. I'll be the one steering a taxi in a white sheet with eyeholes. That'll put everyone at ease and we can have a real conversation. Hail me and we can bond over all that we share, or you can curse me as part of all that's wrong with the world. The choice is yours . . .

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