Backseat listener

By Andrei Codrescu

I gave myself one hour before the flight, which I find is plenty of time in New Orleans, unless they raise the alert level and start going after your inner terrorist, which is hell to get out and place on the tray. My taxi was at my house at 6 a.m. like the company said, and I rushed into it, throwing my travel bag on the back seat.

“You in a hurry?” the driver said. He was an old man with silver hair and an air of amused contentment.

“Sort of,” I said, “but I have some slack.”

“Well, then, I gotta tell you, I’m the oldest cabbie in New Orleans, 70 years old and I know almost everything, but what I learned yesterday I didn’t know. My niece, a young woman, 24 years old, still living out in Houston, died in her sleep three months ago. They brought her back to bury her in the family tomb, but there was somebody else in her place. They put her temporarily in another tomb that was in the family. Yesterday, they came with a bulldozer to get her out of the other tomb and put her in her rightful place. There was no decomposition on her, she was fresh like the day they put her in. I never saw anything like that and I seen everything. I know a lot of things, and people sometime pay me to take them on a tour, like these hip-hoppers who paid me $300 for the whole day to teach them things they didn’t know, but something like those tombs being opened and closed I’ve never seen.”

I didn’t know what to say. Not only hadn’t I seen anything like it, I’d never seen anything remotely like it. Meanwhile, my cabbie wasn’t going to the airport by the usual route. We took a street in a flooded neighborhood and rolled to a near stop in front of a twisted wreck. “That was my house,” he said. “They had to evacuate me by helicopter.” Then he pointed to other houses in the street, “That belonged to Bartholomew, remember him? The mayor.” He drove very slowly, pointing to every house on the block. “People I grew up with.” Then he said “hello” to an old man who came out of a trailer.

His talk grew more animated and flavorful as we toured his street, interspersed with advice on how to raise children, the difference between children then (daddy whopped us) and now, the disappearance of his contemporaries, the people who died in the storm, the politics of the city, and the fact that no matter what, he was glad to be alive because love is greater than material junk.

When he finally turned off the street and took Airline Highway instead of I-10 to the airport, I started to worry about making my flight. Airline Highway brought forth another flood of memories. He showed me the field where he saw Jackie Robinson practice; he slowed down at the shack by the rails where his younger brother, the brakeman, used to stay between trains; he told me about places that were no longer there; and he pointed out all the water lines from the Katrina floods. I learned all about his family, the many brothers and sisters, some of them good, some of them gone astray, each one coming with a lesson learned.

Time had come to ask him to step on it if I was going to make my plane, but weirdly enough, I was reluctant to. The stories were too great, and the refrain, “I sure know a lot, I’m old and you can learn a lot from me” kept playing in my head. If I did miss my plane, there’d be another one. What I was hearing was one-of-a-kind.

Amazingly, he got me to the airport on time. I asked him how I could find him again if I had friends in town who wanted a tour. “You just call Yellow Cab and tell’em you want Dog.”

Okay. Got that. Dog. The oldest cabbie. The greatest talker. The guy who makes you glad you’re alive because he’s glad he is.