Thursday, July 19, 2007

My Taxi Driver Game

New York City taxi drivers are separated from passengers by a sheet of hard plastic on the upper left (passenger's viewpoint) side of which is a photo and the driver's name. One of my New York games is to read the name, study the face, and deduce the country of origin. If I'm right on the first guess, I get a Point. If it takes me two guesses, no point. (Sorry; rules is rules.) I don't keep track of how many Points I have, but it makes me feel good if I get it -- especially if the driver is from an obscure country (i.e., not India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Haiti).

The game's no fun in other towns (Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago) because they do not have their name up, and I have to guess from the face and the accent. The game does not call on my wikipedic (derivation: from enyclopedic, wikipedic means: learned but faulty and incomplete) knowledge of names and geography.

It's also good for starting a brief conversation, which takes my mind off the increments of the meter. The drivers are always delighted at my guess, even if it's wrong, and when it turns out I have heard of their country, even know a little about its politics, they all say, "Where are you from? You can't be American. No one's ever heard of my country in America." (Indians, Pakistanis, Russians and Chinese don't add that second sentence.) This comment always fills me with pride, however unjust (to other Americans) it may be.

The other day, a very pretty young woman was driving me through Midtown, and her name -- first and last, both four letters long, an X in there somewhere, no response at all from my internal database of linguistic roots -- gave me no hint. So, I deduced, West Africa -- but not a very Islamic part of West Africa, or a very Frenchified or Anglicized family. The older generation often got their names -- at least the ones they used on taxi licenses -- from the colonizing culture; the younger generation have made a point of using only names in their own tongues. (All young nations go through an adolescent stage.) Nigeria is the largest nation in Africa, but very few Nigerians come here for some reason. I hazarded, "Ghana," and got my Point. Pleased me all day -- or until the next cab four hours later, when I guessed "Egypt" and he was from Morocco.

Perhaps it's just as well no one else plays this game; competition would ruin it. For one thing, who can afford to take cabs everywhere? In New York, subways and a bicycle are the only ways to get anywhere fast, especially during daylight hours. (At night, buses are just as fast as subways, and much more pleasant.)

Years ago, during the Cold War (aren't we all nostalgic for that?), I had my one instance of a cabbie who didn't want to talk about where he was from. The name struck me as Russian, but he refused to talk about it. "I'm in America now; what does the rest matter?" He sounded suspicious and evasive. Perhaps I was Secret Police; perhaps I was INS; perhaps I intended to deport him. He wouldn't play the game.

Sometimes they're American. Boring. I'm a Xenophile: I like people from other cultures (true, much of America is different from Manhattan culture; my friends in Oklahoma and Missouri tell me about this), I like to compare and contrast. Once an older guy in a heavy Brooklyn accent said, "I'm from Ireland. Coney Ireland. Cantcha hear this brogue?" (The letter R did not occur in anything he said; it appears in the writing down of it for your convenience.) He came, it turns out, from Sheepshead Bay, a part of New York I don't know. "It's great," he said. "Three blocks and you're at the ocean ... you can just walk along hearing the tide come in."

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