“Sir, I need a taxi tomorrow for my flight at 8:30.” I said to the doorman.
“What time is your flight again?” A guy pacing nearby walked over.
“He’s our driver.” Said the doorman.
I repeated the time.
“Isn’t it too late? I got stuck in traffic too many times. I cannot afford missing my flight. Should we not leave earlier?”
“As long as we get on the road at 6:00, I guarantee you I’ll get you to the airport by 6:40.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t you worry, sister! I’ll be here 10 minutes before 6. You just mind your checkout business and meet me here.”
His body language said, “Don’t question my judgement.”
We did pull away from the curb at 6, he was there when I got downstairs, and his air conditioner was on.
I have not seen streets this empty. I told him about my nightmares before. Once, I missed my flight because of the traffic. The airline told me I had to wait for a month to get on the next one. It was my fault, they said.
He drove fast. His right hand rested on the stick shift, holding a string of beads. His thumb turned them, bead by bead, slowly, like monks do when they pray.
I asked him not to drive too fast, even though the street was clear.
“I know, I know. I don’t speed. Or else, I’d promise you I get you there in 30 minutes.” He said, “In my young days, I get there in 30 min., always did. Not now, the tickets are too expensive, too many cameras. Once you get one, you pay 500 (~US$75) and you are grounded for 5 days. Oh no, I don’t speed.” I told him that’s what driver #1 told me, too.
I told him about the young guy and the future he told me in which my ride might be too short to find a driver.
“Country folks! Only know to complain. Should be happy that he’s living in Beijing! Pah, never have enough. Making money is hard but you don’t drive a cab if you want to get rich!” I think he would have spit to show disgust if we were not in his car.
We talked about the city, the Olympics, the pollution.
“I was once half of a rich man.” He said, “I started this job in 89. I earned a Buick, an apartment. Was a big deal to have a Buick then, you know. Not too many people did. Nowadays, everyone wants a car, and you can get one for 100 grands, tin cars!” He puffed.
“But I have this bad habit.” He was mellow all of a sudden, “I liked to gamble. I gambled it all.”
“Did you win some?” I don’t quite know what to say.
“No, or I wouldn’t be driving today at my age!” He is 48, a tiger by lunar calendar.
“But I am not doing it any more. Got a kid. Got to feed him. I stay at this hotel. I don’t drive on the streets to look for people. Look at my seat cover, I haven’t changed it this week yet but it is still snow-white.”
It was true.
“You get all sorts of people from the streets. Drunkard, smokers, weirdos, sorts I don’t want in my car. Hotel guests are more decent. They are professionals. They don’t make my car dirty. You are afraid of being mugged if you pick up street people. But hotel people might be afraid that you’d mug them.” He broke into a hearty laugh.
“But what do you do when you drop me off at the airport? You have to pick up someone to make money, don’t you?”
“I drive back empty. I don’t pick up anyone from the airport.”
We talked about how easily it is for life to end and the most precious is pin an, peace without problems. After someone cut us off so dangerously, it was natural to shift to this topic.
His neighbor grew up with him like a brother, got drunk watching the World Cup with friends, had a fist fight over some kind of bets about who would win. A boy punched him. His neighbor dropped dead. He was 32, left behind a 5-year-old girl. He blamed the other boys who drank with him for not breaking the fight. If he were there, he would have stopped it. Now what, he said, “All neighbors we are. We see his old mother and father in our courtyard every day. We all live miserable.” I told him about someone who died also too young.
Life is precious. We sighed together.
I told him about the driver who asked for 888 without running the meter.
“Swindler!” He shouted.
I told him the ending. He was very quite.
I got off, exactly at 6:40.