Friday, February 23, 2007

*MY* taxicab confessions

I recently took a trip to California for work. One night I was there, I met friends for dinner in LA, and after our delightful evening together, I got into a cab to go back to Newport Beach, a suburb of LA about an hour south of downtown, where I was staying and working. What ensued was by turns infuriating, terrifying, frustrating and hilarious. I'm sure I'm not doing it justice -- to fully appreciate the events, you have to imagine that you're exhausted in the back of a cab in a strange city, with a cab driver who, with each passing moment, is rapidly descending from competent-sounding to stupendously dumb.

It was a little after 10 p.m. when the craziness began. I figured it would take about an hour to get from the restaurant to my hotel. The first unorthodox thing that happened was that we stopped for gas -- disconcerting in the neighborhood where we were, but understandable. I asked the driver to pause the meter, which he did (and looking back, I don't know whether he would have done so if I hadn't asked him to). We then got stuck in traffic, at which point the driver swivels his head around to look at me and asks, "Aw, man -- is there a Laker game tonight or something?" I thought, "I'm in a taxicab with YOU because I'm from out of town -- how should *I* know if there's a flippin' Laker game tonight?!" It's only because my friends had mentioned it that I knew there was one, and I told him that. He said the traffic was a result of the Laker game and "it will clear up here in a minute or two." Twenty minutes later, he was exiting the still-in-full-swing traffic jam to get onto another highway to keep heading south -- by then I'd lost track of which highway we were on. We proceeded to drive south for over an hour -- I was starting to get sleepy, but I was determined not to fall asleep with this guy at the wheel. Around 11 p.m., I asked him if we were getting close, and he said we had about 10 miles left, and wanted the address for my hotel, which I gave to him. (John Wayne Airport had come and gone on my right, so I figured we were on the 405.) He finally exited and said, "I missed my exit -- I'll give you a break on the fare when we get there." I looked at the meter, which read "$155.10" at that point and thought, "You BET you are." (And to make it all crazier -- the entire time I was in the cab, he was listening to some talk radio conspiracy theory program about how Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing fame was working with the FBI and was brainwashed. The segment after that one was asserting that the reason Americans haven't been back to visit the moon through the space program was because aliens told us not to come back. I'm not kidding.)

We then got on the 55, took that until it ended, and drove around Newport Beach for 40 minutes. He tried getting directions from at least two other cab drivers, and then spent 10 minutes on my cell phone talking to the concierge at my hotel, whom I'd called. No matter what anyone told him, he couldn't seem to figure out how to get there. At one point (and this sounds like melodrama, but I swear it's true), I actually started to wonder if this guy would drive me out to some remote place and murder me. Nothing looked familiar outside the window of the accursed cab -- I had no idea how we'd gotten lost, or what to try next, besides calling 911, which I might have done, given 10 more minutes with the guy. We finally *stumbled* upon a Marriott that wasn't mine, but the second time we passed it, I just told him I was getting out. This was after we'd driven on the Fashion Island Loop Road for 10 minutes as he looked for some highway or street he was obviously never going to cross -- and he had a map in his hand. When he handed it to me, I took one look at it and demanded to be let out at the Marriott we could see (it finally dawned on me at this point that he wasn't a murderer -- he was just a moron. I'm still not convinced he was literate).

By then it was 12:15 and the fare had climbed to $240 and change -- I told him I would pay him what I'd expected to pay to get to Newport Beach (which was about $120) and no more. He didn't raise a fuss, because at that point I was thunderously pissed (in fact, he turned to me and said in a wonderous voice, "That's funny -- that's exactly what I was going to charge you!" Yeah, right.). Caught another cab to my hotel which was NO MORE than 3.5 miles away from where we were. Took 3 minutes. The only thing that could have made the ride more of a challenge would be if I'd gotten motion-sick or something that whole time.

What did I learn? As Mad-Eye Moody would say, speaking to Harry Potter, "Constant vigilance!" Thank God I hadn't just fallen asleep as I might have done, easily -- I might still be in that taxi. And if I hadn't insisted on getting out of the cab at the other hotel, who knows how much longer we would have just driven around the city. I've never known a cab driver for whom a street address was not enough information to get someone to their destination. Even if a driver's not familiar with an address, doesn't he have the wherewithall to call headquarters for directions, use his GPS system, or unfold a flippin' map? It was nuts.

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