Why should someone drive a taxi?

In San Francisco, on the West coast of America in the state of California, there is a group of individuals called taxi drivers. For a very small fee they will be with you in their vehicle. They will transport you wherever you wish to go. They want to talk, they will listen, they will even carry your baggage. Most of these people are writers, poets, old hippies, recovering substance abusers, out of work musicians or recent immigrants to this wonderful land. Dreamers one and all; the best and often the brightest fruit left unpicked upon the societal tree, turning to sugar and threatening to red, and stain the ground.

The urban taxi driver makes more life and death decisions than a $150,000 per year airline pilot, and yet the driver flies alone and gets paid little more than the allowable minimum. He receives no raises, no retirement, no medical coverage nor even any workman's compensation and he is treated by public and private citizen alike as a felon on parole. The taxi driver is, at one and the same time, victim and potential threat. He is often abused, verbally and sometimes physically, by passengers, fellow drivers, the police, and passing strangers in the grip of a bad day. He receives no ego strokes behind the wheel. Any satisfaction from the job he receives has to be generated from within. He is, in the truest sense, to urban bracero; a fisher of men on mean streets wearing a coat of many cars.

Back, during the golden age of taxi driving, (between 1975 and 1988) I drove a taxi cab on the night shift in San Francisco. That is over 3,000 ten hour shifts behind the wheel. All, I might add, without being wrecked or robbed. During my years behind the wheel, the taxi cab became my office. I sat in there for eight to ten hours per night. I had conversations (sometimes quite intimate) with strangers while the backdrop of one of the world's most beautiful cities slid by outside. These strangers would then bid me goodbye and place money in my hand.

I think that possibly driving is what Americans do best. Here are these bitstrips vulnerable creatures with complex nervous systems, so prone to fears, insecurities and phobias hurtling themselves about seemingly helter-skelter encased in 3500 pounds of steel and plastic. Constantly scanning with their eyes, making intricate hand-foot-eye decisions that result in life end to low moves executed...AT SPEED! People do this every day in varying configurations, some requiring the cooperation of hundreds of vehicles. And yet people are so casual, so offhanded about this highly complex skill that they give it not a second thought. They even let their KIDS do it armed with cell phones!

Watching traffic from a high place is like watching a flight of birds, harvesting a freshly plowed field. I wonder, do they all have access to one common super brain? Or is there perhaps one bird-brain directing all the rest. There is obviously more going on here than we have words for today. It appears that we are perhaps growing in ways which we are unaware. Possibly we are being trained in this seemingly off-handed way for future tasks as yet not even imagined; all the while we continue to confuse the medium with the message. We rush about year after year thinking that it is the job, the position, the acquisition of stuff that is all important, when in actuality that is mere fluff. mental doodling with which to distract the ego while the really important work is the driving, and acquiring the skill and focus to do it really well.

Driving a taxi, I often found that after about six hours in the driver's seat a strange phenomena would begin to occur. It what home perfectly still as if I was sitting at, and a holographic projection of the city which flowing around me. No. sense of movement, totally centered, no sense or even thought of motion. The closest most people ever come to this clear zone, is when they are about to become involved in on accident. At such times that moment of clarity is often reported-- just before the crash.

Emotionally, taxi driving is neutral. It isn't oppressive like I imagine working in a factory or a bank might be and it isn't of so thrilling that one would want to devote their free time and energy to it it is-- as the Buddhists would say-- a left handed sort of a job. It allowed me to support myself and yet really didn't interfere with my life. It left me - free. It left me enough time and energy to pursue the real interests in my life. With energy and curiosity and persistence, I found it what quite possible to develop on entire bouquet-- other interests.

Driving a taxi, at least in San Francisco, is an ongoing experiment in self discovery. It is an eccentric job that offers very wide parameters. It gives the driver lots of leeway. It gives him the freedom to re-invent, re-imagine (or destroy!) him eleven every day. He spends perhaps sixty seconds with an authority figure receiving the waybill and small metal taxi medallion like some sort of unholy communion wafer, and then he is out on the streets, on his own-- FREE! No boss, no supervisor, no one to tell him what to do if he doesn't want to work, he doesn't have to. But remember that this also means that no one cares what he does. It is a two edged sword. He can end up drunk every day, (many do), behind in his rent, and suffering terribly from the lack of ego-stroking that goes on in most normal lines of employment. In order to survive and thrive in this sort of work environment, one has to have a very well-defined sense of "who" they are. For self-originating sorts of individuals who have more need of freedom than money and position, the art of vehicular Tai Chi as practiced by driving a taxi can be very worthwhile.

The whirring of the tires on the late night asphalt, the blur of pedestrian faces through the glass often induced in me a blissful vacancy of mind that has no real equivalent in civilian life. For me, driving cab what part of martial arts, part meditative practice, and part of graduate school; sort of a graduate school of at least. it satisfied my voyeuristic impulse, fed my reclusive nature and inspired me to look deeply into the "why" of all things.

During my years of focused concentration behind the wheel I became a practitioner of what I call engine Zen. Taxi driving very closely approximates the formal practice of Zazen. The driver has his seat cushion, his formal sitting position and in place of the white meditation screen he has the white city backdrop and instead of a zen koan he has the mindless chatter from the rear seat and the city...for ten hours at a time the endless circuits around and around, looking for meaning. "Why am I doing this?".

But unlike ashram Zen, engine Zen carries some serious risks. The price for inattention is often the destruction of the vehicle within which the body resides; sometimes even the body itself. No. mere swat of the stick over the shoulder as in the Zendo. And the ' Makyo, 'encountered in the safety of the meditation hall is nothing compared to the phantoms encountered out on the street, behind the wheel of the speeding metal sled and in the back seat; not to mention those found in the deepest recesses of the mind after a late night shift when the questor lays curled alone in a cold metal bed, in a small rented room wondering....

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